It’s a Wonderful (ATF) Life

by Angie

I know this has been done and done again but I had to put my own spin on it. I couldn’t have done it without Kathy and Marian’s contributions to the angst.

Here he was again, facing the anniversary of Sarah and Adam’s deaths. Not even the bitter bite of the whiskey he’d consumed could take away the profound melancholy he was feeling. The ache had started as soon as he realized what day it was. The day had gone straight to hell after that, progressing faster and faster as the sun streaked across the sky. A third empty bottle joined the other two near the wall he was leaning against. The ache wouldn’t go away! He could almost hear the empty platitudes other people spat when they didn’t know what else to say to him.

“GOD DAMN IT ALL TO HELL! IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME! WHY COULDN’T IT HAVE BEEN ME? NOT SARAH … NOT ADAM … ME! IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME! THE WORLD WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER OFF WITHOUT ME!” Chris raged and rallied against the unseen power that controlled the universe. Pushing off of the wall, he staggered outside and started walking, heedless of his direction. When he fell, something sharp struck the back of his head and darkness embraced him.

“Mr. Larabee … Chris, can you hear me?” an insistent voice called. Unwilling to return to a world of pain and loss, the blond moaned and tried to sweep away the hand that was shaking his arm and trying to rouse him. “Chris, wake up!”

“Hmm? Who are you?”

“Me? Oh, my name is Clarence,” the man said with a childlike smile.

“Clarence. Well Clarence, go away and leave me alone,” Chris growled as he glared his best Larabee glare. After a moment, it occurred to him that his head didn’t hurt anymore and it should. From the amount of whiskey he’d ingested, he should have the hangover of all time.

“I can’t just go off and leave you here, you’ll die!” Clarence insisted.

Chris pushed up from the ground, if only to convince the helpful stranger that he was alright and that he should move on. It had been nearly dusk when he stumbled outside, now it was coming near to midnight he guessed from the position of the moon.

Waking with a raging headache, Chris got up and stumbled along the blacktop. Uncaring about what happened to him, he drifted out to the center of the traffic lane. Coming toward him at an unsafe speed for the narrow, curvy mountain road was a squad car. The driver of the car fumbled for the cigarette lighter he dropped between the seats, looking away from the windshield for a moment.

The bright headlights blinded him and Chris grimly hoped that the impact would end his suffering. When the car was scarcely ten feet from his knees, something took hold of him and flung him roughly out of the way.

Buck felt his hand close around the little disposable lighter and he pulled it up, glancing back at the road. In that instant, he saw a man leap out of the middle of the lane. Slamming on the brakes, the Chevy Impala fishtailed wildly before coming to a stop. Cursing, he threw open the door and got out, tossing his cigarette down and jamming the lighter into his pocket before drawing his weapon and storming across the road.

“Get the hell on your feet and come here!” Buck yelled at the man struggling in the tall weeds along the side of the road. The bright beam of the flashlight tucked under his arm illuminated and blinded the man. “Right now!”

Chris came to his feet, glaring up at his oldest friend. “Turn that damned light off, Buck!” he demanded as he stomped over to the blacktop. Before he could even regain his senses, he was roughly shoved to his knees and one wrist painfully twisted up behind his back. Cold steel encircled his wrist and his other hand was swiftly captured and imprisoned. “What the Hell! What are you doing, Buck?”

“Don’t try anything stupid. Just be quiet and I won’t give you the attitude adjustment you need!” Wilmington threatened as he dragged Chris to his feet and propelled him across to the squad car. He threw the blond against the quarter panel and began to pat search him. When he finished, he opened the car door and forced the man into the back seat.

Staring at the slammed car door, Chris was puzzled and angry. He glared as Buck got into the front seat and squalled the tires getting the car back onto the road properly. “What the hell are you doing, Buck? You think this is some kind of joke?”

“Joke? Walking in the middle of the road in the middle of the night and trying to get killed is a joke to you? Just sit back and shut up, okay?” Buck yelled as he glared at the man in the back seat. He fumbled for another cigarette and lit it, blowing the smoke while stealing a glance to see if it bothered his prisoner.

Out of the corner of his eye, Chris noticed a man dressed in pale clothing in the seat next to him. He looked through the metal screen to see if Buck has noticed the man.

“Who in the hell are you?” Chris growled at the stranger.

“I’m Clarence. I just saved your life,” the man replied, smiling innocently.

“Sergeant Buck Wilmington, DPD, as if you couldn’t see for yourself,” came the sarcastic voice from the front seat.

“Not you, I know who you are, I was talking to him,” Chris told Buck.

Looking in the mirror, Buck didn’t see anyone and he mentally prepared himself for a psych case. Reaching the main highway, he set the cruise control and called in that he was returning to the station with a prisoner.

“What do you mean, you saved my life? You nearly knocked me in front of the police car, you idiot! Where did you come from? Hey Buck, why didn’t you cuff this clown?”

“He can’t see me, Chris.”

“How do you know my name?”

“I know all about you. I know that your name is Chris Larabee and I know that your wife and son died in a fire five years ago. You were at home drinking and trying to forget that it’s the anniversary of their deaths.”

“How in the hell do you know that?”

“You said that the world would be better off if you had never met Sarah. You’re going to get the chance to see just what would have happened.”

