Main Characters: Josiah, JD
Summary: An undercover assignment causes Josiah to ponder his career.
Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength. - Betty Friedan, Activist
Thank you Nancy for hosting my stories.
He was so sure of his intentions when he woke up this morning, but now, Josiah Sanchez found himself in the men's bathroom on floor eleven of Denver's Federal building, and staring hard at the salt and pepper-haired man in the mirror.
Resting on the sink beside him was an envelope. Within its manila confines was a correspondence written the previous night. He smiled. JD would scold him for not using a computer; but this letter was personal and, in his opinion, deserving of a more sensitive touch.
After all, it wasn't every day a man resigned from a career he loved as much as life itself.
However, he loved his teammates and surrogate family more, and his biggest fear was to bring harm to any of them. His last assignment caused him to examine his professional standing, and Josiah concluded he was past his prime. While far from over the hill, he appreciated that in the team's line of business a lack of quick thinking, or even speed itself, could be the difference between life and death. Convinced that he recently demonstrated a lack of the former, the conclusion seemed unavoidable.
Josiah straightened, adjusted his tie, and picked up the envelope. It was early, so he hoped to place the envelope on Chris's desk without resistance. However, instead of leaving the bathroom, he found himself lost in a sea of thoughts and memories, and in particular, the events from the last few weeks.
THREE WEEKS PRIOR
"Hey, Father Sanders!"
"Hello, Spike. How are you, this morning?"
"Looking forward to our session, see you in there."
Denver, and Josiah was currently undercover as a counselor in the Saint Francis adolescent, male-gender specific, drug rehab center. Despite the purpose of the rehabilitation residence, inquiries on a current case led Team Seven to this place as a source of accessibility to fake cigarettes. Josiah established himself as a counselor in order to get closer to the individuals going through enforced rehabilitation treatment programs and to hopefully gather evidence.
Two weeks later Josiah was no nearer to locating a source. Spike, or Simon Halls as he was officially known, became attached to Josiah very quickly. However, in the time he and Josiah got to know each other, apart from an eagerness to please, the twenty year-old resident had not demonstrated awareness of, or participation in any illicit activities in the center. Team leader Chris Larabee contemplated their position and decided they needed more than one line of attack.
Father Josiah Sanders walked into the meeting room and greeted the nine familiar young men seated on chairs arranged in a semi-circle. He smiled at a new face; a dark-haired, late teen who seemed more interested with the floor and biting his nails than in anyone around him.
"Hello, there. Jason, isn't it?" The boy looked up and hazel eyes narrowed as they stared at Josiah. The man decided that if he hadn't known JD, he would have felt a little intimidated.
JD's accent had slipped into a mixture of Bostonian and New York, and reminded Sanchez of when JD first joined the team from Boston Police Department and just after a brief partnership with an officer from New Jersey. These days his accent was neutral, but if JD was sick, or tired, sometimes a little of his old twang would slip through.
"My apologies - Jay it is."
Josiah sat down at the head of the semi-circle, and Spike shuffled his chair a little closer as he offered the man a bottle of water from the refreshment table. Josiah thanked the young man, and then turned his attention to JD.
"Welcome, Jay, and welcome to everyone. Last time we finished up while discussing how easy it is to obtain drugs, but how tough it was to keep finding the money to maintain the supply; which inevitably leads to the reasons you all ended up here instead of behind bars or allocated community service hours. We've all agreed to be honest and open during these sessions so with this question, I'm not requesting that you give details. Okay, right now, if you were leaving this facility, does anyone here have knowledge of how to get hold of say - pot?"
'Jay's' eyebrows rose. "Cool, if I'd known I could learn where to score, I'd've signed up for this earlier." He bobbed his eyebrows. "Though I'd give it all up for a cigarette right now."
Several snickers erupted. Josiah opened a folder and glanced at its contents. "I see your issues are related mostly to illegal cigarettes, Jay."
The boy shook his head. "Anything else about me in there you'd like to share, man?"
Josiah smiled. "As I said, no secrets here. The road to rehabilitation is honesty, acceptance, and adjustment. My aim is to get you boys into employment and fully prepared for new, addiction/crime-free lives. As for my question, it was to get you thinking of your answer. If it was 'yes', then you need to ask yourselves as to how that might affect you when back out in the big, wide world.
"Temptation is the hardest thing you'll come up against. Reformation is for life. One slip and you're back where you started, behind bars, or worse - dead from an overdose, or a deal-related incident. I want to help you boys, but first, you have to want to help yourselves."
The two-hour meeting was filled with confessions and soul purging. Josiah's easy manner had quickly won these young men over, and while he was helping them personally, he wasn't getting far with the investigation. JD joining him would hopefully move things along in a fresh direction.
At the end of the session, Josiah thanked them for attending and then beckoned JD over. "Jay, I'd like a private chat with you. Would now be a good time?"
Jay shrugged. "Sure. Not like I'm going anywhere, is it?"
Spike approached the pair. "Father Sanders. I have an online job application. Would you help me to fill it in?"
Josiah smiled. "Wonderful news, Spike, and I'll be happy to help you. As soon as I'm finished with Jay, I'll come and look for you."
JD and Josiah watched Spike slope off. Once they were alone, JD grinned. "Got yourself a fan there, 'Father'."
"Watch it, boy, or I'll have you on dish-washing duty." He quickly glanced around before speaking. "Have you settled in okay?"
"Sure. Not exactly the Denver Hilton, but it's clean. Hopefully I'll get to know a few guys soon."
Josiah nodded. "Good. Just be careful."
"I'll be fine." JD grinned at the sideways glance. "Okay Josiah, will do."
The pair left the room. From another room off the corridor, Spike peeked around the door. He hadn't heard what they were saying, but he didn't like how friendly the new kid was getting with Father Sanders. He decided he'd have to watch out for the man - just in case.
Chris Larabee walked into the team's bullpen and smiled. "How did you all get here?"
Buck and Vin, each with a strapped arm, turned away from their computer monitors to look at Larabee. Ezra shuffled slightly in his chair to see the team leader. A cane rested against his desk. The previous bust four weeks back had Vin, Buck, and Ezra's vehicle sprayed with gunfire causing gunshot injuries to Vin and Buck, and a broken leg for Ezra when the bullet-pocked vehicle careened off the road and overturned.
A voice coming into the room replied to Chris's question.
"I picked them up. Couldn't take any more of their puppy dog eyes."
Chris watched Nathan carry in four coffees before setting down one in front of each injured man. He offered the fourth cup to Chris, but the blond shook his head.
"Thanks, I'm good." His focus remained on Nathan. "Wasn't it only yesterday you told these guys they weren't ready for light duties?"
Nathan took a gulp of his coffee before answering. "Yup, but with Josiah undercover I was having trouble keeping them resting. Now JD's gone in, too . . . "
"Come on, Chris," Vin jumped in. "We can just as easily sit around the office and be useful as sit around our homes just waitin' on news."
"This is a low risk case," Chris reminded. "They'll be fine."
Ezra's eyebrow rose. "This unit was assembled to tackle the more challenging undertakings, which regularly causes them to be, for the most part, hazardous. Or has our designation changed?"
It was rare Chris would pause when replying to Ezra, but this time he did. The man was right, and while on paper this assignment looked straightforward, Travis had personally put this case file into Chris's hands; a sure sign something about it concerned the AD.
"It's a tricky one," Chris finally said. "Saint Francis is a charity funded Mission whose personal success rate won them the recommendation to practice, from The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration under the Recovery Community Services Program and with the blessing of the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. The last thing expected was for us to trace fake cigarette distribution from there, and if we find the proof, the repercussions will be a direct hit for the Federal Government who, among local and State government, allocates funding for drug and crime rehab, and in this case are the sole benefactors for Saint Francis's Mission."
Buck stared at his long-time friend. "Looks like we have some reading up to do."
Chris turned toward his office. "Agreed. Make it fast, we already have surveillance up and running."
The room JD was allocated was small, but clean. He was grateful the accommodation was individual rooms as he wasn't greatly experienced in undercover and always worried about failing to keep up his persona. He was sitting on the bed and looking out of the window when he felt a presence at his open doorway. He turned to see three youths who had been in that morning's session.
"Hey. Something I can do for you?" As he spoke, he opened the drawer of his nightstand and a few seconds later withdrew a candy bar.
One boy stepped inside. "Maybe. You supplied cigarettes and pot?"
JD smiled. "Yeah. Had me a supplier for the cigarettes. I grew the pot indoors. The good stuff, no seeds - nice and sticky."
"Indoors." Another boy commented. "How did you cope with the huge electricity bills?"
"I, uh, borrowed what I needed from a couple of neighbors."
There were approving smiles. "Awesome."
JD tilted his head. "I get the feeling rehab isn't for you?"
"Got no choice, have we?" the third youth said. "It's this, or juvie."
"Yeah, I know where you're coming from. Still, for me, it's worth it so I can start up again when I blow this place."
"Start again? Didn't you lose everything?"
JD nodded. "Sure, including some pretty neat electronic equipment I bought from my . . . " he air quoted, " . . . ill gotten gains." JD tapped his nose. "Got me some of those *ill gotten gains* tucked somewhere safe though. It won't take me long to get going again."
JD waited a few minutes. Once he felt sure they were gone, he stood, closed his door, and then went back to his nightstand. Opening the drawer fully, he picked up a tiny earpiece and placed it in his ear. Positioning a small mic to his lips, JD spoke.
"Please tell me you guys got that?" He smiled. "Hey Buck, get bored at home?" JD laughed at the reply. "Sure I know my shit, I'm the researcher, remember? Thanks Bro. Yeah, we will."
The young agent dipped his hand into the drawer and opened a box. He took out two studs similar to his own denim shirt and clipped them to look as if they were part of the garment. Again he spoke into the mic. "What are you seeing?" JD walked around and nodded to Buck's commentary.
"Awesome, we have sound and picture. I'm gonna go find Josiah. Try and keep up." He chuckled at the parting comment and then replaced the mic and earpiece. Before locking the drawer JD set up a little device designed to warn him if anyone entered his room. He then exited, securing the door behind him.
'Father Josiah Sanders' was enjoying a stroll around the gardens. He smiled on seeing some of the youths playing touch football on the large lawn, deciding several others would likely be in the games area and others in their rooms. Footsteps approaching caused the man to turn.
"Hello, Spike. Have you emailed that job application yet?"
"Yes, Father. Did it about a half hour ago." He offered a Hershey bar. "A small thank you for helping me."
Josiah chuckled and patted his toned waistline, which was hidden by his somber clothing. "Much appreciated, but I'll pass, thanks. Got to watch those calories."
Spike shrugged and stuffed it back into his pocket. "Your loss. All the more for me. Can I walk with you?"
Josiah gestured for the youth to join him. "Of course. I'm surprised you're not watching TV, though. Isn't your favorite soap on about now?" The pair walked.
"Got bored with it. The plotlines keep being repeated, just with different characters."
"Indeed." Josiah glanced at the youth. "So, are you looking forward to getting out of here next week?"
"Sure, I guess, but I'll sure miss you." Spike swallowed hard when Jay appeared just ahead of them. He quickly turned to Josiah. "Father, I can't explain why but, watch that one."
Offering a single nod, Sanchez bit back a grin that he was being warned about his own teammate, and one of the more virtuous, at that. "Jay, everything alright?"
"Can I have a word, Josiah?"
Spike balked at the boy's familiarity.
"Of course." Josiah turned to Spike. "Excuse me."
