Characters: Chris, Vin, The rest of the seven~ Orrin Travis ~ Casey, Nettie, Inez, Rain, plus OC.
Rating: FRT, Profanity, Het, some violence. MCAT case deals with a sensitive subject matter.
SIZE: Approx. 1.25 Megs
Disclaimer: This is entirely a work of fiction for entertainment only, based on the characters from “The Magnificent Seven.” I don’t own them, but if I did I would run away with ‘em and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had ‘em first and do not want to give ‘em away. I only play at this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights is intended. This is strictly a piece of fiction; any references to real places are only for fictional story use.
MCAT AU: MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism) is under the leadership of Commander Chris Larabee. It is an independent, versatile, responsive, and respected premier Federal law enforcement agency, demonstrating excellence in all aspects of its operations. In the last year, this MCAT unit has done outstanding work on a number of cases. Most notably, this unit has neutralized three terrorist’s threats, halted at least two assassination attempts of high ranking officials, taken on serial killers, public corruption, computer crimes, and formed several specialized task forces to thwart major criminal activities.
Chris, along with three members (Vin, Buck, Nathan) of his extended family of brothers, and their families, reside on the Larabee 7. The seven men work together, and jointly own the ranch, where they are raising thoroughbreds, quarter horses and children. Ezra lives in town, while Josiah and JD reside on adjoining properties to the ranch, with their families.
This first series establishes relationships and provides background for the characters in this AU. ‘Additions and Apprehensions’ is sixth in the series.
Story: By the time May rolled around Chris felt as if his life was finally on track again. He was looking forward to all the new additions that were coming into his extended family, the most special one of all being the birth of the precious new life that he and Linda had created together. Little did he know that within four short months, a chain of events would unfold that would rip apart his team, cut through the heart of his family, and leave him alone to face a questionable future.
Acknowledgments: My thanks go to my friend and co-writer Wendy for her beta work and her great advice. It has been a fun experience to share writing this story with her. Tonny thanks for you editing and great feedback. Also to Stormm, and Barbara, I appreciate your input. Linda Clara, it may have been thirty-seven years, but I have never forgotten our friendship. Your life was cut way too short, but this is for all you would have done if given the chance. My thanks also go to the gracious readers that took the time to send me feedback for Transitions, Decisions, Past Transgressions and Illusions... Sherry
I fell in love with this creative new AU for the Seven the first moment I read Transitions...and then the subsequent stories that followed that drew me further into the lives, relationships, and intriguing cases of the Seven. I'm grateful for the opportunity I had to work on this story with Sherry, because along the way, I've found a new friend. ..Wendy
Notes: Any mistakes are ours. The original characters I have created for this series are mine. I created ‘em and really like ‘em (most of them anyway) so, while you are welcome to borrow them and encouraged to play in this AU, keep them around and no slash pairing please.
Characters from the first six parts of this series:
Pamela Walton: Computer genius that worked for the Justice Department, 30 years old.
Kelli Coulter: Degree in criminology/criminal justice, worked New Orleans PD, State of Texas Criminal Task Force and the DEA, 26 years old.
Justin Michaels: Former homicide detective with Denver PD and then worked with the State Police investigations in Colorado, 43 years old.
Mark Westin: Excelled at the Police Academy, worked LAPD and California Highway Patrols, 26 years old.
Paul Roberts: Worked Atlanta Metro police departments with excellent records, 31 years old.
Ross Anderson: Came from the Detroit Metro police departments, career until then focused on inner city crime, 34 years old.
Raphael Cordova: DEA fifteen years, military veteran, pilot, age 43.
Mallory Sanchez: Former ATF team leader/left to have baby when MCAT formed/Returned to train on CASSIE age 43.
CASSIE: (Collaborative Analysis System for Sensitive Information Engineering) is a state of the art computer system, and is a valuable team member to the unit.
Dr. Robert (Bones) Metfield, Chief of Forensics, Caucasian, medical examiner, born Dumas, Texas ME Tarrant County twenty-five years, 10 years as Chief Medical Examiner, six county area Amarillo, 62 years old.
Greg Ramsey, forensic investigator, Native of New York, 37 years old.
Katrina Santos, Latin American, certified medic, forensics investigator, coming from the Taos Police Department and the DEA, 31 years old.
Non-agents in MCAT office
Drusilda Gunny Montgomery is administrative assistant to Commander Larabee and Captain Tanner.
Judy Mullins is a data typist/ computer assistant 21 years old.
Suzanne Mills is administrative assistant to Director Travis.
Other non-agents added to series
Linda Dubois co-owns the Southern Breeze with her brothers and is now married to Chris Larabee.
Mathew Glen Dubois is one of Lindas Brother and a veterinarian.
George Ramos is the ranch foreman for Larabee 7.
Ben Watson is the ranch foreman for the Southern Breeze.
Walter Andrews was a San Antonio police detective, retired after 25 years, previously served ten years in military.
Barbara Lindsey is an attorney. She specializes in cases involving children, and is actively involved in CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).
Maxine (Max) Bowdrie is Gunnys sister 55 years old, spent 20 years in Navy as a nurse, retired as Lt.
Selina Cordova is Raphaels daughter and a Denver Police officer.
Additionally: Of course, the children.
Journal Entry May 12
The last two weeks have been busy both personally and professionally. Personally, my repeat tests for AIDS and hepatitis both returned negative, thank God. Linda is in the last few weeks of her pregnancy and is very uncomfortable, but that is expected. I know she is apprehensive about the impending birth of our first child; but according to Dr. Ryder, she is doing well. I know she will do just fine and about this time next month we will be settled with our new baby.
Barbara wasted no time in moving forward on the adoption proceedings for Jason and Andi. She and Ezra even postponed their special weekend together to have the adoption completed first. Ezra understood Barbara's decision and was as eager as the rest of us, to see the children's future secured. Since it was a kinship adoption, with pre- approved applicants, things moved quickly, and as of this morning at ten, it is official; Jason Cameron Tanner and Andria Nicole Tanner are legal. The Tanners put their status as foster care parents on hold for a while and Vin is working hard on the plans for their new house. I expect they will be breaking ground to build anytime now. The kids are excited about the new house and they are looking forward to helping Vin build it. They have come a long way in the last few months and have definitely made themselves comfortable in their new surroundings.
Last weekend the Tanners celebrated their first wedding anniversary on the seventh and Vin’s May tenth birthday a few days early with the kids. Then Linda and I had Jason and Andi overnight to give the Tanners some time alone at their cabin. Buck made a point of letting them know that they are not newlyweds anymore, and now that the children have come into their lives they are an old married couple like the rest of them. Somehow I don’t think Vin and Kelli will ever settle into their marriage like the rest of the brothers and their wives have. Their relationship is unique, I expect they will continue to keep it as fresh, new and exciting, as it was when it started, and will give Buck plenty of ammunition for his good-natured teasing.
MCAT turns a year old in the next week. We have certainly given people something to sit up and take notice of for sure. Our cases are more distinctive and challenging than any others that we have tackled in the past, but that is what this unit is designed to handle. Josiah has come into his own as a profiler and his work is respected throughout law enforcement. Our team is tight and they work together well. The younger agents listen to and respect the experience of our original seven, and I couldn’t be happier with the way the unit has turned out. Our success rate in clearing our cases is at 98% and we are no doubt the best tactical response unit in the country.
Of course, some times we take on cases for political reasons, which is, I suppose, all part of the price we have to pay for MCAT existing. JD has been grumbling about getting out in the field again and I have decided that he deserves to get out from behind that CASSIE desk once in a while. He is a good agent out in the field, as well as behind a desk. The next opportunity for his skills to come into play I will send him out. The forensic team that was established as a part of MCAT is extraordinary and I believe they are one of the reasons we have such a high conviction rate for our cases.
Nathan is expanding his role of medic and has enrolled in some forensics classes at the college. He has always been compulsive about staying on top of the latest techniques in emergency care and wants to be on top of this part of the investigative work as well. Having him liaison between the unit and Bones has proven to be effective and bonded both sides of our investigative unit, making our team even stronger. This weekend we will celebrate our MCAT Anniversary with a team barbecue on Sunday here at the ranch. I guess that catches me up and since I am meeting Vin early in the morning to ride I will close now.
Larabee 7 Ranch
Sunrise was still twenty minutes away when Chris and Vin rode out. The sky overhead was soft lavender infused with strips of orange and pink through out, as the sun slowly broke from its nighttime resting place and prepared for its daily responsibilities. Peso and Pony were more than ready to be liberated from their confinement; and refused being reined in until all of their pent-up energy was expelled. They raced across the property side by side; their riders slouched over in the saddles, taking as much delight in the vigorous ride as the two horses were.
Finally, the two geldings complied with the commands of their individual owners, and slowed to a walk. Vin patted Peso on the neck, whispering words of affection to the black horse, in a soft tone that only the animal could hear. He straightened up in the saddle and turned towards Chris, to see the blond man rubbing Pony’s neck affectionately. The sharpshooter flashed his best friend a wide smile.
“Whew!” Vin exclaimed, “That was one hell of a ride!”
“That it was.” Chris agreed whole-heartedly.
They rode in companionable silence for a while, enjoying the serenity of unspoiled nature around them uninterrupted. From time to time, Chris would glance over at Vin when he knew the Texan wasn’t looking, and thinking on how much the man had come to mean to him. He didn’t want to think of how close he had come to losing Vin’s friendship and respect a few weeks earlier because of his stubborn pride getting in the way of his admitting he had a problem with the painkillers.
Tanner didn’t acknowledge the fact that he was aware of the glances that Larabee had cast his direction periodically throughout their ride. He had an inkling of the train of thought Chris’ mind was moving in, and decided to put his best friend at ease once and for all.
That’s water under the bridge Cowboy…
Chris met Vin’s blue eyes with his own and held them. He didn’t see any of the recriminations he felt inside him reflected in the Texan’s eyes. He only saw only understanding, warmth and friendship in the blue orbs.
“Vin, I…”Chris began, but Vin cut him off.
“Let it go, Chris…I have.”
Chris nodded after a moment, and the two men set their horses into motion once more. On the way back to the house, they stopped at the parcel of land on Larabee 7 that Vin and Kelli had selected to build their house. The Tanners had decided to build a log and stone multi-level on the slope of a hill that would afford them a spectacular view of the mountain meadow where they were married. It would also give them an excellent view of the sun rising over the mountains.
“It is a great place to build Vin. Are your blueprints finished?” Chris knew how much the Texan loved this particular place on the ranch and was not surprised that he had picked it to build on.
“Pretty much, we’ll end up with over 3500 square feet of space. It will be a two-story hillside with five bedrooms, room for more if we need ‘em, three and a half baths, wraparound deck and a two-story wall of windows. We’ll have a daylight basement for at least two of those bedrooms, guest quarters, recreation room, storage area, and my office. The main floor will have a family room, utility, dinin’, and kitchen area, along with Jason, Andi’s, and mine and Kelli’s room, plus a few extra spaces. I plan a loft area for the kids’ playroom, and with good weather permittin’ we should be able to move in before August.”
“You have put a lot of thought into the plans Vin.” Chris said. “But do you think that Jason and Andi are ready for their own rooms?”
“Yeah, I do.” Vin said, turning his attention off of the land before him and onto his best friend. “They made the transition from sleepin’ together to twin beds okay, and Kelli and I’ve talked to ‘em about having separate bedrooms. They both get to choose how they want their rooms to look, and we promised ‘em any type of mural they wanted. Jason wants mountains on one wall of his room and Andi wants clouds on her ceilin’ with the moon and stars. I also promised ‘em that there would be no solid closet doors anywhere in the house. I’ll use batwing, bi-fold or louver doors instead.”
Chris had a flash of a memory about Andi screaming when Jack locked her and Jason in the closet. “Not just anyone would have considered that. They seem so well adjusted now that I sometimes forget what they have been through in their short lives.” Larabee mentally shook off the unwelcome reminders of his brother and his cruel treatment of his own children.
“They are doing great.” Vin agreed. “Kel is livin’ proof that early childhood trauma can influence your adult life and cause pain for a long time. I want Jason and Andi to have all the advantages that we can give ‘em, to compensate for what they were subjected to. That’s somethin’ that Kelli never had and she paid for it in too many ways.”
“I think they have the right parents to make sure they don’t have to pay the same price.” Chris knew that fate had intended Jason and Andi to be exactly where they were now. “With the records of the adoption sealed and them using the Tanner name, no one outside the family should be able to connect them to Jack. I’ m glad the judge agreed with us on that one.” I should have been there to help Kel the way you two are helping Jason and Andi.
Vin read where Larabees’ thoughts were taking him and changed the subject. “I seem to recall a few pledges from you and the others to help when we were ready to build. I’ve already arranged a schedule for the foundation to be set, the plumbin’ laid and the materials will be delivered in a few days to get started on the rest of it. I plan to do as much as I can myself, but I have some outside help coming in to get the exterior work done as quickly as possible.”
“Count me in for whatever you want me to do and if you need some time off you have more than a few days coming to you.” Chris grinned, “You gonna leave that hot tub for us to use?”
“Get your own Lar’bee. I have a private area planned off the master bedroom and Kel would have a fit if that hot tub wasn’t on it.”
“I’d bet she wouldn’t be the only one that would miss it.” Chris laughed because he was well aware that Vin would not give it up either.
“Damned straight,” Tanner grinned.
Race you home, brother.
No contest, but you can try, Cowboy.
Jason and Andi loved to explore and always seemed to find something new that caught their attention. Kelli and Linda sat on the deck and watched the kids enjoy what was turning out to be a beautiful day.
Linda had been waiting for an opportunity such as this one to talk to Kelli in private. “It’s hard to believe that you have two children now, while I am still waiting on one, but you appear to be very happy about it.”
Kelli smiled, “I am. When we walked out of that courtroom yesterday and I realized that it was all over I felt so relieved. I still have to pinch myself to make sure it’s not a dream.”
“Then tell me something,” Linda leaned forward to watch Kelli’s reaction. “Why haven’t you and Vin tried to have a child of your own?” She was determined to find out the reason the Tanners had always insisted that they were not ready for kids yet.
Silence reigned between them while Kelli decided if she wanted to tell Linda the truth or not. Finally she made up her mind, “Jason and Andi are ours, regardless of the fact that Vin and I didn’t create them. The reason why Vin and I haven’t had a baby yet…” She broke the sentence off, not sure of how to end it, then took a deep breath and tried again. “We have been tryin’ since we were married, but it just hasn’t happened. Accordin’ to the doctor…it might not happen at all.”
“Oh Kel…” Linda thought about all the joking and comments that had been made over the last year by the other members of the family they found themselves a part of. “Why haven’t you said something instead of listening to all that damn teasing about it?”
“Because I would rather hear the damn teasin’ than give everyone an explanation.” Kelli had thought it would get easier to accept as time passed, but it hadn't. “I have some internal scars from the abuse I received as a child that are causin’ problems. My doctor said that even if I was to get pregnant, it would be risky and recommended surgery, but I am not ready to give up completely…not yet anyway.”
Linda wrestled with her emotions and lost. She felt the tears forming as her own baby kicked, and placed a soothing hand on her stomach, even as she felt a profound sense of loss for her sister. “I’m sorry, I know it must be hard for you and I guess I haven’t helped any with my own comments.”
Kelli knew that if she looked at Linda and saw her crying she would start and kept her eyes on the children. “You had no way of knowin’, so don’t be sorry.”
She laughed to lighten the mood. “Of course Vin gets the worst part, between all the emotions he’s released in me since we meet each other, together with my damn hormones bein’ so out of whack lately. I cry a lot lately, mostly over nothin’ at all, but he understands nevertheless. He says it’s because I know I have a safe place with him to let go and he doesn’t mind. But the last few months with the stress over all that’s happened, the uncertainty over the kids and the pressure from the doctor to have the surgery, he is getting’ more than I think he bargained for.”
“I don’t think he sees it that way Kel and I’d bet that he doesn’t mind at all.” She had another thought, “Does Chris know?”
“He knows. I had to tell him when Nathan kept pushin’ to update my medical records at work. He knew I was seein’ another doctor and wanted me to sign a release for him to add ‘m to my file. Chris was the only one who could override Nathan’s request, but I had to tell him why. I asked him not to tell you so don’t blame him for keepin’ it a secret. I don’t care if you tell him you know, but I would prefer not to share it with the rest of the family.”
“Chris is the only one that I will say anything to, but if you need to talk, I’m here.” Linda reached over and squeezed her hand. “Maybe it’s time we find you a different doctor, too.”