The car stopped in front of the Denver police station and Buck got out, stomping his cigarette butt beneath his heel before opening the door and jerking the blond out roughly. Once he had the man on his feet, he shoved him toward the building. The blond glared and Buck drew up his shoulders as he crowded the man’s personal space.

Inside of the jail, Chris was searched again.

“Do you have any ID?” Buck asked.

“It’s in my wallet,” Chris answered as he groped with his cuffed hands. His wallet wasn’t in his pocket and he glared at Clarence. “It must have fallen out when he grabbed me.”

Buck turned his head and looked to the empty corner of the holding cell. “Ri-i-ight,” he agreed. “Keep talking to your imaginary friend and you’ll get to spend the night in the mental ward over at Denver General.”

“I’m not talking to any imaginary friend, Buck, I’m talking to that guy right there,” Chris angrily explained.

“Not that it matters much but only my friends call me by my first name.”

“I’ve been your friend for a lotta years, Buck. What are you doing in that get up anyway? Travis put you undercover on some IA investigation?”

“What get up? And who is this Travis? I’ve been a cop here in Denver for almost ten years. What were you doing out there in the middle of the night anyway?”

“I walked from the ranch.”

“What ranch?”

“My ranch. Come on, Buck, this isn’t funny anymore. Take these cuffs off and drive me home, would you?” Chris turned and offered his bound hands to his friend.

“The only ranches up in those hills belong to the Potter and Nichols families. What were you really doing up there in the middle of the night?”

“Damn it, Buck, I live up there! You’ve been up there a million times. You keep your horse up there. You do remember that big old, gray glue bait beast you bought from Guy Royal, don’t you?”

“I don’t have a horse and I don’t know any Guy Royal. I never laid eyes on you until I almost ran you down up there!” Buck shouted before he removed the handcuffs and left the cell. “I’m getting out of here. Have a happy life in the looney bin.”

Chris wrapped his hands around the bars and stared in disbelief at the retreating back of his friend. When he heard the sigh from behind him, he turned to glare angrily at Clarence.

“Would you like to tell me what just happened here?”

“I tried to explain it to you. You’re getting the chance to see what your life would have been like if you’d never met Sarah Connelly. Officer Wilmington has been on the Denver police force for ten years. He plans to retire and move back to Las Vegas, where his ex-wife and four children live.”

“Four children? Buck’s never been married!”

“He’s been divorced for almost five years. His wife Inez took the children and moved back to her home in Mexico for a while. Now she runs a dinner show in one of the bigger hotels in Las Vegas. Unless he gets caught, he will have more than enough to retire comfortably in about five years.”

“Gets caught?”

“He’s been skimming from drug busts and rousting the ladies over in Purgatory for the past few years. He sells the drugs to the men he’s busted and let off. They get him top dollar in exchange for not going to jail.”

“Buck wouldn’t do that. Buck hates drug dealers with a passion.”

“This Buck Wilmington is a very different man from the one you know,” Clarence said with a shrug of his shoulder. Another officer walked through the lockup and Chris called out to him.

“Hey, don’t I at least get a phone call?” The officer looked at him and sighed, clearly he was a man who loved his work. He brought a phone over and pushed the handset between the bars. Chris gave him Vin’s phone number and watched as he dialed. The phone rang once before a grating tone sounded in his ear and a recording informed him that he had reached a number that was not in service. His shoulders fell in disappointment. “Can I try another number?”

“One phone call. Sorry,” the officer said as he took the handset back.

Chris paced for a few minutes before he sat on the bunk and glared at the stranger that no one else could see. “What about the others? Where are they?”

“Do you really want to put yourself through that? It isn’t a pretty picture,” Clarence warned.

“Where is Vin? The phone at his place is not in service.”

A cold, brisk breeze blew in his face and he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was standing in an alley in Purgatory. A hulking man in a black coat approached a man huddled in the doorway of an abandoned building. The man stood, the palsied trembling of his hands visible from several feet away. He dug into the pocket of his filthy, threadbare jeans and pushed a wad of crumpled bills into the other man’s hand. The man shook his head.

“This isn’t even enough to cover what you owe me, Tanner. If you think you’re getting a fix from me tonight, think again. You better come up with the rest of it or I’ll have one of my boys work you over for practice,” the man threatened before shoving Vin away from him and walking away.

“Please! You gotta help me! I’m hurtin’ bad,” Vin begged. The man tossed his head as he walked away without looking back. Tanner sank onto the steps again and pulled his knees to his chest. He wrapped his arms around them and shuddered as he watched the man get into his car.

“Vin? My God, what happened to you?” Chris asked as he moved to sit next to the trembling Texan. He didn’t even realize that his young friend shrank from him. “What are you doing out here like this? Why didn’t you call one of the guys?”

“M-m-mister … I ain’t got … anythin’ you’d want. D-d-don’t hurt me … Please?” Vin tucked his head close to his shoulder as he leaned toward the wall and away from the strange blond.

“I’d never hurt you, Vin. We gotta get you home. Come on, let me help you.”

Vin allowed Chris to bring him to his feet. He stood, hesitant and unsure, before shuffling toward the warehouse building he had been sleeping in for the past few weeks. He had been rousted from his last place by an angry cop. He needed to avoid Wilmington if he didn’t want to end up in worse shape than he was already in. It was bad enough that he was hooked on painkillers; he didn’t want to end up selling the junk just to stay out of jail. He led the blond to the warehouse door and stopped.