Spike nodded, and then watched Josiah drape an arm around his companion's shoulders as they walked away. "I hate you, *Jason*."
"Progress, John Dunne?"
JD let slip a dimpled grin. "I think so. Three guys approached me today and asked a lot of questions about getting hold of cheap cigarettes."
"Do you know their names?"
"No, but they were in this morning's session. I got them talking on tape, and I'm gonna try and get a shot of them while walking around." He glanced at the footballers. "It's none of them."
"Try the games room, and remember, be careful."
JD nodded. "Will do. You should, too." He looked around and then at Josiah. "Do you reckon that there's an indoor space here large enough to stash contraband?"
The large man pondered the question. "Well, I think one of the attics is still unconverted and would go the length and breadth of part of the house. I'll try and find out if the Mission's had any unexpected delivery vehicles on the premises, and then take a look up there as soon as I can without arousing suspicion." The loft hatch in question was in the ceiling of the top landing, and above six occupied rooms.
"We're probably looking at someone based here for at least several months, yeah?"
Josiah nodded. "About that, in order to have the time to stash the deliveries and then distribute it. I'll pull the files and get some names."
"I guess the real question is, was this a get rich quick deal, or . . . " JD's searching gaze met Josiah's.
He dropped his hand from JD's shoulders. "Or a charity funded, religious institution has someone on the inside taking advantage of the youngsters coming through here to offload contraband. Either way, the contact recently made with you is hopefully the break we needed in order to figure it all out."
"Yeah." JD sighed, softly as they parted ways. "Later."
While Josiah raised a hand in parting, he was already contemplating his next move.
In one of the briefing rooms, Buck and Ezra were analyzing the pictures JD was sending through. Vin joined them and chuckled aloud when, after JD had focused on three guys for a minute or so by chatting with them, his upturned thumb came into view of the camera lens.
"Subtle," Ezra commented.
"Good shots, though," Vin praised. He noted Buck said nothing. "Worried about your protégé, Bucklin?"
"You make it sound like I don't worry about Josiah," Buck defended.
Vin's gaze softened. "We all know you do, Buck, don't mean you're not allowed to worry more about JD."
Buck sighed. "Undercover's just not his thing," he said, softly.
"While I agree the lad is considerably inexperienced," Ezra chimed in, "I find he copes remarkably well."
"He puts his heart and soul into it," Buck began.
With an understanding nod, Ezra finished the point. "Which can be perilous when undercover." The subtlest of hints showed he was in pain from his leg, however the southerner ignored it and turned fully in his chair to face Buck. "I understand what bothers you, Buck. JD's aversion to lying is commendable, but he sees undercover as 'playing a part', and therefore convinces himself he isn't telling lies. His downfall is in the face of danger to the public, and/or his teammates." Standish's features momentarily showed regret.
"To do nothing when confronted by such intimidation is the hardest thing an undercover operative will face. Acting on impulse in such circumstances can put one's self and others at risk, not to mention exposing one's cover. This, I fear, is where JD is truly vulnerable."
Ezra smiled. "But he has the expert support of Mister Sanchez, so please relax, my friend. Both our teammates are in good hands, and," he pointed to the surveillance equipment, "a mere verbal notification away." He carefully rose from his seat.
"Please excuse me, a visit to the bathroom for me at this time is akin to executing an offensive and needs advance preparation and calculation to avoid a catastrophe."
Vin and Buck laughed and Ezra, aided by his cane, hobbled out of the room. Vin took up the vacant seat.
"You're still not convinced, are you, Bucklin?"
Buck shrugged his good shoulder. "It's not that I don't agree with Ezra, it's just - JD's a great cop, but whose emotions are right at the surface of all he does."
Vin's dimpled smile lit up his eyes. "Sounds a little like someone else on this team."
Buck frowned. "Chris? You?" He turned a finger to his own chest. "Me?"
Tanner's eyebrows rose. "Damn, we're all more alike than I figured." He paused for thought. "I guess we got the edge on JD with experience."
Buck went back to taking stills from JD's covert streaming. "Yeah, guess so. Thank God for Josiah on this job; our very own chilled out 'Preacher man'."
The following morning at the center, and Josiah had rarely felt so tempted to head-butt someone, but right now, the well-groomed administrator of the Saint Francis Rehabilitation Center was dangerously close to it. The man Josiah considered contemptuous was often elusive to the center's staff and volunteers, and Josiah was grateful Monsignor O'Brien, the Mission's Principal, chose to keep this man out of the loop where their operation was concerned.
"I repeat, I see no reason to release personal files to you, Father Sanders. You already have the obligatory paperwork considered necessary for your counseling sessions." Conlan Etheridge's eye contact never wavered.
Josiah gritted his teeth. "And I'll explain again, I would appreciate a little more background information. Just having the immediate grounds for rehabilitation for each of my participants offers little by way of understanding their personal history. Knowledge of recurring offenders and the time served would help me considerably."
"Then I suggest you ask them, Father. Other than that, I can't help you."
Josiah stiffened. "Perhaps Monsignor O'Brien can arbitrate the position."
Etheridge smiled. "I'll ask him when he returns."
"Called to Rome a few days ago. Good day, Father Sanders."
A frustrated Josiah stepped out into the corridor and took a deep breath.
"You alright, Father?"
Josiah jolted. "Spike, I didn't see or hear you approach."
"Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you. You looked deep in thought."
"Yes, I was." Josiah smiled and gestured in a direction. "Going my way?"
Spike shook his head and pointed to Conlan's door. "Been summoned to the big cheese's office."
"Later, then." Josiah walked toward the staircase.
"Definitely," Spike called back. He knocked on Etheridge's door and went inside.
Josiah took the stairs up to the top landing. The place was deserted for now, so he took the opportunity to check out where the attic hatches were located. Working swiftly, he found two in the corridor's ceiling. Just as he was pondering if there could be more, a familiar voice disrupted his thoughts.
"You lost, Father?" Spike asked.
"I was looking for Jason," Josiah said, recovering quickly.
Spike bit back his disappointment. "He's on the second landing."
Sanchez turned back. "Yes?"
"You seem real concerned about him. How come?"
Approaching the redhead, Josiah smiled. "He's new here, and it was his first night. I just wanted to know if he's settling in alright."
"Oh, okay. Well, he was still at breakfast when I left."
"Thank you, Spike." Josiah walked away and rounded a corner. He peered back around the wall to see where Spike went. It was into a bedroom, and the profiler made a mental note that he was one of six occupants beneath the suspect attic. Now all he had to do was get up in there, but he decided to wait and see if JD's contact with three of the residents led to anything, first.
Two days on and JD was inside the games room and enjoying his turn on the PS4. He became aware of someone behind him.
"I've still got twenty minutes," he called back, not moving his focus from the TV screen.
"How do you do it?"
JD paused the game and turned toward three familiar youths standing behind him. He stared at them for a moment or two. "Do what?"
"Skim profits without the man finding out."
The young agent put down his game controller to turn his full attention to the group. "Okay, here's the deal. If I tell you, I want in on the action."
The apparent leader spoke. "As soon as we're out of here, and we get organized, we'll see."
JD's heart sank. These boys weren't involved in anything going on in here. "Outside? You're not talking about here?"
Three faces looked surprised. "In here? Shit, no, are you nuts? So, what's it to be?"
JD turned back to his game. "Too many probabilities for my liking. No deal."
JD paused the game again but didn't turn to face them. "I'm taking all the risk by trusting you to still be around when I get outta here. No deal." There was a pause before he heard the third youth speak.
"The guy's a jerk, Come on, we don't need him."
JD figured he was lucky he knew the game he was playing by heart as he wasn't focused at all. The break he and Josiah thought they had was a bust. They were back to square one. He decided to stop playing. Yelling 'next!' to confirm he was done, JD stood and walked out of the room.
"Shit!" He pushed back his bangs in frustration and stepping into one of two bathrooms on the ground level; JD removed a cell phone from his pocket and dialed.
"Josiah, those three guys I've been waiting on - forget it, they're not involved." He listened. "Yeah, pissed me off, too. You're what? Now?" JD checked the time. "Good point. Do you need help? Okay, be careful."
As JD exited the restroom, a device in his pocket vibrated. Someone was in his room. He took off running.
Closing down his call from JD, Josiah took advantage of the Mission's directive that bedrooms remained empty between 10am and 2pm in an attempt to get residents to mingle or take up an activity after their counseling sessions. He slipped back to the upstairs hallway located below the suspect attic and walked up to a broom closet. Opening the door, he took out a stepladder from inside, closed the door, and went to the attic hatch furthest from the majority of the rooms.
With a last look around, Josiah climbed. Being tall, he didn't need to go to the top rung, and once high enough, the man pushed the hatch up. Dim light caused him to squint, but his wide, blue gaze was soon focused on the room.
The upper floor was wall to wall wooden cases. Josiah allowed himself a small smile before hauling himself up and closing the hatch behind him. Taking out his cell, he snapped off several shots and then sent them directly to Chris.
Josiah was looking forward to telling JD that their hunch about the attic was right, but time was of the essence, so that would have to wait. Taking out a notepad, he quickly began jotting down details of his findings.
Barely breathing heavily, JD reached his room to find the door open. Cautiously he pushed it back, but the room was empty. He groaned when he saw the lock of his nightstand drawer busted and the drawer hanging open. Removing a Kleenex from his jeans pocket, JD pulled the drawer out and rested it on the bed. It was empty, and he took out his cell to call Josiah. Cursing when it went straight to voicemail, and for forgetting what Josiah was meant to be doing, JD dialed again.
"Chris, we got trouble. I've been busted." A sudden unease crept over him.
"Gotta go, I'll be in touch." JD ended the call to start his search for Josiah, and could hear Chris barking at him to wait. He pocketed the cell as he took off. "Sorry, Bossman."
Content for now with his efforts, Josiah decided it was time to find JD, and call in the Team. Putting away his notebook and cell phone, he re-opened the loft hatch. Josiah held onto one of the upright roof joists to steady himself as he took a backward step down onto the stepladder. By his second step, and as the fingers of his one hand curled around the ladder's top bar, Josiah's world spun painfully when the stepladder was kicked from under him, sending the agent awkwardly plummeting down onto the hard floor.
The wind whooshed from Josiah's lungs on impact with the floor, but his ordeal was just beginning. An angry voice bellowed out in time with sharp blows to several parts of his unprotected body. Josiah gulped in a few agonizing breaths which gave him enough strength to curl himself into a ball and listen to the tirade from somewhere above him.
"Knew something about you was off. What are you? DEA? FBI?"
Josiah grunted as the question was punctuated with more kicks. Despite the pain and his bloodied features he managed to look up. "A-T-F. You're busted, Etheridge."
The administrator laughed. "Don't think so, *Father*." The man looked to the two goons with him and who were doling out the punishment. "Get his ass up and follow me. We'll take the fire escape down to the car."
Josiah was dragged to his feet. He tried to straighten, and came face to face with Spike. "Disappointing, Simon, but not entirely surprising. You've been my shadow for some time now."
Spike stared in disgust at the man he'd grown close to because Etheridge had told him to watch the counselor. "I should've known. When I saw you put your arm around that kid, Jay, I told Conlan. He was convinced something was up. He was right."
Josiah's world narrowed at Spike's words and felt as though he'd been delivered a gut punch. 'Oh dear God, my ease around JD put us in danger. You fool. You stupid old fool.'