“You might be right about that and I have considered it. I have cried more in the last few months than the previous twenty years combined and I don’t particularly like it. You think modern medicine has a cure for I emotional overload?”
Linda smiled, “If they do I haven’t found it yet. Poor Chris, between my mood swings and the tears he’s not sure what’s safe to talk about anymore.”
Kelli finally looked over at Linda and they both had the same thought about what Chris and Vin had to put up with in the past couple of months as their husbands.
They both burst into a fit of uncontrolled laughter at the same time, coinciding with Larabee and Tanner’s return from their ride.
Chris bent forward and kissed Linda hello. “You two seem to be having fun.” If he didn’t know better, that Linda wouldn’t drink while she was pregnant, he could have sworn that Linda and Kelli had been dipping into his stash of whiskey. “Vin, I don’t think these two should be left alone without a keeper. “He sat down next to his blond.
“Hell, I don’t think they even heard the kids yellin’ at us when we came up from the barn.” Vin put his hand on Kelli’s shoulder and had her move forward on the lounge chair so he could straddled the chair and sit behind her. Pulling the laughing redhead back to him, the Texan wrapped his arms around her waist, kissed the back of her neck and whispered. “Miss me baby?”
“Always,” Kelli gained control of her mirth and relaxed cozily into Vin’s strong embrace.
“The love patrol has arrived! Keep that up and I’ll have to cite you.” Buck’s booming voice was laced with amusement as he came up the porch stairs with Inez.
“I have two words for you Bucklin and it ain’t thank you.” Vin growled.
Chris snickered. "Bet I could guess what words they are."
"Me, too," Kelli commented. "By any chance do they start with 'F' and 'Y'?"
"Yep, those be the ones..." Vin acknowledged.
"You’re awful ornery this morning Vin, did you get up on the wrong side of the thorn patch...uh...bed this morning?" Buck asked with a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes.
Kelli narrowed her blue eyes at Wilmington. "And just what do you mean by that?"
"Uh...just meant that Vin isn't his usually chipper self this mornin'...you holdin' out on him?"
"Buck!" Inez elbowed her husband in the stomach. "I can't believe you just said that."
“Why?” Buck said, turning to face his wife. “Kelli and Vin know I’m only funnin’ with them
Tanner grinned, “That may be somethin’ you might have to worry about Bucklin, but not me.”
“You have the right to remain silent Buck. I suggest you use it.” Kelli smiled, “Beside I would be crazy to cut myself off from my Texan’s amazin’ lovin’.”
Inez shook her head at her husband. “You are impossible.”
“I know… but you love me anyways.” Buck said, kissing her soundly on the lips.
Inez smiled back at him. She could never stay mad at him for long.
“You just as well quit while can Buck; you don’t stand a chance in hell when the Tanners start double teaming you.” Chris enjoyed the banter.
“Reckon you’re right.” Buck said with a wide grin as he and Inez seated themselves in vacant chairs.
“Linda, we don’t want you to have to worry about a thing for tomorrow, so we came over to prepare for the barbeque. The rest of the family will be here soon.” Inez explained what they were going to do, “You just let us do all the work.”
Linda laughed, “I have no problem with that, truthfully it takes all my energy to get up from this damn chair”.
“Only a few more weeks to go though, and then watch out, she’ll be back to her normal self… full speed ahead.” Chris rubbed Linda’s back as he spoke. “She will stay plenty busy after the baby arrives and then get back to working with the horses. This beautiful blond plans to keep the Larabee 7 running the way she did the Southern Breeze and I expect we’ll all benefit from it.”
“What do you need us to do Inez?” Tanner asked.
“I think since you and Kelli usually end up in the middle of whatever all the kids are doing, watching them will be easy for you. Also, it’s good practice for the newest parents in the family.” Inez laughed. “Chris, your job is to take care of Linda.”
“I think I can handle that.” Larabee grinned, “At least I won’t have to chase her down like one of the little ones.”
Kelli stood up and offered her hand to Vin. “Come on Tanner, by my count we have four of ‘em to keep busy with more on the way over with Josiah and JD.” It did not take long for them to find something to keep the kids occupied.
Buck watched the Tanners interact all the kids. “Chris, you would have been good with Jason and Andi, but I think you made the right decision about them. You know a year ago Kel would never have come back at my teasing; now she’s downright sassy about it. She is one hell of a young woman and a daughter you can be proud of. Vin is gonna be a terrific dad to those kids, and together, I’d say they make a damn fine family.”
Chris got up and laid his hand on Buck’s shoulder.” For everything there is a season, this is their season. It’s all in the timing Buck. A year ago would have been too soon for Kel to take on being a mother, a year from now would have been right for me and Linda to adopt. For now though, this is how it was meant to be, they were in the right place in their lives at the right time and the kids will be the ones to benefit from it.”
The remaining members of the wild bunch arrived and quickly went to work on the preparations for tomorrow. Ezra however had a different agenda on his mind and asked to see Chris alone. They closed themselves up in Larabee’s home office for privacy.
“What’s on your mind, Ezra?”
“While administrating my responsibility as legal representative for Larabee 7, a situation has come to light that requires your consideration.” Standish retrieved an envelope from his jacket and handed it to Chris. “This was included with the correspondence intended for Larabee 7, once I was aware of its contents; I began to investigate the claim.”
When Chris opened the envelope and read the letter inside he still had no idea what it meant.” Confused, he looked to Ezra. “I have never rented a storage unit in Denver. What did your investigation turn up?”
“It appears that…”Ezra deeply inhaled before continuing. “ It appears that Jack rented this unit in your name three years ago. The fee was paid in advance, once a year, and when a check failed to come this year, and with no response from letters to the primary address on the lease, it was sent to the secondary address.
“Let me guess, the Larabee 7 address,” Chris sighed. “I assume that you have been in contact with the manager of these units?”
“I have. I also took the liberty of making arrangements for you to view the contents of the storage facility. Chris, I know you…as well as the rest of us are not eager to dredge up painful memories. However, the contents of this storage unit are all that remain from your brother’s life and he set it up so that you would be notified in the event that he was unable to continue paying for it. It may be nothing but inconsequential items or it may contain a legacy for the children.”
Chris still held the letter in his hand, caught up in the memories he would rather forget.
“If you prefer, one of us will do this for you. I would have taken on the matter myself, but I felt that you should have the final say-so in the disposition of this issue.
“I’ll do it,” Larabee said softly.
“Very well. This is the name and phone number of the manager. He has a key waiting for you at your convenience.”
“Thanks Ez; I’ll handle it from here.”
Once Standish left the room, Chris mentally prepared himself to make the call. You can do this Larabee, you need to do this, if for not other reason but to prove that Jack has no further claim on your life.
Picking up the phone receiver, he dialed the number Ezra had given him. It was answered on the third ring. “Denver Storage Solutions, may I help you?
“My name is Chris Larabee…”
Chris made an arrangement to meet the manager of Denver Solutions that afternoon. He had no idea of what may be waiting for him, but he was certain that this was not a trip he wished to make alone. Rejoining the rest of the family he mulled over his options. He finally made the decision to include Vin and Ezra on his excursion to the storage facility. Vin would not only keep him balanced, but he also would represent the children’s interest in whatever their father had left behind. Ezra needed to be there not only as a friend and brother, but as a legal representative as well.
Larabee found them both surrounded by children; the youngest ladies in the family were keeping Tanner and Standish busy with a board game of Candyland. The girls were winning, much to the amusement of the other family members.
“I do hate to interrupt your playtime, but I need to borrow your Uncle Ezra and Uncle Vin for a while.” Chris grinned at the girls and addressed the men. I need you two to run an errand with me.”
Ezra answered quickly. “Of course, excuse me ladies.” Standish stood up and Barbara, who had been observing the fun slid into his spot. “Thanks love, I’ll be back soon.” Much to the delight of the children, Ezra kissed Barbara good-bye, while the girls giggled.
Vin called Jason over to take his place in the game and laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Just try and keep ‘em entertained for me.” He turned to Chris, “Give me a minute to tell Kel ‘m leavin’.”
Chris told Linda he would be gone for a bit and Ezra explained to Vin where they were going on the way over.
You okay with this?
Ask me that when we are finished, Vin.
Charlie Williams, the manger of Denver Solutions, met them and unlocked the unit. “I will be in the office if you need anything.”
Larabee took a deep breath and then open the door. Memories, that took him to another time and place flooded over him like a cold rain, Chris stood still for a minute, Vin and Ezra waited patiently for him to make the first move.
It was not a large space. Inside there were only six boxes arranged neatly into three separate columns. Chris made himself move forward into the unit and found on top of the first box, in the column closest to him, an envelope with his name scrawled across the front of it. He picked it up and apprehensively pulled out the single sheet of lined paper inside.
The fact that you are reading this says youre still here and Im not. Look around you and you will see my life, at least the parts of it that I considered important anyway. I prepared this while I still had some rational bits of thinking left in me. I dont know what happened to me, but I would guess that you do so I will try not to get too maudlin with this.
I do not have to ask you to look out for my children because I know you will make certain that they are safe and hopefully with someone that can love them the way they should be loved. The first box contains what most people consider important paperwork, my will, insurance policies, bank accounts, medical information and family records. Dont worry; none of the money is from illegal gains. I never touched Carols life insurance; I figured that belonged to the kids. I could not bring myself to do anything with it though so maybe you can see that it gets to where it should.
The second sets of boxes are filled with memories from my life with Carol. Hell, you would have liked her; she stayed on my butt all the time and tried to make me a better man than I though I was. She was by far the best thing that ever came into my life and for a while I believed that maybe I could find a way to the kind of happiness that you found in yours.
Inside are pictures, Jasons baby book Carols journal and. more memories as she called them that Carole put aside for him and the new baby. I tried to do the same for Andi, but I wasnt a good substitute for their mother. Someday Jason and Andi will want to know about these things and as I am sure that you know where they are, please let them know that their mother was special and loved both of them very much. I did too.
I really tried after Carol died to do right by Jason and Andi, but there are certain things that some men just cannot handle. Losing her was my downfall and I just could not force myself to go on and now find that I dont care to. I have set my course on self-destruction and if I know me I will succeed.
The last box is about us, you and me. I know it isn't much, but then, there wasn't much I wanted to remember from our childhood.Sometimes I think it might be the same for you and that maybe we should talk about it all one day. But then I just get too mad and tell myself I'll do it, just not now. If you are here guess that talk probably never happened after all. These mementos from our childhood should let you know that I did remember my big brother and a part of me did want to change things.
I screwed up my own life and regardless of what I may have done (or will do), deep down I knew I was responsible for all the terrible things I did. Funny, I could never admit that to anyone while I was alive, but knowing that Ill be dead when you read this makes it come easier. I am leaving this storage space as is and I will not be back, so no matter what happens from this day forward, please remember that these boxes represent who I am, not whatever I become.
See you in the next life brother,
Tears trailed down Chris’ face as he passed the letter to Vin. He attempted to mentally steel himself for opening the cartons, while he waited for Tanner and Standish to read the letter.
“Chris, you don’t have to do this now.” Vin placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “There’s nothin’ in these boxes that can’t wait. Hell they’ve been sittin’ here for almost three years already.”
Larabee shook his head, “No, let’s do it. Ezra you take the box with the paperwork first, then Vin can check out the ones for the kids and I…I’ll take the last one.”
Ezra quickly sorted through the papers and found that Jack had taken the life insurance money on Carol and placed it into an account for the children along with the money from two accounts that he had closed. None of it had been touched since the day it went in there. The medical records and other family papers Standish set aside for Vin to keep with the children’s information.
“The bank accounts are in the children’s name, but I can have the monies transferred to the same accounts that are presently in use for them with no problem.” Ezra explained.
“Take care of any details that need tending and then you and Vin decide the best way to handle the money for the kids.” Chris instructed. “Vin, what did you find?”
“Obviously Carol considered memories important, she wrote a letter to Jason and her unborn child…Andi. Jack included some of her jewelry for Andi and lots of baby pictures of Jason as well as ones from their life together along with a few other mementoes. Most of this probably should wait until the kids are older and can understand better, but there are a few pieces I think they should have now. It will mean a lot to Jason to have a picture of his mother and the baby blankets she crocheted for both of ‘em would be somethin’ special for ‘em.”
Vin was happy for the kids that they would have a few memories from their mother, but he felt overwhelming sadness for the woman that could not be here to see what great children they had become. He vowed to love them extra for her and to raise them in a way that would make her proud.
“You are right, Jason said once that he couldn’t remember what his mother looked like any more.” Chris wondered why he could remember that so clearly and not all the other things that happened during that time. “You and Kelli decide what to give them now and when the right time is to share the rest of it with them. I’ll make sure you also have a copy of his original letter to me, maybe someday…it might help them to know that he tried.”
Vin and Ezra picked up the five boxes that they had opened. “We’ll take these to the Ram and let the manger know that this unit is available again.” Vin waited until Ezra was outside. “Take your time with that last one Chris; we’ll wait for you by the truck.”
Chris knelt down and removed the lid from the last box. It contained only three items, but it sent a loud message from his brother. Inside was a worn picture of the two of them together, taken just before their mother passed away. It was evident that Jack had carried it in his wallet for a long time. Chris had to laugh at the second item, a worn catcher’s mitt, one which they had used together many times. The last item was the baseball Chris had given to Jack on his sixth birthday. He remembered how Jack always badgered him to play catch and how much fun they had doing it. Good memories…to replace the bad ones.
Larabee slipped the picture in his own wallet, took the mitt, slipped it on his hand and decided that with a little work it would be in good condition again. He would use it and the ball to play catch with Jason, while he told him stories about his dad as a kid. Walking out the door without looking back, he threw the empty box into the dumpster and headed for the truck.
You okay with this, Cowboy?”
Yeah… yeah I am.
Sunday Morning ~ May 14th
Larabee 7 Ranch
The Texan hung up the phone and turned to Kelli. “That was Chris, he wants to take the kids out this mornin’ to play catch. I told him to come on over for breakfast, and he’ll be here in a couple of minutes.”
“No problem, it will be nice to visit, I don’t talk to him nearly as much as you do. And I would like to see for myself that he is okay with yesterday’s revelation. By the time we finish here the kids should be up and ready for their day.” Kelli smiled when Vin came up behind her and drew her into a loving embrace.
Tanner kissed the back of her neck. “We could just say to hell with breakfast and go back to bed.” He whispered softly in her ear, “But I promise we won’t be sleepin’.”
Kelli smiled, thoroughly enjoying his caresses. “And just what will we be doing, Tanner?”
“Before you answer that, be warned that dad is in the house.” Chris smiled as he walked in, grabbed a cup and poured himself some coffee.
“Ignore him Kel, he’s just a figment of our imaginations,” The Texan continued to nuzzle his redhead’s neck.
“Vinnnnnnn! Andi is being stubborn again!” Jason’s call from the bedroom effectively ended whatever Tanner had in mind.
“Sorry hot stuff, it sounds as if you are needed elsewhere.” Kelli yelped when Vin swatted her butt, as he grinned and left to rescue Jason.
Chris shook his head and laughed. “Vin is one of the most dangerous men I know with his hands or any weapon, and you have a hell of a track record with a gun. To see you two playing like kids though, no one would ever believe it.”
“That’s all part of our plan to stay young.” She smiled, “Dad, how is Linda feelin’ this mornin’? Are you okay with the way things turned out?
“I let her sleep in because she is exhausted, but then she stays that way lately. Fortunately we only have a few more weeks to go though. As for me, I feel as if I am finally free of the last few months of hell. Oh, I almost forgot.” Chris set his cup down, reached in his pocket for an envelope and gave it to her. “It’s a copy of Jack’s letter.”
Kelli slipped it into her own pocket. “Someday the kids will appreciate seein’ this. We plan to give them their blankets and pictures when we move to the new house; it will be a special gift from their mother. Hopefully it will make the transition to their own rooms easier for them.”
A head nod was the only acknowledgment Chris gave. “Now, what can I do to help?”
“You cook the bacon and I’ll do the eggs.”
“You got it.” Chris started cooking the bacon and then hesitated slightly before he spoke. “Linda said you told her about your pregnancy challenge. Are you doing okay?”
Kelli sighed, “Yeah, I guess so. My doctor keeps pushin’ me, but for now I feel fine. However my hormones are doing some strange things lately and I cry a lot. Vin is the one that’s really sufferin’ though, not a day goes by it seems that he doesn’t have to listen to my out of control emotions go off the Richter scale.”
