Turn the Page

MCAT: Strength & Solidarity #3

Written by - Tannertexaslady

Edits and contributions by Sue M

Wendymypooh assisted with parts of this story. Her contributions include, brainstorming ideas, the set-up of the San Antonio MCAT unit, and the introduction of characters who will be working there. They will be a part of her new Young Rider’s AU, ‘TYR MCAT’~ ‘Evolutions’, which she is developing.

E-mail: tannertexaslady@yahoo.com Comments are welcomed and appreciated, but please keep the flames for the barbeque.

Characters: Vin, Chris, Ezra, Buck, Josiah, JD, & Nathan. In addition, there are additional original characters, the Wild Bunch, and the MCAT team.

Rating: Gen, Het, some violence and profanity included.

Disclaimer M7: This story is entirely a work of fiction, for entertainment purposes only, based on the characters from “The Magnificent Seven.” I don’t own 'em, but if I did I 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. I only play at this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights intended. This is strictly a piece of fiction. Any references to locations or people are only for story use and do not intend to depict any real place or person.

Same thing goes for TYR. I do not own them either, that credit lies with Ed Spielman and Ogiens/Kane. The use of their character names are strictly for non-profit entertainment use. No infringement of any copyrights intended.

MCAT AU: MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism) Yes, it has mystery, action, anguish, and brotherhood. It is also het; all seven are involved in committed relationships. Further background and information on the characters of MCAT and the Larabee 7 families is available @ Magnificent Seventh Heaven

MCAT: Turbulent Transitions, the foundation series for this AU is complete and archived @ Blackraptor.

MCAT: Strength & Solidarity ~ Series of stories which center on the Seven's intrinsic bonds of friendship and brotherhood, forces which have no boundaries.

# 3: Turn the Page: A new year has arrived, carried by the winds of change. Natural evolutions of several relationships occur, turning the pages in the book of life. New unions will form; old ones will shift their priorities, heal, or break. Chris has his hands full with challenges at work, while old concerns threaten his children. Buck makes a life altering decision, but soon finds his choice may not be the change he was looking for.

Acknowledgments: My thanks go to all the M7 Muse ladies for the extra eyes. Sue, you are a terrific catcher. Jan, your feedback helped tremendously, and Jo, your feedback and talent for making collages amaze me. Mary Ann, I appreciate your help. My thanks go to my betas, Wendy and Sarai, for roping those commas and finding typos. To my granddaughter, Kari, who is an aspiring young writer, your enlightening information about today’s junior high was helpful and appreciated.

Special thank you for the awesome collage by Bountyhunter’slady

Notes: Any mistakes are mine. I'm a Texan, born and raised. I speak Texan, understand it, and write it, as I know it. The original characters created for this series belong to the authors who created them. This story takes place after Tonny's 'Case Larabee’ @' http://www.blackraptor.net/m7fic-40/caselarabee1.htm and refers to events, which happened in her story as well as in 'Vision Quest'. A glossary of Law Enforcement terms used in this series is located @ http://www.tannertexaslady.com/Whatdidtheysay.html


Camp Larabee ~ November 17th

“Mostly, we wanted you to know… you're all men we’d be proud to ride the river with. You’ve stood good watch over our legacies and those of your ancestors. Your families are strong, your loyalties are firm, and your bond to each other is powerful,” Cowboy continued, “you are destined to live out your fates together.”

Tracker picked up the message, “The world needs men like y'all… men of honor and principle, to counter the existence of evil, especially now. It's the second reason we came and why you are all together in this time and space. Your greatest challenges still lay ahead. The Seven have always been and will always be… Their strength is yours to draw on. Embrace the past, cherish the future, and fight like hell for today. Make a better place for your children and grandchildren. Their destiny is the same as yours and ours… to be allied by the timeless bonds of friendships and brotherhood which tie us all to our past and gifts us with the promise of tomorrow.”

“We have to go. Our friends are waiting for us. However, they're anxious to get a glimpse of what we have seen in all of you.”

Cowboy stepped up to Vin, clasping forearms with him, while Tracker did the same with Chris. After a curt nod to their great, great grandsons, they turned to walk away. Seven men hurried to the door to get a better view of where the two men went.

For a brief moment the portal of time opened, and gave them a picture, which they would carry in their minds the rest of their days. As Cowboy and Tracker stepped across the threshold of infinity, five men on horseback waited for them, holding the reins for two extra horses. They looked up and tipped their hats to their descendants while Cowboy and Tracker mounted their own horses to join them… the next instant… they were gone.

Chris cleared his throat to gain everyone's attention. “You heard them. We're in charge of protecting the future generations of the seven. It's our watch now and time to move forward.”

Standish Home ~ New Year’s Day

Ezra passed a beer to Chris, and then one to Vin. “Gentlemen, I asked y’all to stay after the game because I have an extraordinary communiqué for both of you and was given specific instructions to deliver it today. I must admit to having some reservations about taking on this project at first; however it turned into an enlightening experience.”

“We spent the past couple of hours watchin’ the Broncos gettin’ their collective asses kicked by the Titans, you have my twenty bucks, I’m tired and ready to go home,” Vin grumbled. “Get on with it, Ez.”

“Yes, of course.” Ezra reached for two leather bound books, handing one to each of his friends. “Before leaving, Tracker asked me to complete a project for him and Cowboy. They were very specific about how this was to be handled.”

“They can be rather stubborn and direct.” Chris agreed with a smile as he read the title aloud, “Legends of the Quest.”

“Under Cowboy and Tracker's direction, I was able to locate and procure the original written words or rather journals, which were passed on to them. They then dictated to me for five days, additional history concerning their seven, which they wished us to know. They also composed personalized letters for each of us. I was instructed to give these to both of you first, other than myself, of course.”

“Why do we get ours separately?” Chris asked.

“I have no idea. Tracker gave me specific instructions, which I followed. You were to receive your books together and today. Cowboy said you would need the words of wisdom offered in these pages.”

“What about the others?” Vin asked.

“Each book is to be delivered on a specified date, after certain events come to pass. Josiah gets his next, and then Nathan. JD won’t get his until June, and Buck is to receive his last.”

“Thanks Ezra,” Chris said, running his hand over the cover of the book remembering Cowboy's parting words to him. *I'm proud of you, Son. I reckon you learned the important things. You have a life full of love, challenges, and accomplishments ahead of you. Draw on the strength of the Seven. It's your right and their destiny for you to lead them.* “Reckon you know better than we do, Cowboy,” Chris whispered softly, easily accepting Ezra's answer. He laughed to himself. Three months ago, he would not have done that. It did surprise him that Buck would be the last one to receive his, but whatever the reason, he was willing to wait and find out. “I guess we are not to discuss this with Buck, Josiah, JD, and Nathan.”

“Not at this time.”

Ezra turned to Vin and gave him another book. “Tracker wanted you to have this and he dictated stories specifically for you. He also entrusted me to give you a verbal message.” He waited for Vin’s acknowledgement before he continued, “There’s a helluva storm ragin’ in your life son, trust your instincts to find the right path to lead you and Kel through it.” Standish paused. “I gather you understand what he is referring to.”

Vin nodded. “Yeah, I do.”

Clearing his throat, Ezra explained, “There is a family genealogy chart starting with his forefathers’ ancestry to present day. Tracker wanted you to decide if you want to share it when, or if, you get in touch with your father's family in Texas. Included are names and contact numbers or email addresses for other Tanner family members. There is also a personal letter for you and one for Kelli, which as you will note, you are to hold onto until a later date.”

Chris watched Vin and offered him some advice, “Take it as a gift from the past. It’s time to put some of your hunting skills to use and find out about the Texas Tanners.”

“Maybe, but I have a few things to tend to first. Then we'll see.” Vin stood. “Thanks Ez, appreciate what you did.”

Ezra set his beer down and passed them their coats. “You are both welcome. I guarantee you it was an experience I will never forget.” He walked with them to the door.

Once outside Chris stopped Vin before he headed to his truck and asked, “Vin?”

Tanner knew what he was asking, “We have good days and bad days... but we're fine.”

Chris cocked an eyebrow. “Really? You could have fooled me. You went through hell while Kel and Trey were missing.” He held up his hand. “I know you said the worst was over for you when we found them, but losing a baby affects you both.”

Tanner held Larabee’s gaze for a moment, and then dropped his head slightly. “Okay, maybe we’re not fine. It’s only been seven weeks though. Stayin’ busy durin’ the holidays helped, but Kel won’t talk about what happened. She spends most of her free time with the kids and she goes out of her way to please me. In fact, she’s so agreeable it’s damn annoyin’. Hell, I can't find a way to make her angry anymore.”

“I thought pissing off Larabees was your special talent. You must be losing your touch….” like a bolt of lightning, it hit him. Kelli’s infamous Larabee temper had been silent. He had not seen her as much as give him or Vin a half ass glare since she had been home and he had missed catching that important little detail. “Damn.”

“Damn is an understatement. Her spirit’s wounded and it's gonna take time to heal,” he sighed. Until she was ready to discuss it, he would not share information about the loss of their baby with the others. However, hiding it from Chris was impossible with their connection and Vin was grateful for it. Being able to talk to Chris helped keep him levelheaded. “I won't lie and say it's been easy because I hate like hell to see Kel struggle with her emotions, but we're workin' through it.”

Chris looked off into the distance. “Time…funny how much I think about it since Cowboy and Tracker were here. Of course, I had a real good chance to consider it while I sat in jail.”

“You're not gonna go all Josiah on me are you?”

Larabee snapped back, a small smile forming. “No, I'll leave the deep philosophy crap to him. I’m open to new ideas though. Hell, I even asked Cait to help with Grace's separation anxieties.” Chris hesitated. “You know she's a good friend and a qualified therapist. It might not hurt you to talk to her.”

“Maybe,” Vin smiled, certain Chris was only using that as an excuse to spend more time with Caitlyn. “I'll think on it.”

“You do that. Let me know what you need from me.” Chris opened his truck door and said, “Happy New Year, Vin. Let's hope this one is better to us than the last one.”

Chapter 1 ~ Turn the Page

A new year symbolizes new beginnings. It is a time to reflect on the events that shape who we are and look forward to making new memories. We make resolutions for the future; often consciously and sometimes impulsively, either changing the direction we have been traveling. Whatever the upcoming year holds in store, it is our opportunity to turn the page and begin a new chapter on this journey we call life.

Camp Larabee ~ Saturday ~ January 5th

Chris threw another punch. “What the hell was Linda thinking?” he scoffed. “She ignores our kids for over seven months and then ships them two live miniature horses for Christmas presents….to babies and two weeks late at that! Next thing you know she'll be sending circus clowns, dancing bears, and baby elephants.”

“Maybe she thought ….” Buck held onto the bag to give Chris a steady target.

“Don't make excuses for her. She didn't think, period.” Chris scowled at his friend while he pounded the punching bag again. “As if I don't have enough problems already,” he complained. “Since Summerton had me locked up, Grace throws a fit or cries whenever I'm out of her sight.”

“You were out of jail and back at home in less than a week.” A concerned look came over Buck’s face. “She’s still upset about it?”

“Yeah…she has nightmares about the trip to see me in jail. Cowboy's leaving also upset her…” he pulverized the bag with each statement. “She's beginning to notice all the other kids have a mama and wonders why she doesn't… I asked Cait about it… she says part of it's her age and normal…but…damnit, I hate to see her cry.”

Buck nodded his understanding. “I know Tannis is attached to Inez, too. She hates when her Mama walks out of the room. Of course she hasn't had all the other stuff going on…”

“It's not just Grace. Cody is starting to cut teeth and fusses all night.” Chris punched the bag once more and then took a breather. “I've been attending additional NA meetings with Mike since I was drugged with that GHB crap. JD is having problems breaking Ice's damn code. Our cases are stacking up, I'm losing two agents, and now it looks as if Travis has another project he's fixing to spring on us.”

“Cody will get past it, the meetings are voluntary, JD is making progress, and even though I know you hate changes you have to expect some,” Buck told him, watching intently to gauge Chris’s reaction.” Plus, Travis is always tinkering with our set-up, nothing new there.”

“That may be, but Travis wants us fully involved in the planning of something big. Right now…” he huffed as he continued his assault on the bag. “It's not the best time for me to commit to more hours.” He swung his fists, landing harder blows. “My family has been through the wringer the past year and they need my attention.”

“I know you're keeping a close watch on Kel. She's doing okay isn't she?” Buck hesitantly asked.

Chris exhaled and stopped for a moment. “I guess…yeah. It's just…she's not acting the way she used to.”

“Vin hasn't said much, but I get the sense that all is not right in his world. You think they're having serious problems?”

“Hell, I don't know,” he said. “She gave me the impression she was okay about JD and Vin taking the kids off for three days on a ski trip during the holidays. I know Vin wanted her to go, too, but she said no and stayed with the babies instead. I even offered to baby-sit while she and Vin took off to their cabin for a day or two and she turned me down. She refuses to talk about the time she and Trey were gone and insists she's fine, but I don't believe it.”

Chris spent the next few minutes working out his frustrations by steadily beating up the bag in front of him, each hit harder than the last. His entire upper body glistened with beads of perspiration, his muscles taut from the strain of his exertion, and he wore a determined look on his face. “Every time I think about what she and Trey went through…” He did not finish his sentence, but continued to jab at the bag repeatedly, unmindful of the sweat trickling down his bare chest, as he continued with his strenuous workout.

“Shit,” Buck groaned while he staggered a step backwards. “Take it easy, Chris, I'm behind this damn bag.”

Breathing heavily, Chris exhaled noisily, leaned his head against the bag and stopped its motion with his gloved hands. “It's a new year…maybe things will improve for all of us.” He finally noticed the faraway look on Buck's face and asked, “You okay?”

“I don't know.” Buck said, pausing a moment. “I know what we do is important, but damn I'm tired. The cases we used to get were a picnic compared to what we've been through lately. It's an entirely new breed of criminal out there. Sometimes I think its best left for the younger agents. Terrorists, assassins, right-wing extremist groups, serial killers…. trading kids lives for money… Danny…” Buck sighed wearily and shook his head. “…Our families being targeted, all the people we've pissed off over the years looking for payback, tangling with a terrorist cell over the Christmas holidays. Hell, you know better than I do. Summerton raked you over the coals not long after Ice pulled her shit. It's been a lot to put up with.”

Chris straightened and took a step toward his old friend. “Are you saying experience isn't enough anymore?”

Buck ran his fingers through his hair. “Not sure,” he said. “Inez and I have been talking about the future and what's fair to the kids.” Buck sighed. “It's getting harder for me to remember why we do this, Chris. I know we're supposed to have combined fates and all, but for every scumbag we take down, two more pop up even worse than the ones before. Just seems like we don't make that much of a difference anymore.”

Chris studied his friend. “You need some time off? You're due for a vacation. Just say the word and it’s done.”

“I…” Buck shuffled awkwardly. “Aww hell, Chris, there’s no easy way to say it.” He sighed deeply, looking Larabee straight in the eye. “I’ve been thinking about this since we found Caleb, but one thing after another kept happening and it never seemed like the right time. When Cowboy and Tracker came along, I almost decided I couldn’t, but…Hell, I’m leaving law enforcement. I have the years and my retirement benefits are good. It’s time, maybe past time. We’ve had a good run together, Chris, but I want something different for the rest of my life.”

Chris was silent for a few moments and fought back the urge to argue with Buck. The words in the legend journal came to him, ‘The heart is the unseen and the mind is the seen. Blessed is the leader or person who has developed the heart and the mind.” He asked instead, “What is it you want to do?”

“I want to spend more time with my wife and be there to watch my kids grow. To have regular hours, to stop watching over my shoulder for the next attack, to…not see the worst of the worst in my nightmares. I’ve done some checking and there’s a position open at the junior high for a physical education teacher. It’s a place I can still make a difference and work with kids. My college credits qualify me for the position and training federal agents gives me experience in a teaching position.”

“You’ve given this some serious thought.” Chris nodded. It didn’t take a genius to recognize the signs of burnout his friend was exhibiting. He could not just let Buck quit, so he offered him a compromise. “I won’t accept your resignation, but I will arrange for you to take an extended leave of absence with partial pay. If you still feel the same way in six months, then I’ll sign off on your retirement.”

Buck nodded, “That’s fair enough. I don’t think I’ll be changing my mind though. Teaching will give me a chance to stay in touch with my kids, and really be a part of their lives.” Although he was relieved to have it over with, Chris’s reaction surprised him. “Thanks for not trying to talk me out of it, but why didn’t you?”

Fighting the urge to grab hold of his friend and shake some sense into him, Chris's features softened. “I don’t want you to leave. However, one thing I’ve learned the hard way is that we each have to find our own way to where we need to be. You do what you think you need to, friend. There will always be a place for you on my team. You know that. Your leave can start Monday, but you have to tell the others.”

“I reckon next to telling you, that’s the hardest part.” Buck slapped Chris on the shoulder. “Guess I’ll start with JD and then I’ll call my contact in personnel to tell him I’m accepting the job. Since school starts back next Tuesday, I can begin immediately.”

Chris watched him leave. He grabbed a towel and headed for the shower hoping he had handled it right. *You’ve been a tough influence on my thoughts, Cowboy. Three months ago, I would have argued with Buck, but you have me thinking in a new direction about letting things work out. At least now, I understand why Buck doesn’t get his book until later. You’d better be right though or I’ll hunt you down and kick your ass.*

Well’s Ranch

“Thanks,” Buck said, taking the offered glass of tea from JD as they sat together in the kitchen. “I thought I’d stop by on my way home and see how you’re doing, not that I need a reason. I just…, hell, Kid; I worry about you and all you’ve been through.”

“I'm doing fine Buck,” JD assured him. “In fact, I'm enjoying every second of my life. With the baby coming, it's as if I’ve been rewarded for making it through some kind of test with that thing with Ice. Casey went to the doctor yesterday and everything is okay with the pregnancy. It’s not twins, but I’ll tell you a secret if you promise to let us make the announcement.” He waited for Buck’s agreement before continuing.

“Cross my heart,” Buck grinned. “So what are we having?”

JD whispered, “We’re having a boy.”

“Hot damn,” Buck started to yell and then lowered his voice. “You’re gonna have a son.”

“Yep,” he answered with a grin. “I love my girls, but now I won’t be so outnumbered.”

While he watched the kid’s elation over becoming a father for the third time, Buck’s thoughts turned to his own life-changing decision. His features and tone turning serious, he looked at JD. “You should think long and hard about you’re future. Hell, Kid, with your talent you could make a fortune in the private sector. You wouldn't have to worry about being shot at, or targeted by every nutcase out there. You could be home with Casey and the kids on a regular basis, no twenty-four hour call, no nights on stakeout...”

JD looked at Buck in confusion and surprise. “Whoa. I'm doing what I want to do, where I want to do it. Our work is important,” he said, holding Buck’s gaze. “Casey understands how much it means to me to be an agent. I thought you did too.”

“I do…I know. It's just.” Buck sighed. “You need to know there are options. I don't want you to wake up twenty years from now and wonder what you could have done, that's all.”

JD shook his head. “What are you saying? Being part of this team is the best thing that ever happened to me outside of meeting Casey and us having the kids. I can't imagine doing anything else. I love being part of this crazy Wild Bunch. The ranch…”

Buck’s thoughts drifted. This was his life too, had been for over twenty years. He had followed Chris into the Navy, and then into law enforcement. Secret missions, street patrol, homicide, ATF, and now MCAT; he had done it all, and he loved the work. His mind turned to his teammates, hell, they were more than that; they were his friends and family. He saw the excitement on JD’s face when he talked about the new baby and remembered the young kid he first laid eyes on ten years ago. Where did the time go? When did it all change?

“Buck! Have you heard a word I've said,” JD asked, suddenly feeling very anxious. “You seem to be a million miles away. Is… is everything… okay?”

Buck smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Thinking about mi vida loco,” he glanced toward JD, seeing the confusion on his face, he translated, “my crazy life.”

“If you think too hard, your head might explode.” JD grinned. He hoped whatever Buck had on his mind was nothing serious. He was happy wasn't he? Hell yeah, Buck was Buck, and he loved his life.

Buck reached out and ruffled JD's hair, knowing it would get a rise out of him. “Smart ass.”

JD tried to duck and muttered, “You are so full of it.”

“Yeah, most of the time I am,” Buck agreed and then standing, cleared his throat. “I need to tell you something, Kid.” He hesitated. “I’m leaving MCAT…taking an extended leave of absence.”

JD stared up at Buck for a moment, thinking he was joking then snorted a laugh. “Sure you are.”

“JD…Kid…” he sighed and squeezed the younger man’s shoulder. “I’m serious. I already told Chris and …”

“You did what? NO! No, you can’t leave us!” JD jumped up, his voice rising steadily. “Why would you want to? Why would you say that? What would you do? We can’t be the magnificent six, remember? Tell me…tell me you’re still thinking about it… Buck? Tell me you don’t mean it.”

JD’s expression about broke the big guy’s heart, but he steeled himself…he had to make JD and the others understand. “It’s time for me to make a change and I plan on teaching at one of the local junior highs. In fact, I’ll be starting there on Monday for orientation.” Buck squeezed JD’s shoulder again. “Hey…come on…It’s not like I’m going anywhere. We’re not moving off the ranch.” He sighed. “As for the Magnificent Seven…hell, you know that no one is irreplaceable in this business….”

JD looked incredulously at the man, who had mentored him, been his rock for ten years, emotion thick in his throat. “You are! You…I…” JD stammered. “Buck, you need to reconsider.”

Buck shook his head. “Sorry, it’s a done deal. Inez and I have talked about it and we agree it’s the right thing for us. You’ll see….it will be fine.”

JD was too upset to risk an argument, afraid of saying things in the heat of the moment he would not mean, but could never take back. How could he tell a man who had watched his back for more than ten years, had taught him so much... helped shape him into the man he was today...how could he tell him he was...wrong? He straightened as his expression hardened. ”Fine, you enjoy it. We’ll manage without you.” He shifted out of Buck’s hold on his shoulder. He looked back and fake-smiled. “You’re gonna have to excuse me, I really need to help Casey bathe the girls”

Buck swallowed hard and nodded. He could see the turmoil his words had caused JD, playing out on the younger man's face “Yeah, I need to stop and pick up Caleb after I see Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan and then get home before Inez sends out a search party for me,” Buck said turning to go. He stopped and looked back. “You take care, Kid, “he whispered.  He walked out the door to his truck with a heavy heart, hoping that sometime soon JD would forgive him.

Wilmington Home

Inez looked lovingly at her husband as she poured him a cup of coffee. They finally had an opportunity to talk without interruptions. Tannis was asleep and their older children were busy watching a Disney movie. Buck looked exhausted. “So...did you tell him?'“

“Yep, and Chris gave me a six month leave with partial pay. He said if I was still sure after that, he’d sign off on my retirement,” Buck answered. “I figured he’d argue with me. Surprisingly he didn’t, but I did feel bad about the timing. Chris has a lot going on right now, and I almost didn’t tell him. He's losing two agents as it is, and he's worried about Kel. Grace is giving him fits since Summerton threw him in jail. She cries every time he has to leave her. Cody's teething and Linda sending those two little horses without so much as a hello to the kids has Chris all tied up in knots. Add that to our workload over the holidays and …” he sighed, “…well he understood better than I expected.”

“Chris has three children and close to twenty agents. He will always have something going on.” Inez placed her hand on his shoulder. “If you are sure this is what you want to do, you don’t need to feel bad.” She rubbed his neck and said, “It is what you want isn’t it?”

“I reckon …it'll mean some big changes for us. You sure you're still willing…?”

“Shh,” Inez silenced him, placing her fingers over his mouth. “I will support whatever you do as long as it’s a decision you can live with.” She had her doubts about Buck doing this, but she knew he had to try or he would always wonder about what if.

“JD was a whole different story. He took it hard,” he said softly, reaching for her hand. “I think once he gets used to the idea though, he’ll come around.”

“Of course he will. JD loves you and he’ll only want what makes you happy.”

“Ezra, Josiah and Nathan were disappointed, but wished me the best. I caught Vin when I picked up Caleb and told him. Even though I could sense he wanted to say something, he said he understood and respected my decision.”

“I hated to see you so conflicted. Now that it’s out in the open you should feel better.”

“I do. This is right, Inez…right for us… it has to be better than having the same nightmares over and over.” Buck needed it to be right.

“I love you. With MCAT, without it, here full time or teaching at a school, it doesn’t matter. I want you to be happy with your life.”

“Our life,” he corrected her. “I feel great about you, me, our future and our right now,” he grinned roguishly. “We have until the movie is over. You wanna make out with this old man?”

“Anytime, anywhere,” she smiled, “and you’re not old, just older.”

Buck pulled her onto his lap. “My mind is young, but some of my body parts are moving slower.”

“Not the ones that matters,” Inez said huskily, wrapping her arms around his neck. Buck had to do this for his sake, and she would be here for him, no matter how it turned out.

Chapter 2

Change and choice influence the paths we walk in life. Attitude determines how we fare on our journey.

MCAT ~ Monday Morning, January 7th

Chris rushed through the bullpen. After spending the past three hours in conference with Travis, he was in no mood for trivial conversation. Briefly stopping at Gunny’s desk, he barked out an order, “Senior Agents, conference room, ten minutes,” before continuing on to his office. Throwing the files he carried onto the desk, he was not surprised to see Vin coming through the door.

“I could feel your anger before you entered the buildin’, reckoned I should check on you. You okay?”

“Hell no,” he snapped. “First they break up the best damn team ever assembled and move us to MCAT. I got used to it, even if we’re overworked, stressed, and short handed. Now the Powers-That-Be have decided since we set the bar, they need more units and want to scavenger my agents to do it. If that’s not bad enough, they expect me to oversee it all. There are not enough hours in the day as it is to do everything I need to and Travis wants me to add more.”

“Take heart, it’s only ten o’clock; you still have the rest of the day for it to get worse.” Vin chuckled.

Chris scowled. “It’s not funny, Tanner. You’re first on the list to take a new unit. If you refuse then it goes down the line until the seven are… hell, we’re already six with Buck gone.” He threw a file across the desk. “Damn, I hate change.”

Vin watched Larabee’s frustration with interest. “Relax; it ain’t gonna happen. Buck will be back and I’d bet a year’s pay that not one of the guys will accept a new position on another team.”

Chris sat down and stared at Vin. “What makes you so sure Buck will be back, and how do you know none of the others will accept Travis’s offer?”

A twinkle lit Vin’s eyes and a warm smile crossed his rugged features. Chris knew the answer, but sometimes he needed reminding. “It all comes down to destiny and like it or not our paths might twist and turn, but we end up where fate wants us….one way or another. Buck needs to discover his own path and I have no doubt it will lead him back home. You know it too or you would not have let him go. It’ll just take…”

“Time…” Chris interrupted, “damn I’m beginning to wish I never heard that word.” he sighed. “I take it you’ve been reading your book too?”

“Hard not to, but even without Cowboy and Tracker comin’ here we all knew Team Seven had a special connection. We’ve been through too much together, and our lives intertwine in a way none of us expected when we started. Hell, JD and I practically grew up with you and Buck fussin’ over us. At first, we had to drag Ezra into our fold kickin’ and resistin’, but now he would fight anyone who tried to make him leave. JD would rather cut off his right arm than be separated from us. Josiah and Nathan would worry themselves sick if they weren’t around to patch us up and add balance to the team. Face it, Larabee, you’re stuck with us.”

Chris felt his anger ebbing away and even managed a smile. “Guess I am.”

Vin nodded. “Damn straight you are. We’ll look at what the Director wants, discuss it, cuss it, make a plan, and then tell ‘em what we’re willin’ to do. They can accept it or we’ll pack up our toys and go home.”

“They’re asking a lot.”

“Always do, don’t they?”

“Okay. We’ll take this proposition to the others and start cussing it.” Chris picked up the scattered folders on his desk. “Let’s do it.”

War Room

Chris took his seat at the table while Vin sat down silently next to him. Looking at the faces of the men sitting around the table Chris’s thoughts raced back to the first time he had assembled them together after officially becoming a team. No one gave them a shot in hell of becoming successful…too many independent personalities…loners…misfits…too young…too jaded….not team players. They were successful though, the best of the best, the most elite response unit ever assembled. In fact, they were so good, everyone wanted to be like them, but none came close or ever would as far as Chris was concerned. If only Buck were here…

JD could not stand the silence any longer. “I hope we’re here to talk about Buck. What are we going to do to get him back?”

“Actually…” Chris started.

JD ranted on. “What the hell happened the other day? You could have stopped him Chris! Why didn’t you?” JD did not attempt to hide his anger, looking at Chris with accusing eyes.

“Son, Buck is…”Josiah began, but stopped when Chris put up his hand.

“This meeting is about MCAT, but maybe I should clear the air first,” Chris said. “Buck came to me and I saw a man who was at the point of burn out. Rather than risk losing him permanently, I chose to give him what he needed, which is time to get his priorities straight in his mind and to reconcile what he wants to do with his life. I trust him to do that and all of you should too. “

“But…”JD tried to protest. He felt Josiah’s hand apply slight pressure on his shoulder as he heard Chris’s statement.

“The subject of Buck is closed.” Larabee shot the younger man a warning look and opened the top folder in front of him. “I just spent three hours with Director Travis. We need to address a few issues he presented. MCAT has been so successful that Washington asked Travis to form two additional teams. The Director would like each of the new units headed up by one of the original seven. Vin has already declined the offer…”

“No,” Ezra said without waiting to for the question.

“No.” Nathan added.” I have all I can handle with you yahoos.”

“No,” Josiah answered. “I am very satisfied with where I am.”

There was an awkward moment of silence as the five men looked toward their youngest. Suddenly aware of the pause, JD looked up and realized he was the only one who had not said anything. He straightened in his chair. ”Hell, no, losing Buck is bad enough; I don’t want to lose the rest of you, too.”

Even though Vin had been certain of the outcome, Chris was relieved to hear it. He nodded and said, “Then we need to discuss a plan for Travis, one which he can implement within three months. We are, of course, the lead team and home to main operations. JD, the new MCAT units will need a modified version of CASSIE. They are not to have the unlimited access we do, only enough to work on a day-by-day basis, at least for the first six months. Any suggestions on what’s feasible?”

The younger man perked up. “I can design a program giving limited operations to another location. Similar to what I did at the ranch for you and Vin, but with restrictions. All other inquiries, I can route to CASSIE’s central unit here, which someone on my communications team can monitor. Where will the other teams be located?”

“There will be two additional units. The first one will base here on the airfield with us. San Antonio, Texas, is the assigned city for the other one. There’ll be more added over the next three years,” Chris read off the report Travis had given him.

“It’s doable,” JD said as he began writing notes. “I could have a preliminary schematic on paper in two to three weeks.”

Chris nodded his approval. “Do it. Nathan, each new unit will have a MAU, but not a forensics section. Our lab would be the place where the new teams send their evidence for processing. Confer with Bones, see what we need to do to prepare for it, and how many more techs he’ll need to hire. “

“We’ll probably need to link the lab computers with whatever JD comes up with for the new units to use.” Nathan turned to JD. “Can you do that?”

“Do birds fly?” JD grinned. He loved a challenge and this was just what he needed to take his mind off Buck.

Chris sighed and said, “Manpower. Since none of you will take on a team, it’s going to fall on us to find and train the right people. The FBI and the DEA train at Quantico, Virginia. The Secret Service sends their trainees to FLETC in Glynco. Georgia; the CIA has the Farm at Camp Pearcy, Virginia, and God only knows where else around the world. MCAT will train here in Colorado. The Governor is providing three hundred and fifty acres to build a state of the art training facility close to our office in exchange for us keeping MCAT headquarters in Denver. Travis has already authorized the building to begin. We’d need instructors, an intense training program designed, and we’d have to start looking at personnel files for new agents. Most of the candidates would work through here first.”

“Josiah, you’ll be in charge of psychological screening. How long would it take you to put together a starter list of names for possible team leaders and potential instructors?”

“I can begin with the applicant files we already have set aside to take a second look at and see how many would be acceptable. It would take me two weeks at least.”

“Vin, Ezra, I want you two to work together and decide what type of training program would be best suited for potential MCAT agents. Go with the assumption they would have some previous experience in law enforcement, but not necessarily at a federal level. Keep in mind the programs would also be used for training exercises not only for us, but also by State Homeland Security response teams.”

“Oh joy,” Ezra remarked.

“Once we have a preliminary plan to present to Travis and he approves, we’ll bring the rest of the unit in on it. Anyone in this unit who wants to apply to be on one of the forming teams is welcome to do so.”

Ezra drew Larabee’s attention, with his words. “Chris, I am reluctant to be the one to convey a possible negative. However, I would be remiss if I did not point out the obvious. We are already down by three agents with Buck on leave, Selena’s moving out of state after she gets married, and Katrina is going back to school full time. Just how in the hell are we supposed to find the extra hours to do this and keep our caseload going?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Chris said with a grin. “With Buck gone, I find myself one Captain short. Ezra, you are now acting Captain until he returns or retires. Somehow, we will find a way to accomplish all our duties, including these new ones. I’m confident you and Vin are intelligent enough to find a solution.”

Vin smirked, “Translation Ez, you and I get to deal with case assignments and figure out how to spread out our limited resources.”

“I’ll hear your ideas after lunch.” Chris picked up his folders to leave. “I now have the honor of informing Travis that each of you declined his offer. I’ll also be telling him we’ll have an alternate plan for him to look over by the end of the week.”

Chris walked out of the room smiling as he listened to the sounds of groans and protests behind him.

West End Junior High

Buck slid his tray onto the table and sat down with his fellow teachers. After spending the morning at the personnel office filling out paperwork and sitting through a teacher orientation for an hour and a half, he was ready for a break.

“So, Wilmington, you’re the new kid on the block,” a younger man said as he sat down. “My name’s Larry Oliver. I teach English, eighth grade. Welcome aboard.”

“I’m John Lopez, history,” an older Hispanic man said, extending his hand to Buck.” You’ve had your official orientation, now you’ll hear the unofficial one from us.” A young male teacher sat down at the table with them, doing more listening than talking.

“First, you’ll note that cafeteria food has not improved much since we were all in school,” Larry chuckled. “Second, forget everything they told you this morning and listen up. You’re assigned here either because you are new, thus lacking the seniority to get out of this hell hole or you have other issues and they won’t place you in a decent school.”

“The sign outside says the school name is West End, we call it Purgatory. Most of these kids are from the worst section of the city, they live in broken homes, constantly exposed drug to use, and gangs. You name it, and they have seen it. The coach who you replaced was the victim of a brutal stabbing just before the break for the holidays. He survived, but he quit teaching altogether and now works at a video store,” John told him.” The teacher turnover rates here are high and most simply leave the profession rather than face another position.”

“Check your idealism at the door because trust me, you’ll be doing good to get through each day, much less trying to make a difference with these kids,” Larry picked up the impromptu speech. “Don’t get attached to any of them, they are likely not to be here tomorrow. Do not touch any of them for any reason or risk getting your ass sued for sexual misconduct. We cannot discipline, yell or cuss at them. The only thing we can do is refer them to the principal who will put them in detention, suspend, or expel them.”

“Watch your back, lock up your valuables, and always double-check anything these kids tell you.” John continued. “Last year two women teachers were assaulted in addition to the coach you’re replacing. Three junior high girls were beaten and raped on the football field for a gang initiation and the principal seized over one hundred assorted weapons. Our so called security officers are a joke and the police come only if a felony is committed.”

Listening to them talk, Buck felt at a disadvantage. The situation they were describing was definitely not the idealistic picture he had imagined. “This sounds more like the lecture I was given my first day on the job as a cop, instead of being a teacher at a junior high.”

“You were a cop?” The listener spoke up in awe. “Why would you leave law enforcement for this?”

“At least as a cop you could carry a weapon for protection and arrest the little troublemakers’, then haul them off to juvenile detention,” John added before Buck could answer. “How did you end up here?”

“I’ve been in law enforcement most of the past twenty years doing one thing or another.” Buck told them without giving specifics. “I just wanted to do something different with the rest of my life and since my own children are still in school, teaching seemed like a good option.”

John shook his head. “I wish you the best, but I’ll bet before this term is over you’ll be wishing for a nice quiet crime spree to handle instead of being here every day.” He stood to leave. “Get a good night’s rest, Wilmington, tomorrow you get to meet the masses. Good luck.”

“If you have any question, hunt one of us up. As teachers we try to band together, safety in numbers you know,” Larry laughed. “If you survive the term, with your background they’ll probably reassign you to a better school. You’ll still have troublemakers and gangs to contend with, but at least your odds of making it through the year uninjured will increase.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Buck answered, concentrating on the plate of food in front of him and wondering just what he had gotten himself into here.


It seemed strange to be leaving work at three in the afternoon, but Buck gathered his papers and prepared to depart. He had a lot to think over. School policies had certainly changed since he was a student. He was shocked to find out he would be teaching girl’s gym classes as well as boys. Although he was confident of his abilities, Buck realized he had some brushing up to do on the rules and procedures listed in the stacks of handouts he was given today. He chuckled, classes had not even started and he already had homework.

John Lopez joined Buck as he exited the building and headed toward the teacher’s parking lot. “Wonder what surprises we’re in for today?”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, John, the day is about over for us.” Buck answered.

“That’s what you think,” he said, directing Buck’s attention to the parking lot.

Taking in the sight before him, Buck began cursing,” Damn, freakin’, sonofabitch!” Several vehicles had bent antennas, deep scratches into the door panels or spray painted with gang graffiti. His truck had four flat tires and cracked windshield. “I thought we had security here.”

“I told you earlier, school security is a joke. It will not do any good to call the police either. If they even come out, all they’ll do is write a report and file it.” John sighed. “You’ll notice most of us drive older cars or use public transportation because our insurance won’t cover more than one incident in a six month period. I wouldn’t dare bring my newer model up here.”

Muttering under his breath Buck pulled out his cell and placed a call to the garage where his friend Gary worked. Gary agreed to bring him a new set of tires within the hour and fix the crack in his windshield.

The next call Buck made was to Inez, got her voicemail and left her a message, “Hey, Baby, I’m running a little late, but I should make it home in time for supper. Love you, bye.”

“You might consider the park and ride. The bus may not be the most comfortable way to travel, but it would save repairs on your truck,” John suggested as he got into his old Chevy.

Buck watched him drive off with all the graffiti still written on his car and shook his head. Tomorrow he would take the bus from the park and ride. As far as he was concerned, no one would ever know what happened here today.

MCAT Office ~Late Afternoon

Gunny looked up and saw JD pacing in front of her desk. “Agent Dunne, can I help you with something?”

JD stopped and faced her. “I need to speak with Commander Larabee… please…ma’am.”

Evidently, he was very nervous about speaking to the Commander. Gunny liked this young man, who always called her ma’am. Right about now, he reminded her of one of her sons when they were younger and unsure about what course of action to take. He looked as if he needed a hug, but she resisted the urge to mother him and instead used the intercom to announce him. “Sir, Agent Dunne wishes to speak with you.”

“Tell him to come on in,” Chris answered.

“You can…”

“I heard, ma’am. Thank you.” JD took a deep breath and entered Chris’s office. He stood in front of his desk for a moment, not sure just where to start.

Chris pointed to a chair. “Sit down, JD. I’ve been expecting you.”

“You…you have?” he sat in the closest chair.

Chris leaned forward. “Relax, Kid,” he sighed. “I’ve known Buck for more than twenty-four years. We’ve raised hell, been through hell, laughed, fought, celebrated, and grieved together. I know him and understand him the same way he does me. This is something he needs to do and those of us who care about him need to let him do it even if we don’t like it.”

JD's defiance shone in his eyes as he pushed his fingers through his hair. “It’s hard to just sit back and say nothing.”

“Yeah, it is. That’s why we’re not going to do it.” Chris smiled at the look of confusion on JD’s face. “Buck may not work with us right now, but he is still one of us. He deserves our support, no matter what he decides. As his friends and brothers we owe him that much. Buck is Buck no matter where he is or what he does, his loyalties haven’t changed, only his place of employment. I hope he’ll be back with us soon. If not, it won’t change how I feel about him.”

“So… what then? … we gonna just… just get used to him not being here?”

Chris laughed. “Buck will always be here as long as one of the seven is still here. We carry a part of each one of us anywhere we go and always will, whether we’re working together or apart, that includes Buck. Kid… he really needs us to be strong for him right now.”

“I know,” JD whispered, “It's just... hell, I just never thought any of us would deliberately choose to leave.”

“Change is never easy, but sometimes it’s necessary to move forward,” Chris measured his words. He realized JD was struggling with new emotions, fighting the urge to be selfish, and dealing with his first real taste of letting go since his mother died. It was only natural that he would want things to stay the way they were. “Buck has hit an emotional wall in his life and even though he’s tried really hard, he can’t seem to get past it. He needs to take a detour to get to the other side and like it or not, we have to sit back and let him.”

JD paused for a moment as his mind processed what Chris was saying while fighting back his own fears and concerns. Finally slumping back in the chair, he sighed and looked Chris in the eye. “I guess I was kinda hard on him. Maybe I should call him tonight …let him know I wish him well.”

Now Chris sat back, nodding. “Good, I know it would mean a lot to him and there’s one more thing we can do, too….” Chris explained his plan and when he was finished, JD was wearing a smile on his face when he left the office.

Vin passed JD as he entered Chris’s office chuckling at the impromptu 'hi five' from the younger man as they passed and happily returned it.  He sat down in the chair JD had just vacated and rubbed a hand over his face.  ”It took some doin’, but we worked it out.”

“Tell me.”

“Aside for a few court appearances, we’re about done with the work on the terrorist cell we broke up. If we don’t accept any major cases for a while, unless our terror alert status changes, and clean up the local ones we have on the board, we can rotate our shifts so everyone has at least a day off. The biggest challenge is the assist request from the DPD with their Gang task force.”

Chris sat upright and rested his arms on the desk. “We need to focus on that one. They’re facing twelve dead in the past two weeks from gang-related activities. Travis got a personal request from the mayor for us to help out after number eight was hit.”

“They requested a two man team for their midnight to eight shifts, workin’ exclusively with the gang activity unit. I have Alex and Brad with ‘em tonight and then Guy and Justin tomorrow night. Since Ezra is actin’ Captain, I put Kelli and Raphael together on the Carter investigation, although Raphael will be out after Friday. He’s flying to Boulder with Selena and he won’t be back until late next week. Ez and I will float as replacements wherever necessary. Mark will be on call with Bandit twenty- four seven for the first week, two days off and then back on call. That leaves you, Nathan, and Josiah as backup when we need it. JD, too, if necessary, but I figured you wanted him to stay with workin’ on the CASSIE plans.” He handed Chris the printed schedule.

“I do,” Chris said, looking over the papers Vin handed him. “Selena’s last day here is Friday and Kat starts at the university on Monday. All in all it’s not an ideal situation, but we’ll make do.”

“Let’s hope it’s a quiet night in gangland,” Vin said with a hint of doubt in his voice.

Chris met his gaze, “You know nothing ever goes easy for us. Shit happens and usually one of ours is close by when it does.”

Chapter 3

Of all the weapons available to mankind to kill or maim, silence is by far, the deadliest

Wilmington Home ~ Tuesday, January 8th

Buck rushed through the breakfast Inez had prepared for him. Pushing back from the table, he kissed each of the kids and said, “Caleb, Sarah, have a great day at school. Maria, you behave for Miss Sally at daycare and Tannis….” he paused by the highchair and grinned. “You, baby girl, just be good for your Mama.”

“Caleb, keep an eye on your sisters while I walk Daddy to the door,” Inez told him, slipping her arm around Buck’s waist. Once they were near the front door she said, “It’s five-thirty in the morning. I still don’t see why you have to leave so early.”

“I want to make sure I’m on time for my first day,” Buck said, drawing her closer for a kiss. “I’ll see you this afternoon.”

Inez laughed. “You can have cookies and milk with Caleb and Sarah when they come in.”

“Spending time with the kids and their beautiful mom early in the afternoon,” he said with a wide grin, letting his hand slip down to caress her backside. “That’s something I can get used to real fast.” Reluctantly he let her go.

“Have a good day, husband.” Inez watched as he headed for his truck and then went to the phone. Punching in a familiar number, she waited for an answer and said, “He’s on his way.” She hung up and returned to the kitchen, she still had three more to get off to school.

Buck had memorized the transportation schedule and knew he had more than enough time to drive to the park and ride, catch the bus to the west end and get to work. Preoccupied with his thoughts, he was surprised when he reached the main ranch gate and saw that it was blocked. Six men leaned against their parked vehicles, stationed in front of the gate. Smiles broke out when a cussing Buck exited his truck. “What the hell is this?”

Chris straightened and walked forward to meet him. He put his arm over Buck’s shoulder, drawing him into his circle of friends and asked, “You didn’t think we we’re gonna miss giving you a send off on your first day of school did you?”

“Aww hell, “Buck muttered as he looked at the smiling faces of his friends. He had to admit, at least to himself, he missed them already.

Josiah gave him a lunch pail. “It’s filled with all your favorite junk food, just in case you need it.”

Buck nodded as he took it. “After tasting the cafeteria food, I know I will.”

“Since I know you, and I won’t be there to help with your boo-boos, you may need this.” Nathan gave him a first aid kit.

Buck laughed softly. “Yep, you know me too well. Thanks Nate.”

Vin handed him a small gunnysack. “They’re apples for the teacher, one from each of us. Enjoy ‘em, Bucklin.”

Ezra sighed and approached Buck. “Appearances are everything, my friend.” He gave him an envelope. “My tailor has instructions to outfit you with three new jackets, prepaid of course. All you have to do is present this envelope to him and let him work his magic.”

“Thanks, Ez.” Buck was having difficulty finding his voice.

JD held onto a large package and set it into Buck’s hands. “This is from all of us. Like Ezra said about appearances, we figured you needed this. Something more suited for a white collar professional.” He helped Buck unwrap it and was pleased to see his mentor’s emotional reaction when he saw the leather briefcase personalized with his initials.

Buck swallowed hard before speaking. “I don’t know what to say, except thanks. You guys are … the best.”

“Hell, we know that.” Chris squeezed Bucks shoulder. “We’re here if you need anything… you remember that.”

Setting his gifts in his truck, Buck then hugged each one of them, saving JD for last. He whispered to him. “I’m as close as the telephone. Take care, Kid.”

“I will, you too” JD tried to control his own intense emotions. “Now get moving or you’ll be in the principal’s office on your first day for being late.”

“Yeah, I guess I’ll see you guys later.” Buck climbed into his truck and drove out though the gate. He glanced in his rear view mirror and saw the guys watching him drive off. For a brief moment, he questioned his decision to leave the team and wished he were there with them. But wasn't that the part of his life he wanted to change?


Chris’s cell phone rang and he stepped aside to answer it. After listening to a report from Alex, he turned to the others. “Alex and Brad caught a drive-by with a fatality while working with the Denver PD gang unit. Vin, you’re with me, Bones is en route and will meet us there. Ezra, you and JD get the rest of the team in gear for the day. Josiah, head over to DPD, grab the reports from the past two weeks of any gang activity, and start working up a profile for us.”

The men scattered to their vehicles. Vin shifted his gear over to Chris’s Ram and told him, “I need to swing by the house to leave my truck for Kel.”

“I’m right behind you.”

Vin parked and then ran inside the house to say goodbye to the kids. “Y’all behave in school today.”

“Daddy, we’re always good,” Andi said with a grin.

“Right,” he said, leaning down to kiss her forehead and then Jason’s. He grabbed Kelli around the waist for a longer kiss. “Hug the boys for me and I’ll see you at the office.”

“I’ll be in as soon as the orientation assembly is over at the school,” Kelli reminded him.

Tanner took a sharp breath. “Damn, I forgot. I…”

Kelli smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take notes and tell you all about it.” She walked with him to the door and stood on the porch. “Be careful out there.”

“Aren’t I always?” Vin answered with an impish grin.

She watched as he ran down the walkway and jumped into the Ram. Kelli stood there until he and Chris were out of sight. Glancing toward the horizon, she paused to view the meadow below the hill where she and Vin were married three years ago. Such a short time, yet it felt like a lifetime had passed since then. She loved Vin, the children, their home and the life they were building together…she could not imagine giving it up. Yet for a brief moment she had done just that…she gave up… and she had paid dearly for it Unexpectedly, warm tears filled her eyes and she hurriedly brushed them way. Before she could even consider asking Vin to forgive her, she had to find a way to forgive herself. The question was…how?

“Mama,” Andi yelled from inside the house, drawing her attention. “Where’s my book bag?”

Kelli turned and went back into the house, reached behind Andi’s chair and handed her the bag. “It’s right where you left it, little one. Now go and finish gettin’ ready for school, both of you. I still need to feed the boys and Max is on her way.”


Chris talked as he drove, “You know with both of you working and four kids, having one vehicle is not always convenient. Not that I mind you riding with me, but when do you plan to replace the Tahoe?”

“I finally broke down and ordered another SUV,” ‘Vin sighed. “Kelli watched the news footage and read the reports of all that happened while she was missin’. She also saw the pictures of her last truck when it was pulled out of the river,” he rambled on. “She didn’t want another Tahoe and I couldn’t get her to commit to what she does want or much of anythin’ else these days.”

Chris cast the younger man a quick glance. “I can’t complain about her work, but you two can’t keep going on not talking about what happened. I know you said it will take time, but have you taken a good look in the mirror lately? Your stress is showing, brother, and it has to be just as hard on Kel. If you don’t want to talk to Cait, then talk to Josiah or I can force Kel to go to counseling as a job requirement…”

“No, don’t…not yet. It may come to that, but …” he stopped. “Hell, who am I kiddin’? Kel refuses to talk about it and I haven’t been able to budge her. She’s havin’ nightmares about bein’ in that crypt and so am I…only in mine she and Trey are in the damn truck when it’s pulled out of the river. I thought gettin’ ‘em back alive would end my hell, but evidently it hasn’t.”

Chris paused, pursing his lips for a moment. “Do you think she’ll talk to me?”

The Texan shook his head. “I suggested it and got a definite no. She figures’ tellin’ you about the miscarriage is all you need to know.” Vin stuck his hands in his jacket pockets. “It’s not like we argue about it… hell, we don’t argue at all anymore. We haven’t been out alone since all this happened. Its just there between us… right under the surface all the time. The only place it’s not there is in bed when we….” He realized what he was about to say and knew Chris was not the one to discuss it with. “Anyway, it’s not enough. I want my impossible, stubborn to the bone Kel back, temper and all.”

Chris took a deep breath. He knew it had been difficult for them, but not to this extent. Obviously stressed, both Vin and Kelli had lost weight. He chose his words carefully. “Vin, I know how you feel about it, but if Kel won’t go to counseling, you need to. My daughter may want the world to think she is independent as hell, but you and I know she depends on you as an emotional barometer. I don’t want her to withdraw to the point she was before she met you anymore than you do. Talk to Josiah or at least let him recommend someone.” He signaled, pulled up and parked by the yellow tape surrounding the crime scene. “Give it some serious thought.”

Vin ducked his head in acknowledgement. “I will.”

Chris suddenly had another idea. “I owe Cait a dinner for all the help she’s given me with Grace and plan to take her out for her birthday next week. Why don’t you ask Kel to go and we’ll make it a foursome? Tell her, I’m out of practice with dating and need the moral support.”

“Good idea. It will be hard for her to refuse to help you. I’ll let you know,” Vin said as he opened the passenger door. Duty called, and their personal conversation ended.

Friday January 11th ~ 6:00 a.m.

Chris fought back his frustration while taking in yet another crime scene. This was the third time this week they’d been called out early to investigate a drive-by shooting this and he was getting damn tired of chasing empty leads. Someone out there was supplying guns to these kids and he wanted to nail the bastard before an all out war broke out on the streets of Denver.