With the thought fresh in his mind, Josiah was manhandled along the corridor by armed men and out onto the top platform of an exterior fire escape. He tried to strike back as he was half-dragged, half-walked down a metal staircase, but between the beating, and the two burly men holding him securely, his usual power failed him.
JD ignored the stares and comments from the other residents as he tore around the facility trying to locate Josiah. With the memory resurfacing of Josiah mentioning he was checking out the attic, JD sprinted up to the top landing in the hope of still finding him there. Despite the corridor being deserted when he arrived, the young agent walked along its length in search of clues. At the point he was thinking he might be barking up the wrong landing, spots of blood on the wooden floor drew his attention. JD crouched down and let one finger touch the sticky residue. His gaze rose until he was focused on the attic hatch. The blood was beneath it.
Standing, he took off to head for that floor's communal room which, like the bedrooms, was located off the landing and faced the front of the building and the main gates. From a window, he stared around the grounds.
JD hit the stairs and hurried down to search the second landing. He stopped outside the empty communal room and went in. He knew this room had a balcony off double glass doors and overlooked the rear gardens. There was also a staff parking lot just off to one side. Gripping the balcony rail, JD scanned around the grounds. He spotted Spike running away from Etheridge and three men standing near a car. JD's eyes widened when he realized one of those men was Josiah - and he looked hurt. What JD saw and heard next had him racing to get out of the building.
"Oh my God, Josiah. NOOOOOOO!"
Standing between some bushes and a black Ford, Josiah endured several more hits from the thugs while Etheridge popped the car's trunk. Despite him considerably weakened from pain, Josiah's hands were tied and he was gagged. His unfocused gaze met that of Spike's, who seemed a lot less comfortable with the events unfolding. Sanchez noticed Spike's eyes widen and him lunge out.
From the trunk, Etheridge took a gun from a bag and screwed a silencer onto its barrel. With the residents' enforced time away from their rooms and landings, and having ensured the immediate area was clear, he felt confident they were concealed enough to secure this loose end. He would get to the kid next.
Conlan walked away from the trunk and faced Josiah. "Time to retire, Fed." He aimed the gun, but he heard Spike's voice, and the very moment he fired, his arm was grabbed and pulled down
Josiah watched in disbelief when Etheridge pointed a gun at him. His mouth went dry, and interrupted his efforts to warn the man that the act of killing a Federal officer bore the death penalty. He saw Spike move, and heard the pop of a silencer. A millisecond later lead tore into Josiah, but hit his right flank instead of his heart, as was intended.
Etheridge backhanded Spike, sending him to the ground. "What were you thinking? You moron. You knew the bottom line, here."
Simon 'Spike' Halls looked up dazedly from the ground. "Not that. We never agreed that!"
"Go. GO! Get out of my sight."
He watched Spike scramble to his feet and run off. Etheridge looked at a shocked, bleeding Josiah who was still being held, and who swayed between the two goons. Gesturing to the open car trunk, he spoke to his men.
"Toss him in there and dump him. He'll bleed out before his Fed friends find him." The administrator turned, and to the sounds of a trunk lid slammed shut and a car start up and drive quickly away, he left.
The race from the common room to the Mission grounds was a blur to JD. Standing on the very spot where Josiah was shot, he scanned the parking lot. His heart skipped a beat when he spotted a motorbike and he jogged over to it. At first he just stood there, staring, then an idea spiked and he felt around the inside of the casing that held the bike's screen spoiler. At a happier time, JD would have whooped at the discovery of the spare key; a little trick he often used when in Boston, but didn't need to here in Denver as he had six big brothers a mere phone call away should he lose his keys.
JD peeled the key from the inside of the frame, then sat on the bike and rolled it backwards to release it from the stand. Searching his jeans pocket, he pulled out a Blue Tooth headset and clipped it to his ear. Moments later the bike roared to life, and with thoughts of making his apologies to its owner later, JD tore off toward the electronic gates.
No other resident would have attempted the dash for freedom due to the Radio Frequency ID chipped wristband that was fitted to them on admittance to the facility. It immediately alerted the mostly unobtrusive security personnel to an unauthorized approach to the perimeter and gates. However, staff, and in this case Josiah and JD, where also fitted with the RFID bands, only theirs emitted a signal that actually opened the gates.
Relieved to see his wristband was operating accurately, JD roared through the semi-open gates and, via the Bluetooth earpiece, followed the radio frequency signal from a tracking device JD had fitted before the assignment and which was located between Josiah's clerical collar and collaret.
He was relieved. Josiah wasn't too far ahead.
Inside the trunk was pitch-black save for the occasional flash of illumination from the tail, and turn signal lamps. Josiah was in a world of hurt as his large frame was jostled mercilessly against the trunk's interior. His already wounded body ached and throbbed, and the bloody wound in his side burned, but he was alive, and as long as he held onto that truth, Josiah believed he would get through this. The balled up material in his mouth was absorbing saliva, giving him one more thing to focus on as he gagged, partly on the dryness, and partly on the carbon monoxide fumes seeping through any crack they came upon.
Josiah groaned when during a particularly sharp turn he smacked his head hard against the lid of the trunk. After that, events turned muggy and he drifted in and out of consciousness, preventing him from being able to protect himself from the rough ride. The air he took in through his nose smelled bad, and once again Josiah's senses dipped. However, just before he passed out, it occurred to him that he could hear a familiar buzz-saw sound not too far away. The recall briefly caused JD's features to flash through Josiah's clouded mind before darkness finally consumed him.
His dark hair flying in the breeze, JD tore through the streets on the borrowed bike until he finally located the car he'd seen Josiah bundled into. The instant he spotted it ahead, the young agent broke the signal to the tracking device by speaking.
"Speed-dial one!" There was a pause.
"JD! At last. Sit rep!"
"Chris, I'm following a car and Josiah's in the trunk. It's a black Ford Fusion, Colorado license plate EAB-536. It's turning left at Grant and Cleveland, heading toward Lincoln Avenue. No, wait! It turned down Madison Boulevard. I think it's making for Washington Park."
JD remained focused on the car ahead and in avoiding innocent folk while he noted Chris's acknowledgement to his ongoing transmission. Chris signed off after telling JD he would soon have help, and that Ezra and himself were heading for the Mission.
Suddenly the youth had to fight to keep the bike upright when he needed to perform a sharp turn. The speed increased and it became obvious to JD that the driver now knew he was being followed and was trying to throw him off the trail. After traversing several streets, both car and bike raced through the south gates of Washington Park and straight onto the grass, JD blasted his frustratingly inadequate horn in warning, sending screaming folk running every which way. Finally, the Ford stopped and two men leaped out and ran away. Another car running lights and sirens came from the opposite direction and screeched to a halt just ahead. Buck and Vin were unbuckled and chasing down the two perps even as JD stopped.
JD dumped the bike and went to the back of the Ford, but was soon raging in frustration at being unable to pop the trunk. He raced to the abandoned pool car, grabbed a tire iron from its trunk and ran back to jimmy the Fusion's lid until it flipped open. Without warning Nathan appeared next to him and between them they gently eased the prostrate man inside into a sitting position. JD pulled out the rag stuffed into Josiah's mouth and tugged at the duct tape that bound his wrists.
"JOSIAH! Oh God, Josiah, are you, okay?" He turned to Nathan. "He's been beaten, and shot."
Nathan nodded as his expert gaze scrutinized the injured man. "I was going after Buck and Vin, but saw you just as I took off." He tapped Sanchez's face. "Hey, Josiah."
A shaky, sweaty Sanchez rallied at the fresh air and familiar voices and tried to compose himself. His reply was husky. "I'll be alright, boys, no need for either of you to worry."
"We ain't worried you old fool," Nathan teasingly assured as he pulled off his tee and plugged the bleeding wound in Josiah's side. He noticed how drained JD appeared. "I've got him, JD. Like the man said, he'll be fine."
Appreciating Nathan was trying to ease his concern; JD looked between the EMT and Josiah. "You sure? 'Cause I gotta get back."
Groggily, Josiah nodded. "You heard the man. Now go, but be careful, Etheridge is in panic mode."
"Did you figure out who he's working with?" JD had seen Spike try to help Josiah, but was he actually involved?
Josiah was fighting to stay conscious. "It's Spike." The big man was fading. "I'm sorry, son. I missed the signs."
JD grabbed the lapels of Josiah's jacket to keep him from tipping over. "There were no signs, Josiah. Not to mention the red herring I wasted our time on. Josiah!"
The man lost consciousness. JD and Nathan manhandled him out of the trunk and eased him onto the grass and into the recovery position. The youth looked anxiously around and breathed a relieved sigh when a uniformed cop approached. He pulled out his own ID wallet and then pointed to Josiah and Nathan. "These are Federal Agents Sanchez, and Jackson, ATF. This man needs an ambulance. He's been shot, badly beaten, and locked in the trunk of this vehicle."
"I'll call for an ambulance. Whose is the other vehicle?"
Nathan answered. "Mine and two more Feds, our teammates, who are currently chasing down this car's occupants and hopefully should be returning any time now."
JD's features filled with regret as he stood. "I have to leave."
The cop nodded. "We'll take it from here, and I'll tell your teammates you had to go."
JD squatted next to the unaware man and touched Josiah's face. "Hang in there, Padre." He squeezed Nathan's arm, stood and hurried to the prostrate bike. JD called back.
"How did you guys get here so fast?"
Not moving his focus from Josiah, Nathan replied. "We were all heading toward the Mission when Chris got your call. He diverted us to meet up with you. We were only minutes away from here."
With a nod of understanding, and gratitude, JD wrestled the bike upright, started it, and roared off and back to the Mission.
Even with one arm strapped, Vin and Buck easily raced after the rogue car's two occupants. The driver went right, and Vin followed. Buck stayed on the passenger, his long legs easily eating up the distance between them. With a one-armed football tackle worthy of the Broncos, he flattened the panting runner and sat on the man's chest to subdue him.
"You're busted, pal."
Using his knee to pin one arm down, Buck awkwardly cuffed the winded man and then dragged him upright. "Walk, asshole!" He frog-marched the goon back to the abandoned vehicles.
Vin's flying leap at the driver took the man clean off his feet. In moments he had rolled the perp onto his front, cuffed him and pulled him up, and all while trying to ignore the pain flaring through his shoulder.
"Get movin'." Vin's growl had the man doing so instantly.
It was a silent march back, and they were first on scene. Seeing Josiah unconscious and with Nathan tending to him, Vin handed off his prisoner to one of now several uniformed cops milling around, and then dropped to his knees next to Josiah.
"What happened?" When Nathan didn't instantly reply, Vin turned to the cop closest to him. "Where's the kid that was on the bike?"
Nathan's focus remained on the unconscious profiler, so the first cop that had arrived on site replied. "I was told by Agent Dunne that Agent Sanchez was shot and beaten. I've called for an ambulance. Agent Dunne said he needed to go back, not sure to where, but he went after he and Agent Jackson pulled Agent Sanchez from the locked trunk of that car and ensured he was comfortable."
Vin studied his battered, semi-conscious teammate before pulling out his cell and making a call to Chris. He looked up when Buck joined them.
"Looks bad," Buck said, softly.
"Bullet's still in there," Nathan said without looking up.
Tanner finished the clarification. "Waitin' on an ambulance."
Buck's anxious gaze searched the area. "Where did JD go?"
"Back to the Mission, I think."
Buck's features darkened. "What do you mean, 'you think', Vin? Did he, or didn't he?"
"Cop only said he had to get back, didn't say to where. Quit shootin' the messenger, Bucklin."