“Vin is not sufferin’; he is right where he wants to be.” Tanner walked in on the tail end of the conversation and stopped in front of Kelli. “I love you Kel, my job is to keep you happy and ‘m very good at it.” He grinned and winked; “Besides, I like doin’ all that lovin’ it takes to get you in a good mood.” The Texan drew her closer and was willing to demonstrate his methods.
“Okay you two, breakfast…kids…remember?” Chris smirked.
Jason and Andi ran in yelling in unison. “Uncle Chris is here!” They both received their expected hug from their favorite uncle.
“Yep and as soon as we finish breakfast, I am going to teach you both how to play catch. So let’s get this show on the road.”
The children helped set the table, and it did not take long to finish cooking and have the food on the table. Chris was pleased that the kid’s appetites had increase dramatically since they first arrived on the Larabee7. Watching them today, it was hard to believe that only a few short months ago their lives had been so different. He had to admit that most of the credit for that went to Vin and Kelli, of course they were good kids to begin with, but they needed the love and attention they found here.
Chris also knew that if he had been himself in the beginning and not high on drugs, maybe he could have played a bigger part in helping the children adjust. He was extremely grateful that the children had not suffered because of his reckless behavior with prescription drugs. Besides, now he had the luxury as an uncle of spoiling them and letting their new parents deal with the results of it.
Breakfast was finished shortly, the dishes were washed, and the kids were ready to go outside to play catch with Uncle Chris.
“Hold it a minute, baby girl.” Kelli stopped Andi before she got to the door. “Aren’t you forgettin’ somethin’?”
Andi scrunched up her face and did not know what the redhead was talking about. “Uh uh.”
“Shoes, baby, shoes, you can’t go out barefooted. “Kelli watched as Andi ran to get her forgotten footwear.
Chris and Vin exchanged knowing looks, and then burst out laughing. Kelli shot them each a glare in return, knowing what had instigated their laughter. Neither man was scared into silence by her heated glare; in fact it only made them laugh harder. “You think it’s funny just because I occasionally forget my shoes?”
“Occasionally baby? Try half the time.” Vin was grinning.
“It’s okay, Red, you know what they say. Like mother, like daughter.” Chris was still chuckling. “Kids, I think we should leave now. We’ll see you two over at the house…later.”
Take your time, Vin
Plan to, Cowboy.
Tanner put his arm around Kelli’s waist as Chris left with the children. Before she realized what he was going to do, Vin had swept her off her feet. “Where were we before we were interrupted?”
Kelli wrapped one arm around his neck; the other at the back of his head.” About right here,” she tilted her head back. His mouth came down on top of hers, and he kissed her with a passionate hunger. The kiss was wet, hot, wild and thoroughly arousing.
“I remember now.” Vin carried her to the bedroom. Kelli smiled up into his handsome face and the intensity of the feelings that raced through their bodies was overpowering. The Texan kicked the bedroom door shut with his booted foot.
Each time that he and Kelli made love; Vin felt as if he had died and been reborn and today was no exception. Although the Texan had no explanation as to why he and Kelli belonged together; he just knew that they did. He needed Kelli the same way he knew he needed air to breathe. He was certain that they had always been lovers and that somehow they had found one another again in this lifetime. He drew her closer and whispered softly, “Love you baby. “
His redhead snuggled closer into his arms, content in the afterglow of the lovemaking. “Love you too.”
It was much later when they joined Chris, Linda and the kids at the house.
Noon ~ Ranch
All of the family had gathered at Chris’ for the team barbeque. The rest of the agents and their families or guests would not begin arriving for another hour and the preparations for the event were finished. For some reason Buck herded everyone into the Larabee living room.
“All right Buck, you got us all in here, now tell us what’s on your mind.” Chris was interested to see what his old friend was up to now.
“You just hold your horses there, stud. I don’t get to do this often and I plan to do it my way.”
“Buck…now.” Inez sent him a warning look.
“Yeah… right darlin’.” He grinned at his wife and then faced the group. “I have an announcement to make. He waited until he had everyone’s attention before continuing. “I got my next Christmas present a little early this year and sometime in December all of you will be able to see it too. Because Santa’s gonna bring us another baby. We’re pregnant again!”
Congratulations came from everywhere and Buck beamed like a proud papa was entitled to. Inez flushed under all the well wishes that were showered on her and Buck from their family members.
Kelli hugged Inez and kissed Buck on the cheek, “Congratulations y’all.”
Vin kissed Inez on the cheek, and slapped Buck on the back. “It’s about time you figured out that it’s kids that keep you young, but in your case it may already be too late.” Tanner grinned when Buck tried to elbow him in the ribs.
“Well now we’re one up on you so you’ll just have to try harder to catch up.” Buck smirked.
“That will be my pleasure Bucklin.” Vin assured him.
Linda watched Kelli. Ever since the redhead had shared her revelation with her the day before she worried about all the teasing Kelli would have to listen to so the blond directed the attention away from the Tanners.
“Hopefully by December I will have had this little one and be able to help you out. Sometime I think I will just stay this way forever.” Linda laughed.
Inez laughingly agreed, “It does seem that way, but trust me there is an end to it… it only seems like forever.”
While the three women talked the rest of the family drifted outside and the first of the other team members began to arrive.
Chris and Vin stood on the deck and observed the other members of the unit as they intermingled.
“Look at Ezra trying to get Linda to tell him if we’re having a boy or a girl.” Chris smiled.
“Hey, you could tell me, the bettin’ pool is over a thousand dollars now.”
“Like hell, Linda would kill me. She wants it to be a surprise.”
“Yeah, excuses, excuses.”
“Who would have thought that Gunny had a sister named Max? Chris grinned, “Former Navy Lieutenant, and retired nurse. She has the same no nonsense attitude that Gunny does.”
“Yeah, I have been watchin’ her; she is damned good with kids. She’s the type of person I would feel comfortable babysittin’ our kids. She would be better than some sixteen year old teeny-bopper any day.”
“So, why don’t you ask for her phone number? She lives here in Denver now.”
Tanner smiled, “Kel already did.”
“Mallory told me she is looking to go back to work; she may need someone like Max to help with Joann and Adam.” Chris had been surprised when Mallory had told him, and he had promised her that he would keep his ears open if anything became available at her old security level.
Chris looked over the guests and thought about the last year. “We were lucky with team seven. I wasn’t sure we could pull it off a second time. It is damn amazing that with the exception of Reed, we have all our original members and the newer one have fit in well.”
Vin shook his head, “Cowboy, luck had nothing to do with it. Your leadership pulled team seven together, the same way you did with this unit. Don’t underestimate that Lar’bee charm.”
“Charm my ass,” Larabee laughed and then became serious again. “MCAT hasn’t been tested yet Vin. We have had some difficult cases, but not any that have hit at the heart of this unit.”
“I disagree Chris, the last year ain’t exactly been a picnic for any of us, especially for you.”
“I’m not talking about personal pain, I’m talking about principles. You know as well as I do that this is a dirty business and we haven’t hit the dirtiest part of it yet. There is still a case out there that will make everyone here question why in the hell they do this kind of work for a living and when it comes, it will be a rough ride for all of us.”
Tanner thought about some of the things he had personally witnessed in the past and realized Chris was right. This was a tight team, but most of their assignments had been cleaner than the worst that was out there.
“You’re thinking too hard.” Chris laid a hand on Vin’s shoulder. “Just for the record, you have done one hell of a job yourself this last year. You are just as responsible for the success of this team as I am. Now I think that as their Commander and their Captain we need to go let them know how good they are.”
“Whatever you say, Boss.”
Thursday ~May 25th
Chris was immersed in paperwork, expense reports, and requests for MCAT assistance with cases from law enforcement agencies from coast to coast. It seemed that his unit had become the go to agency when things got a little difficult in an investigation .An aggravated Larabee pushed the folders across the desk and sighed deeply.
Vin stood at the office door and watched his best friend. “You really need to find a way to relax before you explode.”
Looking up at him Chris had to smile, “What in the hell makes you think I’m not cool and calm?”
Tanner chuckled as entered the room and sprawled in the chair before Chris’ desk. “Hell Chris, you get any more irritable and you’ll have to go into hibernation…or we will.”
“Okay, maybe I have been a little touchy this week” He read the look of incredulity on Tanner’s face. “All right I’ve been a real sonofabitch! It’s all this!” He waved his hand across the pile of papers. “Every jackass in the country wants us to bail them out of their stalled investigations and it makes me wonder if anyone is working out there, except us.”
“There’s nothin’ new about that Chris. Is that what ‘s really botherin’ you?”
“Yes…no…partly, hell this is aggravating, but I guess it’s the waiting for the baby that has me so damned ornery. I remember how it was with Sarah, but Linda seems to be having a more difficult pregnancy. It seems that I cannot do or say anything right, right now. I know she is miserable and we are almost there, only a couple of weeks to go.”
Vin read what Chris was not saying. “They are going to be fine, Chris. By this time next month you will be holdin’ that little one and wonderin’ what in the hell you were so worried about.”
It still amazed Chris that sometimes Vin knew better than he did what he was thinking. “I just need it to be over and know they are safe. After everything that has happened in the last year I…” He found it hard to admit his fears about their wellbeing.
The Texan grinned, “When you drag yourself in here half asleep from walkin’ the floor all night with that baby, I’m gonna remind you of this conversation.”
“I just bet you will at that.” Larabee smiled. “Now make yourself useful and help me go through these requests for our assistance.”
A knock at the door drew their attention.
“Enter,” Larabee yelled.
Ezra walked in. “I do abhor interrupting, however it is significant that I remind you that I am departing for my three day weekend.”
“You and Barbara deserve the time together, enjoy your mini-vacation Ezra.” Chris acknowledged. “We’ll see you on Monday.”
“Take care Ez.” Vin added with a grin. “Take care of Barbara, too.”
“Adios amigos,” Ezra grinned as he walked out the door.
Once Standish was out the door Larabee and Tanner went back to work, with a little luck they might get to leave this place on time for the first time in two weeks.
“All I know is that you said pack for warm weather and bring a swim suit. Are you ready to tell me where we are going?” Barbara loved the mystery, but her curiosity was strong.
“Mexico love, we have a private villa awaiting us and three days to be together.” Ezra smiled and stole a kiss from his beautiful brunette.
Barbara grinned, “Alone with you, the sun and the sand for three whole days. What more could a woman ask for?”
Ezra held out his hand, “Then shall we?” Together they walked to the boarding area.
Sunday ~ May 28th
Mexico ~ seaside
“Ezra this has been the most romantic weekend that I have ever experienced.” Barbara reached over to kiss him. “I love spending time with you like this.”
Standish filled her wine glass. “I believe it is your turn my dear, to tell me something about yourself.” They had played this game for three days, each taking a turn at divulging a bit of their lives that the other did not know.”
“Let’s see, you already know that my parents are rich socialites, old money of course, that would rather see me on the front page of the lifestyle section than working in a small law office in Denver.” Barbara counted off the things she was naming on her fingertips. “ That I attended private schools, all girls, I love my work, Italian food, Jackie Chan movies, and my grandmother is my favorite relative…what else… Okay, I love to play card games, but I suck at it, I can’t bluff worth a damn outside of the courtroom. Now it’s your turn.”
“Hmmm, you know all the sordid details about Maude, my unorthodox upbringing, my work …What you may not know Ms. Lindsey is that I find myself lost every time I look into your beautiful hazel eyes.”
Barbara looked up quickly. My eyes? What about those gorgeous emerald orbs of his?
Ezra knew that he had caught her off- guard with his remark and sought to take full advantage of it. Drawing her close to him he whispered, “We have five hours before we leave this paradise. Let’s not spend it talking.”
“Who needs to talk?” Barbara leaned into Ezra for his promised kiss and lost herself to the man that had already stolen her heart and Ezra felt as if he had found home at last.
Tuesday~ May 30th
“Vin I need to borrow your wife for the night." Ezra Standish said without preamble, as he walked up behind the lanky Texan.
"Come again?" The Texan said in a soft voice as he turned away from the coffeemaker, mug in hand, to face Standish. His blue eyes narrowed into fine slits as he gazed at the undercover agent as if he had sprouted two heads. “You want to borrow my what?
The bullpen had suddenly grown quiet as all activity near the food and beverage area had stopped, and all eyes were focused the two men to see what would happen next.
“This is going to be good.” JD commented to Buck, Paul and Ross, whose desks were all located nearby.
“I’m interested in seeing how Standish talks his way out of this one.” Buck said, and a wide grin formed on his roguish features as he watched his fellow MCAT agents with undisguised amusement.
“Uh...Vin...that isn't what I meant." Ezra back-pedaled, realizing how his sentence had sounded to Tanner. "I want your wife..."
Tanner took a menacing step towards Standish.
“If I were you, Ezra, I would start talking faster. Vin looks about ready to throttle you.” JD called out from behind the CASSIE consol.
“I’d take JD’s advice, Ezra.” Tanner growled. “And start explainin’ why you want to borrow my wife for the night.”
Standish grew flustered, something that was very uncommon for him to do. "I acquire female companionship to assist me in perfecting an undercover persona that will secure my position with the sordid associates of a particularly nasty and devious perpetrator."
Vin's eyebrows shot up at the words, giving the Texan and almost comical expression, where there had previously been a menacing one. "Ezra, what the hell are you talkin' about?"
Ezra chuckled, feeling relief fill him as Tanner’s initial anger seemed to diminish at his words. “I need Kelli to go undercover with me to carry off the identity I've created so that the deviant and his companions will...respect me."
Vin looked intently at Ezra. “Respect you?”
“As you know our illustrious leader has committed me to yet another mundane operation, not worthy of my talents. Be that as it may, I find myself cleaning up an ATF operation concerning an old associate of mine.”
“You’ve already made contact with Morales then?”
“Yes, and if he runs true to form, he will insist on a few evenings of entertainment before we can get down to business. I prefer to bring my own lady, rather than have him provide superfluous female companionship to entertain me.”
Tanner laughed, “I guess Barbara has changed your outlook on that part of the business. Talk to Kel and set it up. Meetin’ in the war room at eleven Ez, have your plan ready to present.”
The chatter in the room was loud and boisterous as the MCAT agents waited for their bosses to make an appearance. Mark was just about to get even with Buck for putting him in a headlock when Larabee and Tanner entered the room. Larabee and Tanner exchanged exasperated looks in regards to the shenanigans of the rest of the members of their unit.
“Boys and girls, if we may, I would like to get started.” Chris waited for them to settle.
Buck was in a jovial mood. “Go big dog, we’ll behave.”
“Director Travis received a request from the ATF for our assistance.” Larabee had to wait for the groans and laughter to subside before he could continue. “We will honor this request.” He glared them into silence. “Most of the ground work has been finished and the suspect is a gun dealer that our old team seven has encountered before, Enrique Morales. Ezra is familiar with this man’s methods and has a way in as a buyer. Standish, tell us what you have planned.”
“Mr. Morales is a strange man and he has some unusual superstitions, but he knows me as Emerson Sellers and he trusts me. Nevertheless he adheres to a specific routine before a transaction and he insists a woman be present at all meetings. Therefore my partner, Agent Coulter, and I will be assuming new identities and I have already arranged our first meeting for tomorrow evening. Morales usually insists on two nights of social contact between him and any associates he does business with before he will agree to set a time for a buy to go down. Our first meeting will be at Club Metro to experience some of our fine city’s nightlife. The second destination is to be determined by him then. When we are successful we will be taking two hundred Ak-47 assault rifles off the streets of Denver.”
“JD set up communications for us. Where do you plan to stay?” Chris questioned.
“The Brown Palace of course, Emerson Sellers has already reserved a suite of rooms for his arrival tomorrow.” Standish answered.
“Rooms Ez?” Buck grinned, “You only need one.” He waited for the expected reaction from Vin.
“Rooms, Bucklin, the man has to have a bodyguard and this bodyguard don’t plan on sleepin’ in the same room as Ez, he snores.” Vin smirked.
“I do not!” Ezra was not surprised that Tanner would appoint himself as his bodyguard. He was the logical choice.
Buck chuckled, “Just whose body is he gonna be there to guard? Yours or Kelli’s?”
“Excuse me; I thought we were all professionals here, not juveniles. Do you find somethin’ funny about assault rifles hittin’ our streets, Buck?” Kelli was not amused by Wilmington’s attempts to goad Vin with his comments.
“Assault rifles no, you and Ez as a couple? Hell yeah!”
Chris decided to end Buck’s harassment. “Wilmington set up two teams for surveillance. That’s it, dismissed.” He motioned for Vin to come with him and led the way to his office.
Larabee closed the door once they were in his office. “Are you sure about working this one, Vin?”
