Texas Hold 'Em
Disclaimer: I do not own in part or full any aspect of the Magnificent Seven franchise. The characters are the property of MGM, Trilogy Entertainment, The Mirisch Group, its relevant partners and subsidiaries. I do own all original aspects of this fanfiction including but not limited to original characters and plot. This fanfiction has been published at no profit, purely for the enjoyment of the fans and the collective good of the franchise.
Rating: R for language and violence
Characters: All seven
Synopsis: Team 7 is assigned to a case in Texas where everything goes to hell in a hand basket. With two members of the team under cover with homegrown terrorists and no reliable tech or backup, the guys must work together to get out alive and stop the threat.
Author's Note: I don't want to put any spoilers for the story here, but the ending should be considered a tiny step outside the original ATF AU and isn't meant to change or influence fanon in any way. It's just for fun.
Special Note: Mitzi wrote this story for me. I bid for her Hurricane Katrina relief story and won the chance to have her write a story for me. I'm a big fan of her other stories, and especially love the way she uses all seven guys. Her writing makes me feel like I'm standing in the middle of the action as it happens, and that's due to her extraordinary attention to detail. I'm not just entertained by her stories, I learn things from reading them.
When I first started corresponding with Mitzi about the auction story, I told her about this idea I had rolling around in my head. She gently reminded me that she had actually offered an OW tale for the auction, and that she had never written a full-length ATF story. I challenged her to try out the ATF universe, and she bravely forged ahead. I think the result is awesome. She took a fragmented idea which never would have seen the light of day if left to my own devices, and turned it into a truly wonderful story.
I could not be more pleased with her efforts, and I know that you will enjoy reading it as much as I did.
I would also like to issue a challenge regarding the story. There are lots of angsty moments and H/C situations which we decided not to expand on too much. However, we both thought that the H/C and angst specialists in this fandom would have a field day writing missing scenes for the 'off camera' moments in this story. So, if the spirit so moves you, feel free to apply your own creativity and see where it takes you! Everyone goes through the wringer in this one -- some physically, some emotionally. Whoever your favorite character is, you'll find something to grab on to, and if you want more, go ahead and add it.
Happy reading (and hopefully, writing!),
Chris Larabee glared viciously at the angry red "check engine" light on the dash of his black Dodge Ram. It glared back. He had to admit it; the truck was on its last legs.
The government usually had to surplus their vehicles after 75,000 miles. Chris had finagled enough to keep the Ram by cataloguing it as a special use vehicle. Almost all of Team 7's fleet came from a co-op case with the DEA. How long ago? Had it been four years? All of the vehicles were aging. But they were all good surveillance vehicles that blended in well with traffic. The low bid cars the government purchased en masse were obviously G-cars. The only way to get a classy ride was to seize it from a targeted violator and put it into government service. It was getting harder and harder to seize good vehicles. The truth was that the bad guys had caught on quickly to the seizure laws that allowed agents to put vehicles into service once they'd been used to facilitate a federal crime. If they had good rides, they still picked up lemons to do their deals in. Then, the only way to seize the others was to prove they were purchased with drug or other illegal proceeds, a much tougher element to prove.
If Chris didn't come up with something soon, he and his men would all be driving Chevrolet Caprices or Malibus. And yet, here they were, wasting the last few miles the cars had in them outside of Waco, Texas in the heat. He wasn't about to turn off the a/c.
But would the suits let them fly into Austin instead of drive and rent cars for the 90 minute drive north? Of course not. And why? For the same damn reason. Because the vehicles blended in traffic. Rental cars would stand out in this area and the local ATF didn't have any spare cars. So now Chris's check engine light was on in the 87 degree Texas heat -- 87 degrees in October for God's sake. And Tanner had stretched out on a picnic table sunnin' like a reptile. "Hell, Cowboy, this is a cold front," he'd drawled as he took up the eye for their surveillance.
"Looks like they're gettin' ready to move again." That same drawl came across the radio and drew Larabee away from the mundane supervisory thoughts and back into the action. "Yep," the Texan continued. "I got tail lights." The new Jeep Commander was backing out of the park. Tanner was already sauntering back to his car to be ready to follow.
Josiah Sanchez watched as Nathan Jackson eased into traffic with perfect timing that put him two vehicles behind the target Commander. Josiah was doing their air surveillance. The still, hot air and constant circling of the small Piper Cub aircraft left most of the guys ready to puke. It never affected the Viet Nam vet that way, so he usually got tagged with the observer assignment. He didn't mind. He didn't use the new fangled gyro binoculars either except to show off and get a license plate from altitude. The binocs limited visibility. And now, even though he was assigned to the secondary target car, both vehicles were converging and he could keep an eye on JD Dunne, undercover in the secondary target, a Beemer, and Ezra Standish, in the Commander.
Josiah thought back to the beginning of this case. It started out with one of those walk-in snitches who come in with a story so paranoid and so bizarre and, well, just so out there, that for all the world your first impression is that she is bi-polar, to be generous, and unmedicated at the best.
Her name was Billie Jo Trainer and she was a small time girl from Harker Heights, Texas. Well, Harker Heights is small, but it's only a stone's throw from Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood, one of the biggest military bases in the country. How she got to Denver and the ATF offices there was anyone's guess.
At first, the story sounded like it had come from the lonely little voices in Billie Jo's head. Terrorists were going to attack a Baylor Bears football game.
Right there Josiah heard the theme song to Twilight Zone going off in his head like the warning claxons of the starship Enterprise. Was mixing old TV references as bad as mixing metaphors? Well, Josiah Sanchez was only talking to the other voices in his head, at the moment and he decided he liked the analogy.
But no, it got better. This wasn't an Al Qaeda attack. It was neo-Nazis and skinheads trying to instigate a race war by killing small town Texans and blaming it on Islam. No particular group, just Islam. Billie Jo's story was lacking in detail.
Vin Tanner, about eight cars back in traffic, had let his mind wander to how the case started as well. Vin hated to admit that the lack of educated reasoning as to who to blame for the attack was where he had heard a sliver of reality slip into the story for him. "Who" wasn't as important as "where."
Set off a bomb in Waco, Texas, the buckle of the Bible belt? Leave credible evidence Osama was behind it?
"One Riot, One Ranger" and "Remember the Alamo" rang in his inner ears. Texas would take care of business itself. If the government or FEMA wanted to reimburse them for the bullets later? Good deal.
No, it wasn't really like that, but even the Texans who knew better pretty much enjoyed the image. And that minority on the lunatic fringe who truly believed the myth or wanted to believe? They could come up with a plan like this.
"Damn," Nathan said over the radio. It drew Vin's attention back to the otherwise routine moving surveillance. They were on the car-to-car, non-repeater channel 3. The good thing was that it was virtually impossible for the bad guys to use a scanner and pick up their transmissions.
The down side of car-to-car was the limited range where they could hear each other.
Another upside was that the dispatcher couldn't hear what was being said and neither could the FAA. That left ATF Team 7 free to express themselves during the exasperating surveillance.
"Damn," the usually unflappable Jackson repeated. "He just cut three lanes of traffic to get to the left turn lane."
"Heat run," Buck observed needlessly. "I'm two cars behind you. I can slide over and make the turn with him."
"I'll come around," Nathan agreed. "He's got a red ball." Red light. "We got some time to set up."
"Vin and I are one intersection back in case he makes a U-ie instead of the left," Chris stated.
"Got it," Buck replied. "Okay, he's got a green. He's making the left."
"You're on your own 'til we catch up," Chris supplied as traffic suddenly seemed to back up.
"I got the eyeball," Buck confirmed with experienced calm as he made the left turn one car between him and the target. "Okay, looks like he's slowing for another left turn on the next side street. I'll get a name in a minute . . ."
"It's a dead end. Don't follow." Josiah's voice surprised them. "Let your eye in the sky take over."
"You've got it," Chris directed.
"What are you doing here?" Buck barked. "Where's JD?"
They expected the question from Buck and Chris was glad he came through. It kept him from snapping the question.
"I was just coming on this channel to tell you. JD's car is two blocks over on the Baylor campus near the football stadium. My guess is they are waiting to meet up with Ezra's car. The local team has the perimeter. But if - when -- they meet up, we take the eye."
"Good job, Preacher." Chris was thankful once again that all of his men were so good at the job. "I've got the eastbound exit covered," he added as he pulled into a convenience store parking lot.
"I got the west," Vin drawled.
"I'll take north." South was unnecessary since Josiah had already reported that was a dead end. It went without saying that Buck would stay back as his was the last vehicle that might have been observed by the target car.
Buck pulled smoothly into a Pep Boys parking lot -- easy to get into and out of when they started moving again. He couldn't help a smile. He could hear it in Chris's voice even if no one else could. Ol' Ezra was in a world of shit. You never, never tripped with the bad guys. Yet early this afternoon the southerner had willingly hopped in the car with them and taken off. That left the rest of the team to follow them all day, and juggle not to get burned or lose them. Hopefully Ezra could get these negotiations over soon. That might help justify his actions to their Group Supervisor. Buck wanted it to be over soon. He had a bad feeling about this group.
Buck had started believing the story when that sweet little filly Billie Jo said she was snitching off her boyfriend, Trey Winters, because he was neglecting her.
Buck recognized the type and she scared him. Small, southern town Daddy's girl. Cheerleader? Well, Duh. Student council? No way. She would have perfected the dumb blonde act to an art form even if she had a genius IQ. And despite the west Texas drawl, she probably wasn't far off. No, the simple fact was that she wasn't getting her way and it pissed her off. Her Trey Winters wasn't giving her enough attention. Someone was going to pay.
Anyway, supposedly, good ol' boy Trey and the leader of his pack, Anson Jones (no relation to the original Anson Jones, she insisted) wanted to buy -- get this -- 'some of that stuff from over at what used to be Russia. You know? That stuff the Russian mafia sneaks out 'cause everyone's so poor? You know? That dirty bomb stuff?'
Buck remembered sharing a look with Standish at this point in the interview. He could read the southerner's mind, 'and I thought CNN headline news sound bytes were obscure.'
Billie Jo went on to say that Trey's daddy had oil money (of course, why else would Miss Billie Jo waste her time on him?) and Anson's daddy had meth money. They could get about $500,000.00 together. "Is that enough money to buy the ingredients for a dirty bomb?" Billie Jo had asked coyly.
"Well, I don't know little missy. But if you've already got the eggs, flour and baking powder, that's getting close to being able to buy the cocoa," Buck had answered.
Buck didn't know if Billie Jo Trainer knew enough about cooking to get the correlation, but she smiled real big so something must have clicked. Either that or her spoiled brat instincts kicked in and told her it was time to throw out an "ever-so-charmin'" smile.
The bottom line was that there had been too much coincidence in the time line she laid out to completely write her off as someone who lined the inside of her Easter bonnet with aluminum foil to keep the alien's voices out of her brain.
Team 7 had tried to turn the case over to the FBI. Not that they wanted to, but: a) they were in Colorado and the case was in Texas; b) the FBI would eat their young to get all the good press of busting up a domestic terrorist threat; and, c) ever since the Davidian compound, you pretty much didn't say ATF and FBI in the same sentence in the Waco area. So the truth was, as much as they wheedled and connived and argued, Team 7 was ordered to turn the case over to the Bureau's local office.
So the FBI was called in and two agents came down to escort Ms. Trainer up to their floor.
Billie Jo had listened carefully as she was told she should work with the FBI and why. But she was looking at the two men in the Sears suits and Payless shoes -- maybe Foley's if she were being generous. One was a little pudgy and probably close to retirement. Even the younger one had gray at the temples of his marine hair cut. Billie Jo wasn't going to give away any of her smarts, but she knew that the young FBI agents had to spend the first years of their career on surveillance teams or some such menial detail. Then she looked around the room. Agents Wilmington and Tanner had on those tight faded jeans. Agent Tanner was even wearing a shirt with pearl button snaps. If any of her friends had been around, they would have drooled together, thoroughly enjoying the view. And Agent Standish? Hell, the suit he was wearing was so fine she didn't even know where it came from. Double Hell, even their boss was wearing those boot cut Wranglers that were so tight that you couldn't pinch his butt.
She had looked back at the suits by the door, tuned up and threw a wall-eyed fit the likes of which no one North of the Red River had ever seen.
She trusted the men she had been talking with for the last two days, she claimed. She didn't trust the FBI -- she was from Waco, after all -- whatever that meant, but she tossed it in because it sounded good. Agent Standish was perfect to sell that "Russian stuff." JD (she couldn't call him Agent Dunne. She didn't feel like she had to since they were close to the same age) was as cute as a bug and would fit right in with Trey and Anson. She stomped a dainty little foot and it by golly didn't move until Colorado ATF team 7 was on its way to a temporary assignment in Harker Heights, Texas. There was, of course, the bureaucracy, the sibling-like rivalry between agencies and the inter-agency feuds. But Larabee suspected the deciding factor as to who would finally handle the case had a lot to do with the fact that Evie Travis, the judge's wife, was a Baylor alum and would be there for the festivities leading up to the homecoming game that was allegedly targeted for the bomb. Travis himself was to meet her to attend the game on Saturday. Judge Travis would want Larabee and his men working the case with so much at stake.
And so it was that Billie had returned to Harker Heights and introduced Ezra easily enough as an entrepreneur who might have access to some of the plutonium smuggled out of the former USSR. It reconfirmed Buck's opinion of the young lady when her friends never questioned that she might be intelligent enough or run in the right circles to meet someone like that.
Now Billie Jo was holed up in a hotel room in Austin waiting to find out if she needed witness protection or would be charged with making a false report. Ezra was in a Jeep Commander with Anson Jones negotiating to sell plutonium for one million dollars. And JD Dunne had weaseled himself into the little clique of Anson Jones, Trey Winters and about twelve others, to the point that they were beginning to trust him with their terrorist plans.
All JD had done was wander into the local titty bar and "accidentally" bump into Trey, Anson and their gang. He had fit right in, drinking hard, driving fast and resenting any sort of authority figure.
Vin had watched JD closely, but didn't say anything. Josiah, too, was seeing something in JD's personality, but kept his own counsel. Nathan and Buck were angry at Anson Jones that he was so willing to corrupt the new kid in town. Ezra had muttered something about the young agent being good in this role because he was playing so close to type. Chris had wordlessly acknowledged Ezra's insightfulness. Chris was worried because the role JD was playing now highlighted a side of Dunne's personality that the others refused to see. It was the angry young man, too smart for his own good, who hid, even from himself, the fact that he felt he'd been cheated -- cheated by a mother's early death, cheated of normal school years by events beyond his control and judgmental, holier-than-thou people who didn't even really know him. He was on the right track with his life now, but the things he was seeing in this job kept a flicker of that anger alive. Chris saw it because it was exactly like the Buck Wilmington he had met nearly 15 years earlier. It was exactly how Chris had been after his family was murdered. Yes, that anger could go either way.
Ezra Standish was sitting in the back seat of the powerful SUV. He wished again he could have come up with a way to get the front passenger seat, but the subtle protocol and body language of an illegal conspiracy just didn't allow for the middle man in the negotiations to take that position. He was the new gun in town. So Anson Jones was driving and a new man in the mix, Pierce West, was riding shotgun.
But Pierce West wasn't really new. He was very well known in the federal counter terrorist community. And he was why Ezra had broken the cardinal rule of not tripping with the bad guys and was willing to risk Larabee's wrath by doing so.
Pierce West was a player. He had an agenda. He believed that the U.S. borders were too open and Americans loved their freedoms and civil liberties too much for them to ever stop terrorism. He had made it his lot in life to use small, high profile acts of terrorism to prove his point. He thought the attacks would be a reminder to everyone to always be vigilant. The bullet proof idealism of the 50's should be gone forever.
The problem was that for all his theatrics, they could never prove West had taken an innocent life. It made him something of a modern day Robin Hood to Libertarians and anarchists and some fine people that were just so scared shitless that they were looking for answers anywhere they could.
Oh, law enforcement believed -- knew to a certainty -- that West had killed: informants, people he considered dangerous to his agenda and people who he thought had or would betray him. He was suspected of killing police officers and security guards while stealing fertilizer and other precursors for his bombs. But none of it could be proved and so he boasted he never killed "non-combatants" and let them imagine that he had only killed terrorists. And nothing anyone could prove changed that. And so it was that Standish thought to wrangle his way into the man's organization and get that evidence.
But there was more. Pierce West had never openly killed anyone he considered innocent. Bombing a crowded college football homecoming game was a troubling change in strategy. Standish not only wanted to stop the threat, he wanted to know what brought about the change.
This was one of those times when being undercover was a lonely role. It had taken him a long time to trust the men he worked with and know with certainty they were behind him. That was a lot of the reason that, if not being able to get in the front seat, Ezra wished at least his new colleague didn't feel it necessary to be the good host. He was practically turned around in the front seat to meet Ezra's -- or rather, Ethan Strayhorn's -- eyes as they spoke. Ezra wasn't surprised. West periodically glanced out the back window. He was watching for surveillance that he could identify as law enforcement. Ezra was again thankful that they had taken the time to scrounge Texas license plates and stick them on their cars. West was too cautious, too paranoid. He would have snapped to something going on if he'd seen four or five Colorado plates on cars following him around all in the same day.
West had boasted that he set up his operation in a small town because everyone knew everyone. He knew all of the sheriff's deputies and local cops by sight. Anyone new in the area would stand out. The idea was well thought through, Ezra mused, but the boys were the best at leap frogging the cars often enough that no one car was spotted staying with them too long as a tail. So far, so good.
". . . Our young men today? They're being corrupted in the class room." West was orating again. The pompous bigot loved to hear himself talk. Ezra was getting tired of it. It interfered with the negotiations.
"Politically correct? I call it revisionist history," the man continued. "A man should have the right to say anything he damn well pleases or is big enough to say."
"Possibly, to an extent I agree with you." Ezra tried to be accommodating. "But the opinions should be offered in the light of day for all the world to hear and evaluate. And if someone bigger than you disagrees, and if a melee should ensue, that should be one on one as well. I do not believe that hidin' behind pointed, sheeted masks and under cover of darkness, shows many redeemin' virtues."
"Ain't you got no pride in your heritage, man?" Anson demanded.
"I am very proud to be a son of the South, sir, and I claim her history, good and bad; her successes and her mistakes. But, sir, those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them."
"What makes me think what you consider those mistakes to be are not what I would classify as mistakes?"
"A keen insight?"
"And yet you are poised to sell me the instrument to kill thousands, start another Civil War, and promote my platform. Why, if not patriotism?"
'Easy, Ezra,' Josiah thought to himself.
Ezra wasn't exactly channeling Josiah's thoughts, for, as good as he was, he couldn't avoid barking a laugh at this dysfunctional definition of patriotism.
"Do I amuse you?" West's voice was threatening.
"Most certainly," Ezra responded. If he had read this man right, agreeing with his agenda too fast, or too completely, too readily, would only make him suspicious.
"I suggest you answer the question with a little more detail. And it better be a good answer. Why are you willing to sell me the product?"
'To throw you in jail, you Zealot,' Ezra thought to himself. 'To find out why you're suddenly willing to kill innocent people. To put you somewhere that you can't accidentally stumble onto the makings of a dirty bomb.' Aloud, his answer was different. "For the money."
"That's what you believe in? Money?"
"Believe in? Mr. West, after hurricane Katrina, I heard a group of radical Islamic clerics take credit for that disaster. They said they prayed to Allah to attack America. I also heard a Southern Baptist preacher take credit, because he had prayed to God to destroy my beloved New Orleans because it was a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah."
"Do you have a point?"
"If clerics and preachers are praying for the same thing, and that thing is not peace, but destruction and death, I no longer care whose agenda is right or wrong. Your bomb -- someone else's bomb? It's inevitable. It will be you or someone else. All I want is enough money to not be where it happens."
"You got no right to talk to Mr. West like that," Anson blurted. "He's gonna unite America."
"And then what? Against what?"
"Damn it, Ezra, back down," Chris Larabee growled to himself as broken parts of the conversation came over the scanner in his truck.