Buck raised a hand before resting it on Tanner's good arm. "You're right, sorry. Shoot, this has gotten messy. Where's Chris now?"
"He and Ezra are almost at the Mission. I called to give him an update."
Nathan finally looked up at the pair and all three agents stood when paramedics arrived. "I'm going with Josiah to the hospital."
Josiah groaned softly and the three men each gave him a pat or a squeeze to let him know they were there.
"Guys, take the car and go," Nathan insisted. "Ezra's able to shoot but, to offer an Ezra turn of phrase, he's encumbered, like you, so JD and Chris may need help."
With a supportive pat to Nathan's back, Buck and Vin hurried to the pool car. Vin turned back and snatched the keys from the air that Nathan tossed. Seconds later, he and Buck roared away.
The probe on Josiah's finger quickly told the paramedics that the man's oxygen saturation was a little low. While they slipped an oxygen mask over Josiah's nose and mouth, he moaned again. Nathan was there in an instant. He placed a comforting hand on Josiah's sweaty curls, and soothingly massaged his head.
"Easy there, buddy."
Josiah coughed and forced open his eyes to look at Nathan. "Tired . . . "
"I'll bet. Rest easy, everything's under control."
Josiah's eyelids started to close, but instantly flickered open wider to expose a worried, blue gaze. "JD, I've left him exposed."
"It's okay," Nathan appeased. "Chris, Buck, Vin, and Ezra are on it, now."
"Let y'all down." Josiah mumbled.
Jackson frowned. "Like hell you did. Josiah? You hear me? Josiah?"
"We need to go," one paramedic insisted.
Nathan nodded. He followed the EMT and the trolley bed into the back of the ambulance, which left just as CSI arrived.
Sparks flew as the bike's metalwork scraped through the still opening rear gates of the Saint Francis Rehabilitation Center, but JD was oblivious. His mind was filled with worry for Josiah, and getting back in time to stop Etheridge, or Spike, or maybe both from getting away. For a quick dismount, he rode off the drive and onto the lawn. JD cussed when he skinned his ankle on the falling bike, but quickly shrugged it off and took off across the grounds and into the building. Voices alerted him to uniforms inside the center, which meant Chris was likely there too, but he didn't have time to go looking. He spoke into his headset.
"Speed-dial one! Chris! I'm in the center. We need to apprehend Administrator Conlan Etheridge, and a resident, Simon 'Spike' Halls. Okay, I'll be there as soon as I can." Taking the stairs two at a time, JD first headed for Spike's room.
Chris watched as the residents and staff of the center was ushered into the dining area. He turned to Ezra when the southerner closed down a phone call.
"Josiah's wound bled out considerably and he is now on his way to surgery to remove the bullet and repair any damage. Nathan's at the hospital with him. Buck and Vin are on their way here after successfully apprehending Josiah's kidnappers."
"JD?" Chris asked.
Standish actually faltered. "I'm told he went on ahead of them. He knows who is responsible for the contraband."
Chris stepped forward. "And?"
"I didn't get the name. Nathan was calling from the hospital and sounded rather distraught." He noted Chris's building frustration.
Chris turned to stalk off. His cell rang and he answered it. "Larabee. JD! Good, good. Okay, got it. Come to the dining hall." Chris turned back to Ezra and almost smiled. "We've got names."
JD hit the top landing running. He entered Spike's room and cursed to find it messy, but unoccupied. Exiting, the young agent hurried along the corridor to the communal room to ask if anyone had seen Spike, but before he entered, he spotted the very guy sloping off down the stairs. "Hey!"
JD ran after Halls. "Stop! ATF!"
Spike ducked into a doorway when he saw the youth he knew as Jay coming out of his room. Once JD walked in the opposite direction to him, Spike made a dash for the stairs. He cursed on hearing JD call out and ran off down the stairs. When he realized JD was right on his heels, Spike panicked and ran down the second level's hallway. The common room was empty so he ran in there with the hope of climbing down to ground level from off the balcony, but JD was too quick and was into the room within seconds.
"Give it up, Spike. It's over."
Halls pointed an angry finger. "You! You got Father Sanders killed."
JD paled. "Wh . . . what?"
"I knew there was something off about you as soon as you called him 'Josiah', but then I saw you steal that bike and take off after the car. Only a cop would do something like that."
JD felt sick to his stomach. 'Oh God, did I blow the cover?' He tried to put a brave spin on his feeling of failure. "Is that why you broke into my room?"
Spike frowned. "I didn't."
JD was stunned and it was just enough of a pause for Spike to put his head down and charge at JD's midriff. The pair smashed into occasional tables and overturned chairs as they wrestled and punched at each other. Finally JD got the upper hand, pushed Spike backwards, and then out through the open double doors until he was pinned against the balcony railings. He turned his captive around and using his knee to keep him against the balustrade JD cuffed Spike's hands behind his back.
"Simon Halls, you're under arrest for the illegal storing and suspected trading of illegal cigarettes. You have the right to remain silent, and that anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult with an attorney and to have that attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed to represent you free of charge. Do you understand?"
Spike didn't fight, and nodded to JD's question. He looked back over his shoulder at JD. "I hate you. We were fine until you came here. Poor Father Sanders."
"Father Sanders is a cop, like me." JD felt a little mean for telling Spike that, but he would have found out eventually. "And Josiah's not dead, your actions when you pushed Etheridge saved his life." He just saw a glimmer of hope in Spike's eyes, when a voice interrupted the moment.
"How sweet, Spike. You saved the Fed's life."
Both JD and Spike turned their heads sharply to look at the man pointing a gun in their direction. JD shook his head. "Are you kidding me? There are uniforms and Feds crawling all over this building, Etheridge."
"I can't abide loose ends."
The gun in his hand fired and Spike cried out a millisecond before the bullet's impact took his body over the balcony rail. Due to a firm hold on his prisoner, JD went over with Spike, but just managed to wrap the fingers of one hand around the top railing to halt their descent. Straining to hold on, he looked up as Etheridge approached.
"Two birds with one stone." Raising the hand holding the gun and silencer, he brought the weapon down rapidly and smashed it hard into JD's fingers.
"Nooo! Aaaarrrggghh!" JD screamed out as pain overwhelmed him. His throbbing fingers uncurled and he and Spike went plummeting to the ground below.
In the hospital's surgical waiting room, Nathan stood when a surgeon still in scrubs approached him. He was surprised to see him so soon and his heart began thumping against his ribcage. "Doc?"
Doctor Phillips's features were grim. "Josiah's critical. I successfully removed the bullet, but the pathway it took caused some damage. Everything has been repaired, but coupled with a broken rib having punctured a lung; he is struggling, so for now we're keeping Josiah medically sedated, and have placed him on a ventilator."
Nathan paled. "Bottom line?"
"It's down to him. Medically, we can do no more than monitor him."
Nathan shook the doctor's hand and sat down hard on a chair. His hands trembled, and just as he started dialing his cell phone, it rang.
"Jackson. Hey Vin, I was just about to call Chris. What? When?" Nathan's emotions were threatening to overtake him. "Oh dear God!"
Momentarily torn, he decided that as some of the team were heading for the hospital, he would wait to see who turned up before sharing the news about Josiah. "Thanks for the heads up. I'll see you soon."
The team's EMT stared at the phone in his hand. It was then he noticed Josiah's blood on the cuffs of his shirtsleeves. "What the hell's happening to us?"
Despite the hubbub in the Mission's dining room, Ezra noticed Chris suddenly look up. Moments later both men's attention went to the open double doors that were directly below the second floor's common room. Their shock was evident as what appeared to be two bodies dropped to the ground outside. Chris led the way, jogged across the room, and out onto the wooden decking that also served to support the balcony above. Despite hobbling, Ezra was only seconds behind him.
The southerner rarely saw Larabee at a loss, but for a few moments, the team's leader could only squeeze the rail hard while staring at the ground below. Ezra joined him and was powerless to stifle a gasp of shock. As if motivated by the sharp intake of breath, Chris easily vaulted the railing and dropped effortlessly onto the narrow, gravel path below. Unable to perform such a leap, but wanting to be where Chris was, Ezra turned and walked from the room as fast as his cane and broken leg would allow.
The blond straightened and took a second or two to make sense of what he was seeing. Spotting uniformed cops sprinting his way, Chris moved to check the first still youth lying on the path. He then went to the more familiar prone figure sprawled on his back half on and half off the grass that ran alongside the gravel. He dropped down next to his youngest agent.
Tenderly, Chris touched the unconscious boy's scraped and bloodied features. "Kid, it's Chris. Can you hear me? If you can, try and open your eyes."
There was a painfully long pause, during which time, all other external sounds and movement became muted for the team leader focused on the slack face. Chris tried not to think about the bloodstained grass around and under the young agent's head as JD suddenly uttered a soft gasp and his eyelids flickered. The response caused Chris's off-kilter existence to burst into chaos and noise.
Chris jolted at the sound of Buck's voice right next to him. He quickly glanced at the anxious man and noticed Vin there, also.
"When did you guys arrive?" The gravelly quality to his own voice surprised Chris, but he didn't dwell on it, or wait to hear the answer, as JD's second moan was a lot louder.
"Aaahh - oww, oww - owwww."
Buck ignored the pull on his strapped arm to lower his head close to JD's ear. "Easy there, li'l brother, best you don't move just now."
JD panted through the pain and although he tried to open his screwed up eyelids, he couldn't. "Spike . . . "
Vin glanced back to see a paramedic next to the other youth and another heading for JD. "He's got help, Kid."
JD's hand was resting on his stomach and it rose slightly to shakily point a finger. "Shot, Etheridge shot him."
Buck's alarm grew and as his gaze scrutinized the boy's prone body, he took JD's hand in his. Chris squeezed Buck's knee.
"I think he means Spike was shot by Etheridge." Larabee stood just as Ezra and a paramedic was joining them. "Vin, let's go find the slimeball."
Gesturing to some officers to join them, Chris and Vin took off at a sprint.
Ezra looked at Buck and then down at JD, whose head was being bandaged. He smiled when JD looked at Ezra, but moments later both he and Buck were ushered back when JD's eyes closed and the paramedic's efforts became more rapid.
Buck's mouth went dry. "What's happening?"
Another EMT joined the paramedic and in less than a minute they had JD on a backboard, masked up for oxygen, and with his head and neck isolated. On the way to the ambulance, one EMT was monitoring JD's breathing and oxygen intake. Buck went to follow but turned sharply when a hand grasped his arm.
"As much as it pains me to ask you not to stay, I am currently somewhat limited in my maneuverability, and Chris and Vin are still seeking out the armed miscreant who caused JD's injuries." He watched Buck's expression agonize between love, and duty, and his deep blue eyes well. However, Ezra knew how Buck cared deeply for all his teammates and was always prepared to protect them.
"I give you my word I will stick as close to JD as you would have."
Buck quickly leaned in and squeezed JD's hand. "I need to help Chris and Vin. I'll be back with you later, Kid. I promise."
Buck nodded to Ezra, patted his shoulder, and with one last glance back at JD, headed off.
At the hospital, and to the backdrop of the ventilator's whoosh, Nathan was sitting hunched over at Josiah's bedside. Both elbows rested on rounded knees as coupled hands supported Nathan's chin. He studied his friend's still form. "Wake up, Preacher, we need you."
A long, weary sigh followed the plea, as Josiah remained unmoving. "I just hope this good, long rest is healing you some." Nathan leaned closer and took Josiah's slack hand.