“Who else is believable as a bodyguard that has experience with undercover work?” Vin said. “You do, but you need to be with Linda. Kelli would strangle Buck within a few hours because you and I both know he can’t help but run his mouth about this one. Raphael could, but he’s in Boulder for the birth of his new grandchild and won’t be back until Friday. The others are not that familiar with this type of operation or how Ezra works and I don’t particular want to put an inexperienced agent out there for a trial run since Kelli won’t have her weapon, so…”
“You’re right. Nathan, Paul and Ross have next to zero experience in undercover work. Mark has the same problem as JD; they both look too damn young to intimidate anyone. That only leaves Justin or Josiah and both of them are a little older than would be believable on this one.”
“I’m not that crazy about us both being undercover on the same case because of the kids, but I don’t see that we have a choice.”
“The children can stay with us for the next two days, that’s not a problem. Just don’t let this be a problem for you.”
A knock on the door interrupted whatever Tanner planned to reply.
“Enter,” Chris yelled.
Ezra came in and explained his presence. “I plan to take Kel shopping this afternoon, to acquire the appropriate wardrobe for this task You do of course, appreciate the fact that appearances are everything in this type of operation.”
“I know what your interpretation of shopping entails Ezra, lots of hours and money. Just remember Linda’s baby shower is tonight and Kel is expected to be there, as well as Barbara.” Chris directed. “Take Vin with you, after all, your bodyguard needs some news duds, too.”
“Of course, and we shall return before five.” Ezra assured. “We are prepared to leave at your convenience Captain.”
Tanner sighed, he had not thought about clothes for himself when he opened his mouth about playing bodyguard. However, if Standish was taking his wife shopping, then he damn well planned to be there...he knew what Ezra considered fashionable and he knew Kelli hated to shop. It was a certainty that she and Ezra would be arguing before the afternoon was over without someone to run interference.
“Be ready to leave in ten minutes and we’ll take my truck.”
The afternoon shopping expedition from hell started off bad and just got worse. Ezra took them to several boutiques that specialized in the latest fashions and was top dollar. Kelli was not impressed with any of them, and insisted that the current boutique that they were in was the last stop. She hated the numerous changes of clothes, and was not thrilled about Ezra’s choice.
“Explain somethin’ to me Ez? How come the less material it takes to make a dress, the higher the price tag?” She held up the last dress the proprietor had given her that was not much bigger than dinner napkin.
“Sex sells, Kel, and that’s what Morales expects to see. He appreciates the beauty of women and believes that their presence brings him luck.” Standish explained. “Now, please try a few of these on.”
“If I wear any of these and spike heels, the man will be lucky if I don’t kill him.” Kelli mumbled on her way to the dressing room
“Ez, you are walkin’ on thin ice here. If Kelli doesn’t try to shoot you before this day is over, I might.” Vin decided that he did not like this place or the choice in clothing available. However, as much he was enjoying watching his wife parade around in these skimpy outfits for the last few hours, he did not particularly care for the admiring looks she was receiving from other male patrons in the boutique.
Kelli walked out wearing the first item Ezra had chosen from the rack. It had a neckline that plunged to her waist, no back except for some flimsy straps, and just a few inches of cloth that started at her hips and traveled down to a few inches below her panty line.
“Over my dead body! Hell, she wears more than that to bed and that’s not sayin’ much.” Tanner vigorously shook his head no.
Ezra laughed, “Try the next one.” Standish had decided that if he had to do this, at least he could have some fun irritating his brother.
The second selection was one that showed an equal amount of Kelli’s back, her smooth stomach, and was attached from bodice to skirt on the side by only a thin piece of material.
Vin growled at Ezra. “I think I'll just shoot you now and save us all the trouble.”
“Fine! You think you can do better, be my guest.” Standish ended his statement with an annoyed wave of his hand.
The Texan knew that his redhead would have to dress out of the norm for her, but he also knew she could be sexy without going bare. He looked over the selections and chose three sexy dresses for her to try on that he could live with her wearing, for her to try.
“Here Kel, any of these outfits should be a reasonable compromise.” Tanner handed them to his wife; she accepted them and then proceeded to model each one.
Ezra had to agree that all three were acceptable and grudgingly admitted that Vin did know what looked good on her. All three outfits showed more cleavage and bare skin that he or any of the others agents were used to seeing, but then they all were used to her wearing jeans or slacks and sweaters or loose fitting blouses. The slits in the sides were sexy, yet added a hint of mystery to the lady and the colors choices were perfect for her.
“Very well Kelli, I must defer to the Texan’s taste in clothing for you. He does seem to have more than one hidden talent.” Ezra turned to Vin, “Mr. Tanner, it’s your turn to transform.
“Aww hell Ez, I’m just gonna be a bodyguard not a damn player. I can get by with jeans and a jacket.”
“Not and represent me you won’t.” Ezra snapped. “However, if you cooperate I might let you off without having to wear a tie.”
It was Tanner’s answer that sounded like something between a bark and a growl that convinced Standish that he might be pushing the man too far.
Kelli laughed, “If I have to take part in this charade so do you Vin.” She moved closer so only he could hear her. “I’ll make it well worth your while when we get home.”
Tanner grinned and a relieved Standish knew he owed his partner for getting the Texan to agree. They finished their shopping quickly and returned to the office.
Larabee 7 Ranch
The women were finishing the preparations for Linda’s baby shower while the men continued their jokes about the upcoming assignment. Buck of course was just getting wound up and the next three days promised to be long ones.
“I hope you ladies stay on schedule. Kel has to get ready for her date with Ezra tomorrow night.” Buck grinned at the numerous glares aimed in his direction.
Chris walked up beside him and said in a low voice, “Buck, if Vin or Kelli don’t shoot you before this is over, I think I will.”
JD criticized, “Why do they always come to us when they can’t do their jobs? I thought the ATF was better than that.”
Nathan laughed, “Apparently when we all left, they lost the best, and can’t operate without our help.”
“I for one will be exceedingly content once other agencies refrain from requesting MCAT to execute the duties that they should accomplish. This type of operation ranks far below my performance level.” Ezra groused.
“Hell Ez, you think we like cleaning up after them? At least this time we can have some fun with it.” Buck retorted.
“Yeah, at our expense,” Kelli complained. “Y’all best remember, I may not have my gun on my person for this assignment, but I damn well know where to get one if I need it.”
Buck chuckled, “You won’t have it because there’s no place to conceal it in those outfits you bought today.”
“She can always borrow mine Bucklin.” Vin voiced as he rounded up his children and kissed his wife. Goodbye. “Linda, have a good time, ‘m taking the kids home.”
“Excellent suggestion Vin,” Rain smiled and urged them the men, along with the kids out the door. “Gentlemen if you will all retire to the Tanner home with the children we may get started.” Once the men were gone Mallory and Rain took over.
Mallory explained to Linda. “Since we still don’t know if we are having a girl or a boy, we all tried to find something that would suit either. If anything needs to be exchanged just let me know.”
Linda spent the next thirty minutes opening baby gifts. “I thank you for the gifts, but more importantly, for being my sisters. The last few months have been hard, but not near as hard as they could have been without y’all being here.”
“We all signed on for the duration with this wild bunch and you are welcome. Now, before we have cake…games.” Groans were heard around the room when Rain pulled out the baby shower game book.
It was quite a sight at the Tanner home, all the tired children had found a spot to snuggle and as Chris looked around the room he had to smile. His brothers, all lawmen that were capable of being extremely dangerous men, had children draped all over them. JD had the twins’ snuggled one on each side of him on one end of the couch, while Nathan had Terrell over his shoulder on the other. Josiah sat in the recliner with Adam asleep on his lap as Joann lay cuddled in Ezra’s arms on the floor.
Sarah and Maria shared Buck’s stomach as a pillow as they all lay on the floor watching Beauty and the Beast. Vin sat in the rocker with Andi asleep in his arms and an almost asleep Jason at his side.
Chris picked up Jason to carry him to his bed, which allowed Vin room to get up and carry Andi to hers. “Thanks Chris, I thought I would be stuck in that rocker until mornin’ or at least until Kel got home.” Tanner grinned.
“No problem.” Chris smiled when they had both children in their respective beds. “They are so angelic when they sleep even though you know they are only recharging their batteries to run you ragged tomorrow.” Suddenly Chris was anxious to hold his own child safely in his arms. Thankfully Linda only had another week to go.
“Chris, I thought Kel and I were as happy as two people could possibly be when it was only the two of us, but since these two arrived it’s even better than I could have imagined.” They walked to the door together. “I just want ‘em to feel comfortable enough at some point to accept us as their parents and ‘m lookin forward to hearing ‘em call us mom and dad.”
“It will come; look how long it took Kel to call me dad.” Chris patted him on the back. “You are right not to insist on it though. Trust me; it’s worth the wait for when it does happen, it’s the best feeling in the world.” Larabee knew that it would happen; Vin and Kelli showed the kids too much love for it not to.
Vin took one more look at the kids before he turned the light out. “It’s gonna be a long couple of days and hell not seein’ ‘em.”
“I promise they will be in good hands, Inez is going to help with them and it’s just until Saturday. Think ahead, school will be out in a few days and your house is coming along on schedule. You have a great summer in store with the kids teaching them how to camp and fish, all that good stuff”.
Chris thought about the upcoming assignment, “Just promise me one thing.”
“What’s that Cowboy?”
“Try not to shoot Ezra before this assignment is over.”
“I won’t, “Tanner grinned, “At least not before we get the guns off the street.”
Wednesday ~ May 31st
Kelli slammed the drawer shut and mumbled a soft curse. Vin was not helping, the more she angrily stomped around the bedroom the more he laughed. She should have read that damn dossier yesterday, but she had put it off until this morning because of Linda’s baby shower. Ezra Standish would be a lucky man if he survived the next few days. She continued to slam things around as she packed their suitcases.
“It’s not that bad, Kel.” Vin was still chuckling over the profile that Ezra had set-up for the now furious redhead. “It could be worse.” He leaned back against the headboard and enjoyed watching her stomp around wearing nothing but a silk chemise.
“Not that bad! How can you think that? That…that…person is not me! I have been undercover before and I know you have to pretend, but Standish is crazy if he thinks that I will play the empty headed little bimbo he has described in that file! Hell Vin, he makes this Gina person sound as if she is fifteen years old and has only one brain cell!”
“Ezra knows what Morales expects, trust him.”
“Fine! You just remember this when you have to watch me parade around half-dressed and actin’ like a shameless hussy tonight.” She stomped her foot the same way Andi did to make a point. “And just so you know, when you go undercover it had better be as a priest because if you ever get into a situation like this with another woman. I will strangle both of you!”
The Texan grinned, rolled out of bed and caught her as she crossed in front of him. “Kel, all you have to do is to be attentive to Emerson Sellers and pretend you are not as smart as I know you are.” He pulled her close, “And I promise to tell Chris I can only go under as a priest because I have a jealous wife.” He possessed her mouth with a long passionate kiss and then lifted his head slightly. “Baby, I may enjoy lookin’ at other women, but there is only one female that I lust after and that’s you.”
Tanner received a loud sigh as an answer.
“I’ll be there and I know that the woman out there tonight will not be my wife, but some sexy hussy named Gina.” Vin grinned as he held her closer, “The kids won’t be up for another hour yet. You wanna be shameless with me?”
The amusement in Vin’s eyes melted her anger and she had the start of a wicked grin. Kelli caught him off-guard and pushed him backwards. The side of the mattress hit the back of his knees and he ended up sprawled across the bed. Kelli playfully pinned him down and then she rained butterfly kisses across his bare chest. Kelli nipped at his shoulder and then softly whispered in his ear, “I’m feelin’ absolutely shameless.”
After what seemed like an eternity to the Texan she attempted to reposition herself and Tanner then made his own move. Suddenly Kelli was on her back with Vin leaning over her and she was at his mercy. The Texan grinned and spoke softy, “My turn baby.” The silk chemise vanished when he slid it off her body and tossed it over his shoulder.
Wrapping her arms around his neck Kelli smiled and pulled him closer. Then she whispered softly, “It took you long enough Tanner.”
A husky growl was all she heard in response as Vin began a trail of kisses at her throat, he had planned to tease her as she had him, but his intentions dissolved when he raised his head to look at her face. Kellie’s eyes revealed her boundless love, along with an intense desire that he knew exclusively belonged only to him. Tanner reached up and stroked his fingers through her hair and then with a gentleness born out of love they joined together and found their own piece of heaven.
Breakfast with the kids was bittersweet. Knowing that they would be gone for the next few days and not be able to see them was painful for Vin and Kelli. However the children took the news well when Vin explained to them that what he and Kelli had to do was work related. Being away at times was an adjustment that they all were going to have to learn to live with. Knowing that it was a necessary part of their work however, did not make it easier for the new parents.
Vin sat with an arm around each child. “We have to follow orders from our boss and sometimes that means being gone for a while.”
“You come back right?” Andi asked
“Yes princess. And we’ll work on the house this weekend.” Vin assured her, hugging the blond-haired child.
Jason looked at them both. “Y’all will call every day?”
“Yep. While we are gone either Aunt Linda or Aunt Inez will be with you.” Kelli did notice his use of the word y’all and smiled.
“Okay, but just until Saturday.” Jason relaxed, and graced them with a lop-sided grin.
“You got it pard.” Vin saw no further tension in the child and was relieved; Jason trusted them to keep their word.
Vin handed Jason his backpack. “Let’s move out, school is waitin’ for you and Aunt Inez is waitin’ for Andi.”
Once they dropped the kids off Kelli brought up an issue she had been thinking about.
“Vin, ‘m gonna talk to Gunny’s sister about her gettin’ to know the kids better. In the future if we have to both be gone, I’d rather have someone stay with them at home. With Inez pregnant, Mallory thinkin’ about going back to work and Linda with a new baby, I think we need a backup plan.”
“You talked to Bowdrie at the barbeque, what did you find out about her?
“She hasn’t been in the Navy for a while now. She retired after twenty years as a nurse and since then has been a nanny, a home healthcare worker and taught at a daycare center in Georgia. She is the baby in their family. Ms. Bowdrie prefers to be called Max, not Maxine. She has never married, has no children. She is in her mid-fifties and lookin’ for the right position to settle into here in Denver. I like her and I think you would too.”
“Didn’t find out much huh?” Vin laughed. “We can see how it works for the kids. Let’s invite her out to the ranch on Sunday and then we’ll see what happens from there.”
Tanner set the two suitcases and garment bags in his office. They didn’t have to be at the hotel until one and he was in no hurry. His main goal for this morning was to keep Kelli from strangling Ezra for her Gina profile; and Buck, who was sure to have a running dialog of jokes going all day.
“Good morning, Captain Vin. Is there anything special that you require for this operation?” Gunny asked.
“Standish has it all covered, thanks. “ Vin started to walk away and then remembered the earlier conversation with Kelli. “Gunny, we would like to get to know Max better and see how the kids are with her. Could you bring her out to our place Sunday afternoon?”
“Affirmative sir. Would 1300 hours be an appropriate time?”
“That will be fine; we’ll have lunch planned for y’all.” Tanner walked over to Kelli’s desk and sat on the edge of it. “Gunny is bringin’ Max out Sunday for lunch at one.”
“That will work for me.”
“Captain, phone call for you, on line two,” Gunny interrupted them.
Vin picked up the phone on Kelli’s desk and punched two. “Tanner,” he listened. “Don’t worry about it, I got it covered, just take care of Linda.”
Kelli could not help but overhear. “Is Linda in labor?”
“No, that was Chris callin’ from the doctor’s office though. Linda’s blood pressure is high and Dr Ryder is sendin’ her home with strict instructions to stay off her feet and rest. Rain is gonna stay with her and Chris will be in later.”
“I’ll call Inez and let her know so she can take the kids tonight. Chris will have his hands full with Linda.” Kelli picked up the phone and dialed.
The Texan stood. “I’ll see you later.”
Kelli was watching for Ezra to arrive; she had a few things to discuss with him. It was ten-thirty by the time he stepped off the elevators and she moved to intercept him before he had a chance to sit at his desk.
“We need to talk, in private.”
Standish placed his briefcase on his desk. “Of course, come this way.” He headed to the smaller conference area or conflict room as they all called it that was seldom used.
Once inside Ezra turned and asked, “I presume that you have a precise cause for this assignation.”
“I want us to get a few things straight. We are partners correct?