"No, Anson, a man motivated by greed is the easiest to predict. The easiest to trust. In his own way, Mr. Strayhorn knows that. And he is an honorable man. He doesn't like us, but knows business partners don't have to like each other."
"He's still got no right to disrespect what we believe."
"You, sir," Ezra turned to West, "are a true Pied Piper for the angry, militant youth of today. But if we can conclude our business, I'd like to bid you adieu as quickly as possible."
"Of course. Your timing is impeccable. I hate ending our little debate, but here we are."
Ezra had not missed the fact that they had arrived on the Baylor campus. "I do not need to see the scene of the crime, as it were," Ezra drawled, but let himself be led toward the football stadium.
"Indulge me. I appreciate irony -- negotiating in the exact site where the detonation will take place."
"And you appreciate that no one can get close to us and eavesdrop in the middle of a football field."
"That, too," West admitted. "But also, there is another young man who will have to help us gather the money."
Ezra saw JD sauntering toward them with Trey and yet another new player. Their young ATF agent was dwarfed by the two men he accompanied. But they were young. Trey was the only member of this alliance Ezra had met whose clothing didn't hint that they lived below the poverty level. Yet all of their eyes had shown a sharp intelligence along with a streetwise savvy. They were the sort likely to fall victim to the cult mentality of a Pierce West. They knew there was more, they knew their lives could be better but were tired of fighting their way out of poverty. West said he would lead them, think for them, make decisions for them and give them a better life. He kept their bodies busy with military drills and their allegiance for his cause in their hearts. Hopefully most of them could be deprogrammed once Team 7 had put West somewhere where he could no longer influence them.
Ezra was so busy studying the young men approaching him and observing how well JD fit in, that he didn't realize Anson had been brooding since West had told him to mind his own business.
Chris Larabee was picking up only a few words at a time. Scanners were notoriously full of static that made it impossible to understand all that was going on. "What about the Kel? What's going on down there?" he called up to Josiah. At his higher altitude, the Viet Nam vet would be able to pick up more of the conversation. Chris cursed himself for not bringing their own equipment. It had never occurred to him that the small resident office wouldn't have the state of the art technology that the division offices kept for themselves. The antiquated Kel-kit they were using to listen to the conversation in the Commander was next to useless.
Ezra had resented having to use the thing. While some transceivers nowadays were the size of a quarter, the Kel was bigger than a cigarette pack. It got hot on the bare skin and could be picked up with even semi-sophisticated counter-surveillance equipment.
In the end they had forced Ezra to buy a western shirt, jeans and boots -- but hey, they were in Texas, so at least it wasn't hard to find them. They had slid the transceiver inside one boot. Then they strung the none too dainty antenna wire up his leg, hip, waist and taped it to his back. And the damn thing still didn't work for shit most of the time.
Josiah's answer pulled the Group Supervisor back from his ponderings.
"I can hear him, boss, and it's probably for the best that you're not getting much of it."
"Well, the reason that this new player, West, and the others don't suspect he's U/C is because no one that didn't think he was holding all the cards would be intimidating the other side like our southerner is."
"Damn," Chris muttered.
"Oh, hell," Josiah shouted. The tone was so out of character that all the others knew immediately that something was horribly wrong.
"Oh, Mr. Standish!"
Ezra heard the voice, recognized the voice, and then wondered what he had done to deserve this karmic coincidence.
Even before he could deny the name or plead mistaken identity, Evie Travis and two friends were bustling his way.
Perhaps this was synchronistic payback for the fact that he had gone out of his way to charm the wife to stay in the Judge's good graces when, on some level, he knew the guileless woman needed no con to take him under her wing. The thought scudded through his mind even as Evie continued, "it's good to see you looking so well. The judge will be so pleased . . ."
"Judge?" West demanded defiantly. It was the only word he heard and he was already leaping to conclusions -- all dangerous for the man in front of him. "You got a judge watchin' you?"
"I assure you . . ." Ezra began.
"It'll take more than words." With that, West grabbed the U/C's forearm, jammed an elbow into his belly and jerked him back toward their ride. Anson immediately grabbed Ezra's other arm and they were hustling him to the car.
JD, Trey and that third man, Boo, had been strolling across the quad to meet their co-conspirators. Even at a distance JD could see something was wrong as the older agent was roughly escorted into the back seat of the Commander. Instead of going around to a passenger side door, Anson forced his way in after the smaller man.
Evie Travis was the wife of a retired federal judge, a judge who, in his early career, had been a police officer and then a federal agent himself. She had heard enough about undercover operations, about an agent getting "burned" -- outed to the bad guys. On an intelligent level she knew the inherent dangers of the job. She had even heard them say, in passing, never approach an undercover operative until you are sure they aren't working. But they had been passing statements or what the agents called "war stories." It wasn't an everyday part of her life and as her face crumpled into despair, she slowly realized her casual greeting had endangered this young man she had gotten to know and was fond of.
Any glimmer of hope that she hadn't just compromised an agent evaporated when she recognized one of the three young men headed toward the Jeep.
It wasn't just the tight jeans and cigarette pack rolled in his T-shirt sleeve like a throw-back to James Dean. It wasn't that his hair was so short and yet you could tell it was dirty. There was an aura of anger and defiance that went beyond the clothes of a juvenile delinquent that didn't belong on this campus -- only an undercover operation would transform JD Dunne into the young man before her.
"Crimson Tide!" West shouted over the hood of his vehicle to Trey and Boo before he ducked inside and sped off.
Trey immediately slapped JD on the shoulder protectively and started trotting back to the BMW.
JD hesitated. Somehow they had made Ezra. That was obvious. But the Jeep was already moving so JD couldn't get him out. His best bet was to stay with Trey and find out what had happened and what he could do to save his friend.
"John! Haul ass!" Trey hollered with a protective tone that convinced JD that, for now at least, his cover was cool. Risking that it might only be temporary, he still ran and jumped in the car. Boo melted into the student population to watch what would happen next.
Buck Wilmington wasn't getting any feedback from his scanner that could give him a clue as to what was going on. But when, from his vantage point on the south end of the university campus, he saw JD and Target #2 race back to their car and make a panicked getaway, he knew something had gone wrong.
"Chris?" Buck called, hoping for some feedback to tell him what action to take.
"Josiah?" Chris's response was to sing out to the man most likely to be getting any news.
"Crimson Tide?" JD let his worry and concern into his voice.
"Means that Strayhorn guy's a snitch. We've been set up."
"He's a cop?" The panic was real in JD's voice, now.
"Naw," Trey replied as he wheeled into traffic, prepared to act as a decoy if a cop tried to stop West. "The code for 'cop' is Blue Tide. If he's just a snitch we can find out who he's working for, what he knows, what he's told them, get rid of him and salvage something."
Under the pretense of fidgeting and looking back out the rear window, JD fingered the Sig Sauer .40 tucked in the small of his back. He was ready to do whatever needed to be done, but he couldn't help wondering where the rest of the team was.
"Snitch . . . damn puke . . . kill . . ." Whatever Anson Jones was saying was coming over broken and garbled.
"Is anyone getting any of this shit?" Larabee demanded as he jumped the curb and drove across the campus grounds toward the vehicle that had just kidnapped one of his men. "Josiah!" It was an order to talk to him.
"They think he's a snitch . . ." Josiah responded. He fought to keep his voice calm, willing it to carry over to the others. It was suddenly a helpless feeling, being in the plane and not on the ground to help. But he kept his eye on the retreating Commander.
"Break," Buck called to give himself priority on the radio. "Where the hell are they?"
"South on IH 35. Cancel. They just turned east on the loop . . . looks like they're taking the turnaround to get north on 35."
"Hell, they're going in circles," Nathan protested as he played catch up. He was driving Josiah's old Suburban and it just didn't have the turning radius he needed right now.
"Chris," Josiah's voice was low with emotion. "Sounds like they're thumpin' on him pretty good. They're not giving him a chance to smooth talk 'em." Josiah could hear more of the conversation, less of it garbled from the plane's altitude. "They found the wire. Kel's gone dead," Josiah delivered with cool professionalism. They all knew that wasn't good.
"Gentlemen, this will not be a fugitive traffic stop. This is a hostage rescue." Chris's voice was hard.
The replies came in quick succession.
"Josiah? JD?" Chris demanded for which Buck was thankful.
"His Kel's still loud and clear. He's cool. The BMW is planning to run rabbit if a marked unit picks up the Jeep."
"JD'll take care of himself for now." Chris made the decision.
"They're on the northbound I35 access road just passing the Texas Ranger Museum." Josiah paced the Jeep.
"Nathan, you take the front and handle communication with the PD. Josiah, you've got DPS. I do not want to see a marked unit until this is over."
"Got it." Nathan had known that was coming. Since he was driving Josiah's Suburban, he was the logical one to get the lead position.
"Buck, you get Ezra out of there. Vin -- back seat target. I've got the driver." It was a cold, somber statement. They knew what it meant and knew Chris wouldn't give that assignment to anyone else. Again the acknowledgements were curt and no-nonsense.
"I've got Ezra," Buck verified.
"Back seat," Vin drawled.
"It'll be your call, now Nathan." Chris turned it over.
It wasn't obvious that anything out of the ordinary was going on as the big white Suburban passed the Commander and then pulled back into the right lane immediately in front of the vehicle. Nathan forced himself not to look over and see how Ezra was doing. He didn't want the bad guys any more hinked up than they already were.
The jacked up black Ram sure didn't call any attention to itself as it slid into the traffic directly behind the Commander. It was a vehicle as common as any other in this part of the country. Chris could only see two heads in the car.
"Kel's still dead. JD's cool. Nathan is on the phone to Waco PD. I've got DPS covered -- we're getting close to their Waco office."
"Keep 'em back," Larabee reinforced the priority of no marked units in the area to spook the bad guys.
"We're catchin' the red light," Nathan stated. "Action."
The radio was eerily silent. They had practiced this time and again. Hostage rescues. Nathan came to a stop as the number one car at the stop light. The Commander was behind him, the black Ram directly behind that.
Chris saw that Buck was behind him and Vin was matching his speed as he came up on the inside lane. Vin didn't pass the Ram.
A part of Larabee's mind gave thanks that the road was pretty empty.
The light turned green. Nathan, in the Suburban, rolled -- in reverse. It took practice to back into another car with enough of a jolt to get their attention, but not hard enough to deploy either vehicle's airbags. Setting off the bad guy's bag had definite advantages, but if the impact activated your own, you were screwed.
West was cursing the stupid driver in front of him. And then he saw that driver's head disappear under the seat backs.
Before West could react, he felt an equally sharp jolt from behind. He looked into the rearview mirror to see that the Ram had rear ended him. His first thought was that the fool driving it was watching the light rather than the traffic. "Damn, stupid," Anson began. He pistol whipped the man beside him to vent his anger.
But then another vehicle jumped the curb to flank the Ram at an angle facing the Commander. Another vehicle mirrored that move, blocking traffic from coming up on the inside lane of traffic. The three vehicles looked like a flying "V" formation pointed right at him.
"What have you gotten us into?" Jones screamed as he landed another blow to Ezra's kidneys. "You damn snitch, what have you done?"
"Shut up," West demanded coldly of his stupid toady in the back. And then his instincts went into overdrive. He threw the car into reverse. It pushed the Ram back enough to get space between them to get out from between the cars. But as he moved back, so did the Suburban. The unseen driver still had the vehicle in reverse and had his foot firmly on the accelerator, copying the moves of the Commander and keeping all three vehicles' bumpers locked and giving the middle car no room to lever itself away from the others.
A big man with a mustache was running from the car that had jumped the curb. A skinny guy with longish hair was approaching from the car that blocked the access road.
Buck Wilmington, out of habit, slammed his hand across the back door of the Commander. If it had been a car, he would have slammed down the trunk to make sure it was locked. That would make it harder for anyone in the back to attack.
"Kill him!" West screamed, referring to Standish. "Kill 'em all!" he amended, as he continued to try, unsuccessfully, to jockey his vehicle out from between the two that had it trapped.
With his accelerator floored, and the powerful Commander in reverse, he was able to push the Ram. But the Suburban matched his moves and still the bumpers were locked.
Glancing in the rear view mirror, West wondered where the driver of the Ram had gotten to. And then a black avenger appeared at his car, just in front of the door. West reached for his Glock, lying beside him in the passenger seat. It wouldn't have mattered. West saw that the blond had already placed the muzzle of his Sig Sauer flush to the windshield -- a little higher than where he would usually aim at a man's body, since the glass was going to deflect the bullet down a fraction. There was no "Freeze," or "Don't move, federal agent," no warning at all. The ATF agent pulled the trigger.
The windshield spider webbed. Larabee turned his head, anticipating the blowback which was minimal. Blood erupted from West's chest as the bullet hit its mark. The body spasmed.
Anson heard the explosion, saw the shattered glass speckled with red. Before he could register his boss's inert body or the blood splatter that covered his own clothes and face, or the sharp burn in his thigh, both back door windows shattered into tiny pebbles of greenish glass.
Buck and Vin simultaneously rammed the small pen-like devices into the lower corner of a window and triggered them. The sharp points destroyed the glass.
Ezra was kicking at Anson even as Buck reached inside, unlocked the door, pulled the smaller agent out and practically carried him behind the Ram.
Vin would have shot his target without preamble as Larabee had, but his angle would have endangered Ezra and Buck. He reached in and stuck his thumb between the hammer and firing pin of Jones's .45 revolver even as Jones pulled the trigger. Keeping the gun disabled in this manner, he was still doing a fairly good, adrenalin-induced job of dragging the youth out through the broken window one handed.
Adrenalin was an amazing thing.
Then, suddenly, Chris and Nathan were helping and Anson Jones sailed out of the car as if he had wings. No one seemed to care that the bullet that had hit West had penetrated the seat and put a hole in his leg, or that it was bleeding, or what damage the glass shards might do to his body.
And then he was face down on the hot pavement, a knee in the small of his back and his wrists handcuffed behind his back.
Then there were sirens. The local and state police, having been ordered away from the action, wouldn't be denied now that a shot had been fired. Some of the cars had been blocked from continuing through the intersection, and now their drivers started to edge toward the action. All they would remember were some cars parked funny and some men in gold on black ATF ballistic vests.
"JD?" Chris asked as soon as he could. He'd have time later to think that he had shot a man.
"Cool," Josiah's voice was surprisingly calm. "His Kel is still operational. They bolted as soon as the traffic stop got . . . intense. I'm on them."
The first marked unit slid to a halt as Buck walked up to his old friend. Without a word, Buck held his gun, butt first, out toward Larabee. Chris copied the action and they traded weapons. Buck now held the weapon that fired the shot. Larabee's gun would have to be turned in to forensics for testing since it had been involved in a shooting. And Buck would see that the weapon got turned over to the proper authority. But no one. No. One. Disarmed one of Team 7 except another member of the team. And no member of the team would be left unarmed just for doing his job. Chris would carry Buck's gun until his was returned or he got a loaner.
"I'll take care of JD," Wilmington said quietly. Larabee nodded his gratitude. That was one load off his mind.
Ezra limped up. "You okay? You're okay?" Buck asked him, taking in the bruises and cuts.
Ezra nodded, not even verbalizing the lie.
"Ambulances are on their way," Nathan stated as he moved in to make his own check -- mental and physical -- of the undercover agent.
"Tanner?" Buck called softly.
Vin knew the responsibility the senior agent was giving him. He stood from where he was kneeling over Anson, nodded reassurance and walked over to Larabee.
Buck didn't have time to wait. The cops were getting out of their squad. He trotted over to them. "You decompress, Larabee," he said as he moved past, and it was an order.
"Get in the car, Pard," Tanner said as he came up to Larabee's side. He saw his friend and boss start to balk and continued. "They'll want you to make a statement. You know that. You need to think about what happened once the adrenalin's gone." Vin was frustrated that Chris still had his hackles up about being ordered to leave. "Damn it, Chris, you did the right thing Cowboy, by the book. It went like clockwork. But it still affects you. You ain't required to make a statement for 48 hours. And ya ain't goin' to. We'll call an AUSA in from Denver or Austin if the ones here don't know that. If it was one of us, you'd insist on it. And then you make your statement. The truth's the truth today or two days from now. Besides, if the locals aren't righteous, it'll piss 'em off and you know you like that." There was no argument for that. Larabee slipped into the passenger side of Vin's Jeep and it drove off even as the other emergency vehicles continued to arrive.
Buck smiled at the logic as Vin edged Larabee toward the Jeep. He could see the bare trembles in the boss's arms, a result of the adrenalin surge.
"Boys," Wilmington turned his attention to the two approaching officers and greeted them. They had their hands on the hilts of their weapons. But the man approaching them with a relaxed demeanor and the ATF vest as well as the badge and credentials he held out for them to inspect, kept them from pulling the guns.
"We've got another undercover. He's cool, but we want to pull him out." Buck distracted them with the offer of action. Any cop would rather be in the middle of it instead of securing the messy crime scene before them.
EMS arrived and dispersed among the injured. Nathan got up to let the first team go to West. He was still alive, barely, and needed more than Nathan could provide.
But he intercepted the second team for Ezra. Anson Jones could wait.
Other officers were showing up, but their arrival would only serve as a distraction while Vin ghosted his boss away from the area.
"Josiah?" Buck was in the back seat of the marked unit now. With no DEA radio handy, he was using the radio feature on his Nextel to contact the other agent.
"They're Southbound on the access road. Going slow. JD's cool and he's playing along with the Target trying to figure out what went wrong." Josiah had known what question was coming and answered it before it had been asked.
"Okay, we got 'em," Buck acknowledged as their marked unit came up on the suspect vehicle.
"Target number 2's hinky, Buck."
"Got it," Buck said into the cell phone and then leaned over to talk to the two officers in the front seat. "You guys got that?"
"Yep," the driver replied. He was a senior patrol officer and, although he was good to go, he wasn't overly excited.
"The passenger's the friendly. The driver . . . use your best judgment."
Without another word, the marked unit pulled in behind the BMW and switched on the red lights.
"Trey's stressin'. But JD's tellin' him they haven't done anything so just pull over and act dumb and innocent. Kid's doin' a good job, Buck," Josiah reassured.
"If Winters is half as good at the 'dumb and innocent' act as JD is, he'll have us believin' he hasn't done anything." Buck smiled at the officers to ease the tension. Pride for their young agent evident in his tone.
Finally the BMW pulled over. The two uniformed officers approached the vehicle with their hands near their weapons, necessarily more cautious than usual.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen, I'm Officer Blakely," the old timer said as he leaned toward the driver's window, staying clear of the door.
"I'm sorry, officer," Trey responded spewing innocence. "Did I do something wrong?" It was a ploy the rich kid had learned well and used often.
"Could you step out of the car, please? Both of you?"
Both JD and Trey complied.
"Please put your hands on the hood of the car."
By this time the junior officer was behind JD. The young ATF agent complied immediately which encouraged Trey to do the same.
"What's goin' on?" JD's voice was hostile, still in character.
"You were observed leaving an altercation near campus. We're going to remove your wallets and get your ID's," Blakely responded professionally as he showed Trey that he was only taking the driver's license. The junior officer copied the actions with JD.
That's when Buck strode up to play his part. He took a close look at the two young men. "Naw, officer, these aren't the two we're looking for."
"Gentlemen, if you'll wait here?" The senior patrolman took both IDs and, with Buck in tow, returned to the squad car. The junior officer stood on alert as he watched the two.
They never checked for wants and warrants, but after a reasonable amount of time to get that sort of information, the two older men returned to the traffic stop.
"Well, Johnny, when was the last time you were in Denver?" Buck called to JD as he approached. JD, surprised by the reference to their home base, reared off the hood. The young officer shoved him back down.
"Back off!" JD demanded. Buck moved in quickly. Both of the youngsters were about to forget that this part was all for show.
"John Tiberius Davis," Buck pretended to read from the driver's license. "What about this arrest warrant out of Colorado? Possession with intent to distribute meth?"
"Ain't me," JD demanded. And he really was angry. His cover hadn't been blown and he wanted to stay on the inside.
"Bag him and tag him." Buck smiled at the young officer who willingly handcuffed JD and herded him back to the cruiser.