"I Guess I shouldn't be telling you this but - JD's gotten himself in a bit of a fix and is going to need your help real soon. So wake up. Could you do that for me, Josiah? Huh?"
Nathan held his breath when he felt the tiniest of movements from Josiah's thumb. "Uh, and then there's Vin, Ezra, and Buck. The fools came to help, even though, by rights, they should be resting. Lord knows what I'm going to say to those three when I catch up with them, still, at least I won't have you giving me those 'aww, don't be too hard on 'em' eyes when I do so."
The worry lines on the black man's face softened and a grin developed when there was another small twitch from the hand in his. "And as for Chris, I've never seen him so despondent. Just two out of his team uninjured after two assignments - he's taking it hard, and the problem is, with you lying here, who the hell's up to talking him through it the way you can?"
The gentlest of squeezes to Nathan's hand convinced him he'd touched the nerve that would whip up Josiah's responsiveness. Just as the whole team had a soft spot for Josiah, so did he for them. Knowing they were in pain, whether mental or physical, never sat agreeably for the kind man. Their wellbeing was Josiah's weakness, and while he waited on news, Nathan quietly thanked God for that truth, and prepared to continue using the insight to bring the big man back to them.
The smell of burning was strong even as Chris and Vin were running through the Mission's second level to find Etheridge. They knew the man hadn't ventured down to ground level due to the vast police presence in attendance; therefore he had to be higher. With speed and skill they kicked open any door that offered resistance. Once they were confident that the second level was clear, the pair made their way to the stairwell to the upper level. Guns were drawn when a noise alerted Chris and Vin to a presence.
"Whoa, whoa! I'm on your side!"
Vin's cheek dimpled and Chris offered a tight smile as they relaxed. The latter spoke.
"Good to see you, Buck. Figured you'd be with JD." Chris noted a momentary flash of emotion on Buck's face, and then it was gone.
"The kid knows teammates' safety comes first and with Ezra on a cane and painfully aware of how running up and down this building is impossible for him right now, he went to the hospital with JD."
Unseen by the others, Vin's eyes misted over. He knew just how much he would want to be with Chris if he were hurt that badly. He reached out and lightly punched Buck's arm. "We'll make it up to the kid, Josiah, too."
Buck struggled to swallow as he nodded. "You bet."
A bump from above them caused the three to check their weapons and take off running.
From the loft, two of Etheridge's goons passed several cases down to their boss and another of his men. One picked up a spray can of WD40. The other man removed a disposable lighter from his pocket, and when his partner aimed the can and sprayed toward the wooden roof joists and the underfelt woven between, he flicked the lighter's wheel to strike the flint. A whoosh of flame sent burning, flammable spray to spread along the eaves, instantly catching the felt alight. Job done, the two men dropped neatly down from the roof space. The goons and Etheridge each grabbed a case by its rope handle and made for the exterior fire escape.
Conlan Etheridge opened the exit door and cursed at the numerous cops milling around below. He looked up. "We're climbing. Call the chopper pilot and tell him the change of plan." Abandoning the cases, and closely followed by his men, he jogged up the stairs and onto a narrow metal skywalk that led toward a service platform situated at the very rear of the building, and currently well away from the fire.
All three agents coughed when they arrived on the top landing. Flames were licking through the open loft hatch, and looking up they could see that the roof's interior was ablaze. Chris spoke into his throat mic.
"Larabee. I'm in the main building, top landing. Get firefighters here, stat. The building's roof is burning."
He stared toward the fire exit door. "Etheridge can't get down without being seen."
"He must be heading for the roof," Buck suggested. "But it's not a flat roof."
Vin took out his iPhone and called up the building's schematics that JD had previously uploaded to all of the team's phones. "There's a service platform at the rear of the building for the water storage tank and air conditioning unit."
Larabee again activated his mic to ensure uniforms moved to cover the grounds below the platform. Seconds later, the sound of rotor wash caused all three men to look up and call out with one voice as they ran for the exit.
Despite the ache in his leg, Ezra was leaning on his cane and standing at the window of the ER waiting room. However, he saw nothing through the glass due to his mind going over the quiet ambulance ride in. JD hadn't moved, or woken up, despite the southerner chatting nineteen to the dozen. Generally, it would be unthinkable for the undercover agent to interact physically with the other men, but he'd held JD's hand all the way to the hospital. Ezra tried to convince himself it was what Buck would do, but truthfully, he knew he needed the contact as much as JD. These men were like brothers to him, and while he was just getting over the possibility of losing two of them on the last case, now another two of his family were injured. The situation was simply unbearable.
On the ambulance's arrival, medical staff whisked JD away for assessment and various scans, leaving Ezra to wait it out by himself. He badly wanted to know how Josiah was doing, but wouldn't leave for fear of JD waking and needing reassurance. As a result, he remained there alone and so preoccupied that it took two attempts for the voice speaking to penetrate Ezra's thoughts.
"Finally." Nathan approached when Ezra turned to him. "Heard anything?"
Ezra shook his head. "No. I find this waiting without knowing most frustrating."
Nathan smiled compassionately. "Yeah."
"How is Josiah?"
"Doc's with him right now so I thought I'd come see how JD's doing."
Both men turned when a doctor entered the room. "You're both here for John Dunne?"
"Well, you'll be relieved to learn that, landing mostly on grass saved John from serious injury - or worse." The man paused while he watched both men take in and react to the news. "As well as a mild concussion, he has bruising to his back, shoulders and hips, and needed the gash on the back of his head to be glued."
"As you informed the staff he already has a teammate hospitalized, I thought it would be prudent to put both men together."
"JD has to stay in?" Nathan asked.
"For how long?" Ezra added.
"The meds he's on will keep him asleep for quite a while, so I would say at least tonight, and I'll reassess the situation tomorrow."
Both men smiled with relief and Nathan slapped Ezra's back.
"May I see him?" the southerner asked.
The doctor nodded. "He's in a side room off the ER. Give us some time to finish up, and then I'll send someone to get you so you can stay with John until we move him to his room."
Nathan gestured he was leaving. "I'll get back to Josiah. I'll see JD when he joins us."
Ezra nodded. "Indeed. Give Josiah my best and tell him I'll be there directly."
Nathan agreed, and hoped he could successfully convey that to the unconscious man.
Ezra dialed to share the news, but Buck's, Chris's and also Vin's cells went to voicemail. He sucked in a nervous breath and nodded knowingly to himself. "Stay safe, my friends."
As much as Chris wanted to burst up the last few steps onto the platform, he also knew there would be armed men there. Cautiously, Chris peeked up onto the structure. Swirling dust rushed at him when a chopper eased down as close as it could to the platform, and someone inside tossed out a rope ladder.
They were out of time.
"GO! GO! GO!"
At Larabee's directive, the three agents ran up onto the platform. Chris aimed his gun at Etheridge. "ATF! Hold it!"
Buck's gun pointed between the henchmen as they reached inside their jackets for their weapons. He grinned. "I like shooting, so I'd ease those guns out with your fingertips, put them down on the platform, and raise your arms skyward if I were you."
Vin aimed for the uncertain chopper pilot who also appeared to be armed, and mouthed the words 'try me.'
All offenders on the platform put their guns down. Etheridge preferred an easy life and getting in a shootout was not of interest to him. Silently he allowed Chris to cuff his hands behind his back. Vin gestured for the chopper to get going, and then he and Buck, each with only one working hand, helped each other take down the remaining goons.
Chris looked suitably satisfied, despite his astonishment at the lack of resistance from Etheridge. The crooks were Mirandized, and then escorted to cops waiting on the fire escape.
"The fire's taken out part of the roof, but is under control, Sir," one officer told Chris. Larabee nodded, and then turned to his companions. "Okay, guys; let's square away the paperwork and loose ends, and then it's time to deal with family business." With full agreement, Buck and Vin followed him down the metal stairs to ground level, and back into the building.
Nathan walked back into Josiah's room and looked at the still man. He was relieved to see his friend was no longer on a ventilator. He read Josiah's medical chart, and nodded his approval at the doctor's notes.
"Hey, Josiah. I just heard that JD's gonna be okay, and he and Ezra's coming up to see you real soon. Be good if you could wake up now. I'm sure you're going to want to see them."
The black man sighed softly at the lack of response. Before settling in, Nathan instead walked to the window and watched the city's late afternoon traffic and pedestrian bustle. He disliked how split the team was right now. It was one of the reasons Buck, Vin, and Ezra were injured on the last case and as he reflected on the recent team injuries he wondered as to whether any one of them could have been avoided.
His concern then switched to how Chris, Vin, and Buck were doing, and if they were successful in arresting Etheridge and Spike. More importantly, to whether they had done so without adding to the injury tally. After a rub to his weary features, Nathan glanced toward the wall clock, and then Josiah, and hoped the guys would put him out of his misery and be in touch soon.
Evening was closing in when Ezra peeked through the door of the side ward the doctor directed him to. He found a nurse there and attending to JD. She smiled and replaced the observations chart on the bed's foot rail. "Come in, he's resting."
The southerner approached the bed. JD lay on his stomach and facing away from him, so Ezra hobbled around to that side and sat on the available chair. "Is he on his front due to bruising?" he asked the nurse while fully focused on the damaged, but peacefully sleeping features of the team's youngest.
"Yes, his back, legs and hips are being treated with intermittent icepacks for the next several hours to reduce swelling. Even on painkillers, John will be in considerable discomfort for a week or so."
Ezra flicked back a strand of hair that poked out over the bandage around JD's head. "Is there a product I can acquire that will assist the healing process?"
The nurse paused in thought. "I understand Epsom salts in bathwater is beneficial."
The southerner nodded. "Most helpful, thank you." Ezra leaned in closer to JD's head.
"Now then, young man, I know this isn't the voice you are used to hearing, but while Buck is out saving the world with Chris and Vin, I will keep my word to the man to stay with you until he is able. You'll be pleased to learn that Josiah is doing well. Nathan tells me the doctors are satisfied with his progress. You'll be able to see for yourself soon, as the medical staff intend for you both to share a room."
Becoming aware of how tired he was, Ezra let go of JD's hand and poured himself a glass of water from the pitcher on the nightstand. He drank a little, then took out his handkerchief and wet it before dabbing his eyes and face with the dampened cloth. "Somewhat better."
After neatening his attire, Ezra again took up JD's hand and, to pass the time, conveyed the latest news from his mother, Maude.
An hour or so later, and while still talking, movement at the door caused Ezra to look up. He smiled at the porters and eased himself out of the chair to walk out into the corridor. Before leaving, he spoke to JD.
"You're being moved, JD. I will see you soon, and in your new location." Ezra left and headed for the elevators while the porters kicked off the bed's brakes and rolled JD down the corridor toward the freight elevator.
As he walked along the corridor, something in another area of the ER caught Ezra's eye. He approached the room's open double doors and saw a trolley bed littered with an abandoned, bloody sheet and medical paraphernalia. On the floor was a variety of discarded, blood-saturated swabs. However, his eagle eyes had spotted the name written on the whiteboard underneath that day's date.
GSW to Right Lumbar Region - Liver hemorrhage
The southerner studied the name and wondered why it was familiar. The answer hit him like a slap to the face when a comment made at the Mission before he traveled in the ambulance with JD, entered his mind. 'Spike'.
'T.O.D.' - 'Time of Death'. Spike hadn't made it; Etheridge was a murderer.
"Dear God. Poor boy."