“Thanks man … this is the place,” he said softly.

Chris looked around in disbelief. The warehouse district was the worst part of Purgatory. Gangs and drug dealers ran the streets. He couldn’t leave Vin in a place like this.

“Vin, what happened to your apartment? You can’t stay here, you’ll get sick or killed. Why don’t you call Nathan or Josiah and see if you can stay with them?”

“Please mister, … this is the only … place I got. I don’t know … anybody else to call.”

In spite of his misgivings, Chris helped Vin into the dark, filthy warehouse. He followed the Texan to a corner filled with packing crates and watched as he pulled one out and began to crawl into the hole he’d revealed. Casting one more glance at Clarence, who had been silent, thankfully, he went to his knees and crawled in after Vin.

“I ain’t got … anythin’ you want,” Tanner said again when he saw the blond man crawling into his little nest.

“I don’t want anything from you, Vin. I just need to talk to you. Can I just ask you a few questions?” Chris asked as he squinted to see his friend in the dark.

“Whatever,” Vin replied tiredly.

“Will you tell me what happened to you?”

“You wanna know about me?”

“Yes, very much,” Chris answered honestly.

“Well, my ma died … when I’s just a little shaver. I got bounced around … in foster homes ‘til I’s … old enough to hightail it out of there. I did a stretch in … the army. When I got out of the army … I tried my hand at bounty huntin.’ That’s how I … run afoul of … Eli Joe. I winged him … but he got me good. Used most of the money … on pills. Got hooked,” Vin’s voice dropped off and his soft snores filled the small space.

Chris reached out and covered Vin with a tattered sweatshirt that he’d found in the dark. He felt the young man trembling under his hands and his heart ached. Turning to the strangely glowing form of Clarence in the tunnel, he struggled to find his voice. “How long has he been living like this?”

“Vin Tanner turned Eli Joe in for the bounty almost a year ago. He lost his apartment over six months ago and has been living on the streets ever since. He’s been arrested for panhandling and vagrancy eleven times.”

“Oh God Vin,” Chris whispered as he squeezed the too thin shoulder. “What about the others? What about JD?” The hard, brisk wind blew again and he clenched his eyes closed as he felt Vin’s shoulder slip from under his hand.

When he could, Chris opened his eyes and looked around. They were standing on the corner of a convenience store parking lot. He immediately zeroed in on the pair of young men walking into the store. His instincts told him that they were going to rob the place.

“What are we seeing?” he asked of Clarence.

“We are going to witness the end of John Dunne’s hopes and dreams,” the strange man said in a detached voice. “You see, this JD isn’t alive in your time.”

“What do you mean? What happened?” Chris demanded, growing more angry and scared by the moment. Just then, a pair of Boston police cars screeched to a halt and officers leapt out. He noticed that the passenger in one of the cars didn’t exit the vehicle as the others stealthily crept into the store.

“Young John Dunne was a Police Explorer. He loved his ride-along hours with Sergeant Pat Fye. The sergeant is fond of him, he knows all about JD’s mom dying. He knows that JD plans to apply to the BPD as soon as he’s old enough. But JD is about to make the most spectacular mistake of his life.”

Chris watched as JD slipped out of the patrol car. In the light from the store windows, the blond made out the familiar outline of the big 9mm in his hand. He wanted to call out, to stop the kid, but a hand closed on his arm and prevented him from moving.

“You can’t stop this, it’s already happened,” Clarence said firmly.

With his hands clenched in fists, Chris watched as JD slipped into the store. The rookie cop from the other patrol car spotted him and thought he was the robber. He gripped his gun in both hands and shouted for the kid to drop his weapon and get on the floor. Sergeant Fye shouted for him to get his ass back in the car. Confused and now a little scared, JD began to back toward the door. Slipping in a puddle of spilled Coke, his finger reflexively squeezed the trigger. The gun roared and leapt in his hands, the sound deafening him for a moment. As he recovered his hearing, he heard someone calling for an ambulance for ‘Annie.’ His stomach clenched as he realized that he’d shot the store clerk.

Chris’s vision dimmed for a moment and he flinched. When he could see again, he was standing in the corner of a small room. He could see JD sitting in a chair with tears rolling down his cheeks as Sergeant Fye tried to comfort him.

“It was an accident, son. I know you didn’t mean to do it.”

“Did you hear what they’re charging me with? Carrying concealed, illegal discharge of a firearm, interfering with a police officer, and criminal negligence, I got kicked out of the Explorers! I’ll have to stand trial! I’ll never get on the department with all of that on my record!” JD exclaimed.

“There are other things you could do with your life, JD,” Pat tried to console the kid. “I gotta get back to work. If you need anything, call. I’ll be here for you.”

Chris could only watch as the older man left the apartment. When he turned his attention back to JD, the kid was holding a framed picture and sobbing.

“I’m sorry, mom. I let you down,” he mumbled. “I’m just glad you aren’t here to see it.”

The exuberant young man Chris had reluctantly hired for his team was completely different from this despondent soul. He watched in growing horror as JD went to the bathroom and returned with a handful of pill bottles. He remembered JD telling him how hard it was to throw away his mother’s pain pills after she died, it was like losing her all over again. JD opened the bottles and began to swallow the pills, washing them down with a quart of chocolate milk.