“Yes that would be accurate”
“First off I do not appreciate you goin’ to Vin to ask his ‘permission’ to borrow me. We try very hard to keep our work and personal life separate; here in the office he is my boss. I have been in law enforcement for almost ten years, askin’ his permission for me to do a job is the same as me callin’ your mother or Barbara to see if it’s okay for you to work. “
“It seemed appropriate at the time considering the mission.”
“Well it’s not! Second of all I know you hate these clean-up operations. You know what? I hate ‘em, too, but that is part of the job. I am not against havin’ a little fun either, but you went too far with this bimbo Gina person you created. I know you did it just to express your feelin’ about takin’ this assignment, but you did it at my expense. Partners don’t do that to one another.”
Ezra retorted, “This is not the sort of work that we should be responsible for and you know it.”
“Hell Ez, I do know that. My strong suit is with guns and field duty, but I still work the assignment that I am handed. It’s too late to make any changes on this one and I will do my part. However if you cannot respect my abilities as an experienced agent and treat me as a partner, then perhaps we should not be workin’ together.”
“You were not my intended target with this, but you are the one that will have to listen to all the jokes. For that I apologize and I assure you that it will not be recurring in the future. I will seek an alternate way to communicate my antipathy for this sort of assignment. “Standish extended his hand, “Still friends?”
Kelli sighed and accepted his handshake. “Yes, we are still friends, but a word to the wise. You don’t really want to push Vin too far on this, as you tried to do at the boutique. If the situation was reversed and I was him…you would be history already.”
“Point is taken…partner. Now shall we try to salvage at least some amusement from this dreadful task that has been set before us?”
Kelli laughed, “I presume that you have a plan.”
“Tanner was willing to give them five more minutes and if they did not come out by then he was going in. The last thing he wanted just before an undercover assignment commenced, was for two of the operatives to be at odds with one another. Vin was relieved to see both Ezra and Kelli emerge from the conflict room intact and presumably with their differences resolved.
More often than not, Ezra and Kelli worked well together and had a good understanding of one another. Tanner was certain that Standish enjoyed the challenge of working with Kelli, she kept him on his toes, was a good agent that had no problem standing up to him, and she always said what was on her mind.
They approached the Texan and Ezra began talking.” I believe it would be advantageous for us to test our communication devices at this time. Perhaps you and my partner could prepare as well. We are to obtain possession of the limo at exactly twelve thirty and we may require some additional time to complete our checklist beforehand.”
The elevator chimed and a fatigued looking Chris emerged, approaching the small group standing in front of his office
“How is Linda?” Kelli asked anxiously.
“Unhappy, scared, angry and tired. Any or all of the above would describe her about now. Neither of us got much sleep last night and we met Dr. Ryder at her office at six thirty.
Buck joined them, “You should have stayed at home stud and let us handle this.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Chris sighed.” I have my cell on, if she needs me, but for now…she asked me to leave, said I made her nervous.”
Tanner laughed, “If you went into the famous Lar’bee mother hen mode, ‘m not surprised.”
“Gentlemen, I hate to change the subject, but the time.” Ezra pointed at his watch.
“Kel, use my office and start transformin’ into Gina; I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Vin directed.
“Gina? This is gonna be fun.” Buck grinned outrageously.
“Buck, you get the surveillance team ready and tell JD to bring the transceivers so we can test them.” Chris ordered. “Where is Josiah?”
“Right here, Boss.” He walked up dressed as a chauffeur. “The limo will be ready on time.”
“Don’t drag your feet, Tanner. Go change into Calvin Jamison, lethal guardian” Chris laughed at the frigid blue glare sent in his direction.
“Knock before y’all come bargin’ in to make sure Kel is dressed.’ Vin yelled back as he entered his office.
“Ezra…” Larabee turned to him.
“Emerson Sellers, reporting for duty.”
Calvin Jamison and Gina Danvers identities were almost completed when there was a knock on the door.
“Come in” Vin yelled.
Larabee was the first to enter, with JD on his heels. “Damn, I thought you were dressed Kel.” Chris had to remind himself that the woman he was looking at was not Kelli, but Gina; still he was not prepared for this particular situation. The redhead that he knew was gone replaced by a young woman that obliviously was as far removed from the world of responsible law enforcement agent as possible. The bright, bold colors with a liberal amount of skin showing and unruly hairstyle was completely opposite of her normal attire, and she did not look a day over seventeen.
Kelli stated irritably. “What you see or don’t see is it. Gina is a bad girl accordin’ to Emerson over there.” Kelli stated, gesturing at Ezra Standish, who had slipped into the room and she was not about to let him hide behind Chris.
“It is different, I’ll give you that. Now if both of you hand over your wedding rings to me for safekeeping your new identities will be complete.” Chris held out his hand palm up.
After brief hesitations from both Vin and Kelli, the two Texans removed their wedding bands and Vin handed them to Chris
Larabee took the rings, placed them in an envelope and then into his pocket. “Success or failure all comes down to the details. JD, are the transceivers ready?”
“They are right here,” JD said, opening up a black case and removing several items. “Since Ezra and Vin will be checked for communications I have modified their watches to hold microscopic microphones so they can talk to us, without giving themselves away. However, they will not be able to hear other communications. The chip that I used cannot be detected and they should have no problems. On the other hand, we do not expect Morales to pay much attention to ‘Gina’ so her devices will be able to send out as well as receive messages from us. I adapted the earrings she will be wearing so she can hear us and this one will pick up all conversations within ten feet.” He gave her the earring to put on and held up the tiny gadget that would allow them to monitor what was going on.
Ezra added. “I have made arrangements with the club owner, who owes me a few favors, to use their video cameras that are already in place.”
“Mark and I went in early this morning and rerouted them to our recorder so we can keep an eye on what is happening at all times.” JD explained.
“So how does this thing ‘m suppose to wear work, JD?” Kelli was getting impatient.
JD moved over to Kelli, scanned her outfit and flushed. There were limited possibilities of where he could attach the device. He was considering his options when Vin did run out of patience.
“Give me the damn thing,” Tanner took it and fastened it on the inside of the redhead’s bodice. “Test it!”
Kelli jumped and grabbed at her ear. “Don’t yell! I can hear fine, too fine. JD, can you turn the volume down?”
Dunne made a few adjustments, and soon had everything working to everyone’s satisfaction.
Ezra looked at the time. “If we are all satisfied,” He aimed his question to Chris who nodded his answer. “Then I suggest that we commence this operation.”
Emerson Sellers and party checked into the Brown Palace precisely at one. Once they were safely ensconced in their suit, the threesome went over the details of the case so that Vin and Kelli would know what to expect from Enrique Morales. The Tanners called the Wilmington home and talked to both Jason and Andi before departing for the evening.
Ezra did indeed keep events interesting. Whenever Emerson was apparently whispering sweet nothings into Gina ear, it was a continued recitation of Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’. In the surveillance van Buck and JD were in tears from laughing so much. By the second evening Gina was ready to strangle Emerson for his atrocious sense of humor; Vin had watched too many men dance with his wife, Buck had enough ammunition for jokes into the next century and Kelli’s feet were killing her from the spike heels that Standish had insisted she wear.
“Emerson, the last two days have been delightful. I believe we will be able to do business together.” Morales laughed. “Your taste in women has improved, but should you find yourself tiring of this lovely young lady’s company, I will be happy to …”
Emerson interrupted him, taking Gina’s hand as he spoke, “What is mine, I keep. However, I am prepared to meet you for our little transaction. You name the time and the place; I will have your funds.”
“Very well, I will have your packages with me tomorrow afternoon. Three o’clock at this address.” He passed the directions to Emerson. “No weapons will be allowed, please inform your bodyguard and bring your lady with you.”
Emerson stood and helped Gina to her feet. He placed a protective hand on her waist and turned to Morales, “It has been a pleasure Enrique, until tomorrow.”
Morales lifted his glass, “Until tomorrow.”
Friday ~June 2nd
The MCAT team was in place early. Chris positioned himself to be the first agent through the door. He was aware how much his team disliked this sort of assignment, he did too, but he also had to admit that they had fun with this one. The entire team was in good spirits and ready to act on his signal. Larabee hoped that it would be a long time before they again had to take on a case to appease someone higher up. For now though, they were here in front of an old warehouse waiting for the action to begin.
The crackle of his headset brought him back to the task at hand. “Vehicles are approaching from the east, looks to be Morales and his men.” Chris glanced at his watch; it was a quarter ‘til three and Standish’s group would be arriving soon.
Chris observed as the limousine arrived with his agents. It nagged at him that Morales had specified that he would not allow them to have weapons. However, it should be a simple deal, Standish would show him the money and when Morales handed him the keys to the truck carrying the weapons, the team would then move in for the arrest. Unless the information MCAT had gathered was correct and there was more to this sting than a simple arms transaction.
Josiah stayed with the car and Kelli, while Ezra and Vin went inside the warehouse. JD had set it up so the team could hear Ezra signal when he was ready.
“Emerson, right on time I see.” Morales spoke as his men checked the newcomers for weapons or wires. “Where is your lovely lady?”
“I had her wait in the car. She’s quite frivolous with my money, but I see no need to enlighten her with how I obtain it.”
Morales stepped forward. “I really must insist that you have her join us. I always have a woman present when I make a transaction and I will not make an exception, even for you.”
Ezra sighed, “Jamison, bring her in so we may proceed.”
‘Calvin’ went out to retrieve the lady as ordered. As he assisted ‘Gina’ out of the car, he slipped a gun into his waistband at the small of his back and whispered. “It’s show time, Kel.” Returning to the warehouse with ‘Gina’ no one searched her or him again for a gun, which was what he had anticipated.
“Now, may we proceed?” Emerson said with a hint of impatience.
“Of course Mr. Sellers, as soon as I see my money, you may examine the merchandise.”
Jamison took the briefcase and opened it, showing that their end of the bargain was fulfilled. Morales snapped his fingers and had one of his men open the back of the truck. Instead of finding crates of weapons, though, six armed men appeared.
Instinctively expecting trouble, Ezra, Vin and Kelli hid behind some crates as Chris had given the team the orders to move in. A short gun battle ensued and within minutes; Morales was in handcuffs and several of his men were dead, while the others were captured.
Chris hurried to check on his agents. “Everyone okay here?”
“We’re fine Chris,” Vin assured him.
Morales strained against the handcuffs, livid, at having been deceived by Sellers and arrested. “I did everything just as I always have. How did you know it was a trap?”
Ezra smiled, “You forgot one small detail. You sir, are a creature of habit. When you failed to make certain I would be bringing my own truck for this exchange, I knew that you did not plan for me to be leaving with the merchandise. Also, we arrested your accomplice yesterday and he was very cooperative in providing us with vital information that would assist us in apprehending you in order to make a deal for himself.”
Chris finished the explanation. “You knew all along that that Emerson Sellers was really an undercover agent because former Agent Lawrence Grimes told you. He was also was the reason that the ATF was always one step behind you. You planned to kill my agents and take off with the money before we could stop you. By the way, the man that was supposed to kill the chauffeur is dead, too.”
“We suspected from the first evening that we spent with you that this was planned.” Josiah made an appearance. ”Your mistake was having an accomplice that has a disgraceful work record that got him fired and a drinking habit that made him a braggart. He used his old connections to cover your ass and then could not keep his mouth shut.”
Larabee chucked, “Besides, you can’t con a con and we have the best one there is on our payroll.” He signaled to the officers that were waiting. “Take him away; I believe the federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney General’s office has a few questions that he would like to ask Mr. Morales.”
Vin walked into Chris’ office and handed him a stack of reports. “They’re all finished and everyone has gone home except you, me, and Kel.”
“Morales will be going away for a long time and his cache of weapons has been confiscated. I’m glad it’s over and the bad guy is going to jail, but I am damn tired of other agencies counting on us to do their work.”
“The entire team had some fun with this one and they needed it after the long hours we’ve been puttin’ in on other cases. We knew going in that we would have this one over with quickly and it will go down as a win for MCAT. Maybe it will keep the political hounds off our backs for a while.” Vin was tired and ready to go home.
“It’s too bad all our cases can’t be this easy.” Chris said. He put the reports in his in box for Gunny to take care of in the morning. “I’m just sorry that you all had to waste the last three days to get him to make his move.”
“Hell Chris, it wasn’t a total waste. I did get to spend two wild nights with Gina.” Tanner grinned. “Shameless hussy that she is, it was… more than interestin’.”
“That reminds me.” Chris unlocked the side drawer of his desk and retrieved an envelope. “This belongs to you.”
The Texan opened it to find the two wedding rings Chris had taken for safekeeping. “Thanks,” Vin slipped his on. “Gina was fun, but ‘m happy to have my Kel back, I don’t have to share her with Ezra.” The twinkle of laughter danced in his eyes. “I best get this ring back where it belongs pronto and then we have some kids to see.”
“Hang on; I’ll leave with you.” Chris turned off his computer, stood and was ready to walk out the door with Vin when his phone rang. “Damn, almost free.” He picked up the receiver and shouted in frustration. “Larabee!” He listened for a moment and then said, “We’ll meet you there.”
“Get Kel and let’s go. Rain is taking Linda to the hospital. It’s baby time.”
Denver Memorial Hospital
Dr. Susan Ryder was familiar with the ways to calming worried parents-to–be, but all her experience was put to the test this evening with Chris Larabee. She asked him to walk out into the corridor with her.
“Chris, she is doing fine, the baby is not in distress and has a strong heartbeat. Linda is in the early stage of labor and my only concern at this point is her blood pressure. We are monitoring her closely and if anything changes we will know immediately.” Dr. Ryder patted him on the shoulder, “Relax, this is a mission you cannot take charge of, let me direct this one.”
She was right and Chris knew it, but he was still anxious and would be until he held his baby in his arms and knew for certain that Linda was okay. “All right Susan, this is your show, but I have to warn you that I am not a patient man.”
Susan Ryder laughed. “I would have never guessed that from talking to you.” Her eyes filled with amusement, anyone who spoke with the man for more than a minute knew he had little patience and was used to being in charge. “You may stay with her, but try not to let your anxiety show so much, I need her to remain calm. Give the nurse a few minutes before you go back in.”
Chris decided to let Vin and Kelli know what was happening while the nurse was in with Linda. He found them in the waiting room along with Ezra, Barbara and Rain.
Tanner recognized the signs of worry that Chris thought he was not showing to the world. “Hey Cowboy, how is she?”
“It seems that our waiting is about to be over soon. Dr. Ryder wants to keep an eye on her blood pressure, but the baby is fine and now I suppose we wait some more.” The blonde ran his fingers through his hair.
Vin laughed, “Relax Lar’bee it’s gonna be a long night, you don’t want to tire out before Linda does. We called the family and most of them are on their way up here now.”
“Gunny and Max have volunteered to stay with all the kids so Inez, Mallory and Casey can be here, too.” Rain smiled, “If they survive all of those kids and we may take them on permanently.” She was pleased to see Larabee smile, too.
“Just remember we had Gunny first at MCAT and I don’t want to break in a new administrative assistant.” Standing in the mist of family, Chris felt some of his tensions disappear.
Kelli walked up and gave Chris a hug. “We’ll all be here dad; you concentrate on Linda and my new…brother or sister.”
“Were you able to talk to Jason and Andi?”
“Yep, we both did. We told ‘em we would be there in the mornin’ when they wake up and they are fine with it. They were not expectin’ to see us until tomorrow anyway. Kelli stood with her arm around him. “Tell Linda we love her.”
“I will. I suppose the nurse should be finished by now so I’m going back in with her. As soon as I know something I’ll send word out to you.” Chris turned to leave and stopped. “Knowing that my family is out here makes it easier, thanks.”
They all watched him hurry back to the room with Linda.
Ezra commented, “Our brother appears to be somewhat tense.”
“Babies are born everyday and most of the fathers survive the experience.” Rain commented amused to see the normally unshakable Chris Larabee so unnerved by the prospect of impending fatherhood. This was a side of him that only a few knew existed.
Kelli noticed that Vin had withdrawn from the group and was standing alone by the window. She went to see about her Texan. Vin was waiting for her and slipped his arm around her shoulders.
“You okay, Tanner?”
“Yeah, but I was just thinkin’ that if that was you in there I’d probably be in the same condition Chris is in or worse.”
“Chris will be fine and if we are ever lucky enough to be in their position, you will be fine too.” Kelli leaned into Vin. “Fate and destiny Tanner, we can’t control it but we can put our faith in a higher power to direct it for us.”
Vin smiled and hugged her, “Are you always gonna throw my words back at me?”
“Every chance I get Wise Eagle, sometimes you need remindin’ about your own advice and it’s my job to do that, especially when you are right.”