"Trey," the older officer turned to the driver. Waco wasn't big enough that most officers didn't know the troublemaker children of the wealthy residents. "You need to take care who you run with. You've been told that before."
"Yes, sir, I'm sorry, I just can't seem to judge people." He was complacent, he thought he was a good con artist, saying what he thought the older man wanted to hear.
"Get on out of here."
"Yes, sir." And the juvenile delinquent was gone.
"Damn it, damn it. Damn it." JD was railing at Buck. They were both in the back seat of the cruiser. "I needed to stay under."
"No one needs to 'stay under'."
"Oh, right, another commandment from on high. What do you know about it?"
Senior Officer Blakely levered himself into the driver's seat and was met with the argument. There was a bit of a look on the younger officer's face that could have said, 'the old guy's getting read the riot act,' or 'see, sometimes us young 'uns know more than you guys' or 'this is gonna give me the right to stand up to you next time'."
"Let it drop, JD." There was a tinge of threat in Buck's tone.
"I'm so tired of being treated like a piece of equipment . . ."
"JD, you're lettin' the adrenalin talk."
". . . no one ever asks what I think . . . go U/C, drag me out, I bet you wouldn't be draggin' . . ."
"JD!" Buck finally bellowed and it actually shut the young man up.
"Chris just shot a man. Ezra got kidnapped and almost killed. We let you go now the suits wouldn't let us even look for you until the paperwork is done."
"They said they had two of those shoulder mounted missiles that disappeared from the Ukraine. I don't need you coverin' my ass . . ."
"That does it." And Buck's low voice brought a hush to the car faster than shouting. "You are a federal agent, not a character in some TV show. You do not go 'deep undercover'. Hell, boy, you don't even meet a bad guy for coffee without surveillance all over the street. Is that clear? What has gotten into you?"
The older cop looked over at his junior partner and smirked. Buck had put him in his place without even knowing it.
"I bet Chris would understand why I needed to. . ." The chirp of Buck's Nextel radio interrupted the accusation.
"Your experienced agent forgot to turn off his wire. You want me to play it back for our group supervisor and see if he 'understands' why JD needs to . . ."
The rest was lost in Buck and the senior agent's guffaws. The junior police officer changed sides quickly enough as he laughed, too.
JD pouted, but with no way to save face, he finally calmed down enough to withdraw from the role he had been playing and remember his training. He met Buck's eyes and saw no reproach there. One part of him wished he wasn't getting off the hook so easily, since it made him feel guilty. The other part of him was glad it was Buck he had spouted off to, and thankful for his friend's understanding. An apologetic light came into his eye as he finally spoke. "Tiberius?! Tiberius?"
Buck and the senior traffic cop laughed again.
The seven had migrated to Chris's motel room. Chris was sitting at the round, unimpressive table. He had one of the plastic water glasses from the bathroom in front of him with a generous pouring of Jack Daniels in it but he wasn't drinking. The bottle was sitting beside him. Josiah and Nathan were propped up on one of the queen beds reading the closed captioning as it scrolled across CNN. The shooting hadn't even made the national news. But despite the fact that very little information was being released, it pretty much filled up the local five o'clock news. It was a slow news week. No one in the room wanted to listen to the circumspect news anchors and it was too early for prime time.
The radio was on. Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum and Willie and his generation of outlaws set the tone. Buck and Vin were sprawled on the other bed and JD had taken a seat on the floor at the end of that bed. The room was crowded. They'd ordered in BBQ and were grazing on the extra order of hush puppies and the chips and hot sauce Vin had come up with from a little Tex Mex café that had always been his favorite. Ezra was leaning against a wall and would occasionally scoop up some salsa. He seemed to be the only one who could handle the heat as well as Vin. Even Josiah, who was famous for his chili, was skimping on the pico.
The beer couldn't cut the burn from the habaneros used in the sauce. Only Vin could take a full dip. Everyone else gingerly dipped the chips in the sauce, barely coating them with the juice, not daring to take the chance of getting a chunk of pepper when they bit down.
"FLEOA's sending a lawyer for you tomorrow." Josiah remembered he had talked to the Federal Law Enforcement Officers' Association and tried to use what he'd been told to start up the conversation. "They said to remind you that the AUSA's not on your side in this. I told 'em you didn't need remindin'."
"But what about the gang?" JD asked. He hadn't seen the explosion of blood and flesh or how fast the blood stained everything around it.
"JD," Buck began, because he was the only one who still had much patience with the boy. But he was interrupted by a banging at the door.
Everyone reached for their guns. It wasn't a usual reaction after an action, but a lot of West's followers were still out there.
Vin popped up from the bed, sauntered to the door and looked out the peep hole. He was staring at a Waco PD badge flush with the eyehole. Then it pulled back so he could see who was holding it.
"Briscoe," he informed the room. Everyone pretended to go back to what they were doing. Vin opened the door, but not enough to allow the local cop entry. "Detective Briscoe," he acknowledged. They had met the man at the crime scene and had not made a good first impression on him.
"I'm still lookin' for Larabee."
"He'll be at the arraignment tomorrow," Vin stated.
"I know the lawyer Trey got. He's gonna wheedle a discovery hearing at the same time."
"That's why G/S Larabee'll be there."
"I need a statement."
"No. You don't. Not yet." Josiah came up behind Tanner, partially to block the detective's view of the rest of the room, partially as backup since Briscoe was a lot bigger than Vin and didn't carry any fat on him.
"Yeah, yeah, all that horseshit about not having to make a statement . . ."
"It's a fact."
"I think it's a bunch of feds runnin' in and tryin' to run over the locals."
"Ain't what's happenin' here. And I know you know, because I was with the AUSA when he told you we had the authority to wait."
"Okay, cowboys. But you better hope you never need my help."
"Ain't trying to run under you."
"Ain't tryin' no more. Ya done done it." Briscoe turned and left.
"We should try to get on his good side tomorrow," Buck observed, ever the peacemaker.
"Wouldn't happen," Josiah stated from experience. "He's probably good at his job. But he's old school. You won't convince him that it's not us against them -- feds against locals."
"You guys should call it a night," Chris said from the table. He hadn't touched the whiskey.
"You want to be alone or you want us to stick around?" Buck asked. He didn't want any noble sacrifices or guilty conscience or martyrdom.
"I got no regrets. Ain't second guessin' myself," Chris replied and Buck could hear the truth in the words.
"You heard the man. He's chasin' us out."
Nathan, who had been an EMS before he joined the ATF, had taken as many trauma classes as the ATF and the federal government offered, trying to stay up on his training. He was their unofficial medic. As he stood, he looked over at Ezra. "I picked up some Epsom salts at Walgreens. If you soak in a warm bath tonight you won't be quite so stove up tomorrow."
"Thank you." Ezra would have protested if he didn't move like an old man when he pushed away from the wall. The emergency room doctor had let him leave, but he was going to be sore tomorrow. Jones had gotten some pretty good punches in before he was rescued.
"Chris," JD said as he started to leave. His room was adjacent to Chris's and connected by a suite door. The others stopped. "I know we got other things to worry about now. I'm just askin' so I'll understand." He wanted everyone to know he wasn't being blustery or cocky.
Chris nodded for him to continue.
"Well, there's lots of those guys still out there. What if they're still tryin' to buy radio active waste? And they said they had two shoulder propelled missiles. Is that possible? What do we do about it?"
The questions were asked with sincerity and Chris answered in kind, letting the junior agent absorb the knowledge and training. "I don't know, JD. But it would be too easy for someone to connect Ezra with ATF Denver and then get a picture of you or a name. It's not worth the risk. We don't know the hierarchy, or how many people West has converted or why West suddenly is willing to kill innocent people or if they're even for real for that matter." He moved forward with that idea. "Anyone see any money? Or missiles?"
"Just bad luck, JD. We can't win 'em all."
"Feels like we should do more."
"Yeah, kid, but if it takes yours or Ezra's testimony to make it clear it was a righteous shoot and keep Chris from facing any flack, or keep Jones detained, that's gonna take precedent over continuing the case," Buck added.
"Yeah, I know."
"We'll see what we can salvage tomorrow."
Good nights were spread around and everyone went to their rooms. Despite feeling secure in what they had done, there was very little sleep that night.
The courthouse was a beautiful, old, art deco building. The metal detector looked out of place. Neither Buck nor Vin were in a mood to appreciate it. They were on their way to meet the US attorney. The detention hearing was to keep Anson Jones in jail instead of releasing him on bond. Chris was offering his statement under the watchful eye of his Federal Law Enforcement Officer's Association attorney. Nathan and Josiah had drawn security duty, standing outside ICU where Pierce West fought for life on a respirator.
The detention hearing wasn't until 2pm, so Ezra and JD had been the lucky ones. They got to sleep in. They had originally been given the assignment of transporting Anson from the holding cell across town to the courthouse. But JD had talked them into letting him continue to play his role and pretend that he, too, was being transported from the jail to court for a detention hearing. The overly enthusiastic agent was hoping that Anson would make some kind of incriminating statement to someone he still perceived as an ally. Even though he had asked for an attorney and been read his Miranda rights, any unsolicited statement could still be admitted. It really wasn't necessary and Ezra had doubts as to whether any information would, in fact, be admissible, but Dunne wasn't ready to give up using his U/C role to get something. So the older agents didn't see any harm in accommodating him. As a result, there were two marshals with them transporting JD and Anson Jones. JD and the marshals were moving at a snail's pace because of Jones being on crutches from his wounded left thigh. Ezra, for his part, didn't really have anything to say to the punk who had been ready to kill him in cold blood, so he walked quietly slightly ahead of them, tacitly playing his role of an informant who might be called on to testify.
Down the street there was an old van. It didn't draw attention. This was a college town, after all. It was rusty and dull. The former two tone turquoise and lime green paint job had faded to several various unidentifiable shades.
The co-ed with mousy brown hair was as undistinguishable as the van. But Trey and Boo were leaning forward slightly from the back section. They were watching the sidewalk down from the courthouse with predatory intensity.
"There's the snitch," a voice called from the back of the van.
"They've got Anson with them. And Johnny."
"Looks like they shot him, too. Son of a bitch feds."
But Trey's eyes were scanning the area for something else. Someone else. And then he saw what he was looking for. Evie Travis gave her husband a peck on the cheek as she climbed out of their Tahoe. He was obviously going to park in the secure parking. But Evie wanted to run over and speak to Ezra, to apologize.
"Ezra," she said as she walked up to them. Even with his hands cuffed to the belly chain, JD tugged on Anson to slow him down. They would lag behind and give the two some privacy.
"Mrs. Travis," Ezra greeted.
"I am so sorry, I simply never thought . . ."
"Mrs. Travis, there's no reason to . . ."
And then all hell broke loose.
The girl was a pro. She pulled from her parking spot and drove casually toward the small knot of people on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. There was no squealing of tires to announce what was coming. Trey pulled down his cammo colored ski mask. Boo and the two others followed suit.
The van came parallel to its targets, the side door slid open. Four men dressed in camouflage from masks to boots leapt from the still moving vehicle. They had AR15's and fired them randomly.
In the distraction, Trey targeted the two US marshals transporting Anson even as he was grabbing Evie Travis and throwing her into the van. The gunmen's shots became even more erratic as they grabbed Standish and shoved him in the van. With an excited rebel yell Trey shoved JD in as they squealed away.
Chris Larabee was standing in the small jury room off of the magistrate's court on the third floor. He refused to sit and pretend this was a relaxed situation. There were five carefully typed pages lying on the table that separated him, his FLEOA-sponsored attorney, the only advocate he was allowed in the room, the US attorney and Detective Briscoe. He wasn't glaring, simply taking the other men in with that indifferent, yet somehow intense stare of a man that knew his job, knew the bureaucracy, could never be intimidated and, therefore, never backed down when he was right, a rare trait in a federal supervisor. The others in the room had never seen it before so completely, so definitely, but they recognized it. And it not only made them nervous, it made them question themselves and, if only to themselves, they admitted that GS Larabee was right. They didn't like it, they were still trying to bluff to get their way -- but it only gave them the feeling that Larabee was laughing at them.
"Larabee, a man you shot's a vegetable surviving on a respirator right now. I'm the investigating detective. I've got questions." Briscoe may have been the only one in the room that didn't think Larabee was justified.
"You've got my statement. I have nothing to add," Larabee said with a slight, unnecessary nod to the papers on the table.
"An oral statement would go a long way to making all of this easier, ingratiating . . ." the US Attorney began.
"I ain't in the job of 'ingratiating'," Chris interrupted the AUSA. "I know you Paul, I got no problem with the way you do your job. But this time, we're not on the same side."
"I would think that if this was a righteous shoot, we were all on the same side."
"Word games piss me off."
AUSA Paul Massey broke the eye contact ruefully. He had known exactly what Larabee was saying and had tried to twist it into something else. In the case of an agent-involved shooting, if there was a prosecution, the AUSA would be trying to prove the case against the agent. In this meeting, anything the ATF Group Supervisor said could be used against him. Just like the Miranda warning he signed at the beginning of the session pointed out.
"Your statement says that Pierce West was reaching for a gun, but that you had already made the decision to pull the trigger before you saw that," Briscoe growled. It sounded like an accusation.
"Tell me you wouldn't have done the same thing," Chris responded, unflustered.
Before the standoff could continue, they heard it. Automatic weapons fire was so unexpected that at first it sounded like firecrackers. But the difference registered between one heartbeat and the next for Larabee and he was racing out the door before the others had wrapped their thoughts around what they were hearing.
As Larabee raced down the historic corridor, he was met by Buck Wilmington who had been chatting up the secretary in the marshal's office while he waited for his boss and Vin Tanner who had the assignment of reviewing the radio transmissions during the incident. They formed a flying wedge as they came down the marble stairs, a much more formidable force than three men should be able to present. Halfway down the last flight, they one-armed themselves over the banister to keep from backtracking toward the side doors that were always used by law enforcement.
Even though the entire kidnapping took less than two minutes, the members of team seven were running down the steps as the van sped away. But they were helpless. Only the US marshals were allowed weapons in the courtroom, so their sidearms were tucked uselessly in the gun lockers just before the metal detector.
JD thought he had good reflexes. But when the van pulled up so casually followed by rapid gunfire he froze. He froze. It was probably only a few seconds, but it felt like forever and it was far too long. While he was able to react and reach for his gun, he wasn't prepared for Trey to shove him in the direction of the van from behind. One more shove had him racking his shins against the running board and tumbling inside. There was shouting. A woman was screaming. A scream of pain. And the gunfire. He didn't process any of it. But apparently Ezra had figured out what was being said even as he was much more violently thrust into the back of the van.
For a brief moment Ezra managed to fall next to the younger agent. "Do not tell them who we are! No matter what! It's a matter of life and death!" Ezra hissed. He was close enough for JD to feel the warmth of the other man's breath in his ear and it was so quiet that JD was positive no one else could hear. It was the desperation in the demand that registered more than the words themselves.
And then JD felt himself being pulled away and was caught up in a bear hug by Trey. Trey let loose with an adrenalin-fed Rebel yell as he pumped the air with his fist. The girl, already three blocks down from the courthouse made a turn on two tires.
The other young men who had been part of the escape were removing their cammo masks and long sleeve shirts to reveal everyday t-shirts. They stowed the guns in a gunny sack along with wooden and metal baseball bats. JD's eyes continued to take in the back of the van and saw Ezra holding on to a terrified Evie Travis, whispering in her ear. Was he telling her the same thing he'd said to JD? What had he said again?
Then the van slowed down and took some more turns. JD cursed himself that he hadn't been paying enough attention. He didn't have any idea where they were. He wondered if Ezra had been counting the minutes and turns. He felt the gun at the small of his back, hidden by his jacket. It was still there. Maybe he could get the drop on them now that most of the heavy artillery was in the bag.
Ezra must have read his mind. Because when the older agent saw JD's hand move to his back, he gave a barely perceptible head shake. The younger agent didn't want to admit he was afraid, but he did rationalize that maybe there would come a better time to play his .40 caliber ace.
The van came to a stop. Two of the young men grabbed Ezra and roughly removed his jacket and tie. Another man grabbed for Mrs. Travis. That was when Standish reacted. He tried to get between the older woman and their captors. One guy, JD thought his name was Sam, hauled off and backhanded the undercover specialist with the butt of the .45 caliber revolver he preferred.
Evie screamed. The kidnapper pulled her close. "One sound and I'll kill you both right here, right now."
She looked from Ezra to the others in the van. JD hoped it was his imagination that he read accusation or betrayal in her eyes when they landed on him. But she nodded her understanding.
JD watched the hooligans pull Ezra out of the van and then force Evie Travis to follow. They were at a baseball field complex. As they left the van in their t-shirts and guns hidden in a canvas bag with baseball bats, they looked all the world like no more than a social team that had gone out to catch a pizza after practice and were now separating to go their separate ways.
"One wrong move and we'll kill the old lady," Anson, hobbling on his crutches, hissed at Standish. And then they were shuffled into separate vehicles, no doubt to keep them more in line.
JD found himself following Anson to the BMW. He tried to take the driver's seat, to give himself some control over the situation, but Anson shoved him aside, tossed his crutches in the back seat and maneuvered himself behind the wheel. All JD could do was hustle to the passenger side, jump in, and hope for a chance to make some move sooner rather than later.
This kind of thing didn't happen in real life. Hell, Jack Bauer on "24" would have trouble dealing with JD's life in the last 18 hours and he had a stable of writers helping him work his way out. Well, that was Buck's influence, trying to calm himself down with humor, but this was reality. This was life and death. And JD couldn't shake the thought that he had missed his best chance to rescue his friend and Mrs. Travis. He'd told himself he was waiting for a better time, better odds. But he'd been scared. Drawing the gun would start a sequence of events that could never be taken back. He could see himself holding all of the domestic terrorists at gunpoint until Ezra could grab a gun to help; and then he'd be a hero when Chris, Buck and the others finally caught up. Or he could draw his gun and the terrorists were determined to go down fighting or looked at him as a kid and didn't think he would really pull the trigger; didn't see him as a real threat. His mind's eye could see Ezra and Evie Travis, unarmed and helpless, lying bloody and dying in the back of the van because of a gunfight. A part of JD said he thought he'd rather be dying, too, rather than live with that. So, while he told himself he was balancing odds and situations, JD had frozen and done nothing. At least Trey wasn't questioning his silence as he sat in the passenger seat and tried to regroup, tried to dig within himself and be ready next time. Next time.
"What happens now?" JD finally asked, trying to get enough information to form a plan of action or get word to the team.
"Now we get West back."
The sidewalk was littered with bodies, the majority of them were stirring. The shooting had mostly been a diversion. The courthouse security officers, retired police officers, guns still drawn, were trying to take control of the situation and see to the wounded. A lot of the media people, after realizing they weren't wounded, began to surround the guards and ATF agents with inappropriately timed questions. Larabee shoved through them with his men behind, trying to get to the epicenter. Steeling himself to see the bodies of Standish and Dunne, his own body almost betrayed him when he reached the crowd to find the guards leaning over the marshals. He didn't have to ask the question.
"They jumped out shooting and shoved three people in . . ."
An old, dull blue van squealing round the corner two blocks down told Tanner what the suspect vehicle looked like. He raced to a motorcyclist stalled in traffic from the event and pretty much shoved the rider off his bike. "Hey! Hey!" the college-aged man demanded as he ran after his disappearing transportation. "Hey!"
Buck met Chris's eyes. This didn't happen. The possibilities of what might be waiting for their kidnapped agents -- friends -- were almost crowding out reason and tactical thought.
Chris came around first, "Who was the third person?"
Buck was still staring after Tanner's confiscated bike. He tore his eyes away and looked back at his friend trying to process the question. Was it one of the marshals? An innocent bystander, or . . .
"What the hell happened here?" The rough, authoritative voice of Judge Orin Travis cut through the maelstrom. By the time he'd finished the first sentence, the retired judge had come face to face with Larabee. There was a tremble of dread in his voice as he asked, "Where's my wife?"
There were microphones shoved in between the two men as realization registered in their eyes.