An old car, covered with gang graffiti sat on the side of the road. Next to the vehicle, on the ground, was a body covered with a sheet. Bones was there, setting up to do a preliminary exam before sending the deceased to the morgue. Alex, who was watching for Chris to arrive, broke away from the other officers to meet him.

“Alex, what have we got?” Chris asked, while Vin continued walking to the scene of the shooting to examine the recovered bullets.

“Drive by hit and run, Sir. Our victim was apparently entering his vehicle when targeted by our unknown shooters. He didn’t stand a chance in hell of surviving, there were at least fifty rounds pumped into that car,” Alex reported. “We’ve canvassed the neighborhood and no one saw or heard anything they’ll admit to.”

“Do we know who he was and why his car is covered with gang graffiti?” Chris asked, as he scanned the area and took in the scene

“Hispanic male, mid fifties, name is…” Alex looked at his notes, “John Lopez. According to his neighbor, he’s a teacher at West End Junior High. He remembers him saying something earlier this week about vandals trashing his car at the school. Said it’s happened at least twice before, this year alone. Apparently he didn’t think it was necessary to be in a hurry about repairing the damage.”

Chris nodded, “And the rival gang took exception to it and decided to send a message.”

“It looks that way, Sir.” Alex confirmed.

Vin joined them. “They used a 7.63 AK-47 and a Mac-K5, over fifty rounds by the looks of it. I can guarantee the weapons are gonna be untraceable.”

Chris felt the tension building at the back of his neck. “Alex, pull the incident reports on the vandalism from the files and make me a copies.”

“Already tried, evidently Mister Lopez never filed a police report. I did manage to put together detailed information on the twelve…now thirteen homicides and noted the similarities in them. I think we may be able to connect at least seven of them to the same shooter.”

Chris straightened. “Good work. Head back to the office, give the information to Josiah and then you and Brad start your reports. I want to talk to Bones before we leave.” Alex acknowledged Chris’s words as an order and complied. Chris and Vin spent another forty minutes at the scene gathering information and then headed to the office themselves.

West End Junior High

Buck sat at the desk in his small cubicle of an office and ran his hand over his face. It was the end of third period and nothing had gone as he expected so far with his new career. He already felt as if he had done a full day’s work. The kids in his classes were inattentive, complacent, and down right hostile towards authority. Already this morning he had intervened in three situations, which could have led to a fight among some of the students. Instead of seeing smiling faces, eager to learn and participate in team sports, he saw pent up anger and animosity. He did not feel like a teacher, he felt more like a beat cop with a new territory to police.

His assistant coach, Bill Patterson appeared in the doorway. “Rough morning, huh?”

“Yeah, it was. Is it always like this?”

“Pretty much,” Patterson answered. “Today has actually been a little mild compared to most. You take it as it comes and pray for the best.” He saw the weary look on Buck’s face and could relate to it. His own first week had been just as bad. “Come on. We have a free period. Let me give you the grand tour of the teacher’s lounge.”

“Lead on,” Buck said and followed Bill out of the gym.

Teacher’s Lounge

Entering the room, Buck picked up bits of a very animated and heated conversation between Larry Oliver and Mary Williams, another teacher. Obviously, they were in disagreement about something and he heard John Lopez’s name mentioned.

“Hey Larry,” Buck interrupted attempting to diffuse the argument. “I’ve almost made it through my first week and I’m still standing.”

Larry turned to him and snapped. “You’re doing better than John. Thanks to the lack of backbone with our school administrators, he’s not.”

“That’s not a fair statement, Larry. I don’t like what happened anymore than you do, but you know it’s better not to rock the boat or we’ll all drown.” Mary argued.

“Bull! We put up with this crap because no one will take a stand,” Larry responded.

“What happened with John?” Buck asked, looking to Larry for an answer.

“You haven’t heard? He’s dead. Shot down like a dog by a gang this morning,” Larry shouted. “It could have been any one of us. These kids get a revolving pass from the principal’s office, suspension, back to school, and then they’re in trouble again. I know some of our students had to be involved.”

“If you believe a student from this school is responsible, you should tell the police.” Buck advised.

Larry handed him a piece of paper and said, “Read it. The principal, with the backing of the school board warns against discussing John with the police or the media. They say we can’t afford a big scandal about school violence or we could risk losing our federal funding.”

“Better to lose funding than your life,” Buck countered. “If any of you know something you should report it.”

“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need my paycheck. “ Mary huffed. “I won’t get involved.”

Bill Patterson glanced at Buck apprehensively. “We have to follow school policy.”

Several others around the room murmured the same refrain. No one was willing to risk getting involved. Buck realized that he should have called in the vandalism Monday before John left, but too wrapped up in his own problems, he truthfully did not think about it. At the very least he should have made a report himself later…he just did not want Inez or the guys to know things were not going the way he expected. If only… he inhaled deeply. *Okay, Buck, so what are you going to do now?*

Chapter 4

Anger and repressed pain can stop you in your tracks. It needs nothing to burn except the air and the life it smothers.

Friday January 11th ~ MCAT Office ~ War room ~late afternoon

Chris strode into the room and took his place at the table, wasting no time in starting the meeting. Placing his notepad on the desk, he flipped it open. “We have a lot to cover, so let’s begin. First off, we will be operating on a modified schedule until further notice, unless our national terror threat level is raised.” He nodded to Gunny when she set a cup of coffee in front of him. “Moving along, Raphael, you or Kelli have anything to give us on the Carter investigation?”

“We’ve been chasing this guy’s ghost most of the week and at the moment he’s in the wind,” Raphael answered when Kelli didn’t. “However, we made sure the right contacts know we want to talk to him, so I suppose we have to wait and see.”

Chris nodded. “Kel, since Raphael will be gone next week, you’ll be working with me on this case starting Monday.” He flipped his notepad to the next page, ignoring the look of surprise on Kelli’s face. “I had a long discussion with Captain Richards of the DPD gang unit today. We will continue to lend him a two man team each night until this latest eruption of gang violence simmers down.” He looked up. “Justin, I believe you and Guy are up tonight.”

“Yes, Sir,” Justin said. “We’ll be meeting him at their surveillance van at midnight.”

“Ezra, you and Nathan will take tomorrow night.” Chris shuffled his papers and then continued. “The death of John Lopez this morning appears to be linked to at least seven of the twelve homicides related to gang activity over the past two weeks. Alex gathered some very good information for us to work with and helping the DPD quell the current unrest will be our priority. JD, you did the research on him. What do we know?”

JD had been about ready to explode with the facts he dug up about John Lopez and where that information led him. “Lopez taught history at West End Junior High for the past three years. He lived alone, everyone in the neighborhood liked him, and he had no close family. According to his neighbors, and by looking at his insurance reports, this was not the first time his car had been vandalized; in fact it was the third time this year, and had happened at least five times last year. Knowing that, I took a look at the school, and found some disturbing facts.”

“We know it’s in a bad part of town and most of the kids who attend there come from one of the highest crime rated parts of the city.” Vin offered. “I ought to know, I lived close to there for a long time.”

“We remember,” Chris was quick to say. “It took us six years to talk you into moving.” While he was relieved when Vin finally made the move, Chris knew Tanner still kept in touch with ‘his kids’ from the old neighborhood. Most importantly, Vin understood their challenges and cared about their future.

“Did you know it’s the same school Buck was assigned to?” JD dropped his bombshell and waited for everyone’s reaction. He was not disappointed.

“Aww hell,” Vin groaned. “Buck’s too softhearted when it comes to kids. Those kids will break him before he knows what hit him. “

“JD, are you sure?” Chris asked, as a small inkling of unease began to twist in his gut.

Dunne nodded. “Yeah, I am. I also did some digging and found out he replaced a coach who was stabbed the day before school let out for the holidays. The suspected number of kids in that school with gang affiliations is staggering. Lopez’s car had to have been spray painted on campus. Why he didn’t report it I don’t know.” He sighed and rushed ahead with more. “The assaults on teachers there are high and over the past year more than a hundred assorted weapons have been confiscated from students. I also did some other research. According to current reports, one out of every eight students carries some form of weapon to school, and on any given day, one hundred thousand assaults against children happen on school grounds. Additionally, five thousand teachers are threatened with physical assault daily and two hundred are actually attacked.”

“Why aren’t we hearing more about it?” Ezra asked.

JD continued. “After the Columbine shooting every eye in the country has been on Colorado. Personally, I think it’s unfair because something like that can happen anywhere, anytime…but the news of violence in schools is kept low-keyed to eliminate panic, when actually it’s increasing. I have stats from all over that say it’s become a freaking epidemic. I can tell you…”

“We get the picture, JD.” Nathan said, shaking his head. “I didn’t realize it had spread to junior high though.”

“Not just in junior high,” Kelli spoke up. “I attended another parent’s assembly this mornin’ at the elementary school and they gave us information on gang activity with kids as young as eight-years-old. Two students, one only in the fifth grade and another in sixth, attacked two teachers this year. The whole purpose of the meetin’ was to tell us about new rules going into force within the younger grades to toughen their policies.”

“You think we should be worried about Buck?” JD tried to make his question sound more professional than personal, but he needed to hear some reassurance that he wasn't jumping to conclusions. He looked toward the profiler as he spoke.

“Buck can handle himself and should be okay physically, especially with his experience. I’d be more worried about his spirit. Facing violence every day in an environment which is supposed to be in a safe zone is hard to adjust to.” Josiah stated. “From the files I have looked over, I would suspect that most of what we’re seeing over the last couple of weeks can be tied to that school in some way or damn close to it.”

“Are you saying junior high kids are responsible for over a dozen deaths?” Brad was astounded. “We’re talking thirteen and fourteen-year- olds.”

“As of now that’s where it all points to or at the very least to their involvement to some degree,” Josiah said regretfully. “I think we should interview the staff and then possibly some of the students.”

Chris slowly exhaled. “At this point we are still on assist status with the Gang Task Force. Josiah, you, and JD will be working together. Arrange the set up at the school, offer a list of questions that need asking, and try to arrange to be the interviewers. Vin, you know more about the gangs in that area than most of us, so you take the lead on this one for MCAT’s part of the operation. Mark, I’m sure you and Bandit will come into play on this too. I’ll give Buck a heads up that we’re going to be around.”

Josiah, Mark, and Vin nodded. JD was relieved to hear that he would be involved. Buck had always kept an eye on him over the years, now it was his turn to keep watch over Buck.

Chris raised his voice slightly to regain the team’s attention. “One more thing before we finish. We reluctantly have to say good-bye to one of our teammates. Most of you know today is Selena’s last day with us. She’s to be married next week and the lucky man is a Commander in the Navy. Selena, we wish you the best and we will miss you. I promise we’ll keep an eye on your dad for you since I understand your future husband is to be stationed in Greece for the next two years and that’s where you will be living.” Chris pulled out an envelope, which held a card and a sizable cashier’s check. “We pooled our resources and wanted to give you this.” he handed the envelope to her.

Selena opened it and smiled. “Thanks, to all of you. When I came here I expected to be around a lot longer but well…then I met Doug…”

Kelli grinned, “And he rocked your world.”

Selena grinned back at her. “Yeah, he did. I am going to miss you all though,” she said looking at her dad. “I will never forget how it felt to be a part of this team.”

“When you move back to the states, let me know,” Chris said. “We may have an opening.” He stood. “Vin, you get with Josiah, JD, and Mark to make your plans. Kel, I’d like to see you in my office for a minute. The rest of you are dismissed.”

Kelli followed Chris to his office and waited for him to tell her why.

“I just wanted to let you know while Vin handles the school, you and I are going on a Carter hunt. If you would leave me your notes before you go home, I’ll read over them tonight. I’ll pick you up at six sharp, Monday morning so we can get on the road bright and early. We’ll check out some of his old hangouts and former addresses.”

She nodded. “Is that all you wanted?” she hesitantly asked. She was afraid he would try to bring up counseling again and really did not want to have that conversation.

“Was there something else we needed to discuss?” Chris waited, hoping she might take the opportunity to talk to him.

“No, “she answered. “I’ll drop the notes off as I leave.”

“That’s all I wanted.” Her relief was too obvious, but Chris hid his disappointment as he watched her make an exit. Since Vin had finally admitted how hard it was with them, Chris had begun to notice the small details about his daughter’s behavior he had missed. Yes, she could do her job, thanks to years of conditioned training, but she was not as forthcoming as she had been and her nervousness about talking to him was apparent.

Chris decided to bide his time. Over the course of the Carter investigation, he would have plenty of opportunities to observe her without being obvious about it. He was determined to find a way to help her and Vin, whether they wanted his help or not. In the meantime he reached for the phone and dialed Buck’s number…he should be home by now.

Buck answered on the third ring, “Wilmington Palace.”

Chris chuckled, “Am I to assume I am speaking to the King?”

“Damn straight you are. What can I do for you, Chris?”

“We need to talk…”

Saturday, January 12th ~ Larabee 7

Vin vigorously brushed Peso. It seemed he had a lot of extra time to work with the horses on the weekends lately. He was at a loss when it came to figuring out what Kelli needed or expected from him. The only thing he was certain of was that he had to find a way to reach beyond the wall she had built around her emotions.

“You spend too much time in this place.” Chris walked into the barn, set on having a serious talk with Vin. He was worried about him and Kelli, and wanted to do something to help. The problem was he was not sure how to go about it. “Want some help?”

“Nah, I’m done.” Vin laid the brush down. “I was just killin’ time.”

Chris nodded. “Is Kel up at the house?”

“Yep,” he sighed, Chris was an easy read. He wanted to continue their discussion from the other day and fix things. He needed to realize there was no easy fix for the problems he and Kelli were going through. “She goes out of her way to avoid me. We talk, but not about anythin’ serious and any topic related to Ice, or what happened in that crypt are strictly off-limits.”

“You broke through her barriers once. Why is now any different?”

“Damnit, don’t you think I’ve tried to figure it out?” Vin slammed the tack room door shut. “When we first met, all I had to do was get her to trust me…now…” he shook his head. “It’s not a matter of trust, it’s...distance. We may have pulled her out of the hellhole Ice left her in, but a part of Kelli is still trapped there and I think she blames me for not findin’ her and Trey sooner. If I had maybe…maybe we would not have lost the baby.”

Chris reacted immediately. ”Neither of you are to blame for that! Hell, I’m the one who should shoulder the blame. It was me Ice wanted to hurt, she used the people I care about most to do it.”

“You’re not responsible for what that bitch did. She was a psychopath, who didn’t give a damn about the consequences of her actions.”

“Yes she was, and you need to listen to yourself.” Chris closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Look, I’m not a counselor or an expert, but the hell Ice created for all us is all on her.” He squeezed Vin’s shoulder. “As for Kel, I don’t believe it’s you she has a problem with. Whatever demons she’s fighting, she’s afraid to let you see them.”

“Hell, she knows she doesn’t have to hide anythin’ from me or at least she should know.” Vin thought about it. “You might be right; but I won’t give up on her, Chris, ever. We‘ll have to weather this storm the best we can and then pick up the pieces when it’s over.”

”I’ll do whatever I can to help. You don’t have to do it alone.” Chris decided he had said enough for now. “I’m going to meet Buck at Camp Larabee, but I’ll be around if you need me.”

Vin walked out with Chris and told him “Tell Buck I’ll catch him later. I think I’ll go find Kel.”

Camp Larabee

Buck added another twenty pounds to the barbell and then lifted it again. The one thing he had discovered about his new job was that he needed to stay in shape to keep up with his students. Working out also relieved some of the tension he’d accumulated since yesterday. Sweat poured off his body from his workout, but he still felt responsible in some way for John’s death. Instead of doing the right thing, he let his pride rule his thinking and stayed silent.

“Hey Chris,” Buck set the barbell down to greet him when he entered the weight room. “Thanks for meeting me here. I didn’t want to talk with Inez around.”

“You sounded serious when I told you the guys planned to interview the teachers. You ready to tell me why?” Chris sat down on one of the weight benches.

Buck sat next to him. “We’ve been warned not to talk to the police.” He reached into his jacket pocket and handed the warning letter to Chris. “I don’t know why they’re so scared, but it’s a strange situation at West End. I think whoever does the interviewing is gonna hit a brick wall.”

“I appreciate the heads up, but why so secretive about this?” Chris watched Buck, hoping to find out what was really bothering him.

Sighing deeply, Buck confessed, “I was with John the day his car was vandalized. They hit my truck too. I know I should have insisted we call the police and make a report, but I didn’t want you and the others to know my great job had some serious drawbacks. Bottom line, if I made a report, John might still be alive.”

“John Lopez did not make a report because it was the third time this year it had happened to him. One more report and he’d lose his insurance. He made the decision to keep quiet about it, Buck, not you. Unfortunately, it cost him his life.”

Buck nodded, “Thanks for telling me about it.”

“Let it go, Sport.” Chris stood. “Now take a shower and come up to the house with me. I’ll buy you a beer.”

“You’re on. Give me five minutes to clean up.” Buck headed for the shower and felt the weight of guilt slide off his shoulders along the way.

Tanner Home

Vin finally caught Kelli alone and he was not going to let the opportunity to talk to her slip away. She was coming out of their bedroom and he stopped her at the door. “Baby, we need to talk.”

Kelli tried to scoot past him, “Now is not a good time, I need to check on the boys.”

“I just looked in on them, they’re asleep.” Reaching out, he gently closed his hand over her arm. “I know you’re avoidin’ me, but damnit we can’t keep doing this forever.”

Sucking in her breath, Kelli froze. She knew it was only a matter of time before Vin figured out it was her fault that Ice grabbed her and Trey, and her fault they’d lost their baby. Worst of all she had lost faith in him and had broken a sacred promise. Once he realized how weak she was, he’d hate her for it and walk out the door. Not that she could blame him, but please God, don’t let it be today.

The pain he saw in her eyes broke his heart, knowing he could not erase it made him angry. “Kel,” he said softly, drawing her closer. “We can do this; you just need to let me in. Talk to me.”

Kelli pulled away from him. “There is nothin’ to talk about. You can’t change the past anymore than I can, it is the way it is. Don’t push for somethin’ I can’t give.”

“What the hell does that mean?’ Vin released her. “I don’t give a damn about the past. I want today, tomorrow, and the rest of our lives! Are you saying you don’t want it too?”

Want it? Hell, yes, she wanted it; she wanted Vin, wanted their life back the way it was. She wanted to make love to her man, be intimate with him, physically and mentally. It was all Kelli thought about, but it was gone. The chasm between them was widening and she had no idea how to bridge it.

Once more, Vin attempted to pull her close, but Kelli ducked away. "Baby..."

Kelli snapped around to face him. "WHAT? What do you want from me? Does it always have to be physical for you? If you want sex just say so, but do not use the pretense of talkin’ to get it.”

“God dammit Kel, that’s not what I said!” He snapped in anger, and immediately realized he had screwed up any hope of having a reasonable conversation with his wife.

“That’s too Goddamn bad because it’s what I heard.” If this was the end for them, she wanted something to remember. To Vin's surprise, Kelli fisted the back of his hair and kissed him fiercely on the mouth, almost drawing blood.

Whatever he had in mind to say was lost, replaced by shock. What had he done?

Chapter 5

Family and friends… are responsible for some of our most pleasurable memories… they can try our souls and our patience… but they will always have the power to fill our hearts with love.

Larabee 7 ~ Monday, January 14th

Streaks of soft lilac were attempting to breach the dusky hue of asphalt gray cloaking the eastern horizon. Another hour and the peaceful break of dawn would be complete. Chris stood at the window; taking solace from the few moments of soul vitalizing tranquility, the morning had gifted him. It ended abruptly, when Grace shuffled into the room, her dainty little fists rubbing the sleep from her eyes. He stepped away from the shadow of the window and into the light, intending to welcome her with a hug.

Delight turned to dismay when she saw him dressed for work. “No! No, no, no! Daddy stay,” she yelled, launching her little body across the room like a rocket.

Grace was one unhappy little lady and Chris felt like an ogre. The morning ritual of saying goodbye was hard on both of them.  He had tried several suggested diversionary tactics to make it easier, but it appeared to be getting worse.

Moisture pooled in the depths of her sea green eyes and her bottom lip quivered as Chris knelt down to her level and said quietly, “Honey, you know daddy has to leave for work.”

“No!” her little tears made his heart turn summersaults and were almost enough to make him take a day off from work. “Pease stay,” Grace whined as she pulled on his jacket.

He reminded himself to stay strong and firmly turn her negative into a positive. “Sweetheart, there are times daddy can’t be with you, but you know I’ll never leave you alone.” Chris spoke softly. “If I‘m gone, then you have a big family who will be here and they love you and Cody as much as I do.” He drew her into his arms and soothed her tears. “You know daddy loves you.”

Grace sniffed loudly, hiccupped and said, “Uh huh.”

Chris waited for her to calm down and look up at him. “Miss Dottie has breakfast ready and Cody beat you to it. She could really use your help with him today. Will you do that for me until I come home?”

Shuffling her feet, she halfheartedly nodded her head, causing a cascade of golden curls to fall across her face.

“That's my girl.” Chris hugged her. He waited until he was certain her tears dried, before standing up. “Why don’t we join your brother?” he reached for her hand, which she offered enthusiastically. Together they headed for the kitchen where Dottie had already prepared Grace’s breakfast. Boosting her onto her chair, he leaned over to kiss the top of Cody’s head. Chris wasn’t sure if his son had more food in his belly, on the highchair, or on him as Dottie attempted to spoon-feed him. “Love you, Munchkins,” he whispered, just before making a quiet exit.  Mentally he cursed Summerton again for separating him from his kids for no reason other than revenge. Linda too, for leaving so abruptly and not contacting Grace at all.  Caitlyn had warned him about Grace’s separation anxiety, saying it may not have peaked yet and apparently, she was right.  Sighing deeply, he climbed into his truck to make the short drive to Vin’s house.

Tanner Home  

Chris grinned when he opened the back door. Jason and Andi were on the tail end of eating breakfast, stopping briefly to say hi to him, while Vin kept the bouncers for Trey and Bren in motion. The older kids had two different conversations going, each vying for their father’s attention. The term, organized chaos, crossed his mind, which was normal for the Tanner household. Max reached for another cup when he entered and was already pouring his coffee.

“Mornin’ Chris,” Vin said without turning around or expecting an answer. “There’s a file for you on the counter with the plans Josiah and I worked up last night to present to the Task Force. We’ll meet with them later in the mornin’. Kel will be out in a few minutes.”

“Thanks Max.” Chris smiled, reaching for the cup she passed to him. “By the way, Dottie’s sister was admitted to the hospital last night for a battery of tests.  She’s leaving when I get home tonight to be with her and she will be gone until at least next Sunday. I need someone to watch Grace and Cody while I work this week. Are you up to taking on two more munchkins?”

Max scoffed, “Of course I’m up to it, as if you need to ask. Those two little angels are no problem and I’m available for them anytime. In fact, I’ll call Dottie and tell her to make earlier arrangements. You plan on picking up your little ones here tonight.”

Chris nodded, “Appreciate it.” He sipped his coffee and reached for the file. Sitting down opposite Vin, he attempted to hide the grin, which creased his lips, behind the file he was reading, while half-way listening to the older Tanner siblings argue with one another.

“The whole day will be spent at the museum, but it has lots of Native American and Western artwork.  A lady’s gonna be there to show how sand paintings are made, too.  It sounds interestin’…” Jason was explaining to Vin about the upcoming school field trip.

“Daddy,” Andi increased the volume of her voice. “Me go, too?”

“You’re too little to go,” Jason challenged.

Andi scowled at her brother. “Am not,” she fired back.

“Dad, tell her,” Jason groaned, turning his expressive eyes toward Vin. The babies began to wail too, apparently wanting to add their two cents to the disagreement.

Vin let out a shrill whistle, effectively silencing all four of his children at once. Chris looked up to give him an impressed glance as Tanner spoke to his older kids, even while he continued rocking the bouncers Trey and Bren were seated in. “Andi, sweetheart, there are some things Jason is goin' to be allowed to do that you aren't. Goin' on this field trip to the museum is one of those things. Jason, Andi's age has nothin' to do with why she can't go with you, so I want you to stop tellin' her it is.”

“Yes, sir,” Jason replied.

Andi's lip quivered in response to her father's words, but she didn't have time to start crying before Vin added, “Sugar, this trip was set up for the third grade. You’ll have your own field trips to go on very soon, but we can all go to the museum together at a later date.”

“Really, Daddy?”

“Really, Sugar,” Vin promised as Kelli entered the kitchen at last.

The Tanners shared a brief, chaste, kiss, before Kelli greeted Chris. Neither of them had mentioned what happened Saturday and Kelli was adamant about keeping it that way. “Hi Dad, I'll be ready to go in a couple of minutes.”

“Morning, take what time you need, we’re good,” Chris assured her and went back to reading the file Vin had left for him.

“If y’all are finished eatin’, then get ready for school. Daddy is takin’ you on his way to work.” Kelli hugged Jason, then Andi as they darted off to their rooms. She picked up Bren and smiled. “It won’t be long before you and your brother are runnin’ after them.”

Chris took the opportunity of a lull in the chaos to tell Vin, “I had a long talk with Buck. You may meet some resistance when you try to interview the teachers; they have instructions not to say anything about what goes on at West End. “

Vin nodded, “I expected it. I still have a good relationship with my kids from the old neighborhood; they’ll tell me what the teachers won’t. I also plan on findin’ out where those weapons are comin’ from.”

“It works for me.”

Vin picked up Trey and reached over to take Bren from his mama. “I’ll take care of him, you go. Dad’s on the job this mornin’,” he smiled down at his sons, “Right partners?” When Kelli hesitated, he flashed a mischievous grin. “I can be super dad before I morph into hard ass Captain Tanner.”

Kelli nodded, “I know.” Leaning over to steal a kiss, she whispered, “I love you,” then grabbed her coat and turned to Chris. “We’re burnin’ daylight, Commander, let’s go.” She did not wait to see if he was coming and went on ahead.

“Right behind you, Agent Coulter,” Chris followed her lead, keeping his answer professional.

*Her emotions are more fragile than you realize. Don’t push her too hard, Cowboy.*

*I can be super dad too, you know.” Chris winked at Vin, walked over and patted both babies on the butt, “Don’t overtax your Dad, he’s old and outnumbered.” Chris quickly grabbed his coat and headed out the door, laughing at Vin’s outrage.

*Who you callin’ old, Larabee?*

West End Junior High

There were few situations in which Buck Wilmington ever felt out of place or ill at ease. Usually, his discomfort only surfaced under extremely dangerous scenarios, until now. He realized he did not have any idea of what he was getting himself into when he had decided to take this new course in his life.

Teaching junior high kids the rudimentary guidelines and rules of a variety of sporting games should have been a piece of cake, next to the other strenuous assignments he had endeavored in the past, but he was soon learning otherwise. Not only did he have to be an interpreter, he also had to act as a referee and fashion coordinator. He could not believe how much time and attention teenage girls took with their appearances, and he had to remind himself this would be good practice for him when Sarah, Maria, and Tannis reached their teens. Fortunately, he had some time to wait until then.

While he set up the equipment in the gym for exercise and weight training, Buck quietly observed the teenagers who were his first period students as they entered the gym in pairs and quickly formed into groups around the cavernous room. There were the 'high maintenance' group of girls who wore more hairspray and makeup than all of the Wild Bunch Ladies combined. They wore designer dud knockoffs, hooker style earrings, and tons of bangle bracelets. These girls gave him the most trouble about changing into the school's athletic outfits. In a smaller group were the girls who wore their clothing a little too tight, a little too ragged, and who he tagged as a combination of 'rockers/stoners' even though those terms were as outdated as he was when it came to knowing what hip phrases to use. A few sat away from the others, on the indoor bleachers, chatting with one another, trying not to be noticed or make themselves targets for the more popular girls scathing lines and ridicule. 

The fifteen or so boys who were his students had gathered into only two groups and Buck found his eyes lingered on them. There was a combination of Hispanic, white, and black boys who all wore similar clothing, baggy pants, solid color t-shirts in reds, blues, black or white with an assortment of quips, comic lines, rock and rap artists names or athletic equipment logos, and lots of chunky gold jewelry.

Even without his years in law enforcement, Buck was certain he would have pegged the teenage boys as gang bangers or wannabes. He was very seldom wrong in making the accurate assumption in tagging people he met with the type of occupation or lifestyle in which they lived. To what degree the boys' attire and attitudes was deeper than surface level, he didn't know, but he was going to do his damnest to find out. This was where he could make a difference before they became hardened criminals and committed the types of crimes guaranteed to produce nightmares.

“Yo, my white brother, whatcha starin’ at?” an indistinguishable voice yelled across the room, “Yo a racist o’ somethin’?”

Buck’s thoughts crashed into the real world. On the other hand, maybe he should try understanding their language first.

Cold Creek, Colorado ~ thirty miles west of Denver

While driving to the next venue, Chris was making an effort to engage Kelli in conversation. Aside from an occasional yes or no answer from her, he was striking out. He tried again. “Did Vin talk to you about dinner Friday night?”

“Yes…,” Kelli exhaled, “Are you sure you want us to be there?”

“I do,” he assured her. “Cait is comfortable with you and Vin. It’s been a while since I’ve been out with only adults, other than at work, and I’m a little anxious about it.”

“Yeah, like you get nervous about anythin’.” Kelli’s words contained a tinge of sarcasm. “You’re the one who gives ulcers, not gets ‘em.”

“Thank you…I think,” Chris actually found her statement amusing, but tried not to show it. “I’m counting on you and Vin to make the evening go smoother.”

“Vin said we were goin’, so I reckon we’ll be there.” Kelli was determined to change the subject. Going out for the evening was not on her list of fun things to do, not at this point in her life. She had far more important issues to tackle, and so far, she was failing miserably at trying to deal with them. “We have one more location to check. Carter owns property about fifteen miles on the other side of Cold Creek. I doubt we’ll find him, but we might get a line on where to look from there. If he has more than one cache of weapons, it’s the perfect place to hide one of them.”

Chris nodded. “I know you didn’t eat breakfast. You want to stop for an early lunch first?” he was concerned about her health. She looked as weary as Vin did, and had lost too much weight.

Kelli was already shaking her head. “I’m not really hungry, but if you need to stop, go ahead.”

“No, we’ll wait.” Chris sighed; he had the distinct feeling of deja vu. Until recently, Vin had been just as evasive with his answers as Kelli was now. Somehow, he was going to find a way to reach her, even if it took every ounce of Larabee tenacity he possessed. All he had to do was bid his time and watch for an opportunity. “We’re covered for just about anything. We have a FISA warrant, which will enable us to search the property if necessary, the state police on call, and a fugitive warrant on Carter himself,” Chris confirmed. “Call in to the office and give Vin an update about our last three stops. Let him know where we’ll be next.”

“Yes, Sir,” Kelli answered as an agent, signaling loud and clear that all personal conversation was finished. She was already punching in the number for the MCAT office.

MCAT Office, 11:00 a.m.

Josiah and JD made their way through the bullpen and went directly to Vin’s office where he and Ezra were working. The stack of files they were going over was high and the grumbling loud.

Claiming the biggest chair, Josiah sat down and stretched out his legs, while JD went around to the other side of Tanner’s desk to sit.

“Good, y’all are finally back,” Vin said without looking up. “What did you find out?”

“Nothing you’ll be happy to hear, I’m afraid,” JD said, gaining Vin’s full attention. “Captain Richards agrees that most of the violence can be traced back to West End. However…he has run into a brick wall with the schools. Even the Superintendent of the school district is balking about us going on campus to talk to their teachers, much less the students.” He paused when Tanner’s phone rang.

“Tanner,” he snapped. His annoyance from being interrupted was clearly visible to everyone in the room, but he quickly softened his voice, “Hey, how’s it goin’?” he listened. “Right, I got it. Check in when y’all leave…” hesitating to get too personal due to the lack of privacy currently in his office he only said, “take care,” before hanging up.

Ezra grinned, “We would have left the room if you wanted to have a more intimate conversation with your wife. All you had to do was ask.”

“Agent Coulter was givin’ me a report,” Vin growled out, shooting a frosty glance to Standish. “And if I want y’all to leave, I won’t ask, I’ll just tell you to get the hell out.” He turned to Josiah. “What about this brick wall?”

“No go on the interviews. We could force the issue, but Richards doesn’t want to because he’s worked hard to get the co-operation he does have with the area schools. He says it’s too important for his gang unit to risk them shutting him out completely.” Josiah added thoughtfully. “The only way we’re going to find out anything is to get someone on the inside…Someone who could pass as a teacher and be hired as a substitute.”

“Buck’s in there. Can’t we get him to snoop around?” JD asked, hopefully.

Vin shook his head. “No, Buck has his job to look out for and it would be unfair to ask him to risk it.” His expression softened in understanding of the younger man's suggestion. ”He’s made his choice, JD. We have to give him space with it.”

“I reckon. That don’t mean we have to like it though,” JD muttered, knowing Vin was right. “So who do we get inside?”

Josiah began to nod. “With John Lopez dead, we know they’re short one American History teacher. Why can’t we send someone to apply as a replacement? They could get the information we need and be out before anyone is the wiser.”

“Who do we know that could pull that off?” JD mused. “They’d have to be well educated and an agent…”

Vin caught on to JD’s train of thought, “Someone used to working undercover… a know it all who could talk to the other teachers about anythin’.” His eyes focused on Ezra.

“No. I…I…,” Ezra stammered, searching for a good reason to douse the plan he could see formulating. “While, I will be the first to admit I have covert skills far superior to anyone else. My expertise however, is with those of an adult criminal mind, not juveniles. You could not, even for a moment, consider that I, Ezra Standish, would be willing to …”

Vin interrupted him. “Willin’ has nothin’ to do with it. You are the best one suited for the job. Buck wouldn’t blow your cover either. MCAT will take full responsibility if there is any fallout with the school district and if Richards doesn’t know, he's not responsible if it leaks out. You’re our man, Ez, like it or not.”

“Finnias…Finnias Prescott, has a nice ring to it don’t it?” Josiah beamed. This was the perfect solution for their needs and Ezra was the one who could pull it off effortlessly. “I can help write you a background, guaranteed to get you in there, Professor Prescott.”

“What kind of name is that?” Ezra bellowed. “I’ll write my own background, thank you, and professors don’t teach junior high they…” he abruptly realized he was committing himself, “Aww hell.”

Josiah and JD stood at the same time. Dunne grinned, “Come on, Teach, we’ll have you hired and in a classroom by morning.” He patted Standish on the back.

Ezra shot his own glare at Vin and JD. “As y’all are so fond of saying, ‘paybacks are a bitch’. When you least expect it, I will find retribution for this indignity.” He stood, straightened his jacket and said, “Gentlemen, what the hell are you waiting for? Finnias Prescott has a class waiting to be educated.”

“After you,” Josiah swept his hand forward in an embellished fashion, allowing Standish to exit first and then he whispered to Vin. “Ten bucks says the kids get to him before he finishes his first day.”

Vin shook his head and smirked, “No bet. Gunrunners and terrorists don’t stand a chance against him, but those kids will eat him alive.”

“I heard that,” Ezra yelled from outside the door. “We shall see, Mister Tanner, we shall see.”

JD laughed, “And people think law enforcement is all work and no fun.”

“Keep me informed,” Vin took on a serious tone. “I’ll have Guy partner up with Nathan to replace Ezra on the gang unit. Then I’ll make sure our asses are covered by letting Travis know what we’re doing with the school.” He picked up the phone effectively dismissing Josiah and JD.

Chapter 6

If I am to be tested today, I pray for the courage to get through it and for the strength to anchor my faith on solid ground

Carter Property, Noon ~ fifteen miles west of Cold Creek

After twenty minutes of interviewing the woman who was living in Royce Carter’s house, Chris felt a headache coming on and Kelli was finding it difficult to hide her amusement. Lorene ‘Bitsy” Fowler, was apparently not very bright, but she was young, blonde, beautiful, scantily dressed, and well endowed. In fact, she had been attempting to drape her assets all over Chris since they arrived. Kelli finally sympathized with him and drew the woman’s attention in an effort to rescue him.

“Miss Fowler…,” Kelli started.

“Call me Bitsy, everyone does,” she corrected her and giggled. “Actually, it’s Itsy Bitsy because I’m short. As you can see I’m not small where it counts.” She winked at Chris.

“Bitsy,” she complied. “Royce Carter is listed as the owner of record. We need to establish your residency. Do you have a rental agreement with Mister Carter?”

“Sure, honey. I live here rent free and when he comes to visit he gets ‘me’free, if you get my drift.”

Kelli shook her head. “When was the last time Mister Carter was here?”

“Oh, it’s been weeks. Last month he sent a buddy of his out here to collect.” Bitsy coyly smiled at Chris. She leaned over to give him a better view of her ‘assets’, licking her lips as she spoke. “In case, you’re interested, handsome, Royce and me are only a now and then thing.”

Ignoring her inept advances, Chris moved away from Bitsy. “We have a warrant to search the premises, inside and out,” he told her, laying a copy of it on the table. “We’ll be out of your way as quickly as possible.” Without waiting for an answer, he nodded to Kelli, and they began going through the house, room by room.

Bitsy followed them and offered her help to Chris when he searched her bedroom. She traced a hand down her neck and over her breasts, caressing them slightly in teasing movement. “You could send your partner outside. I promise to make it worth your while,” she whispered as she stood in the doorway.

“Please step aside, ma’am,” Chris forced out the words, trying to sound professional. It did not help when he looked over to Kelli and saw the laughter in her eyes. Bitsy appeared to pout as he moved past her, her eyes following his every move.

Twenty minutes later, they were finished inside the house. Chris took a deep breath when he stepped out onto the porch and growled at Kelli, “One word about this to anyone and I’ll bury you in paperwork for a month.”

Kelli slipped on her sunglasses. “My lips are sealed…’handsome’.” Seeing that Chris was rattled, she ducked her head to conceal her smirk, then walked down the steps and headed toward the barn. A quick look around outside and they could leave, but she planned to tease him about Bitsy every chance she got.

Shaking his head, Chris trailed after her. They checked the barn, several out buildings, and the tool shed. There was no sign of any weapons and although disappointed, the two agents were ready to leave. Heading to the truck, something caught Chris’s attention on the far side of the house.

“Hold up, Kel.” He nodded his head in the direction he saw a door, which they had previously missed. “You see that?”

Taking a step backwards, she looked and saw what appeared to be an entrance to a storage or basement area. “Yeah,” she sighed, not happy about the possibility of entering anywhere even remotely connected to underground.

The agents walked over to the side of the house and found the door was steel, not wooden. Chris saw Bitsy standing on the porch and was unexpectedly ill at ease. Knowing she was watching every move they made, he decided to err on the side of caution. He pulled the door open and spoke to Kelli. “You go down and take a quick look around. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on Miss Free and Easy.”

Looking down into the darkened room, she swallowed hard. It was just like a scene from her nightmares. Her stomach began to turn somersaults and she could feel the panic rising within her. Attempting to shake off her mounting fear, she grabbed the flashlight from Chris and started descending the stairs. She stopped when she reached the bottom step and took a deep breath, her hands were shaking and a wave of heat flushed over her body. On the verge of turning around and running back up, she heard Chris’s calm voice.

“Kel, you see anything?” Chris had not missed seeing the color drain from Kelli’s face when she realized what she was facing. Maybe he was pushing it, but he knew eventually that she would have to confront her fear. It was better for her if it was now, with him close by, than to be alone and have no choice.

Taking a shaky step forward, she forced herself to continue and yelled so he could hear her, “Not yet. Give me a couple of minutes.” Using the flashlight she moved ahead then she saw something shiny reflect in the beam of light.

Chris was concerned about his daughter, but when Bitsy walked over and stood next to him, he shifted his focus to her. “We’re just about done here. You can go inside; we won’t be bothering you again.”

Bitsy grinned. “Oh...it's no bother...” she revealed the 9mm pistol she had concealed in her pocket, “NO BOTHER AT ALL!”

Reacting instinctively, Larabee made a grab for the weapon and the two struggled. Bitsy was a small woman, but she fought fiercely for control of the firearm. When the gun discharged twice, Chris grunted. Staggering backwards, the heel of his boot struck a broken chunk of concrete, which caused him to lose his precarious balance and plummet down the steep stairs.

As Bitsy watched him fall, she shook her head. “You should have left when you had the chance, handsome. Now it looks like you’re gonna die instead.”

Wrestling with the heavy steel door she slammed it shut, securing it with a sturdy chain and padlock. Without so much as a glance back, she strolled calmly to the porch, retrieved the bag she had hidden earlier and jumped in her car. In seconds, she was gone.

Chris did not have time to think. An unanticipated free-fall was not on his list of activities to do today. Bracing himself, he drew into a ball and waited for the inevitable bone jarring impact when soft flesh met solid mass. He rolled as he made contact with the ground and felt the air whoosh from his lungs. The sound of a door slamming preceded the darkness, which followed. Somewhere in the void surrounding him, he could hear Kelli calling to him, but he was unable to answer.


At first glance, this subterranean vault appeared to be a storage area away from the house, but while Kelli explored she found all was not as it first appeared. One cold room led to another amid a labyrinth of dead ends and deceptive details. She shivered when she opened the next door. With only the sliver of illumination from her flashlight to go by, her hand franticly searched for some type of light switch to eliminate the creepy darkness from the underground maze. Finding a lever, she pulled it and a feeling of relief consumed her as florescent lighting flooded the room before, revealing dozens of crates filled with illegal weapons. This was one of Carter’s caches. Now all she had to do was retrace her steps, climb out of this hellhole, and tell Chris.

The distinctive sound of two gunshots broke the eerie silence, closely followed by the rattle of a chain. Kelli ran toward the entrance, arriving in time to see Chris hit the ground only moments before the overhead door closed, shutting out the sunlight. All thoughts of training and professionalism deserted her. Panic and fear took over her emotions and she fell to her knees next to Chris, screaming at him, “Dad! Can you hear me? Damnit, you had better be okay! Dad…?”

Chris did not respond.

Finding it impossible to hold the flashlight and check for injuries, Kelli dropped the light. She felt for his pulse and exhaled with relief when she found it was strong. Next, she carefully began to search, by touch, for broken bones or bleeding wounds. Silently she prayed that the vests he had insisted they both wear had prevented any serious gunshot injury and at the worst, he had only sustained a few broken bones from the fall.

Kelli focused on her father, ignoring the tears, which flowed down her cheeks, and the shaking of her hands. Once she was certain his arms and legs were not broken or bleeding, she carefully took off his coat, and unbuttoned his shirt to remove the Kevlar vest he was wearing beneath it. Without so much as a small gasp to indicate he was conscious, Chris reached up and gripped her wrist.

“Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus,” she shrieked. “What the hell are you tryin’ to do? Give me a freakin’ heart attack?”

“Help me up,” Chris croaked out as he attempted to move.

Picking up the flashlight, she shook her head. “Uh uh, you need to stay put until we’re sure you‘re able to be moved.”

“Just had…the wind…knocked out of me.” Chris clenched his teeth and hissed, “I’m fine. Help me sit up, damnit!”

Leaning back on her haunches, Kelli ignored his demands, while she used the light to check the reactions of his pupils. “You’re not fine and you’re not superhuman, Dad. I’d think a man your age would know his limitations. When you fall down a flight of stairs, you land hard and get hurt.” Satisfied his eyes looked okay, she continued, “I heard two shots before you decided to cannonball over the edge. Until I know you weren’t hit, consider yourself grounded and I mean that literally.”

Chris was rankled that his daughter had insinuated he was old. Struggling to get up, he labored to say, “Damnit, she didn’t even come close.”

Gently, Kelli forced him back onto the ground. “Then how do you explain this?” She held up his coat, which obviously had two bullet holes in it. “I suppose you’re goin’ to tell me it was caused by wind shear.”

“Aww hell,” Chris relented. “Find the damn slugs and hurry up about it.” Although he was fairly certain his vest had stopped the bullets, he felt like Pony had stomped on him with all four hooves and come back for a second round, but he was not going to let Kelli know it. He had heard Bitsy slide the chain on the door just after he fell and knew it could be hours before Vin and the others came looking for them. In the meantime, he knew he had to keep her mind off the fact that they were underground, trapped, and apparently had no way out.

Kelli removed his vest and took in a sharp breath when she examined it. There were two 9mm slugs imbedded in the Kevlar, one over Chris’s rib area and the other on the bottom edge of the vest. “I found ‘em.”

“What’s the verdict?”

“One slug hit over your right side. Your ribs will probably hurt like hell for a while, but you’re lucky. The second one caught the bottom edge of the vest. A few inches lower and the Larabee family jewels would have been history.” Kelli anticipated his next order. “You may not be bleedin’, but you could still have spinal damage. Maybe you should lie flat until …”

“No, I’m bruised, but okay,” Chris grunted. “I’m not so old and feeble that I don’t know what hurts and what doesn’t. Now help me sit up, before I forget you are a twenty-eight year old woman instead of an insolent child and I won’t have to turn you over my knee for being so cheeky.”

Kelli snorted as she helped Chris to his feet. “I wouldn't advise it, Dad. Regardless of whether you admit it or not, I know your body is achin' somethin' fierce right now and you're liable to really hurt yourself more.” She took off her coat and spread it on the ground by the nearest wall so Chris would have support to lean against and assisted him into a comfortable position. “Evidently this area is not connected to the main house. There’s another room further back with the weapons we were lookin’ for and good lightin’,” she sighed longingly, “but this spot is closer.”

“This is fine. The weapons aren’t going anywhere, and I doubt we are either,” Chris said as he shifted his body to ease the pain on his right side. “These walls are steel and concrete so we can’t call out, even with a satellite signal. We’ll make do with what little light we have. If Carter’s been using this place to store illegal contraband, it’s probably full of traps and soundproof too. No more exploring until we have backup.”

“So what do we do now?” Since Chris was awake and Kelli knew he was not seriously injured, her thoughts were back on their current situation. Her initial panic about being underground was trying to make a comeback.

“We wait,” Chris said and watched her nervous reaction. “Vin knows where we’re supposed to be and he’ll come looking when we don’t call in.”

MCAT Office, 2:00 p.m.

Vin headed for Josiah’s office to get an update on Ezra, when he felt an overwhelming sense of pain assault him. His first thought was that Chris was in trouble and he reached into his pocket for his phone. Before he punched in Chris’s code, he stopped himself. *Get a grip Tanner, you’re stressed and overreactin’. It could be anythin’. Hell, it could be the tacos you ate for lunch. Chris and Kelli are doin’ routine follow-up work, nothin’ dangerous.* Glancing at the time he saw it was only two o’clock. He knew they were not due to check in for another hour, at least. There was no sense in letting Chris know just how frazzled his nerves really were.

Josiah stood in the doorway of his office and watched Vin for several moments. It was obvious to the profiler that the captain was on edge, but he wasn't certain whether he should pose any questions to him. Vin had been adamant about not wanting outside help to deal with the aftermath of Kelli and Trey's disappearance and imprisonment. Even if he disagreed with that decision, it was still Vin’s call to make. Of course, instead of personal issues making Vin uneasy, it could be job related. He could question him about job stress without interfering in his private business.

Josiah walked over to Tanner and asked softly, “Are you okay?”

“Huh?” Vin turned his attention to the man standing before him. “Yeah… uh…Ezra…Did he leave yet to apply for the teachin’ position?”

“He’s been gone almost an hour. If I know Ezra he’s already been hired and will start work at the school in a couple of days.” Josiah answered. One thing was very apparent to him; Tanner was tense and susceptible to explode at any time. Josiah then made the decision he promised himself he would not make. It was time to interfere in Vin’s business. “Son, you can’t keep on like this. If you will not talk to me, I can recommend someone. You’re gonna crash and burn if you don’t.”

“I know it,” Vin sighed. He realized he had to confide his fears to someone other than Chris. Talking to Caitlyn or anyone outside the family was out of the question as far as he was concerned. Josiah would be discreet and he would listen without passing judgment. “You got time to talk now?”

“I got all the time you need.” Josiah placed his hand on Vin’s shoulder. “Let’s go to my office.”

Sanchez and Tanner were almost there when they head an authoritative voice call out. “Hold up Vin, I need to speak to you and Chris.” Orrin Travis was making his way across the bullpen, coming in their direction.

“Damn, “Vin muttered under his breath. It was then he noticed another man trailing a half step behind Travis. He was about the same age as the Director. He had silver streaked light brown hair and wizened facial features. His stocky frame was clad in a black blazer, pinstriped western shirt, bolo tie, and black dress pants. The two men came to a halt in front of the MCAT agents. Travis’s companion greeted Vin with a curt nod, but his eyes, clear and vibrant as a cloudless sky on a cool Colorado morning, scrutinized everything around him

“Where’s Chris?” was Travis’s first question.

“Chris is in the field today. What do you need, Sir?”

“We need to talk.” Without hesitation, Travis headed toward Vin’s office, expecting him to follow.

Vin looked at Josiah and shrugged. “Duty calls I reckon.” Tanner then moved to join Travis and his companion.

Josiah was sorry about the interruption. He almost had Vin ready to talk, which in his opinion was what he needed to do. All he could do now was to wait for another opportunity and approach the subject again.


Travis sat at Vin’s desk, instructing him to shut the door and sit down. “Captain Vin Tanner, meet Aloysius Hunter. I have given him top security clearance since he will be observing MCAT procedures and operations for the next week. I had hoped to discuss this situation in more detail with Chris; however, you are more than capable of handling it in the Commander’s absence. Give Hunter full access to whatever he requests. Show him how the top response team in the country earned their reputation.”

Tanner had no clue as to why this man was here, but he recognized Travis’s disguised order to cooperate. He would find somewhere to put Mister Hunter where he would be out of the way. “Yes, Sir, we’ll take good care of him.”

“I know you will,” Travis stood. “I’ll leave you two to get better acquainted.” He turned to Hunter. “Aloysius,” he grinned, “You know where I am if you need me.” The other man glared at Travis and started to say something, but the Director made a hasty exit leaving the two men alone.

Hunter was the first one to break the silence. “Let’s get one thing straight, Tanner. You don’t call me Aloysius and I don’t have to kick your ass. My name’s Teaspoon, use it.”

Vin straightened up when he heard Hunter’s Texas drawl. He leaned forward and spoke softly, “First off, you’d have a helluva headache if you tried to kick my ass, but since I wouldn’t call a dog Aloysius, I reckon we don’t have a problem.” He grinned and offered Teaspoon his hand. “My name’s Vin. What part of Texas are you from?”

Teaspoon responded with a firm handshake. “A place you probably never heard, Schattel, Texas. Four generations of the Hunter family have called it home.”

Vin nodded. “Frio River country, I know the area. Welcome to Colorado.” He moved over to his desk. “I can start you off readin’ some of our case files if you want.”

Teaspoon shook his head “Don’t stick me with files or paperwork. I want to be where the action is.”

“Unfortunately a lot of the action in this unit is in paperwork.” Vin corrected him. “Case reports, personnel files, surveillance intelligence, etcetera, and of course plans to be submitted to Travis. All part of the territory.” He ventured a guess, “I reckon you bein’ here and bein’ from Texas is no coincidence. You apparently have somethin’ to do with Travis’s plans for the MCAT expansion team in San Antonio. If so, you’ll be workin’ closely with Commander Larabee. He should be here in another couple of hours. Until then, make yourself at home and meet some of the team.”

“Thanks, I think I’ll do just that.”

Vin pushed his chair back and stood. “I’ll get you started by introducin’ you to our administrative assistant, Gunny. If it happens in this office, she knows about it and can point you to any department you want to observe.”

“Lead on, Captain. I’m ready to take it all in.”

Vin left Teaspoon with Gunny and hurried back to his office to call Chris, but could not reach him or Kelli. He was kicking himself mentally for not checking on them an hour ago. One Larabee could find trouble in the middle of nowhere, two could find it in a church full of angels. Vin didn’t know where or how, but he was certain something had gone very wrong with their investigation and ‘his’ Larabees were in danger. It was past time to find them.