“Wise Eagle huh? I guess that makes you Mrs. Wise Eagle then? In case I forget to mention it, I love you.”
“You never forget, but I’ll take it anyway. Love you, too.”
Three hours later, Chris was ready to snap someone’s head off. Dr Ryder happened to be the next person to enter the room. He was long passed the point of even pretending that he had any patience. If he had to watch Linda suffer thought the pain much longer, he was certain that someone was going to answer for it.
“You need to do something! Linda is miserable and nothing has changed!”
“Mr. Larabee, you need to calm yourself. I am here to examine my patient and then we will talk.”
She addressed Linda. “Okay mom, let’s see what is going on.” The doctor began her examination.
Once she was finished she spoke to them both. “We are not making much progress on the contractions and Linda your blood pressure is not coming down. My recommendation is that we reduce your stress as quickly as possible and we can do that with a c-section.”
“That’s major surgery isn’t it?” Linda tightened her hold on Chris’ hand, really frightened for the first time since she began having labor pains.
“It is and right now we do have a choice, we can wait a while longer to see how you progress, or do the c-section. However, I must tell you that if we do wait, your blood pressure could escalate and complicate things. The decision is yours to make, but I’d just as soon avoid an emergency situation later on if we can. If your blood pressure rises or fails to reduce in the next two hours I will have no choice because it would put you at risk for a stroke. I have no intention of letting that happen.”
“If we wait, how much does the risk increase for the baby?” Chris asked, squeezing Linda’s hand tightly.
“I won’t lie to you, if we find ourselves with no choice it could be a high risk to the child.”
“Can Chris still be with me?”
“Absolutely and we can have your baby in your arms within the hour.”
Linda and Chris exchanged a long look that said a hundred silent words. “We will not add any risk to our baby’s health. Set up the surgery and tell me what I need to do.” Linda answered for them both.
A nurse came out to the waiting family and told them about the change in plans. She promised to let them know as soon as the baby arrived, and left a very concerned wild bunch to wait some more.
Vin leaned comfortably against the window with Kelli next to him. He watched his nervous brothers’ actions and commented. “I may have to direct the pacin’ in this room before, Buck, JD or Nathan rear-ends someone.”
Kelli looked at her watch. “Looks like baby Lar’bee has waited until after midnight so it is officially a June third birth date.”
Ezra sat quietly with Barbara and the other wives smiled each time the pacing men growled at each other. Josiah tried to gage everyone’s mood in case he was needed to help de-stress someone.
When the nurse entered the waiting room, members of the wild bunch immediately surrounded her. She held up her hands for silence. “The surgery went well; mother and child are doing just fine. Dad may need a little support, but he said to tell you that he would be out soon.”
“Who won the bet on the date of birth?” Relieved, Buck now turned his thoughts to more trivial matters.
Rain was amazed. “You actually had a betting pool going on the birth date?”
Ezra explained, “We do have a few wagers on the date of birth and sex of the child. All in the spirit of fun I assure you.” He looked at his notes. “JD, you sir have the correct date, if the child is male, you will be our winner. If not then the winner will be…Vin, he picked June second and said it would be a girl.”
“Sorry Vin, but this time your instincts are wrong,” JD grinned. “It’s a boy, I just know it”
Tanner merely smiled and said, “We’ll see JD.”
“JD, when will you learn? Vin has a special connection with Larabee girls, first, Kel and then Andi. If he says it will be a girl; you had better say goodbye to your winnings.” Buck smirked.
Twenty minutes later Chris came in carrying the newest Larabee in his arms. “Linda is tired, but okay. May I present to you Miss Grace Addison Larabee, She weighs seven pounds and is the most beautiful baby girl born on this planet today. Linda insisted on Addison because it is the female version of Adam and Josiah you are responsible for her first name. You said and I quote ‘God’s grace is the only thing that leads us through the darkest part of our lives’, we have traveled that road and this little one is our Grace.”
“That is a beautiful name and most fitting.” Ezra spoke first.
“Kelli would you like to be the first family member to hold your sister?” Chris came to stand in front of his eldest daughter.
“I would love to.” She took the baby in her arms and studied her face. “Hello Grace, welcome to the world.”
Chris watched his two girls together for the first time and decided that he was indeed a very fortunate man.
It was late when the Tanners arrived at the ranch, but they picked up both of their sleeping children from the main house and put them in their own beds at home before retiring to theirs. It was now six in the morning, but a habit of early rising had Vin and Kelli awake.
Vin smiled as Kelli snuggled closer. “Keep that up and we may never get out of this bed.” The Texan’s response to her touch was immediate and he demanded her attention.
“It feels good to be here in our own bed, with no Gina or Jamison to keep track of and no Ezra in the next room.”
“You feel damn good, here, there or anywhere.” Vin nuzzled her neck, nipping at soft skin.
“Are you sure that you don’t prefer bad girl Gina?”
“Not a chance in hell baby, in fact she could learn a few things from you.” Vin rose up enough to lean over his redhead and was prepared to show her what he was talking about when he heard young voices whispering on the other side of their bedroom door. Reluctantly, he shifted his position. “We’ll have to take this up later, Texas, I think we are fixin’ to have some company,” He sat up against the headboard, thankful that Kelli still had her gown on and that she had insisted that he wear at least his shorts to bed since the kids came to live with them.
The voices were becoming louder and argumentative. Andi insisted that they should just barge in and Jason was trying to convince her to wait.
“We’re awake, come on in.” Vin yelled and quickly settled the brother-sister dispute. That was all the invitation two small tornados needed.
Jason and Andi ran into the room and jumped onto the bed. “You’re home!” Jason shouted as he climbed between them and snuggled under the covers.
“We all home!” Andi bounced herself next to Jason and snuggled as well.
With both children between them Vin met Kelli’s eyes above them and they grinned. “You know what I think Kel? I think… these two have missed us as much as we missed them.” Tanner began to tickle Jason while Kelli took on a giggling Andi.
After a few minutes of giggles and laughter they were all ready for a peaceful surrender.
“Are we gonna work on the house today?” Jason asked once he had his laughter under control.
“We can or we can go see your new cousin. Aunt Linda had her baby last night and your Uncle Chris stayed at the hospital with her.” Vin gave them the news.
“She had a boy right?” Jason desperately wanted another boy in the family. As far as he was concerned there were already too many girls
“Sorry pard, it’s a girl and her name is Grace.”
“Shoot, we’re gonna drown in girls.” Jason pouted.
Kelli laughed, “You say that now, but in a few years you will change your mind.”
Tanner decided to change the direction of this conversation. “How about we have Tanner specials for breakfast?”
“Yeah!” Andi shouted. “We help.”
“Then breakfast it is.” Kelli made the first move to get them all going.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Sunday-11:00 am ~ June 4th
“She is beautiful.” Linda could not get over their little miracle, as she gazed lovingly down onto the small features of her daughter.
“Yep, just like her mother, blond headed and beautiful.” Chris sat on the bed with them.
“When Matt saw her this morning he swore that Grace was a carbon copy of me, but I think that she looks more like you.” Linda told him.
“I have to agree with your brother about that.” Chris said with a smile. “She has her mother’s great looks, but I would be willing to bet that she has the Larabee temperament.”
“Chris, according to Dr. Ryder it will take me longer to recover with the surgery and all. How am I going to do that and take care of Grace?”
“I’ve been thinking about that and I believe Max is our answer. Vin told me that they are considering hiring her to be a family caretaker for them. They want her to be with Jason and Andi when they can’t and handle some of the household duties. Maybe we can get her to stay a couple of weeks, you know to take care of the household and assist you. That way all you have to do is take care of Grace.”
“I assume they checked her out and I believe I heard her say that she was a nurse, too. Ask Vin what he knows about her and then we’ll talk to her.”
A light knock on the door announces visitors. “Come in,” Chris did not yell, but made sure whoever it was heard him.
Vin walked in and handed Chris a bag. “We brought you a few things that we figured you would need.”
“Thanks, but where is Kel?”
“She is down the hall with the kids. The nurse said they are allowed to visit, but to get your permission first. We won’t stay long, but the kids want to see their new cousin and Kel is anxious to see Linda.”
Linda answered, “Of course they can visit. Go get them.”
Tanner left for a few minutes and returned with the rest of his family. Linda let each child see the baby and then asked Jason if he wanted to hold her.
“Can I wait ‘til she grows some?” He took a step backwards.
Chris laughed, “Yeah, she is kinda small and it’s scary to hold her, but we’ll wait until you’re ready.”
Linda thought to ask Kelli about Max. “Do you think Max should help us out for a couple of weeks?”
She received her answer from unexpected sources. “Max is cool. She used to be in the Navy and she tells some great stories.” Jason obviously liked Max.
She cooks goooood!" Andi added. "Oh! Oh!" She was hopping up and down in excitement now. "She plays games too! Lots a games!"
“It sounds as if Max has passed the kid test, I’ll guess we need to talk to her.” Linda smiled at the two youngsters.
Kelli wrote the number on the hospital notepad. “Call her, she made a good impression on the children and her references are great.”
“We’re gonna take the kids home and work some on the new house. See you in a few days, Cowboy.” Vin lifted Andi to carry her.
“Dr. Ryder said that I can take them home Tuesday, so I’ll be back at work Wednesday.”
“Take all the time you need, I’ve got your back at work.” Vin walked with Chris to the door while Kelli said goodbye to Linda and Grace.
Kelli joined them with Jason, “Grace is beautiful dad, enjoy every moment with her.” She hugged him before they left.
When the door close Chris went back and sat with Linda, taking Grace in his arms and whispered softly to her. “You have so much family waiting for you; I promise each of your days will be filled with love.
Larabee 7 Ranch
Tuesday June 6th
Chris Larabee was a happy man as he drove up to the ranch with his wife and new daughter. He remembered how it was bringing Adam home from the hospital, but did not feel the stab of pain that usually accompanied those memories. Grace truly was a new page in his book of memories, the older pages were still there to revisit when he needed to, but now they would be to reminisce about the good times and pass that beautiful part of his life onto Grace.
Max met them at the door; she had a comfortable place fixed for Linda to rest. “This way mom, after that long ride home you need to get off your feet. Your lunch will be ready in fifteen minutes so you have time to settle in first.”
“Thanks Max.” Linda watched as Chris took little Grace into her new room for the first time. Her emotions overflowed as she observed her husband introduce their daughter to her new surroundings. The room that they had lovingly prepared for her was now complete and love for her family filled her heart.
We took the long way to get here Larabee, but it was worth every rough spot along the way. Grace is our rainbow, the storm is over.
Wednesday ~ June 14th
Chris had been back at work for a week and between short hours of sleep at home and the aggravation of dealing with an insistent Director his temper had reached the boiling point. Travis had just handed him another fluff case and he informed him that this was the last one that he would subject his team to. Larabee stormed into his office and slammed the door.
Tanner felt the walls shake and decided it was time to brave meeting the lion in his lair. Somebody had to do it and he was the Captain so…
Vin coming in, Cowboy.
Enter at your own risk!
“If I had my hat, I’d throw it in first, but I don’t, so I reckon I’ll take my chances.” Vin walked in and took his usual place in the chair next to Larabee’s desk.
“Damnit Vin, Travis is bound and determined to keep pushing and I’m about ready to tell him to…”
“I got the idea, so what does he want us to do now?”
“This has got to stop. He wants us to take some off the wall case in California, working with the locals and the FBI as a favor to one of his old friends. Specifically he wants Ezra to help them out with another undercover job, except this one is all set up for him.” He slid the folder across the desk to Tanner.
“Hell, Ez will love this.” Vin kept reading. “Accordin’ to this, it not only is what he would call clean-up and unnecessary, his cover is set. He has no control over who he is and has to play by their rules.”
Chris sighed, “Yeah, I know. JD has been biting at the bit to get back in the field for a change and on this one he’ll get his chance. I’m sending him in as Ezra’s assistant. I reckon Kel could go as back-up and liaison with the other law enforcement, or we could send Justin.”
“This would be good for Kel, especially after that Gina thing. She does her best work with a gun in her hand and it will make her feel more accepted by the others.”
“What makes her think she isn’t accepted?” Chris had difficulty believing that she felt that way.
“Maybe that word is too strong, but it has been difficult for the guys to recognize her expertise with weapons and they still treat her as a woman agent.”
“Vin, she is a woman agent. I would have thought you had noticed that detail.” Chris grinned.
“I noticed,” Tanner laughed, “But that’s just it Chris. She is an experienced law enforcement officer that is more than good with a gun. Yet she still has to fight to be accepted as …an MCAT agent not a female agent, simply an agent. Ez asked me for permission to use her undercover, even you hesitate, holdin’ her back on some assignments. She is willin’ to take the same risks as any male member of this team, but all of ‘em are guilty of tryin’ to protect her.”
Chris thought about what Vin was saying and realized that most of it was true. “I suppose that some of it can be attributed to the fact that she has not had the opportunity to prove to them that she really is as good as we know she is. I am partially to blame for that because I have not given her the same level of involvement I have her male counterparts. I’ll work to correct that in the future. But it’s hard to separate who she is from what I know she can do.”
“Hell, I understand that better than any of y’all, but I know firsthand that she has damn good abilities for this job. Her skill with a rifle is second only to me in this unit and her experience is varied enough to hold her own with any assignment. We all have to remember that the position of sharpshooter is a new one for her though and this will be her first solo outin’. I also have to remember to respect her enough to let her do it without me hoverin’ over her. I never claimed that it way easy, sometimes it’s damn hard and now that we have the kids it’s even harder.”
“As difficult as it may be, it would be worse if she was working somewhere else. At least here we know where she is and that she has the best of the best to back her. That fact alone helps me sleep better at night.” Chris knew that the only agents he fully trusted were his.
Vin nodded, “I know what you mean, but she would never stand for it if she believed she was treated differently for who she is. All she wants is fair and equal treatment.”
“I’ll make sure that she gets it. Now, shall we go break the news to Standish about his next road trip?”
Larabee 7 Ranch
Saturday ~June 17th
The group gathered early this Saturday morning. It was Grace’s debut with the entire wild bunch at the weekly get-together, plus three members of their family were leaving later this afternoon for California and everyone wanted to give them a good send off.
It felt good to Linda to be outside and to know that life was beginning to get back to normal or as normal as it was going to be with a new baby. “Lord it’s great to be out here with everyone again.” For her it seemed that there was never any time left for herself anymore.
Inez laughed, “It hasn’t been that long, and it just seems like it.” She looked over at Chris. “The new daddy apparently has made the transition to fatherhood again with no problem.”
“Chris dotes on Grace. He spends every available minute with her when he is home and I swear she knows the second he’s home. She can zero in on Chris’ voice as if she had radar.”
“It’s that father daughter thing. Sarah and Maria know when Buck is on his way before I do most of the time.” Inez watched her girls play while she and Linda talked. “Grace will be the same way with Chris.”
“Has Sarah forgiven Chris yet for bringing Grace home?” Linda smiled thinking about the child’s reaction when she realized that she had to share her Uncle Chris with another girl.
“Not quite yet, but she’ll come around. Look how long it took Joanne to accept that Adam was staying in the Sanchez household. Besides, she can’t stay mad at her favorite Uncle forever.”
“Between Jason being upset that Grace was not a boy and Sarah not wanting to share her uncle, Chris definitely has some fence mending to do with those two. But I have to say, Grace has helped him get passed the turmoil that Jack put him through. Chris has finally been able to put the first part of the year behind him and I know that the problems that came of it are gone forever and he can handle anything.”
Josiah and Nathan relaxed, stretched out on the ground, observing all the activities around them. Adam and Terrell were on the blanket between them. The two old friends smiled at the antics their sons were providing to entertain them.
“They get along so well that you would think they are brothers.” Josiah smiled while watching the two babies.
“I supposed they get that from us.” Nathan grinned. “I can hardly remember a time when we weren’t friends”
“It’s been many a year brother.” Josiah mentally calculated. “Sixteen…no it’s been seventeen years, where does the time go?”
“You think someday they will sit around watching their kids and ask the same question?” Nathan could only hope that his son found good friends the same as he had in his life.
“We never know what the future holds, but as Ezra would say, some things are a certainty to bet on. If I were a betting man, I would put my money on those two to have a long, lasting friendship.” Josiah felt blessed with his circle of brothers and hoped that Adam would find the same type of friends in his future.
Ezra and Barbara did the obligatory time with the family but now separated themselves from the wild bunch. Since the trip to Mexico there had been a delicate shift in their relationship. They spent more time with one another and Ezra knew that what he felt for Barbara was very different from what he had felt for any woman in his past. He hated to leave Denver at this time for two reasons. One, he thought that the case was an insignificant, and any one of a hundred agents could do what they were asking of him. And more importantly he wanted to be here with Barbara.