Streetlights had already kicked in when it occurred to Nathan how long he must have been standing there staring out of the window while chattering to Josiah about anything and everything he could think of.
"I expected JD and Ezra to be here by now. Be good to have some company, I'm missing our talks."
"Really? You seemed to be doing alright to me."
Nathan jolted and his face lit up at the sound of Josiah's raspy voice. He sat down and again took up Josiah's hand. "Hey, about time, old man." He was surprised at the cool response.
"Yes, old - and useless."
"Uh - not so useless, huh?" Nathan was relieved to see a small smile. He stood to offer the man a drink.
"You have quite a way about you in cheering a man up, my friend."
Holding a glass to Josiah's lips, Nathan grinned. "You taught me everything I know."
Josiah spluttered water as his rumbling chuckle caught him unaware. "You make me so proud."
Despite Josiah's attempt at levity, the team's EMT felt there was something off about this conversation. Nathan filed the concern for later, and then while they waited on medical staff to arrive and check out the conscious profiler, he quietly and selectively got Josiah caught up with events.
The ride to the hospital from the Mission was a quiet one for Chris, Buck, and Vin. In the back of Chris's Ram, Buck was staring into the gloom of early evening, deep in thought, while at the front Chris too was clearly chewing something over. Vin decided to speak.
"What's on your mind, Chris?"
Without taking his eyes off the road, the blond replied. "Etheridge."
"What about him?" Buck put in as he snapped from his musings and leaned forward.
"Man was way too calm for my liking."
"You reckon he's got somethin' up his sleeve?" Vin asked.
"Yeah, I do," Chris confirmed, "and I have a bad feeling we might be hearing about it all too soon." He signaled to pull into the hospital grounds.
Tanner cursed when he took out his phone to call Nathan in order to find out where everyone was located. "Damn."
"What?" Chris queried.
"Got a missed call. I forgot my phone was on silent."
Buck checked his. "Me too." He dialed. "Ezra? You called?" Buck nodded, smiled, and said his goodbyes. He spoke to his companions. "Josiah's awake and talking."
Chris's chest and shoulders rose and fell as he took in a deep breath of relief. "JD?"
Buck's face lit up further. "Bruising, a mild concussion and his head has a glued cut. He's sleeping peacefully."
"Did Ezra say where the guys are?" Vin checked.
"He did, they're in the same room."
The news instantly lifted the mood in the car. Following a pause, Chris asked a question.
"Uh, cast your minds back to after I sent you guys to JD and Josiah's location. Seeing as Nathan stayed behind with Josiah, which of you 'one-handed' cowpokes drove to the Mission?"
Vin glanced awkwardly at Chris, and Buck sat back in his seat.
"Well? As I recall, that particular pool car's not an automatic."
There was a momentary lull.
"Man, been so busy I hadn't noticed how fast the day's gone by."
Vin eagerly agreed with Buck. "Yep, it sure has."
Chris parked up and shook his head. "Don't think we're done. We'll talk about this later," he threatened. The three exited the truck. Chris strode off and led the way, oblivious to the pair following him nudging each other, while having a silent, but animated discussion.
Pillows propped Josiah up in bed. The man was trying to take his mind off his pain and concerns by reading a bible he'd found in his nightstand drawer. Next to him, Nathan was dozing in a chair, while Ezra appeared to be doing likewise next to JD. The door opening had Josiah look up, and two dozing agents instantly alert and armed. Nathan stood and aimed, while Ezra simply pointed his gun from the chair.
"Good to see you're both vigilant," Chris smiled.
"Who were you expecting to attack me?" Josiah teased.
"Force of habit," Nathan sleepily mumbled while holstering his gun.
"Indubitably," Ezra echoed.
Chris stood at Josiah's bedside and the pair shook hands. The team leader placed his free hand on Josiah's shoulder. "Good to see you doing better, Josiah."
"I may no longer be a spring chicken, but this old bird is tough."
Nathan frowned at yet another comment about age, and once again saved it for later. Buck hurriedly stepped forward and awkwardly offered his left hand in greeting.
"Hey, big man, you look like crap."
Josiah chortled and then winced in pain. He waved off any concern. "Good to see you working again, Buck." He looked to Vin. "You too, Vin. Thank you both for helping me out earlier."
"It's JD that needs thankin'," Vin reminded. "His insistence on plantin' trackin' devices sure got us to you fast." He noticed Josiah's eyes well up. "You okay, Preacher?"
Josiah watched Buck move to sit with JD. "How was JD hurt?" he asked.
There was a pause. Chris replied.
"While in the second floor common room, JD was attempting to arrest Spike when Etheridge came in and shot him."
Josiah looked shocked. "JD?"
Chris shook his head. "NO! No, Spike. The bullet's momentum took him over the balcony, and JD fell with him."
Josiah's drawn complexion paled a little more. "Good Heavens. How bad?"
Buck's chin rested on the hand propped up on the bed as he looked directly into JD's face. "Bruises, stitches and a concussion. Pretty darned lucky."
Another awkward moment. Chris was about to admit they didn't know when Ezra spoke up.
"I believe he didn't make it."
Chris stared at the southerner but something about Ezra's demeanor told him asking how he knew, could wait.
Buck blocked out the chatter and focused on JD whose face was pointed away from all the team but Buck.
"Hey, Kiddo, you in there?" He was surprised to find JD was faking sleep. He moved in closer and whispered. "What is it, buddy?"
JD's eyes opened, and as he looked at Buck, a tear rolled from the corner of one eye and over the bridge of his nose. Buck thumbed the droplet away and nodded as he spoke in a hushed tone.
An expressive gaze held Buck's until JD's eyes closed. Soon, soft, even breathing suggested the youth was actually sleeping.
By dawn, five weary men left the hospital in order for their healing friends to rest, and try to get some themselves. Chris was still mulling over Etheridge's behavior. Vin was thinking he might get his throbbing shoulder checked. Ezra decided to swing by the office and ensure he was right about Spike. Buck was hoping JD would be released later so he could find out what was bothering the kid, and Nathan wondered how he was going to broach a subject with Josiah that seemed to be consuming the man, and which he didn't fully understand himself.
There was no doubt for either agent that this case was far from resolved.
Despite his tiredness, the following day Josiah remained awake as he watched and listened to JD's pained groans. Favoring one shoulder, the boy was sitting and leaning forward at the edge of his bed while a nurse gently smeared heparinoid cream over the heavily bruised skin. Due to the vast amount of injured tissue, JD had suffered the treatment for almost twenty minutes and was physically trembling. The snap of a latex glove being removed told JD his ordeal was over and he quickly swiped at his eyes before gingerly straightening.
"Man, I'd rather stay in hospital another week than go through that again."
"Sorry, Hon," the nurse apologized, "I only have to wrap your back and chest in an elastic bandage to regulate the blood flow to the area and we're done. You can remove it after twenty-four hours."
"Sounds like fun," JD huffed.
As the nurse applied the binding, she smiled at Josiah. "I'll be changing your bandages next."
"Could you find out when I too can be released?" He winked at JD. "I have a comfy, king-size bed waiting for me."
The youth gave a weak smile, but what surprised Josiah was the minimal eye contact.
The boy stared at him.
"Are we okay?"
JD's mind was racing. He wanted to tell Josiah he'd screwed up but - where to start? "Uh, sure. Sorry, just feels like a bus ran over my back." JD was unable to stop his eyes from misting over. He should tell him now. "How are you doing?"
"Sore, but I really am recovering well."
"Josiah, I'm so sorry about what happened to you."
JD's interruption caused Josiah to take a good look at the kid. 'What has my mistake done to you, son?'
"JD, I . . . "
"Chariot for Dunne."
With only one hand, Buck awkwardly rolled a wheelchair into the room, hampered considerably by Vin riding in it. Their entrance cut the conversation between Josiah and JD, dead.
JD offered a dimpled smile and eased himself off the bed. "Oww...oww...oww...aahh. Holy crap, I think I broke my butt."
Buck's eyes twinkled. "Nah, it's just a crack - ha, just a crack."
Josiah, Vin, and JD groaned collectively at the joke while Buck cackled and congratulated himself.
"Darn that was sharp, Wilmington."
Vin got out of the chair. "Yup, as sharp as a spoon, Bucklin."
It needed two hands to help JD with his sweatshirt, and so Buck and Vin worked it between them. Struggling also with severe stiffness, JD was done in by the time he was fully dressed and didn't fight Buck guiding him into the wheelchair. Chris appeared at the door.
"All signed out."
He took control of the chair and with a round of goodbyes, the pair left. Buck used his left hand to shake Josiah's right.
"Gonna put the pup to bed. See you later, big guy."
Josiah nodded. "He's in good hands."
Buck grinned at Vin, who took up residence in the chair next to the bed. "As are you, Josiah."
Buck left and Vin munched on a few of the grapes situated in a bag on the nightstand. He stopped mid-chew at Josiah's next words.
"Have you ever considered what you'll do when this is all over, Vincent?"
Tanner's shrewd eyes narrowed. "I assume that when you say 'this' you mean the job?"
As if not hearing the question, Josiah continued. "The older and slower a man gets, the more likely he is to make a serious mistake. Putting lives in danger is unacceptable, right?"
"Uh, sure, but then I don't know anyone fittin' that description."
Josiah grunted something inaudible as he shifted down in the bed. Slowly his eyes closed and Vin watched the man drop off to sleep. The sharpshooter studied him for a considerable time while he mulled over Josiah's words.
"What's goin' on in that clever mind of yours, pal?"
Back at the CDC, a mix of meds and exhaustion saw JD out cold the moment his head hit the pillow. Buck poured two whiskies and handed one to Chris as they both took a seat in the living room.
"Thanks Stud, 'preciate the help. Man that kid's taken a pounding."
Chris savored his sip of the whisky and nodded. "But alive, as is Josiah." He looked at Buck.
"What is it, Chris?"
Buck's features darkened. "Please tell me something bad happened to him."
Chris drank back his whisky. "The bastard's turned State's Evidence against his financer. I knew he was up to something."
"He what?" For a moment, Buck's eyes closed in frustration. "He's turning on the bootlegger that led us to this case?"
"Shoot. Josiah and JD are gonna be devastated. When do you plan on telling them?"
"When they're a little stronger, but definitely sooner rather than later." Chris chewed at his lower lip. "Conlan Etheridge is going to get away with murder."
Buck simply nodded his agreement and downed his own drink. "Another one?"
Chris held out his glass. "Yeah, why not? Couch looks good, too."
"Anytime, pal, you know that. Tell you what, you take my bed. I'd rather stay close to the kid, tonight." Buck smiled. "JD'll be real pleased to see you in the morning."
The blond puffed out his cheeks with a long exhalation. "At least until I break the bad news."
The next morning, Nathan walked into Josiah's hospital room to find him writing.
On seeing his friend walk in, Josiah folded the paper and slipped it and the pen into the drawer of the nightstand. "Good morning, Nathan. Any news on how JD's first night at home went?"
Nathan shook his head. "No, haven't called the loft, yet. I wanted to talk to you, first." He took up a chair.
"What about?" Josiah asked.
Nathan took a breath. "I know you're injured and in pain but, over the past few days you've been fixated on your age - and not in a positive way. What's up?"
Sanchez shrugged. "I'm sure you're mistaken."
Nathan stared. "Josiah, that was a poor attempt at hoodwinking, and that's not like you at all, so you'd best 'fess up before I call Chris in."