Chapter 7

Unforeseen revelations are likened to spring showers. They have you unexpectedly ducking for cover, are brief in duration, and can chill you to the bone, yet simultaneously leave warmth in your soul.

Carter Property, 3:00 p.m.

Chris found an almost comfortable position for his aching body and watched in silence as Kelli paced. She alternated between checking the door, hoping it had miraculously unlocked itself, and ranting about Bitsy, nightmares, and the inequities of life in general. His eldest reminded him of Grace when she was on a mini rampage. Even though Kelli had worked herself into a frenzied state, he was pleased. At least she was showing her anger, which she had not been able to do for two months now.

He waited until he felt she might actually explain why and then said, “Kel, calm down and sit for a while before you wear yourself out.”

“I don’t wanna sit,” she snapped. “I want out of here.”

Using his MCAT commander tone he snapped back, “Walking a hole in the ground or checking that door every five minutes is not gonna get us out any faster, so sit!”

“Dogs sit on command, Larabee, daughters don’t!” She continued to pace and mutter to herself. “I should have seen through Miss Hot Pants and said somethin’. If I had we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Chris shook his head. “I missed the signs, too. By the time I realized her true motive, it was too late. If anyone should have known better, it was me.” He softened his voice. “Vin will figure it out and we’ll be home by suppertime. Relax.”

“No, I can’t relax and you can’t order me to. I had no choice last time, but to sit and wait, now I do.”

“Damn,” he whispered. Chris had forgotten that Ice forced Kelli had to wear a damn chain around her ankle, which prevented her from take two steps in any direction. He chastised himself for not realizing why she had to keep moving. “Look, I know this seems bad and probably brings back some awful memories for you, but it’s not the same. We told Vin where we were and he knows when we’re supposed to check in…he’ll be here with the entire team in tow before you know it.”

Stopping in front of him, she snapped, “You know nothin’ about how it was or is for me. Can’t you see it’s the same thing all over again? If I had paid more attention then, I could have prevented our abduction. If I had paid more attention today, you wouldn’t have been hurt and we would be on our way back to Denver.” Her concentration drifted. “You …there’s no way you could understand …”

“Try me, he said softly.

“I have to have a light on day and night… I check on our kids a dozen times a day… I cry constantly when I’m alone… the nightmares keep comin’ back over and over… Even if Vin does come, it doesn’t change the fact that when it really counted, I failed him…. I failed us… and our unborn child died because of it. So don’t sit there and try to tell me to calm down because it ain’t gonna happen!”

Chris was relieved to see her finally opening up, but he needed her to try to see reason. “No one blames you. Ice was responsible for everything that happened. You protected Trey and survived the hellhole where she left you both to die. Vin doesn’t…”

“Stop, please.” Kelli pleaded, not wanting to hear Chris’s words, which only attempted to excuse her actions. She was responsible for it all and the one who had betrayed Vin. Couldn’t he see that? “I blame me and when Vin finds out what I did, he will too…,” she choked back her tears.

“Kel, listen…” he wanted to calm her, but was not sure how to go about it.

She ignored his interruption and continued, “Sooner or later he’ll find out and no matter how much I try to fix things …make up for… hell…I’ve only postponed the inevitable. When he knows the truth… our marriage will be over. There is nothin’ I can do or say to change the outcome, and I am gettin’ damn tired of waitin’ and wonderin’…. Is this the day my world crashes? Is it the last time Vin says he loves me or touches me? What’s gonna happen with our children? It’s pure torture, but I don’t have the courage to confess to him.”

Chris searched for the right words to say. Until now, he thought Ice locking her in that hellhole for eight days was her biggest problem. He was wrong. His daughter was in serious trouble, emotionally as well as mentally and needed more help to fight her depression than he was qualified to give. That realization scared the hell out of him. “Kel, listen to me… I know Vin loves you and no matter what you think you did, he’s not gonna blame you, ever. I’ve seen you two make it through things most people would run from…talk to him.”

She was already shaking her head. “I can’t… I’ve said too much already to stop what’ll happen. You’ll talk to Vin, he’ll demand to know from me, then…No… I can’t.” she backed away from Chris and moved to the opposite side of the room where she leaned against the wall and slid to the ground, crying softly.

It damn near broke his heart to hear her sob, knowing his girl was holding on to so much pain and hurting. Chris closed his eyes, his throat ached with emotion and he felt helpless. *Mister Sensitivity, aren’t you? Vin told you not to push her…did you listen? Hell no! Dad was gonna help fix things. Well, Larabee you stepped into it this time. What now?*

“Kel?” Chris waited to see if she would answer, she didn’t. “I know you can hear me and I promise you, anything you said to me here stays between us. Vin won’t hear it from me or from my thoughts.” Her silence was worst than the ranting. “You’re my baby girl, the only difference between you, Grace and Cody, are your ages. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect and help you the same way you would for your babies.” He knew she was listening even if she did not respond. “As far as the job goes, you’ll stay partnered with me until we work this out. We will find a way to release you from all your pain and make things right again. You just have to trust me.”

Chris figured he said what needed saying. He was certain Vin would eventually tell Kelli it was Tracker who gave him details of her imprisonment, not him. Now all he could do is wait and see if he got through to her. If he did not reach her this time, he would keep trying until he did because that was what good fathers did best. They kept trying.

~~3:30 p.m. ~~

“Sonofabitch,” Vin yelled above the noise of the helicopter as he ripped off his headset and threw it. He clenched his jaw and counted to ten. “They’ve got the freakin’ license number, a description of the damn truck, and three possible locations to check. All we’ve got so far is excuses!”

“Take it easy, Vin.” Josiah glanced over to the irate Texan. “The state police can only move so fast on the ground. We’ve got a better shot at spotting Chris’s truck from up here.”

“Just find ‘em, Josiah.” Vin swallowed some of his anger before he turned around and asked JD, “Anythin’ on those GPS signals?”

JD looked up from his laptop and shook his head. “Nothing on Chris or Kelli’s phone, they’re either somewhere a signal can’t get out or…, “he hesitated and cleared his throat before continuing. “Or the phones have been compromised.”

Vin nodded, he didn’t need a detailed explanation to know someone could have deliberately destroyed the phones. “Chris’s truck?”

JD did not want to answer, but knew Vin expected him to. Inhaling deeply, he answered in a rush, “Chris said he was a grown man and no one was gonna low jack his ass as long as he had a breath left in his body and then he had me disconnect the GPS system in the Ram, but he told me not to say anything and I didn’t, but now I wish I had. Sorry.” He finally exhaled and then waited for the Tanner explosion.

It did not take long for Vin to react. “Disconnected? DISCONNECTED?” He could not decide if he was more shocked or angry, anger won. “Knowin’ the risks, he decides to disconnect the damn GPS system! That is fuckin’ lunacy! I swear I’m gonna disconnect his head from his shoulders when we find him.” Fear and emotion fueled his anger. The memories of the hellish time Kelli and Trey were missing weighed heavy on his mind.

Josiah put his hand on Vin’s arm and squeezed. “Save your frustration for Chris. We’re about ten minutes away from their last known location; even if they’re not there we might find a lead.”

Vin ran his hands over his face and sighed. “You’re right. You concentrate on pilotin’ this chopper and I’ll try to rein in my anger. But, I promise you, Chris and I will be discussin’ this once I know him and Kel are safe.”

Nathan, Alex, Justin and JD recognized Vin’s ranting for what it was…concern and fear for the two people he cared about most in this world. They knew part of Vin’s anger was justified, but they also knew that even though he may curse, yell and seethe, he would never hurt Chris intentionally.

Teaspoon Hunter sat in the back of the helicopter, behind JD. He was here to observe and that was exactly what he was doing. When Tanner told the unit that Larabee and Coulter were in trouble, they each did what was necessary, without waiting for orders. Jackson initially was scheduled to work all night with the gang unit, yet he was one of the first ones on board. It was an effortless and superb display of teamwork in action. Hunter was still working on understanding the dynamics of the unit and the character of each individual, but from what he had already seen, the next week promised to be damn interesting.


Chris hoped that Vin and the others would arrive soon to set him and Kelli free. It pained him to see her in such distress, knowing he was unable to do anything to alleviate what she was feeling. Her bout of shouting and tears was a step in the right direction, but under their current circumstances, he feared it could only make matters worse, instead of better. For the past hour she had been silent, even her crying had ceased and his concern for her was growing. Maybe he should go to her and try to set things right between them.

Once her impromptu meltdown ended, feelings of guilt flooded over Kelli to replace her previous lack of control. Chris was hurt and here she was acting like a child, pitching a fit instead of behaving as a rational adult. She knew she needed to check on him, his injuries could be worse than either of them had thought. With a weary sigh, she stood and walked toward him. He was in the process of attempting to get up and go over to her.

“Goin’ somewhere, Larabee?” she knelt down beside him and on impulse, reached out to feel his forehead.

He shook his head. “No fever, no concussion, no dizziness or anything else I didn’t expect.” He grinned and tilted his head, and asked teasingly, “You worried?”

She sat down next to him. “No, I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t passed out or croaked on me. I’d hate to add the guilt of that to my list of sins, too.”

Recognizing her lame effort at humor as a peace offering, Chris felt relieved. Kelli may have experienced a helluva emotional blip, but she had not completely gone over the edge. He reached out and cupped her cheek. “I’m not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon. You, Grace, and Cody are stuck with me.”

“Yeah?” She leaned back against the wall. “Grace and Cody, you still have time to work on, but I’m already broken. You ought to devote your parental skills to them and quit worryin’ about me.”

Chris closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled, quelling his first impulse, which was to tell her how ridiculous her remarks sounded. Instead, he took time to think about what he wanted to say. “You know, Cowboy and Tracker crossed the barriers of time to come here. They did it for their families. Love of family, Kel, there are no boundaries to it, no limitations, and no expiration dates. I don’t know why it took so long for you and me to find one another, but the important thing is that we did. Our great grandfathers didn’t quit on us and I am not going to give up on you, Grace, Cody, or any of my Wild Bunch…ever.” He grinned and patted her on the leg, “Deal with it, Kid.”

Before Kelli had a chance to answer, the walls began to shake. The sound of a freight train bearing down on them vibrated through the air, followed by a barrage of concrete chunks from the ceiling. A rumble from further back indicated part of the rooms had collapsed, plunging them into total darkness. Mindless of the pain from his injuries, Chris instinctively moved to cover her with his body. Abruptly, the noise abated and an eerie silence filled the room.


Josiah brought the helicopter around to circle the Carter property, easily spotting Chris’s truck parked in the drive. It appeared that the State police beat them there and were already searching the area. “Guess they travel faster than we thought,” he quipped as he looked over to Vin.

Vin could feel Chris’s presence and he knew Kelli was close, but he could not relax until he actually had them in sight. “Just get us down, Josiah. Then we…” his words were lost as the ground beneath them erupted into a spectacular wall of flames, which reached dangerously close to the helicopter. Black smoke billowed toward the sky and then silently retracted as quickly as it appeared.

“Hold on!” Josiah yelled while he wrestled with the controls of the helicopter. The aircraft pitched and then rolled to one side as the concussion from the blast reached it. The agents on board dared not say a word, but held on tight, expecting any moment to be their last.

Sanchez fought with the bucking aircraft, attempting to halt its rapid descent toward the fiery hell waiting to claim them. “Not today, you bastard… not today,” Josiah growled out while using every ounce of strength he could muster to pull up and stabilize the aircraft. They were ten feet from the ground when the monster below released its grasp on the helicopter and Josiah was able to divert a disaster. He breathed a sigh of relief, knowing it was only due to his experience and the power of prayer that he was able to bring them down safely.

Ducking the wind from the whirling blades, six men jumped from the helicopter before both skids touched the ground and spread out to help the shocked and wounded officers who were staggering away from the site of the explosion. While Alex, Teaspoon, and Justin dragged bodies away from the smoldering rubble, which once was a house, JD was on the phone ordering additional back up and the fire department to the scene. Josiah had been the last to disembark, after he shut down the helicopter systems. He then joined Nathan to help assess the injuries.

Vin located the State Trooper in charge of the scene and shoving his MCAT ID in the man’s face, demanded,” What the hell happened?”

“Our units split up as soon as we arrived, secured the perimeter, and then checked the outer buildings. Officer Davis took a team to secure the house. Evidently it was rigged to explode the moment anyone knocked on the door, Sir.”

“Any sign of my missin’ agents before the blast?” Vin was certain Chris and Kelli were not inside the rubble and still sensed Larabee’s living presence somewhere nearby. That was the only thing holding him together at the moment.

“No, Sir. I’m sorry.”

Vin nodded. “Tend to your men; more help is on the way.” His gaze swept over the area, looking for something…anything, which might give him a clue to Chris and Kelli’s whereabouts.*Chris, you’re gonna have to help me here. Where the hell are you?*

Chapter 8

“Fiery trials and storms have a way of loosening our grip on the trivial.” Gordon Venturella

Charter Property

Once Chris was certain their immediate danger had passed, his attention turned to Kelli. “Are you all right?”

“I …can’t breathe,” was her muffled reply.

“Shit,” Chris groaned. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a two hundred pound MCAT Agent on top of me.” She coughed and then huffed, “Get off!”

It took a few moments for Chris to realize, she was talking about him. Shooting her a scathing glare, which she could not see in the dark, made him feel better. “I’m not even close to weighing two hundred pounds,” he muttered, while rolling away from her. Pain radiated over his already aching muscles as his body met with pieces of jagged rock and concrete, instead of the smooth stone surface he expected. “Damn that hurts.” His extended fingers closed around the discarded flashlight and turned it on.

Apparently, their subterranean nightmare had escalated. Slowly sweeping the beam of light across the room, Chris surveyed their immediate surroundings. Chunks of concrete imbedded with steel rods were scattered over the ground and fine particles of dust shimmered in the light beam as they drifted through the air. Wisps of black smoke slowly seeped through cracks in the ceiling. He knew that if help did not arrive soon, he and Kelli would be in serious trouble.

Kelli gasped when she viewed the damage. “No... God no,” she croaked. Flashbacks of her forced imprisonment roared through her mind as her repressed anxieties reared their ugly head with a vengeance. “We’re not gettin’ out of here, are we?”

“Damn straight we are,” Chris assured her. He sounded more confident than he felt, but Kelli’s anxiety was building and he wanted to avert another panic attack if possible. “We’ll be fine.”

“Don't try to coddle me!” She was making a valiant effort to fight her fear, which threatened to choke her. “I'm not Grace or Cody. You can't just make my panic go away by tellin' me everythin' is goin' to be okay.”

“Kel,” Chris started, “this isn't like what happened to you and Trey. We had no idea where you were. Vin knows our itinerary for the day and I’m certain he’s going to find us.”

“How can you be so certain he’ll get here before it’s too late?” She could not refrain from asking, finding herself wanting to believe what her father was telling her.

Chris’s features softened with a smile. “Because I can already feel Vin's presence above us somewhere...We are getting out of here. You have to believe it.”

Kelli nodded, latching on to the thread of hope, which he offered. “Vin’s really here?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you.”


Several units of paramedics and the fire department were now on the scene. Josiah had already taken the most critically injured to the nearest trauma center by helicopter and additional troopers had arrived to assist with what was now a crime scene.

“Nathan, you’re the most experienced explosives expert we have. Find out what was used and where it came from.” Vin tersely ordered and then softened his words. “There are plenty of paramedics here to tend to the injured. I need your expertise workin’ on the forensics of that device.”

“Vin, I talked to Ezra.” JD walked in step with Tanner. “He returned not long after we left and used your truck to pick up Mark and Bandit. They’re about twenty minutes out. Josiah dropped off the injured officers at the hospital and is on his way back, too.”

Tanner nodded; he was a man on a mission. So far, he had not been able to pinpoint where Chris and Kelli were, but he had the distinct impression they were underground. He didn't let himself ponder what being trapped again could do to his wife's already fragile state of mind and continued hunting for something, anything which would lead him to them. “Great, we keep lookin’ for Chris and Kelli.”

*Don't take your sweet time on my account,* Chris's sarcastic comment in his head, caused a momentary grin to crease Vin's lips.

*Took you long enough to answer me. You got somethin' better to be doin'?”*

*Just get us the hell out of here.*

*Pushy bastard. You wanna tell me where the hell ‘here’ is?*

*Here is underground. There’s a door on the east side of the house that looks like an entrance to a cellar, but it’s really an underground maze of rooms where Carter has been storing weapons. It’s mostly steel and concrete, but whatever hit us imploded some of the walls and left huge cracks in the ceiling. Not sure how stable any of it is now.*

*The house was rigged to explode…that’s what you felt.* he figured it wasn’t necessary to tell him how many officers were injured or how bad it looked from up here.

Using the diagram of the landscape Chris painted in his head; Vin was able to find the entrance to the underground room, which held his wife, and best friend prisoner. A wave of anger swept over him when he saw a mound of smoldering rubble covering the buried door. Whoever set this up planned to destroy the storage area.

*It's goin' to take us a bit to clear the debris away from the openin'. *

*We aren't going anywhere.*

Vin resisted the urge to ask about Kelli and called the rest of his team together. “Chris and Kel are trapped under this mess. Smoke is seeping into the underground room and the walls are unstable. We need to get them out as quickly as possible. Let’s get to work.”

Teaspoon worked alongside of the MCAT agents, approving of the fluidity in which the team members worked together. The more time he spent with these men, the more he found to admire, and his approval was not something he gave lightly. He picked up a concrete boulder and threw it off to the side as the pile of debris began to diminish. He caught one of the younger agents, JD Dunne, watching him with almost an anxious look on his face. “Son, it's not polite to stare.” He grinned when JD's face flushed with embarrassment.

JD wasn't certain a man of Mister Hunter’s age should be doing such strenuous activity and was concerned for the older man the same as he would be if Orrin Travis were out there. “Sorry. It’s just that this is hard work and with you not as young as the rest of us. I thought… Aww hell…I meant…”

Teaspoon chuckled, but didn't let him finish his sentence. “I’m not goin' to keel over any time soon, Son. Why don't you set your mind back on to the business at hand and stop worryin' about this old man?”

JD grinned back at Teaspoon, relieved that he had not been offended.

Working through the heat left from the explosion, Vin, Alex, and Justin were closest to the entrance. It took backbreaking effort to move all the debris by hand and their muscles were already feeling the strain from removing pieces of what was left of the house. In spite of the forty-degree chill in the air, sweat rolled down their faces while they labored.

“Good Lord!” Ezra shuddered, taking in the chaotic scene when he and Mark arrived. The two MCAT agents were out of the truck within seconds of Ezra turning off the ignition. Bandit trotted energetically at Mark's heels as the men set off to join their teammates.

JD spotted them first and explained. “Chris and Kel are trapped underground,” he grunted when a chunk of concrete landed near his foot, “We’ve been at this about thirty minutes.”

Ezra and Mark were already removing their coats, intent on relieving some of their teammates who were tiring. Pushing his way forward, Ezra tapped Justin on the shoulder. “Take ten and grab some water. I’ve got this.”

Justin nodded and moved, allowing Ezra to take his place. Mark did the same with Alex. Both men knew better than to suggest Vin leave, he wasn’t budging until Chris and Kelli were free and aboveground. Even Bandit got in on the action. Digging franticly at the dirt around the side of the doorway, the dog found an area where the concrete had crumbled from the blast, leaving a good portion of the wall accessible. Bandit dug a hole large enough to squeeze through and before Mark could stop him, he disappeared.

Vin raised his hand to halt the others. “Give me a shovel. If Bandit can get in through there, I can too.”


Chris had been talking non-stop, in an effort to keep Kelli distracted from their deteriorating situation. The air was heavy with smoke and it was becoming more difficult to breathe. He was in the middle of retelling a story about his Navy Seal days when something jumped at him out of the darkness. Instinctively he reached for his weapon, but quickly recognized the blur as Bandit. “Hey boy,” he said while petting the dog. “If you’re here, then the rest of the team can’t be far behind.”

“He must have come from there,” Kelli said, shining the light up the stairs. “You think you’re up to makin’ the climb, Dad?”

“Hell yeah,” Chris answered, but once he attempted to move, he realized how stiff his muscles had become from sitting so long in one position and his knee was swelling. “You might have to give me a hand though.”

“You got it.” She offered her hand and gave him support as he gingerly rose to his feet. Kelli grabbed their coats, draping Chris’s over his shoulders, picked up his vest and then slipped her arm around his waist. “We’ll move slow, lean on me as much as you can.”

“The smoke will be thicker up there. If it gets too bad we stop,” Chris warned. *We’re coming up the stairs with our four-footed friend. I hope like hell you’ve got us a way out.*

*Workin’ on it, Cowboy.*

Bandit appeared to sense Chris’s pain and instead of scampering up the stairs, walked slowly beside him. Chris tried not to burden Kelli with his weight, but the more steps he took, the harder the next one became. By the time they had maneuvered halfway, both Kelli and Chris were coughing from inhaling smoke and he swore every muscle in his body was sadistically protesting his movements.

“You need to stop?” She could not help but notice how hard this little excursion was for Chris. She felt the slight tremors in his body, which he tried to discount and shining the flashlight at his face, saw the beads of perspiration breaking out on his forehead. He might think he was okay, but no one took two slugs to the vest, then fell twelve feet like he did and came away unscathed. “Dad, please…rest here for a minute.”

Breathing heavily, Chris tried to answer.” I’m…I can… keep going.” He knew better than to say he was fine because he was not, both he and Kelli knew it.

Chris stumbled taking the next step and leaned hard on Kelli to stop himself from falling again. “Easy,” she cautioned. “I’ve got you, but take it slower or we’ll both…” A loud thump above them stopped her next words. Within moments, Vin was there and he shifted Chris’s weight onto him.

“You okay, Kel?” Vin asked, anxious to get topside.

She was so relieved to hear his voice, it took her a moment to answer, “Ye... yes…but Dad needs medical attention.”

“Dad is right here and can still speak,” Chris reminded them. “I…”

“Shut up and conserve whatever energy you have left,” Vin ordered as they moved toward the exit. “Josiah and Ezra are waitin’ to pull y’all out of here, and Nathan is chompin’ at the bit to examine both of you.”

“Damn bossy bastard,” Chris muttered.

“Stubborn jackass,” Vin quipped. “It seems I can’t leave either of you on your own for a minute without some kind of disaster happenin’. I swear turnin’ any Larabee loose on their own is the same as blindly throwin’ a lit stick of dynamite. You know it’s gonna cause a ruckus, you just don’t know where it’ll land.”

“Tanner,” Chris growled.

“Save it, Larabee. We’re here.” Vin had deliberately riled Chris to keep his focus off his injuries.

Josiah and Ezra peered down the hole Bandit had started and reached for Chris, heaving him up to fresh air. Vin lifted Bandit next and handed him to Mark.

Vin moved to stand behind Kelli, encircling her waist with his hands “Your turn, Baby,” he said softly, taking an extra moment to reassure himself she was really okay before he lifted her up to Ezra.

By the time Vin climbed out, Chris was on a stretcher and Kelli was giving Nathan a report of his injuries. Tanner took the vest she was holding and examined the slugs still imbedded in it. While Chris’s injuries weren’t life threatening, they were painful, and would take some time to heal properly. After examining his friend’s Kevlar vest with his own eyes, he realized how very fortunate they all were that their commanding officer had insisted he and Kelli wore them that morning. If he had not, they could have very well been planning Larabee’s funeral.

*You are one lucky sonofabitch, Cowboy.*

*We both are Vin, more than you know.* Chris fussed at Nathan for poking and prodding his injuries, insisting he’d go to the hospital for x-rays when he was damn well ready. All the while, his eyes stayed on Kelli as she headed over to the truck.

*You mean Kel? …I thought she was okay.* Vin followed Chris’s line of vision and watched Kelli.

*Physically yes, but she’s more than a little fragile and her emotions are raw. She’s barely holding on by a thread.*

*Damn, it must have been hell for her down there.*

*It was and then some. I’m afraid she’s battling more than either of us realized. Go to her. I don’t need handholding, and the guys can handle closing this scene, anything else can wait. We’ll talk later.*

Vin acknowledged Chris’s message with a nod and headed after his wife.

Nathan looked up and yelled after Tanner, “You tell Kel, she’s gonna be checked out too.”

Teaspoon was fascinated while observing the apparent silent communications between Tanner and Larabee. The more he was around this MCAT team the more he wanted to know them better. It was clear to him that he had a lot to learn about these men and women, who Travis spoke of with such great esteem.

“They do that all the time; have since they first met one another.” Josiah stood beside Hunter. “Amazing isn’t it?”

“It is at that,” he replied

“Come on, I’ll introduce you to Commander Larabee before Nathan has me whisk him off to the hospital.” Josiah walked Teaspoon over to where Chris was, and made a brief introduction.

Chris had figured the extra man riding with his team had connections to Travis and the discussion he and the Director had recently. Although Travis made it plain he wanted Chris to oversee all the details of setting up the new teams, he had refused. Chris made it clear that he did not intend to spend time away from his children while traveling back and forth to Texas. Ultimately, the Director had agreed to appoint an Administrative Chief of Operations for the San Antonio unit, who would have the authority to direct the new team, but would be accountable to Larabee.

“Hunter,” Chris acknowledged the introduction. “I’m looking forward to discussing details with you, but I believe I’m being shanghaied to Denver Memorial first. In the meantime, Josiah, JD, Ezra, or Nathan can answer most of your questions.”

Teaspoon nodded. “Let the doc fix you up. We’ll have plenty of time to talk once you’re released for duty.” He knew Larabee had deliberately omitted Tanner’s name, but was not going to pry into the reason why.

“Plan on it being tomorrow morning,” Chris told him and turned his attention to issuing orders. “Ezra, you’re in charge here. The State Police will inventory and load those weapons as soon as they can get to them, just make certain they know to deliver them to one of our facilities. Instruct the officer in charge as to which reports we expect and tell him I want them on my desk first thing in the morning. Then use my truck and Vin’s to get everyone back to Denver. Close up the office and send everyone home.

JD, have an APB issued for Lorene ‘Bitsy’ Fowler, wanted for the attempted murder of two Federal Agents. You’ll find the information you need on her in my notes…” he looked around searching for something. “There it is….Grab my coat. It’s lying next to Nathan’s bag; the notepad is in the right-hand pocket. Also, get me a preliminary report on the condition of the officers who were injured in the blast.

Mark, you make sure Bandit gets a steak dinner tonight, he’s earned it, and I’m paying. Josiah, you’ll be flying Nathan, Vin, Kelli, and me to the hospital and then take the chopper back to the airfield. Nathan, wait and have Kel examined once we get there, but don’t plan on me staying. I can ache at home as well as in a hospital and I need to be with my kids.” Chris lay back on the stretcher, his energy gone, but he had one last instruction. “We’ll leave after Vin has a chance to talk to Kel.”


Kelli held it together until she made it to Chris’s truck where she thought she would have privacy. It had only been a few hours, but it seemed more like an eternity since she had stood in her kitchen this morning and said good-bye to Vin and the kids. She was getting used to having nightmares and while they were disturbing, they happened only at home during times she could control their outcome and had not interfered with her daily activities or work.

Until now, she had not experienced a panic attack during the day and it scared her to think it could happen again. Next time, it could end with possibly more disastrous results. Leaning her head against the frame of the open door she took a deep ragged breath attempting to suppress the nausea she was feeling and control her trembling hands.

Vin stood back for a moment and observed his wife, knowing he was standing knee deep in new territory. Since the moment he first set eyes on Kelli, he had been able, intuitively, to sense what she needed or wanted from him. However, for the first time in their relationship he was unsure of what to do or how to reach out to her. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. It was time…past time to confront the demons Lady Ice had dropped into their lives. Whether she was ready or not, before this day ended, he and Kelli would stop dancing around the issues, which were pulling them apart, and together they would tackle them head on.

She felt Vin’s presence before he wrapped his arms around her waist and whispered to her, “We’re in this together, no more hidin’ from me, Kel. After we take care of Chris, we are goin’ home and we will be talkin’ all of tonight, tomorrow, and the day after, if that’s what it takes. Whatever we have to do, we’re gonna do it. It’s time we took back our life, and send the demons who are tryin’ to destroy us to hell, where they belong.”

“I know,” she sighed wearily. For now, she was going to draw on the strength he offered to gain control of her wayward emotions. She was too tired of fighting her feelings alone to rebuff him. Living with fear was not living at all. No matter the outcome, she had to tell Vin the truth and get everything out in the open.

He felt her relax against him and knew she wasn’t going to fight him any longer. The underground ordeal had apparently broken through the wall Kelli had built around her emotions, and he did not intend to give her an opportunity to rebuild it. The barriers between them had vanished and for several minutes they stood there, savoring the feelings of closeness they had both missed.

Chris felt Vin’s uncertainties, and was vastly relieved to see that he had worked through them. It was worth the aches and pains he was feeling to know things were headed in the right direction for his daughter and his spirit brother. He turned to his profiler. “All right, Josiah, you can fire up that whirlybird now. It’s time for some overdue healing.”

Chapter 9

Our ultimate destination is without doubt, preordained. However, the intricate journey we travel to reach it is full of twists, turns, unforeseen detours, surprises, and amazing discoveries

Denver Memorial Hospital

Doctor Marcus Gilford was shaking his head while examining Larabee’s x-rays. “You are the only man I know who can be shot twice, take a twelve foot header down the stairs, and come away with no internal injuries or broken bones.”

“I live right,” Chris grinned and then groaned when he attempted to sit up. “Damn, that hurts,” he muttered, slowing his movements.

“You stay put,” Doctor Gilford admonished Chris. “I didn’t say you were not hurt. That knee is in bad shape and I am ordering cortisone for the inflammation. I also expect you to use crutches for the next five days at least,” he sighed. “I suppose telling you to take it easy for a while is out of the question, so I’ll just say be careful instead. You’re going to be sore as hell tomorrow, but I want you to move around as much as possible.”

“I plan to, Doc.” Chris said. “I’ve been thrown by enough horses to know better than to let these muscles stiffen up.”

Gilford nodded, “I’ll be back in a few minutes with your shot and the nurse will get you some crutches.” He grinned, “Try to stay out of trouble until I get back.” The doctor passed Vin entering the examination room on the way out the door and curtly ordered, “Make sure he doesn’t move until I return.”

“Damn,” Vin got his first good look at Chris’s bruised ribs and side. “You sure you don’t need to stay here, at least overnight?”

“Doesn’t matter if I’m here or at home, it’s gonna hurt.” Larabee winced as he swung his legs over the side of the bed.

Vin offered him a hand. “I left Kel with Doctor Landers. It’s obvious she had some kind of anxiety attack today. He said she’s exhausted physically and emotionally and he seems to think he can find out more about her mental state with me not in the room. I reckon you’re gonna have to tell me what happened.”

“He’s probably right.” Chris was breathing heavily by the time he was semi-comfortable again. “I promised not to tell you what she said and I won’t, but you need to tell her what you know. Her biggest fear appears to be your reaction to knowing the truth. Just make certain she knows Tracker told you, not me.”

“It’s past time for me to tell her anyway,” Vin reflected while watching the door to the other exam room down the corridor. He glanced over to Chris. “I know you realize disconnectin’ the GPS tracker in your Ram was a mistake. I ordered JD to reinstall it.” The look on his face dared Chris to object.

Chris nodded, “I suppose if I argue about it, you’ll threaten to low jack my ass.”

“Damn straight I will,” Vin stated emphatically. “Although I might still look into usin’ those trackin’ implants Nathan was tellin’ us about, at least for you and Kel. That way I’d know for certain where y’all are.”

“Like hell,” Chris growled. “You’d have a fight on your hands if you tried.”

“If that’s what it takes, bring it on.” Vin shrugged his shoulders. “You and Kel have aged me ten years just today and ‘M gettin’ damn tired of havin’ to track my family down.”

Chris thought better about shooting back a smart ass comment, Vin was wound too tight to argue with. Instead, he grinned. “That’s a two way street, Brother. I seem to recall you getting lost a time or two.”

“Hell with our bunch, we ought to order at least a dozen or two of those tracker implants.” Tanner changed the subject. “There are a few things you should know. Ezra is goin’ undercover as a history teacher at West End junior high tomorrow,” he saw the questions in Chris’s eyes and added, “it’s a long story and I’ll fill you in later. Guy and Brad are workin’ with the gang unit tonight and Travis will give you the details about Hunter. I figure him bein’ here has to do with the San Antonio unit.”

“Yeah, me too,” Chris answered and then jumped in with both feet. “Listen, Vin, you and Kel both need to come to terms with all that’s happened. I want you to take some time off, and however long you need, it’s yours.” He raised his hand to stop Vin’s protest. “I know we’re shorthanded, but we’ll manage. I realized today my daughter is in way over her head and I cannot stand to see her in so much pain. Fix it and then come back to work.”

Josiah and Nathan had returned from taking the helicopter back to the airfield and joined Vin at the door.

Josiah gave Chris a report. “Ezra had your Ram dropped off at the ranch and then left to prepare for his new assignment tomorrow. We brought Vin’s truck over here. JD was finishing up on the reports when we left the office, and Teaspoon headed back to his hotel. I told JD to go on home once he was done, since I was certain you would refuse to stay overnight.”

Chris nodded. “All I’m waiting on is a shot of cortisone for my knee and then I’m out of here.”

“You were lucky, Chris,” Nathan said after looking at his chart. “I plan to make certain you use those crutches too.”

“I will,” Chris sighed. He saw the change of expression on Vin’s face and knew Kelli was on her way down the hall. She walked into Vin’s waiting arms without hesitation, which Chris was glad to see. “You okay, Kel?”

“Yeah, I’m just tired. Doctor Landers gave me a lecture and a shot of vitamin B.” She gave Vin the written instructions the doctor ordered for her. “Landers said I was fine from today, but he seems to think I need to follow up on a few things. He even made me an appointment with Doctor Weeks for tomorrow afternoon. What about you, Dad?”

Chris gave her a weak smile. “No broken bones or internal injuries, just a strained knee and a lot of sore muscles. It’s nothing that won’t heal in a few days. I’ll feel much better after a good night’s rest.”

“You do remember that Dottie’s gone and the kids are at our house, don’t you? If you want to sleep in your own bed, they can stay with us,” Kelli offered.

“If it’s all the same to you, I think I’d rest better at your place. I have a need to be close to all three of my children tonight,” Chris watched her reaction and was pleased to see her smile.

“I already talked to Max,” Vin told them both. ”She and Walter are expecting you. They have supper waitin’ for us, and are plannin’ to stay over in case you need help with Grace and Cody.”

“Then it’s settled. All I need is Doc to come on with that shot and we’re out of here.” Chris was suddenly anxious to see his babies.

Doctor Gilford heard the tail end of Larabee’s words. “If you good people would clear the room, I can arrange it.” He lifted the syringe he held in his hand. “Or this stubborn jackass may come to his senses and let me admit him.”

“Get on with it Doc,” Chris ground out between gritted teeth when Doctor Gilford moved his leg. “A few aches and pains won’t keep me away from my kids.”

“Very well,” Gilford said as he injected the cortisone into Chris’s swollen knee.

“Daammmm…” Larabee’s bellow echoed down the corridor.

Tanner Home ~ 9:00 p.m.

Vin chuckled as he made his way to the bedroom, thinking about Grace and her daddy. Once the toddler got past her initial fear of seeing her father’s display of colorful bruises, she shadowed Chris the rest of the evening. Repeatedly asking why his skin was purple. It had taken much longer to get her and Cody settled than expected. Chris had to read them two stories before they went to sleep and then he passed out from exhaustion. Andi and Jason sidetracked Vin’s plans for time to talk with Kelli. They were excited about their Uncle staying over and having their normal bedtime extended by an hour. Finally, they were tucked into their beds and asleep.

Standing at the door, Vin watched his wife for a few moments, before making his presence known. He had been aware for a good while now, how the stress was affecting her physically, but until today, he had not realized how deep she had buried her fears. She had just stepped out of the shower, her red tresses still damp and she was wearing only a robe. If only loving her could make things right, they would not have a problem. Unfortunately, it was not enough. They did not make love anymore, they had sex, it was good and physically satisfying, but they had lost the intimacy between them. He missed it. Observing her as she wearily sat down at the vanity and stared into the mirror, Vin knew he could not fix everything in one night, but he could put one of her fears to rest.

He came up behind her, tenderly wrapped his arms around her and said softly, "Kel, it's time for us to reclaim our lives."

"I know.” she sighed, “I haven’t been fair to you. I practically forced you to take Jason and Andi on sleigh rides, carolin' for Christmas, skiin', ridin' at Cait's indoor arena, and everythin' else, while I’ve hidden away here in the house with the boys. I just…, I can’t get to where I need to be." She leaned back against him.

"Baby, we need to move forward." Vin's eyes met hers in the mirror." I was hopin' you'd talk to me before now, but you haven't been able to do it. I reckon it's why you're still havin' nightmares and have this obsession about stayin' close to Bren and Trey. You’re holdin' yourself back from me,” he sighed, "and except for your defense tactics last Saturday, you have not so much as raised your voice to me or the kids in weeks. Not even a little glare.”

"I…." she started, fighting back tears, remembering how badly she treated him. “I guess Chris told you how I screwed up today…how I panicked…what I said….”

“Chris didn’t break his promise to you, but then he didn’t have to. It was Tracker who told me what you and Trey went through.”

Looking at Vin's reflection through tear-filled eyes, she asked, "He told you everythin'?"

“He told me right after we found y’all." Vin's eyes met hers in the mirror. “I probably should have pushed the issue sooner, but I wasn’t sure what to say to you. I thought I was fine once I had y’all home, but lately I’ve been havin’ nightmares about losin’ you to that damn river. Maybe it’s because we’ve been pullin’ apart instead of working together and I could feel you pushin’ me away. For both our sakes I think it’s time we talked openly about what happened.” Vin did not want to force her, but he could not let her continue to shut him out. "You need this … we need to be us again. I want all our intimate moments back, but you have to talk to me."

"What do you want to hear?" Kelli closed her eyes and sighed deeply. "That I should have reacted faster… paid more attention instead of lettin' my guard down? How it was my fault Ice was able to kidnap us? Need I remind you that I held a gun on you? Even worse, after all the times I swore how much I trusted you and would wait forever for you to find me, if need be, I folded." She shook her head. "Forever turned out to be less than a week and I was ready to end it for me and Trey. My lack of faith cost us the life of our unborn child,” she choked back a sob. “I can’t blame you if you hate me for it, you should. How can I expect you to forgive me when I can't forgive myself?"

"Look at me." Vin waited until she opened her eyes and turned to look at him. “I could never hate you, Kel, and there is nothin' to forgive. Hell, blame me for not findin' y'all if you want. The truth is I would not have found you in time if Cowboy and Tracker hadn't intervened. They sent Sarah to Chris and she led us to the cemetery. It's the only reason you and Trey are still here." He cupped her cheek and said, "We'll never know why we lost the baby. It could have been for a lot of reasons, but it was not because of anythin' you did or didn't do."

"I never blamed you."

"I never blamed you either."

"Not even…?'

"Not for a second. You have nothin' to ask forgiveness for." Silence prevailed while Vin watched her struggle with her emotions. Assisting her to her feet, he drew her close, whispering softly, "It's not gonna happen overnight, but it's time to start forgivin' yourself and let go. I love you. Nothin’ you say or do is gonna change that." He brushed the tears from her face. "Our kids are safe and healthy. We," he tilted her head to look her in the eye, "survived hell and nothin' else matters. Together we can handle anythin' fate wants to throw our way."

Kelli laid her head on his shoulder, but he heard her muffled response. "I love you, Tanner."

He was pleased to hear her call him Tanner again; it was something she rarely did anymore. “We’re gonna put the ugliness of what Ice did behind us and take whatever steps are necessary to reclaim our future.” Tightening his hold on her, he walked her over to their bed, removed her robe, and tucked her in. Vin reached for the light and waited to see if she would object. When she nodded, he turned it off and slipped into bed beside his wife, gathering her close. “We’re gonna be fine, Baby. I promise,” he whispered.

“I’ve missed you.” Kelli was well aware they had not been connecting like before. Yes, they had sex, but something had been missing. With her head on his chest, listening to his strong heartbeat, she realized what it was…She was to blame for breaking their emotional link... “God, Vin, what have I done to us?”

“We only took a detour,” he held her tighter. “Ice is responsible for what happened to us, not you. The only thing we’re at fault for is waitin’ so long to talk about it. Instead of sharin’ our feelin’s, we kept silent and paid for it by bein’ locked into our own separate hells.” Brushing his fingers through her hair, he whispered throatily, “It’s time we start healin’…our love will pull us through… ”

For the first time since he had rescued her from that dark hole, they talked…really talked about all that had happened. They shared the fears and anxieties each had experienced during those bleak days, well into the night. Vin told her how the kids reacted when she and Trey went missing. Most importantly, they finally talked about the baby and allowed themselves to grieve together for the loss of their unborn child. Exhaustion eventually claimed Kelli, but Vin stayed awake for a while, content to listen to her heartbeat and feel the warmth of her body nestled against his. Tonight they had turned the page on a dark chapter of their lives and it was time to begin a new one. The distance between them had vanished and after two months of being afraid to sleep in the dark; Kelli was resting soundly without a light on. Tomorrow they would see Doctor Weeks and then discuss counseling. Whatever was ahead for them, he was certain they could handle it because they would be facing it together.

Standish Home

Once Ezra was certain that both Kelli and Chris were reasonably okay, he turned his attention back to completing the preparations for his role as a junior high history teacher. It usually took him a good week to put a persona together before he went on an undercover assignment, but he did not have that luxury this time. He had managed to accomplish several things before the call came in from the office to aid in the search for his missing teammates.

Gaining the position as a substitute teacher had been a piece of cake and he was on the schedule to begin his new duties tomorrow morning. He then went to work to acquire the necessary props for his new assignment. A new wardrobe was essential for his new role, and while Wal-Mart was not his venue of choice to purchase apparel, he forced himself to endure the mortification and forged ahead.

He was also adamant about finding an alternate mode of transportation. He was not going to let The Silver Bullet suffer the indignity of being abused, like the vehicles owned by other teachers at West End Junior High. Besides, she was far more expensive than most history teachers could afford. That situation he remedied quickly with a stop at Bob’s Used Cars. Almost immediately he had set his eyes on a lime green Chevy Nova. It was in pristine condition, and Ezra successfully bartered with the car lot dealer for a fair price.

Weary by the time he finally made it home, Ezra unloaded the bags of clothing and shoes he had purchased earlier onto the foyer floor, and shrugged out of his jacket. He called out, “Barbara, I’m home.”

“In here,” Barbara yelled from the family room.

Following the sound of her voice, he found her sitting on the sofa reading legal briefs. It was then Ezra filled in his wife about the incident involving Chris and Kelli. When he saw her face pale, he was quick to assure her that both of them were okay, although Larabee had suffered some minor injuries.

Satisfied, Chris and Kelli were okay, Barbara leaned forward, her curiosity overflowing. “Now, are you going to tell me what’s in those bags?”

“Tomorrow, Ezra Standish ceases to exist and Finnias Prescott is born.” Ezra gestured dramatically toward the pile of clothing bags. “Would you care to have a preview of whom your husband is about to become?”

“Absolutely,” she smiled. Ezra kissed her quickly on the lips and stood up. Gathering the clothing bags, he disappeared into the bedroom. It was several minutes later when Finnias Prescott appeared in the living room.

Barbara giggled when she got her first look at her husband’s ‘Finnias Prescott’ persona. Ezra had parted his thick down the middle, and slicked it back away from his face with gel. He wore a set of wire-framed glasses whose lenses appeared to be at least an inch thick, and had masking tape over the nosepiece.

Instead of designer clothing, which he was partial to; Ezra was wearing clothing purchased off the rack. He wore a cream-colored blazer, crisp white dress shirt without the usual frills he preferred, yellow tie, and tan slacks. White tennis shoes completed his outfit.

“I am aware that my current attire is less than desirable, but comical wasn’t quite the effect I was going for.” Ezra wore a chagrined look upon his face.

“I’m sorry darling, but you could almost be a double for Robert Carradine’s character in the ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ movies,” Barbara tried to look repentant, but her wide smile gave her away.

Ezra frowned at her. “I do not resemble Robert Carradine in any way. He’s older, shorter, and far less debonair than I am.” He pulled her to her feet and grinned. “Let me demonstrate.” Finnias Prescott vanished and Ezra Standish enjoyed the remainder of the evening with his wife.

Wells Home

JD was bone weary by the time he reached home. He stayed late at the MCAT office to gather all of the preliminary reports from the State Troopers regarding the incident out at the Carter property, including any and all scraps of information on Lorene “Bitsy” Fowler he'd dug up on CASSIE.  Chris would want the information A.S.A.P. It seemed as if lately he was spending more hours at work than anytime he could remember. His obsession about trying to break Lady Ice’s code on top designing the modifications on CASSIE for the new units was time consuming. Trying to juggle all of that with his regular duties, the needs and demands of a pregnant wife, and the lack of sleep from reoccurring nightmares about his experiences at the hands of a crazy woman, left him exhausted.

“I was beginning to wonder if I should send out a search party for you.” Casey greeted JD at the door with a sizzling kiss, which sent a temporary burst of energy coursing through his body.

“Maybe I should come home late more often if you're going to greet me like this.” JD's eyes appreciatively scanned over her scantily clad figure.

“The twins are asleep, Nettie retired early, and we have the rest of the night to ourselves.” Casey's hands caressed her husband's back, before lowering to squeeze his backside. “Are you hungry? I left a plate of food warming in the oven for you.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I grabbed a burger earlier.” JD kissed her lightly on the cheek, before disentangling himself from her embrace and moving over to the telephone. “You go on into the bedroom and I'll be there in a couple of minutes. I have to make a quick call. “

“All right,” Casey disappeared into the kitchen, where she took care of turning off the oven and storing his plate in the refrigerator, while JD picked up the phone and dialed Buck's number.

“Buck, I need to tell you what happened today...”

When the short conversation with Buck was over, JD felt terrible. There was no mistaking the inkling of disappointment in his brother's voice. He hated telling Buck news this way, but was certain he would have crumbled and given away too much if he had done it in person. It felt like he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He wanted to tell Buck everything, but his confidentiality agreement with MCAT, prevented him from discussing the unit's business with non-team members. Like it or not, Buck's decision to leave the unit, placed him outside the information loop.

Never before had his loyalty to any of his brothers, especially Buck, interfered with his ability to keep the team's actions confidential. “Damn, this sucks.”

“JD, are you coming?” Casey's voice broke through his reverie, reminding him she needed his attention.

Wilmington Home

“Thanks, JD,” Buck said as he hung up the phone. “Damnit,” he cursed aloud.

“Bad news?” Inez reached over to stroke his cheek.

“Yes…No…Hell, I don’t know.” Buck took her hand and turned to face her in bed. “JD just got home from running reports at the office and wanted me to know what happened today. Chris was shot and then he and Kelli were trapped in an underground bunker, the team went after them and the house exploded, almost crashing the helicopter they were in and no one bothered to call and tell me until now. If JD hadn’t told me I guess I’d never know.”

“Chris is …”

“Oh, he’s okay; he was wearing a vest and won’t even stay overnight at the hospital, but damnit they should have told me! I mean…I haven’t been off the team so long they could forget me,” he sighed. “I still care….and I…”

Inez heard the thread of hurt in her husband’s voice. “When were they supposed to tell you? Call you at the school between classes? Or perhaps they should have stopped while they were trying to rescue Chris and Kelli to keep you informed?” She knew Buck was concerned, but he made a choice and he was now realizing the consequences of his decision. “You wanted to get away from the stress this kind of situation causes. You left the team voluntarily; they did not throw you out. Are you having second thoughts?”

“Second thoughts…no, but I suppose it’s going to take some getting used to. You know, not being in on the action.” he covered her with the comforter and drew her close. “Go back to sleep, I’m fine.”

“Love you,” she whispered while she snuggled into the warmth of his arms.

“Me too, Darlin’,” he said softly. His body was tired, but his mind raced with unwelcome questions. None of which he wished to share with Inez, at least not now. Leaving the team was what he wanted. Wasn’t it? Of course it was. He wanted to be able sleep peacefully at night without worrying. He could leave it all behind. Couldn’t he? He was doing what he wanted, what he chose to do. So why was he lying awake thinking he should have been with his team today?

Chapter 10

Irrelevant facts often cloud our perceptions. Sometimes we have to dig for the truth, hidden beneath the surface, to obtain a clearer vision.

Larabee 7 ~Tuesday, January 15th

Vin stood at the kitchen window watching the sunrise over the distant mountains and except for the gurgle of the coffeemaker, the house was silent. It would not be for long, but for a few minutes, he enjoyed the solitude, which companioned the beginning of a new day. Hearing the unmistakable sound of an irregular gait coming down the hallway, accompanied by a thump-thump, he reached for two cups.

“Mornin’, Chris,” he said without turning around. “Grab a chair and sit. I’ll bring your coffee over.”

Chris maneuvered himself onto a chair, leaning his crutches against the wall. “I thought I’d be the first one up. What has you out of bed so damn early?”

“Wanted to watch the sunrise,” Vin answered, balancing two cups of coffee as he crossed the kitchen. Placing one in front of Chris on the table, Vin pulled out another chair and sat down. “Hell, you look worse this mornin’ than you did last night. Bet it hurts like a sonofabitch.”

“Worse,” Chris grimaced as he shifted his leg. “Is Kel okay?”

“She had a good night, got up with the boys at four, and then went back to sleep.” Vin took a sip of his coffee. “Her doctor’s appointment isn’t early so I thought I’d get the kids off to school before I wake her.”

“I want to know what the doctor says. She may be grown, but I still worry about my eldest.” Chris hesitated to pry, but he had to know. “You two have a chance to talk?”

“Yeah, we did,” Vin smiled, “a real talk about everythin’. It might take some time to get rid of all the crap Ice left behind, but we’re ready to take on the future…together.”

Chris nodded, “At least something good came out of yesterday’s disaster.”

“Near disaster,” Vin corrected him. “Miraculously no one was killed in the blast, you and Kel are safe, and our team is intact.”

“Speaking of team, JD left me a message on my cell. He called Buck and filled him in on yesterday’s events, but didn’t tell him about Ezra going undercover.” Chris raised a brow.” Did you give Buck a heads up?”

Vin shook his head. “Buck’s not on active duty, so I didn’t think I should broadcast MCAT business.” He grinned, “Besides, I was a little busy yesterday and I figured he’d find out soon enough.”

“You have a mean streak, Tanner.” Chris laughed. “Buck won’t thank you for it, but I wish I could be there to see his face when Ezra shows up as Finnias Prescott.”

“Daddy,” Andi’s yell, followed by Grace’s squeal, ended the morning’s quiet time. The kids filled the next hour with conversation, breakfast, and noise. Josiah stopped by to give Chris a lift to the office while Vin took his children to school. Max took over the care of the young Larabees and the Tanner twins, allowing Kelli to sleep until Vin returned.

Dunne residence

“Casey…honey…I’ll be late for work,” JD protested, but she had her mind made up.

She pouted. “At least come over here and kiss me goodbye.”

He walked toward her, his smile widening when she pushed herself up and 'walked' on her knees across the bed to greet him. As he bent to kiss her, Casey sealed her lips to his and in seconds had her tongue rammed inside his mouth. Taken a little aback, he gasped, but recovered quickly. His wife's hands were pulling at his shirt. Clearly frustrated by her slow progress she tore at his buttons. Breaking away from the kiss, JD was shocked.


She pulled his shirt open and ran her hands over his chest. "Shut up and kiss me, Dunne."

Shaking his head, he was already thinking of excuses for being late for work…again.

MCAT Office

Chris watched his young agent yawn for the umpteenth time.

“Are we keeping you up, JD?”

Dunne sat up, ignoring the grins from around the table. “Uh, no…sorry, Chris.”

The phone in the center of the conference table rang, Josiah answered.