“When I return, I believe we should both take some time off and go on an extended vacation.” The three days they had spent in Mexico was simply not enough in Ezra’s opinion.
“I do have that case in Arizona coming up, but after that, I think I could arrange some vacation days.” Barbara wanted to spend more time with Ezra too.
“Then plan on it. As soon as this trivial matter in California is over, I’m all yours.” Ezra pulled her into his arms and they sealed their agreement with a hot steamy kiss that left them both panting. Ezra growled. “If it weren’t for this damn trip, I’d throw you over my shoulder, carry you to the hay loft and we’d make wild passionate love.”
Barbara smiled saucily. “When you return, I’ll make it if to you.” Pulling Ezra’s head down to her, she left him with a sizzling kiss that he was not likely to forget anytime soon.
“JD, you’ve been behind that keyboard for over year.” Buck slapped him on the shoulder and grinned. “Are you sure you remember how to work the in the field?”
“Buck, it’s not like we’re gonna play shoot-em-up at the Ok corral. This is a routine case; all I have to do is carry a laptop and say yes sir to Ezra as his assistant. No big deal.” JD sighed. “Besides, just because I sit at a computer doesn’t mean I’m not qualified as an agent.”
“Of course you are, but it’s been a while and hell… Just be careful, kid.”
“He will Buck, the girls and I will be here waiting for him and he knows it.” Casey took JD’s hand and smiled. “I already have his private homecoming planned.”
JD grinned, “Now the thought of that is worth going away for a few days.” He drew Casey into his arms for a searing kiss that left both of them a bit out of breath when it ended.
“You’ll do fine JD.” Chris was confident about involving JD in this assignment. He needed to be in the field more often, besides he had Ezra and Kelli to back him.
Chris held Grace while he watched his eldest daughter and grinned. Kelli was taking advantage of every minute she could spend with the kids before she left. He had to admit he was hesitant at first to send her on this mission so soon after adopting them. Vin was the one that had actually convinced him that it was right for her to be there as a backup agent for Ezra and JD. Sending two of his agents into a situation that they knew little about made him a bit nervous, but knowing that Kelli would be there to watch Ezra and JD’s backs, eased it a bit. However, the father in him still worried.
“She’ll be okay Chris.” Vin leaned against the railing of the deck watching his wife and their two children… his family. “Kel knows this is part of the job and it’s somethin’ we have discussed with the kids, they’re fine with it.”
“Hell, I’m more worried about you playing Mr. Mom.” Chris laughed. “You sure you can manage for a week with the kids on your own?”
“I made it on my own for a lot of years; I can handle a few days with two children.” Vin knew he would be okay taking care of the kids, but his solitary days were definitely over. He already missed Kelli and she had not even left yet, but that was something he was not about to admit, not even to Chris. “You wanna worry so much, then you worry about Ez, you know that he’s not thrilled about this case.”
Larabee cut his eyes to where Ezra was sitting with Barbara. “Ezra is a professional; he will do his job, besides this case is low risk and they will all be back here before the end of the week.”
All too soon dinner was finished and it was almost time to leave for the airport. Vin took Kelli by the hand and escaped to an empty room for a few minutes. Although on several occasion he had to leave for a few days, due to work, he felt comfortable knowing that she was home safe and sound. He was certain that Kelli was capable of handling herself without him, but that was what his head knew, his heart was an entirely different matter. They had spent the early hours of the morning making love and saying their own special good-bye, but it wasn’t enough for the Texan.
Vin held her close and leaned his forehead against hers. “You can call me a chauvinistic, possessive sonofabitch Kel, but right now I’m wishing like hell that it was one of the other guys going and not you.”
Kelli knew that his words should upset the independence side of her, but she could not find it in her to get angry. “Tanner, you make it damn hard to get mad at you when you’re holdin’ me like this.” It never ceased to amaze her how Vin so effortlessly could turn her on and it was rapidly getting hot in this room.
“Good, then you’ll forgive me for being so irrational.” Actually it was more than that; Vin had one of those feelings that he was having trouble shaking. Some little voice inside him was screaming at him to ask Chris to call this whole thing off, but another part of him said it was just a husband reacting to his wife leaving and to let it go.
“I love you Tanner, and I promise to be careful, no unnecessary risk taking, no bending the rules, nothing. I have too much to come home to.”
Chris pounded on the door. “Two minutes, JD and I are ready to leave. Ezra and Barbara have already left.”
Tanner yelled back. “Hell, they just wanted some alone time to do what I’m doing. Hold your horses Larabee; we’ll be out in a minute.” He swore he heard Chris laughing as he walked away.
The Texan drew his wife into a heated passionate kiss before letting her go. “That’ll have to hold you for a few days.”
Kelli grinned. “That won’t make time move any faster, but it guarantees you some interestin’ phone calls, of the hot and bothered kind.”
“I’m countin’ on that Texas and lookin’ forward to ‘em.” He took a deep breath to regain his composure, and then took her hand again. “Come on, the kids are waiting to say good-bye too.” Vin and Kelli had decided that it would be easier on the children and for them, if he stayed at the ranch with the kids, while Chris took her and JD to the airport.
The trip to the airport was uneventful, and after a half-hearted attempt to keep up conversation they each fell silent thinking about family. JD and Kelli about the ones they were leaving and Chris about the ones he was sending off. Once they had checked in they still had another hour to wait, but Larabee stayed until their flight was called
Chris has a brief moment of uneasiness as he watched their plane depart, but then he always felt a heavy burden anytime he sent his agents out without the entire team to support a mission.
Hell Chris, it only a few days and California is not the end of the world.
Costa Mesa California
Wednesday- June 21st
Agent Kelli Coulter shimmied her way up the wooden beam, her rifle slung over one shoulder. She reached the crisscrossing rafters a few moments later and shifted her position onto it, laying along the thick beam and bringing her weapon into a comfortable firing position. She placed her eye up to the sights of the high-powered weapon, and used it to locate the places where her fellow MCAT Agents, Ezra Standish and JD Dunne would be, on the warehouse floor below.
"I have a bad feelin’ about this." she muttered aloud, unable to shake off what her instincts were telling her about the entire situation that had brought her so far from Denver, a certain Texan, and her newly adopted children.
All week long she had felt that something was off; that there was something bigger than drugs going on in this little coastal town that had local authorities so damned determined to prevent her from doing her job as an MCAT agent.
Costa Mesa did have her secrets and until today had held them close to home. However those secrets were about to explode, unleashing a path of destruction that would affect every member of the MCAT family and change the course of several lives.
MCAT Office 9:00 am
Thursday ~ June 22nd
“Orrin, I’m sure there was a good reason... I know…I will take care of my agents! ...You will get a report when I get one! “Chris Larabee, Commander of Major Crimes and Anti-Terrorism, shouted into his office phone, gripping the receiver so tightly that it threatened to break into tiny little pieces at any moment.
“Damnit Chris! We’ve got enough problems with the FBI as it is, without two of your agents losing their tempers and causing an inter-agency incident! You had better be prepared to sooth some ruffled feathers because we have certainly not heard the end of this!” Travis yelled into his end of the phone. “Be in my office at ten tomorrow morning!”
Chris winced as the echo of Travis slamming his phone onto its base reverberated through his head. He refrained from doing likewise to his phone, instead easing it into its base, and turned toward the door. He stopped when he saw Vin Tanner leaning in the open doorway.
Chris sighed, “You heard.”
“I think the whole damn office heard. Want me to meet ‘em at the airport?” Tanner was prepared to leave.
“No, I don’t want them to be warned. I want to hear the details of what went down in California unrehearsed. If they are warned that I’ve been tipped off that things didn’t go so well, then they’ll have time to embellish the details of their individual reports.”
“If, Kel lost her temper, Chris, you know there had to have been a damn good reason.”
“I hope so Vin, I hope so.” Chris reached for the intercom. “Gunny, get in touch with Standish, Coulter and Dunne, I want them in my office as soon as they arrive back to Denver.”
“Why do you think Chris wants us to check in with him this fast?” JD asked as he tried to keep up with his two teammates. It was not an easy thing to do, since he was burdened with three bags and his laptop.
“I dare say it is associated to the fact that an obstinate redhead called the Chief of Police of Costa Mesa a braying jackass in the presence of his men!” Ezra shot an angry look at Coulter. “Not to mention the tirade she went on before that where she proceeded to insult the FBI agents and the Special Agent in Command of their field off in three different languages.”
Kelli stopped walking abruptly and JD ran into her. She cast him a dark look, and then turned her attention onto Standish. “I know what I saw! You can either take what I said as fact, or you can go straight to hell!”
“We all misconstrue circumstances from time to time. Can you prove...?” Ezra started.
“Damnit, Standish! I know what I saw! It’s hard to miss seein’ everythin’ goin’ on below when I’m lookin’ down on it through a riflescope from thirty feet up. “
“I was up close and personal with the situation Kelli. JD was too and yet neither of us observed the events as you say they occurred. Don’t you think we would all be on the same page if they had played out the way that you perceived them to?”
“Hey guys…we are kind of blocking the way here.” JD said, trying to prod them along and decided he liked it better when they were not talking to each other. The long trip back from Costa Mesa had been refreshingly quiet.
Both Kelli and Ezra turned to JD, “Shut up JD!”
“As senior agent on the scene, I will be the one Larabee reams for the complicated debacle you’ve gotten all of us into. The least you could do is listen to reason. We require a story.” Ezra was going to get them out of this one way or another.
“You can tell them any story you want to Ezra, but don’t count on me to take any part in it. I’m goin’ to tell ‘em the truth!”
“Lord, you are an exasperatingly stubborn woman! Vin must have the patience of Job to put up with you!! Why can’t you just shut up long enough to hear me out? If you did, we might be able to salvage our jobs.” Ezra was yelling now. “When we get to the office I will do all of the talking! “
“Go to hell Ezra!” Kelli picked up her bag and stomped out of the airport to hail a cab.
“Whew…she’s sure mad.” JD commented as he watched the taxi with Kelli in it, drive away from the curb.
“Yeah, well, she isn’t the only one.” Ezra said coolly as the two agents hailed a cab of their own.
The ride back to the federal building was a silent one.
Larabee and Tanner stood in front of Chris’ door. From this vantage point they would be able to know the exact moment the three agents arrived. They didn’t have too long to wait. Standish and Dunne were the first to exit the elevators and they headed straight for the men that were waiting for them.
“Where’s Kelli?” Tanner demanded, when he didn’t see his redhead step out of the elevator along with Standish and Dunne.
“Uh… she took a separate cab and should be here any minute. We saw her enter the lobby as we got in the elevator.” JD reluctantly answered.
Just as JD finished speaking, the elevator arrived on their floor and Kelli stepped out of it. She secured her gun case and dropped her duffel bag at her desk before moving to join the others. By now, the entire office had gone quiet, as the other agents in the room focused all of their attention on watching their colleagues in front of Larabee’s office. If body language were any indicator, the tense silence that currently existed would not last for long.
Chris started to order them into his office, but after noting the audience decided their meeting room was better suited for this conversation. “Conference room now!”
The three agents marched silently into the war room and Tanner closed the door behind him. He tried to read Kelli, but the antagonism and tension radiating from her blocked everything else. He had not spoken to her since the day before, so he had no idea what could have happened since then to cause her to be this angry.
Chris started quietly, “Five days ago I sent three good agents to California to work on a simple case with the FBI. I get back three people who can barely stand to be in the same room with each other, had my ass chewed out by an irate Deputy Director informing me of an inter-agency incident that threatens to blow up on us due to my agents’ inabilities to keep their mouths shut and do their damn jobs!! I WANT TO KNOW WHAT IN THE HELL IS GOING ON AND I WANT TO KNOW NOW!”
JD cringed at every word; Kelli looked mutinous at being shouted at, while Ezra decided to take charge for explaining their actions.” Gentlemen I assure you this is all a misunderstanding that can be sorted out quickly.”
“Yeah right,” JD smirked and that earned an icy look from Standish.
“JD, why don’t you start?” Chris trained his fierce gaze in Dunne’s direction.
“Well…uh…maybe Ezra should…uh…Damn, I’m not sure what happened anymore. All I know is everything went to hell quickly and these two didn’t speak all the way home till we got to the airport here and then they decided to have a screaming match in the middle of the concourse. Then... uh we…” JD sighed and shut up.
“I believe this matter can be cleared up with a simple apology.” Ezra said, staring angrily at Kelli.
“I will apologize when hell freezes over Standish!” Kelli retorted, her eyes flashing dangerously.
”You might reconsider and reflect on the consequences of your actions!” Ezra shouted in exasperation.
“Screw you Standish! I won’t reconsider anythin’; the only thing I regret is that I didn’t shoot the SOB!”
“Guys, we’re in the office.” JD gave a gentle reminder
”Shut up, JD!” Standish and Coulter barked.
Standish addressed Coulter, “Perhaps if you weren’t so stubborn you could see your mistake!
“Stubborn! You have room to talk! You refuse to consider what I said as being possible, let alone the truth. If it wasn’t for me we wouldn’t even be havin’ this argument you and JD would be dead right now! No way in hell will you ever convince me it was a mistake! The only mistake I made was expectin’ my partners to back me up!”
“You, woman, could try the patience of a saint! It could not have transpired the way you thought you saw it! It’s just not possible!”
“No matter what your mother may tell you Standish, you’re no saint! I saw what I saw and it happened just as I said! Possible or not I don’t give a flyin’…”
Larabee and Tanner had stood back just to listen, but this was getting out of hand.
“Kel, don’t say it!” Vin knew what her next word would be, something he said often enough, but this was not him and he never expected to hear her say it, at least not here in the office.
She turned to Vin and Chris. “I take full responsibility for my actions and would do the same thing again. Standish and Dunne had no part in it. Ezra did try to stop me, but those men deserved a dressin’ down and a hell of a lot more. Those bastards left Ezra and JD out in the open with no back up and that is unacceptable. I will not apologize for what I said and if you want to fire me over it go ahead.”
“Kel, they did back us, the man behind me was shot before he could shoot me.” JD was confused. “Our backup was there just as they told us they would be.”
”It wasn’t your backup who took the shot that killed the man behind you JD. That was me! I know y’all don’t have the same confidence in my shootin’ abilities that you do in Vin’s; but it was my bullet that took that man out. It wasn’t anyone on the ground as it should have been. They set you two up and my guess is that they have somethin’ to hide. You can believe it or not, I don’t care, but if you think I’m goin’ to apologize or let you convince me that the events happened otherwise, you are sadly mistaken.”
Larabee called a halt to the heated conversation. “I want all of you to go to your desks, sit down and write out what you think happened.” Chris ordered.
“Vin, see if you can get us the tapes from the raid, we will find out what went on, one way or another.” Larabee watched the agents walk to their desks, shook his head and then went back to his office for some aspirin.
Ten minutes later, Tanner came in the door. “Copies of the video and audio will be here later this afternoon, complete and uncut, but it’s not official.” Vin sprawled in the chair across from Chris. “Orders came down from their SAC not to talk to us, but the agent I spoke said the man was an ass and is sending ‘m anyway.”
“What’s going on with Kel?”
“I haven’t talked to her since yesterday; so I can’t say, but I know she has missed the kids like crazy.”
“All the same I don’t want you talking to her about this until we get this confusion straightened out.”
Vin met Chris’ eyes. “I know she had a good reason for rippin’ into that SAC; just reserve judgment ‘til you find out what it was.” He accepted Larabee’s nod and then left the office without another word, leaving a meditative man behind.
JD was the last one to finish his report and knocked softly on Larabee’s door. Chris’ bellowed for him to come in. He was surprised to find both Tanner and Larabee waiting for him.
“You finished JD?” Chris asked, reaching for the offered report.
“Yeah, I only included what I knew for sure… the rest …” JD sighed, “I’m not really certain anymore what in the hell went on, but I wrote what I know.”
“Okay, I’ll let you know when I need you.”
JD recognized a dismissal when he heard one and returned to the bullpen. He noticed that Ezra and Kelli appeared to be immersed in paperwork. How could they act as if nothing was wrong?
“I could use your help with some data that came in this morning.” Pam attempted to distract JD and get him back to work on CASSIE.
“What? Yeah sure, I need to make a phone call first.” He needed to hear Casey’s voice and assure himself that she Daisy and Lilah were okay. Five days had seemed like forever to him, especially with how things had turned out, and he was anxious to see them. At least he was closer to them here at the office than he had been in California. He found an empty room and called her, the stress of the last few days fading away the moment he heard her sweet voice on the other end of the line.