"I want a news blackout. Starting now!" Larabee bellowed. They may well have heard him two counties over. The law enforcement officers all heard and got the message. The reporters howled in protest. Chris ushered the judge back up the steps into the courthouse. Buck stayed outside to assure that no one he had any control over said anything -- anything - to the media. At the same time, he flipped open his Nextel. He pushed a preprogrammed number. He was using the phone because he didn't want anyone overhearing the conversation, which was more likely on the two way radio feature.
"Go to private," Buck said flatly, to be sure Josiah's phone was silent as well. Leaving just enough time for the older agent to comply, Buck continued, "heads up, Josiah. We've had a shitstorm here. Be ready for anything. Anything. I mean locked and loaded."
"Buck," Josiah was responding to the shocky despair he heard in the voice. "What happened. Is everyone okay?"
"I don't know." But then he realized what a frustrating, unacceptable answer that was. "I'm sorry, Josiah, I really don't know. Two marshals and one civilian are down. JD, Ezra and the judge's wife have been kidnapped. I'll call you as soon as I know something, I swear." And he hung up. There was nothing else to say and he didn't want to anticipate, so he focused on doing the best damn job he could in controlling, containing the situation and keeping all information from the news.
Detective Briscoe, the FLEOA lawyer, and three more US attorneys besides the one that had been in the meeting crowded around Larabee and Travis. Several men and women stood around armed. They were feds who had run to the gun locker and retrieved their weapons as quickly as possible and now stood alert. They didn't know yet what they were guarding, but they would be ready. Somewhere along the way Buck had retrieved his own gun and Chris's loaner from the lockers and now they were armed as well.
Inside the foyer of the courthouse, as reality sank in as to who was missing, Larabee's Nextel chirped. "Talk to me," he growled. The readout told him who was checking in.
"Found the van. Abandoned. Empty. A little blood, not much. I need a forensics team out here. And a marked unit or two to help secure the place until they get here."
Without another word, Larabee handed his phone to Briscoe to coordinate with Tanner.
Chris Larabee ran his hand down his face, then ran both hands through his hair. He closed his eyes, allowed himself just that long for anxiety to overwhelm him and then he opened his eyes, "Let's get this Goddamn situation under control!" And he started giving orders.
It wasn't as if there was any conscious thought to it, more a feeling, but the essence of it was 'how could eight hours pass so quickly and yet seem like an eternity?' Eight hours and they hadn't heard a word from Ezra, JD or the kidnappers.
They were using the grand jury room for a conference room. There were too damn many people in on this meeting, but they all thought they had the right -- the necessity -- to be there. Vin and Buck were down the table from him. He liked to be able to see their faces and body language in a debriefing like this. It grounded him and gave him so much more information than any mere words they might offer. They were both shell-shocked in their own way and trying desperately, as he was, to block out the "what ifs" and "what's happening nows" that could cripple them. Josiah and Nathan were there, somehow quieter emotionally. Not being in the heat of the battle could give that to you.
"We've called in assistance from DPS and surrounding towns," the police chief was saying. "We've got all entrances to the hospital guarded. The ICU is guarded."
"ATF and DEA have added to that protection," Josiah offered. Without saying that also meant that those agents would be carrying their SMG's on fully auto. "They'll keep an eye on West so we can be on the street."
"They're still workin' on the van. Stolen. So far nothing that would help us. Sorry."
"They're crazy, but they're not stupid," Vin drawled. "They had a second getaway ride standing by so they could dump the one everyone saw. Maybe two or three other cars."
"Anything on the new car or cars?"
"So far, no. They put a lot of thought into the location. A little league baseball compex. Still in town, but lots of people coming and going."
"So they know the area," Larabee observed.
"Oh, yeah," Vin confirmed.
"Other members of West's cell?"
"We didn't know much about them," Detective Briscoe spoke up with more than a little accusation. Damn Feds coming in and taking over. To hell with 'em for not telling us what was going on.
"We're trying to track down friends, family and associates of the three men you've ID'd."
"Property they own," Wilmington said softly, but everyone heard him. They'd need to look for places to hold hostages -- or bury bodies.
"Telephones?" They were talking shorthand but the cops and feds knew what was being said. The prosecutors and politicians sitting around? If they couldn't keep up, to hell with them. Larabee was asking with one word what information they could get from cell phones, land lines, GPS encrypted in newer phones, OnStar -- anything.
"We're waiting for a ping from any of the phones we've identified," a DEA tech officer advised, referring to waiting for a phone call to be made to give them a clue what area the phone was in. Federal Agents had been kidnapped. This was personal. Everyone was involved to share resources. "We've got one Trigger Fish on the ground and two more being sent up from San Antone. And all the manpower you need is on standby."
Chris nodded his appreciation for that statement. DEA, and ATF to a lesser degree, were considered the mavericks of federal law enforcement. They shared that bond; understood and appreciated it.
Larabee turned to what was, at the moment, his last best hope, or the words of doom, "Josiah?" ATF didn't have profilers as such, especially not in enforcement groups, but Sanchez was an elder statesman. He had started his federal career rather late in life and had been a psychology teacher before. But more, he studied the people around him and truly listened. And the way he could put all of that together made him, in Larabee's perception, better than any profiler he'd ever met.
Josiah turned pale blue eyes to his boss. "Why didn't they kill them?" he asked bluntly.
The room went silent. Wasn't he supposed to say something comforting like, thank the Lord at least we have the hope they may not be dead yet? Or something patronizing like that?
The other men on the team waited patiently and realized it was hard to come up with a good reason.
"If it was revenge, they should hit and run," Tanner admitted.
"If they wanted to keep them from testifying or keep them from identifying the others in the group, they should kill them," Chris admitted. Buck closed his eyes briefly, but held it together.
"Too much television?" Nathan offered. "They think if they hide the . . ." he hesitated to say it, but had to, ". . . hide the bodies, they can't be prosecuted?"
"Television or not, they've got to know killing a federal agent . . ."
"And a judge's wife."
"Well, no one will stop looking for them. There's no place to hide."
"Mexico? South America?" Detective Briscoe didn't like these guys thinking they were so all knowing, all detecting.
"West's group are American citizens," Josiah explained, not that he'd explain to Briscoe, but the lawyers and politicians might come up with something with the information. "Mexico'll deport 'em if they're not Mexican citizens."
"Where is this getting us?" Buck finally lost it. "We all know all of this. We need a course of action. A place to look . . ."
"How do we know they don't still think one's on their side and one's a snitch? Hell, if they did know JD and Ezra were feds they'd be safer. We need . . ."
"What!" Josiah shouted. "Buck say that again."
"We need to get out there . . ."
"No. They don't know Ezra and JD are agents." Josiah looked around the room to see if anyone else got those implications. "They may well have been 'rescuing' JD just as they rescued Anson Jones."
"But that means Ezra . . ." Vin began.
"Ezra's still a snitch to them."
"And they are keeping him alive to find out who he works for? What he's told the cops?" Larabee offered it as a logical possibility.
"And my wife?" Travis asked quietly from the corner.
No one had an answer. Before anyone could even offer comfort, Buck's cell phone rang. Chris frowned, but no one had turned off the phones in case there was news or an emergency. Buck started to switch it off then froze. His eyes flew up to Chris's.
"Everyone shut up," Chris responded to the look in his friend's eyes.
"Wilmington," Buck said into the phone.
"Hey Mr. ATF," the angry voice that barely held any of JD's usual personality snapped through the speaker. Buck's eyes flew to Larabee's with such relief there was no doubt who was on the other end. Immediately people were scurrying to triangulate on the phone signal on the other end of Buck's phone.
"J . . .," And then the attitude in the voice registered. "John, can you talk?"
"I am talkin', asshole. You need to listen." So JD wasn't alone and, pulling the attitude, he might still have his cover intact. Buck would play it that way for now.
"Your friends aren't doin' you any favors with that stunt today."
"We won't let them control our minds like they do yours."
"No one's been hurt yet," Buck offered it up almost as a prayer, offering JD the opportunity to tell him how the others were.
"We've got your snitch and that judge's wife. We want to trade for West. Set it up. We'll be in touch."
"You people must know we can't . . ." But before Wilmington could finish, the line went dead. He didn't look up to see if the trace had been a success. He knew better. No one in the room outside of Denver's team 7 understood the dynamics going on as Buck slumped back in his seat.
"Wilmington," Larabee barked to bring Buck from his downward spiral.
Buck took the time for another deep breath then leaned forward and looked around the room. "That was JD Dunne. He's one of our men who was abducted today. It seems Josiah may be right and, for JD at least, like Jones, it was more of a rescue. They want to trade Mrs. Travis and Agent Standish -- who he called a snitch, so they don't know he's an agent yet -- for West."
"It was obvious you recognized the number. Call him back."
"Not 'til we have a plan."
"I doubt he'll hold onto the phone after that call."
"How new is the phone? It got a SIM chip?"
The questions flew as different people thought of potential ideas to track the phone.
"Next time your man calls, tell him to come in," the US Attorney stated flatly. Although it was an appointed office, it was still a political office and he was ready for personal damage control.
"He won't leave the others."
"You're his supervisor," the US attorney turned on Larabee. "Order him in."
Before the ATF supervisor could erupt, Buck stepped in, "Can't even if we wanted to. The way he was talkin', they were listenin'."
"Are you sure he's not helpin' them?" Briscoe snorted.
"What the Sam Holy Hell is that supposed to mean?" Buck roared as he left his seat to go after the Waco cop. Several other agents moved in to keep them separated. Chris and his men thought they were doing their part by not going after the asshole themselves. They didn't see any reason for Buck not to let off steam by thumpin' the jerk.
"Stop this!" Travis demanded and moved to the center of the room for the first time.
"Buck," Chris said easily.
Buck stopped struggling, shrugged off the hands and turned to Travis. "Sorry, I know we got more important things to do." He made it clear he was only apologizing to the man whose wife was missing.
"Why'd they let him make that call? Maybe it's that Oslo Syndrome or Stockholm Syndrome, whatever. Maybe he's switched sides," Briscoe continued. What was with this guy? The rest of the room breathed a sigh of relief when Team Seven decided he wasn't even worth the effort to dispute him.
"West is dead," Jackson stated bluntly to bring the meeting back on course. "They're only waiting for next of kin to pull the plug."
"No damn good reason not to give him back, then," Buck muttered with gallows humor.
"Did JD say when he'd call back?" Chris asked.
Buck shook his head no.
"Despite that, we still have some very real time constraints."
Chris and the others looked to Josiah to elaborate. "We won't be able to control the family when they are contacted as to what they say to the media. We don't know if they are sympathetic to his causes. Once word is out that we don't have our bargaining chip . . ."
"Can we delay the hospital's notification?" Chris turned to Nathan for the answer.
Josiah continued before Jackson could respond. "Even if you did, there are a lot of people who do know what's going on. Despite the news blackout and all good intentions, information is going to leak out. Someone will research our team from Denver. It's only a matter of time before JD and Ezra are identified as agents."
A sickly silence fell over the room as that truth sank in.
"But Ezra would probably be safer if they knew he was a fed and not a snitch."
"True. But if he tells anyone, even for self-preservation, that is bound to speed up JD's cover being blown. Gentlemen, time is not our friend."
JD shut off the phone after the call. Anson took the phone and threw it in the river that ran through town. JD watched the concentric ripples move out from where the Nextel disappeared. He felt like he was losing his last link to the others.
"Could they do that? Let West go?" JD was trying to get some information to help with his own equilibrium, a hint at what action he should take. He knew that the government would never negotiate with terrorists or hostage takers. Were these men so out of touch with reality that they believed differently?
"One way or the other, we've got to get West. He's weak."
"He's your leader."
"He never meant to use that bomb. He only intended to plant it and then tell the news media where to find it. Before it detonated. He wanted to advertise that it can be done."
JD got into the little white Caprice Anson was using now. "You're kidding, right? West would pay all that money, take those risks to make the feds look bad?"
"Pierce West is weak. For all the men he's killed, he doesn't have what it takes to go to the next level; to do what we have to do."
"But if all he wants is to show the leaks in U.S. security, why make it look like a mid-east faction . . ."
"That's my idea," Jones gloated. And suddenly JD had the feeling that he was in the car with a rabid dog and anyone he came in contact with was in danger.
"You're like me, John," Anson was continuing. "Fearless. Willing to do what's necessary."
"Well, that Dudley DoRight fed gave me his phone number. Think he wanted to rehabilitate me. Least I could do was use it." JD subtly reinforced the way he had come to be aware of Buck's cell number. Ezra had told him never to miss the chance to reinforce a cover, the trick was not to over do it and sound like you were feeding information to the bad guys. They couldn't all be stupid enough to miss something like that.
"You understand that bureaucracies, authority figures, the military, they are all like septic tanks. All the big chunks float to the top." Anson laughed as his own joke and then laughed harder when he glanced over and got a look at the expression on JD's face. And the laugh sounded a bit insane. "West was not the leader he was meant to be. You and I will have to take up the slack."
JD felt a little sick. He knew that agreeing to make the call to the feds had raised his stock in Anson's eye. But JD knew that the part he had been playing had come much too easily, too naturally, to him. Anson had seen that. Buck had seen it. JD had seen it now, and he scared himself.
Promising himself not to make any more mistakes, JD was watching carefully the route they were taking. But there were several turns. Too many. For all he was spouting how he trusted his new ally, Jones was backtracking and making it nearly impossible for JD to remember where he'd been. He resigned to just remember landmarks, hopefully a street name and numbers when they finally came home to roost. Then, if -- no, erase that -- when he got the chance, he would get word to the others.
It was a white clapboard house when they finally stopped, although it desperately needed a new coat of paint. There were black, wrought iron bars on the windows, but they didn't look out of place. This was clearly an older neighborhood and now, a high crime area. Many of the small homes had burglar bars. Sam was waiting and, once Anson pulled into the one car garage, he closed the door behind them.
The inside of the house had probably been nice back when someone's grandmother had owned it. Now, aluminum foil covered all of the windows to keep prying eyes out. The light fixtures in the ceilings were bare bulbs.
The couch and chair in the living room looked like they'd been picked up off the side of the road on trash day. There was no more furniture.
The ceramics in the one bathroom and kitchen were yellowy stained and there was an unpleasant, unrecognizable smell.
There, Sam, Boo and the others from the van lounged with five other men. The co-ed who'd driven the van and another 20 something female with ruddy dreadlocks were there as well. They were nowhere near Billie Jo Trainer's league.
JD was looking around for Ezra and Mrs. Travis. At first it worried him that he didn't see them. But he finally caught sight of a pair of legs in familiar dark grey slacks in the room at the end of the hall. Without thinking, he headed that way.
What JD found in the room brought him to a stunned stop. Evie Travis was sitting on the warped, hard wood floor since there was no furniture in the room. Her hair was disheveled and her eyes red and swollen from crying, but otherwise she seemed unharmed.
Beside her sat Ezra Standish. He was propped up against the wall, his legs splayed before him. His left eye was swollen shut. His upper eyelid poofed out until it resembled a hard boiled egg. The white of his right eye was bright red from a broken blood vessel. It was painful to look at. There was a ragged cut on his left cheek bone that didn't seem to want to stop seeping blood.
His shirt, buttons torn off, revealed more bruises to his chest and what very well may have been the imprint of a boot sole on his solar plexus.
JD's eyes met those of the judge's wife as if to ask what other damage was hidden beneath the clothing. She sat unmoving as silent tears started up again. Either she knew instinctively, or had been told in no uncertain terms, that her gentle touch would cause Ezra's composure to collapse.
JD fell to his knees beside his friend. "Ez . . ."
"Hit me." Standish cut him off with a low hiss before he could make the mistake and use the U/C's real name.
"I -- what? I can't . . ." JD resented the order.
"Hit me!" The words were garbled coming from the busted and swollen lips. The demand was heartfelt and touched JD in the pit of his stomach.
And then JD saw it. A shadow fell across Ezra and a newly terrified Mrs. Travis. Someone had followed him into the room. 'Damn it! Stupid! Stupid!' JD berated himself. Of course they would follow. And now, to stay in character, he'd have to do something. Any compassion would blow his cover and tear away all the hard-earned trust he'd built up with Anson Jones. JD had reacted to his emotions and Ezra knew the only way to explain coming in here would be violence.
And so he raised his arm and backhanded Ezra. He pulled his punch at the last minute. He couldn't do it. He couldn't add more injury to his friend. But while his fingers barely feathered across Ezra's jaw, the man's neck and head slammed backwards into the wall. Ezra faked the intensity of the attack. JD realized that, from the angle at the door, whoever was watching, couldn't tell JD hadn't delivered a violent blow. JD swung again and again. Under the pretense of gripping Ezra's neck to hold him, force him to take the blow, JD was able to follow through and hit his own arm to supply the sound of flesh on flesh. Standish played it up. He must have gone to the extra measure of biting his lip to make it look good, because his mouth was bleeding again, outlining his teeth in red.
Dunne turned away from the sight to address whoever he would find standing at the door. It was Anson. The hatred building in JD toward Jones must have shown and the domestic terrorist misread it as being directed toward their prisoner. "Go ahead, Kid," he laughed. "Take your turn at the traitor. He still hasn't told us who he's working for or how much he's told them."
JD just nodded. Then he waited until the man disappeared. He was a quick study, so he also waited until the shadow had disappeared down the hall, guaranteeing that no one was within earshot. He turned back to his friend, "Damn it, Ezra, tell them you're an agent."
Ezra shook his head. "No. This way," his voice was low and raspy, as if it hurt to talk. They must have hit him in the throat. "Mrs. Travis ... more valuable hostage . . . this way . . ."
"Oh, no," Evie moaned. Neither man told her to stay quiet. It added to the appearance of the beating.
"Protect . . . your . . . cover," Ezra continued to JD.
"Don't do this for me!" JD responded angrily.
"Your job . . . your resp -- responsibility . . . get word to others. My resp . . . give you time to do it."
"I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry," Evie chanted like it was a mantra.
"Dear lady." Ezra rolled his head, resting against the wall, until his one reddened eye met hers. "Don't apolog . . . we do what . . . do ..." Ezra was gasping and forcing the words, but they seemed important to him, so JD didn't try to stop him, "so that you and . . . innocents . . . like yourself . . . don't have to . . . worry that . . . everyone . . . meet . . . is a threat. Keep you . . . safe." Standish closed his eye, energy spent with just those few words. But there it was, that idealistic, good guy, John Wayne attitude. He was hurting too badly to hide it as he tried to console the poor woman. JD remembered very well Buck had told him that was why Ezra did what he did. JD had laughed. How had Buck known? What had he seen that JD had missed? JD realized once again how much he still had to learn. He hoped he got the chance. He hoped Ezra didn't suffer any more from his mistakes.
"Ezra, please tell them."
"It would make it too easy to identify you." Ezra was whispering now and it seemed to be less painful. The words seemed to come more easily, although Ezra still had to stop often to take a breath. It wasn't completely unselfish. As long as JD was accepted in the group he might get them help.
"I've got my gun . . ." JD began, still guilty that he hadn't pulled it in the van.
"Too many . . . of them." Had he said it out loud? Ezra couldn't be sure. His head hurt unmercifully and events were going on around him like he was a bit outside himself -- like a good buzz from strong whiskey. He more heard himself and the others speaking than truly felt like he was part of the conversation.
Then the room seemed to get darker, but it was because the stark light of the bare bulb was being blocked by the football linebacker-sized bodies of Anson and Boo. "Hey, snitch, I think we're gonna drop your body off in front of the police station to show the judge we mean business for his wife, here."
"No! No!" Evie screamed as she was dragged from the floor at the same time.
"You can't!" JD demanded as he turned on the ersatz leader of the group.
"Ain't got the stomach for it after all?" Anson goaded. He did a little hip-hop on his crutches to get more comfortable.
"Because he's a fed!" JD shot back.
Ezra's head jerked up in anger. Evie wept with relief.
"He told me. Just now." JD was making it up as he went along. "Guess he'd had enough beating. Or maybe I'm better at it than your asshole buddies. I started in on the old lady and he sang."
Jones looked skeptical. He wasn't buying. "He's stalling."