“Hello, sweetheart, yeah, just a minute.” He waved the phone in the air. “JD, it's for you, Casey.”

Not quite alert as he tried desperately to figure out what Chris was asking him for, he pointed. “Can you put it on speaker?”


“Hi babe, I'm kinda busy, what can I do for you?” He answered, still searching through pages of printouts.

Casey giggled. “Well…I think it's more what I can do for you. This morning was some of the hottest sex we’ve ever had, and tonight, stud, I have even bigger plans…”

JD would never be able to recall the exact moment Casey's very private conversation filtered through to his brain. With a squeal, he lunged across the table, which resulted in all his papers flying into the air, his water spilling and him almost damaging himself in a delicate area on the edge of the table, his fingers snatched up the handset. He grunted out his reply.

“Case…can I call you back?” His actions had him prostrate on the tabletop as he moaned with the pain from the body parts that had suffered as he crashed down onto it, “Ouch…”

He kept his eyes closed as he lay there, not wishing to see the expressions that were causing the silence in the room.

“Dismissed.” Chris pointed to his young agent, “JD, my office…now!”

With Chris's voice echoing in his brain, JD could hear chairs scraping and papers shuffling. It was only when the door closed and he realized he was alone, could he hear the laughter out in the bullpen. He pushed himself up and straightened his clothes. Walking out into the bullpen, he looked at all the faces staring at him and flashed a lopsided grin.

“What can I tell you? I'm just too darned irresistible.”

They all laughed and the tension eased. Entering Larabee's office, he wondered if that line would work on Chris.

West End Junior High

Buck knew he should be preparing for his first class, but he was still rankled about the phone call from JD last night. One part of him was angry that no one bothered to call him right after everything had gone down, and the other was confused about why it bothered him so much. He was not so far out of touch he couldn’t offer his expertise with bombs and maybe help them in other ways, even if he was no longer a member of the team, but they hadn’t asked. Even if they didn’t want his help, he was still family, damnit. The least Chris could have done was make certain someone let him know he was at the hospital.

“Hey, Coach,” Bill Patterson greeted him when he walked in the office. “Did you hear the news?”

Shifting his attention to the present, Buck realized Bill was talking to him. “What news would that be?”

“The school district nixed having cops come in here to question the teachers. At least the head office knows we can handle our own problem without the useless interference of law enforcement.”

Buck bristled at the crude insinuation about law enforcement being ineffective. “Considering everything I’ve seen since I've been here, it doesn't appear to me the school is really doing anything to control the problems. Maybe they should reconsider their decision.”

“Trust me, if these kids see cops in here, it would only make the situation worse.” Patterson told him. “The last thing we need, or want are cops nosing around.”

Knowing Chris was the one who wanted to set up the interviews with the teachers, Buck could imagine how Larabee was taking the rejection. More to the point, what would he do about it?


Finnias Prescott, a.k.a. Ezra Standish, arrived punctually at the junior high school for his first day of teaching. Wearing the outfit that he had modeled for Barbara the evening before, he could not help giving his image a once-over in the rearview mirror of his Chevy Nova. Looking at his slicked back hair, the tape on his glasses, bow tie, and the out of style clothes reminded him of Barbara's lilting laughter when she referred to him as a character out of the distasteful 'Revenge of the Nerds' movie. He did not resemble Robert Carradine by any stretch of the word, but he grudgingly agreed the persona he had created did lean toward being nerdy.

He sighed and grabbed the handle of his briefcase, before opening the car door. The moment he heard the click of the door mechanism catching to hold it in place, all traces of Ezra Standish disappeared. Finnias Prescott started walking toward the front entrance of the school. 

Once inside the building, he headed straight for the office. He had an appointment with the principal to sign some paperwork, and pick up a class syllabus, as well as find out the location of the room he would be using to teach his students.  The old crone behind the reception desk acknowledged him with a disgruntled expression on her face, which didn't change the entire time he was waiting for Principal Morgan to see him.

Fortunately, his wait was not a long one, and the meeting with the principal was an even shorter affair than he expected, due to a fight breaking out on campus. Morgan practically shoved Finnias out the door, so he could assist security in breaking up the fight and insure the proper punishment for the combatants’ involvement. Calling out his thanks to the harried principal, Finnias scanned the map of the school he'd been given for the quickest route to his classroom. Once he was orientated, he slipped the missive into his briefcase, and started down the hall in the general direction he needed to go.

Lunchtime rolled around and a frazzled Finnias, who thought he had prepared himself for the experience of teaching junior high kids, had already discovered he was grossly mistaken. Not only did he need someone to interpret the garbled slang language they used, but also he had to dodge a flurry of spitballs, fight for them to hear him above the noise pollution, and valiantly ignore several slanderous labels attached to him by the students. He sought out the cafeteria, hoping to find something that was edible, and to rest up for his next two classes.

Finnias was standing in the food line, gazing down at the mysterious looking lumps floating in a pool of brown goop, when a familiar voice reached his ears. He covertly glanced around and located Buck entering the cafeteria with another man and walking toward him. Not wanting to give away his identity just yet, he hurriedly made his food selections, paid for his lunch, and carried the tray of food over to a table in the far corner. This position within the cavernous room, gave him the opportunity to observe what was going on around him and kept him out of the crunch of the student body and prying eyes…almost.

Bill Patterson lifted his tray and scanned the room, noticing a lone figure sitting at a table in the back. He elbowed Buck and grinned. “It looks as if another poor soul has been sentenced to Purgatory.”

Buck followed Patterson's line of vision and had to stifle his surprise. Even dressed in the comical getup, he would know Ezra Standish anywhere. What the hell was Ezra doing here? Why hadn't JD told him to expect Standish? “He looks like he's in need of a crash course of how things work around here. What say you and I go fill him in?” Buck maneuvered his way through the crowded room and over to the table where Standish was sitting.

“Mind if my friend and I join you?”

Finnias stilled as he recognized Buck's voice. He glanced up from his tray of food with a welcoming smile, “Not at all.”

Buck seated himself directly across from Ezra, while Bill Patterson sat down on Wilmington's left. “My name's Buck Wilmington, physical education, and this is my assistant Bill Patterson.” He gestured to the man sitting beside him.

“Finnias Prescott,” he answered, his voice high pitched and annoying. He studied Buck's face and felt a sense of unease fill him at the widening smile on his friend's face.

“Did your mom hate you or something?” Buck smirked. Leave it to Ezra to pick out a name as pompous as he could act sometimes.

Shrugging his shoulders, Finnias mumbled, “Maybe. We don't talk much.”

“I know we just met and all, but can I give you a couple of pointers?” Buck did not wait for Ezra’s response, “Teaching the students here is hard enough without you giving them anymore ammunition to work with.”

Finnias pushed on the nosepiece of his glasses and cleared his throat.” I assure you, Sir, I do not know what you mean. I've only just arrived here today.”

Buck gestured at the other man's clothing. “You are a walking target for any and all childish pranks these kids could think of executing. That nerdy haircut, tape framed glasses, bargain clothing, and wimpy disposition just don’t fit here. If you know what I mean.”

“You think I’m too sophisticated for these students?” He asked earnestly.

Buck almost spit out the water he was drinking and then laughed “Sophisticated? These kids will chew you up and spit you out. You won’t last ‘till the end of the day.”

Bill, who had been following the exchange between the two men, chuckled, “I think what the Coach is trying to say is that you need to toughen up.”

“The children I have met so far do seem to be a bit rambunctious. Perhaps, I should take a few pointers.” Finnias looked at Buck. “What would you suggest?”

“Deepen your voice, wash that silly oil out of your hair, and get some decent clothes for starters.” Buck instructed. “Maybe, then you can get some of ‘em to take you seriously.”

“While I appreciate your help, I fail to see how what I wear has anything to do with academic lessons. I believe what these children need is proper instruction and will proceed accordingly.” Finnias stood, picked up his tray, and nodded. “Good day gentlemen, I am certain we will be seeing one another again.”

“Your call, Slick, see ya around,” Buck shook his head as he watched ‘Finnias’ leave. He did not know why Ez was here, but he sure as hell planned to find out.

Chapter 11

Obtaining peace and tranquility in our lives may be our ultimate goal, but the obstacles we face to reach that point make life challenging.

MCAT Office ~ Mid-afternoon

January 12th

Chris was in misery. He hurt everywhere and those blasted crutches were a pain in the ass. No one had any lead on “Bitsy” or Carter. Additionally, with Buck gone, Ezra undercover, and Vin off with Kelli, the work was piling up on his desk and he still had a meeting with Hunter. He had spent the past two hours in Travis’s office going over plans for the new units and prepping for his new role as Assistant Director of MCAT Operations. Apparently, it was not enough for him to be Commander of one unit, now he had the added responsibility of overseeing three. Granted, it was a supervisory position and he would not have to be involved in the day-to-day running of the teams. Each would have their own SAC, Special Agent in Charge, and thanks to Hunter’s role for the Texas unit, Chris would not have to travel back and forth to San Antonio. Nevertheless, their success or failure was on his shoulders. Slowly making his way back to his own office his dark mood preceded him and everyone moved out of his way.

When Hunter arrived earlier, instead of going through paperwork in a secluded office, he suggested that for the next couple of days he shadow the senior agents as they went about their daily jobs. While he would not be an active field agent for the San Antonio branch of MCAT, he still wanted to know the ins and outs of the various departments within the main unit. Once Chris Larabee had given him the all clear, Teaspoon had chosen to follow Josiah Sanchez around. His view of the bullpen from the agent's desk afforded him the opportunity to observe the reactions of the others when Larabee entered the area.

Josiah stopped going over the intricacies of the criminal mind when he realized he had lost Teaspoon's attention. The profiler glanced up in time to see Chris finally make it to his office and winced as the door slammed shut behind the MCAT CO. “Did someone forget to mention that Chris is a tad bit temperamental at times?”

His question focused Teaspoon's attention on Larabee. Teaspoon found it amusing to observe the other MCAT agents give their CO a wide berth as he awkwardly maneuvered himself through the bullpen to his office. It was apparent by the scowl on Larabee's face the man was in a sour mood. Given the multitude of injuries he had sustained in the incident at the Carter place the day before, he was certainly in a world of hurt and should have been taking it easy at home. Instead, here he was working, and while Teaspoon admired Larabee's dedication to his job, he could not help shaking his head at the foolishness of youth. He answered Josiah, “No, but I think I just got my first glimpse.”

“Hunter, you haven't seen or heard nothing yet,” Josiah corrected with a wide grin. “Larabee’s been known to bring grown men to their knees with just his glare.”

Teaspoon chuckled. “That must be a sight to see.”

“It is.” Josiah agreed, “So long as Chris's anger isn't directed at you. Now, where were we...?”

As the other man started back on his diatribe regarding the criminal mind, Teaspoon heard Larabee bellow, “Hunter, my office.”

Josiah looked up from his paperwork and grinned. “Ah, the Larabee summons. Don’t worry; usually his bark is worse than his bite.”

“Usually?” Teaspoon asked. “What about the other times?”

“You don’t want to know,” Josiah shook his head. He was smiling though while he watched Hunter exit the room.

Larabee’s office

Hunter barely sat down before Chris began. “I’ve read your jacket, and agree with Orrin about your qualifications. You obviously have the experience to lead, and you’re more than qualified to handle putting a team together.”

“I hear a ‘but’ in there,” Teaspoon’s brow arched as he leaned forward in his chair. “Just spit it out, Larabee. What is it you think I don’t know?”

Chris studied the man in front of him for a moment before answering,” Your history of military service, being a DPS Officer, and a Texas Ranger is excellent. However, they all have one thing in common; they are all traditional, established institutions with defined procedures. MCAT is…different. We have a lot more flexibility and room to maneuver than any other agency outside the CIA. More than that, being an MCAT agent is not just a job, it becomes a way of life. Our work affects our families, disrupts normal routines, can be extremely dangerous, and is one of the most important positions any of us will ever have the opportunity to hold. We push the envelope hard, and often. The past three years have taught me that the only thing to expect is the unexpected.”

Teaspoon nodded, “After bein’ here for only a few days, I already sensed that. I have also followed your progress since MCAT began. You’ve been through the fire and fought against many obstacles, some from within your own team. Yet you’ve managed to create an extraordinary unit. While it is well organized, successful, and imposin’. This is a team of agents who really want to make a difference, are the best at what they do, and who care about one another. You, Sir, are responsible for that and it’s what I hope to duplicate for the Texas team.”

“I was fortunate enough to start with a core team consisting of men who are the best I’ve had the privilege of working with.” Chris stated proudly.

“Team seven,” Hunter acknowledged. “Their reputation is legendary. I may not be able to duplicate them, but I’m positive I can come damn close.”

“Then let’s make it happen,” Chris answered. He liked the attitude he was hearing from Hunter, but seriously doubted he could ever come close to matching his ‘Magnificent Seven‘. “Do you have anyone in mind to lead your Charlie Team?”

Grinning, Teaspoon reached across, picked up a folder from a pile on the corner of Chris’s desk and passed it to him. “As a matter of fact, I do. I took the liberty of leavin’ his file here this mornin’. His name’s Sam Cain.”

“I’ve already read his file and I approve of your choice.” Chris picked up a stack of folders, passing them to Teaspoon. “Josiah has already selected some possible candidates. These personnel files should give you a good start in finding who you need. In fact, I think you and Sam should begin putting your team together as soon as possible.”

Teaspoon nodded. “I’ll have these couriered to Sam so he can start readin’ through them. I still plan on stayin’ here until the end of the week.”

Setting Sam’s file on top of his in basket, Chris agreed, “Stay as long as you like and talk to whoever you need to, but there are a few pressing matters I need to tend to.”

Teaspoon relaxed. “Those pressin’ matters, personal or work related? Anythin’ I can help with?”

“Work related, and I’ll take whatever help you can give.” Chris shook his head. “Guns and gangs, never a good combination, but someone wants to push it. I want that someone.” A knock on the door interrupted him. “Enter.”

“Chris I…,” JD stopped when he saw Teaspoon. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were busy.”

“Come on in, JD. What have you got for me?”

Handing Chris a stack of folders, he explained, “The forensic report on the bomb is on top along with a detailed workup on Lorene Fowler. I also finished the backgrounds on everyone who works at West End Junior High. The ones I thought you would be interested in are listed first and then the rest. I duplicated a set for Ezra. He said he’d pick them up on his way home.” JD fidgeted while he debated with himself about saying more in front of Teaspoon.

“What else?” Chris prodded.

Taking a chance on igniting the infamous Larabee temper, JD blurted out, “Chris, you look like hell and should be home resting. We can handle things here and Josiah is ready to take you to the ranch.”

His first impulse was to snap and say he was fine, but his body said differently. Sighing deeply, Chris nodded, “Tell Josiah I’ll be out in five minutes, and JD…thanks for putting in the extra time on this one.”

JD nodded, not sure how Chris knew he had put in the extra hours last night, but not surprised that he did. Chris always found out everything, one way or another. “If I find out more, I’ll give you a call.” He left to give Josiah the message.

Teaspoon observed the interaction between Larabee and Dunne and laughed. “I was certain you were too stubborn to give in, but I’m glad you decided you weren’t superman after all.”

“Stubborn, I’ll admit to, but not stupid,” Chris grinned. “Another twenty-four hours and I’ll be fine. Have JD give you a crash course with CASSIE. It’s been an invaluable tool for us and will be for you too.” He gathered the files he wanted to go over with Vin and prepared to leave.

“I think I’ll do just that,” Teaspoon stood. “Let me carry your briefcase, so you can concentrate on those crutches.” He followed Chris out of the office and handed the case to Josiah. “See y’all tomorrow.”

Chris and Josiah headed toward the door while Teaspoon sought out JD.

Tanner Home ~ 4:00 p.m.

Chris hobbled into the family room and stopped in the doorway, observing his badass sharpshooter, playing chase with Bren, Trey, and Cody while they crawled across the floor. The babies giggled when Vin pretended to catch them before letting them go for another round. Jason, Andi, and Grace ‘helped’ and cheered the boys on. Grace spotted her Daddy just as Jason caught sight of Uncle Josiah and they ran across the room to meet them.

“Daaaaady,” Grace shouted, launching herself at her Dad. It was only due to Josiah’s quick reflexes that she did not throw Chris off balance.

Swinging her up to his shoulders, Josiah held on to Grace while Chris maneuvered his way to a comfortable chair and sat down, handing Jason his crutches. “Okay, little one, now you can tackle your daddy.” Sanchez set the child onto Larabee’s lap, hugged Jason and said, “Looks as if the babies are giving your Dad a run for his money.”

Jason grinned, “Yep and the boys are winning.”

“Y’all wanna stand there and yap all day?” Bren and Cody were sitting on Vin while Trey was pulling at his hair. “I could use a hand here.”

“I’ll help Daddy,” Andi laughed and joined the boys, piling on top of Vin.

“Ump,” Vin grunted.

Josiah took mercy on him and picked up Cody and Bren, one under each arm. “You’re on your own with Andi and Trey.”

Vin began tickling Andi and Trey stopped pulling his daddy’s hair to watch his giggling sister. Taking advantage of the reprieve, Tanner rose to his feet with Andi to sweep Trey up into his arms. “Thanks, Josiah, I was outnumbered and going down for the count.” He looked over at Chris, who had his hands full with Grace and laughed. “She’s got your number, Cowboy.”

Chris jostled Grace into a sitting position before he answered, “You’re one to talk. Letting little babies get the better of you,” he grinned, “big bad Tanner my…”

“Careful, little ears are listening,” Josiah cautioned, tilting his head in Andi and Jason’s direction.

Max walked into the room, taking in the disorderly results of playtime and shook her head. “Land’s sake, it looks like a war zone in here.” She began issuing orders. “Jason, take your sister to the den and set up the playpen for me, please. Vin, Josiah, take the boys in there and Grace, you may help me with your brother.” Holding out her hand, she was pleased when Grace climbed down from her father’s lap and took it.

“You look after Cody, honey, and I’ll be there in a little while.” Chris watched Grace walk out with Max.

Vin and Josiah returned within a few minutes and began to straighten the room.

“How did you end up with all the kids, Vin?” Chris asked.

“Kel was worn out by the time we left the doctor’s office.” Vin tossed an armload of stuffed toys in the toy box. “I made her take a nap when we got back while I kept the kids occupied.” He sat down in the chair next to Chris. “Doctor Weeks put her through a battery of tests, and no, we don’t have the results yet. She did say Kel was run down physically since she…,” he changed his words because Josiah was present. “…Since October and gave her a couple of shots.”

“I guess it’s a good thing I talked to Cait and postponed our dinner.” Chris really did not mind, he’d rather not be on crutches when he took Cait out for the first time anyway. “When do you get the results?”

“Hopefully tomorrow, if not we should have them by Thursday for sure.”

“Did the doctor suggest counseling?” Josiah asked.

Vin sighed, “She mentioned it, but Kel is reluctant to the idea. It was hard enough for her to tell me what was wrong. I’m not sure she’d talk to a stranger at all.”

“If I can help, just say the word, “Josiah offered.

“I will,” Vin nodded and then changed the subject. “So, what did I miss today?”

Chris shifted his sore leg to a more comfortable position. “I brought some files home that we can go over after dinner, plans for the new units, and backgrounds for the personnel at the school.”

“I thought you came home early to rest and heal,” Josiah commented.

“I’ll rest and let Vin do all the work,” Chris chuckled. “That is if he’s not too worn out from his workout with the babies.”

“On that note, I’ll say goodbye,” Josiah stood up to leave. “Chris, try to rest and Vin, call me anytime if you or Kel need to talk. “

Once Josiah was gone, Vin stood. “Unless you need somethin’, I think I’ll go check on Kel.”

“Nah, I’m good,” Chris leaned back in the recliner and closed his eyes. “Think I’ll take Josiah’s advice and rest a bit.”

It was not often that Vin heard Chris admit he needed to rest up and heal. The fact he did suggested he was hurting worse than any of them thought. He stoked the fire, then took an afghan off the couch and covered Larabee with it before leaving the room.

West End Junior High ~ late afternoon

Buck finished putting up the last of the sports gear in the equipment room and locked the door. It had been a lousy practice and he reckoned he was to blame for at least part of it. The kids were mouthy and complaining, but no more than normal. He was in the foul mood and at a loss to explain why. He was not angry exactly; maybe aggravated was a better description or it could just be frustration. Yeah, he was the one who wanted out of MCAT, but it was not the Garden of Eden he expected it to be. Seeing Ezra in the cafeteria was a surprise, but it was enough to make him realize he had essentially cut himself out of a big part of his friends’ lives. He wanted to leave all the bad behind, however, in the process he’d left the good too, and a huge part of himself. *Damnit, it wasn’t supposed to feel this way.*

“Hey, Coach,” Bill Patterson’s voice snapped Buck back from his moody reflection. “I can close up here so you can go on home to your family.”

“Don’t you have someone to go home to?”

“It’s just me. I’ve not been fortunate enough to find my significant other…yet.” Bill grinned. “That doesn’t keep me from having fun looking though.”

Buck nodded; he did have some serious thinking to do and was anxious to get away from here. Patterson was his assistant and he should take advantage of the help. “I’ll see you in the morning then.” He gathered his papers, stuffed them in his briefcase and headed home.

Bill waited until he was certain Buck was gone and then made a phone call. Waiting for an answer, he searched through the Coach’s desk. He found that it paid to be careful and knowing Buck used to be a cop, he was taking no chances. If Wilmington was, who he said he was there would not be a problem; if he wasn’t… then he would just have to handle it. The same way he did with the last coach.

“This better be important,” was the only greeting he received.

“It is,” Bill lowered his voice. “I arranged another meet, midnight tonight at the usual place. Cash deal and the target is already selected, guaranteed to make tomorrow morning’s headline.”

“Got it. The heat’s been turned up thanks to Bitsy, so stay alert.” Before he could answer, the connection ended. Bill snapped his phone shut and grinned. A few more deals like this one and he could retire a rich man.

Wednesday, January 16th ~ 3:00 a.m.

Captain Alan Richards of the Denver Police Department Gang Unit had been on the job for eighteen years. During that time, the names of the gangs had changed, the violence increased, and their reasons for fighting had evolved. In the past, rival gangs fought over home turf, now it was more about money and drugs. According to police statistics, there were 220 gangs in Denver with 14,000 members, twice as many as estimated a decade earlier for the entire metro area. From silencing witnesses to wounding innocent bystanders in broad daylight, crimes committed by gangs had left an indelible mark on Denver and its residents. He never thought he would get used to the victims though. Most usually were other gang members, but all too often lately, like tonight, too many innocents died in the crossfire of escalating violence.

Captain Richards zigzagged through the chalk lines on the ground as he approached Brad Jamison and Guy Saunders, the MCAT agents on loan to him for the night. “Run me through it.”

Guy flipped open his notepad and began to read. “The club closed at two, about twenty customers exited the building, and then all hell broke loose. According to the surviving witnesses there were at least one to two hundred shots fired, probably by semi-automatic Mac-10s, from a passing vehicle. The vehicle seen leaving the perimeter was an older model dark-colored Ford sedan, and there were four to six occupants in the car, depending on who you ask. Nine victims were dead on the scene; seven sent to the emergency room, three of them critically wounded. Forensics is on the scene and we have statements for everyone who was present during the incident. Your sergeant is at the hospital with the victims and the rest of your men are canvassing the area for additional witnesses. Notifications to the next of kin are pending verification of identities.”

Richards nodded, “I guess it’s my job to stall the frenzied media people I passed on the way in.” he sighed. “My men can finish up here, you two leave your reports on my desks and then you better call your Commander before the morning paper hits the street. This has the Lobos written all over it. We’ll follow the gang trail, but I’ll need MCAT’s help to find the source of the weapons and to identify who is selling them to these gangs. We have a war on our hands, gentlemen, and I’m afraid it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Chapter 12

“It is a paradox in the contemporary world that in our desire for peace we must willingly give ourselves to struggle.” Linda Hogan, CHICKASAW

Struggle and conflict is neither good nor bad, it just is. Everything that grows experiences conflict. A child is born it is through great effort and pain. Conflict precedes clarity. Everything has the seasons of growth. Recognize… acknowledge … forgive and change.

Larabee 7 ~5:30 a.m.

Chris sat at the Tanners’ kitchen table with a cup of coffee in his hand and his aching leg propped up to relieve the pain, which had kept him awake for most of the night. Sitting in the quiet of predawn, his thoughts drifted back to the first time he met Vin over a dozen years ago. He had known immediately they had some sort of spiritual connection and that the young man would somehow be a very important part of his life, little did he know then how big a part. Not only had Tanner become his best friend, partner, and confidant, he was the man who brought his eldest daughter into his life, and was the father of his grandchildren. Chris chuckled aloud; fate sure had a way of getting his attention. He was now convinced more than ever he and Vin had a long history of crossing paths and their children shared the same destiny.

“What’s so funny this time of mornin’ Cowboy? Vin walked in with Trey nestled against his shoulder and headed toward the coffee pot.

“Actually I was thinking about you,” he smiled.

“Shit, what did I do now to keep you awake?” Vin balanced his cup and sat down, trying not to wake Trey in the process.

Chris made eye contact. “Your friendship has always meant a lot to me and I have considered us brothers of the spirit for a long time. However, until this morning I hadn’t realized that when I met a scrawny ass Texas kid so many years ago he was going to be responsible for such a pivotal turning point in my life.” Chris shook his head at the obvious look of confusion on Vin’s face. “When we met I thought the best part of my life was buried with Sarah and Adam. You not only gave me your unconditional friendship, you brought my lost daughter to me. I’m sitting here in a home filled with three of my children, a niece, nephew, two beautiful grandsons, and a man I’m proud to call my friend and son-in law. It’s a long way from where I was back then.”

“Hell, Chris, I’d say that was a two way street fate sent us down.” He raised his brow. “What set you off in that direction?”

“I don’t know.” Chris shrugged. “My knee’s giving me fits and I couldn’t sleep. I spent most of the night reading ‘Legends of the Quest’. Much of what I read hit home and got me to thinking. Apparently our forefathers were just as stubborn as we are and also had very strong opinions about family ties, justice and the power of destiny.”

Vin was silent for a few moments and then nodded. “I had my doubts about the instructions Tracker and Cowboy gave Ezra, but the more I’ve read and seen, the more it makes sense to me.” He took a drink of coffee before continuing. “The letter they left for Kel is dated for January eighteenth. She wouldn’t have been ready to read it before that and somehow they knew it. Bein’ trapped underground with you evidently breeched the emotional wall she’d been buildin’.”

“Guess the lessons they wanted us to learn are ongoing.” Chris hissed when he moved his leg. “Damn thing hurts more now than it did to begin with.”

“You’d best get it looked at ASAP.” Vin told him

“Don’t have time,” Chris countered. “Guy called a while ago and told me about another drive by, which so far has left nine dead. We need to find the supplier of those weapons and the ties to the death of John Lopez. Plus, I still have to work out the details on the new units for Travis…” Chris sighed. “Why the hell I agreed to take this on now, I don’t know.”

“We got a good start on the plans for the new units last night and the team is already workin’ on the weapons supplier. Ez has the school covered and there’s nothin’ I can’t handle for you while you see a doctor.” Vin grinned. “As to why you’re takin’ on Travis’s project… you know how to build a damn efficient team and MCAT makes a difference because of your leadership skills, the same way Team Seven did.”

“Maybe,” Chris smirked. “Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. Green recruits, attitude adjustments, hotheads, and know it alls. Remind me again about why I do this?”

“Cause you love bossin’ us all around.” Vin laughed, remembering the ‘adjustments’ team seven had to make when Chris put them together. “Besides, we gave you great experience.”

Chris snorted, “The way I remember it, you all did your best to try my patience.”

Kelli walked in with Cody and commented on Chris’s remark, “Patience? You might be a lot of great things, but bein’ a patient man is not one of ‘em.” She handed Cody and a bottle to his dad. “I peeked in to check on him and he was awake, laughin’ when he made his toes wiggle.” She laid her hand on Vin’s shoulder. “Bren’s finally asleep; you want me to take Trey?”

“Nah, he’s fine.” Vin wrapped his free arm around her waist, pulling her closer for a kiss.” I’m goin’ in to the office today. I need you to make sure Chris gets to the doctor to take a look at his knee.”

“No problem,” she said and smiled at her dad. “I’m still fragile as far as he’s concerned, he won’t give me any trouble.”

“Does he get a say in this?” Chris grumbled.

“No,” Kelli and Vin both answered.

“As soon as I have some coffee, I’ll take Trey and you can get dressed for work.” Kelli went over to the counter and reached for a cup.

*You sure she’s okay for you to leave?*

*She’ll be fine. You’re the one I’m worried about.*

Sighing deeply, Kelli turned to face Chris. “You know, I don’t have to hear y’all thinkin’ to know what you’re sayin’.” She moved closer to stand beside Vin. “I know it will take time to heal all the hurt, but Vin has already taken care of my biggest fears. Whatever else comes, we can handle it.”

Chris recognized the look of determination on her face and knew she had reached her own turning point. He nodded, “I’ll call Doctor Gilford and set it up. Vin, you need to talk to Captain Richards first thing.”

Vin stood. “Got you covered, Cowboy.” He leaned over toward Kelli and whispered, “Love you, Baby. I’ll put Trey down. You get ready for the rest of our brood.”

Kelli watched him walk out and checked the time. Andi and Jason would be up any minute and Grace would be right behind them. “I’m gonna start breakfast, Dad. When Max comes in she’ll take over and then I can handle Cody while you spend time with Grace.”

Chris reached out and grabbed her hand before she moved away. “I know it wasn’t easy for you to tell me your fears, but I’m pleased to know you trusted me enough to do it.”

Kelli nodded, “Vin’s not the only terrific father in this family. You’re pretty terrific, too.” Their conversation was cut short when Andi and Grace’s giggles were heard coming down the hallway.

West End Junior High ~ 8:00 a.m.

Finnias Prescott dismissed his first class, picked up his briefcase and headed to the teacher’s lounge. His free class was second period and he planned to spend the time getting to know his fellow staff members. After reviewing the files JD had provided for him, he now felt he knew more about the West End Staff than Principal Morgan did. Wanting to keep an eye on several of the teachers, he fervently hoped to avoid Buck for a while. The students gave him enough grief about his appearance and he did not need to hear it from Wilmington too.

Standing just outside the doorway for a few moments, he heard bits of conversation coming from inside.

“You heard what happened last night?”

“Yeah, not that I’m surprised,” a second person answered.

A third voice chimed in, “I wouldn’t doubt it was some of our students involved. Maybe we should talk to the police…you know…tell them what’s really been going on around here.”

“No way I will,” the first person spoke again. “Coach Willis was going to do that before the holidays and look what happened to him. Brutally stabbed and left for dead in his office.”

Finnias heard the underlying fear in the third unknown man's voice. It was completely understandable in light of the volatile situation and recent events. He had only been here a short time and already had witnessed more than one scuffle between students, and been confronted by the open animosity of many of the teenagers who attended West End. However, the situation was not going to improve until someone found the courage to discuss openly what was going on with the proper authorities. He was contemplating whether he should take the last few steps into the lounge, when a hand clamped down on his shoulder. Instincts kicked in and he was shifting into a defensive position when a familiar voice reached his ears.

“Easy there, Slick,” Finnias felt the hand fall from his shoulder and whirled around to face a smiling Buck Wilmington.

“I think you just took ten years off of my life.” Finnias commented in a soft voice that only Wilmington could hear.

Buck easily read the anger lurking in the brilliant green eyes rimmed by the wire glasses. When he had seen Ezra lurking outside of the teacher's lounge, he could not resist the urge to sneak up on him. “Sorry, Slick,” Buck said, “Just trying to keep you on your toes. Around here, you never know who's going to come up behind you. It’s always a good thing to stay alert.” He did not give the other man a chance to respond, but continued into the teacher's lounge.

“Like I need him to tell me how to stay alert,” Ezra mumbled, taking a few moments to get back into character before he followed Buck.

It only took a moment for Finnias to match the faces of the three men he had been eavesdropping on to the roster of staff names in the personnel files he had studied meticulously. Affixing a warm smile on his face, he walked over to the table where Buck sat talking with the other three men. Their conversation halted at his approach, and all four men focused their attention on him. He read amusement in Buck's face, but the other three men wore similar expressions of disapproval on their faces. Finnias resisted the urge to straighten his glasses and smooth the wrinkles out of his shirt.

“I'm Finnias…,” he began by way of introducing himself, but he was cutoff in mid-sentence.

“We know who you are,” Jon Winters, the oldest of the three men, said gruffly. “Sit down, take a load off Finnias. I'm Jon, metal-shop, and these two yahoos on either side of me are George, English department, and Marvin teaches math.”

“Do you know, Buck Wilmington here?” George asked, nodding his head in Buck's direction.

“Slick and I met the other day in the cafeteria,” Buck spoke up before Finnias could answer.

“He gave me some pointers on how to survive being a junior high teacher,” Finnias said wryly. He deliberately avoided looking at Buck, who had a damn smirk on his face when the other men laughed.

“Listen to whatever he told you,” Marvin urged. “You're going to need it here at West End. Things have taken a definite downhill slide over the years that I've been teaching Math. With all the problems happening recently….” Jon elbowed him and Marvin quickly changed what he was about to say. “Listen to him,” he reiterated before he shut up.

The conversation turned onto lighter things for the rest of the period, for which Finnias was grateful. By the time he left the teacher's lounge to go teach his next class, he was looking forward to putting some distance between him and Buck. He couldn't count on one hand how many times that Wilmington had referred to him as 'Slick,' within the last hour, and he was afraid if he heard the name one more time he was going to cloud up and rain all over him.

MCAT Office

Vin ambled into Josiah’s office, paced in front of his desk a few times and finally dragged a chair over to sit down facing the profiler. “I just got off the phone with Captain Richards. He thinks someone is tryin’ to start a street war and ‘m inclined to agree with him.”

It did not take any profiling skills to know Vin had a burr under his saddle about something, but Josiah was ready to hear him out before he probed for answers. “Carter is the only one we know of who would stand to gain from it.” Leaning back in his chair he continued, “We know he has the weapons to sell and the escalating violence between the gangs insures more profit for him.”

“Exactly,” Vin nodded. “Somehow he’s gettin’ to the gangs and my money says it’s through the schools. The question is why?”

“I talked to Paul Willis, the coach who was stabbed at West End.” Josiah shook his head. “At least I attempted to talk with him. He refused to discuss anything having to do with the school. The man is terrified and I don’t think anything we can do will change his mind.”

Sitting silently for a few moments, both men mentally reviewed the facts they did know. Vin shifted in his chair and then said, “I think Carter has another agenda. Maybe he’s stirrin’ up the gang activity as a cover for somethin’ bigger.”

“It’s possible,” Josiah pulled a folder from a pile on his desk. He opened it and found what he was looking for. “We first crossed paths with him when we were ATF. Back then he had strong ties to a major arms dealer. If I remember…” he stopped to read for a moment. “Yes, here it is. Carlos Chavez. Wasn’t he allegedly connected to the group in Florida that was tapped for flooding the overseas black market with weapons a few years back?”

“Yeah, he was,” Vin answered before he stood, “Thanks, Josiah. I believe we’ve been lookin’ at the wrong end of this. I need to see JD.” He strode out of the room without further explanation.

Josiah shrugged, having no idea what it was he had done, but glad to see Vin had worked out whatever was bothering him. He chuckled to himself, “Glad I could help.”


“Surely you have a regular doctor you can see.” Kelli glanced over at Chris while she drove. “Did it ever occur to you to go to an actual doctor’s office instead of the emergency room?”

“Hell, Gilford is as close to being a regular doctor for me as anybody.” He stretched his leg out as far as he could to ease the pain in his knee. Once he was comfortable, Chris decided to have some fun at his daughter’s expense. “Better check your speed. We don’t need you getting a ticket on your record.” He grinned. Kelli had been fussing ever since he told her they were going to the emergency room to meet Doctor Gilford instead of seeing an orthopedic specialist. Truthfully, he was pleased to hear her gripe about it, she seemed more like her old self than she had in a long while. He deliberately baited her about her driving, hoping to invoke a fiery reaction.

“I’m goin’ the speed limit,” she snapped. “You just concentrate on watchin’ the scenery and leave the drivin’ to me.”

“All right, but I’d hate to be the one who tells your boss you got fined for breaking the law.” He faked an exasperated sigh. “You know what a hard taskmaster he is about sticking to the rules.”

Kelli burst out laughing, “Right, and I’m the Queen of England. The only rules you care about us followin’ are Larabee’s rules and I think you make them up as you go along to test us.” It was when she heard Chris snicker that Kelli realized he was intentionally attempting to rankle her. Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to the road. “You’re bad when you’re bored. I hope the doc gets you back on your feet soon.”

“Me too,” he answered as she pulled into the parking lot of the hospital. Chris checked his watch and commented, “We’re early. Gilford said he couldn’t see me until one and it’s only twenty ‘til now.” Stopping her from pulling up in front of the door, he told her, “Go ahead and park, I can use my crutches.”

Luckily, there was an empty space not too far from the entrance. Once Kelli parked and turned off the ignition, she turned in her seat toward Chris. “Since we have a few minutes I…” she hesitated for a moment. “Before you decide if you’re goin’ to let me come back to work I think you should know I haven’t been completely honest with you.”

Chris frowned, recognizing the serious tone of her voice. She might be using the pretext of coming back to work to frame her thoughts, but he sensed this was about something more personal. “I’m listening,” he said.

She fidgeted with the straps of her bag and took a deep breath. “The other day when we were trapped, I panicked, and I didn’t tell you everythin’.” She shrugged her shoulder. “I didn’t know Tracker had told Vin about what happened during the time we were imprisoned. I thought if he found out, he’d be disgusted with how I behaved…. I didn’t want him or you to know I was careless about mine and Trey’s safety…”

He interrupted her before she said more. “Kel, it could have happened to any one of us. Hell, I let my own brother kidnap me, not to mention Brad Cleaver abducting me before that. No one blames you.”

“I do,” Kelli said softly.” If it were only about bein’ taken, I reckon I could get past it easier, but…” she chewed on her bottom lip. “I didn’t handle myself well at all. Tracker kept tellin’ me that you and Vin would come. I always promised Vin I would wait for him no matter what, or how long it took.” Sighing deeply she continued. “I didn’t wait, I gave up. In fact I didn’t even have enough courage to do that right…I asked Tracker to end it for me and Trey, even gave him the gun Ice left to do it with…”

“And he refused, thank God,” Chris whispered, pushing back the knot of emotions welling up inside him.

“Yes, he did, but I knew Trey could starve to death when I got sick… I couldn’t feed him much longer, and I was terrified when I thought about the possibility that he might be left alone.” Kelli looked up to face her dad. “You’ve always said I was strong and a survivor. The truth is I was scared most of the time and bluffed my way through bad situations usin’ my temper to make people think I was fearless. My lack of courage cost us the life of our unborn child and while Vin says he doesn’t blame me. I do blame myself. So, you see I’m not as strong as you thought, and if you don’t want me back as an agent I understand.”

Chris reached out and cupped his hand to her cheek. He was wise enough to know Kelli was not asking him to accept her back as an agent. She was a child who felt guilty and was looking for forgiveness from her parent. “We all have fears and inner demons to fight,” he sighed. “Lord knows I’ve fought enough of mine.” Shaking his head, he remembered the pain that usually accompanied those demons. “Honey, I won’t pretend to know what it was like for you and Trey in that hellhole, but I do know from experience that admitting how you feel about it is the right step to take.”

Kelli risked meeting his eyes and asked. “You’re not disappointed with me?”

It had taken twenty-five years for her to come into his life and he was not going to lose her because of her insecurities about him, or an attack of Larabee guilt. Shaking his head, Chris searched for the right words to say. “You are my child and I love you unconditionally. Nothing you can ever do will change how I feel.” He had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could continue. “I have no illusions about who you are. After reading every report ever written about your work, I know you were a damn good officer, but you lived on the edge way too often for too long.” He tilted her chin upward. “I also know you risked enduring all the pain you spent years hiding from when you let Vin past the defensive walls you’d built to shield you from it. You both have accepted the good and bad parts of the other without reservation. To bare your emotions and fears with each other like that, young lady, takes a helluva lot of courage. To move ahead in spite of your doubts, shows strength.”

Silent tears trailed down her cheeks and Kelli threw her arms around his neck. “I love you, Dad.”

Chris held on to her while he composed his emotions. He knew how hard it was to reach out for help. When those damn pills took over his life, he had fought admitting it for too long and almost lost everything he cared about in the process. He vowed that Kelli would have the support she required. Leaning back to look at his eldest child, he wiped her tears away with the ball of his thumb and smiled. “You have Vin and me to stand with you and we are going to get through this.” Flashing his famous ass-kicking grin he said, “As for work, it may be a while before you’re out in the field, but you have an understanding boss. With the new units forming I could use some help, and there’s plenty to keep both of us busy.”

“You’re sure?” Kelli asked.

“Positive,” he answered and then looked at his watch. “Now that we have all this straight, you can help your old man out of this truck.”

Kelli nodded. “You’re not that old…yet, but I will help.” She got out and went around to the passenger side, holding his crutches until he was able to take them. Together they headed inside to see Doctor Gilford.


Throwing the magazine she had been reading back onto the table, Kelli stood up and stretched. Dr. Weeks had called and given her the result of her tests. Kelli called Vin, both relieved to find out her physical problems were not serious and easily remedied by taking vitamins and hormones supplements that she could pick up on the way home. Glancing at her watch, she realized Chris had been in with the doctor for over an hour and she was beginning to worry. Even taking time for x-rays, he should have been finished by now. She was on the verge of going to look for him when she saw Chris exiting the examination room. He was still listening to whatever Doctor Gilford was saying, but the look on his face told her he did not like what he was hearing. She immediately moved to meet him in the corridor when she observed the doctor go off in the opposite direction.

Falling in step beside him, she paced herself to match his slower movements. Kelli did not want to pry, but Chris was not forthcoming with any information. The longer he was silent the more concerned she became, until finally she could not stand it and had to ask, “Dad, are you okay?”

Normally he would keep his problems to himself, but Chris realized he and Kelli had reached a new level in their relationship today. The tumultuous path they had been traveling on, while attempting to find their way to being a real father and daughter, found solid ground and she had opened up to him completely. It was only fair for him to do the same. He stopped and leaned on his crutches. “It appears the fall I took did more damage than we thought.” He sighed. “According to Doctor Gilford and the orthopedic specialist he called in to consult, either I have surgery now or risk being desk bound permanently.”

Chapter 13

Relationships, be they professional or personal, temporary or permanent, new or old, ebb and flow through the seasons of our lives. Regardless of their time-span, once acknowledged, they become a part of us forever and unavoidably affect the way we approach the challenges we encounter on our life’s journey.

MCAT Office ~ 3:00 p.m.

Vin finished his conversation with Josiah and left the profiler’s office in search of JD. He found him sitting in front of his computer attempting to explain some of the intricacies of Cassie’s program to Teaspoon. When he neared JD’s desk he caught a glimpse of the puzzled expression on Hunter’s face and stifled a laugh. Noticing Vin’s approach, Teaspoon and JD glanced away from the monitor, and focused their attention on him.

The older man caught the smirk Vin quickly tried to hide, and couldn’t help but smile back. “I do good to remember what my password is when usin’ a computer, but all this newfangled mumbo jumbo is beyond my skill level.”

“That’s why we keep him around.” Vin patted JD on the shoulder. “We don’t understand most of it either, but CASSIE is an invaluable tool we can’t do without.”

“Nice to know I’m wanted for something other than my good looks,” JD quipped.

Vin rolled his eyes skyward. “Are you channelin’ Buck again?”

“Yep, and reminding you…now that Buck isn't here...the role of devilishly handsome rogue falls on my shoulders. JD's grin was wide as he chuckled and ducked a swipe from Vin.

Hunter observed the easy banter between the acting CO and the MCAT agent and recognized that like the other members of the founding team, there was more than just a professional relationship between the two men. During his career in law enforcement, he had witnessed the working dynamics of quite a few squads, and none of them could hold a candle to the way this unit interacted with one another. It was a rare thing to witness.

All banter disappeared and Vin became serious. “JD, I need you to do a spider search for me. Start with Royce Carter and Lorene Fowler, cross check with Carlos Chavez. Then take what you find and run it against any connection to upcoming weapons shipments by the military.” He nodded and smiled. “Let’s see who, or what we can snag in our web.”

“You got it, Vin.” JD turned back to his monitor and as Teaspoon and Vin looked on, his fingers practically flew over the keyboard as he typed in the names of their three suspects into CASSIE.

“Score,” JD exclaimed with an enthusiasm that made Teaspoon chuckle. “There's a large shipment of munitions scheduled to leave Fort Carson on the thirty-first.”

“Anythin' else?” Vin inquired.

“It appears that Fowler and Chavez have an interesting connection.”

“Really?” Teaspoon was intrigued at how fast Agent Dunne had been able to come up with this viable bit of information.

“Yep.” JD turned in his chair to look at both Vin and Teaspoon. “Lorene “Bitsy” Fowler is the daughter of Louise Fowler Chavez, Carlos’ ex-wife.”

“Keep diggin’, JD,” Vin ordered. “I want to know every detail you can find on all three of ‘em. I especially want to know what Chavez has been doin’ since the last time we tangled with him, and who he’s been doin’ it with.”

Teaspoon studied Tanner and asked, “You know somethin’ or just have a hunch?”

“Right now it’s just a hunch, but you never know,” he shrugged. “You wanna take a trip over to the lab?”

“I'm game,” Teaspoon readily agreed. He had not had an opportunity to check out the forensics division of the MCAT headquarters until now, and was anxious to see how it was set-up. He and Vin walked over to the hanger, which housed the MCAT lab.

As he followed Tanner into the building adjoining the HQ, Teaspoon found himself gazing around in wide-eyed fascination. To say he was impressed with the facilities was an understatement.

Glass partitions separated the cavernous room into sections, allowing open access to anyone with MCAT authority to view. The big red warning sign on the door made it easy to pick out the autopsy room. Another section held equipment, which he identified as ones used to examine fingerprints. Tanner pointed out the area where all manner of DNA was tested and recorded, as well as the ballistics area and incendiary forensics. Whoever had engineered the design of the lab, as well as the rest of the buildings and training facilities, was ingenious.

“There’s Nathan,” Vin nodded to the right and quickly joined Jackson. “Hey Nate, what have you found out about the bomb?”

Nathan greeted Teaspoon and Vin before explaining his finding. “Apparently the explosives were meant to destroy the entire underground storage area. We were lucky it failed or Chris and Kelli would have been buried alive.”

Vin felt a shiver race down his spine when he thought about what could have been, but he forced himself to shrug it off, returning his attention to Nathan, “So it was not newly installed?”

Shaking his head, Nathan picked up a scale model of the Carter property. “I would say the explosives were placed there about the same time the storage area was constructed. At least five…maybe six years ago,” he said as he pointed out their location on the model. “Every bomb maker has a signature and when I reconstructed this one I ran it against known explosive devices. I found a match.” He set the model back on the table and handed Vin a sheet of paper. “This bomb was made by Ray Montoya; he’s been associated with Carlos Chavez for the past ten years.”

“Ray Montoya, now that's a name I've run across a couple of times back when I was with the Rangers,” Teaspoon commented as he studied the scale model Jackson held up. ”He's a slippery snake who has slithered his way through prison bars more times than I can count.”

“He's about ready to get a rude awakenin' then,” Vin spoke up. “Nathan, keep at it an' let me know what else you turn up that can tie Montoya into all of this.”

Teaspoon nodded and gave the lab one final look before following Vin out and back into the bullpen. Vin headed straight for the CASSIE station where JD was still working on the assignment he gave him earlier.

“JD, add Ray Montoya to your list,” Vin instructed him. “Put out an APB on him and then get me all his connections to Chavez, Carter, and Fowler.”

“You got it,” JD jotted the name down and began to work his magic with CASSIE. He made a mental note to call Casey and let her know he would probably be home late…again.

Wilmington Home ~ 4:00 p.m.

Buck grabbed his briefcase and wearily hauled himself out of his truck. Caleb and Sarah were waiting for him on the front porch and met him with more enthusiasm than he could handle. He knew that meant someone was in trouble with Mom.

“Okay, who did it, and what was it?” Buck hugged them both.

“He started it!”

“She started it!

Buck felt a headache coming on, but knew he had to go inside and face Inez to get to the bottom of this one. Sighing deeply he shook his head,” Let’s go face the music, kids.” With a bit of reluctance Sarah and Caleb followed him into the house, hanging back, while he looked for his wife. “Inez, I’m home darlin’.” He found her in the kitchen.

Inez pounded the piece of meat on the cutting board vigorously, muttering to herself with each hit. “A...b...c...tff...Idk….” Since Buck was now spending more time at home, the children took advantage of him being here to run to and listened to her less and less. His change of career was supposed to make their life more peaceful, but it had thrown it completely off balance. Not only did he think he had better suggestions about changing her way of doing things, the kids saw him as easier to get around when they misbehaved . A clash of wills had been building and today had been the final straw as far as Inez was concerned.

“Honey,” Buck said softly as he carefully approached her. When she was using the meat hammer, he had learned to tread easy. “You okay?”

“No...I'm...Not...Okay!” Inez emphasized each word with a pound. She muttered something in Spanish and then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Ever since they got home from school, Caleb and Sarah have been answering me in some foreign language I don't understand and to make matters worse, they began arguing with each other in it as well.”

Initially at a loss to understand what possibly had set off this little dust up, Buck decided a family sit down was in order. Normally Inez could handle the kids better than him and it concerned him to see her so rattled. He had her, Sarah, and Caleb sit at the kitchen table, while Maria and Tannis were watching cartoons. Arranging a chair so he could see the little ones in the other room, he sat down and began asking questions.

Okay,” he exhaled noisily. “Inez, what started all this?”

“I told Sarah she had to clean her room before she could go outside,” she tried to control her anger. “Than she yelled something I didn’t understand, Caleb laughed and the next thing I know they both were having a war of words…or what sounded like words, but they weren’t.”

“Weren’t what?”

“Words…at least not any I could understand.”

Turning his attention to his eldest daughter, he asked, “Sarah, what did you say to your mother?”

Keeping her head down, she mumbled something unintelligible. When Buck cleared his throat, she looked up and repeated herself louder,” T-I-S-N-F. Then Caleb said ‘busted G-2-G, and grinned. I got mad and yelled at him, G-A-L and M-Y-O-B then…”

“Enough, I get the picture.” Buck suppressed the urge to smile. “First of all, young lady, you owe your mother an apology.” He looked at Inez. “TISNF means that is so not fair.”

Inez gasped at her daughter, “You actually said that?”

“Sorry, Mom,” Sarah apologized.

Buck was not finished, “Caleb, you should not make fun of your sister.” He translated for his wife’s benefit. “Busted G-2-G is a way of saying, tough luck, but I get to go,” he sighed, “and then Sarah said G-A-L or get a life and M-Y-O-B is mind your own business… Well, I think you can see where this is going.”

Inez, Sarah and Caleb stared at him. Caleb finally found the courage to ask in a small voice. “How do you know all that, Dad?”

“I learned teen slang from my junior high students,” he gave his children a stern look. “The question is where did you two learn it, and what makes you think it’s acceptable to use it when speaking to your mother? Sarah, you want to explain?”

“Not really,” she shook her head and then sighed. “My B-F…my best friend at school learned from her older sister and I thought it was cool so I taught Caleb.” Glaring at her brother she continued, “I didn’t know he’d learn so fast and use it against me.”

“You’re both grounded.” Inez found her grit again. “You’ll have at least a week to think about what you’ve done and I will hear no more of that letter talk in my home.”

“Mom,” they whined in unison.

“You heard your mother,” Buck warned them. “Now both of you go in and sit with Maria and Tannis while Mom and I talk.” He watched them as they slid out of their chairs and scurried out of the room.