“Oh, JD,” Chris moaned as he watched the warm brown eyes go glassy. When JD’s head finally dropped to lie against the arm of the chair, the empty bottles tumbled to the floor. The cold breeze enveloped him again and he found himself standing in a cemetery. A pair of similar stones bore the name Dunne across their faces. Well-faded silk flowers rested on the newer of the two graves.

“You see, JD left Boston for Denver just after his mother’s death so he could apply for a job with your team. You weren’t there and there was no reason to leave home,” Clarence explained.

A thought occurred to Chris and he turned to face the stranger. “What about Ezra?”

That damnable wind blew again and Chris waited for it to dissipate. When he could see again, he was standing on a sidewalk in a bustling crowd. An opening in the swarm of bodies allowed him to see the southerner for the first time. A manual wheelchair surged forward, people jumping out of the way as angry insults were hurled at them. Not surprisingly, Ezra didn’t stop at the corner for the light, he rolled down the wheelchair ramp and right into the cross walk. With a screech of tires and a volley of car horns in his wake, Ezra crossed the street without looking up.

“What happened to him?” Chris asked as he moved to follow.

“He was shot during a bust. The bullet shattered the vertebra in his lower back, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.”

“Where was his team?”

“They were in a bar across town, couldn’t be bothered with him,” Clarence replied.

“What is he doing for work now?”

“Let’s go see,” the other man suggested.

The wheelchair made steady progress down the street until it reached the Library. Navigating the ramp, Ezra hit the button that opened the electric doors and went inside.

“Good morning, Mr. Standish,” the librarian called.

“Good morning, Claire. How are you today?” Ezra asked as he rolled up to the desk and stopped.

“I’m great! I think he’s gonna pop the question tonight.”

“I wish you and Chanu every happiness,” he said with a somber smile. When the silence became awkward, he backed away and headed for the rows of bookshelves.

Chris watched for a long time as Ezra read from a large, heavy tome. When it appeared that he was going to be there for a while, Chris asked Clarence, “Is this it? This is what he does with his time?”

“His pension and disability payments cover all of his bills and he has no other interests. He comes down here every day that the library is open and he reads.”

“What about his friends? What about his mother?”

“He doesn’t have any friends. His teammates dropped him like a hot rock while he was still in the hospital. His mother comes by once or twice every few months. The last time she was here, she tried to persuade him to file suit against the FBI. When he refused, she got angry with him.”

A little girl wandered up the aisle where Ezra was sitting and Chris watched closely, the southerner never could ignore a child. Curious eyes studied the wheelchair as she stood directly opposite of Ezra. When he noticed her staring, the normally child-friendly man scowled.

“What are you looking at?”

“Do you have a ‘lectric scooter at home? My grampy has one and he lets me drive him in it sometimes,” the little girl said, all smiles.

“That is none of your business! Don’t you know that you shouldn’t speak to strangers? Where are your parents that they let you wander around in here all alone? Go on! Leave me alone!” Ezra said, he voice rising in volume as he spoke. The little girl’s smile crumpled and her eyes filled with tears as she ran away, calling plaintively for her mommy.

“Ezra would never be mean to a child like that,” Chris said as he shook his head in disbelief. “He loves kids.”

“That man disappeared a long time ago. This bitter, angry husk is all that remains of the Ezra you knew. He’s tried to kill himself two or three times. He just keeps gambling that someone will find him and help him,” Clarence said.

They stayed with Ezra until he made his way home. Chris was thoroughly appalled at the shape the apartment was in when they got there. Ezra always kept his home immaculate. This dingy little place had peeling paint and faded wallpaper. Dirty dishes sat in the sink and on the counters. The only tidy room in the little shotgun apartment was the bedroom. A transfer trapeze hung over the full bed. A thick matt filled a large area on the floor. While Chris was puzzling over the mats, there was a knock at the door. Ezra didn’t move, he simply yelled that the door was unlocked. A young man in jeans and a short doctor’s coat came in.

“Are you ready for your physical therapy?” the man asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Ezra replied dourly.

Shifting from the wheelchair to the mats, Ezra submitted to the various stretching exercises the man put him through. From the tightly clenched eyes and fists, Chris figured that it was fiercely painful. When the therapist asked Ezra to remove his shirt, the blond got his first look at the damage left by the injury. A ragged scar covered a large part of his lower back. The therapist ended the visit with a massage that left the southerner limp and exhausted.

“Should I help you to bed, Mr. Standish?” the young man asked.

“No, I can do it myself!” Ezra snapped angrily.

“Fine, I was just offering to help. You know, I can see why none of the other therapists will come here any more. You really are a miserable bastard.”

“Get the hell out of my apartment and don’t come back!” Ezra yelled as he struggled to turn around and take hold of his chair. He overbalanced and toppled, the chair landing against his back and wrenching a scream of pain from him. The young therapist stood and stared, not moving to help in any way. Ezra struggled with the chair, getting it set up again and trying to drag his uncooperative limbs up off of the floor. His arms trembled with the effort and he broke out in a sweat. When his damp palm slipped, he ended up on the floor again. Noticing that the therapist was still watching him, he began to hurl anything he could lay his hands on. “Get out! Get out and leave me alone!”

Chris followed the therapist out of the apartment before returning to kneel beside the southerner, who was now pounding the floor with his fist as he sobbed in pain and shame. Looking up at Clarence, the blond man’s eyes were welling with tears.

“I never figured anything could break him. He was always a pillar of ice, no matter what came at him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him cry like this.”