So JD had to sell harder. "His name is Ezra Standish. ATF. If he's lyin' finish him off. But find out for sure, for God's sake. 'Cuz I ain't runnin' for killin' a fed for the rest of my life. They don't stop lookin'."
Jones didn't like being defied or his order being questioned. But he could see that killing a fed was the kind of crime that didn't go away. More importantly, he could see his followers were afraid of the outcome. They still thought they were going to hide the bomb and report it before it detonated. Fools. He would pacify them until he and his inner circle had led them in too deeply to walk away. "Fed, huh?" saying what he could tell his people wanted to hear. "More bargaining chips. Trey, you and the others get our hostages moved. While John and I make the next call."
JD panicked. They were moving again. And he wouldn't know where. Anson Jones didn't trust anyone. He was good at this. Ezra stumbled when he was jerked too quickly to his feet and vertigo set in. JD caught him long enough to whisper, "It'll work out." What else could he say? And then Ezra and Mrs. Travis were being shuffled out the door. And JD felt very much alone.
As Ezra was forced down the hall, Sam bounced his head into the wall until it dented the plaster. JD's words rang in Standish's mind, 'It'll work out.' The boy was spending too much time with Buck Wilmington. His captors laughed as he staggered along the hall. Then a cool, gentle hand came around his shoulders to steady him. Even if there wasn't enough strength to support him, the support was there. And comfort. Apparently Evie Travis had decided not to be afraid anymore, at least to the point that it incapacitated her. And there was something in the look she threw at the young bullies that kept them a pace back. With more dignity than either of them should have been able to muster, the judge's wife and the injured agent moved toward the garage door.
Five of the men who made up Denver's Team 7 sat in their boss' 3rd floor hotel room.
Josiah Sanchez cast a glance toward the plain, digital clock radio on the bedside table. 1:30 AM. The time made him think of Orin Travis who was in the hotel's bar being consoled by the local judges and magistrates. He could stay there for another thirty minutes until it closed at 2.
Travis was a good man. He knew he didn't need to hover over them and was forcing himself to stay out of the way and let them do their jobs. Travis had seen these men work magic before, but this time there was very little to work with. For the judge, the ex-federal agent, the waiting was one thing. But what was this waiting like for Orin Travis the husband?
With that thought, Josiah ran a nonchalant eye around the room. He was trying to evaluate how the others were holding together. That's what he did. He was a pragmatist, unfortunately a realist, and needed to be the voice of counsel and reason when the time came.
As good as Larabee was at so many things, waiting wasn't one of them. Worrying wasn't either. And being out of control of the situation was an untapped pressure valve. So he was glaring at Wilmington's phone, demanding that it ring. They had figured out that all of the calls would come in on that phone because he had given Anson and "John" his business cards along with the standard, 'don't take the wrong path in life' pep talk.
Buck was scared. He was hunched over, ready to pounce on the phone. He seemed a little distant and lost. He got that way when reality didn't include good guys and happy endings.
Vin was leaning up against one headboard, conserving energy. In a lot of ways, the Texan could go into a near meditative state to conserve energy and be clear-headed when it was needed. He and Nathan had gone out for a while, hit some of his old haunts, looking for information, but had come up empty. What he had seen, he hadn't liked. Even as the sun set in an otherwise completely clear sky, he had noticed a thin wall of blue-black clouds on the northern horizon. They hadn't been paying any attention to the weather. How could that matter with everything that was going on? But Vin recognized those clouds. A blue norther was blowing in.
Temperatures had dropped from the 80's to near freezing in less than an hour. The thunderstorm that heralded the norther had dwindled to rain and occasional sleet. You almost had to live in this part of the country to believe weather could change that fast. And here, at almost 3AM, the weather was only getting worse.
And then the phone rang.
The ring tone was Margaritaville, but it might just as well have been a starter gun at a greyhound race. Buck jolted forward, but he caught himself, let the phone ring as he took a breath and then he answered the phone, "Wilmington."
"You've got ten minutes to get to the hospital." It was JD. He sounded hyped. "Then you'll have 20 minutes to get Pierce West out of there and into a car."
"Son, you know we can't do that." Buck played for time; looking for any room to maneuver, to negotiate.
"You're the feds. You can do anything . . ." another voice demanded. So they were on speakerphone.
"That's not true."
"A car will drive through the parking lot in thirty minutes -- if we see you arrive on time, if West isn't with you, we'll kill the judge's wife and your agent." JD again. And he emphasized the word agent. He was saying they knew who Ezra was. So it was only a matter of time before JD was found out.
"That's not enough time. . ." Buck tried again.
"The guy who shot West brings him. And he comes alone."
"Maybe we could. . ." The line went dead. Everyone sat in silence. There was no chance in hell West could be removed from the hospital, even if he were healthy.
It seemed like a lifetime, but within seconds Larabee stood up with authority. "Nathan, Josiah, stay here and coordinate. Get Briscoe. I want surveillance out there five minutes ago." Josiah reached for his phone to call the local comm center from the memory on his phone. Nathan reached for the phone list they had scribbled out during the day.
"Where are you going?" Josiah asked softly.
"Buck, Vin and I will head for the hospital. Showing up and going inside will buy us precious time," Chris said somberly.
"Keep your heads," Josiah cautioned.
Chris looked up, angry at being taken to task, but in the end he merely nodded that he understood. It was something that had needed to be said. There was so much at risk . . .
As the door closed, Nathan's phone was already ringing for Briscoe.
Reuben Briscoe tried to roll away from the irritating chirp of his cell phone. When it finally stopped ringing he scrambled under the worn, mismatched comforter and nestled back into his warm spot on the bed. And then the damn phone started again. "What?" he growled into the small instrument.
"Nathan Jackson," was the no-nonsense reply from the other end. "We've been contacted by the hostage takers. Get your people moving. We'll meet at the IHOP a mile from the hospital."
There was no response from the other end.
"Briscoe? We've got ten minutes to get enough people in place to start a surveillance until the others can fall in with us."
"Ten minutes. IHOP," came the mumbled response.
"Keep us informed."
And then the phone went dead.
In his nondescript bachelor apartment Briscoe stared at the cell phone in his hand. "You want to play by your rules until you need help? To hell with ya." He tossed the cell on the faded overstuffed chair where he'd draped his slacks the night before, rolled over and went back to sleep.
What the hell kind of weather was this, Buck bitched to himself. It had been almost 90 degrees on a late October afternoon. That was irregular enough. But now, not 12 hours later, it had dropped below 40 degrees. The cold drizzle that had lingered had a sharp bite of sleet. What in the hell kind of weather was this? Vin had drawled something about a "blue norther" and Texas weather. Well, you could keep it. To make matters worse, the rain caught the streetlights, strobed them and made it almost impossible to see anything, much less if anyone was watching them from inside the cars parked in the dark hospital parking lot.
JD watched as Buck and Chris climbed out of the Ram. They burrowed into their too light jackets against the suddenly freezing weather as they hurried inside. No other car had followed them in. It was just after 3AM. Any traffic would be easy to track. JD felt surreal. How did it get to this? How had he come to sitting in the car with a terrorist kidnapper, not knowing where Ezra or Mrs. Travis had been taken, but what he did know was that their bargaining chip, Pierce West, was technically dead and nothing could change that.
The only access to the hospital at this time of night was through the emergency room. Chris and Buck entered through the emergency room doors, and headed straight toward the elevators and ICU. If Jones had thought to place anyone inside to watch their entrance all they got was an eyeful of two determined ATF agents on a mission.
Chris was already speed dialing Josiah as the doors closed. The signal didn't get out in the elevator car but by the time they reached the ICU waiting area he heard the deep, "Chris," acknowledgement from the other end.
Buck made a quick turn of the area to make sure no one else was there and Larabee focused on the call. "Talk to me."
"Nathan and I are at IHOP. No one else is here yet. Briscoe's not answering his phone." He heard Chris curse on the other end, but continued. "Travis has had a local take him over to see what's going on with Briscoe. G/S Parmer is trying to get people out but it's slow going. We've lost a lot of precious time."
"Damn. Shit. Hell," Chris vented.
"What now, Boss?" Josiah asked with more calmness than he felt.
"Round 'em up, Josiah. Fast as you can. Buck and I'll figure some way to stall."
Chris hadn't showed up at the hospital until 9 minutes and counting. Now he and Buck had been inside for 22 minutes. JD had been watching the digital clock displayed at a bank building across the street and down a ways. He didn't dare look at his own watch or even move for that matter. He didn't want to do anything to help Anson realize their deadline had passed.
'A fighting chance.' JD thought back to a slow day at the office. It had been late, but they couldn't leave because a snitch was supposed to call. The deal was already set up, but, as was so often the case, the last minutes of a deal came down to "bad guy time." And so they were waiting. And Josiah and Ezra had gotten into a discussion on how we really misuse the English language when we toss out clichés or "ism's" without taking time to hear what they are really saying or how profound the phrases had been and are when you pay attention. Josiah had recalled a Red Skelton skit where he broke down the Pledge of Allegiance beyond just a memorized speech to what the words were really saying. Waiting is the hardest part, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, if all else fails, manipulate the data. A fighting chance. It played over and over in JD's head like a song he couldn't get rid of. Please, God, just give us one chance to fight our way out of this. Or go down fighting. A fighting chance. Just give us the chance.
"Those sons of bitches aren't coming out," Anson muttered as he stared through the drizzle.
JD hunched in the heavy coat they had loaned him against the surprise weather change. "But they came this far," he stalled. "Maybe they're trying?"
"I could go check . . ." JD began.
"To hell with 'em. To hell with 'em all." Anson, for the first time had a hint of false bravado in his tone. He turned the ignition on the car.
"Wait, look." JD leaned forward.
An orderly, hunched over against the cold, pushed a wheelchair through the doors. West was bundled from head to toe in thinnish hospital blankets against the gusty winds and cold rain. Buck was running interference between the wheelchair, a security guard and a doctor who were behind him and seemed to be arguing furiously against transporting the prisoner. Buck, being Buck, was trying to play mediator and focused back on the hospital personnel as Chris directed the orderly who was pushing the chair toward their ride.
Chris, with single minded determination, opened the passenger side door and turned to help Buck and the orderly maneuver the patient up into the seat.
The tableau froze as JD and Anson watched. Then the cop, his hand on the wheelchair arm finally seemed to deflate into his heavy jacket and start helping lift the patient.
"They're stalling," Jones growled.
"You're paranoid," JD replied, playing his part. "It can't be easy to steal a patient."
"We're going. If they aren't ready to follow, tough shit."
Anson pulled out of his parking spot and crawled past the Ram. JD rolled down the window and shouted, "Hey, Fed! Just you, remember?" to Larabee. JD hoped he never really had to face down that look on Larabee's face when it was really directed at him. He hoped it really wasn't directed at him, now.
Anson Jones leaned forward. "Throw your cell phone on the ground."
"Now unscrew the head of the police radio in your truck and throw it out."
Larabee flinched that he'd thought of that, but did as he was told.
"Now or forget about it." And the white Caprice was moving. It wouldn't stop. Caprice. For some untenable reason, JD's mind went back to the debate on words. Caprice. It wasn't just the name of a car. Caprice. Whim. Impulse. Damn.
The men rushed to get the patient positioned and the Ram pulled out after the sedan.
JD scanned the area, praying to see someone else pull out with them. Only the dark truck was behind them on the stark, rainy street. As he took one last look back at Buck and the other men under the hospital overhang, his jaw dropped and he got a sick feeling in his stomach.
"Josiah?" Buck began.
"Not a damn soul here with us," was the reply without preamble.
"Not enough traffic this time of morning. They'll make us in five minutes."
"I'm gonna give you enough head's up to stay two blocks back. Just do the best you can."
"Don't tell me you got West." Josiah couldn't figure out how the ruse was still playing out.
"Sorta," Buck hedged as he threw back the blankets he'd used to disguise himself as West.
"Tell me," Josiah demanded.
Just inside the sliding doors of the hospital the doctor, security guard, orderly and a second security guard who had been wearing Buck's clothes hustled to make phone calls and try to figure out what the hell they'd just been dragged into.
JD was trying not to hyperventilate. If Jones realized something was wrong, he hoped the man would think it was just a case of nerves. JD couldn't put his finger on it, but something about Buck's posture had been wrong. Only after they were moving did he realize what it was. That man hadn't been Buck. That had to mean that Buck was pretending to be West in the Ram. JD tried to figure out what that meant. What was JD supposed to do next?
"Josiah," Buck tried. "Josiah . . ." he tried again.
Chris knew that Sanchez was slowly and methodically tapping off all the reasons this was a crazy, impossible idea.
"We're just stallin'," Buck offered. "Look, Josiah, I gotta go -- conserve batteries. Yeah, I know ya will. Thanks."
"It's just us?" Larabee guessed when the other man had hung up.
"Yeah. Josiah and Nathan were expecting a surveillance team so they paired up in the same car. They'll do the best they can. And I'm gonna have to hustle to get a piece of Briscoe's ass before Sanchez tears him up when this is over."
"At least we've got your phone. That little shit's not as smart as he thinks he is," Larabee observed, referring to Anson. It wasn't in the group supervisor's nature to try to put a good light on a situation and that's not what he was doing. He was stating a fact. The phone was a bright spot.
"They're sort of doing us a favor. Rushing the timeline like this. We don't have to worry about JD being found out. It'll all be over before the news comes out tomorrow."
Larabee didn't reply.
"So," Buck continued. "Break the rules much?" He smiled a little at the driver.
Chris shook his head and smirked. Buck was talking because he was gearing up for action. But he was right. "Hell, Buck, it would be easier to list the rules we aren't breaking."
"We'll be gettin' days off no matter how this turns out, that's for sure," Buck laughed.
"Hey, boss?" A muffed voice came from the small back seat of the Ram.
"Tanner?" Larabee's voice was dripping sarcasm. He recognized that tone of voice.
"Can I have my 30 days off when I want 'em?" the Texan drawled from where he'd been hiding the entire time in the floorboard of the back seat.
"What 'cha got in mind?" Buck bit.
"Summertime. Sunnin'. Campin'. Maybe head back down here toward Galveston and do a little Gulf fishin'. I hear the red snapper are bitin' like perch on South Padre." There was a pause as Vin ran his finger over the SMG machine gun he'd borrowed. "I got the feelin' I'll get my fill of huntin', tonight."
Chris and Buck glanced at each other. They were afraid he was right.
Living in the city, you forget how dark it can get at night. Somewhere, somehow, there is always at least a distant glow of light. Anson Jones had led the Ram down farm to market roads and directly to some dirt paths. Between the dark of night, the overcast and drizzle, nothing but the headlights of the cars made anything visible.
"Chris," Buck said softly. Larabee could tell by his tone that his partner didn't want to say what he was about to say. Larabee knew he didn't want to hear it. "Mighty far out here."
Neither Chris, nor Vin, still hidden in the floorboard of the back seat, responded.
"They haven't been all that careful. They could have checked and seen Vin pretty easy. That was a long shot, hidin' him back there."
"Maybe we got lucky."
"They ain't particularly checkin' for backup."
"I can't see Josiah's headlights." He left it hanging that if they couldn't see the other car, neither could Anson or his men. What they were all leaving unsaid was that West's people weren't taking even due precaution to be sure their rules were being followed. It was if they didn't care.
Before any of the men could continue to speculate, Buck's Nextel chirped, a signal that someone wanted to talk if it was safe.
"Go ahead, Josiah," Buck responded.
"We're having to drive without headlights. We can still see your lights. Barely. It's slow going and getting slower." The rest was lost to unintelligible garble.
"You're sounding like you're underwater," Buck clicked back, they all knew that was a sign of bad reception.
"We've lost phone contact with the others. No street signs. Only the locals could follow us with the landmarks we're giving them. They're playing catch up. Big time." Again the words were broken and garbled.
"We're out of tower range, Chris." Buck didn't say more. He didn't have to. They were on their own and every mile they went put the odds in Anson Jones's favor.
Chris stopped the truck.
The sedan went several more yards before they must have realized they weren't being followed any more. Chris watched first the brake lights then the back up lights engage. When the car had come back to within 20 yards, he opened his door, still using it as a partial shield, stepped out, and waited.
Anson Jones and JD both got out of the car, and turned to face the occupants of the truck. Jones was tense, Larabee observed. Too much distance separated them for Chris to tell how JD was standing up through all this.
"We've played your game long enough," Larabee shouted. "You show us our people or we'll just arrest your sorry asses and take what we can get."
Jones gave a nervous laugh. "I just wanted to see how far you'd play cowboy." It was false bravado. He must have realized Larabee would draw this line in the sand. He had called another car that was already showing up from down the lane. With the Caprice between the newly arrived car and the Ram, three men dragged two forms out of the back seat.
Suddenly grateful for the darkness and the headlights that blinded anyone trying to look through the windshield, Buck held up a pair of binoculars. "It's Ezra and Miz Travis," Buck informed Chris. "They look the worse for wear, but both seem mobile and on their own power."
"Get West out of the car," Jones shouted.
Slowly, Chris moved to the back of the truck, got the wheelchair and opened the passenger side door. Buck arranged the thin blankets back over his head and around his shoulders to conceal his identity. Under the pretense of maneuvering a seriously wounded man from the truck, Chris discussed the situation with the others. "Vin, get out when you get a chance. Cover us."
"You got it," Vin replied. "Chris, they're flyin' fast and loose with all this. Until now they've been all caught up on details. I don't like it."
"Just be ready for anything."
Chris made a show of moving 'Pierce West' into the wheelchair. Once he was situated, they moved forward, leaving the door open to conceal Vin's exit.
"Bring him towards the car," Anson ordered.
"We start moving, our people start moving," Larabee challenged.
He could see Anson's form, silhouetted by the headlights, lean across the hood of the car and say something to JD. That was an ace in the hole. - JD. He was their ace in the hole.
JD walked back to the second car and ushered Ezra and Evie Travis toward the Caprice. With a deep breath, Chris started pushing the wheelchair forward.
"I'll follow your lead, Pard," Buck said. He may not have been confident of the situation, but he was confident in Chris Larabee and his instincts. "Once you figure out what's up, let me know."
Larabee didn't reply. He didn't have to.
JD was almost physically ill, he was so tense. He was as frightened of making a mistake at this moment and getting one of his friends killed as he was of dying himself. In this life and death moment, JD realized how afraid he was of failure, making a mistake, any mistake, and disappointing people around him. It controlled his life. It influenced everything he did. His mother didn't mean to place so much responsibility on his shoulders; it wasn't her fault that he had interpreted his life this way based on obstacles presented to him. In this moment he realized that he led his life hiding his anger and fear of failure. He didn't need to be perfect 24 hours a day. But he needed to be perfect now. He said a silent prayer.
And something was wrong. Anson hadn't tried to confirm that Chris was alone. Jones had said he wanted the man who shot West to drive out here tonight. Had there been a way for Anson to know that Chris had been the one to shoot West? It was almost like he didn't care. It was like he had thrown details into the mix to add legitimacy to his actions, not as if he really cared if anyone followed through.
Buck stayed hunched over in the hospital blankets to hide his identity. He was built enough like West that that wasn't an issue. He let Chris force the wheelchair along the rough, muddy terrain.
"Stop right there," Anson called out from beside the newly arrived car. Both Chris and Buck and JD, Ezra and Evie Travis froze at the tone in the voice. Chris had made it as far as the rear quarter panel of the Caprice. The headlights from the Ram illuminated the scene. Anson and three other players were accounted for, not counting JD.
"Back up, Larabee," Jones ordered.
Well, that answered one question. Somehow Jones knew who Chris was.
"Play it out 'til we get Ezra and Miz Travis as close as we can," Buck said. He was volunteering to let the situation play out until the very last minute to give them the most advantageous positioning in the night as possible.
"Jones," Larabee called. He wanted to hear the voice more. Try to get a feel for what was going down.
"Move back! You've come this far." Then he seemed to throw the feds a bone, "John, move back here, same as Larabee moves this way."
JD and the hostages were within six feet of the man in the wheelchair. He looked up. Buck. It was Buck. JD felt like he was turning his responsibility for the two over to the older agent. "Take your time movin' back, Kid," Buck whispered.