“I ground them and you send them in to watch cartoons,” Inez huffed and stood. “What kind of punishment is that?” She picked up her dishtowel and went back to preparing dinner, once more picking up the meat hammer and resuming her pounding.

“We can’t get away from it, the best we can do is hold it off for a while.” Buck stood up and followed her. Sliding his arm around her waist, he attempted to calm his wife. “This is something all the kids are doing, and ours will be right in the middle of it.”

Buck knew he had said the wrong thing as the meat pounding increased in volume and intensity.

“I don’t care what all the kids are doing. Our children will show respect,” Inez snapped, slamming down the hammer and spinning to face her husband. “You’ve been a teacher now for what? Two weeks and now you are suddenly the expert. We’re supposed to let our children become like all the others because it’s the way it is? I don’t think so.” Once more she turned to the now paper thin meat. Buck attempted to put his arm around her again, desperate to calm his feisty wife, if only to ease the ache in his head.

“Inez honey…”

“Don’t you Inez honey me, Buck Wilmington,” she pulled away from him as she faced him again, her eyes full of fire and anger. She prodded his chest to punctuate her words. “When I ground any of our children, I expect you to back me up and not give me any nonsense about what other kids are doing.” She shook her finger at him. “Ever since you started at the school you have been moody and surly. You’ve tried to tell me’ better ways’ to run my home and stay under my feet every moment you’re here. Now you think you know our children better than I do. Well, I have news for you, husband,” she sucked in a deep breath…” you DON’T.”

“I’ve had a lot on my mind and I’ve only tried to help more around here,” he said defensively. “You have to realize that this is a big change for me. I’m not used to being left out of what’s going on with Chris, JD, Ezra, and…hell, all of ‘em.” He took a deep breath and said in a calmer voice. “It’s gonna take time to adjust. I thought teaching would be a rewarding experience, but I’ve spent more time policing the students than I have teaching them. Then, Chris sent Ezra into the school undercover without telling me and I’m not sure I even have the right to ask him why.”

She did know he meant well, but he was driving her crazy. Inez relaxed her position and said softly, “I think you need to decide just where you really want to be. Either you’re with MCAT, and in the know of what’s going on, or you leave it behind and move forward. You cannot have it both ways.” She sighed, placing her hand on his cheek. “I hate to see you so torn. Work it out, Buck, one way or another, for all our sakes.”

Buck nodded, drawing her back into his arms for a hug. “I will, just bear with me a little longer. When I have it all straight in my head, I promise I’ll talk to Chris and settle it.”

Tanner Home ~ 5:30 p.m.

Kelli had spent the past two hours corralling three energetic little boys until they finally wore themselves out. The young adventurers sat quietly in the playpen while Chris watched Kelli flit around the room picking up the discarded toys Bren, Trey, and Cody had left in their wake. His intent today had been to rile her back to her normal self, by using silly banter, however his attitude about the possibility of having surgery really made her angry and they had been snipping at one another since leaving the hospital.

“I’ve got the babies corralled and the kids are somewhat contented watchin’ cartoons. I’m goin’ to head out to the barn and feed the horses so Vin doesn’t have to tend to ‘em when he gets home. Cait is on her way over to give you a hand while I’m gone and Max is in the kitchen workin’ on dinner.”

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Chris huffed. “I might be a bit slower right now than I usually am, but considering I've tangled with dangerous criminals when I’ve been hurt a lot worse, I think I can manage a toddler and three babies for a few minutes. Besides, Jason and Andi will help if I ask.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t competent, but you don’t need to be gettin’ up and down on that knee any more than necessary.” Kelli sighed, “Try to play nice, I’ll be back soon.”


Caitlyn prepared herself for Chris's reaction to her appearance. When Kelli called requesting her aide, she had readily agreed. It would give her an opportunity to help. She considered Chris a good friend and was pleased when he came to her about Grace. However, she could just imagine how he had taken the news, and knew she just might have a growling Larabee on her hands. So why was she looking forward to seeing him? Max answered her knock and after the two women exchanged greetings, Caitlyn headed for the living room.

Chris's handsome form lay stretched out on the couch with his injured leg propped up on a stack of pillows. “When are you going to learn not to do your own stunts?” she asked conversationally as she entered and moved to settle herself down in one of the chairs. She did not know exactly what had occurred, except for Chris telling her he had taken a fall and injured his knee, when he called to postpone their dinner date.

Chris smiled warmly as he watched Caitlyn take a seat. Since Linda left for her new life, Chris's main priority had been taking care of Cody and Grace, making sure they did not suffer from having only one parent. It felt strange to be sitting here with another adult woman, who was not close family. Being with Caitlyn was comfortable though, and he liked her. “I've never been a man to stand aside and let others do the hard stuff, even if that means taking a fall or two.”

Caitlyn chuckled. “No, you've definitely never struck me as the kind of man who takes the easy way out of anything. However, one would think with that kind of macho attitude the realization that sooner or later you need to take time out for rest and to recuperate is a given.”

Chris frowned at her. Caitlyn met his gaze steadily.

It was Chris's turn to chuckle, “Point taken. I'm not really good at being a patient.”

“You don't say?” Caitlyn flashed him a mischievous grin.

Silence fell between them. Surprisingly he did not feel the need to 'make' conversation and they sat watching Grace and Andi play with Jason, while the babies were enthralled with Bugs Bunny on the television.

“You know, after seeing Andi and Grace together and how she is here verses at home, I have a suggestion.” Caitlyn's voice broke the silence.

“I'm open to suggestions.”

“The worst time for her is when you have to be gone. Why not give her a job to go to when you leave for work?”

Chris frowned. “She's eighteen months old. What kind of job do you have in mind?”

Caitlyn smiled. “Drop her off at Rein's daycare when you go back to work. Her job will be to play with Ronesha, Terrell, and Adam. Most days Casey brings Lilah and Daisy in, too. Sally is really good with the little ones, and I'll make sure Grace will be home in time for her afternoon nap,” she offered. “It will broaden her world and give her new things to share with you when you come home.”

Chris nodded. “It makes sense. She loves playing with the older kids. At this point, I'm ready to try anything to avoid the daily tears when I go to work. I'll talk to her about it.” He glanced over to her and smiled. “I really appreciate your help on this, Cait. Since that mess when Summerton had me thrown in jail, it hasn't been easy for her. Then, when she didn't hear from her mother over Christmas... Hell, I'm finding it harder to shield Grace from knowing Linda hasn't even tried to see her.”

“From what I've witnessed, Grace hit the jackpot in the Dad department. When she asks about her mother, and she will, just be honest. Tell her you can only answer for yourself and let her form her own opinions. As long as she knows she is loved and feels secure she'll be fine.”

“I’ll defer to your expertise, although it may be Monday before we start. It looks like I’ll be staying here at least until next Sunday when Dottie returns.”

“We can start it whenever you think is best.” Caitlyn replied. “Is there anything you need, maybe an extra pillow or something to drink?”

“Another cup of coffee would be great.”

Caitlyn stood and taking the proffered cup from him, she headed into the kitchen. She returned a few minutes later with a steaming cup in each hand. After handing Chris's over to him, she returned to her chair. Conversation turned to things more pleasant as the two of them kept a watchful eye on the children. Chris decided having Caitlyn for a babysitter was not such a bad thing after all.

Chapter 14

Resolutions can be elusive, but the rewards when we find them, are worth whatever turbulence must be encountered on the path to enlightenment.

Larabee 7

Vin headed towards the house, but when he saw the light on in the barn, he decided to check it out first. He stood silently by the door and observed his wife having a conversation with Peso, while she brushed him. Their Australian Shepard, Tracker, was lying at her feet. The dog’s ears twitched when he saw his master, but with a shushing motion of Vin’s finger to his lips, the canine relaxed. Memories of the first time he had seen Kelli in a barn brushing her black mare flashed through Tanner’s mind. He reckoned he knew then and there that she was going to be a permanent part of his life.

Quietly he walked up behind Kelli, encircling her waist with his muscular arms. He was a bit disappointed that he did not surprise her. “You heard me comin’, didn’t you?” He nibbled at the back of her neck.

Leaning back into his arms, she smiled. “No, I didn’t, but Peso did. He gave you up, Tanner.”

“Traitor,” he glared at the horse. “I thought you were on my side.”

“Apparently, not anymore,” she said with a laugh as she turned around in Vin's embrace and kissed her husband. When it ended, she sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder, enjoying the feel of his strong arms around her.

Vin chuckled and held her tighter to him. “I was standin' there watchin' you with Peso and it made me remember the first time I saw you workin' with your black mare. It was the moment I realized you were goin' to be in my life forever.”

“It was not,” Kelli argued. “The only thing you had on your mind that day was sex, and finishin’ what we started at the gun range. You wanted to seduce me.”

“Still do,” he laughed and swatted her on the butt, his hand lingering. God, he had missed this Kelli. The past two months neither of them had found much to laugh about, but she was back and he was not going to let her slide into that dark place Ice left her in, ever again. “I could have easily strangled Ezra for interruptin’ us,” he grinned, “course by the time we left the barn I knew you would be mine.”

Instead of a smart comeback, Kelli held on tighter to him and sighed. “Vin, how do you find the patience to put up with me?”

“It’s easy. I love you,” he answered without hesitation. Resting his chin on top of her head, he sensed she had an ulterior reason for asking. “Is somethin' troublin' you?”

“Yes... It’s Dad. We had a good day…a great day really. We talked like we’ve not been able to before and I told him everythin’ about the time with Tracker and why I was afraid to tell you or him.” She looked up and when she saw the approval in his eyes she continued. “It went well and I felt good. Then he went in to see the doctor and he told Chris he needs to have surgery or risk bein’ tied to a desk permanently. Well, he's being obstinate about it and we’ve been arguin’ ever since.”

Vin was well aware how stubborn Chris could be when he did not want to do something. Rubbing her back he said, “I'll talk to him about it, and one way or another make him see the error of his ways.”

“Good luck,” she scoffed. “He’s bein’ mulish and he feels like he’s imposin’ on us by bein’ here. I tried to tell him he wasn’t but…”

“Ssshhh,” he did not want her getting all worked up. “I’ll sit down with him after dinner. You plan on settin’ some time aside for us later.” He winked at her and then whispered in her hear to details of their night ahead.

Kelli leaned back and grinned up at him, “All night?”

“Oh yeah,” he smiled back at her.” Now, let’s get these horses taken care of and see if dinner’s ready. The sooner I talk to Chris and you get the kids down, the sooner we can get started.”


Between Kelli and Max, all the kids had baths, while Chris and Vin took care of the bedtime stories. They had all the children tucked into bed by eight-thirty. Kelli insisted that Max go home for the night and turned on the intercoms so she and Vin could listen for Cody and Grace in case they woke up during the night. She kissed Vin before going into their room to take a long hot bath and urged him to have his talk with Chris.

“Don’t rush, I’ll listen for the kids and then join you shortly.” Vin drew her close and gave her a preview of what he had planned for them. Forcing himself to release her, Vin pushed her toward the door. “Go, before I forget Chris is waitin’ for a work update and I drag you off to bed instead.”

“Promises, promises,” she threw over her shoulder with a laugh.

Vin shook his head and then smiled, a monstrous storm had passed through their lives, but it was over, he had his sassy wife back and loved it.

Joining Chris in the den, he showed him the information JD had dug up on Royce Carter, Carlos Chavez, Ray Montoya, and Lorene Fowler.

Vin looked at Chris. “I’m not sure where, or if there’s a connection, but I can’t help but think there is more than a gang war goin’ on here.”

Chris nodded, “I agree... we just haven't hit on it yet. The local gangs are a nuisance, but they usually aren't as motivated or organized. Someone is coordinating the chaos by leading the gang leaders around on a leash, and my money is on either Chavez or Carter. It’s worth pursuing, especially with the planned weapons shipments out of Colorado. What else?”

“Ezra called me while I was on my way home and mentioned that he might have a lead, but wanted to wait to tell us in person once he was certain.” Vin laughed. “From the sound of it I think Buck has been givin’ him a hard time.”

Chris carefully absorbed this latest information Vin had just filled him in on. During the silence that followed, he was aware of Vin studying him.

“Kelli told you, didn't she?” Chris's question came out on a sigh.

“You knew she would.” Vin closed the folder in front of him and leaned back. “She’s upset about it.”

“Damn,” Chris ran his hand through his hair. “We were just making progress, too. I told her she could come back to work, but it had to be on desk duty for a while, and she agreed. I knew she wasn’t happy about me balking about the surgery, but I thought we were okay.”

Vin shook his head. “She’s not upset with you exactly; I think she’s more worried that you won’t have the surgery.”

Chris took a deep breath and then exhaled. “I’m not real excited about the possibility, and the timing couldn’t be worse.” He shifted uneasily. “Besides, they can’t do a damn thing until the inflammation is gone, and that could take a couple of weeks.”

“Whether you have the operation or not, is up to you Chris, I just want you to think carefully on what you might be givin' up.” He shrugged. “It’s your choice, stay in the action or sit back and watch the rest of us.” He looked over and disregarded the glare Chris was sending him. “You’ve just never struck me as a man who would be content to sit behind a desk.”

“First Cait ribs me about my macho attitude and now you sit here and tell me what I already know,” Chris sighed.

Vin gave him an amused look. “I always thought Cait was a smart woman. She's a keeper, better snag hold of her before someone else does.”

“We’re friends, and she’s helping me with Grace’s separation anxieties.” Chris frowned at the look of skepticism on Vin’s face. “Hell. I do like her, but I’m not certain I’m ready to be more than friends. Besides it’s kind of hard to do anything about it when I'm hobbling around on a pair of crutches.”

Vin laughed at him, “Excuses, excuses.” His expression sobered. “Seriously, Chris, I can handle things at the office while you get your knee tended to. Think about how happy it will make Kelli to be able to help you in your hour of need.”

“You aren't going to leave this alone until I agree to have the damn operation, are you?”

Vin shook his head.

“What happened to it being my decision?” Chris sighed again. He knew Vin was right, but the idea of going under a knife again was something he didn't want to think about right now. Still, as Vin so aptly pointed out, he was NOT suited to a desk job. “Alright, I give up. I know when I'm outnumbered. I'll discuss it with the doc.”

“I knew you'd see things my way...eventually.” Vin stood and handed Chris his crutches. “Good night, Cowboy.”

“Smart ass Texan,” Chris muttered.

Vin flipped Larabee a one finger salute before leaving the room.

Wilmington Home ~ Midnight

Buck tossed and turned, trapped in a recurring nightmare, which had plagued him since MCAT’s involvement in the child trafficking case. He was holding tightly onto Caleb, who was clinging to him for life, while the other little boy, Danny, was begging him to save him too. He heard himself tell the boys everything was going to be all right, he would come back for Danny just as soon as he got Caleb to safety, but he was always too late. Danny was gone by the time he returned to get him, and that was when he usually woke up. This time wasn’t any different.

He jerked awake, his clothing drenched in sweat, and his body shuddering with the last vestiges of the nightmare. He dragged a hand across his face, wiping away the salty moisture that was dripping into his eyes, and tried to get his breathing under control. Knowing he wasn’t going to get back to sleep any time soon, Buck slipped out of bed, and quietly exited the room so he didn’t wake Inez. The last thing he needed was to try to explain to her what he could not explain to himself.

Wandering into the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator, staring at it contents, but not really seeing what was inside. All he saw was Danny’s pale face and terrified expression pleading with him to save him. Why hadn’t he been able to save him? Was his inability to rescue the boy that had been kidnapped with Caleb torturer him for the rest of his life?

*What are you doing, Wilmington? Running from something you can never escape, that’s what. You need to deal with it and get to where you belong.* Buck knew his inner voice was telling him the truth, but the trouble was he wasn't sure it was where he did belong He didn't feel like a teacher, and he sure as hell didn't feel like part of MCAT anymore. Being home with the kids and Inez more was a plus, but seeing Ezra undercover and him not assigned as his backup was driving him nuts. He also realized he was taking his frustrations out on Ezra. Why was he so upset with Standish?

He had thought by leaving the team and becoming a junior high teacher his nightmare would fade away. What if he was wrong about interpreting the dream? What if MCAT was where he was supposed to be? Buck didn't know what the answers to any of his questions were, but realized he couldn't keep going on like this. Sooner or later, he needed to decide what it was he really wanted, and stick to whatever decision he made. He sat down at the kitchen table and held his head in his hands, remaining like that for more than twenty minutes. Looking up at the clock, he knew he’d best try to get some sleep. Rising from the chair, he got himself a glass of water before reluctantly heading back to bed. Morning would arrive in only a few hours.

As he turned off the kitchen light, he shook his head and mumbled to himself. “Better figure it out soon, old son, before it’s too late.”

Chapter 15

Powerful hurricanes blow into our lives, announcing the presence for the entire world to see. Sometimes it takes months or years to clean up the mess they leave behind. Fortunately, they are infrequent. However, do not underestimate the power of the smaller storms forming in the thunderheads, just beyond the horizon. They strike quickly and often come at us with no warning.

Thursday, January 17th

Chris felt much better than he did yesterday. Evidently, the cortisone shot the doctor gave him worked because the pain in his knee was almost gone. Sitting here with his kids and the Tanner clan watching Grace and Cody eat their breakfast, he had to smile. It was not often he had the opportunity to leisurely enjoy spending time with them in the mornings.

“Uncle Chris,” Andi said between bites, “Can you and Grace and Cody live here forever and ever?”

Jason rolled his eyes and answered first, “No, silly, Uncle Chris has his own home.”

Chris gave Jason a disapproving look for calling his sister silly and then addressed Andi. “Why do you want us to stay, sweetheart?”

“Cause y’all are family and I want Grace to be my sister.” She shot Jason a mini-glare. “There are too many boys around here and mama said we can’t have another baby right now.”

Vin did not miss the flicker of sadness, which crossed Kelli’s face, but before he could redirect the conversation, Andi’s eyes drew wide with alarm. The sound of the door opening behind him caused Vin to rise swiftly to his feet, turning to face the unknown threat, ready to defend his family if necessary. He relaxed his stance when he recognized the intruder as Ezra, disguised as Finnias.

Andi scooted out of her chair to hide behind Chris. Cody, Bren, and Trey started to wail, while Grace was trying to climb onto her Daddy’s lap. Jason could only stare.

“Ezra, you’re scaring the kids,” Chris grinned, wrapping his arms around Grace and Andi.

Poking her head out from the safety of Chris’s arms, Andi wore a puzzled expression on her face. “Uncle’ Ra, is that you?”

Vin broke into a fit of laughter.

Ezra shot him a dirty look.

“Ez, help yourself to a cup of coffee.” Kelli stifled a laugh while she tried to quiet the babies. ”Andi, Jason, y’all need to get ready for school, you can see Uncle Ezra later.” She picked up Trey and Bren, while Max took Cody. Grace refused to leave her Daddy. “We’ll leave y’all alone so you can talk.” Shooing Andi and Jason along, she and Max took the babies out of the room.

Showing his exasperation, Ezra sighed deeply and shook his head. “This is not the most pleasant assignment I’ve ever experienced. I do believe gun runners and other assorted miscreants are easier to deal with than a classroom of juveniles.” He handed Vin a list. “If you would be so kind, I need JD to run those names through CASSIE for me. I am particularly interested in financial records for the past two to three years. Have him look for any unusual purchases for someone on a teacher’s salary, large deposits, etcetera and etcetera.”

“Sure Ez…uh, Finnias,” Vin couldn’t help but grin, “I should have somethin’ for you by the time school’s out.”

“Hang in there Ezra,” Chris advised. “If this goes where we think it is, you’ll have your gunrunners and miscreants to deal with soon.”

“So noted,” Ezra said, looking at his watch. “I have to run or I’ll be late for school. Have a good day, gentlemen.” He started to hug Grace and then decided against it; instead, he made a hasty exit.

“If I know Buck, you’re right about him giving Standish a hard time. It’s too good an opportunity for him to pass up,” Chris commented while he studied Vin. He noticed something different about him this morning, but could not place his finger on just what it was and then it hit him. “Your good mood doesn’t have anything to do with the smiles you and Kel were exchanging last night over dinner, does it?”

Vin laughed. “I’m not tellin’ and even if I was, you’d be the last one I’d say a word to.” He picked up Grace, who let out a squeal of delight when he tickled her. “Kel and I need to get ready for work. I’ll take this little munchkin to Max, so if you plan on goin’ with us you’d better hobble off and get ready yourself.”

“Hell yeah, I’m going.” While Vin took care of Grace, he grabbed his crutches. Tanner may not have answered him directly, but what he did not say was all Chris needed to know. Things were going to be all right for his eldest daughter and Vin. He was smiling as he headed down the hallway.

West End Junior High ~ noon

Buck’s morning sucked big time. He had a headache from lack of sleep, made the mistake of snapping at Inez over breakfast, and they ended up in one helluva argument. His assistant, Bill Patterson came in late, leaving him with two very large classes of kids, who of course did not behave. To top it off, when he ran into Ezra in the men’s room they had words. It seemed that ‘Finnias’ was offended about Buck’s constant teasing and he warned him to back off and let him do his job. For some reason their encounter only made Wilmington’s headache worse. Now, Bill was hanging around the office driving Buck nuts.

“Damnit Bill, if you’re not gonna help with this paperwork, go to lunch,” Buck yelled. “Of course, I wouldn’t be behind with it if you’d been in on time this morning and you staring outside ain’t getting’ it done.”

Bill turned away from the window. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I had a flat on my way into work and my spare was flat too.”

“You’ve been to that window a dozen times in the past hour. What’s so interesting out there?”

Shaking his head, Bill said, “Nothing. I guess being late threw me off today. I’d rather be out in the sunshine than in here, that’s all.” He picked up a stack of papers and sat down. “I’ll help you finish before I go to lunch.”

Buck had the feeling his assistant was lying to him and decided he was going to keep a closer eye on him in the future. It would be much later before he heard about the attack on another teacher on campus during lunchtime.

MCAT Office ~ 2:00 p.m.

“How’s the leg holding up?” Josiah stood in the doorway of Chris’s office.

Chris looked up from the report he was reading. “Better than I expected. Come on in.”

Josiah pulled up a chair and sat opposite Larabee. “I noticed you have Kel working on applicant files.”

“She’s doing okay.” Chris read the question beneath Josiah’s statement. “We need the additional help setting up the new teams; she needs time out of the field for a while. At least until her mental and physical state are more balanced. Being trapped underground was not pleasant, but it did initiate a breakthrough for her….a good one”

“That’s what I hoped to hear,” Josiah nodded as he stood. “We’ll have a list of potential candidates ready for your approval by tomorrow afternoon.” He walked out of the office, passing Vin on his way in.

“My leg is doing fine,” Chris said before Vin asked. Everyone and his or her grandma it seemed had asked that question today.

Vin chuckled, “That’s good to hear, but not what I wanted to know.” He sat down in the chair Josiah just vacated. “I came in to tell you JD ran the names Ez gave us and came up with some interestin’ information. Reckon ‘Finnias’ is on to somethin’. “He gave Chris a copy of the results.

Chris read for a moment and then looked up. “Isn’t this…?”

“Yep, it is.”

“Damn,” he muttered.

“You gonna tell Buck?”

“Tell him what? Tell him his dream job could turn into his worst nightmare?” Chris shook his head. “We’ll wait and see how this starts to play out first.”

Vin nodded, “It’s your call.” He started to get up and then stopped. “By the way, I want to check on a lead that may have connections to Carter. I thought I’d ask JD to go with me. The kid’s been puttin’ in some long hours behind CASSIE and I figure he needs a break.”

“Yeah he has. Not only is he doing double duty on MCAT business, he’s been obsessed with trying to break Ice’s code, “Chris agreed. “Just make sure you guys vest up before you leave.”

Vin scoffed as he stood, “Yes, Dad,” he headed toward the door.

*Smart ass.*

*Mother hen.*


Vin maneuvered through traffic toward the warehouse district of Denver. According to an anonymous tip he received earlier, Carter had weapons stored in one of them. It was doubtful he would be stupid enough to place another cache so close, but at this point even a possibility of connecting Carter to a warehouse in the city was not something they could discount.

JD had wrestled with his need to discuss Casey with someone, unsure if it was the right thing to do, but eventually his frustration won out. He looked at the man driving. Vin had always been straight with him, sometimes to the point of almost hurting his feelings, but their relationship was based on trust, and JD decided he needed to draw on it today.

“Vin, can I ask you a personal question?”

Tanner glanced at him. “Sure kid, anytime, you know that.”

With a nod, JD took a deep breath and got his question out as fast as he could stutter it.

“Vin, when Kelli was pregnant, was she…” he hesitated. “Was she more demanding than usual?”

Caught off guard by the nature of the question Vin opted for finding out more about what JD was talking about before he answered. “Demandin’ in what way?”

JD sighed, and then rallied. He needed to know, and it was now or never. ”Demanding, you know… having you run around after crazy types of food she had to have immediately, no matter what time it was, expecting you to spend more time with her instead of at work.” JD paused in preparation for the main question. “Wanting sex at weird times…” he blushed slightly, “…hell all the time.”

“Oh, you mean that kind of demandin’,” Vin smiled, knowingly. “Her sexual desires never wavered, JD, Kel would have made love right up to the day the boys were born if it was left up to her.” He glanced over to JD, frowning. “You’ve been through it before, you should know.”

JD shook his head. “No. During our first pregnancy, when she was carrying the girls, Casey was tired all the time and was rarely interested in more than a cuddle, let alone sex. When we did...you know...and it wasn’t all that often she was in the right mood, I reckon she was only doing it to please me.” He looked at Vin and the sharpshooter felt a wave of compassion hit him when he saw the expression on the younger man's face. 

“I’ve heard men say they don’t understand women, I think they have it all wrong. Kelli is easy to understand, it’s her damn hormones that send me into a tailspin and frustrate the hell out of me,” pausing, he sighed, “but, I know it frustrates her too, so I try not to make a big deal of it. It’s not always easy though.” He smiled. “In spite of it all I wouldn’t trade one second of our life together, good or not so good, sex or no sex, for anythin’.”

“I hear you,” JD nodded, “but this time Casey wants it all the time and complains loud and long when I have to work late, practically attacking me as soon as I get in through the door. Then if I come home on time or early, expecting her to be happy and maybe get a chance to eat my dinner before she jumps on me,  she complains I’m underfoot and gets snappish til the girls are down for the night and we can be alone.”

“And when you're alone?”

JD looked down at the floor of the truck. “Well, let's just say Nettie's rocking chair may never be the same again.”

Thinking about his and Kel’s rocking chair experiences, Vin bit his lip, and then laughed, relieved to see JD's face relax as he looked up and laughed with him. “Hang in there Kid, by the time you figure out what Casey wants, she’ll already have her mind set on somethin’ else to throw you off balance. Just love her and keep on keepin’ on.”

Shrugging his shoulders, JD grinned, “Guess I need to double up on my vitamins and start taking power naps on my break time at work.”

“You can use the couch in my office if it helps,” Vin offered sincerely, as they pulled up to the row of warehouses. “No nap today though. We’re lookin’ for number two-two-seven…there it is.” He opened the door to get out. “Better call us in, JD, or Mama Chris will have kittens. Since he’s screwed up his knee, he worries twice as much. “

JD pulled out his cell and punched number three to connect to Chris’s office. 

MCAT office ~ 3:00 p.m.

Chris smiled as he hung up the phone. JD had been talking a mile a minute. It did him good to be out in the field and Chris was glad that Vin insisted on taking the younger agent with him. Although they depended on Dunne’s electronic skills and he did a fine job as supervisor of the communication-satellite department, he was a damn fine field agent. They were both capable of handling any situation they might encounter.

Still, Chris worried about them. Glancing at his watch, he noted the time. He would give them twenty minutes to check in or else.


Approaching the entrance of the warehouse with caution, the two MCAT agents readied their weapons. Taking the lead, Vin crouched at the door, found it unlocked, and took hold of the handle to raise it. Giving it a hard pull, the door rapidly ascended as he stood and geared up to confront whatever was waiting for them. With synchronized precision, the men slipped into the shadowy interior, Vin to the right, JD to the left. It did not take them long to ascertain that the building was empty and apparently had been for sometime.

“It looks as if your anonymous tipster was wrong.“ JD commented. They stood in the middle of the empty warehouse and holstered their weapons, turning back toward the entrance.

“You think?” Vin quipped. “We had to follow-up though, and it was an easy hour out of the office.” An uncomfortable feeling rushed over him. “Come on. Let’s head back to the truck.”

“Not so fast.” A voice from the doorway stopped them cold in their track.

Vin shook his head, “So much for easy.” Five other figures, each possessing an AK 47 automatic weapon, fanned out around the larger man who had spoken only a few seconds before.

JD and Vin uttered in unison, “Aww Hell.”

Chapter 16

The most difficult battles we face are won with attitude not aptitude.

MCAT Office ~ 3:20 p.m.

Chris was working on the proposal he planned to present to Travis and mulling over contacting Buck, when he suddenly felt the oddest sensation come over him. His hand hovered over the keyboard, as the hair on the back of his neck stood up. He looked at his watch; JD had called twenty minutes ago to tell him that he and Vin were going into the warehouse. One of them should have checked in by now.

He picked up the phone to call Vin’s cell phone, his uneasiness increasing while he waited for Tanner to answer. When the seventh ring ended, the call diverted to voicemail. “Where the hell are you?” He received the same response when he tried JD’s cell.

Chris was a man who paid attention to his gut instincts. Something was wrong, or else Tanner or Dunne would have answered. Deciding not to wait for confirmation, he buzzed Josiah’s office and bellowed into the intercom, “Josiah, mobilize the team, Vin and JD are in trouble. We roll out in five minutes.”

*If you can hear me Vin, we’re on our way.*

“Josiah, you drive, Kel, and Justin with us. Nathan, Alex, Guy, and Brad, second vehicle, Mark you remain here. Mal will patch you into our frequency, stay on it and have the State Police on stand-by, if we need backup send them in,” Chris barked orders while he maneuvered his way outside. If nothing else, this emergency had convinced him to have the knee surgery because he’d be damned if he was going to depend on crutches to get around much longer.

Having no idea just what they might be rolling in on, they prepared for all possibilities. The agents quickly suited up with body armor, grabbed the assault weapons, loaded into two vehicles, and were on the move.

With lights flashing and the siren screaming, Josiah swerved his Suburban in and out of traffic, at the same time telling Chris, “You should have stayed at the office and let us handle this.”

Chris turned his head and glared at the bigger man. “You just get us there PDQ and let me worry about me.”

“It was just a thought.” Sanchez knew better than to expect Chris to sit on the sidelines when his agents’ safety was in question, but he felt obligated to try.

Kelli remained silent as she and Justin sat in the back with a map of the warehouse district spread out between them. Until she knew what had happened to her husband and JD, she would not allow herself to think the worst.

Alex drove Nathan’s van, weaving in and out of traffic, following Josiah’s lead, while Nathan ran through all the medical equipment he kept stored in his vehicle. He did not know what they were going to find once they reached the warehouse, but experience had taught him to prepare for anything when Tanner and Dunne were involved.

Back at the warehouse

Standing there facing six men with automatic weapons, Vin mentally calculated the odds of him and JD surviving three to one odds. Any way he looked at it was bad, but he planned to go out fighting. Vin’s cell phone began to ring, instead of the usual strands of Toby Keith’s “Should Have Been a Cowboy,” which indicated Chris as the caller, the instrumental version of “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” filled the warehouse.

Vin shot JD a fierce glare. “You’ve been messin’ with my phone again, haven’t you?”

“Maybe…” JD took Vin’s lead and ran with it.

“What did I tell you was gonna happen the next time you changed my ring tones?”

JD bit at his bottom lip to appear worried. “I don’t recollect the exact words, but I think ass kicking was involved.”

“Damn straight it was.”

“Looks like you’re going to have to take a number and stand in line,” JD said gesturing toward their audience. “I think these guys have first dibs on that.”

“They can wait,” Vin ignored them. “Do you know how irritatin’ that song is?”

JD nodded, “Hell yeah.”

The six, armed, men shot uneasy glances at one another. What the hell was wrong with these guys? They were supposed to be intimidated. “Shut the hell up.” Their leader, who JD had mentally dubbed Goliath, demanded. “Unclip your damn phones, carefully remove your weapons, and give them to my associate here.”

Reluctantly, Vin and JD complied, handing over the requested items to the man who stepped forward to take them. It was a moment after they relinquished their weapons and phones that JD’s cell began to ring to the tune of ‘Big John’.”

Tanner raised an eyebrow at JD and asked, “Big John?”

JD shrugged, “Casey’s idea, not mine.”

Tossing the guns and phones toward the corner of the room, the errand boy realigned with his cohorts. Silently six men laid down their weapons and began to advance on the two agents.

Vin and JD instinctively retreated further into the warehouse, wanting to keep as much space between them and their opponents as possible while they prepared themselves for the fight they knew was coming. As the other men spread out around them, the MCAT Agents moved to stand back-to-back, offering defense to one another and effectively giving the two of them more room to maneuver.

“You take the three on the left. “ Vin instructed JD.

“All right, but is that my left or your left?” JD eyed the men warily.

Vin paused. “It’s your left. Wait, no, it’s my left.”

JD nodded. “Then that would be my right, right?”

Vin let out an irritated sigh. “Just take the big and ugly ones, and I’ll take the rest.”

JD looked at their adversaries, frowned and half turned to call over his shoulder. “That’s a lot of help…they’re all big and ugly.”

If the situation had not been so deadly serious, Vin would have burst out laughing. Trying to maintain some distracting dialogue, he told JD, “It doesn’t matter which ones you get a hold of, try not to hurt ‘em too bad. Last time they were in intensive care for a week and couldn’t talk. Chris was pissed he had to wait so long to find out who hired them.” He let out an exaggerated sigh. “You and I both know Larabee is not a patient man.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, ‘Goliath’ snapped, “Enough of this idiotic bullshit.” He gave a signal to his men and all hell broke loose.

When the first man closed in on him, Vin struck out with a roundhouse kick. His foot connected with his assailant’s jaw, effectively throwing him backward into one of his associates. The third guy saw his opportunity and lunged at Vin, who sidestepped out of his reach, but was sucker punched by one of the men who faced off with JD. Vin’s head rang from the force of the impact, but he managed to shake it off and raise one hand to deflect the next blow directed at him.

JD had just enough time to let out a deep breath, before his opponents swarmed him. He kicked out with one foot and buckled the knee of the first attacker, but didn’t have time to follow through with second kick to take the man out permanently, before another man moved in. He ducked a blow aimed at his head, but wasn’t able to miss being hit in the solar plexus. His breath left him in a rush of pain, and he felt a couple more blows connect with his face, before he could manage to raise his hands into a defensive position.

Vin’s head snapped back after taking a hit to the jaw, followed through with a jab to his gut. He responded with a couple of jabs himself, and felt satisfaction fill him when his fists met their mark. Continuing to fight, he was aware of JD at his back, and even though he could not see him, he could tell the younger agent was holding his own.

JD felt blood trickle down his chin from the cut to his swollen lip, but did not allow it to distract him. He saw an opportunity to execute a particularly nasty knee-foot combination on one of his opponents and was thrilled to see the man go down with a shriek of intense pain. JD had a brief moment of hope that his adversary was down for the count, before he was blindsided from the left and aggressively tackled to the ground.

Vin used a move to sweep at the legs one of his opponents, causing him to fall, but felt his own legs start to give way beneath him in the process. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw JD go down with a man on top of him. Regaining his balance, Tanner jumped into the air and came down on the other side of JD and the assailant he was wrestling with on the floor, knocking into a third man who was planning to join the ruckus. He didn’t have time to enjoy the man’s fall, because he was suddenly grabbed from behind. His arms were pulled roughly backwards, causing sharp pain to spike through his shoulders and down into his torso. He took another couple of punches to his face, before launching his legs out in a double booted kick that took out the goon who had been punching him. The guy hit the concrete floor hard and didn’t stir. Vin didn’t have time to think. He stepped back into the personal space of the thug holding his arms and in one fluid motion flipped the man over his shoulder, sending him careening into two more of the men. He spun around to see how JD was faring.

JD’s face was a bloody mess, but he regained his footing and kept fighting. Dunne did a combo of jabs and punches to the face and midsection of a new attacker. Relief filled him as the man toppled to the ground. He swung around to see how Vin was doing in time to see two of the men struggle to their feet. He stepped wearily up to Vin’s side and braced himself to continue fighting. It came as quite a shock, both men ducking instinctively, when a round of gunfire split the air inside the warehouse.

Both MCAT agents froze in their places. Goliath’s bloodied countenance glared at them, but he ceased his assaults. The two men left standing, backed off too. All of them moved to join the armed and unidentified newcomer to their party. Staying in the shadows he delivered his message, “Tanner, this is the only warning you get. Tell your boss to back off while he still can.” He cocked his head toward the fallen men, silently ordering their removal from the warehouse.

Within moments, Vin and JD were alone. Both agents wearily sank to the floor, groaning loudly with the effort, while using each other’s back to prop up their battered and bruised bodies.

“Well that was easy.” JD breathed out past his bloodied, swollen lip.

Before Vin could respond, his cell phone went off again. ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ blasted away, annoying the hell out of Tanner. “Damnit, If I wasn’t so freakin’ tired; I’d crawl over there, grab my gun and shoot the damn thing.”

JD tried to laugh but winced, soon realizing it hurt too much to do so, he reckoned he had a couple of broken ribs among other things.

Vin painfully turned around to look at his friend and felt concern fill him. “JD you look like hell.” One eye was completely swollen shut and the other one was trying to catch up with it.

JD attempted to focus on Tanner. Even with fuzzy vision, he could see the blood dripping down the sides of Vin’s face “You don’t look all that good yourself.”

The thought of moving did not appeal to either of them. Contemplating their situation, only made their heads hurt worse. Vin finally regulated his breathing and said, “One of us is goin’ to have to move and call in.”

JD thumbed to him. “I vote you do it, you’re the captain.”

“Damn right, so I can just as easily order you to do it, Agent Dunne.”

“Aw, hell, you pick now to start throwing your weight around? Fine…I quit!”

Just when Vin had decided he would do the honorable thing and try to stand up, the sound of screeching tires outside reached his and JD’s ears. “Aw, shit, here we go again.”

JD labored for each breath, but his sense of humor rose to the surface, “This time you take on ‘big and ugly’, I’ll just sit here and take notes.”

Vin unenthusiastically waved his hand toward the door in a dismissive gesture. “Screw it, I say we sit here, maybe they’ll leave us the hell alone and hopefully kill each other.”

Leaning against JD’s back, Tanner became aware of Chris’s presence nearby. *’Bout time y’all showed up. Come on in and join the party.*

Outside warehouse number two-two-seven, the MCAT agents, wearing full body armor, prepared to breech the building. There were no windows or back entrances to cover, just the one rollup door. Josiah took point since Chris had to hang back, due to the crutches, while Kelli climbed to the top of the warehouse across from their target, with her rifle, to cover them. They were only waiting for Larabee’s order to proceed.

Chris cocked his head to one side, listening to Vin’s words in his head. It certainly didn’t sound as if he and JD were in trouble, yet experience had taught him that to err on the side of caution usually spared his people from serious injuries or worse. *Are you hurt?*

*Define hurt?* Vin countered.

*Are you injured, damnit?*

*Define injured?*

*Tanner!* what little patience he had was gone. *Is your body injured? Do you need paramedics? Are the perps gone? Is it all clear?*

*If this is a multiple-choice test, I reckon the answer is yes to all of the above.* Vin retorted irritably, *Your yammerin’ s makin’ my head hurt. You want to tone it down a bit?*

Chris shook his head and signaled the team to stand down, then nodded to Sanchez to open the door. Josiah handed his weapon to Justin, and heaved it open. They were surprised to find Vin and JD sitting in the middle of the empty warehouse. The two agents were bloodied and battered from head to toe, and were using each other as props to keep themselves in upright positions.

Larabee hobbled forward on his crutches for a better view of his wayward agents. “What the hell happened here?”

“You want the long version or the short version?” Vin quipped.

“Any old version will work for me,” Chris growled, “Start talking.”

“Six guys...automatic weapons... big and ugly...boom... punch... ouch...shit... just like batman… Kapok! Message delivered, and I quote. ‘Back off while you still can’. They disappeared, and here we are.” JD indiscriminately began to ramble.

Vin gently elbowed the younger agent in the side, “I think he got the point.”

As Nathan kneeled to examine the two men, Chris eyed them warily. Something just wasn't right. “So, Batman, after six big and ugly guys with automatic weapons beat the shit out of you, where did they go?”

The injured agents shrugged their shoulders, wincing with the movement, and both mumbled, “Don’t know.”

Chris narrowed his eyes and turned to the team medic, “Nathan?”

“There's no sign that they were drugged, it’s probably the effects of an adrenaline rush. They’ll be punchy for a while.” Nathan responded as he began to dab at one of the many cuts on JD's face.

“OW!” Dunne yelped.

Kelli made her appearance in the warehouse. Her heart jack hammered in her chest at the sight of her husband covered in blood. Fighting back her panic, she pushed past Chris to rush to his side. Seeing her husband’s injuries up-close distressed her. “Oh, Vin.”

“Texas, you're here.” Vin smiled at her, patted her backside, and said, “You’ve got a cute ass, Baby. Sit down with me and let’s talk about it.”

Kelli stared him, her eyes questioning the severity of his injuries. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Everythin’s okie dokie with me,” he muttered. The rush of adrenaline, which was making him punch drunk, was rapidly dissipating. His head hurt and he was beginning to feel every ache and pain his body was experiencing.

JD burst into a fit of giggles hearing that remark. “If anyone’s interested, I’m okie dokie, too.”

Chris had heard enough. “Nathan, the paramedics are here. Get Misters Okie and Doki out of here before I shoot both of ‘em.” He knew he would get a full rundown concerning what went down here from Vin, once he was makin’ sense again. In the meantime getting his men medical attention was his first priority, and he still had to decide what or if to tell Buck about Ezra’s discovery. “Josiah, I don’t expect we’ll find much, but have forensics give this place the once over, tell Nathan he’s in charge here and I’ll see you at the hospital.”

Chapter 17

Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, which usually hit us when we are least prepared for them.

Denver Memorial Hospital ~5:00 p.m.

Since JD had insisted that no one was to call Casey, Chris sat with his young agent while Kelli kept Vin corralled in the next room. Both agents were battered, bruised, and required some stitching, however their vests had prevented any internal damage, or other serious injuries. Crashing back to reality after their brief flight of adrenaline induced bravado; they were able to give a more detailed account of their attack. In spite of how busted up they felt, Doctor Gilford had already assured Chris both men would be released. Aside from hurting like hell for a few days, neither man had any broken bones or permanent injury. Although, Larabee was certain Vin would have to answer to Kelli for the earlier remark he made about her posterior.

While he waited with JD for the nurse to give him a pain shot and bring the release papers, Chris looked at his young agent. “Are you doing okay, Kid?”

Dunne wearily waved his hand and then dropped it over his eyes. “Okay, I guess, thanks.” He peeked at Chris. “How’s your knee?”

Larabee grinned. “About as good as you feel right now.”

JD laughed softly, flinching at the pain it created. “That bad, huh?”

Squeezing his arm gently, Chris grinned, just as Josiah peeked around the curtain to tell him, “I got hold of Standish and Wilmington. They will meet you at Tanner's house in an hour.”

Chris nodded tiredly. “We ought to be out of here in a few minutes. We’ll meet you out front.”

Josiah nodded and left the room. For better or worse, within ten minutes they were all on their way home.

Wells Ranch

Chris elected to ride with Vin and Kelli, while Josiah escorted JD home. Glancing over at his injured friend, he had his doubts about springing the news about JD's most recent hospital visit on an unsuspecting Casey without a warning. “I know you asked us not to notify your wife about what happened, but do you think it is advisable for you to just pop up at home looking like you've gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson?”

“You’re probably right, but it's a little late now,” JD mumbled through swollen lips when Josiah pulled his vehicle to a stop outside the Wells house.

Josiah got out of the vehicle and went around to the passenger side. He closed the car door and assisted JD in walking up the front walk. Before they reached the front door, Casey opened it.

“Oh my God, JD, what happened to you?” Casey exclaimed, her brown eyes widening with alarm as she took in her husband's battered face.

Placing swollen fingers to his equally puffy lips, he explained, eager to reassure her. “Vin and I had an... uh, altercation with a couple goons, but...,” he hissed again as the cut on his lip re-opened and stung, “...we're both fine.”

“Don't worry, baby. I’ll take sweet care of you.” Casey said, taking hold of JD's arm. “Thank you, Josiah, for bringing him home. I'll look after him now.”

Hiding the smile that pulled at his lips, Josiah left JD in the tender care of his wife and headed to the Tanner home. With Chris on crutches, Tanner down, Nathan on forensics, JD out, Buck ‘retiring’, and Ezra undercover, Josiah felt like the last man standing tonight. Therefore, he would make himself available in case Chris had any additional orders for him.

Tanner Home

“I’m all right,” Vin insisted when Kelli suggested he go straight to bed after reassuring the children he was okay. “Sore as hell, but I’ll live.”

Kelli shook her head. “Dad, will you try to talk some sense into him, while I go check on the boys?”

After she left the room, Chris looked over at Vin, who was sprawled across the couch. “She’s right, you know, you should be in bed.”

“Hell, ‘m too tired to make it that far,” Vin sighed. “Besides, I think Kel’s still a little put out with me about that cute ass remark.” He grimaced, thinking about the vague memory. “I really said it... out loud?”

Chris chuckled, “Oh yeah, loud and clear enough for everyone to hear.”

“Damn, I was hopin’ I’d only thought it.” He shook his head. “Not very professional was it?”

“Don’t worry; she’ll forgive you… eventually.”

Vin grabbed for his cell phone. Something in Chris’s words reminded him about that damn ringtone and he was changing it now, before it went off again.

Josiah walked into the room. “Ezra and Buck are on their way in.” He moved Tanner’s feet and sat on the couch. “I don’t know what they know, but neither of them looks happy.”

“I’ll trade places with both of ‘em,” Vin scoffed. “Happy might be something missin’ around here for a while.”

Stifling a laugh, Josiah grinned instead. “You do get chatty when you’re high on pain, don’t you, Son?”

“Apparently,” Tanner said, wincing when he attempted to move. “Next time, would one of y’all kindly knock me out before I say anythin’ stupid?’”

“Next time?” Chris narrowed his brow. “Better not be a next time, Tanner.”

The bickering, which had been going on all week, between Buck and Ezra continued as they entered the room, drawing everyone’s attention.

“You two sound like an old married couple. Both of you sit down and listen up.” Chris snapped, “We have a situation.”

Buck caught sight of Vin. “Damn, what happened to you?”

“Me and JD had a run in with a few thugs.” Vin groaned. “Evidently we’ve hit a nerve in our investigation and Carter wanted us to deliver a message.”

Buck forgot all about snipping with Ezra. “Is JD okay?”

“He’s a little worse for wear, but he’ll be fine,” Chris answered. “Right now I’m more concerned about you and Ezra. I know you’re not on the team, Buck, but you should know what you’re facing. We believe Carter has close ties with someone in your school.” He handed Standish a folder.

“I take it this is the information you received concerning my earlier inquires,” Ezra stated, taking his report, before continuing. “Since you have obviously been busy, you may not know yet that a teacher was attacked at the school today.”

Chris nodded. “I heard just as we were leaving to look for Vin and JD. Larry Oliver, critical condition at Denver Memorial, right?”

“I understand why you might think it’s related to your case, but this kind of shit has been going on there for a long time.” Buck shook his head. “I swear those teachers have looking the other way down to a fine art. No one ever sees anything.”

“One of the names Ez gave us might interest you, Buck.” Chris handed him another file.” Your assistant, Bill Patterson has been living way beyond the means of an underpaid teacher for a while now. He also has some very large, unexplained deposits to his bank account.”

Ezra nodded, “I thought as much.”

Buck was uncomfortable and not sure about what Chris wanted from him. “Look, you know I can take care of myself and you have Slick…uh, Ezra to investigate. What do you expect me to do?”

“I don’t expect you to do anything, but I felt you needed to know.” Chris sighed. “Just watch yourself around this guy.” He looked at Standish “You too, Ez, we’re not backing off and I have every reason to believe things are going to get real ugly before this is over.”

“Yeah, and we know how you hate ugly, Bucklin,” Vin attempted to smile, but the ache in his jaw stopped him.

“I’ll be fine, but from the looks of you, I’m not the one to be worried about.” Buck grinned, but inside he was a little peeved. No one called to let him know when his brothers were hurt, or ask for his opinion, but he gets a warning to be careful. Had they forgotten so quickly how good he was at his job? Did they really think he would not be able to take care of himself?

Chris read the myriad emotions, which crossed Buck’s face; he grabbed his crutches and stood. “I know you want to check on the kid. How about I walk with you to the door?”

Buck nodded and waited for Chris to move in front of him. Slowly they walked through the kitchen, stopping by the backdoor.

Chris turned to his oldest friend, “Buck, I know none of this is easy, change never is. But you’re the one who asked for it, and we’re trying to give you the space you need to adjust.”

“Yeah, I did ask and I guess you’re only doing what I would if the situation were reversed, but…” Buck sighed. “You’re right, change is hard…I just never expected to feel so left out.”

“The door is always open Buck, remember that.” Chris told him, “As for feeling left out… when I was off and you guys would pass by the house every morning on your way to work, it damn near killed me, but I survived until I had things worked out in my mind.” Patting him on the back he said, “You will too.”

Not trusting himself to speak, he could only nod. Stepping out into the cold, he could feel Chris watching him. Larabee saw right through him, he always could, and truth be told it made him feel better knowing he understood. Taking a deep breath, Buck headed for his truck, he would stop and see JD for a few minutes and then go home. He had some serious thinking to do.

Friday, January 18th

Teaspoon packed his essentials kit into his suitcase. He shut the lid and snapped the locks into place, giving a quick perusal to the rest of the room to make sure he had not forgotten anything, before leaving. At the front desk, he gave the hotel clerk his key, made certain there were no extra charges on the bill needing his attention, and then headed out to his rental car. MCAT had covered all of his expenses as promised, even the long distance calls he had made most nights to his kids.

By eight-thirty, he was at MCAT headquarters. It was somewhat of a shock to him when he realized he was going to miss this ragtag band of federal agents. Chris Larabee was a remarkable man who had done the impossible. He had taken men and women from diverse backgrounds and cultures, with unique personalities and skills, and created the best damn law enforcement unit he had ever witnessed. Underpaid and underappreciated for all the excellent work they did on a daily basis, they still gave every bit of their time, energy, and devotion to making this country a better place for all to live in.

He entered the bullpen and caught sight of JD. The MCAT agent’s face was battered and bruised. A black ring encircled each of his puffy eyes, making JD look like a raccoon. There was a band of bruising lining Dunne’s jaw and his upper swollen lip, while the other was cracked and cut. “Lord, son, what the hell happened to you?”

JD cracked a smile by way of greeting, and immediately regretted it as pain shot through his mouth. “I got into a little fight yesterday.”

“A little fight?” Teaspoon’s eyebrow arched. “It looks like you wrestled with a gorilla and lost.”

Thinking about the men he and Vin had tangled with the day before, JD had to agree with Hunter’s analogy of their opponents. “Actually it was more than one.” Not wanting to go into detail, he changed the subject. “I hear you’re leaving us today?”

“Yep,” Teaspoon nodded. “I just need to see Larabee first.”

“He’s in his office with Vin,” JD told him, “they’re expecting you.” The young man stood and they shook hands. “It was great to meet you.”

“You take care of yourself son,” Teaspoon said, moving on through the bullpen. By the time he reached the Commander’s office, he had essentially said his good byes to the rest of the team. Gunny gestured for him to go on in. He opened the door, stepped inside, and set his bag down. Taking one look at Vin Tanner’s battered and bruised face, he couldn’t help chuckling, “I see you’ve been wrestlin’ with the same gorillas JD met up with.”