“Having six men who became like brothers is what gave him the strength. This man has no one to turn to with his pain and anguish. He is completely alone in his world,” Clarence explained.

“Josiah said that there was something fragile at his core. That he had built up those walls to protect himself. I just never imagined anything could affect him like this. He never seems to need us, he’s always pushing us away.”

“Did you notice that he never goes far from where he pushes you to? He needs you more than he understands. This Ezra could use a friend like Josiah.”

“What about Josiah? Where is he?”

Clarence waited until Chris stood to initiate the change in position. When the wind stopped blowing on them, they were standing in a smoke-filled bar. In a dark corner, the profiler sat staring at the bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on the table in front of his hands. The bottle was nearly empty.

A man in an ill-fitting suit approached and slid into a chair opposite Josiah. He waited for several long minutes before speaking. “You serious about retiring?”

Red rimmed azure eyes lifted from the bottle and stared across the narrow expanse of the battered tabletop. “What makes you think I’m not serious?”

“Josiah, it wasn’t your fault! You can’t see into their minds! You couldn’t have known what he was planning to do!”

“If I hadn’t testified … they might still be alive.”

“What happened?” Chris asked as he turned to Clarence. Unexpectedly, the wind struck him again and it made him more than a little angry. “Why do you keep doing that?” he asked exasperatedly before he looked around. They were now in the precinct bullpen and Josiah was pouring over the files he had just received on the man they were hunting. ‘Handsome Jack Averil’ was suspected of being behind a string of hitchhiker murders in the area.

“He’s intelligent, calculating. He doesn’t consider us a challenge or he wouldn’t dump them while there was a chance to save their lives,” Josiah was explaining to someone, presumably his captain, judging from the way the man was dressed. “He’ll keep taking them until he’s caught.”

“What about the missing … hair?”

“Trophies, he keeps them to remember.”

“It’ll make for an easy conviction if we can get him with them,” the captain said.

“But he won’t carry them with him. He’ll keep them some place safe,” Josiah replied.

Just then, a female officer darted in and flipped on the battered 19-inch television in the corner. She turned the channel until she found what she was looking for and then she turned up the volume.

“ … his fifth victim. The unidentified male was found along a busy section of highway during rush hour. He had crawled into the roadway, where two cars struck him before the chain-reaction pileup tied up the highway. Witnesses verified that the young man appeared to have been scalped although law enforcement officers deny it at this time.” The volume was turned down as the reporter went on to talk about the major snarl the closed highway was creating. The female officer then walked over to the large map and stuck another pushpin at the site where the man was found.

“Damn,” the captain murmured as he looked at the collection of colored pins. So far, the public only knew about the most recently found bodies, they didn’t know that it had been going on for a while and that the man had killed sixteen men and women in the past year.

“He’s escalating. That makes three this month. He feels powerful. The fact that we can’t touch him is driving him to kill more often,” Josiah said as he dragged his fingers through his hair. The phone on his desk rang and he picked it up distractedly giving his name. After a moment, Josiah bolted upright in his chair and began scribbling on his blotter. Chris leaned closer to see that he had written ‘trace the call.’

“Yes, we just saw it on the news,” Josiah said calmly. “Do you want to turn yourself in?” He fell silent as he listened, making notes as he tried to identify sounds in the background of the call. “Yes, yes, I’m listening. No! You don’t have to do that! I believe you!” He looked up in a panic as he wrote ‘he already has another one.’ “Why don’t we talk about this? You really don’t want to kill him do you? Please … wait! Why are you doing this?”

When Josiah pulled the phone away from his ear, his eyes were eloquent in their anguish. The receiver slipped from his fingers as he got up and went to the window. Chris was right beside him, looking down onto the parking lot where the officers parked their personal vehicles. A battered tan car had stopped next to the electronic gate. The passenger door opened and a body tumbled out before the vehicle squealed away in a cloud of burning rubber.

“Oh God,” the female officer said before bolting for the doors.

“What did he say, Josiah?” the captain asked.

“He said that I shouldn’t have helped you catch his brother.”

“John Averil, how does he know you assisted on that case?”

“I testified at his trial.”

Another officer ran in and shouted, “They’ve got him hemmed in over on Enright. He’s got a hostage.”

Josiah and the captain ran for the stairs, knowing it was faster than the elevator. They both ran for an unmarked department vehicle. Chris and Clarence followed, the blond surprised that he could get into the car without opening the door. He was even more amazed that he could feel the acceleration of the vehicle.

The negotiator was already there and yelling through a megaphone for Averil to give himself up. Josiah ran to the side of the command unit van and listened as officers called in what they could see of the situation. The man was holed up in an abandoned gas station with the screaming teenaged girl he had grabbed just after he dropped off the man he’d killed at the police station. The girl had been on her way to the library to work on her college term paper.

It was over in a massive explosion. Averil had chosen the gas station because it was only recently closed and still had gas in the underground tanks. He had been baiting the cops for weeks to get things ready. He demanded that Sanchez come in and get the girl before he turned himself in. The sniper was given the go ahead for the kill shot and he took it. The girl screamed as Handsome Jack’s body dragged her to the greasy concrete. The actuator fell from his nerveless fingers and the explosives he had planted in the tanks went off. A black, mushroom-shaped plume of smoke rose in the air as police cars and bodies were knocked away by the blast. Only the solid, heavily reinforced command unit van remained in place, the men inside tossed sharply against the wall.