"Nathan!" Josiah sighed. "Okay, okay, you're right." He licked his lips and nodded his thanks when Nathan handed him a glass of water. After several sips, he resumed.
"I screwed up."
"During the case?"
Josiah nodded. "I behaved informally too early on, with JD. Spike, the boy who seemed to persistently hover close to me, picked up on it and, I'm assuming, told Etheridge. That move by him exposed JD to Spike's curiosity." He hung his head. "I can't believe I allowed that to happen."
Josiah looked into Nathan's eyes. "I'm losing my edge, Nathan, and that puts all of you guys, and possibly civilians, at unnecessary risk. That's simply unacceptable."
Nathan shook his head. "Playing devil's advocate, here; even if you did make a mistake, which I don't believe for one moment; why would you blame it on your age?"
"I also didn't hear Etheridge and his goons come up on me when I located the cigarettes. They kicked the ladder from under me when I was climbing out of the attic. Not so long ago, I would have been more aware, not to mention been capable of jumping straight back up onto my feet." His eyes misted over. "All I could do was lie there and hiss at the pain in my hip and leg from the fall, and then allow myself to be beaten and manhandled into a trunk."
Nathan squeezed Josiah's arm. "Is that it? You're basing your theory of senility on a crunching crash off a ladder as a sign of weakness? You didn't fall, Josiah, you were attacked. It was vicious, and was intended to incapacitate you. And you were held at gunpoint, remember, by a gun that was fired at you *before* you went into the trunk of a car." The black man forced back the emotion creeping into his voice.
"I'm sorry about the 'old man' handle we use for you, but it's just that, a pet name, like we call JD 'Kid' - never meant in a derogatory way, just affectionately."
A small smile curved Josiah's lips. "I know that, my friend. But it doesn't take away the fact that it's become noticeable I'm slowing down, and that truth might compromise someone I love one day, and for me, is unacceptable."
Realizing that he could get no further with this, Nathan changed the subject and the two chatted until it was time for Josiah to have his daily bandage check. The EMT bid farewell, while cueing up a regretful apology to Josiah for the fact that he would definitely need to take this to Chris.
After Chris, Buck, and JD ate breakfast, Chris headed out to the office. Now alone, Buck decided to corner JD about the incident in the hospital that the pair put on hold until JD was home. Taking a bottle of Yoo-Hoo from the fridge, Buck shook it, walked into the living room, and handed the bottle of chocolate milk to JD. With a smile, the boy took it and got comfortable on the sofa.
He watched Buck perch on the coffee table in front of him. "You, uh, missed the chair, Buck."
"Quit stalling, you know why I'm here. Tell me what's wrong."
'Straight to the point', JD thought. He looked down at the Yoo-Hoo bottle in his hands and one fingernail picked at the label. "Not sure where to start," he said, softly.
At times like this, Buck's compassionate side went into overload. He stilled the hand fiddling with the bottle and encouraged JD to look at him. "Let's start with why you were upset at the hospital and faking sleep."
JD took in a deep breath. "I called Josiah by his first name after only just going undercover with him; and then I called in to Chris 'cause someone broke into my room and I thought I'd been busted. But it wasn't who I thought it was; and 'cause I believed my cover was blown I let my guard down and went after Josiah when he got shot; and just after, Spike told me he knew I was a cop when he saw me do that." JD stopped his monologue short when Buck emitted a shrill whistle. Wide, hazel eyes stared.
"A little too fast, Squirt. Okay, let's see how well I followed all that. "You acted too familiarly with Josiah early in your assignment?"
"I remember you calling Chris about your room being broken into." Buck frowned. "So you figured you knew who did it but you were wrong?"
JD took a swig of Yoo-Hoo and again nodded. "I figured it was Spike, but when I arrested him and accused him," JD's chin quivered but he controlled himself. "He denied it, and then he told me," His chin went again, "that when he saw me go after Josiah, he knew I was a cop." JD tried to drink, but couldn't.
"I screwed up, Buck - and it got Josiah shot."
Buck closed in, took the bottle from JD, and set it down on the coffee table. He then took JD's wrists in his large hands. "Even if you knew going after Josiah would break your cover, would it have stopped you from doing so?" He could see the pain in the hazel eyes staring back at him.
"I should have called the abduction in straight away," JD practically whispered.
"Answer my question," Buck coaxed, gently.
JD took in a shaky breath. "No." His head dropped. "You were right, Buck, I'm not undercover material. I'm a liability."
Buck squeezed the wrists in his hands. "You're already doing great as an agent, Kid, but undercover work is tough. It requires you to do and say things alien to you. It takes years of experience to be really good."
"Sure, but Ezra never comes off an assignment unscathed. You know that, right?"
"Yeah. He thinks he's hiding it but . . . "
Buck paused. "Kid, you need to speak to Josiah."
"No time like the present."
"Got to write up my statement and report."
"Then you'll talk to him?"
JD sighed. "How does a guy say sorry for getting someone shot?"
"First off, you didn't, and second, just start from the beginning and tell him how you feel." Buck gave a small grin. "Only a little slower than I got it, okay?"
JD reached for his drink, and squeaked with pain. Buck handed it to him and JD nodded. "Okay."
On floor eleven of the Federal building, Ezra sat quietly in the corner of an interview room while Vin faced three nervous youths. The Texan sat on one corner of the table they were sitting at.
"I'll ask again. Why did officers find Agent Dunne's personal belongin's in your rooms?"
Anxious glances were exchanged between the boys.
Vin pounded the table with his good fist. "I'm losin' patience with you!"
Ezra stirred in his seat. "Perhaps we should call it a day, Agent Tanner. These boys will be reported as contravening their rehabilitation agreement and sent back to . . . "
Vin eyed the speaker.
"We," he looked at his companions, "we thought Jay was hiding drugs in his drawer. Didn't expect to find all that electrical gear. Kid said he still had some of the stuff he bought with his drug money, so I figured 'why not? He can afford it'."
Vin closed in. "So you broke into his room? No one offered to sell you the equipment?"
The youth cursed inwardly. 'Aww, man, that would have been a better story'. He then looked at Vin's feral expression, and decided maybe the truth was best after all.
Tanner packed up the case file. "Okay, we're done here."
While Ezra pushed up on his cane to stand, the second of the three boys spoke. "What happens to us, now?"
"We need to ascertain whether Agent Dunne wants to pursue this and press charges," Standish answered.
"We'll be in touch," Vin added. "In the meantime, you'll go back to the rehab center."
Outside the room, the two agents returned to the bullpen. "So Spike had no connection with JD's break-in," Vin said as they walked.
"And evidently, primarily prevented Josiah's demise, and paid for it with his life."
"And Etheridge gets to evade all charges due to turning State's evidence."
The two men turned to see Chris coming up behind them.
"I should look on the positive side," Chris implied.
"There's a positive side?" Ezra queried.
The three entered the bullpen.
"We got our man; our *original* man," Chris reminded.
"Sure, but at what cost to this team? Not to mention the mess the Mission's been left in," Vin put in.
"Monsignor O'Brien will be advised that St Francis's Mission won't be held accountable," Chris informed. "However, he will need any new administration applicants screened in future. Even if it's the Pope himself."
There were soft laughs. "Levity, Mister Larabee? That would suggest AD Travis has declared we have successfully concluded our assignment." Ezra's eyebrows rose in anticipation of the reply.
"Once the paperwork's in, we're done," Chris concurred. "But I can't truly consider it to be a complete success." He touched the handle of his office door, but stopped. "I asked a favor, and Travis agreed to us taking five days to heal and regroup." Larabee entered his office and closed the door behind him.
Vin and Ezra looked at each other. "Let's get to the paperwork and then go check in on JD, and Josiah," Vin said.
"I like your line of thinking, Mister Tanner."
Several hours later and all but JD were at the hospital. Seeing the others approaching, Nathan hurriedly stepped out of Josiah's room and into the corridor to intercept them.
"Everything okay, Nathan? Buck asked.
He gestured to move away from the door. "Josiah thinks he screwed up the case."
Buck's eyebrows rose. "So does JD." He noted the looks. "Uh, I mean JD thinks he - JD - screwed up the case, not Josiah."
Vin looked stunned. He turned to Nathan. "What did Josiah say?"
"It's not what he said, guys, it's his whole demeanor right now. He's talking about being too old for the job."
"That's ridiculous," Ezra snapped.
"We know that," Nathan replied, but no amount of talking has changed his mind."
"JD?" Vin asked Buck.
"He's convinced it was his fault Josiah got shot."
"Why?" Ezra questioned.
"He thought Spike broke into his room and figured his cover was blown, so he didn't hesitate to follow after Josiah when he was taken."
Vin and Ezra exchanged glances. Vin spoke. "We know who broke into JD's room."
Ezra concluded. "And it had absolutely no connection to the case in hand. Just opportunists looking to steal one thing, and gaining another."
Chris spoke from his position leaning against a doorframe while he quietly watched and listened. "Josiah's not up to being taken to task for his mindset right now, so we'll just keep upbeat and quietly talk him around. As for JD, I'll talk to him, and then - Ezra -" He waited for the southerner to look at him.
"I want you to talk JD through any concerns he has, report back to me, and then I want you primarily Ezra, and then all of you guys, to coach him. At this stage in his development I don't want JD undercover too often, but there might be no other option on occasion, so we need him prepared for the pitfalls."
"JD told me he feels he's not right for undercover work," Buck suggested. "I hate to see him feeling that way."
"This is why I want to nip his insecurity in the bud and for him to understand that if another opportunity to use his particular skills should arise, he'll be up for consideration." Chris walked toward the group. "Josiah's going to need a different approach. I don't intend to lose him."
Everyone nodded. Whatever action was needed, they were up for it.
Josiah jolted from his thoughts to find he had meandered from the bathroom and into Chris's office. What surprised him though, was to find himself actually sitting in the team leader's chair. He stared at the envelope in his hand. If he dallied any longer, the point of trying to do this quietly, and under the radar, would be lost. Despite knowing this, he found himself thinking back over the time after his release from hospital.
The guys were supportive, as always, but the sheer amount of positive energy from them recently, suggested Nathan had shared Josiah's deliberation on retiring. He smiled. God bless them all; he would miss working with them, and one of his biggest regrets would be sticking around to watch and maybe help guide JD to mature into the fine agent he was already becoming.
However, the fist of fear gripping his heart and ruling his head was due to the image of not getting somewhere fast enough to back his brothers up, or of the horror of forgetting a detail that would compromise them.
Josiah stood and set the letter down on the desk. There was still several days left of their sabbatical, and he knew Chris had dropped into the office once or twice during their break, so would hopefully find it soon.
He moved to leave. He was meeting the guys at the ranch for a cookout, and was determined their time together wouldn't be marred by his decision. However, that very thought caused him to halt and turn back to the desk. He stared at the desktop for some time before picking up the letter.
"Quit being a coward, Sanchez, these boys are your family, and they deserve better than this."
Josiah would tell them after eating about how recent events had started him thinking about his career, and then he would hand his resignation to Chris personally. Feeling no less sad, but considerably more positive, Josiah left the Federal building, while pondering that it could be for the penultimate time.
Dusk stealthily edged away the daylight hours, as chatter echoed around the Larabee homestead. Glowing coals were all that remained of an enjoyable feast of burgers, pork chops, ribs and chicken. Even Nathan's donated uber salad was down to just a few shriveled leaves and the odd cherry tomato. However, despite the mostly upbeat conversation, five men were painfully aware that two of their number were struggling.