It was all a guess, now, intuition when to make a move.
JD took a step backwards. Evie helped support Ezra as they moved quickly toward freedom. Ezra knew that the sooner they could get out of Chris and Buck's line of fire, the sooner they could make a move to get JD back on their side as well. So he forced himself to shuffle forward. The Southerner knew it was important to see and hear what was going on around him, but the ringing in his ears was drowning out any other sound. And his peripheral vision was gone in a wave of dizziness. Only a pinpoint of motion directly in front of him held any definition. He was useless. He was a liability. And he couldn't do a damn thing about it. It took every ounce of his endurance and strength to just put one foot in front of the other.
"I want you to go back, Larabee. I want you to go back and tell everyone who will listen that Pierce West is weak. Anson Jones is strong. Anson Jones is not afraid to do what needs to be done."
And that was it. Suddenly JD looked up. Boo. Where was Boo? And he was running back toward Anson and the others. He sprinted like it was an Olympic event. 'Keep talking, you lunatic,' the young man prayed. He knew Chris would be cursing him and Buck would be worried. Hopefully Anson would just think that his dash back toward the terrorists' cars was because his nerve gave out, if he noticed him at all, so fixated was he in mocking Larabee.
"I want you to witness the birth of a new generation of American Freedom Fighters!"
JD's lungs were on fire and he felt a deep cough building up in his chest, the kind that came from too much sudden exertion. But he was there. He made it. He grabbed an Uzi from one of the followers. It was almost a machine gun version of a Saturday night special, and JD barely had any experience with one. But he grabbed it and aimed. "Ambush!!!" he screamed back at the others. "Ambush!" He had figured it out, but was he too late? Anson Jones wanted to kill Pierce West -- to take his place as head of the cartel. He wanted West dead. But it wasn't West, it was Buck.
And then all hell broke loose -- in too many directions at once. The trunk of the white Caprice sprang open. Boo, another antiquated Uzi in hand, hunkered down to use the inside of the trunk and the wheel well as cover, sprayed the area with bullets. Buck jumped from the wheelchair, enveloped both Ezra and Evie Travis with his own body and the blankets. The bullets hit Wilmington starting at the lower left torso near his hip and walked up and to the right across his back. Buck fell on top of Ezra and Evie.
JD was running back toward his friends laying down cover fire. Anson was screaming incoherently. And then there was a loud, shrill whistle that ripped through the air. An instant later, the Ram exploded into nothingness.
Chris was physically lifted into the air only to be slammed violently into the ground by the concussion of the blast. He looked up, trying to catch his breath and, for a split second, Chris Larabee was enveloped in a paralyzing, cold dread. Vin Tanner had been in the truck that was now completely engulfed in flames.
Two men on a motorcycle raced past. It looked like they had a long piece of PVC pipe across their shoulders. It was the second shoulder mounted missile. Chris emptied his .40 trying to get a clear shot at the bike's riders as it sped along and bounced over the soggy ground. It didn't stop them. "Change!" he shouted reflexively to let the others know he would be out of commission for 3 seconds as he dropped the empty clip out of his gun and slammed a new one in place. He moved further out of the light of the flames that made him an easy target, but he didn't move too far from his downed men.
JD downed one of Anson's followers and wounded the man himself as he backpedaled toward his downed comrades.
"JD!" Larabee warned, "sniper in the trunk!" The kid had tunnel vision on the people shooting at him. Nothing else was registering except shooting back and getting to his friends. The best Chris could hope for was to keep the sniper's head down with randomly placed shots. His bullets didn't penetrate the sides of the cars.
And then he heard a quiet "ping" over the rest of the gunfire. Ping. Ping. Three bullets bit through the sheet metal of the trunk. And then 20 more shots made sure that the man in the trunk was no longer a threat.
Vin. Vin had made it out of the Ram before it exploded and now he was invisible in the night and shooting that SMG that should have been surplused for something newer four years ago. But he said the gun was foolproof, whether individual rounds, three shot bursts or fully auto. And it gave him distance on the other weapons. So, once the threat in the trunk was neutralized, he took out another of Anson's men and kept them from shooting. Chris took a brief moment to rest his brow on his forearm. He wiped cold sweat from his face. He hadn't realized the vortex of anxiety he'd been in until he knew Tanner was alive. Then he was looking up again and taking aim. Buck and Ezra were still down and JD was a bit manic, standing there with no cover and firing at the enemy. But maybe JD did have his perspective where it should be...
JD ran to Buck and slid to his knees. "Buck, Buck. Ezra."
A low voice moaned under the bulk of the bigger man's body. Then Chris was with them, using his adrenalin enhanced strength to lift Buck off of the others. Evie scrambled away only to go around and try to help JD lift Ezra. He was conscious, but barely. Buck was out.
The Ram was engulfed in fire. The cold drizzle was no challenge for the flames.
JD and Chris were shooting more conservatively now, not wanting to run out of ammo and leave themselves helpless.
Ezra, trying to push himself to his feet, felt his knees turn damp in the mud. But more importantly, he felt his hands land on something cold and metallic. Buck had been hiding two .40 caliber Sig Sauers under his blankets.
Standish scrounged some more and found what he knew would be there. Extra clips already loaded with 13 bullets each. Ezra's hand closed around the butt of the gun and its familiarity gave him a degree of comfort even though things were much too chaotic for him to assess his own damage or the injuries to the others. But what he did know was that if he didn't find it within himself to fight now, he and his friends and innocent Evie Travis would not live to fight another day.
Ezra was getting his bearings when he saw the slide on Larabee's gun stay open. Empty. "Chris!" he shouted and threw an extra clip, loaded with ammo, to his boss. This was why they hadn't bitched and moaned when the ATF ordered all of its agents to carry Sigs and only Sigs. Team Seven already did that so if they ever had a firefight like this one, everyone could change out loaded clips and no one would run out of ammo because they couldn't get the gun loaded in time. It tore at his bruised muscles to throw the thing as far as Larabee but he got it there. The second one didn't go quite so far because he couldn't help anticipating the pain and it made him pull up the last minute. But it was close enough. Larabee rolled, picked up both magazines and was loaded again.
"It's me," Tanner called moments before he materialized from the darkness. He reached down with his free hand to grab Buck's shoulder and help Chris drag their partner back toward the protective darkness and shadows of scrub mesquite.
How much time had passed? Larabee knew he lost all spatial perspectives in a firefight. He knew that it hadn't been as long as he thought.
And then they were almost thrown to the ground again by another explosion less than a mile back from the direction they had come.
Chris met Tanner's eyes only by the grace of the flames that engulfed the Ram and painted their faces with reds, yellows and shadows. He wished it had been dark enough not to see. Vin's eyes only confirmed his worst fear. That explosion had to have been the second shoulder launched missile hitting Josiah's Suburban.
There was no time to worry now, to dread, to miss. There were five of their team still here in this moment, in this place, fighting for their lives.
As bullets thudded and ricocheted around them, the four mobile members of Denver's Team seven moved backwards into the darkness. Each had one hand supporting a comrade, the other free and returning fire.
Anson Jones and his followers were making the tactical mistake of moving directly toward their enemy. The headlights from their cars and the flames from the Ram backlit them and gave the ATF agents good targets.
Larabee, on the other hand, was steering his people into the darkness and, as slow as they moved with their injured, they were gradually disappearing into the night.
About the time JD gave a yelp and he heard a thud, Vin realized that they had backed up to one of the deep culverts that were often found at the side of Texas country roads. Evie Travis and Ezra had dropped and sacrificed their footing to the three foot incline before Tanner could warn them, but a shove forward on Chris's shoulder warned him in time so that Chris and Vin and their burden, Buck, had a more controlled drop into the two inches of cold rainwater, mud and dead, winter grasses.
As soon as JD caught his breath, he raised up to find another target.
"Wait, JD," Vin whispered.
He could see the white of the young agent's haunted eyes outlined by his dirty, mud smeared face, but only because they were almost nose to nose. "They can't see us in the dark. Crawl up the other side of the culvert. Ain't a doubt in my mind that the land yonder is fenced off, so watch out for barbed wire. Get across it and move as fast as you can."
"What about you?" JD could tell there was more to the plan.
"They're gonna lose perspective in this dark. I'm gonna run down the road a few yards, pop a few caps their way. I'm bettin' that'll angle 'em away from us; buy us some time." He looked toward Larabee, not so much as looking to a supervisor for permission, more checking to see how his friend was holding up.
Chris had his hand to the pulse point at Buck's neck. His eyes were closed; his features etched with worry.
"Chris?" Vin attempted.
"He's alive," Larabee said with some relief. They had lost the blankets in their dash for safety. Ezra, watching the byplay, realized for the first time that Buck had been wearing a ballistic vest under the blankets. The man could be reckless at times, but never foolish and never took unnecessary risks. "But he's still out cold," Larabee continued, worriedly, then he glanced at Standish. "We need a place to lick our wounds. How you holding out, Ezra?"
"Better than I was before you arrived." Ezra didn't want to admit that he had wondered if they would consider him expendable or come for him.
None of them completed the thought that would usually follow a statement about their health; that they wished Nathan was there since he was the team member that had taken all of the trauma courses. Right now, they all just hoped Nathan and Josiah had somehow survived the missile and were alive.
Chris let the night wrap around him. The crackle of the flames eating his Ram interrupted the silence. The rain was coming down a bit harder, and icy cold, but it wasn't freezing yet. It had made the ground and detritus soggy and he couldn't hear if any of Anson Jones' men were moving their direction. The gunshots had stopped now that there were no targets visible. There was a dim aura of orange back down the road, an ominous reminder that there had been a second explosion.
A low moan came from the ground. JD immediately scooted closer and Chris leaned over Buck. "Quiet, Big Dog, we got trouble," he warned.
Buck's eyes opened a crack and looked for Chris. It was clear from the unfocused eyes he wasn't hitting on all cylinders yet.
"How do you feel?" Chris asked in a whisper.
"Like I got run over by a stampede." Buck didn't have to whisper, he couldn't get enough air to speak up. He was trying to figure out what had happened and where he was. Everything was black except Chris's face inches from his face, and the shadows left it looking like an X-ray image.
"Hang in there." Chris glanced over toward Ezra who was overly silent. "Ezra?"
"Mr. Larabee, we need a doctor." It was Evie who spoke up first.
"I am still aware of the situation and am able to walk and cooperate in any plans you come up with," Ezra responded.
Tanner listened carefully to make sure no one was sneaking up on them. There were shouts from near the headlights of the other cars.
"I'll lead 'em away. Away from you and Nathan and Josiah. Then I'll circle back, check on the others and get help.
Chris looked at his friend. He was most likely to be able to pull it off. He knew directions like he had a built in lodestone. But it was asking a lot. This was an untenable situation. There was no good answer. No easy or safe way out. And there was no time to think about options; they could barely talk without calling death down on them.
"Lead 'em off," Larabee was deciding as he levered himself to his feet, but kept low, below the cusp of the culvert. He reached for Buck. The bigger man had enough of his senses about him to help a little. "Just get them on the wrong route then get back to us." Tanner took the direction, confident that his boss had thought things through and was just as worried about the other two as he was. This was taking too long as it was.
JD moved to help Ezra stand up. Evie was already there, lending her strength to the other man.
Ezra looked around when he heard gunshots to his left. Only then did he realize Vin had put action to words and was playing fox and hounds to lead the enemy away from his friends.
"JD, I am mobile. If I do need some support, Mrs. Travis can provide it. You would be more helpful assisting Mr. Larabee with Buck."
JD took the logic of the statement and moved back. Even between them he and Chris were practically dragging the other man. Ezra, trying to stay low, was limping on one leg, using Mrs. Travis as a crutch.
They got a few feet to the barbed wire. They had to lay Buck down and drag him on the muddy, sodden ground. He tried not to make a sound as the movement pulled on his back that felt like he had wrenched it. In the end, Ezra had to go through the same torture. There was more wrong with his right leg now than when he had walked toward the wheelchair oh, so long ago. But he wasn't 'fessing up to what was wrong and they didn't have time to ask.
As soon as they were on the other side, they were on the move again. The two and three inch long thorns of the mesquite bit at them like demon's talons and you couldn't see where you were going to avoid them. Chris, who was no stranger to hunting and camping, couldn't believe the darkness. And it was unnerving. To bump into the occasional, heavy, thick trunked oak tree and never see it coming. And then he stumbled. The ground was suddenly rutted and even softer. He couldn't see the web-like strands of mesquite and vines that he'd been working through.
Vin reappeared then, and it unsettled Larabee even more, realizing that it could have just as easily been one of the terrorists.
All Vin did was help take some of Buck's weight and move forward. Vin didn't stop, so Chris kept going as well.
"Plowed field," Vin explained, recognizing the feel of the land. "Follow me." Still doing his share to support Wilmington, Tanner moved to parallel the field where it met the scrub brush.
The red clay was a viscous matter and stuck on the soles of their shoes up to an inch deep. Pulling his feet out of the thick, sucking ooze was an unimaginable exertion and Larabee's calves were burning like he was running a marathon. He knew it had to be even worse for Mrs. Travis and Ezra. He was about to call for a rest stop even though they'd probably only been moving 20 minutes. Then Vin stopped.
There was a wood structure before them. It wasn't even as tall as Vin, and only covered an area 6 foot x 6 foot if he was being generous.
"Deer blind," Vin whispered. There was satisfaction in his voice. He would have bet Ezra good money that somewhere on the perimeter of this plowed field there would be a blind for hunters to sit and wait for white-tailed deer. He had been afraid it would be up in a tree and worthless to them, but in this part of the country, where there were really no trees tall enough or strong enough to hold a blind, there was a good chance it would sit here on the ground. And here it was.
Vin and Chris led Buck forward, opened the homemade door and maneuvered him, as gently as possible, but not gently enough. He was in considerable pain.
They had hit a goldmine. Since it was the beginning of deer season, the blind was stocked, although that only meant the basics. Chris shoved the supplies to a corner and turned to help JD and Evie position Ezra in the shelter. There wasn't room for all of them.
Vin took the Coleman lantern outside, lit it and quickly moved it back inside the structure. He almost wished he hadn't and by the gasp he heard from JD who was leaning over his shoulder, he wished he hadn't seen either.
Ezra's face was even more swollen and mottled with bruises. His hair was plastered to his neck and scalp by the rain. He was leaning against the thin 2x4's that made up the uninsulated wall of the blind. The blood over his shirt hinted that things were even worse than they looked. He was fighting to stay conscious and quiet, but was rapidly reaching his limit. And now he had a bullet hole in his thigh. One of the bullets that missed Buck had found another mark
"Damn it," Chris growled when he was given the light of the lantern. "Why didn't you say something?" He was looking at a soaking red patch on Ezra's thigh. Even as he took his knife and cut into the cloth, he knew that the blood was from a bullet wound. "How long?" the group supervisor demanded. He wanted to know how long the wound had been unattended.
"It must have happened when the felon opened fire on us from the trunk. I didn't realize what was causing the pain."
Larabee nodded. Between adrenalin and having to move, he might not have realized he'd been hit. Or, he could be lying. It didn't matter now.
"It ain't that bad, Hoss," Vin offered from his position as he watched Larabee tear a sleeve from his shirt and tie off the wound, not a tourniquet, just to try to stop the ooze. Vin didn't know how bad it really was. Should it still be bleeding? Well, they had been moving; not giving it time to coagulate. But he put every bit of encouragement in the statement. He knew that believing you would live was very important in a shooting situation. He was the tactical expert of the group. He had read many studies that some police officers who had seen a lot of death had died or been more critically injured than the wound itself would dictate because they thought they would die if they were shot. The mental activity of never giving up, believing there was help and that a bullet wound is not necessarily fatal were important instructions in police work now. And Vin believed it saved lives.
Vin looked around the inside of the blind. He had hoped for a first aid kit. What he found was little more than a few Band-Aids. No help.
Evie Travis, who had been wearing a pullover sweater all this time pulled it off. The thin blouse underneath wouldn't protect her from the cold, but she was willing to make the sacrifice. She took Larabee's knife and made short work of cutting the sweater to pieces. She used the front to fold into a thin pillow for Ezra and as she maneuvered the man she had gone through so much with into a more comfortable position, she handed the back of the sweater to Larabee for Wilmington to rest back on. One of the sleeves, already wet, she used to try to wash some of the mud and blood from Ezra's face. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," she repeated over and over.
"Mrs. Travis?" Again from his specialized tactical training, Vin had little doubt that the older woman was verging on shock. Traumatized? Who wouldn't be. But she responded to his call and met his eyes in the dim light from the lantern. Vin had set it just high enough to give them light to work by, to delay attracting Anson and his men. Vin let his eyes slide down toward the woman's feet.
She was barefoot. Her panty hose had split and were riding up her calves on both legs. Her feet were covered and caked above the ankles in the gummy red clay and black field soil they'd tromped through. "I was wearing heels. I didn't . . . I couldn't walk . . . couldn't keep up . . .." Silent tears were streaming down her cheeks, she'd made it to her limit and beyond.
Before Vin could say anything, Ezra lifted his heavy arm, gently touched her shoulder and pulled her back to rest on his shoulder, her head nestled under his chin. "Mrs. Travis, you have been truly heroic during this entire ordeal. I assure you my compadres are more than capable of handling the situation for a short time. Consider this, there are four of them, counting Mr. Wilmington who is never out simply because he is down. Surely the four of them can do what the two of us have been accomplishing for this long? Hmmmm?"
Ezra met Chris's eyes and saw that they were full of a gratitude he couldn't express verbally. It wasn't in Chris's nature. He wanted to ask where Josiah and Nathan were, but was afraid to hear the answer. And so he closed his eyes and rested for a moment with the comfort of Evie Travis beside him.
"Chris," Vin said. "JD and I are going to take up cover positions on the perimeter."
Larabee heard the rest although it was left unspoken. Jones would eventually see the lantern light coming through the gaps in the makeshift deer blind. They needed to be ready for him. There was a haunted look in those Texas topaz blue eyes. There was something bothering the younger man. Chris tried to read what was bothering him, but couldn't decipher anything. And he didn't have time to worry about the ones that were mobile. He needed to keep the injured alive.
So all he could do was nod as the two youngest moved into the dark. And then, as if he had predicted it, his attention was drawn back to Buck who was beginning to struggle inside the deer blind. "Hey, hey, Buck, leave the vest on, it'll keep you warm." He didn't want to think, much less say aloud, that the vest might be the only thing holding his old friend together.
Wilmington was fumbling at the Velcro straps that held the vest in place; fighting desperately to get a grip and pull them loose. "Can't . . . breathe . . ."
"Buck?" Wilmington's panic was contagious and Chris couldn't keep it out of his voice. He ripped the Velcro free; not sure if it was what he should do or if it would be better to leave it for support like a splint for a broken bone. He didn't know. "Better?" He hoped above hope.
"Can't . . . breathe . . ." Buck repeated and began to pant.
"Stop it, Buck, stop it. Relax. Slow your breathing. Can you take a deep breath?"
Buck tried and almost came off the ground as his back arched in pain. He couldn't hold back the cry of pain.
Outside, JD started back in response to his friend's distress. Vin stopped him. "Chris is in there. We've got to make sure no one sneaks up on them." JD hesitated, but then nodded and let Tanner lead him back into the frigid rain and the mesquite.
"Buck, you took some hits on your vest," Chris tried to sound calm, "you've probably got busted ribs. You hear me? It hurts, but you're gonna make it. You hear me?"
Buck grimaced, bit back another cry of pain. He thought he nodded to Chris but he wasn't sure. He closed his eyes to concentrate on fighting the pain and the fear. Despite what Larabee said, he could feel something was dreadfully wrong.
Ezra and Evie had been watching the other two men. "Mr. Standish . . . Ezra . . ." Evie raised up from where she had been resting against his shoulder. She had felt the heat radiating from his skin. She put the back of her hand against his brow in such a concerned, motherly way that Ezra wanted to push her away. It messed with his self control. But his limbs were too heavy. "Mr. Larabee, he has a fever."