“Josiah will retire, he doesn’t have any faith in his ability anymore. The lack of activity and mental stimulation will lead to early onset Alzheimer’s. He will end up in the same facility as his sister Hannah. Tragically, Averil will break out of prison and go right back to killing people and without Josiah to help them catch him, he will kill nearly a dozen people before he is killed,” Clarence explained.

Chris’s vision dimmed and he found himself back in the jail cell. He looked around and didn’t see his odd companion anywhere. Buck came into the holding area, dragging a bedraggled Vin Tanner. Helplessly, Chris watched as the DPD officer roughly slammed the Texan against the bars.

“I told you to get off of my beat if you didn’t want to work for me,” Buck hissed.

“Tol’ ya, not gonna let ya force me ta sell junk ta kids,” Vin answered, each word spaced by a pain filled breath. When Buck let him go, Tanner slid down the bars. As Wilmington left the cell, Chris called out to him.

“What about me? How long are you gonna hold me here?”

“Until the department psychiatrist can get here to check you out. Attempting suicide can get you a nice vacation in a padded room. Hopefully, there’ll be room for your imaginary friend.”

Chris glared at the retreating back before turning his attention to Vin. He watched as his other friend crawled painfully to the bunk and climbed up, curling into a ball as he tried to control his trembling limbs. A short time later, a tall black man entered the holding area and went into the cell. He was dressed as a paramedic and he brought Vin something to eat, along with something for pain.

“That arm is broken. I’ll have them transport you to the hospital for treatment. Just try not to move it,” the man said.

“Thanks, Doc,” Vin said softly, “ ‘preciate it.”

The paramedic patted Vin on the shoulder and left the cell, giving Chris a glance as he walked past. A moment later, another officer came in with a sandwich and a Styrofoam cup filled with water. Chris took the meager offering and sat on the bunk. Unable to stomach the sandwich, he left it on the bunk and returned to watching Vin. A short time later, two officers arrived to take Vin to the hospital. They handled him gently, which surprised and relieved Chris. At least the younger man would get some help, he hoped. Chris’s mind returned to the paramedic and suddenly noticed that Clarence had returned.

“What happened to Nathan?”

“I can take you to see him now, if you’d like.”

That damned wind blew again and Chris stumbled when it let him go. He didn’t recognize the area and turned to see if his traveling companion was going to enlighten him. Clarence only pointed to the police car stopping across the street. A familiar face got out on the passenger side. The driver also got out and the two men crossed the street, walking toward the alley.

“Are you sure she said she would be here?” Nathan asked.

“The tip said she would be here,” the other man replied. “What’s that over there?”

Nathan walked toward the dumpster where he could see a woman’s shoe. He bent down to pick it up and something hit him in the back of the legs. Another blow struck him in the kidneys as his gun was snatched from his holster. He tried to turn around and a fist caught his jaw, sending his head into a collision with the dumpster. With stars dancing in his field of vision, he tried to defend himself.

“Why are they doing this?” Chris demanded angrily.

“The blue wall is not all one, even shade. The promotion list came out and his name was on it, over the names of other men that they felt were more qualified. This is getting their evens.”

A pair of blows landed in his stomach, doubling him over for a knee to the face. He felt the bone in his nose break, the pain making Nathan angrier. He launched himself at the nearest body, taking it down with him. A nightstick struck his shoulder, causing his arm to go numb. He managed to focus his eyes on the nameplate pinned to the shirt of the man he landed on. The name was seared into his mind. A rough hand grabbed him by the collar and yanked him up, tossing him against a brick wall. More punches landed in his back, the pain so intense that he pissed down his leg.

“You gotta stop them!” Chris growled.

“We are not allowed to interfere. This is what happened because you were not there to recruit him for your team,” Clarence answered calmly.

Grabbing the man by his clothes, Chris screamed his fury, “I don’t give a good God damn about what we’re allowed or not allowed to do, you’ve got to stop them!”

“I’m sorry Chris.”

Nathan was beyond crying out when they began kicking him. He felt the bone in his forearm snap as a booted foot stomped down on it. He was choking on the blood running down his throat from his broken nose and from where his lips had been split against his teeth. Another kick snapped a rib, driving it into his lung and making it harder for his body to acquire its much-needed oxygen. He gladly went into the welcoming darkness.

The two men stopped pummeling the downed man and exchanged a knowing grin. They dropped his gun after wiping it free of prints. Afterwards, they strolled casually out of the alley and got into their waiting unmarked car. They wiped Nathan’s blood from their hands and headed for a bar to get a drink and an alibi.

Chris knelt beside the black man he had trusted his life to so many times. He ached to do something, anything to help. It frustrated him to watch Nathan struggle for each breath. He ran out of the alley and looked around for someone to help. People were moving along the sidewalk, blithely unaware of the man dying scant yards from their path. The blond ran among them, screaming for one of them to do something. Not one had any reaction, none of them saw him.

A mongrel dog came down the walk, his head up and ears perked forward as he looked for someone he could beg a bite to eat from. Chris was stunned when the dog turned his head and followed him. He took a hesitant step toward the animal and it lowered its head, growling a warning. He began to herd the dog toward the alley, hoping to draw attention for Nathan. When the dog reached the opening of the alley, Chris rushed toward it, yelling and waving his arms. The animal began barking ferociously, causing people to look to see what it was so riled up over. A woman gasped, covering her mouth with her hand as she stared at the prone body.