JD was brooding over needing to talk to Josiah, and as to why Chris hadn't yet bawled him out over his undercover work. Josiah idly toyed with the envelope in his jacket pocket, while considering the words he would use when he announced his decision.
Talk somehow turned to the previous case and how the injuries were sustained by Vin, Buck, and Ezra, flooding both men's already burdened minds with the memories it evoked.
>> "Nathan! ETA!"
"I'm about three minutes behind you, Chris. Stay calm!"
As the surveillance van screeched around another bend, Josiah clung to the grab handle above his door while a hand on the dash steadied him. In the back, JD wasn't so lucky and was tossed out of his rolling chair to hit the van floor with a thump.
"Oww! Shoot, Bossman, I don't bounce well."
"Just keep relaying, JD," Chris ordered, "and hold on, there's another bend coming up."
JD just had time to right his chair and hold onto the worktable before the van was again turning on two wheels. He refocused on his monitoring equipment. "Take a right after the next intersection; they're heading southbound for Highway 85 - out of the city."
Hearing JD's instruction, Chris gave up on a silent pursuit and hit the lights and sirens. Josiah watched cars ahead of them scatter, but his attention was drawn to Chris's frustrated voice.
"Vin, for Christ's sake! Where the hell are you going?"
A mile or so on, JD cried out. "SHIT!"
Chris's knuckles went white as his grip tightened on the wheel. Josiah turned toward JD. "What is it?"
"The tracker's showing the truck's at a standstill."
"Last known location," Josiah demanded but received no answer. "JD!"
The young tech's voice sounded uncertain as he croakily replied. "Middle of nowhere."
As if to endorse JD's comment, the city streets dissolved to make way for more open highway. <<
Josiah's faze-out ended when Buck's voice penetrated his thoughts.
"I still can't believe we lived to tell the tale."
Vin nodded. Ezra idly rubbed at his still cast leg.
>> "I can't shake this tail," Vin cursed.
"I think we can safely say that our efforts to go undetected have failed," Ezra stated while firing another carefully aimed shot from out of the rear passenger window. "Any luck with the radio, Buck?"
"Nope, just white noise." He pulled out his cell. "Gonna call 'em."
"Let's hope a bullet didn't get the tracking device, too," Vin put in. "Or me headin' out of the city's gonna be a real surprise to Chris."
"Where *are* we going?" Buck asked, but didn't look up from his phone.
"If I can go a bit further there're some bike trails off the highway I can lose 'em . . . "
Ezra's call came too late. The vehicle trailing them suddenly surged to pass. In the split-second that it matched their speed, an onslaught of bullets punched through the truck's metal body. Buck howled out and grabbed at his shoulder, and Ezra dived down to hit the cushioned seat hard. Vin floored it, but his reaction to a blistering, white hot pain in his own shoulder caused him to momentarily let go of the wheel. The truck veered right, and off the road. It hit an embedded rock, and flipped over to bounce down the small incline. <<
A shudder coursed through JD's body like a shockwave as he sat there listening. A little embarrassed, he stretched gingerly and stood.
"Uh, 'scuse me."
The youth strolled over to the corral where the much-loved Bay that Chris let him ride when he came over, was patiently waiting for him. On the way, Buck's retelling of the horrific events in which three of his teammates were injured played over in JD's mind - the moment the surveillance van pulled up to where the tracker's signal remained steady at the point on the road where tire marks veered off to the side.
>> He could almost smell the gas and burning rubber that greeted them when the three men tore recklessly down the embankment and toward the pockmarked truck lying on its compacted roof. JD could see Buck and Vin upside-down, unconscious, and still strapped into their seats. But he couldn't see Ezra.
Chris had hollered something to Josiah, and as the profiler hurried toward the team leader, Chris told JD to call Nathan's cell phone. Conflicting thoughts made JD dizzy - his desperate need to get the guys out of there - frantically wanting help to arrive - terrified neither man had survived - fearful that was why Chris involved Josiah, but made him call Nathan; for what he might find if he helped.
A ringing phone alerted him to the fact that Nathan was almost at the bottom of the slope. Then familiar voices groaned in pain, and JD's giddy world slowed. Urged by Nathan's holler the boy was instantly next to Buck. Chris was talking to Vin, who was slurring his answers. Nathan and Josiah were with Ezra. The southerner was awake, but his ashen features were pinched. It was clear he was in terrible pain, and JD figured it wasn't just down to the fact that Josiah seemed to be trying to keep one of Ezra's legs immobile.
Buck's gruff, whispered tone brought JD to his knees next to the man, who attempted a smile.
"We're all still here - got it?" <<
JD snapped out of his daydream and his focus went back to the waiting Bay. "Yeah, Buck - I got it."
Josiah watched JD leave and then glanced around at the concerned group. He got up from his seat, and he made a decision before following after JD. Buck was about to tag along with JD when he noticed Josiah stand and follow the youth. When the pair was well out of earshot, Nathan spoke.
"Is anyone thinking the same as me about Josiah?"
"Care to elaborate?" Ezra asked, although he was pretty sure he knew what was coming.
"I guess you're talkin' about the envelope in his jacket pocket that Josiah keeps pokin' at," Vin offered.
All eyes turned to Chris, who was currently watching his two agents as they stood at the corral.
"I won't be accepting any resignations, if that's what's worrying you."
"I'm more concerned about how you plan on handling it," Buck said with a wry smile.
Chris raised one eyebrow. "Contrary to popular belief, I can be tactful when needed."
There was a short pause, followed by laughter. Chris made a face, swigged at his beer, and resumed watching JD and Josiah.
"Hey there, buddy." JD stroked Milagro's nose and scratched the horse's ears. The Bay whickered with contentment and nuzzled the boy's shoulder. "Ooh, easy there, fella, still a bit sore."
The team's tech turned his head and smiled as Josiah approached. "Hi."
JD rested his head against Milagro's neck. "Sure."
"John Dunne, look at me."
JD did as asked and suddenly, he was babbling. "Josiah, I can't tell you enough how sorry I am about blowing our cover and you getting shot."
Josiah raised a hand. It wasn't the first time JD had mentioned about him getting shot, but what was this now?
"Blowing our cover? Why would you think that?"
The easterner looked genuinely surprised. "I was overly familiar with you, way too soon into the op - and then I went after you when you were abducted. Spike told me later that he'd figured something was up."
Josiah shook his head. "If you hadn't done such a great job in keeping tabs on me, I wouldn't be here now. I was the experienced agent, and I fear I not only acted erroneously, but showed weakness when confronted by Etheridge." He rubbed at his forehead. "I've been thinking that, well, maybe I'm getting a little long in the tooth, and as such, have lost the edge for our line of work. I'm just sorry that you too suffered the consequences. I did intend to put things right, tonight."
Milagro startled when JD turned sharply to fully face Josiah. "You, you sound like you're quitting."
Josiah nodded. "It more than crossed my mind."
"NO!" JD walked right up to the man. "Josiah, you can't. You're not even close to old, and certainly not enough to retire. 'Sides, we need you, and that BS about being weak." He reached out to grip the man's arm and didn't even care that his eyes were welling up.
"You're one of the bravest, smartest, strongest men I know. No way have you lost your edge, how can you even think that? That edge is why Chris considers you as someone to watch his back, not to mention how he looks to you for so much more - shoot, we all do."
Josiah's blue eyes filled.
"So many times you've given me the confidence to keep going when I've been overwhelmed by the events we get involved with, Josiah. There's not one of us who hasn't turned to you at some time or another, and you never turn anyone away, no matter how affected you've been, or how tired you are." JD moved in closer.
"Chris says he chose each of us for what he knew we could bring to the team. He saw something in us that others never could." JD choked back the lump in his throat.
"We need you. Don't quit and make us go out there without you, Josiah." JD's cheek dimpled. "'Sides, 'The Magnificent Six' sounds stupid."
Josiah's emotions overflowed into a mix of tears and laughter. Wrapping a large hand around the back of JD's neck, he pulled him in close. "I can certainly see why Chris chose you, son."
The big man stepped back to look at the youth. "You're a hard man to say no to, JD." Josiah winked. "However I've figured out this evening that Chris might be a whole lot tougher, not to mention that I've always known that everything we go through together simply makes us all stronger, better, and closer."
JD grinned. "S-o-o-o, you're staying, right?"
Josiah's eyes twinkled. "Are you trying to do *my* job now, JD?"
The youth shook his head. "No sir, there's only one Padre on Team Seven."
With one of Josiah's big, toothy grins in place, he wrapped an arm around JD's shoulders and they walked back to the deck, where the others were seated.
Much to everyone's surprise, Chris stood the moment Josiah and JD approached. "Everything okay, you two?"
Nodding, JD took up his seat next to Buck and chuckled when his roommate snaked an arm around him and squeezed, gently. Still standing, Josiah took out the envelope from his jacket pocket and handed it to Chris.
"I imagine you know what this is."
Collectively, eyes widened in amusement when in contrast to his earlier promise, Chris snatched up the correspondence, tore it into little pieces and tossed it into the air. He spoke as paper fluttered onto, and past him.
"And now I imagine you know I don't accept resignations."
Vin glanced around the group, and then looked up at Chris. His cheek dimpled in a grin. "Smooth, Cowboy. Real tactful."
Josiah's deep, rumbling guffaw shattered the ensuing silence. His weeks of tormented pondering swept aside while he laughed until he cried. JD's chuckling clued the others in, and soon they were all laughing.
"I was about to say," Josiah continued once he was back in control, "that I wouldn't be using it."
Chris's glare slowly dissolved into an amused gaze. "I knew that."
No one noticed the slight chill in the evening air as the tone mellowed with the combination of relief, camaraderie, and alcohol. A promise was made that, on their return to work, any aspects of the case Josiah and JD wanted to explore and discuss would be arranged.
They decided that the overall assignment turned out to be both disappointing, due to Etheridge's deal; and a success, knowing that the bootlegger they were originally after, would be off the streets. A bitter taste lingered due to Spike's death, and that more injuries to the team were sustained, so in an attempt to move on they raised a glass to a young man who never got to reach his potential, and to seven men, still intact, and closer than ever.
In addition, six silent prayers were said in gratitude that a wise, kind, powerful man, who was their teammate, their friend, and their brother, fully comprehended his value and place with them.
Before retiring to bed, Buck characterized Josiah perfectly when he commented that 'just because there's snow on the roof, doesn't mean there's no fire in the furnace'. His turn of phrase prompted them to raise another glass in agreement before seven tired, but happy friends hit the hay.
In a meager room located inside Saint John's Seminary, Massachusetts, a happy, young student priest set down his cane and sat at a small desk. Taking a writing pad and pen from the desk drawer, he began to pen letters to two men in order to thank them for setting him on the right path. One to Monsignor O'Brien, who'd arranged for his enrollment in a seminary program. It would be a long, eight years without a degree, but this way forward was decided by all, including himself, to be the best route.
The other letter was to the US Marshall whose involvement ensured his past was erased, and his future secured. Though he understood that his location was never to be revealed, he was assured that, once Etheridge's case was over, and the man was relocated to Hawaii, the former and officially deceased Simon 'Spike' Halls, now known as student priest Samuel Francis, could then write to a man he would never forget - Josiah Sanchez.
Back in Denver and at Chris's home, Josiah lay in his bed listening to Nathan's steady breathing from across their shared room. He slowly drifted off to sleep with a smile on his face; his fears eradicated, and his heart bursting with love for six brothers who made him, both professionally, and personally, to feel young at heart, but more importantly - wanted.