Chris closed his eyes, just for the length of a deep breath. It had been a long time since he'd felt this helpless. Not since . . . he immediately cut off that line of thought. He couldn't keep Josiah and Nathan out of his mind. And Ezra and Buck? For all his denial, he didn't know how badly they were hurt. He didn't know how many terrorists Anson had who were loyal enough to hunt down and try to murder federal agents. He could send someone for help, but it'd have to be Vin and he needed Vin's knowledge of survival and the landscape to set up their positions to a tactical advantage. He wanted to be angry with Ezra for tripping with West in the first place. He wanted to rail at JD for not getting more information to them. He caught himself blaming Evie Travis for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But that would be venting anger; displaced hostility. He couldn't even be angry at himself, he didn't know what he could have done differently. He just wanted to be angry, get violent. He wanted the damn rain to stop. He wanted the sun to come up. He wanted Ezra and Buck healthy. He wanted . . . he wanted something, somewhere he had some control over. And so he moved.
There was an old, beat up pan in the corner, holding the makeshift, useless first aid kit. He tossed the contents and put it outside the door. "Mrs. Travis, that will fill up with water soon enough. Try to get them to drink, work on the fever as best you can."
"Where are you going, Mr. Larabee?"
"To end this."
Larabee walked through the low door into the cold autumn night. He wasn't surprised when Vin materialized beside him. "Talk to me."
"I figure that," he nodded to a faint orange glow on the horizon, "that's Waco, the city lights reflecting off the clouds. That's north. That's where we were," he nodded to a flickering glow where the Ram still burned. "That's Josiah's Suburban." He was looking at another, dimmer, flickering glow and there was a haunted tone to his voice as his eyes lingered on this last fire.
"Vin?" Larabee grabbed Tanner's upper arm. "Talk to me," he repeated.
Vin shook his head, refusing to open up to his supervisor and friend. How could he lay his own doubts on the other man when it was obvious that he was weighted down by worries of his own. How could Vin tell him about the guilt that was welling up inside him every time he wondered if Josiah and Nathan were still alive. Had he made a choice? Had he chosen Larabee, Ezra and the others over Nathan and Josiah? He tried to tell himself that he had stayed where he knew he could do some good. But it was tearing at his very soul that he had been forced to make the choice. He shook his head again, not enough to dislodge the wet hair curling around his neck and forehead, but the drops of rain dripping from the tips of his hair were displaced.
Larabee could tell that he wasn't going to get anything from the Texan at this moment that the man might perceive as a sign of weakness. And when he came to that decision, he growled angrily, "Why the hell ain't the fire department been called? Where the holy hell is our backup?"
"Pretty abandoned out here. Good chance no one's seen the fires, no one's out in all this. Back up? Ain't got an answer. But you'll play hell getting your hands on Briscoe before I do." Vin's voice was low. And he seemed to have found his balance; fought through, at least temporarily, whatever it was that was haunting him.
And if Tanner was okay for now, Larabee would force himself to be, too, and got back on topic. "I'll get to him first. You can help me hide the body. Where's JD?"
"Backed him up to an oak tree over there." Tanner pointed in the direction he meant. "Told him to shoot anything that didn't call out before they approached the deer blind. He's holdin' in there. Barely. He's seen a lot this job." Before either of them could get lost in thought, worry what else the boy might have to deal with if Buck and Ezra were hurt as badly as they suspected, Vin continued. "Now what?"
"Now we hunt 'em down." JD hadn't stayed put when he saw Chris and Vin in conference. He sounded bloodthirsty. Like he was desperate to prove which side he was on.
"No," Larabee said in a low voice that wouldn't carry.
"But . . ." The young agent was shocked.
"I don't give a damn about any of those people. All I care about is keeping us and the three in that deer blind safe until help gets here."
"They'll get away with what they did?" JD's voice was accusing.
"Getting away for one night isn't gettin' away, Kid," Vin offered.
"What are you willing to sacrifice for revenge?" Chris's voice was even more accusing than JD's had been.
JD didn't have an answer for that. In his own mind he had once again gotten all of his priorities wrong.
Evie Travis offered the rain water to Buck, who was conscious for the moment, but he turned his head away to avoid the drink. She started to push but in the end, put the pan in her lap in a defeated manner and with a heavy sigh. There was so much that needed to be done and she didn't have the knowledge or experience to help one damn bit.
When Buck turned his head away, he was facing Ezra and he couldn't help but smile. "We ain't never gonna be clean again, Vato," he observed softly.
Ezra, who was propped up a little higher against the wall, looked down at the other man. Their backs were covered in a solid coat of mud from being dragged under the barbed wire fence. The front wasn't much better, having landed face down in the muck when the shooting started. Poor Mrs. Travis was in the same condition. Her clothes were torn and disheveled. The silver strands in her otherwise dark hair, that looked sophisticated when styled in a precise bouffant, had strayed loose and hung down the sides of her face. Her hair was almost dry now that they'd spent some time under cover. Ezra observed to himself that she looked more like a pioneer woman than a citified lady who was out of her element. She surely came from strong, frontier stock.
Ezra turned his attention back to Wilmington, and was trying to think of an appropriate response when he noticed the other man was out again. And suddenly, he didn't have the strength to say anything. He almost stopped breathing himself while he watched, trying to see his friend's chest rise and fall.
"He's still with us," Evie said softly, as if she were a mind reader. She put the water to his lips and insisted that he drink.
"Better than the finest bottled water," Standish said gratefully.
"When I was a little girl, my grandmother would catch rain water for us to wash our hair in. Said it was the best water."
Ezra nodded, "I remember catching spring rains. I didn't think, in my childhood, it tasted this good. Perhaps adversity makes us appreciate the simple things in life."
"I want to thank you for all you've done for me," Evie said as tears watered in her eyes.
"I know you're going to say it's your job, but I don't believe that many people, even agents, could have gone through what you went through and . . ."
"Mrs. Travis," he looked up and speared her with an intense look, "this was not merely my job." He stopped, he didn't usually give up this much of himself, his emotions, but the poor woman had been through so much. "You were my strength. You have no training, no ego fueled with machismo to motivate you to deal with the cards you have been dealt these last few days. But you have sustained with grace and courage. You personified for me why I do what I do. You put a face to the people who deserve to be protected from the likes of Anson Jones and Pierce West."
This little-seen side of Ezra Standish took her breath away. She couldn't help it, the tears fell. She couldn't find words nearly as profound or sincere as his had been. Instead, she leaned forward, pillowed his head against her breast, gave him a maternal kiss on the forehead and nestled in to wait for whatever would happen next. "You'd make any mother proud," she whispered.
And Ezra finally lost his battle to stay awake, feeling a comfort he didn't quite understand.
They'd been able to sit in complete silence for almost an hour. They were about 10 feet from each other so that they didn't make a single target. JD was in the middle, flanked by Chris and Vin.
They had each taken a turn checking inside on their friends, but not recently. Chris didn't want to know what he might find. Buck's abdomen was rigid and hard. The bullets that had hit him -- it looked like three -- had more velocity than a regular sidearm. But they hadn't penetrated the Kevlar. Blunt Force Trauma. Blunt Force Trauma. Blunt Force Trauma. It echoed in his mind. He knew the back face deformation of the vest, when it impacted with the human body could cause damage all its own. But in the past he'd seen it as deep bruising, maybe cracked ribs. This was different. Once again Larabee felt the weight of helplessness wash over him in waves. Buck seemed to breathe easier when he was unconscious, still gasping, but air was still moving in and out, so they didn't try to wake him up.
Ezra. Unfortunately, neither unconsciousness nor sleep found him for long, so he suffered in stoic silence, shifting his body continuously trying to get comfortable. It was impossible. Every time they checked his leg wound, it was still seeping. Not a lot, but he was losing blood. His pallor and sweaty brow hinted that he couldn't go on like that much longer. Evie Travis whispered to him, inveigled him to drink the fresh rain water and seemed to be a comfort to the solitary man.
Chris realized several things at the same time. The rain had stopped, the clouds broke and allowed the full moon to light the pasture and field like negative photographic images in shades of black and gray. Without the cloud cover, the temperatures were dropping rapidly. Having donated his jacket and shirt sleeves to the wounded, Larabee was shivering in the near freezing temperatures. And while the three in the small confines of the deer blind were sharing body heat and the lantern, Vin and JD must be as cold as he was. That's the next thing he realized. He hadn't answered JD and the young man's voice had been so full of guilt.
Chris looked down the fence row at Vin and realized it wasn't only the full moon, but a subtle predawn light that let him make out the man's features. Vin tilted his head, listened, then nodded. They could talk a little. No one was near.
"JD?" Chris offered him his chance to speak.
"I liked being 'John'. I liked being cocky and mean and not having to care what people thought of me, because what I thought was more important than what they thought. And if I was mad, I didn't care who I pissed off when I said any mean, hateful thing that came into my head. I liked not having to obey the law. . ."
"JD --" Chris tried to interrupt.
"And I liked saying things just to attack and watch the shock or hurt or disappointment on somebody's face. And I started thinking I knew it all. I really did. It wasn't an act. I, I mean, JD Dunne, he -- I didn't like me, but 'John' did. And I was 'John'. I think I am 'John'."
"JD," Chris raised his voice as loud as he dared, but it worked and stopped the run on confession. What had that boy gone through when none of the others had been able to protect him? What had he done that he thought was necessary to prove himself and get in with the domestic terrorists. He'd have to get Buck to talk to the boy if . . . Larabee bit off that thought. He didn't want to question whether Buck and Ezra would make it out of this. But either way, Larabee wanted to be the one who talked JD down when this was all over. Right now there wasn't enough time, but he could give it a start.
"There's an anger inside all of us. The less we show it, the more it builds. If we fight it, when it finally gets a chance to get out it hurts. It hurts you and you don't even know it. And it hurts people around you. It's like a living thing. That hurt look you talked about? From the people you care about the most? That's what hate feeds on. Sometimes we learn to tame it, sometimes we don't."
"I don't want to be 'John' any more." JD said in a small voice.
Chris didn't respond. This wasn't the time to say 'John' is and always has been a part of you. He may be a big part of what makes you strong -- fighting him within yourself. There might never be a time to say that.
Vin was watching Chris intently as more and more light came in from the east. Chris turned away. Tanner was seeing more than Larabee was willing to show even the Texan.
"Ol' Ezra, doin' his undercover thing?" Vin offered up. "I think that's what he likes, getting to play at doing all those illegal things, but knowing he gets to walk away in the end. I think getting to play act the parts is what keeps our favorite snake from going to the dark side." He said it with such affection that it lightened the mood, for which Larabee was grateful.
Chris actually felt it before he heard it. A pulsing in the air. Then there it was. A Bell JetRanger helicopter.
Vin was smiling. How long had he known it was coming?
Then JD saw it. In his enthusiasm, he ran out into the muddy field, plowed deep and awaiting cotton planting.
The mud weighed down his shoes and then it started exploding in his footsteps. JD froze, trying to figure out what was happening.
"JD, get down!" Vin shouted as something bit into the young agent's upper arm and the world exploded.
Anson Jones and five others made a last, desperate attack on the people who could identify them. Their hope was to kill the men and one woman on the ground and then disappear into the woods. It was a desperate ploy, but they were desperate. Jones had told them that if they killed the eyewitnesses they could sneak back to their daily lives with no one the wiser.
Vin and Chris returned fire, protecting their helpless friends in the deer blind.
Wild eyed, JD fumbled with his gun. His left arm wasn't working right, but he held his right arm rigid in front of him and fired round after round as he raced toward the muzzle fire, dimmed, but still visible in the morning light.
"JD!" He heard Chris's voice. It was an order to stop.
"JD!" Vin called, concerned for his safety.
And still JD ran forward.
Then a tan colored Jeep sprang across the pasture from a gate. Even in the mud it moved easily. It reminded Chris of the Jeeps on the old series Rat Patrol. The driver was crazy. The two men in the white shirts, white hats and khaki jeans that were firing at the retreating terrorists were damn good shots.
The helicopter hovered inches off the ground, throwing up debris so Anson and his men couldn't see to shoot. Of course it didn't matter to Anson Jones now. He was lying splayed out on his back, his eyes unseeing and his blood mingling with the rivulets of rainwater in the mud. The sniper in the helicopter solemnly lowered his rifle after making the shot. He found no satisfaction in taking a life, but there was a lot of satisfaction in saving that brash little ATF kid Jones was about to take out.
The remnants of the cartel had scattered like quail. The Jeep, which was really an old VW frame covered in sheet metal, and two three-wheelers, gave chase like a bird dog.
With all of this surrounding him, JD kept running, kept firing until first his target's gun and then his own gun ran out of ammo. The man ran. JD chased him down and tackled him. It was Trey Winters. "ATF!" JD crowed, "you're under arrest!" And he sat on Trey as he tried to catch his breath enough to drag him back to the others.
Strong hands latched onto JD's arms and were lifting him from his prisoner. JD fought like a wildcat.
"Hey, Kid, hey, we're the good guys."
The words registered and JD stopped struggling. He found his eyes at chest level with a white shirt. Right there, at eye level, was a Ranger badge. A Texas Ranger badge.
"Ranger Travis Morningstar, son. It's a pleasure."
"I . . . I . . ." JD looked around. Men wearing DPS and ATF raid jackets were marching Trey and others back toward the open pasture. Then he turned back to the Texas Ranger who smiled down at him.
"Let's get that arm tended to."
JD looked down at his arm and realized it was bleeding pretty good. "It doesn't hurt." He sounded confused, matter of fact.
"Not yet," the Ranger observed with good-natured humor and steered him back to his friends.
Vin had taken a couple of steps to back up Dunne. Then he saw the Jeep swing that direction, JD tackle his man and the Jeep deposit three men to help the kid.
From the gate, Josiah drove another three-wheeler to a stop in front of the other members of his team. Nathan, riding on the back, leapt off and hugged both Chris and Vin in unrestrained relief. Chris held on just as tightly. It was euphoric to see these two safe. Josiah gave them both a bear hug before Nathan pushed them back to give them a quick visual exam.
"Ezra and Buck," Chris said solemnly with a nod toward the deer blind. "Tell 'em it's you before you open the door." Last thing they needed was Ezra or Mrs. Travis putting a hole in Jackson because they thought they were still under attack.
JD was being escorted back to the clearing by one of the Texas Rangers. With the smile of pride on his face, you wouldn't know he'd been shot.
Another man, dressed like Morningstar strode up to Larabee. The man's hand was already extended and Chris shook it. "I'm Ranger Danny Richards. I can't tell you how glad I am to find ya'll more or less in one piece. And I can't tell ya how sorry I am ya got hung out on your own."
"Wasn't your fault," Larabee said and knew it was true.
"But it'll be my place to make it right," Richards replied as he next shook hands with Tanner.
Nathan trotted directly back to them. "They need doctors now, Chris."
Chris started to snap that he was stating the obvious, but stopped himself. It was only then that he noticed a fourth three-wheeler held EMS and equipment because one was saying, "Starflight can't land here," referring to the helicopter ambulance.
"The ride back -- just to the main road -- it'll be awful rough." The second EMS didn't add that he wasn't sure the injured men would survive the trip.
"Sandy?" Ranger Richards said as he keyed his radio.
"Go ahead," The voice had the unmistakable background noise that said the speaker was in the JetRanger overhead.
"EMS says they can't land here," the Ranger said to the pilot.
"Who has to land?" was the reply.
"How many can you take?"
"How many are hurt?"
"Least two," Larabee offered up.
"Three's better," Morningstar added as he kept a grip on a now swaying, shocky, JD Dunne.
"They should all . . ." Nathan started.
"Three," Larabee stated with finality. He wanted to keep an eye on how many of the terrorists were rounded up.
"Pack 'em up and get 'em ready to move," Sandy said with confidence.
"Sandy's National Guard. Flew Blackhawks in Bosnia and Desert Storm."
And so it was that Sandy held his chopper steady inches off the ground as Ezra Standish, Buck Wilmington and a resistant JD Dunne were loaded.
Chris, Vin, Nathan and Josiah watched the helicopter disappear. They heard Richards coordinating with the medical teams that were on standby. The EMS team that had come in with the rescue team had turned their attention to Evie Travis and getting her ready to transport out. Josiah moved that way to give the woman a friendly shoulder of support then returned to stand with his team.
Larabee finally turned to Josiah and Nathan. "Scared the hell out of us, when your car exploded."
"JD'd carried on so about his shoulder mounted missiles, we didn't take any chances when we saw that motorcycle headed our way. We hauled ass out the doors. We didn't know where you were so we settled for going back and arranging for the cavalry to show up at first light." Josiah tried to keep it light, but couldn't pull it off as he added, "that was the longest wait, the longest night of my life."
"I didn't believe him," Nathan confessed, "about the missiles, I mean. It just sounded so out there."
"Yep," Vin agreed. "The boy did good."
"Fellas," Morningstar finally interrupted. "What say we get you out of this cold, cleaned up, warmed up, seen to at the hospital and in to check on your friends. Then maybe we'll get ya liquored up enough to warm the insides as well as the outsides."
Chris realized that sometime during the last hour someone had draped an insulated blanket over his shoulders but he was still shivering and so were the others. So he let himself be steered toward the sheet metal VW the officers affectionately called "The Thing."
The first things Ezra Standish became aware of were angry but muffled words. He opened his eyes and immediately recognized the classic decor of an emergency room. He wondered how long he'd been here.
He shifted his head a fraction and there was Vin Tanner, sitting on a tall exam stool, grinning like a Cheshire Cat and waiting for him to get his bearings.
"The others?" Ezra croaked.
"Ever'one's doin' fair to middlin'," Tanner replied.
A slightly vague answer, but his demeanor didn't indicate he was trying to withhold any bad news. In fact, he seemed amused by something.
Standish focused on trying to make out the angry words outside the curtain. The Texan noticed and supplied some information. "Hospital policy says I can't be in here. Larabee policy? Well, they ain't seein' eye to eye, yet."
"Doctor's standing up to him?" Ezra's voice wasn't above a whisper, but his curiosity was up.
"Seems the resident on duty and one of the male nurses rodeo together. They're threatening to bulldog ol' Larabee, hogtie him, and stick him in a broom closet." Vin was thoroughly entertained by the fact.
Ezra couldn't help it. His eyes went wide at this news. "And Mr. Larabee?"
"Threatened to shoot 'em."
"Not very creative."
"Well, he's worried about you and Buck." Vin gave as an excuse for the lack of imagination.
Ezra started to nod, but it caused bile to build in the back of his throat so he thought better of it.
"You mind bein' on your own for a bit?" Vin continued. "I can tell 'em you're awake, maybe get the Doc to come in here, unruffle some feathers?"
Ezra gave a weak but sincere smile and closed his eyes in agreement, not willing to move his head again.
As Vin slipped through the screen, Ezra lay still, fighting the nausea, and wondered for a moment if it wouldn't be easier just to throw up and get it over with. But he knew his damaged rib cage would protest. So he swallowed the oh, too much saliva his mouth was producing and tried to think of anything else.
Ezra wasn't sure how much time had passed before the curtain opened again. He was jolted to see Orin Travis come in.
"How are you feeling?" the older man asked.
Ezra nodded that he was okay, regretted the move and then couldn't get any words out as he willed down another bout of queasiness.
The judge continued before Ezra could try to speak again. "I asked Mr. Larabee for a few minutes with you in exchange for throwing some judicial weight around with the doctors."
"Is Mrs. Travis alright?" Ezra found that if he whispered he could get the words out.
"She will be, thanks to you."
"I . . ." Ezra fought his raspy voice, "I deeply apologize for her involvement."
"Stop it, boy."
Standish hushed immediately, ready to let the judge vent his frustration and fear on his wife's behalf.
"Evie said you would be blaming yourself for this. Couldn't get her to take anything to sleep until I set you straight."
Ezra blinked slowly and tried to process the words. Maybe he hadn't been prepared for anything the judge had to say. Was he offering absolution?
"I told her," Travis continued, "that there was no way you would hold yourself responsible and that I would check on you tomorrow. I wanted to stay near her. You understand."
Ezra nodded. He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately. But he didn't know what to say. Of course he most emphatically understood.