“Good dog!” Chris said, as people began pulling out cell phones and calling for help. He noticed Clarence coming out of the alley. “What’s going to happen to him now?”

“Let me show you,” Clarence said as the wind blew in Chris’s face. The next thing he saw was the ICU of a hospital. He didn’t know which hospital he was in but he was stricken by the fact that they all looked vaguely similar. He strolled into the unit and right up to Nathan’s bedside.

The man looked like a mummy. He had a tracheotomy tube in his throat and a feeding tube in his stomach. All of the supports looked as if they were in place for the long term. Chris laid his hand on Nathan’s forehead where a few inches of skin was not covered by bandages, bruises or healing wounds. A pair of nurses entered the room to check his vitals and read the machines. One of the women gently smoothed the wrinkles from the blanket.

“How long has he been like this?”

“He came in over a week ago. Someone beat him nearly to death,” the other nurse explained.

“Will he … will he recover?”

“The neurologist says he has moderate brain damage. He’s got some brain activity but not a lot. His sister is coming in from out of state to discuss long term care options. He’ll probably end up over at Green Castle Rehab.”

They continued their conversation out into the hall until Chris couldn’t hear them anymore. Tears stung his eyes as he stared at Nathan. The steady, rhythmic tones of the heart monitor faded into white noise as his heart clenched in sympathy. Buck was dealing drugs, JD was dead by his own hand, Ezra was a bitter, crippled man, Vin was addicted to pain killers, Josiah was going to end up with Alzheimer’s and Nathan was a vegetable all because he didn’t meet, marry and lose Sarah Connelly.

“What about Sarah? What happened to her?” Chris asked.

“I can’t! It isn’t allowed!” Clarence protested.

“I want to see her!” Chris shouted as he rounded angrily on the man. The wind blew sharply in his face and he was back in the jail cell, alone. “No! No! No! I need to see her! I need to see my wife!”

“Shut up in there!” Buck yelled as he walked down and slapped the bars with his nightstick.

“Buck, please, you gotta help me find her! I gotta find Sarah!”

“Sarah who?”

“Sarah Connelly, my wife, I gotta find her! Please!” Chris begged as he wrapped his hands around the bars. “I have to know what happened to her, Buck. Please?”

“You’ve been released. Get out of here and don’t let me find you in my high beams again,” Buck demanded as he unlocked the cell and pulled the blond out. He shoved Chris out of the holdover area and through the bullpen, finally pushing him toward the door and out onto the sidewalk.

Chris walked away from the police station, his hands jammed into his pockets. He found a pay telephone that had a phonebook and looked up his father-in-law’s address after not finding a listing for Sarah. Hank still lived in the house where he’d lived when Chris and Sarah met. He hitchhiked as far as he could, ignoring the fact that Clarence had seemingly deserted him. When he reached the house, he stood outside until he saw Hank come out.

His former father in law got in his truck and drove to a moderately nice home. When he went to the door, Chris’s heart leapt into his throat. Sarah opened the door and invited her father inside. Chris slipped in and followed them into the living room. His eyes stung with tears as he recognized the familiar contours of pregnancy. When he was able to focus again, he also noticed the faded bruises on her arms and face.

“Sarah, honey, how long are you going to put up with this?” Hank was asking.

“Oh Dad, he doesn’t mean to do it. He’s just tired and stressed. As soon as this next merger is done it’ll be better. You’ll see,” she said as she poured him a cup of coffee.

“And what happens when he hits your child? Are you going to excuse that the same way you excuse him hitting you? Sarah, Rafe Mosely is a batterer, he learned it from that father of his. He won’t stop! You’ve got to get away from him before he kills you the way Owen killed Claire.”

“He won’t do that to me! Dad, I didn’t invite you over here to argue with you!”

“Then get your things and come with me,” Hank urged.

“I can’t! He’s my husband, Dad!”

“Then I’m sorry honey but I can’t stay.”

Hank Connelly got up and left the house, not even looking back as his daughter burst into tears. Chris knelt beside her chair, wishing with all he had inside to be able to hold and comfort her. He could sense the child in her stomach, a boy, and it made him ache in his soul. Sarah was still sitting in the chair crying when her husband came home an hour later. Chris saw that this was not the same Rafe Mosely who had been devastated by his sister’s death. This was a man on the edge.

“Is my supper ready?” he yelled as he hung up his suit coat.

“I thought we might eat out tonight,” Sarah offered hopefully.

“Do you think I’m made of money? If this merger doesn’t go through soon, I could lose my job! We could lose the house! Is it too much to ask for you to cook a lousy meal?” Rafe shouted as he crossed the room and jerked Sarah up roughly.

“Rafe, don’t, you’re hurting me!” she protested.

As he backhanded her, Rafe began to yell again, “Don’t tell me what to do! You aren’t my father! You are my wife and you will do as I say! Now get up off of your ass and cook a meal!” He dragged her up from the floor and shoved her toward the kitchen. His eyes fell on the coffee cup on the table and his expression turned dark. “He was here again today, wasn’t he?”

“He’s my father, Rafe! He’s concerned about me and the baby.”

“I told you that I didn’t want him here in my house! You can’t even follow a simple direction like that? I told you what I would do if I found out he was here again!” Rafe grabbed his coat and began to put it back on. Sarah rushed over and put her hand on his arm.