Tanner cocked a questioning eyebrow at him. “No big deal, just a little dust up.”

“No big deal my ass,” Chris smirked. “Vin and JD have an amazing talent for attracting trouble, and practice using it on a regular basis. It’s also called how to give your CO an ulcer.”

“I’ve had a few men in my command over the years that had the same talent.” Teaspoon grinned, and extended his hand to Larabee. “I just stopped by to say my good-byes. Orrin has graciously arranged for the MCAT jet to fly me home.”

Chris stood, steadying himself against his desk, and shook Hunter’s hand. “Good luck with your search for a team. You have some excellent candidates to choose from and I’m looking forward to working with you.”

“You’ll have my report every Friday by noon.” Teaspoon said, picking up his bag. “By the time May rolls around, I’ll have the second best team in the country assembled, ready for you to train.”

“Second best?” Chris smiled. “Did you forget we’ll be assembling another team here in Denver?”

“Nope, didn’t forget it, just statin’ fact.” Raising his hand to the brim of his hat, he tipped it to both MCAT agents, and headed out the door, calling over his shoulder. “See y’all in May.”

Chris watched him leave and then turned to Vin, “Is galling tenacity something all Texans are born with or just the ones who cross my path?”

“Hell it’s a rite of passage in the Lone Star State. We learned how to be a pain in the ass before we hit kindergarten.” Tanner grinned. “I can’t help it if we’re superior to those born north of the Panhandle.” Ducking to miss the pen Chris threw at him, Vin raised his hands in mock surrender. “Easy, Cowboy, damage this body more than it already is and you’ll have to answer to Kel.”

Larabee laughed and grumbled, “Ornery ass.” Someone knocked on the door. “Enter,” he yelled.

JD had an armful of folders and crossed the room to place them on Chris’s desk. “This is the background research you requested.”

“How are you?” Chris asked.

“I’ve been better. Casey took good care of me last night though, and Buck stopped in to check on me too.” JD attempted to smile, but with his split lip, it was painful. “I’ll be fine in a few days.” He changed the subject. “Do we have anyone assigned to the new Denver team yet?”

“Justin has accepted the lead position,” Chris answered, patting the stack of files in front of him. “The rest will either come from these folders or agents on our team who want to switch units.”

“So, how does this work?” JD eased himself down into a chair. “Will the Texas unit and the new one in Denver be set up the same?”

“No,” Chris leaned back in his chair. “The San Antonio unit, MCAT Charlie, will be similar to what we have here. Except they will be a smaller team, more mobile than we are, and at least for now, will not have their own CASSIE, or a lab. Hunter will supervise and report to me, while his man Sam Cain will be the Unit SAC, reporting to him. Most of their work will come from the south and along the border.”

Vin took over the explanation. “The second Denver team will have full access to CASSIE and the lab here, working closely with us. The purpose of creatin’ it is to split our workload, givin’ the agents on both teams enough downtime to debrief properly before the next assignment.” He nodded his head toward Larabee. “He’s gonna be the Assistant Director of MCAT Operations, which make him CO of all three of the units. He’ll still answer to Travis, while Hunter’s role is to be his point man in Texas so Chris doesn’t have to be hands on down there. Justin and I will be the Special Agents in Command of each Denver team and answer directly to Chris.”

JD nodded. “Got it. Our Director roped Chris into doing the set-up for the new unit by promoting him to Assistant Director of MCAT Operations. Chris will collect information from Hunter, Vin, and Justin, reports to Travis, and then as CO for the units, tells us what we need to do.”

“You got it.” Chris chuckled. “Travis will still be the boss, but I’ll have more authority to direct all operations. I’ve been telling him for a long time the units would be just as effective with less manpower, now I’ll have the opportunity to prove it to him.”

“Does this mean no more agents rotating in?” JD asked hopefully

“It means no more rotation. Our original unit, which is now MCAT Alpha, will be responsible for any new Denver agents, but the new orientation facility will be the primary trainin’ grounds.” Vin told him. “You should also think about who you want on the second team, MCAT Bravo, to work com/sat. I think Pam might be interested in the position.”

“I’ll talk to her and let you know.” JD had one more burning question. “If Vin is SAC and our unit is smaller….where does that leave Buck? That is, if he decides to come back?”

Chris exhaled loudly. “Things work out the way I want, Alpha will consist of our original MCAT team , minus those who transfer permanently to Justin’s unit, plus whoever we happen to be training at any given time. When Buck gets his head out of his ass and decides to come back, he will be a Special Agent, the same as you, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra. Buck’s former position of captain won’t exist.”

Hearing the word ‘when’, definitely got JD’s attention. He sat upright, leaning forward slightly, not even attempting to hide the glint of hope in his eyes or his voice. He was really missing having Buck around”You really think he’s coming back?”

“I think he will, in time.” Chris affirmed. “In the meantime, you concentrate on the CASSIE modifications for MCAT Texas. Keep me updated.” He watched JD stand up to leave; and then he had another thought, “Anything new on Ice’s code?”

“Sorry, Chris, no,” JD answered. “I am putting together a new encryption deciphering program, but…to be honest; I haven’t had much free time to work on it.”

Chris nodded his understanding. “It will have to wait, at least until we get caught up around here, and find those weapons….and get the new teams launched….and the training facility is finished…. ,and I have that damn knee surgery…Hell, just do what you can, Kid.” He stared out the window and only heard JD softly close the door behind him.

Vin studied his friend. Chris did have a lot on his plate at the moment, but he did not have to do everything alone. It was time he realized it. “Hell, Cowboy. It’s still Cait’s birthday today and I know you’d like to be more than friends with her. I don’t reckon she’ll refuse to have dinner with you ‘cause you’re still on crutches. Call her, make plans, Kel and I will handle Grace and Cody tonight. JD, Josiah, and I are capable of workin’ the investigation without you standin’ over us, and any interviews concernin’ the new team can wait til Monday.”

“I don’t know,” Chris shook his head. “I like Cait, but…hell, with my work schedule, Grace, and Cody…maybe it’s better to just stay friends”

Leaning forward, Vin looked Chris square in the eye. “Bullshit, don’t let your bad experience with Linda stop you from havin’ a woman in your life. Hell, you’re the one who preached to me about how a man needed love to make his life right and not to give up lookin’. Maybe it won’t be Cait, maybe someone is out there waitin’ for you to come along, but you’ll never know until you stop makin’ excuses and try.” He stopped to make certain he had Chris’s attention. “I love my kids, and you know it, but Kel is the one I plan to spend my life with. Long after Jason, Andi, Bren, and Trey are out makin’ their own way in this world, I won’t be alone because I’ll still have her. What will you have, Chris, when Cody and Grace are grown and gone?”

“I suppose you’re going to tell me you’ve always listened to what I say?”

“Most of it, yeah, but don’t get a big head about it, ‘cause if you tell anyone I’ll deny it.”

Chris nodded absorbing the truths Vin was telling him. “Get the hell out of here, smart ass; I need to make a phone call.”

Tanner grinned and stood to leave. On his way out the door, he turned back. “The Navigator I ordered to replace Kel’s Tahoe is ready. If you need to shop for a birthday present, I’ll drop y’all off at the dealership and then she can drive you.”

“Got it all covered don’t you, Tanner? Don’t look so smug, Max and Walter will be babysitting, because you and Kel will be going too.” Chris sighed. “How long did it take you and my daughter to come up with this plan?”

“Not long,” Vin chuckled. “See you later…Dad.” He quickly shut the door to miss whatever object Chris could find to throw. He flashed a satisfied smirk when he heard a cluck behind him. He'd done his part in this little plot. Besides, a night out with a beautiful woman could be just what Chris needed.

“Captain Tanner, I have a message for you.” Gunny handed him a call back note.

“Thanks, Gunny.” Vin read the message and headed for the lab to meet Bones.


“I won’t be certain until I can examine the body myself; however my source has always been accurate.” Bones gave Vin a copy of his report. “I’ll fly out to LA tomorrow and have a definite answer for you before Monday mornin’.”

Vin frowned. “If you’re right, we’ve been chasin’ a ghost that someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make us believe is alive. For now, this stays between you and me, at least until you can confirm that Royce Carter is dead.”

“You’ll know as soon as I do,” Bones assured him, “If you’ll excuse me, I have some loose ends to tie up around here before I leave.”

After nodding to Bones, Vin walked slowly to the door. The man had good sources, and their information was usually factual. If the body found in California belonged to Carter, then he had been dead for three years, so… Who the hell was using his name here in Denver, and why?

Chapter 18

Fate has its own way of making our lives interesting.

Larabee 7 ~ Sanchez Home ~ 6:00 p.m.

“Rain has already agreed to take the kids tonight and said if we stay over, it will be fine.” Josiah spoke over his shoulder to his wife, as he went to answer the door. Opening it, he was surprised to see Ezra. “Come on in,” he said, moving aside to allow Standish to enter.

“I apologize for barging in at your dinner hour.” Ezra stood just inside the entryway. “However, I need to discuss a matter with you which simply will not wait. May we speak in private?”

Josiah nodded. “We can talk in my study.” Leading the way, he closed the door once they were inside to insure their privacy and they both sat. “It’s been a bit hectic around here this evening. Doctor Rivers called to tell us there has been a development with Hannah. Mal and I are headed out later tonight to Louisville.”

Ezra smiled. “Why am I not surprised?”

Throwing him a puzzled look, Josiah asked, “Is there something in particular I can help you with?”

“Actually, I believe I am here for you.” Ezra handed Josiah the package he was carrying. “You are the fourth one of us to receive this. You cannot discuss its contents with the others until after June fifteenth; however there is a letter I think you need to read before you leave to see Hannah.”

Opening the parcel, Josiah was surprised to find a book. “Legends of the Quest?”

“Yes, a gift from our past. I was given specific instructions to deliver it to you today.” Ezra shook his head. “Our forefathers evidently have an uncanny ability to know exactly what is needed, by whom, and when. You will find a personalized letter inside, which given the circumstance, will make perfect sense to you. I must admit at the time I took the dictation, I had no idea what it referenced. I am appalled to admit I did not make the association between Louisville and Centennial Peaks until just now when you said it.”

Josiah took the time to read his letter before commenting. Detailed directions about what to ask Doctor Rivers were included. “They knew I would be seeing Hannah today, but how?”

“One thing has become clear to me.” Ezra sighed. “Some things we should just accept with grace and not question.” He stood to leave. “I heard it all, wrote it down, and followed my instructions to the letter. I still have no idea what it all means. Perhaps in time we will all be enlightened.”

Josiah thought it was interesting that of all the possibilities, Cowboy and Tracker had chosen the most cynical of their seven to carry out this task. “Thank you, Ezra, for setting aside your skepticism and doing this.” Josiah stroked his fingers across the cover of the book and felt his trepidation concerning Hannah vanish. He was not sure how, but he knew with certainty his sister was coming back to him. He had not lost her to the shadows of her mind after all.

Tanner Home ~ 6:00 p.m.

“Will you get still?” Kelli fussed at Vin, who fidgeted when she tried to change the Band-Aid over his brow. “I had enough trouble with Dad this afternoon. First, he took forever decidin’ what to get Cait for a present, and then he insisted on stoppin’ at the hospital. He browbeat Doctor Gilford into bandagin’ his knee and givin’ him a brace for it so he wouldn’t have to be on crutches tonight.”

“Did Doc say when he could have the surgery?” Vin’s roaming hands distracted her while she tried to tend to his other cuts.

“Behave, Tanner,” she said with a smile. “If and that’s a big if, Dad can keep from injurin’ his knee again for another week and the swellin’ goes down, he’ll schedule the surgery for the last part of the month.”

Wrapping his arms around her waist, Vin drew her closer. “Don’t wanna behave, besides, you like it when I’m bad.”

Seeing the impish look in his eyes made her feel warm all over. “Yeah, I do, but we have a dinner to go to.”

“We still have at least an hour.” Vin pulled her onto the bed with him, holding her tightly for a few minutes and then making a decision, he kissed the top of her head. “With all that’s been goin’ on, I haven’t shared this with you, but I think now is a good time.” He reached into his nightstand drawer and retrieved his ‘Legends’ book. “Tracker and Cowboy left this, one for each of our seven. They kept Ezra busy before they went back….to wherever they came from, makin’ sure he got it all down. Tracker also gave me information on the Tanner family. I haven’t spent a lot of time on it yet, but I do know my father has a twin sister who lives in New York and apparently she hasn’t been back to Texas since he disappeared.”

“He did it,” Kelli said softly. “I never believed…” she looked at Vin. “Tracker promised to get this to you no matter what happened, but I …”

Not missing the tears that he saw glistening in her eyes, Vin interrupted. “We have plenty of time to look it over, but I thought maybe this summer; we could load up the kids and take a trip to check out the Texas Tanners. It’s the least we can do since Tracker made certain I got the information, and…” He pulled out the letter Tracker addressed to her. “This is for you. Tracker left instructions for me to deliver it today. The one he wrote me was amazin’. It's like he knew what we'd be goin' through.”

With shaking hands, she opened the letter and read. Aside from accurately describing how she was feeling and a few personal lines, he assured her again that none of what had happened was her fault. Tracker told her he had kept his promise, now it was time for her to forgive herself and move forward. She needed to trust herself and trust Vin, he was going to need her strength during the days to come. He also wanted her to commit to memory the significance of the combined destinies between Tanners and Larabees, even if they had other identities. He designated her as a guide to the one she had known before, but would not remember. One who would come into her life, seeking the truth, after the question of family ties had been resolved.

She frowned and looked at Vin. “I like your poetry a lot more than Tracker’s riddles.” Handing him the letter she asked. “What do you think it means?”

Vin read it and shook his head. “I have no idea. Reckon we’ll find out in time, though.” He set the book aside. “Now, as much as I like this half dressed look of yours,” he said tracing his finger across her breasts. “A quickie was not what I had in mind for us.” He claimed a long slow kiss, leaving her with the promise of a continuation later. “That’ll have to do for now. What are you wearin’?”

Kelli sighed and said, “You have a black pullover and black jeans to wear.” She thought about it for a moment, rolled off the bed and walked over to the closet. “I guess my black and brown dress will do.” She held it up for him to see.

“I like.” Vin approved of her choice. “You'll need to change jewelry, which means the amulet will have to go.” Kelli had not removed the protection medallion since he gave it to her last October and was her last link to what happened with Ice. Vin hoped she was ready to completely let go of that dark part of their past. He waited to see her reaction.

She chewed on her bottom lip and considered it. Then she made a decision. Turning her back to him, she lifted her hair and asked, “Would you unclasp the chain?”

“You bet,” he said. Vin was pleased she had made enough progress to remove it. He took the necklace and gently swatted her on the butt. “Now get dressed before I change my mind about waitin.” Her gentle laughter was all the reply he received, but it was enough. They had weathered the worst storm of their married life, and come out of it stronger than ever.

Reins of Change

Caitlyn took a last glimpse in the mirror before leaving her bedroom. Her emerald green silk dress was perfect, subtly appealing, but not too flashy. She had debated with herself about wearing her hair up or down and finally decided to sweep it into a French braid. Over the years, her tresses had lightened and instead of the deep fiery claret of her youth, she was beginning to see streaks of a softer shade intertwined with the auburn. It was definitely not gray, yet…but certainly less intense. Turning sideways, she approvingly nodded. *Not bad for forty-one, if I do say so myself.* she shook her head. *You’re acting like this is a real date or something. Chris is not interested in anything other than being friends and neither are you. Remember that.*

Age was not something she gave much thought to, but the three children who were permanent residents of Reins, had made a big deal about celebrating her birthday earlier today. Jesse went out of his way to give the impression of indifference about his life here, but it was the only stable home he had ever known. Cait recognized that anger dictated his actions and intensified his fear of rejection. His short twelve years on earth had been full of emotional pain and neglect. She hoped that given time, care, and attention he would come around and realize she was not giving up on him. Kyle, who was eight, and his sister Tara, seven, came from a drug filled, abusive home. Their mother was serving fifteen years in prison for drug possession, and her part in allowing one of her boyfriends to beat both children so badly, they each spent several painful weeks in the hospital. Keeping them together was in Cait’s opinion a priority, and when CPS said it was next to impossible to place them in the same foster home, they came to Reins and her care. Picking up her purse, she headed into the living area, where the kids waited to see her off for the evening.

“You look beautiful, Miss Cait,” Tara was the first to speak.

Jesse laid down the magazine he pretended to be reading and stood. “I thought this was just a dinner,” he said. His words were soft, but his body language and defiant stance telegraphed his anger loud and clear.

Cait was surprised by his reaction, but pleased to see Jesse showing emotion, even if it was anger. “It is, just a dinner, but I wanted to look nice. It is my birthday, after all.”

“Why lie about it? It’s a date!” Jesse accused. “You want a boyfriend, and when you get one you’ll…” he did not finish, instead he flopped down on the couch and picked up his magazine again.

“I think it’s great,” Kyle said, shooting Jesse a glare. “Mister Larabee is cool. You gonna kiss him?”

“Maybe,” Tara giggled. “Mister Larabee will kiss her.”

“For crying out loud,” Jesse snorted, throwing the magazine. “It’s dinner. She’ll be back in an hour or so. End of story!” He got up and stomped out of the room.

Caitlyn did not go after him. She would give him some time to think, and then talk to him about it during their scheduled session tomorrow. Somehow, she would convince him that her having dinner with Chris was in no way going to change the routine Jesse was beginning to count on. She smiled thinking about it; a routine was exactly what her life had become. It was comfortable, safe, and predictable, her only commitment was to her kids and work, just the way she liked it.

Tanner Home

Grace clung to Chris’s hand. “Da, don’t go,” she pleaded. Since she had found out Chris was leaving for dinner, she had not left his side.

“Would you like some coffee while you wait for Kelli and Vin?” Max tried to provide a distraction.

“Did I hear someone mention coffee?” Vin asked as he walked into the kitchen and nodded to Chris

“Thanks, Max, but, you go on and set up the movie with Walter and the kids, we'll be along in a bit,” Chris said, when Grace refused to let go of his hand. “He wanted her to go voluntarily, so he would not push her. “Damn, Vin, you clean up real well, in spite of the Band-Aids. What did you do with Scruffy Tanner?”

“I just shaved and tied my hair back.” Vin told him, “Don't worry. Scruffy will be returnin' in a few days.” He reached for two mugs. “Kelli’s makin' a last check on the boys before we leave.” Vin poured the coffee, passing one mug to Chris.

“Grace, you look pretty. Is that a new dress?” Vin asked, setting his cup on the table, he crouched down to her level.

Grace nodded.

“I bet you can't wait to show it off.” Vin whispered to her. “You know you’ll have fun with Andi and Jason.”

The child silently nodded again.

Vin watched while Grace clung to her daddy's hand and had an idea, “I'll be right back.” He left the room and headed for the den, returning a couple of minutes later with Andi in tow.

“Grace,” Andi shouted. “We got cookies and popcorn and movies and Walter's tellin' stories. Wanna come with me?” She held out her hand.

It might have been the cookies or the stories, but something triggered her interest. Grace let go of Chris's hand and looked at him. “Bye Da.” She happily joined Andi and the two little blonds disappeared.

“Thanks for thinking about Andi helping. “Chris told his friend with a relieved smile. “It’s getting increasingly harder to find ways to convince her to do things without having to resort to bribery.”

“Andi is our little miracle worker. It's hard for anyone to say no to her.” Vin started to laugh, but stopped when Kelli entered the room. The look of male appreciation in his eyes told her he approved of her appearance.

“Hey Dad,” she said, hugging Chris. “Are you still nervous about this date?”

“I’m not nervous, and this is not a date. It’s a birthday dinner with friends.” Grabbing his coat, he opened the door and turned. “Cait and I are friends, period. I am happy with my life just the way it is. You talked me into this and I’ll go, but don’t expect anything to change. No more matchmaking from you two, understood?”

Vin put his arm around Kelli’s waist, and squeezed enough for her to get the message that he would handle Chris. “Sure thing, Cowboy,” he grinned. “If you feel so strongly about it, we can take Cait to dinner and you can stay here with the kids. That way you don’t have to be involved.”

“What? No… I never said I didn’t want to take her to dinner. I do. I just…she’s …we…hell. Can we go now?” He limped out the door mumbling. No way was he ready to change his life. Dinner was dinner, nothing more. By the time he reached the truck, he had it worked out in his mind, more or less. His life was comfortable, and filled with family he loved. He was committed to his kids and his work; it was enough to keep him content. Wasn’t it?

Chapter 19

With the dawn of each new day, the sun breaks over the horizon, gifting the world with its brilliant rays. Some confused souls, blinded by pain and confusion, turn away from the brightness. They are afraid to expose their wounded spirits, and draw back into the cover of darkness. Others eagerly walk toward the light, seeing it as a beacon leading them to the pathway of healing, and happiness.

Sunday, January 20th ~ Dunne Home ~ 11:00 a.m.

Nettie bustled around in the kitchen, checking on the dishes she was preparing for Casey’s big announcement dinner. Satisfied that it was coming together rather well, she decided to take a break. Pouring herself a cup of hot tea, she took it and sat down at the table, propping her feet up on another chair

Casey rushed into the room, staring at her Aunt in exasperation. “You’re sitting down? We have a ton of things still left to do before everyone gets here.”

Nettie gave her niece a disapproving look. “Young lady I've been at this since six this morning, where have you been?”

“Well, I've been taking care of the kids and looking after JD.” Casey huffed; feeling a bit slighted at the look Nettie gave her. “The twins are little terrors right now, and JD is no help. He couldn't find his own head if it wasn't attached to his neck.”

The older woman set her cup down and looked at her niece. “Two-year-olds are a handful, I'll admit, but you aren't giving JD the credit he's due. It's hard to be a full time husband, father, and federal agent. You know how much the others depend on his expertise with computers. He does more than his fair share around here, too.”

“Fine,” she snapped. “Why do I even try to discuss these things with you, since you almost always side with JD?”

“Casey Dunne, that couldn't be the furthest from the truth. You have always come first in my life since the day I took you in, but I will not sit here and listen to uncalled for remarks like that.” She took a deep breath and let it out. Arguing with her niece today was the last thing she wanted to do. Casey's hormones were out of whack due to the new pregnancy, and she was willing for now to allow her some slack. “Let's not fight, Casey. This is supposed to be a happy day for you and JD. Why don't we just concentrate on what else needs to be done?”

A knock sounded at the back door and Nettie rose from her chair to answer it, smiling to see Caitlyn standing on the back porch. “Morning, Caitlyn, come on in.”

Taking off her coat to hang it on the rack by the door, the newcomer explained. “I know I'm way earlier than is necessary, but I was thinking that maybe the two of you could use an extra pair of hands.”

Nettie started to respond, but Casey interrupted her. “Aunt Nettie’s got everything under control. I want to hear details about your birthday dinner with Chris.”

Casey seated herself at the table. Nettie offered to get Caitlyn a cup of tea, but Cait gestured for her to sit back down. Picking up Nettie’s empty mug, she moved over to the stove where the teakettle was setting. “Would you like a refill?”

“Thank you, I could go for another cup.”

Cait refilled Nettie's mug, and poured another mug of tea for herself before joining them at the table.

“Okay so tell me,” Casey leaned forward “Where did he take you? How was it? Did he kiss you?”

“Casey,” Nettie exclaimed. “You don’t ask a lady that kind of question.”

“Why not?” Casey asked innocently. “She likes him, he likes her. Besides, I tell her things about me and JD all the time.”

Cait cleared her throat and did not address what Casey said. She wished everyone would stop assuming that she and Chris were more than just friends. “It wasn't a date, Casey. Vin and Kelli were there as well. We spent a nice evening talking about the kids, horses, and new vehicles.” Cait grinned. “Actually Vin and Chris got into a running commentary comparing the specs of Chris's Ram and Vin's new Navigator. Kelli shared some recent photos of the twins with me, until the guys caught on to the fact they were monopolizing the conversation and we manage to change the topic to miniature horses. Chris donated the ones his children received for Christmas to Reins of Change, and they have been an asset for us. You know what a hit they are with the younger children who participate in the program.”

“Gee, is that all? What kind of romance is that?” Casey said disappointedly, sitting back in her chair. “He didn't give you a gift or kiss you or anything?”

“He gave me a gift set of my favorite perfume, and no, he didn't kiss me.” Cait replied. “Even if he had wanted to kiss me when he took me home, Jesse made a big show of turning the porch light off and on to dissuade Chris from making any kind of romantic gestures toward me. It was a nice evening nevertheless. I enjoyed myself and I think Chris did too.”

The sounds of giggling from the other room drew Casey’s attention. She stood while shaking her head. “I told JD not to get the girls too worked up before the dinner, but he never listens to me.” She excused herself and left the room.

Caitlyn watched the young woman leave and sighed. There was something she wanted to address for a while now, but had not been sure about when to do it. Now it appeared, was the right time. “Nettie, how do you think Casey is handling the aftereffects of JD's arrest and hospitalization?”

Nettie hesitated only momentarily before answering. She knew Caitlyn cared about Casey’s welfare and she did not ask the question out of curiosity, but genuine concern. “I have noticed a change in her, but at first I believed it was due to her pregnancy. Now, I’m not so sure.” It was a relief to be able to discuss her uneasiness. She could not talk to Casey and would not add to JD’s worries until she knew more. “I know something is not right. The problem is I have no idea what to do or say about it while she is pregnant. She flies off the handle at the strangest things these days.”

“She does appear to have some unresolved issues about that time period.” Caitlyn covered Nettie's hand with one of her own. “I'll try to talk to her about what's going on, but she needs to acknowledge her feelings of anger and resentment. We’ll just have to be patient and hope she works it all out before the baby arrives.”

Larabee Home

Dottie has only been back a few hours, but already the Larabee household was in order. Chris got the children settled in, while Vin carried in the last of their things. They would be eating at the Dunne’s later in the afternoon,

“Why don’t you relax, Chris? I’ll see the kids down for their naps.” Dottie offered.

“Thanks, Dottie,” Chris said with relief. His knee was killing him. If he did not get off it soon, the rest of the day was not going to be fun.

Dottie left the room to tend to the children, as Vin carried in the last box. “I didn't realize how much crap one man and two children can accumulate in a week's time.”

Chris chuckled. “Ninety percent of it belongs to them.” He noticed Vin was looking at him. “What?”

“So, are you goin' to ask Cait out again?”

“Don't go there Tanner.” Chris growled. “I had a nice time, she's a good friend, and we'll probably go out to dinner again in the future. Whatever we do, I will be the one planning it. Not you or my daughter.”

Vin nodded, “Fair enough.” The whole point of their interference was to get Chris to think about moving on with his life and he was. He could handle it from here on all by himself. “I need to head to the house and help Kel get the kids goin’ or we’ll never make it to JD’s by two.”

“I wanted to thank you...” Chris started to say, but Vin cut him off.

“No thanks necessary, Cowboy, we're family. Besides I've spent my fair share of time in your spare room or on your couch over the years, and you never let me thank you.” Noticing the pained expression on his face Vin asked. “Are you goin' to be okay, Old Man, if I leave?”

“This old man can still kick your ass. Get out of here already!” Chris threw a couch pillow at the laughing Texan.

“I'll see you later.” Vin dodged the pillow and headed out the door.

Dunne Home ~ 1:45 p.m.

“JD, will you zip my dress?” Casey asked as she came out of the bathroom.

Slipping his shoes on first, he walked over to assist his wife. She turned her back to allow him access to the zipper and held still while he zipped it up. He had it almost at the top of the maroon maternity dress, when some strands of Casey's hair caught in it.

“Ouch,” she yelped. “Damnit, watch what you're doing.”

“If you had moved your hair out of the way, this wouldn't have happened,” JD retorted as he worked to free the strands loose.

“Next time I'll find someone more capable of working a zipper.” Casey snapped and pulled away from him, as the last strand came free.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Casey sighed, “Nothing, I’m just a little on edge today.” She turned and wrapped her arms around his neck.” I’m sorry, Baby.” Raining kisses on his face and throat, she pressed closer against him and whispered. “We still have fifteen minutes, time enough for a quickie.”

Taking her hands into his, he pulled them from his neck, smiling back at her. “As tempting as it sounds, we’ll have to wait. The family will start arriving any time now.”

Anger replaced her desire, “No time is a good time for you,” she hissed. “Your family is always more interesting than me.”

“I didn’t say that.” JD protested. “I said we don’t have the time right now.”

Casey turned to look in the mirror and seeing her reflection whined. “You think I’m ugly and fat.”

“No, you’re not.” JD tried to pull her back to him. “I think you are beautiful.”

She jerked away. “You are a liar and I am not going to stand here and listen to your excuses.” Storming out of the room, she slammed the door, leaving a very confused husband behind.


It took JD the next fifteen minutes to calm his angry wife enough to greet their friends when they entered the house. Casey played the part of a gracious hostess as she aided Nettie and Cait in getting the children situated in the family room with a movie, and then helped pass around appetizers and cold drinks.

Once everyone arrived and finished dinner, JD pulled Casey close, slipping his arm around her thickening waist and they took the floor. “We're glad you all could make it today. We wanted to wait until we were all together before we shared the news about our baby.” JD told the room. “It’s a boy, who will make his entrance into the world, on or around April sixteenth.”

A round of congratulations echoed through the room, accompanied by pats on the back to JD and kisses for Casey.

Gathering around JD, his brothers welcomed him to the father of sons club. Swinging his arm around JD’s shoulder, Buck grinned toward Ezra. “We all have a boy now except you, Slick. When do you plan to get started?”

Fire flashed in Ezra’s emerald eyes, but he contained his anger. “If you insist on using that detested nickname, I would prefer it that you only did so at school,” he told Buck quietly. “As to a son, I assure you, Barbara and I practice our technique for having one on a regular basis.”

“Don't we all,” Vin quipped, and then glanced at Chris. “Well, almost all of us.” His words earned him a fierce glare from Larabee.

Nathan thought it was an opportune time to change the subject. “Josiah, you saw Hannah yesterday, how is she?”

“Better than I could have hoped for,” Josiah smiled. “Hannah’s still not fully back to where she was before her medication was switched, but she has made a lot of progress. She smiled when the doctor allowed me to see her alone and she even drew me a picture. Her prognosis for a recovery is good.”

“That's great to hear,” JD expressed what they were all thinking. “Ice did enough damage to all of us without Hannah having to suffer permanently because of it.”

“Yeah she did,” Chris thought about what could have been.

Vin saw the sadness creeping up on Chris and nudged him. “JD is alive and well, Kel is back all the way, and the old wounds Ice opened are healin’. What she did to us is all just a bad memory.”

The seven of them stood silently for a moment and then Chris held out his hand. Six hands followed, covering one on top of another, reinforcing the bond they shared. It did not matter where they traveled or how far, nothing could change the fact that what was, would always be. Tracker and Cowboy had proven it and these men lived it.


Across the room, Kelli tried for the third time to gain Casey’s attention. “Woman, have you heard a word I’ve said?”

“What did you say?” Casey had been staring at the seven men. It irked her that they always ended up together. Today of all days she expected JD to be at her side, not theirs.

Kelli sighed. “I said I have a lot of infant boys’ outfits, in almost new condition, which our boys have outgrown. You are more than welcome to them. Come over and go through them anytime you want.”

“Uh huh,” Casey absently answered, her eyes still fixed on the huddle of brothers. “Doesn’t it bother any of you that every time we all get in one place, they always end up together?”

Rain laughed. “It’s been that way since I’ve known Nathan. If they didn’t all end up huddled together I’d be worried.”

“It comes with the territory, Casey, you know that.” Mallory said. “Josiah is a wonderful, thoughtful husband, a terrific father. He gives me plenty of time to share with him, but his bond with those men is a part of who he is, and I for one wouldn’t want it any different.”

“Same here,” Barbara agreed. “I know Ezra loves me, but he needs his brothers too. They are to him, the family he never had. If he hadn’t learned to open up his feelings with them, he would never have been able to open himself to living a life with me.”

“Buck misses them all so much,” Inez shook her head. “He is just too stubborn to admit he needs to be with them as much as he needs to breathe air. I hope he figures out sooner rather than later where he belongs. All we do is fight lately and I know it’s because he’s not happy.”

“Face it Casey, they’ve been together longer than any of us have been in their lives,” Kelli looked over to where the men stood and smiled. “Their bond is a part of who they are, and what they’ve been through brought them all safely to us. Lord, girl, you should know that more than any of us. You and JD have been close since the team's early days. I came in to this bunch late, but you won’t hear me complain.”

“That’s my point,” Casey argued. “I admit they work well together, but damnit they see one another all the time. You and Mal see your husbands at work. Inez, Rain, and Barbara know what I’m saying. Is it too much to ask to have my husband to myself at least for the weekends without sharing him? “

“I have my Buck home a lot now, but having an unhappy husband at home is not worth the toll it is taking on both of us.” Inez sighed. “I would rather share a happy Buck with his brothers than go through this.”

Mallory gave her a hug. “He’ll work it out. Right now they want to give him the space he asked for, and if he doesn’t come around soon, I’m certain the others will intervene.” She chuckled. “Show him the error of his ways.”

Inez smiled. “I know. It’s just taking longer than I had hoped.”

Cait had been listening to the conversation without commenting, but felt she needed to say something. “Granted, I don’t know your husbands as well as you all do, but I do know a thing or two about healthy relationships.” She nodded toward the seven men. “Those men have found something in each other that helps bring out the best in each one. The fact that those who love them see it and accept it is good for all involved.”

Casey realized she was not going to get the support she wanted, and decided to nudge things along a bit. “Excuse me ladies, I have a husband to claim.”


Vin felt the phone vibrate in his pocket and pulled it out to identify the caller. It was Bones. Flipping it open, Tanner said. “I didn’t expect to hear from you until tomorrow. What did you find?” Listening intently, he felt his stomach knot up when he heard Bones verify the fact of Carter’s death. There was no mistake. The man MCAT had been searching for was dead, and had been for at least three years. “Thanks for lettin’ me know. Go home and get some rest, we’ll see you tomorrow.”

Chris looked at Vin expectantly. “You plan on telling us what’s going on?”

“Royce Carter is dead, and has been for three years,” Vin sighed. “I didn’t want to say anythin’ until Bones confirmed it. He just returned from California, where a hiker found the body partially exposed in a shallow grave. Whoever is behind puttin’ these weapons on the street wanted us to believe it was Carter to throw us off their trail and it worked.”

“Damn,” Chris shook his head. “I guess we’re back to square one. The weapons are being shipped from Fort Carlson on the thirty-first, which doesn’t leave us much time to find new players.” He thought for a moment. “Nathan, first thing in the morning I want you to go over the forensics we have again. Josiah, we need a new profile, taking Carter out of the equation. Ezra…”

“I will endeavor to collect new information as quickly as possible.” Standish realized they had lost too much precious time chasing the wrong man.

Chris nodded. “Buck, I know you’re not involved, but if you hear anything that could help Ezra…”

“I will,” Buck suddenly felt guilty about giving Ezra a hard time. Too many lives were at stake to indulge his pettiness.

“JD, we need to double our efforts on finding Bitsy. She dropped Carters’ name, so she must be more involved in this network than we gave her credit for.” Chris exhaled. “I misread her from the get-go, and because of that, its cost us time.”

“I’ll start on it now.” JD stated, his usual exuberance instantly kicking in. “I can access CASSIE from here.” His mind was already working. “Where was Carter’s body found, Vin?”

“A wooded area near the foothills, west of Los Angeles,” Vin answered

JD nodded, “That gives me a place to start.”

“Start what?” Casey walked up in time to hear his last statement. “I know after all the hard work I put into this dinner, you are not standing here discussing work.”

JD groaned inwardly. Casey was not going to be thrilled about what he needed to do, but it couldn't be helped. He had a job to uphold and he wasn't going to let Chris and the others down “Something’s come up. “JD said as he turned around to face his wife. “Vin got a call regarding the case we are currently working on. I'm going to have to do some work from home tonight.”

Casey fumed. “I thought we had plans.” She crossed her arms across her chest and glared at her husband.

“I'm sorry, honey." JD said, "If it wasn't so important that I do this, you know I wouldn't."

"When am I going to be more important to you than MCAT?" Casey exclaimed, her voice growing louder by the minute. She gestured angrily at the six men surrounding him and shouted, "Or them!"

JD flushed heatedly at his wife's words, but worked to control his own growing anger. “Casey, if you wish to discuss this, we’ll do it later, but not out here in front of our friends and family."

“Why can't we discuss it in front of them? They are after all who we're going to be fighting about." Casey spat out.

"Casey, that's enough!" JD told his wife. "We'll talk about this in the bedroom!"

"Go to hell, JD, and take your precious brothers with you." Casey ran out of the living room, leaving a stunned silence in her wake.

JD felt embarrassment fill him. How could he ever face his brothers and their wives again? He just did not understand what was going on with Casey anymore. She was so angry and resentful one moment, and then tender and loving the next.

Buck placed a supportive hand on JD's shoulder." Are you okay?"

JD turned to face his brothers. “I am so sorry. I don't know what's gotten into her."

“She’s pregnant,” Vin smiled. “Enough said.”

"Don't apologize," Chris spoke up. “None of us are going to hold any of what Casey said against her, or you. You just worry on straightening things out between the two of you."

“All right," JD said with relief. “I’ll get to looking further into Bitsy's background as soon as I talk to Casey."

"If you can't get to it until tomorrow, I'll understand." Chris assured him." Go talk to Casey. We'll help Nettie clean up in here before we head for home."

JD nodded and then left the room. Reaching their bedroom, he opened the door and quietly went inside. Casey was lying on the bed, and as he got closer, he realized she was already asleep. He stood beside the bed and watched her breathe. She was the only woman he had ever loved, the mother of his children, and his wife. If only he could understand her mood swings, their life would be damn near perfect. Sighing, he removed her shoes and covered her with a quilt. It was doubtful she would even comment on her outburst; much less discuss the reason for it. All he could do was love her, and hope once their son was born his old Casey would return.


Bill Patterson paced while he talked on the phone. “What the hell are you doing calling me at home?” Listening intently he crushed the glass he was holding in his other hand and began a slew of curses, “Damnit, why now? Carter has been dead for three years. We’re ten days, ten fucking days away from the biggest score of our lives, and some asshole finds his body.” He threw the phone across the room, took a deep breath and then grinned. It would be okay. Bill Patterson might not be able to pull this off, but fortunately, his alter ego, William Fowler knew just what he had to do.

Chapter 20

Another page turns, and a new chapter of life begins.

Monday, January 21st ~ Reins of Change ~ 6: 30 a.m.

Caitlyn stood back and watched when Chris drove up to the daycare building. Today was a big day for Grace Larabee. If all went well, she would be embarking on a new routine that would help her find the confidence to say goodbye to her father without tears and temper tantrums.

Grace smiled and took Chris’s hand, “Me go work, now.”

“Yes you do, munchkin,” he said, lifting her up for a kiss. “Miss Sally is waiting for you.”

Wiggling out of his arms, she skipped off toward the door, enthusiastically waving to her father. “Bye, Da.”

Once Grace was inside, Caitlyn walked over to Chris. “It looks promising.”

“She couldn’t wait to get over here.” Chris grinned. “Hell, she practically dragged me out of the house, before I even finished my coffee.” He leaned against the corral fence, draping his arms over the railing, and was pleased when Caitlyn did the same next to him. “Your idea appears to be the solution I’ve been looking for.”

“Grace is smart, headstrong, and very perceptive.” Cait smiled. “She’ll be keeping you on your toes for years.”

Chris groaned. “Between her and Kel, I guess I should be thankful I only have two daughters to keep up with.” Tilting his head, he watched Cait, reading the look of worry in her eyes. He’d seen that same look at Nettie’s the day before. “You’re concerned about Casey aren’t you?”

“A bit,” Cait confessed. “I realize being pregnant can add stress to a woman’s daily life, but…,”she hesitated. “Casey has had some major stress factors in her life over the past few months. JD’s emergency surgery in September, her home invaded by the FBI, her children terrorized, and then seeing her husband hauled off in handcuffs, possibly facing a long prison sentence.”

“It didn’t end there,” Chris sighed. “Ice tried to kill him twice. Casey had her hands full trying to be there for him, the girls, and take care of herself. Not to mention, the dust up he and Vin engaged in last week.” He turned to face Caitlyn. “She’s got grit though, and an Aunt who has set a good example for her. Nettie Wells is one helluva woman, and she’s taught Casey to be strong.”

Cait nodded. “I agree, but sometimes being strong isn’t enough. Juggling home life with work, and challenges from outside the norm can overwhelm anyone if circumstances are right. Take some stress, add in a dose of changing hormones, a dash of depression, and you‘ll see the type of mood swings we saw yesterday.” She paused for a moment, “I’m going to go over later today and visit with her for a while.”

"Talking about it couldn't hurt." Chris agreed, his eyes taking in the sun kissed golden highlights in her hair, and the cute way her nose wrinkled up when she was thinking hard.

Chris shifted his weight more onto his left leg and winced as pain shot through his right knee. Caitlyn's eyes lowered to his knee for a moment before letting them rise back up to his face. "Is the brace helping to alleviate any of the pain?”

“It’s helped enough for me to drive from my house to here, and to Vin's, but it’s only a temporary measure.” Chris had resigned himself to the fact that it was going to take surgery to fix the problem. ”As soon as the swelling goes down, I'm scheduled for arthroscopy surgery."

“Sounds painful," Cait said with a shudder.

"I was really worried about going through the whole knee surgery thing, but with this type of procedure, I can have it done all in one day, as an out patient." Chris explained. "A few days on crutches, six weeks of physical therapy, and I'm good as new."

"Does Grace know?"

"She only knows that her daddy has a booboo," Chris grinned, “I reckon that’s enough for now.”

Cait smiled. "It’s a start."

Chris glanced down at his watch. "I've got to get going. Thanks again for suggesting this Cait."

"You're welcome. Don't worry about Grace, she'll be fine. I'll have her home by her nap time."

“If you think there's anything I can do to help Casey out, you'll let me know?"

“Of course I will," she assured him. Cait watched as he climbed into the driver's seat, turned the key and drove away, before she headed inside.

MCAT Office ~7:30 a.m.

Chris or Vin were usually the first to arrive at the MCAT office, this morning it was JD. Just as he expected, Casey would not even acknowledge her meltdown at the dinner, and acted as if nothing was wrong. He had left the house early, wanting some alone time to think about what was going on in his life. Actually, he had enjoyed the time when Casey was carrying the twins, they experienced a number of up and down days, but they did it together. This go round he had no clue as to what was happening with his wife, only that he had come to expect the unexpected.

Since Ice had entered their lives not much was what he considered normal anymore. JD was determined to prove his importance to the team, and prove he was not the weak link Ice had implied when she chose him as her target. Maybe he was spending too much time at work, but he felt compelled to be here.

“Earth to JD, are you there?” Vin tapped him on the shoulder attempting to get his attention for the third time.

"Huh? What? Oh, hi Vin."

Vin quirked an eyebrow at him. "You okay, Kid?”

JD leaned back in his chair and stretched his back. He considered telling Vin he was fine, but resisted the urge. His brothers and their wives had all witnessed the most recent weird episode between him and Casey. There was no sense in him trying to pretend everything was all right. He sighed. "Is it possible to be in the center of a situation and not even know what the hell is going on?"

Vin chuckled. "With this bunch, anythin’ is possible."

Seeing the serious look in JD's dark eyes, Vin sobered. "I suppose it is very possible. Why? Is that how you are feelin' right now?"

JD nodded. "I've already shared a little bit of what was going on between me and Casey, but there are other things too. You saw how upset she got last night, but when I went to the bedroom to talk to her, she was fast asleep. This morning she acted as if nothing had happened."

Chris came in from the break room, where he had finished making coffee, and overheard JD’s remarks. “What goes on in a woman’s mind is a mystery to men. They are not easy to understand, and damn confusing most of the time. Pregnancy tends to make them even more complicated.”

“Says who?” Kelli asked from the doorway.

All three men turned to look at her. Vin and Chris both recognized the expression on her face. "Now, Kel," Vin held up his hand. “Don’t go off, and get all bent out of shape here.”

"Don't you Kel me, Vin Tanner.” She glared at him, Chris, and JD in turn. “Please enlighten me with your vast knowledge of just how complicated and hard to understand, we women are."

Chris groaned. This was so not what he needed. Pissing off a Larabee-Tanner did not bode well for how the rest of the day would turn out. One look at JD’s face told him this was neither the time nor place for venting. "That's going to take far more time than just one day to explain, so put a damper on that temper of yours, and let's concentrate on work."

“Yes, Sir,” Kelli snapped, moving on to her desk without saying a word to her husband.

*Don't worry Cowboy, I'll settle her ruffled feathers.*

*You better, or else there's going to be hell to pay for the both of us.*

JD observed the quiet conversation going on between Vin and Chris and for once was thankful he wasn't able to communicate that way as well. His head hurt bad enough as it was, without having more than one voice in there talking. He briefly massaged his temples, reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of aspirin, popped the lid and took two. Holding up the bottle, he offered, “Either of you want one?"

"No thanks, JD," Vin said heading for the break room and the coffee pot.

Chris shook his head, "I'm good.” Passing Gunny on his way to his office he stopped and told her. “Team meeting in one hour, set it up.”

West End Junior High

Buck had given considerable thought to the conversation he had shared with his brothers, yesterday afternoon at the Wells Ranch. He was beginning to realize that although being a physical education teacher had its merits; it was not necessarily the right career choice for him. The life changing decision he had made to retire from MCAT, he made with the best of intentions. He really believed that working in a less stressful environment would rid his mind of the horrible nightmares about his inability to save Danny. Instead, he had walked into a situation that came with its own hazards. Although it was not on the same level of danger he faced on a daily basis as a federal agent, it was dangerous nevertheless. Paul Willis, brutally stabbed before his arrival, was the teacher Buck had replaced. Since his first day at the school, two other teachers had become victims as well. One had lost his life, and the other, hospitalized. Buck was beginning to wonder how many other schools faced such violence.

As he entered the teachers’ lounge, he overheard a heated conversation between Jon Winters and George Strider.

“What has the two of you so riled up on a beautiful morning such as this?" Buck asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“George, here, is considering going to the police and making a report, but I'm trying to talk him out of it." Jon revealed.

"Why?” Buck settled himself into a chair at their table.

"Why what? Why do I want to talk to the police or why is he trying to talk me out of it?" George inquired.

"Why to both, I suppose." Buck contemplated his next words. "If I remember correctly you were just as adamant about no one talking to law enforcement officials, as Jon here was. What’s changed?"

"I'm not so sure talking to the police is going to do any bit of good, but if I'm going to end up dead, I'd like to do it on my own terms, and not because I was too scared to do the right thing."

Buck nodded. “I can definitely understand your reasoning behind that.”

George began to rant, “I became a teacher because I believe educating children should be a priority in our society. However, I did not sign up to be a self-defense instructor, personal bodyguard, and referee for a bunch of smart mouth, disrespectful teenagers. My car has been vandalized more times than I can count on one hand, I've had a knife pulled on me, books thrown at my head, and I've been spit on. I've seen gang hangouts with more security than they have on this campus. Principal Morgan understands the dangerous situation that we are all in, however his hands are tied when it comes to getting us the necessary funds needed to secure the school and make it safer for all of us concerned. All the money allocated to the school district skips right over us and funneled into other, more prestigious schools in the area. The students here need the extra incentive to stay in school, and the best teachers to help them succeed."

"You've made a lot of good points." Buck agreed.

“Point or no point,” Jon jumped in. “We put ourselves at risk just to teach here. Why make us a bigger target by going to the police?”

“Mark my words,” George argued. “If something doesn’t change soon, it’s only going to get worse.”

Regardless of what George decided, Buck made up his mind that he was going to discuss the situation with Chris at the first opportunity. Listening to Jon and George, as they continued to argue convinced him more trouble was on the horizon for West end Junior High.

MCAT Team meeting

Once everyone settled in, Chris wasted no time in starting the meeting. “We have a lot to cover, and we’ll begin with discussion about the new MCAT unit. Justin has accepted the position to lead MCAT2 here in Denver.” Murmurs of congratulations circled the room. “I will be conducting interviews with all of you when our current case is over. If you are interested in a lateral transfer to his team, we’ll talk about the detail at that time.

Moving on…, Raphael, welcome back. I hope you rested during your time off, because as of today our days are going to get longer.”

Raphael rolled his eyes. “I can't say marrying off a daughter is restful, it’s more like launching the troops into a war zone. After that, anything you have to throw at me will be a piece of cake.”

Laughter filled the war room.

"There's always a comedian in the midst.” Chris smiled despite himself. As the laughter eased away, he grew serious again. “Royce Carter is dead and has been for three years or more. We have spent a considerable amount of man-hours chasing a ghost. Now, we start over. Justin, you take the board, and the rest you tell me…. What do we know?”

Justin rose from his seat at the table and took up a position near the large case board. He quickly used an eraser to wipe it clean, and then stood poised to write new information.

Guy started with the latest gang unit report. “Our death toll stands at twenty-one as of last night. In addition, firebombs were set off over the past week at several businesses. The flood of weapons onto the street has tripled since the first of the year, and Denver’s street war is in full bloom.”

"We know somebody wants us to back off." Vin stated. "JD and I got that painful message real clear."

JD picked up his notes. “We know Lorraine 'Bitsy' Fowler is the daughter of Louise Fowler Chavez, Carlos Chavez’s ex-wife."

"Ray Montoya designed the bombs on the Carter property, and he is a known associate of Carlos for the past ten years." Nathan added.

“We know Chavez from back in our ATF days. He runs guns on the black market.” Josiah paused as he glanced down at his notes. “My biggest concern about his involvement is the fact that Carlos Chavez makes more money selling weapons to foreign markets than he could ever accumulate by dealing with small time gangs. What is the point of him being involved in a street war in Denver? It doesn't make any sense."

Chris thought about what Josiah said. "Even small time gangs have been known to hookup with big time hoods upon occasion as foot soldiers. There has to be something bigger going on here than we've touched on."

“Are you suggesting there might be a terrorist threat, or sleeper cell operation?" Kelli asked.

"We can't rule out any possibility." Chris said.

“There are several high profiled events taking place around Denver within the next two weeks.” JD read off his notepad. “A shipment of unarmed nuclear warheads from Fort Carson will be passing through Denver on January thirty-first. A new annex for the state courthouse will be breaking ground the same day, and the lieutenant governor will be there to cut the ribbons. The Super bowl will be on February third. On February eighth, another shipment of smaller firearms will be leaving Fort Carson. These events will also be monitored by Homeland Security.”

“Then we need to focus on them too. Given Chavez’s history, we concentrate on the weapons shipments to start with, but not exclusively.” Chris ordered. Looking around the table, he asked, “Anything else?”

"Finnias, or rather Ezra, has targeted Bill Patterson as another possible player in our case." Vin told the room of agents.” We just don’t know if, or how he fits into the movement of the weapons.”

Chris nodded. “I believe Bitsy Fowler has more to do with this than we first thought. JD, you keep CASSIE running hot and heavy on her and Chavez, also on Carter’s death. I want to know what we’re up against as soon as possible. Justin, take Raphael and Alex, I want the three of you to go back on our files from day one of the Carter investigation, find what we missed. Guy, you and Brad give Captain Richards an update when you go in to work with the gang unit tonight. Nathan, you and Mark, go back over the explosive device used, find me a direct connection to Chavez. Oh, and JD, I want a current photo of Chavez on my desk A.S.A.P. Kelli, you start on an in-depth research of Chavez’s black market operation…go back ten years, I want the names of anyone who worked for the man. Josiah…”

“Working on the new profile now,” Sanchez said as he left for his office, following the other agents out of the room.

Chris sat down and sighed.” Vin, you ever feel like you’re in the middle of something, and have no idea what the hell it is?”