"And here she was, right again." It was clearly Evie Travis's husband speaking now, not a federal magistrate. "I should kick myself for not listening to her. This, none of this, is your fault, son."
Standish felt a surprising weight lifted and swallowed. "Thank you."
There was an awkward silence until the judge continued with what was on his mind. "She's my heart, you know. She's my life." He looked away, not willing to let anyone see his eyes at that moment. "Thank you for getting her back to me."
Ezra wanted to say he hadn't done anything, that the others had saved the day. But Travis knew that and the words would only be trite and anti-climatic. Instead, he offered sincerely, "She is an extraordinary pillar of strength. I owe her a thank you, as well."
"She'll be by tomorrow. Later today, I guess. I insisted she get some rest."
"As it should be."
"I owe you, son. I won't forget it."
The self-conscious silence of men not used to such intimate conversations had just begun to stretch to an uncomfortable duration when the resident made an entrance. "Sorry, judge, but I need to get to my patient."
"Of course. Take care of yourself, Standish. We'll see you once the dust settles."
"I look forward to it."
Chris Larabee looked down at the paper in his hand and thought back to that day, almost six months ago. He remembered the joyful reunion between Orin Travis and his wife as they embraced outside of the hospital emergency room doors. The old judge's voice had failed him, but he had mouthed the words 'thank you' over and over. And then he made the necessary phone calls so that the entire team stayed in Waco doing "follow up" reports and debriefings until Ezra and Buck were fit to travel. They had to fight an infection in the gunshot wound Ezra sustained that night and the beating he had taken had lowered his overall health and resistance so that it took longer than he would have liked. Buck, for his part, had severe pulmonary contusions and lacerations as well as internal bleeding, but had finally recovered.
JD's wound? Well it had seemed he barely noticed it. For one, he was relieved that Buck and Ezra were recovering. But also, he was regaled with the history of the Texas Rangers, a personalized tour of the Ranger Museum and "war stories" from the current Rangers. He even got to do his weapons requalification with them. Chris almost expected him to try to put in a transfer until he found out what it took to get one of those badges.
The night they left, the Texas law enforcement community had introduced the team to a "Pachanga." They ate fajitas and all the fixings, iced tea, Coors, Lone Star and margaritas. Tanner won the hot sauce eating challenge. And to this day Buck Wilmington still walked around humming Willie and Toby's "Whiskey For My Men And Beer For My Horses."
JD, trying to keep up with the Rangers doing tequila shots, solemnly and proprietarily swore that he would never watch Walker, Texas Ranger again since no real Ranger would wear a beard or a black hat. The DPS narcotics officers had cut him off of the tequila after that.
Buck had been watching the kid as he took a break from the activities. He was still on meds, so eagle-eye Larabee had a bead on him to be sure Buck didn't share in the beer or tequila. But this vanilla Dr. Pepper wasn't half bad. He was watching Vin take a turn along the sawdust floor. The way he shuffled his feet along made it look like he was in a high speed glide. He would spin the auburn haired beauty on his left while engaging in some jive-like jitterbug moves with the lanky blond on his right. Then he would reverse the moves. It was pure poetry and left Buck musing that the Texas Two-Step should be a category on Dancing With The Stars.
Vin did his little boot scoot past where Buck was sitting, pulled both beauties in close, winked at Buck, and spun the young ladies around the floor again. You always had to watch those quiet ones, Wilmington thought with a smile.
JD staggered over and dropped onto the bench beside his mentor. "I was scared," the younger agent admitted abruptly with the honesty of an inexperienced drunk.
Wilmington knew he was talking about the night of the shootout, and probably some things that had happened earlier in the case.
Buck had been in the hospital during most of the clean up and hadn't read any of the reports, but he suspected that the papers, like the debriefings to supervisors, were nothing more than relating a sequence of events and evidentiary facts. They would have left out the details that caused the turmoil of emotions he saw play across the face of the young man beside him. They would all be required to talk with a trauma counselor, but Buck doubted anyone the government hired would have the expertise to get past the macho, 'ah, hell, it's all in a day's work' facade each man felt was necessary to put forth. He was willing to bet that even Josiah would play that part to a large extent. He knew he, himself, wasn't going to open up to a shrink of any kind especially one that said, 'I'm with the government, I want to help you, trust me, anything you say will be kept in the strictest confidence.' Yeah, right.
No, later, Buck would get JD to work through things. But not now. Even if the young man thought he wanted to talk now, he would resent Buck taking advantage of his alcohol-diminished inhibitions. Time enough for that later. So for now, he went with the carefully neutral response, "Well, at least it's not something you have to expect everyday."
JD stared at the dance floor, but Buck could tell he wasn't watching the dancers, he was reliving something from the last few days. "You did a damn good job, Kid," Wilmington offered.
He watched the face in front of him cloud over and knew he'd been right in the first place. Those beer and tequila soaked emotions weren't ready for any kind words.
Buck watched the young man struggle through to some semblance of self-control and rode each emotion with him.
There were a lot of groups in ATF and a lot of good men and women. And they worked well together. But what Denver's Team 7 had was something special. If you were part of it, it made your heart swell. If you weren't, there was a tinge of jealousy. Buck had gotten caught up in his own emotions, so he was a bit surprised when JD turned on him. "Well, you and me?" There was more than a hint of anger in his voice. "You and me? We're gonna have a long talk. I watched you get shot. Three bullets. Why is it okay for you to take stupid, stupid risks and not me? You and me? You and me are gonna sit down and have a nice, long, talk, Mister." JD stood up as his voice rose. He sounded all the world like a father whose son was late for curfew. Then he swayed drunkenly. "We'll talk," he said again with the repetition of a drunk.
Apparently the talk was to come at some later date, because without another word the youngest member of Team 7 staggered in the direction of Ranger Morningstar.
Was JD making a hasty retreat while his emotions were somewhat intact, reacting to his ill-concealed hero worship of all things Ranger or the fact that the tall Texan had just tapped a new keg? Probably a little bit of all three.
Buck chuckled. He understood all too well all the things JD had wanted to say and couldn't. He'd been there himself more than once. He glanced unconsciously at Larabee sitting close by.
And while Chris had spent the time chatting with members of the local law enforcement community and had given no indication that he'd been eavesdropping, and, in fact, at no time even looked in Wilmington's direction, he nevertheless held his Longneck up toward his old friend.
Buck toasted with the paper cup of vanilla Dr. Pepper, maneuvered his still aching muscles off the bench and headed toward the dance floor to move in on Tanner's territory.
Chris watched Buck move off and then downed a shot of tequila as a sort of deconstructed boilermaker along with the beer. He had a designated driver tonight that had a siren on his car so they didn't have to worry too much about getting pulled over anyway. So he was going to get plastered. He was going to pass out tonight and to hell with the hangover tomorrow.
He was going to sleep without the nightmares of Josiah and Nathan never getting out of the Suburban. He didn't want to remember how he had sat at Buck Wilmington's hospital bedside and unconsciously matched his breathing with that of the unconscious man -- until he had to take a deep breath because the shallow breathing of his friend wouldn't support a human body. He wasn't going to project what would happen if JD lost any member of this team and let his anger free. He wanted to forget, at least for a night, the three days they had sweated that Standish would lose his leg to infection.
And he wanted to forget the conversation he had finally had with Vin Tanner and the guilt the young man carried for choosing between his friends. He wouldn't listen when Larabee reminded him that it had been his order that kept the younger man close. It didn't comfort him. Finally Larabee had confided in Josiah as to the guilt that crippled their friend. He never knew exactly what the gentle profiler had said, but it seemed to have eased Vin's guilt. But it would be a long time before Chris forgot the way the emotions had eaten at the Texan.
Larabee shook himself hard and grabbed the Tequila bottle. He was defeating his purpose of getting drunk if he kept lumping all of those memories and thoughts one on top of the other. He turned back and, as he'd been doing for the last few days, made sure he could account for all of his men.
They'd all been adopted as honorary Texans because of the 'kick ass way they took care of business'. Tanner had made some comment about anyone being able to get a Red River Passport nowadays, but seemed proud.
JD was still with Ranger Morningstar. But somehow the way the older man and his friends included the young agent, it made him look more like he was part of the conversation and less like a beagle puppy following a coon hound around the pasture.
Vin and his ladies were still making their way around the dance floor. Buck was two-stepping backwards in front of them with a smile on his face. His stamina wasn't going to hold out long. But it was obvious that was part of his plan and expected to get one or both of the women to help him to a bench when his strength gave out. It was equally obvious by the smirk on Vin's face that he knew what was going on and wasn't going to let it happen. The game was afoot.
The law enforcement community had taken over a big, airy, open-sided pavilion for the Pachanga. Chris spotted Nathan and Josiah across the way. They were moving cautiously and watching their footwork -- at least to the untrained eye. But their boss noticed that they were giving a lot of attention to the DEA agent, the feisty little assistant US attorney and the Magistrate's clerk who were teaching them the steps of a line dance that would inevitably be played before the night was over.
At the edge of the light, a group of people were huddled together. They looked more like worker bees at the entrance of their hive maneuvering in a secret dance only they understood. Ezra Standish was standing, with the help of a cane, in the middle of this group. Occasionally he would waver or hop to rebalance himself. At those times, whoever was next to him would almost reflexively put a hand on his shoulder or back for support until he got himself adjusted. Usually Standish would unconsciously flinch at the familiarity. But on this night he didn't. Part of it was because he knew his team mates were there to watch his back. Part of it was that he knew he didn't have to watch his back in this environment. And part of it was the fact that this group was around a makeshift craps table on the floor and absorbed in the friendly, but highly illegal game of dice. Ezra was in his element.
Chris took another sip of beer. The picnic table he was sitting at was plastered with an eclectic display of bumper stickers -- everything from the yellow and black one down the way that said, "Let The Wookie Win" to the one in front of him that declared, "If God Isn't A Longhorn, Why Is The Sunset Burnt Orange?". Chris scrapped the frayed end of the bumper sticker with his thumb nail and smiled.
And then it started. The fiddle player rosined up his bow and played the first strain of "Cotton-Eyed Joe." He couldn't let that dance pass by. Larabee finagled himself between Vin's brunette and the little assistant US attorney. Some of the team, like Vin, Buck and himself knew the dance steps and repeated them as they shouted, "Bullshit" every time the lead singer requested the chorus.
Josiah had been bluffing. He was working the floor like a pro.
JD and Nathan were at the edge of the floor focused on their steps. But they had good -- and pretty -- teachers.
Ezra's group didn't stop playing, but their shuffling around seemed to take on a bit more rhythm.
Chris remembered "Cotton-Eyed Joe". He remembered "The Shoddish" came next. Or did he just assume that because they always played those songs one after the other? He didn't remember making back to the hotel room. He heard something about someone having to follow a trail of clothing the next day to finally find Buck Wilmington, naked, asleep in a hotel closet that wasn't his own. Chris Larabee refused to hear the details. He remembered that much. There would be no guilt by association on his part. Nope.
So many times over the past few years, when Chris Larabee drank, he was angry, he was an angry drunk, and he woke up with an angry hangover. In Waco, that night, he had been a mellow drunk. And even though his hangover was worse than in his younger years, it was a mellow, manageable hangover. Yep, he thought to himself, as sure as every sunset over Austin and the University of Texas contained a tinge of burnt orange, mellow was better.
The only request that hadn't been granted was when Larabee demanded a face to face with Detective Reuben Briscoe. They politely said it had been taken care of and that they didn't want to be arrested as accomplices to murder -- which they would be if they put Briscoe and any member of Team 7 in the same county.
But now they were all healed, back in Denver, and two cars short in their fleet. Which had Chris back to dealing with the bureaucratic bullshit.
Sitting in his office behind the faux wood desk, recycled when the local military base was closed, he looked at the paper again. It was official. The memo in his hand told him that the federal grand jury had no billed him and his men in all of the shooting incidents in Waco, Texas during the Pierce West Organization investigation. No billed. No charges would be filed. He had been almost sure that it would turn out that way, but there was always that niggling doubt; wondering how human nature would interpret actions, reactions and what is politically acceptable on any given day
He knew the federal grand jury technically came from the same pool of property owners as the state and local grand juries. So what happened when they walked through those doors that they got just that much more pompous and seemed to ask questions, no matter how inane, just to be making their presence known?
He remembered the 50 something woman after he had testified. She had obviously been a hippie in the 60's and had gotten stuck there. "Couldn't you have shot the gun out of his hand?" she had asked, when Larabee detailed how he had shot Pierce West. "Couldn't you at least have tried to wound him?"
"Lady," Group Supervisor Larabee started, in a tone that had the presiding Assistant United States Attorney cringing. "When I draw my gun, it is to protect my men, an innocent person or myself. Usually all three. If it had been you in the back seat about to get your brains blown out, would you want me trying to make some kind of Roy Rogers, Lone Ranger trick shot?"
The lady had tried to look indignant, but the visual in her head had pretty much deflated her.
'Damn television,' Larabee thought to himself. If it was up to him, everybody who sat on a jury, a grand jury or asked a stupid question would be put through a live house, with live ammo and moving targets. Give 'em all the damn training in the world, and then, when their adrenalin is pumping their pulse off the scale and they get caught up in the reality of the moment, see how they react.
But then he had to smile in spite of himself, thinking about when he had testified regarding the same charges in the state grand jury. There had only been one question from a good ole boy who wanted to know if they could indict the defense lawyers who were defending the 'low life scum of the earth that weaseled into our town'. And Billie Jo Trainer's testimony? Chris would have liked to have been a fly on the wall. Apparently there was a movie of the week in the works based on her heroic willingness to give up her boyfriend. Come to think of it, wasn't tonight the night she was going to appear on Larry King?
Oh, Chris had tried to call Ezra on the carpet for getting in the car with the bad guys in the first place. And Ezra had readily agreed that it had been a mistake. That was Larabee's first clue that he was in trouble. And then Ezra had casually mentioned that while, yes, he had tripped with the bad guys, he had done it with surveillance. When Chris took off that fateful night, he not only traveled following the terrorists, he did so with no other surveillance than Josiah and Nathan in one car. Larabee had felt the vein in his temple start pulsing. Before it could escalate, a thankful Travis and Billie Jo Trainer's new literary agent had convinced the supervisors of the ATF that it would be bad publicity to punish Team Seven with days off. If they had all dodged that bullet, that included Standish. In fact, Judge Travis had insisted that Standish be included in the amnesty. When Ezra heard the news he had grinned and said the judge was truly a man of his word. Larabee still wasn't sure what he'd meant.
Chris's thoughts were interrupted when there was a tap on his door and Vin entered without waiting for permission. "Chris," his tone was full of laughter even as he kept a straight face. It made the hairs on the back of Larabee's neck stand at attention.
Chris squinted one eye at his friend, an expression that said, 'let me have it'.
In response, Tanner stated flatly, "You let Ezra and Buck debrief Trey Winters by themselves."
"I did." He couldn't imagine where that could go wrong. Besides, once the action had been over, the locals couldn't dump the paperwork and debriefings on his team fast enough.
With a tip of his head, Tanner indicated that his boss should follow him. And he did.
Tanner was enjoying himself immensely as he refused to give even a clue as to what was awaiting them. But he had led them to the elevator and the only hint Larabee had even been able to glean was that his agent had pushed the button to go to the garage level where they parked their OGVs.
The doors opened and it was like stepping into a new car dealership. Larabee himself and Sanchez had been doomed to driving Malibus - dark blue Chevrolet Malibus - since they returned from Texas. At this moment, where Chris's Chevy had been earlier that day, sat a brand new 2006 black Dodge Ram, loaded to the hilt down to the sprayed-in bed liner.
Where Josiah's Suburban had once come to roost during a work day, and, more recently, the other G-car had mocked any pretense of undercover or clandestine surveillance, sat a deep maroon H2. But not just any H2. The small print on the right rear of the back door proclaimed it to be a gasoline/electric hybrid.
Chris took two slow steps closer. Vin's Jeep had been replaced by a black Jeep Commander identical to the one so recently driven by Pierce West. JD was drooling over a silver BMW in his slot. Buck looked more than satisfied with the Champagne colored convertible Chevrolet SSR he was lounging against. Nathan looked up guiltily as he levered himself out of a blue -- the comfortable color of faded blue jeans -- Nissan Xterra, complete with first aid kit option. And Ezra? He was leaning against a Forest Green Jaguar that so complemented his eyes, even a manly man couldn't help but notice.
"Start talking," Larabee ordered Standish and Wilmington. Neither looked particularly concerned about the upcoming interrogation.
"We, Mr. Wilmington and myself, because of our injuries sustained in the incident in Texas, were allowed to debrief Mr. Trey Winters . . ."
"Stop." Larabee's voice cut through the dialogue. He slanted his eyes toward the other culprit. "Wilmington," he drew the name out threateningly. "Let's hear your side of this."
"Trey debriefed. We listened. Truth is, nobody else wanted to do it, 'cuz it was playing clean up."
"However, there has always been the issue of $500,000.00 earmarked for use by the domestic terrorist organization which we infiltrated," Ezra pushed forward. He thought he needed to explain all of this.
Larabee turned a stone cold stare at the smaller man and then turned back to the man he had known longer than all the others, the one he could read. The one that couldn't lie to him. "$500,000.00?"
"Which was seizeable since it was used to facilitate a criminal operation."
"Where's the money?" Larabee's eyes drifted back to the black Ram. It looked good.
"Now, Old Dog, if we showed up with the money, they'd just forfeit it back to the government's general fund. What good is that?"
"And you bought cars?"
"No! Chris, that'd be illegal."
Larabee looked between Buck and Ezra. Vin was smiling, enjoying the show. JD looked like he felt he might be in trouble -- guilt by association. Josiah was smiling like a proud Papa and Nathan was watching with a poker face that would do Ezra proud.
"One of you, whoever can tell me what's going on in the simplest terms, better start talking."
"We explained to Mr. Winters how, legally, acceptance of responsibility and doing everything in his ability to destroy the conspiracy, were catch phrases in his sentencing process," Ezra began.
"And to really show us he'd seen the light, if there really was any money, he needed to help us find it," Buck added.
"And he did," JD blurted out. Get on with it. He was too nervous to watch the other two toy with Larabee.
"Where. Is. The . . .?" Chris repeated.
"Money don't help us none, we got to give it up. But fine vehicles. . ."
"Don't say it."
"Mr. Winters took the money, of which he had custody and control, that he had complete access to and authority to use and, of his own volition, purchased these vehicles. To our good fortune, since the cars are in excellent condition and paid in full, we can forfeit them and within less than 60 days, put them into official government service and be driving them." Chris stared hard at Ezra as he took in what his agent had just said. The damn southerner never flinched, just calmly met his boss's glare with a smile.
Larabee thought of all the ways this wouldn't fly -- the second time someone tried it. But for now, there wasn't a rule in the book that made this illegal or unethical. Every one of his men knew exactly that.
"Of all the manipulative, sneaky subterfuge I have ever witnessed or heard -- it was a joint investigation with the other agencies. What about them?"
"They got the old Commander and the other cars the gang used. If they hadn't been so quick to push off the mundane clean up of the investigation on us, they would have had this same chance."
"Someone's gonna pay for this," Larabee growled ominously.
The thought flittered through Buck's mind that it had happened at last. They'd gotten to Larabee. Headquarters had gotten hold of the GS and given him THE TRANSPLANT. They'd replaced his blood with chicken shit and he was afraid to keep the vehicles. But then he saw something that couldn't be hidden in the hazel eyes. Buck smiled.
"We are going to take these seized vehicles to the storage facility where they will be left until the forfeiture process is complete. And we will," he added emphatically, "take these vehicles immediately and test them at the defensive driving track to make sure they are in condition to be put into service."
Ezra and Vin let loose with harmonizing Rebel yells. They and the others scrambled into their vehicles. Chris trotted to the fine new Ram, got in, found the keys waiting for him and read the odometer. Twenty seven miles. It would be a long time before he had to worry about his fleet again. First Josiah and then the others sped down the ramp with the skills of semi-professional racers. They may not get to drive the cars until they came out and into service in 60 days, but today they'd have enough fun with them to hold them over.
Life was good.
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