“Please Rafe, don’t do this! I’m sorry! I didn’t tell him that you didn’t want him here! Please!”

Chris watched helplessly as Rafe balled up his fist and struck his beloved Sarah in the face, sending her backwards over the arm of the couch and into the coffee table. She screamed, the sound rending the blond man’s heart. As Sarah rolled to her back, she lifted her hand, eyes widening at the blood dripping from it.

“Rafe,” she gasped before shock took hold and she fainted.

Chris knelt beside Sarah as her husband called for an ambulance. He told the paramedics that she tripped and fell, landing on the table and shattering the coffee cup. Sarah was loaded on a stretcher and transported to the hospital. They rushed her into the operating room and delivered the baby, tiny and premature. The surgeon repaired the damage caused by the glass.

When Sarah awakened, Rafe was at her side. Two-dozen roses sat on the bedside table, his token apology. Her hands went to her stomach as she looked up in panic.

“Rafe … what? … the baby?”

“I’m sorry Sarah, they couldn’t save him.”

Chris watched as Sarah’s eyes went blank just before she began to scream. A nurse rushed in and pumped a sedative into her IV and held her until she drifted into unconsciousness. After checking her incision, the nurse left the room, shaking her head sadly at the loss.

Noticing Clarence in the corner of the room, Chris asked, “What’s going to happen to her?”

“Depression, so profound that Rafe has her institutionalized. When she stops eating, he refuses to allow a feeding tube and she just slips away.”

“No,” Chris whispered, turning back to stare at his beautiful, beloved wife. “Please don’t let him do that to her.”

“It is out of my hands. You asked that you never meet Sarah and this is what happened.”

“Change it back! Please Clarence! I don’t want her to die like this. At least it was quick when she died before. Please, I take it back. I want my life back! Please God, I want it back!” Chris begged as he went to his knees and covered his face with his hands. “Please!”


“Shit! Buck, call for an ambulance! Josiah, bring a blanket! Vin, keep him still!” Nathan shouted out orders as he gently probed the bloody knot on the back of the blond man’s head. “Chris! Can you hear me? Open your eyes if you can!”

The team had arrived at the ranch after Chris disappeared from the office earlier in the day. Buck knew very well what day it was and he urged them to come with him. He had hoped that his friend would be able to get through the day without crawling back into the bottle. When they found the front door standing open and the house empty, they panicked. Vin followed the staggering trail the blond had left and found him.

Chris opened his eyes and tried to sit up, fighting against the gently restraining hands. It all came back to him, the horrible events that he caused.

“Just be still. The ambulance will be here in a minute, Chris,” Vin said.

“Vin? You know me?”

Tanner shot a worried glance to Nathan before looking into the confused hazel eyes. “Of course I know you. We’ve been working together for the past five years, Cowboy.”

“JD! Where is he?” Chris twisted out from under Vin’s hands and leapt up, swaying dizzily as his eyes searched for the youngest member of his team. “JD!”

Looking over from where he was standing on the driveway watching for the ambulance, JD heard his name. He saw Nathan and Vin struggling to keep hold of the team leader, who was fighting them off as he looked around. Puzzled, JD jogged over to see what Chris wanted. As soon as he came within arm’s reach, the blond grabbed him in a bear hug.

“Oh God kid, you’re alright,” Chris murmured. His knees folded, taking both of them to their knees in the grass. “Oh God, I thought I’d lost you.”

“Chris, you need to lay back down. JD’s fine, just let him go for a minute,” Nathan urged. He was unprepared for it when the blond threw an arm around him and pulled him in for a hug.

“Nathan, you’re alright too! Thank God!”

“Amen Brother, now why don’t you settle down here on this blanket and take it easy for a few minutes,” the profiler said as he draped the thick quilt around the blond.

“Josiah? Where’s Ezra? Is he here too?”

“Indeed, where else would I be? My auto was commandeered for this little junket,” Ezra drawled as he walked over and stood beside Nathan. “Mr. Wilmington was quite insistent that we all come and try to rouse you from your doldrums.”

The ambulance arrived and Buck brought the paramedics to Chris. They got the blond on the stretcher and were ready to transport him. Buck was a tiny bit jealous that Chris wouldn’t let go of JD’s arm, as if the kid would vanish if he let go. The medics agreed to allow JD to ride along. Still puzzled and a little shy of the sudden attention, JD got into the ambulance and put one hand on Chris’s shoulder to keep him calm. The rest of the team piled back into their vehicles and followed the ambulance.

When Chris was settled in a room for the night, the others gathered around for their vigil. Chris awoke and panicked until he heard all of their voices. A deep calm washed over him as he realized that they were all here, all safe. Even as he felt relieved that his brothers were alive and well, he also felt the sharp sting of loss over Sarah and Adam. He remembered something that Josiah had said to him once.

“Because you lost them, are you sorry you had them?”

“How do you feel, Chris?” Buck asked softly.

“I had the strangest dream, Buck. I dreamt what the world would be like if I’d never married Sarah. It was awful.”

“It was just a dream, it’s all over now. Get some sleep.”

In the corner of the room, Chris saw Clarence, smiling. “Thanks, Clarence,” he whispered as his eyes closed.

All six men looked to the empty corner and then at each other curiously. They didn’t know anyone named Clarence.