Vin thought about JD’s earlier question and chuckled. “There seems to be a lot of that goin’ around lately.”

Standish Home ~ evening

Barbara was an observant woman, especially where Ezra was concerned. The fact that he and Buck barely spoke directly to one another yesterday afternoon did not escape her attention. Standing at her husbands study door, she felt compelled to ask him about it.

Walking over to where he sat behind his desk, she began to massage his shoulders. “Hon, what’s going on with you and Buck? Something you can talk about?”

You noticed?"

She chuckled softly. “It was kind of hard to miss."

Ezra stopped writing and relaxed into the massage Barbara was giving him. “Buck is feeling slighted at being left out of MCAT business, even though we are only doing what he asked of us. Since day one of his encounter with 'Finnias', he's relished in tormenting me with snide remarks as well as calling me by the detestable nickname 'Slick'."

“Sticks and stones, darling,” she leaned down and whispered in his ear. “Are you certain that’s all it is?”

“Yes…no…,” Ezra sighed. “I’ve done a lot of undercover work and seen just about everything. At least I thought so, but these kids…I suppose it’s too easy for most of us to close our eyes and not see what’s happening to our youth.” He reached for her hand. “Your work with children is more important than anything I can contribute. All I can do is arrest the ones who become criminals, after they are failed by a system which is ill equipped to handle the overload of kids affected by poverty, drugs, gangs, and abuse.”

“I know it bothers you, it does me too,” Barbara decided to share her decision with him. “That’s one reason I want to open my own law firm." Barbara spilled her news in a rush.

“I thought you were happy working at Reins of Change?"

"Oh I am, and I wouldn't be quitting Reins, but there’s not enough work there to keep me busy." Barbara was quick to explain. "I want to open an office, here. I can still be accessible to Caitlyn if she needs me, but I can also handle more cases involving the children who need representation.”

Ezra took a few moments to consider carefully what Barbara had told him. She waited patiently for his decision. "If opening a practice here is something you truly want to do, then of course I'll support you." Holding her, he turned the chair toward the desk, pushed his paperwork aside, and grabbed a fresh legal pad. “We can start by making a list of what you’ll need.” He picked up his pen. “We have plenty of room, but I think you need an office with an outside entrance. We can use the contractor who built the house….” Enthusiastically they worked together to set her idea into motion.

Tanner Home ~ late evening

The enclosed patio attached to their bedroom was warm, in spite of the dropping temperature beyond the glass enclosure. Kelli sat on a lounge chair waiting for Vin to join her. He said he had a few things to do and would be right out.

Sliding the door open with his foot, Vin balanced two glasses and a bottle of wine in his hands and then closed it the same way. He approached the lounger and smiled when he saw Kelli huddled under a blanket, in spite of the heat radiating in the enclosed area.

”Lean forward, baby.” He straddled the chair behind her, handing her the glasses to hold. Max and Walter went home, the house is secure the intercom is set, our bedroom door is locked, and the kids are down for the count. I’m all yours, Baby.”

Kelli settled back once he was comfortable, and snuggled against him. “You, me, the stars, and a bottle of wine, what more could I ask for?”

Vin popped the cork on the wine and carefully filled their glasses. Setting the bottle on the floor next to the chair, he took a glass from Kelli and proposed a toast, “To us, our life, and many future years together.”

They sat silently for a while, simply enjoying the closeness they had both missed over the past three months. Kelli was not sure if it was the two additional glasses of wine or the heat of Vin’s embrace, but she was definitely not cold anymore.

“I’ve been thinkin’ about yesterday. Do you think Casey’s okay?” Kelli turned her head slightly to see Vin’s face.

“She’s pregnant, Kel.” He smiled, expecting those three words to explain everything. The look on her face said they did not. Trying a different approach, he then dug a deeper hole for himself. “You of all people should know how women get when their hormones run amuck.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Kelli punched him in the ribs. “Don’t start with that women are a mystery crap again.”

Instead of yelping, he laughed and grabbed her hand, “Easy, Sassy. It only means that you had a few strange reactions to bein’ pregnant too. Maybe you didn’t go ballistic in front of the family, but you did have some screwed up reasonin’.”

“Really?” She turned around in his arms. “Name one time I went off the deep end.”

Vin answered with one word, “Blaze.”

“I did what I had to do.”

“You did what you thought you had to do,” Vin corrected her. ”Damn near gave me a heart attack when you walked into Bubba’s bar all decked out as Blaze. I reckoned I’d have to kill somebody to get you out of there safe and sound.”

“It worked out okay.” She grinned, while trailing her fingertips down his jaw. “You liked the outcome if I recall.”

“You, woman, are incorrigible.” He stroked his fingers through her hair. “The next time I see Blaze, it better be somewhere a helluva lot safer than Rocky Meadows.”

“You want to see her again? “ Kelli could not resist the urge to tease. “Been thinkin’ about Blaze, huh?”

“Blaze is on my ‘to do’ list,” he chuckled. “Now that our twins aren’t dependin’ solely on you for their meals, we should make a few changes in our schedule, too.”

“What do you have in mind, Tanner?”

“More nights like this one for starters,” he kissed her brow, “just you and me. We definitely should make time to spend at our cabin, and take up havin’ our once a week dates again. Maybe even throw in a fantasy night occasionally.”

“Fantasy night?” Relaxing in his arms, Kelli sighed contently. “Pour us another glass of wine, and tell me more.”

Life was good again. Their relationship was healthy, strong and uninhibited. The contentment in their souls confirmed there were no walls between them and both of them were ready for the next chapter of their lives to begin.

Chapter 21

“I get by with a little help from my friends.”


West End Junior High ~Midnight

William Fowler, AKA as Bill Patterson, was what his father called ‘a paranoid sonofabitch’. While he might not argue with the sonofabitch part, he considered himself careful, not paranoid, at least until lately. Days away from completing the biggest score of his life, he was becoming obsessive about it falling apart. First Bitsy lost her cool and tried to kill two Federal agents, and now thanks to her, MCAT was breathing down their necks.

Lately, he was hearing rumbling from the gangs he had been funneling weapons to, about the exorbitant prices he forced them to pay. If he did not need them as a diversion, he would already have told them to go to hell. Then they lost their perfect cover when, by pure dumb shit luck, Royce Carter’s body had been found. Not that he cared that the man was dead; Carter deserved the bullet in his brain for trying to hold out on him during their last deal. It was just bad timing for his corpse to show up now. On top of all of it, the teacher who had replaced the last coach was an ex-cop. So far, there were not any signs Wilmington was onto his plans, but he had to be certain.

Easing open the door to the coach’s office, Bill did not turn on the office lights. The beam from his flashlight would have to do. Wanting to get in and out quickly, he hurried over to Wilmington’s desk and crouched down. Reaching into his pocket, with a gloved hand, he brought out a small, state of the art listening device and attached it to the underside of one of the drawers. Satisfied that he would not miss any conversation, which took place in this room, he retreated. He turned just before shutting the door, making sure everything was in order.

*Okay Coach, if you’re clean we have no problem. But if I hear one word that could lead to my operation being compromised…you are a dead man.*

MCAT Office ~ 10:00 a.m. ~ Monday, January 28th

Chris threw the file he was reading on the desk, and ran his hand over his face. For the past seven days, the unit had worked to find a link to Chavez, or his next target, and they still had shit. However, they did have a current picture of Chavez, and according to Vin and JD, he was not the unknown who came into the warehouse to deliver the ‘back off’ message to MCAT. “Damnit all to hell, what are we missing?”

Assisting Chris with the new teams was an okay assignment, but Kelli missed being in the middle of the action, sharing space in Chris’s office had its drawbacks too. She looked up from the personnel reports he had her working on. “You know, if you keep pushin’ like this, you’re makin’ yourself a prime candidate for a heart attack or stroke.”

“You’re not getting rid of me that easy.” Chris studied his daughter’s face. “Look, I know you are not happy about being stuck in here with me, but with this case, being shorthanded, impending surgery, and the start-up of the new units, I do need the help.”

“I know you do, and bein’ involved with the launching of the new units is definitely interesting work.” She sighed deeply. “I just don’t understand why you grounded me to a desk for sixty days. I am much better now. Ask Vin, he’ll tell you I’m all right.”

Chris nodded. “I know you are, but you’re still under Doctor Weeks’s care, and you need more time to heal. It’s my duty as your CO to know you're one hundred percent before I send you back to the streets with a gun...you, of all people should know that, Kel.”

“I wasn’t the only one victimized by Lady Ice. What about JD, who sat in jail and Ice damn near murdered? Or Vin, he thought we were dead, or you finding out the truth about Sarah and Adam? Everyone else?”

“Travis had a counselor come in to talk with each of us after it happened. Everyone talked to him except you and Vin. You were still recuperating, and Vin was not leaving your side.” Chris leaned forward. “I’ve discussed it enough with Vin to know that since you’re better, he’s okay. You, on the other hand, not only had a rough time with Ice, you lost a child, and did not give yourself proper time to grieve. Trust me; I know about grief, it sneaks up on you so, professionalism aside for a moment…..as your father, I’m asking for you to indulge me here, and understand.”

Kelli knew better than to argue with him about this issue. Chris was thinking more like her father than her Commander. His arguments were unreasonable to her way of thinking, Vin had to grieve, too, but she did not see him ordered to desk duty. For now, she would go along with him until the doctor’s prescribed vitamin regime, and hormone therapy kicked in. Once Vin put her back on a full training schedule, she vowed to revisit this conversation.

“I’ve finished with this batch of applications.” She set them in front of Chris. “You decide what you want me to do next, while I get us some coffee.”

Chris watched her walk out of the room. Maybe he was erring on the side of caution, but he was her father, damnit, and fathers did not have to be reasonable all the time.

West End Junior High School ~ 11:00 a.m.

Buck entered the gym and headed toward the locked storage area, which housed the school’s athletic equipment. He had already worked out in his head what his students would be doing the next class period. While he pulled out the gear they would need, the sound of hushed whispers reached his ears. He glanced around the gym, curious about the source. There did not appear to be anyone else in the there but him, yet he could quite clearly hear voices coming from somewhere close by.

Glancing over to his right, to the section of wooden benches lining the wall, he realized the sounds had to be coming from that direction. Buck started to move forward to find out who the voices belonged to, when the words ‘street rumble’, ‘January thirty-first, and ‘gangsters’, brought him to an abrupt halt. Maybe he could find out some information about gang activity and pass it on to Finnias. It might be something Chris could tie into the current case MCAT was working on. Regardless, any information he gathered would certainly benefit the Denver Gang Task Force in further cracking down on local gang activity in Denver.

A little voice in his head whispered. *You’re not a cop anymore, remember?*

*Shut up,* another voice in his head whispered back.

“Word is the big bust up is going down on the thirty-first,” an unidentified boy said loud enough for Buck to hear without too much straining.

"Yo son, what’s the dillio?" 

This voice, Buck recognized. It belonged to Jed ‘Sticks’ Maxwell, one of his students, who he had met a couple of years ago. He was one of “Vin’s kids” from his old neighborhood, Purgatorio. It was disheartening for him to learn Jed was involved, but if Buck had learned anything over the years, it was that you can’t save ‘em all.

“Block Baller is bankin’ five digits, and new firepower, on my brother, Manuel, and his homeys, to burn up the streets for a few hours. You in?”

“Hell-a yes.” A sharp whistle pierced the air. “Five digits, that’s a lot of greenbacks. Better not let the Coach catch wind of it or he’ll nark on you to Morgan.”

Buck bristled at the kid’s words, but did not reveal his presence. He groaned inwardly when the doors at the other end of the gym opened and students began streaming inside, their voices and shoes making it impossible for him to catch any more of the conversation. Not wanting anyone to tip off “Sticks” and his buddy that he’d been eavesdropping on their conversation, Buck began dragging out the rest of the equipment they would need for class.


Class was finally over, and Buck rushed back to his office. He reached for the phone to call Chris, but hung up before it rang once. *You’re not an agent any more. It’s Ezra’s job to pass the information to Chris, not yours.* Taking a chance, he punched in the number for Ezra’s cell, if he remembered correctly this was his free period, and he would probably answer.

“Finnias Prescott here,” Ezra’s voice carried a hint of annoyance. “How may I help you?”

“Hey Slick…” he caught himself. “ I mean Ez, this is Buck, I have some information I think you need to hear.”

“Thank you for the reminder, Sir. My workday ends at three; I will be by to pick up my package at that time.”

Buck chuckled, Ezra was unequivocally the master of misdirection, but he got the message. “I’ll meet you in my office at three.” Looking at his watch, he hurried to meet with his next class.


It was close to the end of the lunch period before Bill Patterson had an opportunity to check his recordings. Entering the empty locker room, he went straight to the end of the row and unlocked number eighty-eight. Using an earpiece, he listened, as he had every school day for the past week to the morning activities in Wilmington’s office, and his personal calls. He heard Buck make a call to his wife, a few curses when he was grading the written exams from last Friday, and….then he heard something disturbing. The ex-cop just could not butt out, could he? He had called Finnias and said he had information for him… Finnias Prescott the teacher?

“Goddamnit,” Bill hissed. An undercover cop, he had to be. Well, by God, he would make certain Mister Prescott did not miss his ‘package’, but he’d have to share it with Coach Wilmington. Shoving the recorder back inside, he slammed the locker door shut, locked it and glanced at the wall clock. He had less than three hours to prepare a surprise for the two men. He hoped that they got a big bang out of it.

Wilmington’s office ~ 3:00 p.m.

The note tacked to the door said, ‘be back by three-fifteen’. Ezra shook his head while pulling the message off the door, and smiled. Buck’s idea of subtle was akin to trying to disguise a two-ton bull, while it trampled through a china shop. Sitting his briefcase down, he looked around the small office. It was still difficult to comprehend why Buck had traded in his MCAT career for this. There was no doubt in his mind that education was important. While it could be a rewarding opportunity to reach a child in their formative years, what they did as federal agents was rewarding too. Maybe they never saw all the people affected by their success, but knowing they made a difference was enough.

Realizing he was not going to find the answer until Buck was ready to share more information, Ezra sighed, seated himself in the coach's chair, and prepared to wait. Noting the papers strewn over the top of the desk, he chuckled. Buck organizational skills had not improved. His brother’s strength was not neatness by any means, but he was a helluva investigator, and someone who had a natural ability to know instinctively, the right buttons to push during an interrogation. Standish had to admit, at least to himself, he missed Wilmington’s presence at work.

Ezra leaned back in the chair, intending to just close his eyes and relax for a moment. He stopped cold when his eyes caught sight of a message written on the wall above the door, “Bye-bye cop. Boom!”

Without moving, he scanned the area until he found what he was looking for.*Aw shit.* Barely visible on the underside of the desk was an explosive device attached to a red light, which was now blinking. Should he indulge his fear, and make a run for it, risking immediate annihilation, or follow his instincts, which were telling him not to move, and wait for Buck, who was after all an explosives expert?

MCAT Office ~3:00 p.m.

“Hey, Chris,” Vin said, walking into Larabee’s office. Taking a seat in a chair positioned opposite the desk, he continued, “I know we’re ass deep in problems here, but life on the ranch goes on. George just called me. Olsen is there to pick up the two mares he bought, and wants to make an offer on a third.”

“Which one?”

“The little bay you were working with before this case took over our lives.”

Chris nodded. She was one of his favorites. He hated to think about selling her, but he was only fooling himself if he thought he would get any time in the near future to work with her. Picking up the phone, he called the Larabee stables, and talked to George. “Put Olsen on the phone.” He only had to wait a moment. “Ward, the filly you’re interested in has impeccable bloodlines. I know she’s young and untested, but if you want her, it’ll cost you fifteen thousand and not a cent less. Even at that, she’s a bargain.”

Smiling as he listened to Ward Olsen attempt to negotiate a better price, Chris was immovable. Finally, the other man relented. “It’s a pleasure doing business with you, Ward. George will take care of the paperwork.”

Vin shook his head when Chris hung up the phone. “You enjoyed that way too much.”

“Yeah, I did, “Chris smirked. “Kel told me I was pushing myself into a heart attack, or stroke. Hell, maybe I should take a cue from Buck. Slow down, relax, and retire. Spend all my time with the horses.”

“You do that, Cowboy,” Vin scoffed, “but I bet it’d take you less time than Buck to be bored out of your freakin’ mind.”

Wilmington’s Office ~ 3:20 p.m.

Buck could already hear Ezra's southern accent in his head, dripping with sarcasm, and mentally see his face filled with annoyance at his tardiness. His reason for being late to their appointed meeting was because he had caught a student vandalizing a classmate's locker with profanity, and he had to escort the juvenile to the principal's office. Somehow, he did not think it would matter much to Ezra why he was late.

When he reached his office, he saw the door standing ajar, and he was already talking as he entered. "Look, I'm sorry I'm late, but I had to..."

"Buck." Ezra's eyes were stinging from the salty perspiration running into them. He did not know how long he had been in his present position, but it already felt like an eternity.

Buck continued to ramble on with his explanation, oblivious to Ezra's predicament. "I thought becoming a teacher would be a piece of cake compared to being a cop, but I was sorely mistaken. It seems like I do more policing than teaching around here.”

"Buck!" Ezra’s voice held a little more velocity to it as he tried again to gain his friend's attention.

"Anyway, that's done with, I'm here and we…”

"Mr. Wilmington, I require your immediate attention. NOW! I am in desperate need of your expertise.”

There was a note of something in Ezra's voice that finally got Buck's attention, and prompted him to move closer.

"What's the matter Slick, you look like you’re about to hurl?"

While Buck waited for Ezra to speak, he noticed that his friend's wide green eyes were locked on something beneath the desk, and he shifted his position so he could see whatever it was. Alarm flooded through him as he caught sight of the explosive bundle attached to the underside of the desk, and its ominous blinking red light. "Holy shit, Ez! Who did you piss off now?"

Glittering emerald green eyes moved off the explosives to bore a sizzling hole in Buck's face. If looks could kill, Buck knew he would be a goner. "Considering this is your office, your desk, and your chair, shouldn't the question be, who the fuck did you piss off?’"

"Good Point, Ez," Buck nodded.

Buck eased himself to his knees and tried to get a better look at the bomb, without jostling Ezra and the chair. Under the crisscrossed strips of silver duct tape, Buck could see clear baggies filled with gray, clay- like substance. There was enough C4 to light up the main building of the school and then some. At one end of the package was a small black metal box with a flashing red light. Running out of the metal box were six different color-coded wires. His eyes followed the ends of them down in a small loop and then across the couple of inches of space between the desk and chair where they were attached to the bottom of the seat with what he identified as a motion sensor.

It obviously was set up for him and if he, at a heavier weight, had sat in that chair instead of Standish the bomb would already have detonated. As long as Ezra sat still, they would be in no danger, if he moved they were dead. *No sense in worrying Ez about that small detail now.*

Ezra could not stand Buck’s silence another second. “The suspense is killing me, no pun intended, I assure you. How bad is it?”

"Don't worry brother; it's nothing we can't handle." Buck eased away from the desk, straightened into an upright position, took out his cell phone, and dialed MCAT.

"You called me brother, instead of Slick, that's cause for serious concern in my book," Ezra muttered as Buck moved away from him.

The moment Chris answered the phone Buck started talking. “We have a serious situation here. I’m at the school, in my office with Ezra, and a bomb.” He then saw the message written above the door. “Evidently his cover has been blown, and neither of us can leave. Call Morgan, have him start evacuating the school, and get me some equipment over here to disarm the damn thing A.S.A.P.”

While he was waiting for MCAT to arrive, Buck decided he needed to examine the area in which he would have to work in. It was going to be a tight fit with his large frame, and the lack of length on the wires attached from the chair seat to the bomb. Moving Ezra was not an option, which made the whole situation even more complicated. "So Ez, do you know any new jokes?"

"I do not find this situation in the least bit humorous." Ezra retorted.

“Relax, Ez, we're going to get out of this." Buck told the other man, wishing his voice had more confidence in it.

MCAT Office ~ 3:30 p.m.

Chris stormed out the door, his voice bellowing through the bullpen. "We have a code red at West End Junior High. Buck and Ezra have crossed paths with an explosive device. Alex, call the principal, tell him they have a bomb in the school. Justin, get hold of Denver PD, and have them meet us there with S.W.A.T, and their bomb squad. They need to evacuate the building. Mark, grab anything you think Buck will require to disarm the bomb. Gunny, call the Director and inform him about what's going on."

“The rest of you gear up and let's roll."

Kelli made eye contact with Chris. It was clear she was asking to be included. To evacuate the building safely, he knew they would need all the help they could get. “You too, Coulter, move it.”

JD set the emergency frequencies on their cells, left instructions with Pam and Mallory, and then he joined the others. Buck and Ezra’s welfare was foremost on his mind, but he knew he needed to concentrate on the job in front of him.

Josiah said a prayer, while Nathan arranged for emergency medical crews to be on standby.

Within minutes, phone calls concluded, gear was loaded up, and the elite response team was ready to go. Chris, JD, and Mark, took the lead in Larabee’s Ram. They were followed by the rest of the team, who split up to ride in four vehicles; Josiah’s Suburban, Justin’s Pathfinder, Vin’s Silverado, and the Mobile Analysis Unit, better known as the MAU, which brought up the rear.

West End Junior High

Denver Police Department’s SWAT units were already on the scene when MCAT arrived. They had set up a perimeter, were in the process of doing a sweep on the school for more explosive devices, and helping to evacuate staff and students from the building. Uniformed officers were keeping curious onlookers and intrusive reporters from getting too close.

A uniformed officer made the mistake of trying to stop Chris, and the others as they piled out of their vehicles heading across the lawn toward the front entrance. Before the cop could speak, the MCAT agents flashed their badges, and pushed past him without even blinking.

Chris roared. “Who’s in charge here?”

Sergeant Pepper stepped forward. “I am, and you would be?”

“Chris Larabee, MCAT Commander, and the man replacing you,” he told him. “Where do we stand?”

“Our bomb squad is inside the coach’s office, the buildings have been emptied, and the perimeter secured.” The sergeant reported. “My Captain and the Chief of Police are on their way to the scene, if you want to wait…”

Chris ignored him and began issuing his own orders. “Justin, you take command out here. Kelli, get rid of the press. Vin, Josiah, Nathan, JD, and Mark, come with me.” Without looking back, they headed inside to find Buck and Ezra.


Buck had tried to be reasonable, but enough was enough. "Get the hell out of here. I am not leaving Ezra's side. This office is too damn small for all of you to be in here. I can handle this. All I need is the Goddamn tools to work with!"

“Wilmington, I understand how you feel, but the last I heard you had retired from MCAT, and that makes you a civilian!" Sergeant Ted Hendricks argued. He had known Buck for years, and although he knew he was more than qualified to disarm the bomb, he could not allow it.

"I don't know where you heard that from, but I only took a short vacation. I'm back with MCAT, and I'm the one who is going to disarm this bomb."

“Gentlemen, if you please.” Ezra interrupted. “Can we discuss the civilian and police boundaries issues at another time? I have dinner plans with my wife, and it appears I am running late as it is.”

Having overheard the conversation, Chris spoke from the doorway, “Hendricks, you and your men get out, but leave the tools; we’ll take it from here.”

Sergeant Hendricks knew it was futile to argue with the MCAT Commander, "You got it, Larabee." Nodding to Buck he said, “Good luck.”

“What do you need, Buck?” Chris asked.

“First of all, I need a few of you to get the hell out of here. This space is small enough as it is for me to work in, without a bunch of lug heads taking up floor space. Mark, you stay, I'm going to need your assistance."

Chris tilted his head toward Vin. "Get them out of here."

Protests arose from the other men as Vin pushed them out the door. Barely crossing the threshold, Vin turned around, folded his arms in front of him and said, "We're out."

Nathan, Josiah, and JD fell into similar stances on either side of Vin, all four men receiving a glowering look from their commanding officer for their refusal to obey a direct order. He did not have time to argue with them about it, and turned his attention back to what was going on in the office.

Buck's large frame sprawled out on the floor, his torso twisted to fit into the small opening between the chair Ezra was sitting in, and the desk. Buck glanced up at the device, ignoring the pain shooting through his hips due to the odd angle he had his body positioned. The six color-coded wires twisted together, he had spotted them earlier near where they fit into the black box. The colors were red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and white. "Ezra, I think there's almost every color in your wardrobe attached to this damn thing."

"Highly amusing as you may be finding this situation, I beg to differ. Yellow and orange are not my best colors."

“Hand me the smallest set of wire strippers and scissors, Mark." Buck instructed the younger agent.

Mark dug into the tool kit, retrieved the implements Wilmington had asked for, and handed them to him, making sure he did not jostle Standish in the process.

Buck studied the wires skillfully, knowing that one wrong cut would effectively blow him and the others sky-high. "Hey Ezra, how do you feel about blue?"

“Why? Is that the one you need to cut?"

"No. I just want to know how you feel about that color."

Chris tried hard to keep a straight face, considering the seriousness of the situation at hand; however, it was a difficult task. He knew Buck’s insane banter was for Ezra's benefit, but damn, it was good to see the old Buck back in action.

After determining which wires were decoys, Buck cut away the blue, green, yellow, and orange ones, leaving only the red and white attached. With each snip, Ezra felt as if he aged five years.

"This is relatively a simple device that someone threw together in a hurry, it’s not sophisticated, or complicated, but is very effective." Buck talked non-stop.

"Thank you for the running commentary, but could we move this along." After sitting still for almost an hour, parts of his body were numb, and Ezra was anxious for this to be finished.

"Mark, you can go now.” Buck said without looking up. “Chris, I think its time for you and the boys to get out too. Ezra and I'll finish up here."

Chris knew what Buck was telling him. Win or lose, Buck did not intend to take the final risk with all of them in the building. It took every ounce of discipline he had to turn around, and walk out of the office. Under loud protest, he shepherd the others down the hall, and out the doors where Kelli, Alex, Justin, Raphael, and now Travis were waiting for news.

"Well, what's the verdict?" Director Travis inquired

“We'll know momentarily," Chris replied. They all turned toward the building, and waited anxiously to discover the fate of their missing teammates.


Looking at the clock, Buck noted that it was four-fifteen. This had certainly been one of the longest hours of his life.

"Ez, I just want to apologize here and now for all the shit I’ve put you through since you've been here." He reached to cut the red wire.

“So you’re going to cut the red one.” Ezra nodded slightly, swallowing hard.

“Unless you think I’m wrong.” Buck withdrew the nippers. “You have a problem with the red one?”

“No, you …you cut the red one.”

“Okay, if you’re ready. Ezra….”

"Buck… just do it.” Standish closed his eyes, and swallowed hard.

Taking a deep breath, Buck brought the nippers up to the red-coated wire. The faces of Inez, their children, and his brothers, danced before his eye. He wiped his brow with his shirtsleeve, steadied his hand, and said a brief prayer. Then…he snipped the wire.

Chapter 22

Law enforcement is a dangerous profession. Even the most experienced officer must always remember to expect the unexpected.

Wilmington’s Office ~ West End Junior High

Buck held his breath, wiped his brow with his shirtsleeve, steadied his hand, and said a brief prayer. Then…he snipped the wire.

When the light stopped blinking, he let out an ear-piercing shout, “Hot damn! We did it!”

Ezra opened his eyes, and exhaled. Forcing his body to relax, his only thought was to stand up and leave this place, but he found it easier said than done. “I had total faith in your abilities, Buck. Now, if you would be so kind, please… Get me the hell out of this chair!”

“What? Oh yeah,” Buck chuckled. “I bet parts of your posterior are a bit numb about now.” Extending his hand to help Standish to his feet, he caught him when he faltered. “Easy there,” Buck said, sliding his arm around Ezra’s back. “What do you say we blow this place?”

Without conscious thought, Ezra clung gratefully to him. “Your sense of humor definitely needs some work, but yes, I believe it is time to depart these premises.”

Together, they walked into the hallway where five impatient brothers, who were on their way back inside the building, met them.

“We’re having a lawn party, and figured you two needed to be there.” Chris said stepping to Ezra’s other side to support him. “Besides, we can’t let you two have all the fun.”

Ezra sighed ruefully, “While a party sounds inviting, I believe I’d settle for a stiff drink.”

“No drinking,” Nathan frowned. “There’s a team of paramedics waiting to examine both of you,” he told them. “I’m going in to start on forensics. Chris, would you send Greg, the other crime scene tech in when you get outside?”

Chris nodded as Nathan passed him. “Principal Morgan wants to see you Buck, after the paramedics examine you, and we talk.”

Once they reached the outside, Vin and Josiah took over for Buck and Chris to help Ezra walk to the paramedic station.

JD stayed with Buck during his quick exam, once the medics released him they moved over to a grassy area. Unable to contain the relieved grin trying to burst out, JD squeezed Buck’s arm. “It’s good to see you. I just wish it didn’t take a bomb scare to get all of us together.” He hesitated a moment and then asked hopefully, “Did you mean what you said in there? About being back on the team?”

Buck sunk gratefully down on the lawn, feeling the adrenaline rush he'd had while deactivating the bomb dwindle away, and its toll begin to work on his mind and body. He did not respond immediately to JD's question, instead opting to watch the medics as they examined Ezra. Realizing that the younger agent was anxiously anticipating his answer, Buck exhaled loudly. He knew he could not stall any longer. “I didn’t intend to say that, but…I’ve been thinking … Hell, it’s so damn complicated.”

“Then un-complicate it for us,” Chris said walking up beside them. He positioned his knee and carefully sat down.

Buck looked at his two brothers, sincerity shining in his eyes. “It was never MCAT or the team I wanted to get away from,” he started his explanation, “but I was having difficulty….hell, ever since we had the child trafficking case … I’ve been having nightmares off and on. For a while they disappeared altogether, but …” he swallowed, focusing on JD, “…after JD was arrested, I started having them again, and then the business about Ice, Sarah, and Adam… hell, you know how hard it was.”

“Danny,” JD whispered. “You told us you found out about what happened to him, but I thought you agreed to talk to one of us if you still had problems dealing with it. You could have. I would have listened.”

Buck nodded, sadly. “I know, Kid, but…I thought I could handle it, and I was doing a fair job of it, until we almost lost you.” He instinctively reached out and hugged JD. “I couldn’t save Danny or stop what you were going through…” his voice shuddered with emotion. “Then we had to relive the pain of losing Sarah and Adam again.” He looked at Chris. “Sorry, I know it wasn’t just me who was hurting.” Slowly he released JD, squeezing the younger man's shoulder and offering a weary smile.

“It’s okay,” Chris put his hand supportively on Buck’s shoulder. “I don’t have all the answers, but I do know we can find a way to work this out together. I...we want you to come back, if you need time for counseling, take it. If you need to talk about it, I reckon me and the boys aren’t going anywhere, so bring it on.” Favoring his stiff knee, Chris stood. “See the medic, talk to Morgan, and then I want to know how all this started today.”

Buck nodded. “You got it…boss?”

Chris grinned. “I am, and don’t you forget it again.” He winked at a beaming JD. “Now hustle your ass into gear, Agent Wilmington. I want my report.” Larabee was smiling broadly as he walked back to talk to Justin.

“What are you grinning about, Kid?” Buck reached out and ruffled JD’s hair.

JD ducked, staring at the man for a moment, and then sighed contentedly. “It’s good to have you back, Big Guy.”

“Yeah,” he returned the smile, “now get your tail back to work while I follow orders. What are you trying to do? Keep me here talking to get me into more trouble with Chris?”

Chuckling, JD stood up and moved a step away from him before saying, “Hell no, you get in enough trouble all by yourself.” He took off before hearing Buck’s reply.

“Smart ass brat,” Buck mumbled and then smiled wider when the realization of what had just transpired hit him. He was back, and damn it felt good.

Coach’s Office

Nathan and Mark removed the explosives to take back to the lab. In doing so, they had to remove drawers from the desk, and found the hidden listening device attached beneath one of them.

“I’ll be damned,” Nathan said as he bagged it for evidence. “Maybe it wasn’t Ezra someone tagged as the cop.”

“Whoever planted this suspected Buck, and must have heard something they didn’t like.” Mark agreed.

Nathan handed the bag to Greg Ramsey. “Buck can tell us who he thinks it could be, or at least give us a list of who has access to his office.” He looked around. “We have pictures, we’ve dusted for prints, and we have the bomb. Let’s get out of here.”

“Right behind you,” Mark said as he picked up the bag of equipment. One last look around the room and then he followed Nathan out the door, with Bandit on his heels.

Neither of them noticed William Fowler, AKA Bill Patterson, hiding in the doorway at the end of the hall. William knew it would not take much to put two and two together, and then the cops would come looking for Bill. He slipped back into the shadows. If he was lucky, he’d have at the most a few hours to make Bill Patterson disappear before the dumb asses put it all together. All William had to do was grab the cash from his apartment, lay low for the next forty-eight hours, make the score, and then vanish.


Gazing around at the assorted law enforcement and medical personnel, Chris caught sight of a couple of familiar, but unexpected faces. Agents Brad Garrison and Guy Saunders walked across the police line headed in his direction. “You two get lost? I thought you were working with the gang unit.”

“We are,” Guy answered, “but we heard about this on the radio. We... uh… Are Standish and Wilmington all right?”

It never ceased to amaze Chris when he saw how close his team was. Even the new agents, Guy and Brad, were already deeply entrenched into his ‘extended family’. “They’re both okay.”

“Good,” Brad nodded.” I guess we should get back to Captain Richards, unless you need us here.”

Chris shook his head. “I think we’ve got it covered. I’ll tell Buck and Ezra you were checking on them, and see you both in the morning.” He watched them head back to their car.

“I see all the kids are accounted for,” Vin said walking up beside Chris. “I wondered how long it would take those two to show up.”

“Speaking of kids,” Chris nodded toward the press line, where Orrin and Kelli were engaged in some kind of discussion. “Why do you suppose Travis is talking to Kel for so long?”

Following Chris’s line of vision, Vin shrugged. “I don’t know, but we’ll find out soon enough I reckon.”

“According to Buck and Ezra, they believe our most likely suspect for planting the bomb is Bill Patterson. He had access to the office, his bank records give him the means, and the bug Nathan and Mark found could have alerted him to Ezra being a cop. It may not be solid, but it’s enough to start with.” Chris had turned his attention back to the case. “Greg is taking the forensic evidence to the lab. I want you and Nathan to go to Patterson’s place. Take Justin and Alex with you as back up. If he’s there bring him in for questioning, if he’s not, set up a stake out. I’ll finish up here and meet you back at MCAT.”

Vin nodded, “On our way.” He found Nathan, told Justin to meet them there with Alex, and then they headed for Patterson’s place.

Patterson’s Apartment ~ 5:00 p.m.

William rushed around the room, grabbing a few things to throw into a bag. He had just flipped the mattress to gain access to his lock box when someone knocked on the door. Picking up his gun, he quietly walked to the entrance and looked through the peephole. Cursing, he pulled the door open.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

Bitsy pushed her way past her brother, and scanned the room. “It’s all over the news about the bomb at the school. What the hell did you do?”

“It doesn’t matter now. We have to get out of here before anyone figures out it was me.” He stuck the gun in his waistband. “I just need to get the money and we can leave.”

“You stupid bastard,” Bitsy yelled. “We’re two days away from making more money in one swoop than the old man did in the past five years, and you blow it.”

William shook his head. “The rumble is already set. While the police deal with the war raging on the streets of Denver, we’ll hijack the truckload of warheads, collect our five hundred million, and be out of the country before they can track us down. We just can’t do it from here.”

“Our father was right, you are a sonofabitch. Your whole plan has been one disaster after another. If he were here now, he’d be laughing his ass off at the way you’ve handled this.”

“Well dear old Carlos is not here, and it’s not that bad,” William argued as he stuffed money into his bag. “Okay, I didn’t think the feds would find you at Carter’s old place, or that his body would be found before we finished using his name. I certainly didn’t count on you being dumb enough to try to kill two Federal agents either. It was also tough luck when an ex-cop replaced the coach, but…” he zipped the bag, “I have these gangs eating out of my hand. They will come through for us. By the time the old man hears about it, we’ll be rich, and he can go to hell.” He went back to the lock box. “You can either stand there and bitch, or help me so we can get out of here faster.”

Hands on her hips, Bitsy fumed. “Did you just call me dumb?”

“If the shoe fits,” William retorted. “You may be wearing a brown wig, but underneath is the same blonde Bitsy who tried to blow up two Feds.”

“Hmmm…. and I suppose you’ve already destroyed any documents which could implicate either of us in this half-baked scheme of yours?”

William stopped cold. “Damn, I knew I forgot something.”

Bitsy sighed. Not all was lost. They had made a ton of money by selling weapons to the gangs, but she had her doubts about going through with the rest. “Maybe we should take what we have and forget ripping off the warheads. With everything that’s gone wrong already, why should we take any more chances?”

“I thought you wanted out from under the great Carlos Chavez as much as I do,” William frowned, “or do you like being Daddy’s little girl?”

“At least when he plans a deal, it works.” Bitsy scoffed. “You should have stuck with making hits for him, it’s more your style and you are so good at it.” She chewed on her thumbnail. “I want out. Give me my half of the money.”

William nodded. He had been expecting her to bail out on him, eventually. The one thing they had learned from their father while growing up was that business was business. It was all about the next big score, and family loyalty be damned. Bitsy had learned well, the only thing she cared about was money. The Feds wanted to find Bitsy and it made her more of a liability than an asset for him. He knew what he had to do to insure his survival. “Sure, but it’s your loss, not mine.” He reached into the bag, presumably to get her share of the money.

“You’re the loser William.” Bitsy shook her head as she opened her tote bag and discarded nonessential items to make room for her money. “I’ll be certain to give Dad your regards.”

“Don’t think so, Sis. “Instead of money, he held up a 40 caliber Glock 22 with attached silencer. He fired once, and one shot was all he needed. Shaking his head, he watched as Bitsy slowly dropped to the floor, stepped over her lifeless body, and went over to his desk. It would only take a few minutes to shred any loose documents. Then he was a free man.

William smiled as he slipped the last paper into the shredder. With it went the phony identity of Bill Patterson, and the cops would be running themselves ragged looking for another ghost. Not even casting a glance at Bitsy’s body, he picked up his personal weapons, including his favorite rifle and the money. As he prepared to leave, the sound of a loud knock at his door suddenly altered his plans; the words, which followed, made his blood run cold.

“Damn, so close.”


Nathan Jackson stood to the right side of the wooden door, while Vin Tanner stood off to the left. Both agents heard the sounds of movement inside the apartment. Vin reached out and banged on the door, while Nathan shouted, “Federal Agents open up!”

Several shots from a high caliber rifle answered Nathan's order, exploding through the door and sending slivers of wood raining down on both agents.

Vin whispered to Nathan. “You’re the peacemaker…talk him out.” Three more shots followed his words. Tanner spoke into the radio on his shoulder. “We have shots fired, hold your positions.”

“Ten-four,” Justin’s voice acknowledged.

Shaking his head, Nathan sighed. “I get the impression he’s not interested in talking.”

“Yeah, me too,” Vin agreed as he mentally prepared himself for the possibility of a firefight. “We go in on three…”

Nathan nodded. “When I kick the door in, you enter and roll to the right. I’ll cover you from the left.”

Vin counted, “One…two…three.”

One kick from Jackson was all it took to demolish what remained of the door.

Vin swooped in, rolling to the right, coming upright with his gun trained on the man he thought was Bill Patterson. “Drop your weapon!” Tanner ordered.

William looked from Jackson, who held a 9mm Beretta to Tanner’s SIG229. Both weapons pointed directly at him, he weighed his options. The window was too far, and the agents were too close. He needed time to think, if he went with them it would not take long for them to discover his real identity. Whatever it took, he could not allow that to happen. There were too many dead bodies in his past for one thing, and the idea of receiving a lethal injection for doing his father’s dirty work did not appeal to him.

On the other hand, he could convince the agents he was willing to surrender and then wait for an opportunity to change his fate. Deciding to take his chances, William threw his rifle onto the couch, along with his Glock, and the gun in his waistband. Raising his hands, he said, “Don’t shoot.”

“Drop to your knees and place your hands on your head.” Vin cautiously moved in to search and handcuff their suspect.

Nathan saw a woman’s bloody body sprawled on the floor, and said into the radio, “We need EMS up here, stat.” Keeping his eyes and weapon on the suspect, he slowly moved toward her while scanning the small studio apartment for signs of anyone else. “We’re clear.” He crouched down next to the body to check the unidentified woman for a pulse. Finding none, he shook his head to let Tanner know she was dead, and then focused his attention back to covering his partner.

Knowing Nathan had his back; Vin holstered his SiG and pulled out his cuffs. He had hold of one of Patterson’s hands and was in the process of patting him down when he heard Nathan shout a warning, “Gun!”

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion at that point. William used his free hand to pull a concealed derringer, and turned abruptly to shoot at Vin, who reacted immediately to subdue the man. However, the agent was unable to prevent William from discharging his weapon.

Nathan fired at the suspect.

William Fowler stiffened and made a gurgling sound before he slumped to the floor on his back. Blood gushed from a gaping wound in his throat to pool around his head.

“Fuck,” Tanner hissed as he staggered to his knees. The shock of the shot from Patterson’s gun cascaded through his body.

“10-13, Officer down at this location,” Nathan’s calm tone on the radio belied his fear and concern for his brother. Rushing to Tanner’s side, he cradled him in his arms as he applied pressure on the wound to stem the flow of blood. "Easy, Vin, I’ve got you… help is on the way.”

MCAT Office ~ 5:30 p.m.

Chris hid his smile. Buck and Ezra were both on the phone assuring their wives they were indeed safe, in spite of how serious the media had made the situation at the school seem. It was always the same though; no matter which one of them was involved, their women worried, and it was their job to reassure them. Observing their body language he could tell both Buck and Ezra had achieved their objective.

When they were off the phone, Chris went over and sat on the edge of Standish’s desk. “We have your statements. Why don’t you two take off for the night?”

Buck nodded. “I told Inez that at the principal’s request, I wouldn’t be returning to the school, and we needed to talk about our future. I don’t think she was too surprised.”

“Inez is a smart woman who knows you too well, Buck.” Chris chuckled. “She knew you’d end up coming back to us, before you even left.”

“I for one do not mind going home.” Ezra stood. “It will be a pleasure to leave Finnias Prescott behind, and become plain old Ezra Standish again.”

“Hell, Ez, there’s nothing plain about you.” Buck scoffed. “You couldn’t be plain if your life depended on it. Now… as for ‘old’…”

Ezra grinned, despite his weariness. "I thank you for that, Mister Wilmington...and on that note, I bid you good day." 

Chris tilted his head toward the southerner and slid carefully off the desk. “Get the hell out of here; I’ll see you both in the morning.”

“Commander, you have an urgent call on line one.” Gunny drew their attention.

Reaching across the desk, Chris took the call on Ezra’s phone. ”Larabee… slow down…we’re on our way.”

“Trouble?” Buck tried to read Chris’s expression.

Chris looked anxiously across the bullpen to Kelli, who was walking into his office. “Yeah, that was Nathan… Vin’s been shot.”

Chapter 23

Life never stands still. Priorities alter, confidence ebbs and flows, and time moves on. We must adapt to the challenges presented to us, or suffer the consequences of missed opportunities.

Denver Memorial Hospital ~ 6:15 p.m.

While Nathan paced, waiting for news on Vin, his mind was trying to make sense of how it all happened. He paused to look down at his shirt, which was still drenched in Vin’s blood. One second everything was under control. The next, their suspect had a gun in his hand and all hell broke loose. It was a righteous bust, they followed procedure, they were wearing protective gear, yet still Tanner ended up here, in the emergency room of Denver General. Nathan shook his head. How could he have been careless enough to fail his partner so badly? What was he going to say to Chris?

As if thinking his name conjured the man up, Chris pushed through the double doors of the emergency room, heading straight for him. Kelli and Josiah were with him.

Keeping his arm supportively around his daughter’s waist, Chris approached Nathan expecting him to start giving them details about Vin’s condition. “Tell me everything,” he ordered curtly.

Nathan straightened, struggling to maintain eye contact. “Vin…” he cleared his throat, “The bullet tore through blood vessels and tissue in his shoulder, penetrating the collarbone before exiting. Doctor Gilford needed to stabilize the fracture, and repair the damage to the surrounding area. He’s been in surgery for twenty minutes.”

“He’ll be okay then?” The agony and hesitancy Chris read in Nathan’s eyes concerned him. He grasped his forearm. “Nathan…what are you not telling us?”

“I…” his gaze darted from Chris to Kelli. After a long pause, he answered hoarsely, his head dropping slightly. “It’s my fault Vin was hurt. I’m sorry.”

Frowning, Kelli looked from Nathan’s bloodstained shirt to his coffee colored eyes. Her voice shuddered with emotion, “Did you shoot him, Nathan?”

“No, of course not,” he answered quickly, shocked by her question.

“Then…it’s not your fault,” she reached out to squeeze his shoulder. “Every agent in this unit accepts the risk of gettin’ hurt as part of the job. Vin knows that and it would really tick him off if he thought you were tryin’ to take the blame for it. I do not believe for one second that you would deliberately cause Vin harm.” She took a ragged breath. “Now, please tell me what you can about his condition.”

Josiah handed Nathan a cup of coffee while Chris guided him to the nearest chair. Larabee could not remember the last time he had seen Nathan this rattled. Usually he was the one who kept the rest of them calm, but not tonight.

Taking a deep breath, Nathan began, “I managed to stop the bleeding and the wound didn’t appear to be life threatening. The shot was low velocity and close range, entering from the side just over his vest line at an upward angle and exiting through his back. It missed the lung and the carotid artery, but it did mess up his shoulder when it broke through the collarbone. I’m afraid Vin’s in for a long recovery period,” pausing for a moment, he fingered the edge of the Styrofoam coffee cup. “Justin and Alex stayed on the scene to wait for the ME and forensics.” Running a hand over his face, he sighed wearily, “It all happened so fast…”

Chris nodded as he watched Kelli to gauge her reaction. She was pale and obviously, a bit rattled, but thankfully appeared to be in control of her emotions. The last thing she or Vin needed was more stress in their lives after the events of the past few months. As a father, he hated the thought of this causing her to backslide into the dark place from where she had just emerged.

“I’ve already talked to Justin,” Chris sat down beside Nathan, stretching his aching leg out in front of him. “We’ll get it all sorted out.”

Kelli recognized the look Chris was throwing her way. “Dad, as long as I know Vin is alive, I’m okay. Whatever he’s facin’, we’ll get through it.”

The double doors opened again. JD and Buck strode in and headed toward them

JD took one concerned look at Nathan’s blank stare and decided to ask Chris, “How’s Vin?”

“In surgery,” Chris looked up, “not critical as far as we know.”

“Ezra’s with Justin at the scene. As soon as he has the preliminary reports, he’ll join us,” Buck plopped into the chair beside Kelli. “You need anything, Kel?”

She glanced toward the elevator doors, shook her head, and then whispered “Just Vin.”

Change of shift was always noisy, but in contrast to the silence of the waiting room for the past thirty minutes, it was deafening. One young man, wearing green scrubs, separated himself from the crowd and moved toward their group. Chris recognized him as Doctor Brian Allen, Gilford’s assistant.

Kelli saw him too and anxiously stood. “Doctor Allen…”

Brian Allen smiled in an attempt to put everyone at ease. “Doctor G insisted I come out to tell you Vin is doing fine.” Noting Kelli’s reaction to his words, he gently took her arm, guided her back to the chair and sat next to her. “We’re about halfway through the surgery. Fortunately, the bullet fired at close range and passed through without creating irreparable damage. The collarbone needed the greatest amount of work. Doctor Thorp, the orthopedic surgeon Doctor G called in, used a titanium plate and screws to stabilize it. Vin will need physical therapy, but within six to eight weeks he should be good as new.”

Breathing a sigh of relief that Vin would be okay, Nathan whispered, “Thank God.” No matter what Chris or Kelli said, Nathan still felt responsible for Tanner’s injury. He chided himself for spending too much time behind a microscope in forensics, instead of keeping up with his training exercises. It did not take much to convince himself that his laxness was the reason his reflexes were off. Now, his partner had paid the price for it. It was time to decide just what role he wanted to play in this unit. Was it as an active field agent and part-time medic, or forensic investigator?

“Amen to that,” Josiah echoed.

“I’ll call Ezra and update him.” Buck stood and walked outside to use his cell phone.

“I…appreciate you comin’ out to tell us,” Kelli’s voice faltered as emotion overwhelmed her.

“Doctor Thorp is the doc who looked at my knee; he’s one of the best orthopedic doctors in Colorado.” Chris squeezed her hand. “Whatever Vin has to do, he’ll do it.”

Brian chuckled. “I’m glad to hear you say that Mister Larabee. Doctor G sent a message for you too. He said for you to schedule your surgery A.S.A.P. That way you and Vin could go through PT at the same time. Doc said we might as well keep both tough asses together, less stress for the hospital staff.”

“Smart man,” JD laughed, ducking away when he received an icy glare from Larabee.

Doctor Allen stood. “I’ll come back to get you, Mrs. Tanner, when we’re ready to move Vin to recovery.”

Kelli nodded while she watched Brian Allen walk away. She was immensely relieved to hear Vin was okay, but could not help but think about what if. They both made their choice of profession long before they met one another or had children to consider. Maybe they needed to rethink those choices, and make a few changes.

Patterson Apartment ~7:15 p.m.

Ezra finished his last walkthrough of the crime scene, assured that the picture in his head matched what he was seeing. He had his own theory about Patterson and the unknown female, but until Bones could confirm their identifications, he would keep it to himself. Although, if he was correct, it meant MCAT’s work was almost finished on this case.

“We’re done here.” Greg Ramsey snapped the locks on his forensic kit and stood. “I’ll push a rush on this one and try to have some answers for you tonight.”

“Your diligence is appreciated.” Ezra turned off the light and closed the door behind them. “Call me no matter what time it is. I am particularly interested in the identity of our deceased.”

“Then that’s what I will concentrate on first.” Greg started to walk away and turned back. “Tell Captain Tanner…”

“I will.” They walked out together, separating in the parking lot. Greg headed for the lab and Ezra to the hospital. Reaching for his phone, it rang before he could dial out. “Standish.”

“Wanted you to know Vin is still in surgery, but we got word he’s gonna be okay.”

“Thanks Buck. I am en route to join y’all now. See you in twenty.” Closing his phone, Ezra uttered a short prayer of thanks. Now that they knew Vin would survive, the rest would be easy.

Denver Memorial Hospital ~ 9:30 p.m.

Vin spent an hour in recovery before Doctor Gilford had him moved to the surgical floor. He was not quite awake, but not completely out either. Chris, Kelli, Buck, Josiah, Ezra, Nathan and JD waited inside his room, not planning to leave until they were certain he was all the way back.

Jo glared at Chris when she came in to check Vin’s vitals. When one of her nurses came back to the station upset, she decided, as night nursing supervisor, to handle Mister Tanner’s room herself. She had experience with this bunch, and did not intend to let them intimidate her as they apparently had tried to do with the younger nurse. “Visiting hours are over. I want this room cleared within ten minutes.”

“Now darlin’,” Buck started only to receive a similar glower.

“Don’t you darlin’ me. Ten minutes and that’s it.” Her features softened when she spoke to Kelli. ”You may stay, if you choose to do so, Mrs. Tanner.”

“I appreciate it, but under the circumstances, I must insist one of the MCAT agents stay as well.” Kelli stood her ground. She did not intend to leave Vin without protection. At least until she was certain he did not need it.

Jo studied the redhead for a moment. “One,” she conceded, turning to look at the assembled group of men, “only one. You have ten minutes to decide who it will be. Is that clear?”

“Yes ma’am,” JD flashed a wide smile. “We’ll do that.” He waited until Nurse Jo exited the room. “Okay, do we draw straws or cut cards for it?”

“I’m staying,” Nathan said firmly. “He wouldn’t be here if I did my job…”

“Not…your fault, Nate.” Vin listened to the hushed conversations for a while before he opened his eyes. “I fucked up…got careless.” He weakly reached for Kelli’s hand. “Sorry… I scared you.”

Kelli smiled, stroking the back of his hand with her thumb, while looking at him through misty eyes. “I forgive you, this time, but don’t make a habit of it.”

“We’ll decide who did what later,” Chris stated firmly, glancing from Vin to Nathan, intending to end the round of guilt confessions from both men. Softening his gaze he asked, “Kelli, are you staying?”

“No, she’s not.” Vin tried to move and groaned. “Kel, go home for the kids. All ‘m gonna do is sleep anyway. Come back in the mornin’, ‘kay?”

Kelli nodded. “Jason is worried about you. I doubt he’ll sleep well unless I can convince him you’re better. “She leaned down to kiss him, lingering to stroke her knuckles across his cheek. ”Doc said you might be goin’ home tomorrow afternoon. I’ll bring you some fresh clothes.”

Nathan settled into the chair beside the bed. “You all best be going too. I’ve already talked to Rain. I‘m staying, and don’t plan to argue about it. “

Chris saw the resolve in Nathan’s eyes. He needed to stay, if only to make himself feel better. Tomorrow would be soon enough to discuss his foolish notions about guilt. “You get some rest too.” Chris moved over to the bedside, attempting to conceal his slight limp, and leaned down for Vin to hear him. “I know you’re concerned about Kelli, but she’s doing fine. I’ll keep an eye on her for you.”

Vin nodded, slowly, offering a weak smile, “I know you will, Cowboy. Now get home and off that leg before you fall on your ass.”

Jo reentered the room, but before she said a word, Josiah, Ezra, JD, and Buck shuffled out the door.

“I’m on my way too,” Chris assured her. ”Kel, I’ll wait outside while you say goodnight.”


“Where’s Ezra?” Chris walked out of Tanner’s room to find Josiah, JD, and Buck huddled in conversation.

“Bones paged him; he stepped out to call and get something from his car.” JD moved aside for Chris to sit down tilting his head slightly as he watched the man attempting to hide his pain. “You do need to get off that leg.”

Buck laughed, playfully swatting at JD's arm. “The Kid’s in training to be another mother hen, humor him.”

Chris eased his body into the chair just as Ezra returned. He noticed the extra package he carried, but discretely avoided any mention of it. “What did Bones tell you?”

“We have confirmed ID’s on our dead bodies.” Ezra glanced toward Chris. “The woman is your old friend, Lorene ‘Bitsy’ Fowler.” His eyes moved to Buck. “Your assistant coach was not Bill Patterson; his name was William Fowler-Chavez. Number one hit man for his father, Carlos Chavez, for the past eight years.”

“We know Bitsy was the daughter of Carlo’s ex wife, but I never found anything about another child.” JD’s mind whirled with facts. “You think this William was her brother?”

“I would bet on it. The question is, were they freelancing or taking orders from Papa Chavez?” Josiah nodded.

“Whatever they were doing, we still have the gangs set to cause a ruckus on the thirty-first.” Buck worried about the innocents possibly trapped in the crossfire. The fact that Principal Morgan did not want him to return as a teacher because most of the kids thought he was a cop, did not stop him from caring.

Chris shook his head. “We need someone who can speak their language to sit down with the gang leaders and talk some sense into them.”

“I’d like to give it a try.” Buck volunteered.

“You said yourself you needed more time before coming back to work.”

“I changed my mind. I want back in now.” Buck met Chris’s eyes. “I’ll work with the Gang Task Force if you don’t think I can do it alone, but I have to be involved.”

“Let me think on it," Chris answered Buck, and then looked at the others. "Go home; get a good night’s sleep. All of you.” Chris sighed, worry, pain, and exhaustion catching up with him. “We’ll meet at the office in the morning and work out a plan. Go on. I’ll ride home with Kel.”

“Did I hear you mention my name?” Kelli walked up to join them.

“If you’re set with Vin, you can give me a ride home.” Chris told her.

Kelli smiled. “He’s already asleep, so yeah, I’m good to go.”

“I will be right behind y’all.” Ezra held on to his small package, one he had intended to deliver much earlier. “One quick errand and I too shall leave.” Once the elevator door closed on the others, he darted into Tanner’s room.

Nathan holstered the gun he had drawn when the door opened, relieved to see a familiar face looking back at him. “Damn Ezra, I thought you were gone.”

“Would you step outside with me for a moment?” He kept his voice low in order not to disturb Vin’s much needed sleep.

Nathan mumbled about intrusive friends and reluctantly followed Standish into the hallway. “I’m not in the mood to argue with you about staying…”

Ezra shoved the package into his hands. “I would not dream of arguing with a man who is as stubborn as I am. However, I have instructions to deliver this to you today, and in spite of all that has happened, I intend to do so. While I planned this delivery differently, I do not dare wait for a more opportune time and risk incurring the wrath of the giver.”

“What…” Nathan took the wrapping off and read the title of the book inside, “Legends of the Quest?”

Repeating the explanation that he had given to Chris, Vin, and Josiah, Ezra made certain Nathan found the letter addressed to him. “I believe you will understand once you review the contents.”

Nathan nodded, not understanding, but accepting the explanation. “I’ll let you know.”

“Good night then.” He looked toward Vin's room then back to Nathan. “Take care of our young brother.” Standish disappeared into the elevator, while Nathan reentered the room.

Checking on Vin first, to make certain he was resting comfortably; Nathan sat down with the book and began to examine it. The letter dated today’s date drew his attention. He started reading, “Nathan, right about now, you probably have a heap of questions and doubts about you, your job, and your abilities. Sit back, relax, and keep reading I have a story to tell you…about a man born into slavery who found the meaning of true freedom when he joined up with six of the most obstinate men you have ever met. Men I call brothers….” He made himself comfortable, drawn into the story the words painted for him.


Kelli drove in silence for a while, thinking about Vin, their children, and her conversation with Travis. “Did Orrin tell you about the offer he made me?”

It surprised Chris that she had waited so long to ask. “He mentioned it when we went back to the office. You’re not really considering it are you?”

“Maybe I am. I’d want to talk it over with Vin, but I’m certain he would support me, if I decide to accept.” She risked glancing over to her father to see his reaction. “If I ask your opinion will you forget for a moment you’re my CO and answer as my dad?”

“My answer would probably be the same either way.” Chris shifted to stretch his leg. “I think you’re on an emotional high right now. Sleep on it a few nights, talk with Vin, and give yourself time and distance from today before you decide. The offer is on the table, and Travis won’t fill the position with someone else until you give him a definite no.”

“You’re right. Thanks Dad.”

“You are welcome, Daughter.”

Wilmington Home ~ 10:30 p.m.

Buck sat on the edge of their bed, while Inez massaged the tension out of his neck. Since he left this morning for school, his whole world had turned upside down. Not that he was complaining. Although he preferred to leave teaching by his own choice instead of the principal forcing him out due to circumstances, it did feel good to be back with the team.

“You are thinking too hard, husband.”

“I reckon I am.” He reached for her hand. “Are you okay about me going back to MCAT?”

Inez laughed softly. “Sweetheart, you never really left. Your heart knew where you belonged, even if your mind didn’t’.”

“You knew it. I wanted to make a difference. Guess I forgot for a while, I’ve been doing just that for almost twenty years.” Turning to stretch out on the bed watching her beautiful face he continued. “Today when I knew Ezra was depending on me to diffuse the bomb it all came rushing back. I can’t leave them, and I damn sure don’t want them to leave me.”

“They cared enough to let you find that out, your way.”

“Yeah, they did.” He wrapped his arm around Inez and drew her down beside him. “I’m back, Vin is alive, Ezra is safe, and I have you in my arms. Damn, I feel on top of the world again.”

She stroked his face, lovingly. “Could you stand hearing one more piece of good news?”

“Lay it on me, darlin’.”

“You always said we should have a big family.” She looked into his eyes. “Come next August we’ll have five children instead of four.”

“You mean…?”

Inez grinned and nodded at the growing smile on her husband's handsome face.

Buck knew he had been fortunate to find Inez and have her in his life. The Good Lord had already blessed them with four fantastic children, but his heart had room for as many as He saw fit to give them. “Hot damn,” the words came out in a whisper, “another baby to love.”

Chapter 24

Life is not always easy, and we make plenty of mistakes along the way. However, when we do get it right, nothing compares to the magnificent feelings of pleasure, which inhabit our souls.

Wednesday, January 30th ~ Denver Memorial Hospital ~ 9:00 a.m.

Vin was antsy, two days in the hospital, and he was more than ready to leave. Between the sighs and murmured curses, he paced from the bed to the window and back again, ignoring the sling he wore and the pain in his bandaged shoulder.

“I wish Kel would hurry back with that coffee, or Doc would show up so I can get out of here.”

Chris grinned. “Tanner, light somewhere, you’re making me tired watching you pace.”

Stopping to glare at Larabee, he snapped, “I’ve been in that damn bed long enough.” Turning back toward the window, he softened his tone, “It’s been hard enough on Kel, the kids, and Nathan. I need to show everyone ‘m okay.”

Shaking his head, Chris scowled. “You’re being too tough on yourself. I’ll tell you what I told Nate, shit happens in this line of work. No one is at fault, it just turned out bad.” He leaned forward in the chair. “As for Kel, she’s doing all right, and the kids will be fine once their Daddy is home.”

“I ain’t goin’ home,” he said facing Larabee. “You said someone had to talk to the gang leaders, I know most of ‘em.”

“Yes you do, and you would have been my first choice, but Captain Richards and Buck are managing quite well. They’ve come to an understanding with most of the leaders, and we are confident the others will come around. For all intent and purposes, the war on the streets of Denver is over.”

“What about Chavez?”

“Apparently, William and Bitsy thought this up all on their own. According to the shredded documents the lab put back together, they were after the warheads Fort Carson is shipping out tomorrow. With both of them dead….”

Vin impatiently interrupted him, “Carlos Chavez had nothin’ to do with it?”

“Ezra met with one of his sources yesterday, a friend of a friend, who had a message from Carlos. The only thing he wants is to have the bodies of his children released to him. He says Chavez is not working in Colorado, and has no interest in making trouble for us.” Chris explained. “Of course, Homeland Security will take extra precautions with the warhead shipment, but I’m convinced this case ended with the deaths of Bitsy and William.”

“Damn and I missed all the fun.” Vin relaxed a bit. “You’re sure Nathan’s all right? He understands me gettin’ shot was not on him?”

Chris nodded. “He will, give him some time. Ezra gave him his book, and I know he’s been reading it.” He studied the look on Vin’s face. “You didn’t screw up either. Maybe you should spend some of your time off rereading yours.”

“I don’t need any time off.” Vin protested. “Doc said…”

“You will take some time, at least until Monday,” Chris said firmly. ”You need it, and your family needs you at home.”

Kelli pushed the door open and entered the room carrying a tray of coffee. “Sorry it took so long, but I waited while the nurses made a fresh pot.”

Chris reached for a cup and passed another to Vin. “No problem for me, but I think your hawk is ready to fly away.”

“Not likely,” Kelli said, walking over to Vin. She slid her arm around him, leaning into his good side. “The only place you’re goin’ is home with me.”

“You sure sweetheart, after what he said coming out of recovery?” Chris pretended to frown.

“What did I say?” Vin cast a anxious look at Kelli and tried to remember. “Did I say somethin’ crude again about your…”

Kelli laughed. “No, you didn’t say anythin’ about my ass.” She glared at her father. “Someone is in a good mood, considerin’ he’s next in line for surgery.”

Chris scowled at her. “You had to remind me didn’t you?”

Doctor Gilford stood in the doorway. “Doctor Thorpe has you schedule for eight ‘o’clock Friday morning, Chris. I plan to be there, too.” He winked at Kelli. “Someone has to record what he says under anesthetic.”

“Hell doc, I think you just want to see me suffer,” Chris grumbled.

“There is that,” Gilford grinned, turning his attention to Vin. ”I hope I do not need to stress the importance of you following my instructions. We put you back together, but if you plan to have full use of that shoulder again, you will complete the prescribed physical therapy, and you will not lift anything weighing more than five pounds for a minimum of two weeks. It will take six to eight weeks for your collarbone to heal properly. Do not try to rush it, or think you are better and over do. I promise you will regret it.”

“You’ll get no argument from me.” Vin tightened his good arm around Kelli. “This woman will keep me on the right track, and I’ll keep an eye on Chris during physical therapy for you.”

“Deal,” Doctor Gilford signed his release papers. “Now, all of you get out of here.” He smiled as he watched them leave. Vin was lucky this time, if that bullet had spun the other way, he would probably be dead. It pleased him when fate allowed good men like Tanner to walk away from a close call.

Tanner Home ~ 11:30 a.m.

Vin headed straight for the nursery once he was inside the house. Finding their babies peacefully slumbering was the best medicine in the world for him. He reached into the crib and covered Bren, who had a habit of kicking off the blanket during his sleep. Trey, on the other hand, slept on his stomach with his knees drawn beneath him and seldom moved. Only now, standing in somber silence, as he observed his young sons, certain he heard their hearts beating in time with his, could he admit his fear. Almost…he had almost lost it all … his wife and children, his brothers, his life.

A wave of untamed emotions coursed through his soul, while a single tear trailed down his cheek. God kept him alive, giving him another opportunity to spend precious time with his family. Both humbled and awed by the gift bestowed upon him, he was immensely grateful to be among the living, and that provided a healing balm for his heart.

Kelli stood in the doorway, watching her husband’s emotional reunion with their sons. “We missed you,” she said softly, unsure if he heard.

Moving away from the cribs, Vin silently reached out to her. “I’m happy to be home.” The only indication of his emotional overload was a slight hitch in his voice.

Side-by-side they walked out of the nursery. “Dad’s back at MCAT, so you can stop worryin’ about work. Max has lunch prepared for us, and then I want you to rest before the kids get home from school.”

Vin made himself shake off his dark emotional mood, cut his eyes toward Kelli, flashing her a mischievous grin. “I’ll rest, but reckon you need to stay with me while I do. Just to make sure I behave.”

Kelli shook her head. “You will rest, at least today. Tomorrow we’ll talk about misbehavin’.”

Leaning down he whispered in his ear, “I plan to do more than talk about it, but until then…” he kissed her neck, “you can take notes.”

MCAT Office ~ Noon

JD thought about the last time Buck had been here, it was just before they broke for the New Year. It seemed so much longer. JD shook his head, It didn’t matter now how upset he had been about Buck’s decision to leave MCAT, he was back and things would go back to how they were before, maybe. Buck took it well when Chris told him his former position of Captain would disappear with the new team alignment. He even jumped right in and went to work to help calm the gang leaders. Still, there were unsaid words between the two of them that needed discussing.

Following Buck into his office, JD leaned against the doorframe, watching while Wilmington rummaged around in the desk drawer. “Lose something?”

Buck looked up. “Hey Kid, I’m just looking for a fresh notepad.”

JD walked over to the file cabinet, reached into the top drawer and pulled out a stack of notepads. “Guess you’ve been gone too long.” He tossed the pads to Buck

Easily catching them, Buck paused, “Something on your mind?”

For a moment, JD was about to say no and walk away, but something rooted him to the spot, something deep in his soul; by just hearing those words, he knew the time was right. While Buck watched, he secured the door to the office, walked back to the chair on the opposite side of Buck’s desk, and sat down.

Studying the face and eyes he had grown to know and love over the last ten years, Buck sat back in his chair. He knew every gesture, every quirk. JD's face told a story long before the young tech ever opened his mouth and right now, it was telling Buck there was a major storm brewing. As JD was composing himself, Buck saw Chris open the door and start to enter. Catching the blonde’s eye, Buck gave a subtle shake of his head and watched, relieved, as Chris nodded once and walked away.


Dunne looked up. "Why…how could you do that to me…to us?”

Wilmington sat up a little straighter. "Do what kid?"

JD felt a surge of emotion course through him, anger, betrayal, hurt, frustration…loss…it was all there breaking through and Buck could see it and even though he wasn't sure yet as to why, his heart already ached for the one person he had looked on as family since practically the first week he met him. He listened intently as the younger man spoke.

"Right from early on, you were the one person I could turn to…share with, talk to, and I figured you felt the same way. We always made sure, no matter what else was happening, me and you knew how things were, where we stood, made things right. I guess, when you married Inez, I knew things would be different, but…I always believed for the big stuff, nothing would change." Unable to hold in the tension, JD stood and began to pace, not yet able to meet Buck's gaze.

"Buck, I'm leaving MCAT, walking away, trying something new."

Buck swallowed hard, emotion rising in his throat. "What? What are you talking about? Leaving? Since when? What’s the problem? How long have you known this?" He raised his voice, "Why the hell are you only now telling me?"

Dunne stepped closer, finally looked into Buck's startled deep blue eyes. "Hurts, doesn't it?"

Buck's mind was racing; JD was leaving…just like that? No word or lead-up…no explanation? Then the last sentence kicked in. "What?"

JD continued, re-taking his seat. "Kinda childish, I know…but just for one second…just one, I wanted you to feel a little of what I felt the day you 'dropped in' and told me about your plans to leave MCAT for a teaching post. I'm not leaving, Buck…but if I was…you'd have been prepared, because I would've talked it through with you, first."

His heart racing, the brunet looked at the young man in front of him, realization hitting him as hard as if it were a jackhammer. He dropped his head.

"Ahh kid…oh God…"

The Easterner fought back tears. He really wanted to keep his emotions in check, but, true to form he was fighting a losing battle, an inner battle he had been struggling with since that hateful day Buck came, effectively, to say goodbye.

"I had no one…Casey was, and still is having her own problems, as were Chris, Vin, and the guys. They made me feel selfish wanting to talk you out of it…oh, I know they didn't mean to, but they seemed to be ready to let you go…give you space…and I…wasn't. I wanted you where I could see you, talk to you whenever, know you were close, and as safe as we could ever be in this business. I didn't want you to have another career." His voice shuddered.

"I missed it being like it had always been, I wanted to know how you could make such a life-changing decision and cut me out of the process." He stood to pace again, finally stopping and looking a distraught Buck in the eye.

“Then it hit me…because you have Inez now, and I suddenly realized how selfish I must seem to you…to everyone, for trying to cling to the past…only, I didn't mean to cling…I just hadn't realized you'd moved on." He straightened, despite suddenly feeling very tired.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is…I'm backing off…I respect that things have changed between us, Buck…I'm just glad you came back to us; and I still have you as a friend." As JD's emotionally drained body was about to drop into the chair, he was suddenly pulled into a fierce clinch.

When Dunne had finished speaking, Buck instinctively jumped to his feet and embraced him, not surprised at the consolation his actions afforded him. They stayed like that for a few moments, savoring the comfort. At last, Buck released the smaller man to guide him into the chair. He perched on the edge of the desk and looked down at JD.

"You're right, on both counts. Things have changed, and what I did to you all… especially to you, was selfish, not the moving on, but the thought process behind it, and failing to share it with anyone, especially you. Us drifting? I take full responsibility for that." He raised a hand to stop the protest about to emerge from JD's mouth.

"Mainly it’s because I've never relinquished my need to look out for you, though you rarely get to see it these days. I only seem to let it slip through when you're lying unconscious and scaring the shit outta me. Like I said the day of the bomb scare, seeing what Ice did to you, and the helplessness I felt…brought a lot of bad things to the surface. I ran away from the very people who could help me," he smiled, "and the one person who has always loved me unconditionally no matter what shit I threw at him. Now *that's* true family, kid, something I have with all of you, but…what we had…was… is…special, you know?” He swallowed hard; the lump of emotion in his throat was making it difficult to speak.

Composing himself, Buck continued, “Think we can…maybe start over…from here? I'd really like to, JD…I know you have Casey and the girls and, of course, the little guy due soon, and I have Inez and the Wilmington clan, but I miss having my little brother to lean on. What do you think?"

JD could barely speak for the emotion in his throat, but he rasped out a response.

"I've missed you too. I need you, Buck, always have. I realized it more than ever when you weren't around any more. It's been hell, you gone, failing Chris because I just can't crack Ice's code, and Casey having a really weird pregnancy, I have no idea from one day to the next what to expect from her or what she expects from me. Everyone says it’s hormones, but…ah, I don't know…I'm no expert, but it just feels so…off…ya know?"

Wilmington smiled and nodded. "Well, with Casey, just do a lot of nodding and agreeing…tell her she's beautiful…she's right, you know, stuff to put her in a good mood. As for Ice's code, if anyone can crack it, you can. Chris knows it and that’s why you're still on it. I'm guessing the pressure here's coming more from you than from Chris."

JD nodded, looking up at him in earnest. "Ice called me weak, Buck…I can't let her win, I'm not the weakest…"

"No, you're not. She was messing with your mind, and doin' a good job too by what I can tell. You gonna let her beat you like this?" Buck grinned at the shake of dark hair and a renewed determination in hazel eyes.

"Well, alright!" He watched JD stand.

"One thing Buck, not that I'm really surprised, but you just jumped right back in there, working with Captain Richards. What about the nightmares you’re still having? What are you going to do about the counseling Chris offered you?”

“I can handle it without...”

JD interrupted him, “I know, but promise me you'll at least think on it?"

Standing, Buck grasped JD's shoulders. "I promise," he said, grinning. "Now get the hell outta here before Chris bangs our heads together and uses us to rest his knee on."

With a chuckle and a definite spring in his step, JD left, passing Chris on the way out, chuckling again as a grin almost split his face in two. Chris entered Buck's office, pointing back at the junior agent.

"Did he just giggle at me?"

Buck looked on fondly after the youth. "I do believe that was a giggle, yes."

"So…you two okay?"

Buck sighed contentedly, "Yeah…I reckon we just turned a page, and it was way overdue."

Chapter 25

Chris’ Journal ~ Sunday, February 3rd

I have neglected writing down my thoughts lately, but to be fair, I have been somewhat busy. It is hard to believe we are only one month into the New Year… seems much longer. Right now, I am captive in my own home, on crutches again after undergoing surgery last Friday. Vin and Kelli accompanied me to the hospital where I had outpatient surgery. Doctor Thorp used a laser of some kind and according to him, my knee will be better than the original in a few short weeks. Tomorrow I can ditch the crutches and replace them with a walking brace. Tuesday I return to work.

Vin is recovering from his own surgery, and will be attending physical therapy with me. We should both heal about the same time. I came close to losing him last week when an arrest went bad, and in spite of wearing a vest, a bullet managed to enter his shoulder, breaking up his collarbone. Luckily, it did not shift far enough to hit his carotid artery or he would not be here.

I almost lost Buck too, not to death, but burnout. He is back with us again after saving Ezra from a bomb intended to blow him to kingdom come. He appeared relieved when he found out about the configuration of the new teams, and I’m beginning to think he never wanted to be a supervisor or a Captain anyway. Yet, I am not certain Buck has wrangled all the inner demons that drove him away in the first place. All of us will be there for him, but knowing he will not get his copy of ‘Legends of the Quest’ until later, concerns me. What else does he have to experience before it happens?

Worry about my children has taken up much of the past month. Grace is doing better since Caitlyn suggested letting her attend Reins daycare. I know I still have some big hurdles to overcome with her in the future, but for the moment, she is happy. I try to control my feelings of resentment against Linda, but it is difficult. Not having a mother is one thing, having one who shows so little concern for her children is abominable. Grace is fortunate to have so much family on Larabee 7 who love her. It does not make up for what Linda did, but it does give her security. Caitlyn is fantastic with her and her presence in Grace’s life has made a huge difference. Cody is too young yet, to know he is missing a mother in his life, but his time is coming.

Kelli is rebounding from her horrid experience with Ice. Sometimes I hate the fact that the woman is dead, because in my opinion, she did not suffer nearly enough for what she did. Kelli suffered too long and the loss she and Vin endured damn near destroyed them both. The only good thing to come of it all is that Kelli and I have a stronger father-daughter relationship. The years we were apart are not as much of an issue now as they were when we first started out.

Still, Ice’s actions left me fighting the urge to slip into a destructive mode of hatred and vengeance. I am determined not to give in though; it would be too easy to slip back into the hell it took me years to crawl out of after Sarah and Adam died. The damn codes Ice left as a parting gesture has JD temporarily stumped, but eventually he will break it and identify the person or persons responsible for Sarah and Adam’s death, of that I have no doubt. I plan to make certain justice is served. All I have to do is practice patience. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, given the shit that keeps happening around me, and to my family. I keep working on the bad feelings and talking it over with my NA sponsor, Mike, helps. What I learned at NA, and having six brothers around to support me make it bearable.

Our caseload at work has been a bitch, but with this last assignment wrapped up, I hope for a slowdown. At least until we work out all the details on the MCAT expansion teams and the construction crew completes the major remodeling of our office space. On one hand, I think it is exciting, on the other, I dread change, and the extra time involved for me as Assistant Director of MCAT Operations, overseeing the actions of three units. Travis calls it progress; I call it a pain in the ass.

Another surprising thing happened this month. I realized I could still enjoy a woman’s company without feeling guilty about taking time from my babies. Although I fought admitting it, it is nice to sit and talk with Caitlyn. She is intelligent, caring, direct, and easy on the eyes. Grace thinks the world of her, and while I have and will keep insisting we are only friends, she has entered my thoughts more often that I care to admit…yet. I am not convinced now is a good time to consider another relationship but…. who knows where we could end up? I suppose time will tell.

Gotta go, Grace is squealing about something….

Chris closed the journal and grabbed his crutches to go investigate.


“Is Cait,” Grace yelled, running toward the door.

“Hello, Grace,” Cait said with a smile. Handing Dottie the casserole dish she carried, she explained, “I thought you‘d be extra busy with Chris home recovering, so I brought lunch.” Turning her attention back to her favorite little blonde after acknowledging Dottie’s grateful nod, she knelt down to the child’s level. “Have you been practicing with your crayons?”

“Ya huh,” she nodded eagerly, “me dra’ Da a ‘icture.”

“I bet your Dad loves your picture. May I see it?” Grace ran off to retrieve her drawing; nearly colliding with Chris in her haste. Only his quick reflexes kept him balanced on the crutches.

Caitlyn cringed watching the near miss. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were standing there.”

“No problem, I’m getting used to avoiding a run-in with the little blonde tornado.” Chris had been intentionally quiet, observing his daughter’s interaction with Cait and vice versa. It was heartwarming to see the change in Grace over the past couple of weeks, and he knew Cait was responsible for it. The clingy, whinny, insecure child was gone, replaced by one who laughed more, and eagerly looked forward to spending time at Miss Cait’s daycare. “Come on in and join us until lunch is ready to serve.” He indicated that she follow him into the living room.

Once they were settled on the couch, and Chris had his knee propped onto the ottoman, Caitlyn asked, pointing, “How is the knee?”

“Better than I expected.” Chris grinned. “If I’d known this surgery would be so easy, I would have agreed to it immediately.” Chris watched her face with interest. Over the past few weeks, he had learned to read her fairly well. The way she chewed on her bottom lip told him she had something she wanted to say. “What’s on your mind, Cait?”

Before she answered, Grace bounced into the room with her picture. Cait spent a few minutes admiring it, and praising her talent.

Chris finally suggested that Grace go help Dottie, and let them know when lunch was ready. Once she was out of earshot, he turned to Caitlyn. “You were about to say?”

Sighing deeply, she began, “I know you believe I am an expert with children, but evidently I’m not in every situation. I would appreciate your assistance with a problem I’m having. Jesse showed good progress over the past few months. At least he did until I went to dinner with you. He was not happy about it.”

“I noticed,” Chris chuckled, “the porch light flickering on and off gave me a clue.”

“Yes I suppose it did, Cait smiled. “Bottom line, Jesse has shut me out since then, along with everyone else at Reins. I hoped you might try talking to him. If he sees you are not a threat to his space in my life, perhaps he’ll relax and open up again.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Chris said thoughtfully. “I need someone to help with my horse for a while. George is doing it now, but he has enough on his plate without tending to Pony. How about I drop by after I see doc tomorrow and ask Jesse to feed and groom him for a while? “

“Good idea,” Cait agreed, smiling approvingly. “Jesse loves horses and once he gets to know you, he’ll see you’re not a threat to his new home.”

“I haven’t forgotten about your other suggestion either. Vin and I have already discussed the possibilities. You'll have your rodeo at Reins this summer." Chris turned to face her. "Your kids will not only get to watch real cowboys get thrown on their butts and eating dirt, but they will also have a chance to participate in junior events, which will be planned exclusively for them."

Caitlyn grinned. "Are they going to see Chris Larabee sitting on his butt eating dirt?"

"Not a chance in hell." He laughed. "I’m a damn good supervisor and that’s what I plan to do... supervise. The only way you'll see me eating dirt is if Grace wants to share mud pies.”

Cait's eyes twinkled mischievously. “Darn and I was looking forward to it.”

Chris nodded and then cleared his throat. “While you’re here, I have a request.” He glanced at her. “Will you consider attending our MCAT dinner on February sixteenth? “

“As your date?” Caitlyn teased, knowing it was exactly what he was attempting to ask.

Surprised by her question, he looked up. “Yes, as my date. I sure as hell wasn’t asking you to go as my doctor.” It was then he noticed the mischievous glint in her eyes. “Reckon you knew that didn’t you?”

“Yes I did and yes I will.”

“All right then…it’s a date.” Grace saved him from having to say more when she ran in yelling lunch was ready. Chris could not believe he actually asked Cait for a date. It shocked him that he did, but he was not sorry. In fact, he was looking forward to it. Gathering his crutches, he waited for Cait before hobbling off to the kitchen.

Tanner Home

Kelli quietly closed the nursery room door, having managed successfully to get both babies asleep. Detouring on the way to check on Vin, Jason and Andi, she answered the phone, then proceeded to their bedroom where Vin was supposed to be reading the children a story. Instead, she found Andi jumping on the bed, Jason talking a mile a minute, and Vin trying not to jar his shoulder as he leaned back against the headboard.

Grabbing Andi in mid-jump, Kelli swung her daughter over her shoulder. “Okay, superwoman, enough. Uncle Ezra and Aunt Barbara are on their way over to take y’all to the movies.”

“Yay,” Andi shouted, wiggling to escape from her mother’s hold. “Uncle Ra loves watching Princess Diaries.”

“He promised we’d see Spiderman 3,” Jason argued.

Vin responded to his wife’s exasperated sigh with a wink. “Reckon neither of ‘em wants to see the new Harry Potter movie.”

“Yes we do!” Both of the kids yelled.

“Then scat off to your rooms and get ready to go.” Kelli set Andi down, watching as they scampered out the door. “Well done, Tanner. You nipped that argument in the bud.” She moved over to examine his shoulder. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Vin took her hand and stood. ”Andi was just trying to catch the birds.”

Kelli looked up to the ceiling. Vin and Jason had worked on ‘her’ mural for weeks and she loved the results. “You mean my beautiful hawks in flight?”

Vin appreciated the look in her eyes when she talked about her hawks. “You really like ‘em don’t you?”

Sapphire eyes met sky blue. “The artwork is magnificent, and I love what ya’ll did and, but not as much as I love my flesh and blood hawk.” She slipped her arm around him, and together they walked out to meet Ezra and Barbara.


Kelli and Barbara left the men talking in the living room, while they went off to hurry the children along. Vin stood staring out the window as Ezra stepped up to join him.

“I never get tired of this view.” Vin said. “After Fowler shot me, I wasn’t certain I’d see it again.”

Ezra glanced toward Vin, thinking about the bomb, which threatened to annihilate him. “I must admit to appreciating the beauty of each day a tad more myself.”

“You’re a brave man, takin’ the kids to the movies.” Vin chuckled. “The days of Jason needin’ to protect Andi all the time are over, now all they seem to do is argue.”

“It is only because you and Kel have given them the freedom to act as typical siblings. “Without fate’s intervention, Ezra hated to consider what could have happened to Jason and Andi. “I assure you that after spending two weeks in the junior high world, your two youngsters will be a pleasant change.”

“You drew a rough assignment there. Most of those kids just try to exist from one day to the next. The future is not somethin’ they think applies to them.” Vin sighed. “I still see ‘em ever chance I get, workout with ’em at the recreation center, play a few games of basketball, but I don’t go enough anymore.”

“I believe Buck expressed a desire to become more involved with after school activities in the Purgatorio area. Perhaps I could donate a few hours a week to such an endeavor. In fact, I believe you and I could recruit our other brothers into offering the same. We can make a difference.”

Vin nodded. “With the power of seven… damn straight we can do it.”

“My sentiments exactly,” Ezra agreed. The laughter of children broke up their planning session. Within a few minutes, Jason and Andi were off to the movies with their aunt and uncle.

“It’s your turn, Tanner,” Kelli said, taking his hand to lead him to their bedroom. “Those bandages need changin’ and since the boys are asleep, we’re basically alone. I can’t think of a better time.”


Vin tried to sit still while Kelli tended to his wound, but with her standing so close, it was difficult. “You’re gettin’ good at that.” His right hand roamed across her shoulders first and then slid downward to briefly rest on her backside.

“I’ve had plenty of practice lately. “She grinned when his hand slid under her skirt. “Control yourself, lover. We need to talk about somethin’ serious first.” She ripped off a piece of tape to apply to the bandage on his left shoulder.

Concern immediately filled his eyes. They had previously discussed the shooting and the effect it had on the children, plus their own feelings about it. What was he missing? Studying her features, he said softly, “Talk to me, Baby.”

“Don’t look so worried.” She finished with the tape, and then fidgeted with the bandage, stalling for time. Now that she had opened the subject, Kelli was not sure where to start. “Since we’ve been together, especially now that we have the kids, my career priorities have changed. You gettin’ hurt happened to coincide with me trying to sort out what I need at this point in my life.” Hesitating for a moment, she took a deep breath and plunged ahead. ”Director Travis made me an offer and I am seriously considerin’ acceptin’ it.”

Vin knew she was not asking for his permission, she was only including him in her thinking process. “You know I’ll support whatever career decision you make.” He stood to face her.

“That’s one more reason I love you.” Kelli trailed her fingers across his bare chest and sighed, her palm remaining flat against it, covering his heart. “Having one parent in the field, facin’ God only knows what, on a regular basis is hard enough on the kids, both of us out there is more than they should have to worry about. I think it’s time I moved off the front lines.”

This was not what Vin expected to hear. “I know you; you’re a damn good investigator, and a helluva interviewer.” He lifted his hand to her face, gently cupping her cheek. “You would hate sittin’ at a desk all day shufflin’ papers or starin’ at a computer screen.”

“You’re right, I would. That’s why Travis’s offer is so intriguin’.” She covered his hand with hers. “With the new teams formin’, he’s goin’ to be travelin’ more than ever.” Laughing softly, she added, “Orrin is not naïve enough to think Dad is goin’ to stay out of the field either, even with his promotion to Assistant Director. Travis wants someone to act as a coordinator between the teams, and deal with the press about MCAT issues. I will still be an agent, and handle certain investigations, but instead of case related, they would deal with MCAT.”

“He wants you to liaise with the press?” Now Vin laughed. “Baby, I love you, but are you sure your temperament is right for dealin’ with the media?”

“Well it couldn’t be harder than dealin’ with you and Dad as my bosses. Besides, public relations is what I started out doin’ when I was on staff with the governor’s office in Texas. Granted it was several years ago, but I’m confident I can still handle it. What’s more, after workin’ with Chris the past few weeks and realizin’ the massive amount of detail it takes to establish two new teams, and a trainin’ center, I can see the need for a coordinator.”

“I have to agree with you on that. I think Chris is already regrettin’ takin’ it on.” Vin nodded, he could see her jumping in with both feet and enjoying the challenge. “Travis made a good choice. Hell, the only problem I see is that I won’t get to boss you around anymore. The office is the only place you have to do what I tell you.”

“Put it on your list for our fantasy nights, I’ll obey every order you give me.” Kelli leaned closer to whisper, ‘We could start practicin’ now if you want. It’s only been six days though…you think your shoulder is up to it?”

“Oh yeah, I want. I’ve already taken a pain pill.” Vin grinned with enthusiasm, reaching out with his good hand to draw her to him. “I think your new vitamins and the hormone therapy are working out really well.” He kissed her and then whispered, “Remind me to send Doctor Weeks a thank you card.”

Sanchez Home

Nathan picked up a paperweight from Josiah’s desk, playing with it to avoid talking. Deciding to discuss his feelings with his friend was easier than actually doing it. It irritated him that Josiah sat patiently waiting for him to say something. “Rain accepted a position at Denver Memorial in the emergency department.” Sanchez’ silence was getting to him. “She will still be the doctor for Reins, but she wanted more of a challenge.”

Josiah commented. “I suppose we’ll see her there…often.”

“Yeah, that’s what I told her.” Nathan sighed. “Damnit Josiah, Vin got hurt because of me. I should have…”

“Should have what? Had x-ray vision to see Fowler’s gun or ESP to know what he was thinking?” Josiah shook his head. “You covered your partner and then took care of him when he was injured.”

“Maybe I should stay out of the field. Stay with forensics. What if…”

Josiah interrupted, “There is no place for what ifs in our business. You are a damn fine agent and there is no reason you cannot work both. Any one of us would feel secure having you at our back. Vin did, and still does. It was not your fault. You are the only one who believes differently.” He stood and came around the desk, laying his hand on Nathan’s shoulder. “Let it go, Brother. Quit trying to second-guess fate. It happened the way it was destined to, otherwise how would our ancestors know when to send your book to you?”

Nathan looked up, he had not thought about the timing of it until now. “I guess so, but why do you think Vin had to be hurt on that particular day?”

“One of the mysteries of the brotherhood we might never know, but then maybe we don’t need to know. Maybe we just need to believe.”

Nathan offered a weak smile. “Believe in the brotherhood of the seven?” He nodded as his smile broadened. “Yeah, I can do that.”

“Good,” Josiah threw his arm around Nathan’s shoulder. “Now, tell me more about Rain’s new job over a cup of Mallory’s coffee.”

Nathan’s mood lightened considerably as they headed toward the kitchen. It no longer mattered if he understood why; the only thing important was that he could believe again.


"Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. It comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."

John Wayne 1971

Friday, February 15th

MCAT War Room ~ Team Meeting

Change was in the air. The atmosphere in the War room crackled with energy and the noise level was unusually high. Chris whistled to get everyone’s attention in order to get the meeting started.

Chris waited for a moment and then started. “I know you are all anxious to get out of here so I will try to make this short and sweet. The next time we meet it will be as two teams and I have a couple of things I want to say.”

“Mark this down on your calendars,” Buck laughed. “Larabee doesn’t often make a speech.”

Throwing a glance toward his old friend, Chris frowned before continuing, “The fact that we find ourselves expanding is due to the outstanding work of the men and women seated before me. MCAT has distinguished itself as an exemplary agency in less than three short years. You should be proud, I am. Guy Saunders and Brad Garrison are the latest agents to sign on permanently with us. Both currently assigned to MCAT Bravo, led by Captain Justin Michaels, SAC. Justin, would you introduce your team line-up?”

“Be glad to,” Justin looked around the room proudly. “In addition to Guy and Brad, Mark is our explosives expert. Pam is the computer specialist for Bravo Team. Alex and Raphael are trainers as well as lead investigators, and Judy is my administrative assistant. I have two new agents arriving after the first of the month to round out the unit.”

Chris nodded. “Captain Tanner is SAC for Alpha team, which includes Buck, Josiah, Ezra, Nathan, and MCAT com/sat supervisor, JD. Mallory will handle all requests for CASSIE assistance from our San Antonio unit, Team Charlie, who will be here later this afternoon to tour our office and the lab. Play nice, introduce yourselves, and try to make a good impression.”

“We always play nice, “JD grinned. “Besides, we like Texans, even understand most of what they say now, thanks to Vin, Kelli, and Bones.”

Vin playfully tossed a pencil at JD, grinning as the younger man snatched it deftly from the air. ”It took me awhile to understand Boston talk too, Kid.”

"We uh... don't have an accent," JD replied, in his best non-rhetoric Bostonian English, causing everyone to laugh and Chris to cough and raise his voice, slightly. 

“As I was saying,” Chris ignored the ‘kids’ and carried on. “Most of you know by now that Kelli is our MCAT Team Coordinator, responsible not only to assist me as AD, but Director Travis also. Any information about MCAT, which goes to the press, passes through her desk first. Any issues you might have regarding our transition go to her. In case anyone missed the memo, attendance is mandatory for the Director’s dinner tomorrow night, no exceptions. Several VIPS will be there and MCAT will be the focus of their attention. Make your plans accordingly.”

Josiah picked up a stack of papers, took one and passed the others on as Chris continued, “All the details of location, attire, and time are listed here.”

Standing, Chris scanned the room. “Change can be good or bad. We are going to make this a good one. When we leave today, you will all be off until March first. During that time, a construction crew will come in to work on adding a few new offices to accommodate housing two separate teams. Enjoy your time, but carry your MCAT pagers wherever you go, we are still on call in the event a terror alert is raised. Any questions?”

Several heads shook, indicating they were good to go. “All right, get out of here.” Chris crooked his finger to Buck. “My office, we need to talk.”

Larabee’s office

Buck sprawled in his favorite chair, pre-empting Chris, “You wanna know why I haven’t scheduled any counseling sessions.”

“It wasn’t why I asked you in here, but the question has crossed my mind.” Chris leaned back, cradling his hands behind his head. “You think you should?”

Shaking his head, Buck answered honestly. “A couple weeks ago, I would have said yes. Now, I’d have to say no. JD made me realize it was me holding things in that caused so much pain.” Shifting in the chair, he leaned forward. “You’ve known me a long time, Pard, so I reckon you’ll understand. I am happy being Special Agent Buck Wilmington. I don’t have any desire to be in your shoes or Vin’s. I just want to do what I do best, which is to train and investigate.”

“We should have had this conversation a long time ago.” Chris sighed; he did understand and chided himself for not seeing it sooner. “If you change your mind in the future…”

“I won’t,” Buck grinned, “But I do get to keep the pay raise right?”

Chris chuckled. “You know once it’s given and your position is eliminated, you do.”

“Good, cause with a new baby coming we’re gonna need it.”

Chris sat upright. “New baby…? You and Inez are…”

“Yep, but we’re not making an announcement just yet. The baby is due in August, so we figured we’d wait a bit.”

“Congratulations, you old dog,” Chris grinned, while shaking his head. “Five kids, keep going and you’ll have your own magnificent seven.”

“Not a bad thing to work toward, seven has been good for us.” Buck relaxed back into the chair. “You did call me in here for something though.”

“Yeah, I did. I’m aware you have some plans for after school activities in the Purgatorio area. The boys and I want to help, and I talked to Travis. He plans to use some of his contacts to provide more funding into the west end. We figured to take the two weeks we have off to get it rolling, if that’s okay with you.”

“Hell yes, it’s okay.” Buck knew he could count on his brothers to help if he asked, and should have known they would be there even if he did not. “Thanks, it’ll mean a lot to those kids.”

Chris knew it meant a lot to Buck, too. “Then it’s a done deal. Come this summer I plan to organize a rodeo for the Reins kids, we can also include some of your west end kids. Of course I’ll need a good man to help set it up.”

“You got him right here. Whatever it takes, we’ll get it done.”

“Never doubted it for a minute, Pard,” Chris said. “Now how ‘bout we check out that Texas team, and then get the hell out of here.”

“Sounds like a plan to me, lead on Commander.”

Saturday February 16th

Several members of the MCAT Alpha team had already assembled at their assigned table, observing the rest of the room. Buck‘s thoughts drifted, thinking about how close he came to giving this up and grateful he had a second chance to be a part of the best damn team in the country.

"If you think too hard, your head might explode.” JD’s grin was infectious. He was glad to have the ‘old Buck’ back in his life again.

Buck reached out and ruffled JD's hair, knowing it would get a rise out of him. "Smart ass, kid."

JD tried to duck and muttered, "Hey...watch the hair, bro...can't be looking scruffy tonight." He pushed Buck playfully. "You are so full of it."

"Children, behave," Josiah said as he joined them at the table, putting an arm around each of them. "The playground is closed. Chris wants us to be adults tonight."

"He doesn't expect much does he?" JD smirked, squeaking as Josiah squeezed and threw him a wide toothy grin. 

"Anybody know where Chris is?" Nathan asked as he and Rain walked up to join them.

"Chris had a date to pick up." Vin answered, keeping his eye on Kelli, who was across the room talking to Charlie Team. He was sorry now that she wore the black evening gown he had been admiring only a couple of hours ago. She looked too damn good and he did not like the attention she was getting from some of the young agents on the Texas team. He was debating with himself about going over there when Josiah announced Chris’s arrival.

"Speak of the devil, he's here." Josiah grinned when he spotted Chris, with Caitlyn, making his way over to them from the door

Orrin Travis intercepted the couple, recognizing Caitlyn from the Reins of Change opening. "Chris, Doctor Broderick, welcome."

Chris nodded. "It looks as if half the bigwigs in the State are here, Orrin."

"Playing nice with politicians is part of the job. You know that, Chris." Orrin said. "I'll handle them. You and your teams are center stage tonight. Relax and enjoy it." He nodded to Cait and moved on to greet the next guests.

"Relaxing is not the word I'd use for this soiree," Chris muttered when Travis was out of earshot.

"If you see a chance to make an early exit, don't hesitate on my account. I'm fine with it," Cait smiled. "Given a choice, I'd take small quiet gatherings over partying any day."

Unexplainably, Chris found he was pleased to hear Cait's words. "I'll keep that in mind." They moved through the room to join his senior agents, speaking to other team members along the way, starting with Justin’s Bravo unit. “I see your team is present and accounted for.” Chris nodded to the rest of them. “Cait, this is Captain Justin Michaels, his wife Beth and his unit.”

Justin stood. “It’s nice to meet you Doctor Broderick.” He introduce his team and their dates, and then turned his attention to Chris, he told him. “We met the Texas team, and we’ve already been properly challenged. They’re under the impression that a bunch of rookies can beat us on the training course.”

Chris chuckled, “I assume you set them straight on it.”

“Yes sir, we did,” Justin assured him with a smile. “We are looking forward to the opportunity of proving it too.”

“You’ll have the opportunity when the new training facility opens in May. “Chris excused them and continued on to the Alpha Team’s table.

Buck saw them first. “You said a few VIPS; you didn’t mention how many bigwigs would be here, Chris," he said. "There's enough political power in this room to start a war."

"Yeah, too damn much. Our team accounted for?" Chris scanned the table to see who was missing.

“We designated Ezra to be our MCAT ambassador of goodwill. He’s making the rounds for us." Vin explained. “We reckoned you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all.” Chris tugged on his collar, and pulled out a chair for Caitlyn. “I hope Travis calls it an early night. Going to those physical therapy sessions are wearing me out.”

“Are they that rough?” Nathan asked, thinking he might better have a talk with Doctor G.

“Its not the sessions, it’s puttin’ up with Tanner and his moods. If he keeps causing trouble, I might have to shoot him.” Chris did not like going to PT any more than Vin did, he just let him take all the heat for the grumbling.

“You’re just complain’ cause I do a little bitchin’.” Vin jumped into the conversation, “I think they ought to release us both.”

“Yeah, well you take on Doc Gilford and see how far it gets you.” Chris changed the subject before Nathan started lecturing. “Where are the rest of the Wild Bunch women?”

“Evie Travis wanted them to meet her friends and the governor's wife, so she hijacked some of our ladies, and Kel is talking to the Texas team.” Josiah told him. “Looks like most of them are on their way back now.” Mallory, Casey, Inez and Barbara rejoined the group.

"I spoke to Bones on the way over here." JD said. “He was in a discussion about forensics with the State Attorney General."

"Better him than us," Buck quipped. "I understand what forensics can do, but I'm lost trying to figure out how."

“Forensics is the future of law enforcement,” Nathan began a long narration. “Did you know…?”

Ezra made his way back to the table just in time to hear the beginning of Nathan’s explanation. He shook his head, grinning as his brothers ‘shouted’ Nathan down while tossing napkins at the chuckling agent.

Chris sat there laughing, but quickly lost track of the conversation around him, letting his thoughts drift while he watched his daughter cross the room. Twelve years ago, he believed he could never trust his heart again to love. Six brothers and three children later, he could not imagine his life without any of them. Fate bringing his best friend together with a daughter he may not have ever known was a blessing he had not expected, but was pleased to accept. Although at first he had doubts about her switching assignments, he had to admit it was a good move for her.

Glancing to the lovely woman sitting next to him, he smiled. Cait was definitely a pleasant surprise in his life. The more time he spent with her, the more he wanted to see her. It was ironic that Grace and Jesse were the catalysts, which gave him the excuse to do so. Leaning toward her, he whispered, “Your dress is almost as beautiful as you are.” He hoped his face was not reflecting the sudden thoughts of how she might look out of it.

“Thank you,” Cait smiled back at him. “You look pretty good yourself in a tux…for a cowboy.”

He did not miss the teasing lilt in her voice and knew someone told her how he felt about the name cowboy. Yet, for some unexplained reason, he didn’t mind when she said it. Using his best imitation of a Texas drawl he said, “Reckon it shows ‘m more comfortable in casual, ma’am, hope you don’t mind none.”

Caitlyn responded with musical laughter that pleased him immensely, totally captivating him as he momentarily forgot where they were and who was sitting on the other side.

Buck nudged him in the ribs and said quietly. “Nice to see you enjoying yourself, Stud, but in case you didn’t notice you have an audience.”

Chris hid his embarrassment when he realized everyone at the table had stopped talking and started listening …to him.

Vin broke the silence when he stood up to greet his wife. “I thought I’d have to send out a search party for you.”

Kelli did not miss the possessive look evident in his eyes. “Just establishin’ a few contacts for later, I’m officially off duty now and all yours for the rest of the evenin’.” She slid onto the chair he was holding for her and smiled. Although she did not normally see this side of him, a little jealousy could be a good thing and make for a very pleasurable night when they returned home.

“Chris, I have a question,” Casey drew Larabee’s attention. “If you wanted more teams, why bring in other agents to run them? I mean I am sure Justin has some experience, but shouldn’t you have offered the position to someone with seniority?”

Realizing suddenly why she had asked the question, Chris was not certain how to answer Casey, except truthfully. “Every agent from team seven was offered the position first. In fact Travis wanted two of them to lead the new units.” He glanced around the table. “They all declined.”

Casey’s head snapped around to JD, her eyes flashing and if looks could kill, he knew he would be a dead man. He was not sure what it was about Chris’s answer that set Casey off again, but he had a feeling it was going to be a long, silent, and cold night.

Ezra lightened the mood for the rest of the table. “We knew Commander Larabee needed us around to make him look good to his superiors.”

Even Chris laughed along with the others. Ezra might have made his comment in jest, but was partially right and did not realize it. Chris looked around at them, each man a unique and special individual, yet as a team, they acted and stood strong, almost as one. The truth was he did need them, though not to make him look good. They were so much more than teammates...friends. They had hauled him back from the brink, given him a purpose in life, helped him to know love and companionship again.  These men were the heart and soul of his existence, and he would do whatever necessary to keep them beside him. They were his family and for Christopher Larabee, family was everything.

Cowboy’s words echoed across the ages of time - Embrace the past, cherish the future, and fight like hell for today.

Chris could do that, this was his destiny and they were after all, his family and for Chris Larabee family was everything -allied by the timeless bonds of friendships and brotherhood, which tie us all to our past and gifts us with the promise of tomorrow-

The End

Read “Just Couldn’t Wait” (MCAT) Written by Sue M

Followed by

#4 MCAT Strength & Solidarity, “Fire and Rain

Written by Tannertexaslady


*Chapter 8 refers to actor Robert Carradine’s character in the movie ‘Revenge of the Nerds”, 1984 ~20thCentury Fox

For more on M7 and MCAT - Magnificent Seventh Heaven http://www.tannertexaslady.com/

November 2007