“Hey sweetheart, how are my girls?” His heart tightened with emotion when he heard her voice.
“JD.” Casey said with a lift in her voice that told him just how relieved and happy she was to hear from him. “We’re all good, just been missing you like crazy. Are you still in California or back in Colorado?”
“We just arrived back at the office a short while ago. Chris wanted to talk to us about some things that occurred while we were in California. Otherwise I would have come straight home.” JD told her.
“Ooh, that can’t be good. “ Casey said. “Can you tell me anything about it?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure what really happened. All I know is that Kelli went off on the SAC, and that she and Ezra have been arguing ever since.”
“Kelli is usually pretty levelheaded JD; she wouldn’t just go off for no reason.” Casey said. “You know more about the situation than I do, of course, but don’t be too quick to discount her reasons for being angry.”
“I won’t.” JD assured her.
The two of them talked for a few minutes longer, Casey sharing a few snippets of things about the twins that had occurred during his absence, before JD hung up and returned to his desk and settled into work.
Chris tossed JD’s report to Vin and sighed, “Three reports, three completely different versions of what went on the last five days.” He stood up and came around the desk. “I don’t know what in the hell went down in California but we need to resolve this before I see Travis in the morning.”
Vin nodded, “How do you want to handle it?”
“In house, get the three of them in the war room, Nathan is out with Kat, but have Josiah and Buck join us for the review. Send everyone else home and we don’t leave until we have an agreed upon report for me to hand over to Travis in the morning.”
“You got it,” Vin started for the door, before he opened it he turned back to Chris. “Better call Linda and tell her you’re in for a late one, Kel and Ez are both dug in on this. It’s gonna take some time or dynamite to budge either of ‘em. I already called Inez about the kids.”
“Yeah, I know, I just hope that damn tape comes in soon.” Vin left and Larabee picked up the phone to break the news to Linda.
Vin watched the three agents; Ezra had pulled back behind the mask he used to shield himself from the outside world. Kelli fell back into the role as the detached, disciplined agent she used to be, keeping her emotions out of harms way. JD, well JD never tried to hide any of his thoughts or feelings, and they lay open for the entire world to see.
Josiah observed his three teammates. Each appeared to be angry, tense and frustrated, or a combination of all three emotions. Whatever had led them to this point, he was sure it was going to take more than one sitting to work it out. He just hoped Chris had the patience to see this through or he might very well lose an agent or two.
Buck saw three members of his family in pain and for him that was unacceptable, because when they hurt so did he. Wilmington was sure it was more than a bad bust that had them all so uptight and vowed to try to find the underlying cause of their distress.
Chris entered the room with an armload of folders, which he passed around the room. Inside the files were copies of all three agents’ reports, as well as the notes about the case that that they had been given prior to them accepting it. Once everyone had a set of reports, he began.
“Tomorrow morning I meet with Travis concerning this mess. No one in this room leaves tonight until we have a statement that you all can agree on. Understood?”
Buck, Josiah and JD began to read. Standish and Coulter however, did not even open their folders. Larabee was losing what little patience he had left and was set to explode at any second.
Sanchez decided an intervention was in order. “Chris, it might be easier if we used visuals instead to sort it out.” Josiah stood up, moved to the large white work board and started to write.
Tanner opened the file that started this mess. “We took this case supposedly at the request of the FBI. Accordin’ to this they needed an unknown agent to go undercover as an out of town buyer for a shipment of drugs. It was already set up and Ezra’s identity was pre-established. It should have been an easy bust with only a few days of work involved.”
“I decided to take this case as a favor to Travis. The man that requested MCAT is an old friend of his and specifically asked him for our assistance.” Chris added.
Ezra looked up. “Was it too much of an inconvenience for you to disclose that tidbit of information to me prior to you ordering me to undertake this assignment.”
“Standish, I was under the impression that as Commander of this unit that I make the decisions around here, not you!” Chris shouted and drilled him with an intense glare.
Kelly couldn’t help smirking at Ezra from across the table, as Chris dressed him down. She knew she was being petty, but she was still angry at him for his not backing her up as a partner was supposed to do.
“Okay, we know why we took the case and that it should have been uncomplicated.” Josiah wrote it down. “Now, Ezra was tagged as the out of town buyer and JD was to be his assistant. Kelli went so we would have one of our team as backup. Correct?”
“That’s the way we set it up.” Chris tensely answered.
“So when you arrived in Costa Mesa, Ezra and JD went immediately into their roles of out of town buyers. Kelli stayed at a separate location, working with the local PD and the FBI agents on the scene. That could account for a few different points of views but…” Josiah looked at the reports again. “But most of the conflicting statements are from the last few hours of the case, and there are no agreed upon facts concerning the actual bust from any one of them.”
JD had been silent, but was confused now and had to ask. “How could that be? We were all in the same warehouse. I thought only Ezra and Kelli disagreed on what happened, but according to these reports, neither of them saw what I did.”
“That’s not quite true; it appears that both JD and Ezra agree on one thing.” Buck spoke directly to Kelli. ”They agreed that Kelli lit into the FBI agents and the Chief of Police without apparent cause.”
Kelli had heard enough and was damned tried of it all. She stood up. “You know I can make this easy on everyone because it’s plain to see that my word is not good enough for any of you.” She took out her badge, gun and ID, laying them on the table. I quit! Tell Travis whatever the hell you want to!” She started to walk out of the room.
“Coulter, sit down!” Chris yelled. “We’re not finished here!”
“Maybe you’re not, but I damn well am!” She refused to let Larabee intimidate her. “You can save that glare for someone else because it’s not gonna work on me! I know what happened in that warehouse and nothin’ you or what any freakin’ report says will change my mind!”
A knock on the door interrupted any response that Chris might have had ready. A security officer had a package for Tanner; Vin took the package, he thanked the man and then dismissed him. It was the tape that Vin had requested from the FBI.
Chris grabbed the tape from Tanner and put it into the VCR to play. “Now we’ll all know what happened. “ He saw Kelli open the door to leave. “Coulter, close that door and sit down! You will stay here and watch it too!”
“Why? I already know what’s on it and will probably have the events replayed in my nightmares for weeks to come.” Kelli retorted.
Vin walked over to stand before her, speaking softly. “Stay and watch it Kel. You wanna leave when it’s over, I’ll take you home.”
Kelli reluctantly agreed and leaned back against the wall by the door, crossing her arms in front of her.
Tanner leaned back next to her and nodded to Chris. Larabee pushed play and the tape began. The camera was set up at an angle that picked up what was happening on the floor of the warehouse, and not Kelli’s eagle view from her location in the warehouse’s rafters.
The first few minutes of the tape showed the local sellers waiting for the out of town buyers to arrive. None of what they saw in that bit of video showed anything out of the ordinary.
It was only when Ezra and JD appeared on the scene that things began to look interesting. Ezra was his usual confident self, taking charge of the transaction as if he had been born to it. After the business deal was completed he gave the pre-arranged signal for their backup agents to move in and help him and JD make the bust. In unison JD and Ezra pulled out their hidden hardware, and began firing return rounds, as they sought out protective cover from the volley of bullets aimed their way, behind a stack of crates.
The other agents on the scene took part in the gunfight as well, covering each other’s butts, as they purportedly took the sellers down. However, it became quite clear to everyone in the war room that none of the locals considered Ezra and JD part of that team. A man came into view on the screen, from someplace behind JD and leveled his weapon at the back of the unsuspecting MCAT agent. Two more men were aiming their guns on an out of ammunition Ezra. In a span of ten seconds, all three men threatening the two MCAT agents were laying in pools of their own blood.
“Damn, Kel.” Vin knew where the shots had come from and was impressed with the speed and accuracy that she had dispatched the threat against Ezra and JD. He knew firsthand the kind of stress this type of situation put on a sharpshooter though and made it a point for them to know what she risked. “Making all three shots like that without Ezra and JD endin’ up dead, or wounded at the very least, is damn near impossible. The only chance of making it was to break cover and pray.”
Josiah sat back silently and observed everyone’s reactions.
JD was visibly shaken by what he had just seen. “I could be dead right now.” Thoughts of never seeing Casey or holding their daughters again flashed through his mind and had him leaning back in his seat.
Buck said what they all realized. “You two were left on your own out there.”
Larabee was livid, “It looks as if the fucking bastards deliberately tried to get my people killed!”
Ezra had turned pale, as well, as he witnessed the scenes unfolding on the tape. He turned his attention onto Kelli, where she leaned against the wall. “Kelli…I let my resentment of being forced to take this assignment cloud my judgment. I am so sorry…”
“Save it, Standish…I don’t want to hear it.” Kelli said, opening the door and walked out of the war room.
Vin moved to pick up his wife’s badge, gun, and ID from the table in front of Chris. “I reckon you’ve got all the info you’re gonna need for that talk with Travis. I’m takin Kel home.”
He shot JD and Ezra heated looks as he left the room and went in search of his wife.
Costa Mesa, California
“Damnit this whole thing could blow up in our faces!” Bob Zimmerman had ten years of service with the FBI and had run across this operation by accident. However the money they were paying him for his help was more than he could make in a lifetime of government service.
“Relax Bob, the only ones that made it out alive are those MCAT agents and Donner will take care of them if they cause any problems.” The Costa Mesa Chief of police was confident.
“This was supposed to be simple drug bust to take the attention away from our little enterprise.” Zimmerman paced the room. “You should have kept that bitch out of the warehouse.”
“Hell how was I to know she could really shoot? Pretty little thing like her, I figured had to have screwed her way into that job.”
Agent Zimmerman stopped pacing. “That’s your problem Blaine, you don’t think above you belt buckle. Now my SAC is on a tear about her insubordinate show of temper and is going to push for an official apology and reprimand. What if she tells her CO what she saw?”
“I told you before, she is just window dressing and no one in command will take her allegations seriously. They have only her word against ours because Dunne and Standish couldn’t see what was really going on from their positions.”
“We are fortunate that the SAC is angry enough that he refused to share the tapes from the bust and I made sure they were destroyed. I fixed the pictures before he ever saw them so we should be okay if MCAT calls for them.”
“They won’t. If her CO is smart he will make her apologize, give her a suspension and this will all blow over. In the meantime trust Donner to cover our ass. He has too much at stake not to.”
Vin caught up to Kelli at the dual elevators. Without a word he took her gun case and duffle bag from her and slung them over his shoulder. He was anxious to get her away from the office and talk to her alone. He could see how stressed she was by what had happened in California; and he was ready to listen to whatever she needed to say in order to relieve the tension she was feeling. He had been where she was and sometimes he found that just getting away from the office was enough; other times he needed to go somewhere else to work things out in his mind, especially after a bust had gone bad and he had had to kill someone.
In the parking garage he stowed her gear in the back of the truck. He opened the passenger door for her, and waited until she had climbed inside, before moving around the truck to the driver’s side. He opened his door and slid in behind the wheel. As he was turning on the ignition, he made a decision. Jason and Andi were at the Wilmington’s. They would be fine with Inez for a while longer and a detour was in order before Kelli was ready to see them. When Vin didn’t drive straight to the ranch, Kelli took note, but trusted him enough not to ask where they were going. They rode in comfortable silence and ended up parked in front of the lake by their cabin.
Tanner grabbed a blanket from the back seat, got out, went around and opened her door. “Come on baby, let’s take a walk.” He took her hand and started to walk around the lake.
Kelli breathed in the woodsy scent around her and began to feel her anger ease. It would take more than a walk to settle her emotions completely, but just being alone with Vin, at the place that meant so much to the both of them, helped.
They had been walking about five minutes before she said the first words since leaving the Federal building. “How do you do it, Vin? How do you deal with makin’ snap decisions concernin’shots when your family members’ lives are on the line?”
Vin sighed and stopped walking. He turned to face her. “I wish that I could tell you some big secret for getting’’ past it, Kel, but I can’t. It’s somethin’ you just have to work through and it doesn’t get any easier.”
He drew her closer, “Kel, you did fine. Ezra and JD are still with us because you did your job. You stayed calm when you needed to, remembered what you were taught and the good guys walked out alive.”
“They should never have been in that position in the first place though. If I had followed my instincts I could have saved us all a helluva a lot of trouble.”
Vin spread out the blanket and he sat down close to the water, while Kelli remained standing. “Tell me, ‘m listenin’.”
“I knew somethin’ was wrong, and I should have warned Ezra and JD, but I didn’t. I tried to convince myself that I was takin’ things too personal.” Kelli was starting to let it all out and Tanner sat quietly as she began to rant. “It was not anythin’ that I haven’t heard before, but I suppose workin’ with MCAT I kinda forgot how much of a bastard some officers of the law could be. If I had listened; I mean really listened, I might have seen past the sexual harassment and realized that they were not decent lawmen.” At this point she was pacing back and forth in front of Vin.
Vin stiffened at her words, “What kind of sexual harassment?”
“It was only verbal, but it was callous.” Kelli sighed, “You know what ‘m talking about, all kinds of sexual remarks meant to be deliberately offensive. Who did I screw to get on an important unit like MCAT? Do my breasts get in the way when I shoot? Constant comments about my ass or degrading sex talk … I just ignored ‘em and I should have seen the resentment of our presence on this case instead. If I had maybe …”
The Texan was having a problem with remaining calm himself. He was ready to hop on a plane to California and have a little talk of his own with those bastards about respecting women, especially his wife. He knew that he couldn’t think about his own feelings right now; helping Kelli work through her emotions was more important. Instead he filed that information for future reference and concentrated on his redhead. “Maybe they did resent MCAT’s presence and maybe they were just bein’ asses. The only thing that matters is that all three of you made it home safe and reasonably sound.”
She stopped directly in front of him. “I’m fairly certain that I didn’t help matters when I lost my temper. I can’t remember the last time I was that angry and I don’t believe I acted very ladylike at all. In fact ‘m sure that I was cursin’ in at least three different languages or so Ezra tells me.”
“That’s your Lar’bee genes showing through. If Chris had been there, it would have been worse because ‘m positive he wouldn’t have stopped with words.” Vin smiled, took her hand and invited her to sit next him. She readily accepted and he drew her to his side “Feel better now?” He knew that she would still need to work through it all and later he would talk to her about work, but this was a good start
Surprisingly she did. “Yeah, I do, but I missed you and the kids more than I thought was possible.” Kelli leaned back in his arms and turned her head to rest her cheek on his shoulder, needing to feel the intimacy of their relationship to reconcile her rampant emotions.
“Welcome home baby.” Vin took advantage of her captive position, he brushed his lips across her brow and slowly worked towards the sensual mouth waiting for his kiss, which was filled with all passion that had built up inside from their separation, and each felt an electric shiver of desire course through their bodies. They may have only been apart for five days, but that was too long in his book so he took time to reacquaint his hands with her body. When he traced his tongue down her neck, he heard a soft moan escape from her throat, which only fueled his need for more. Vin had always held the power to unleash her wildest desires and tonight her unrestrained need for him was overwhelming. All thoughts of waiting until they got home to make love vanished.
All barriers between them disappeared quickly and their need for intimacy united them with a wild rush of unfettered passion. Desire may have brought them to this point, but their love transcended them to the inimitable pleasure that they only found in each other.
Their impromptu love session appeased their immediate needs and soothed Kelli’s ragged emotions. Vin whispered softly as he held her close, “This is just a warm-up baby, let’s go pick up our kids and spend some time with ‘em. After they’re asleep, we have some catchin’ up to do and I plan on makin’ love to you most of the night.”
Sighing in contentment and with a husky voice, she whispered. “Sounds like a plan to me, Tanner.”
Chris had trouble shaking his own anger as he left the federal building. All the way home he thought about the contents of that damn video. How in the hell did something so simple turn into such a goddamn mess. He knew that JD was having a problem dealing with it, and Ezra felt that he should have seen the signs. Kelli was hurt and angry, rightfully so, but she would have to find a way past it. The big question now was, what in the hell was really going on in Costa Mesa? Why were his agents so unwelcome? Who was responsible for them almost being killed? Well, tomorrow morning they were going over it again, step by step, before he talked to Travis.
Pulling up in front of the house he looked at his watch, it was almost midnight. Too late to talk to Kelli, he would see her in the morning with the others. He was positive Linda would be asleep; since Grace had arrived sleep was something you took when you could get it in the Larabee household. He had eaten at the office, so he bypassed the kitchen and went straight through the bedroom, careful not to awaken his sleeping wife, to the nursery. His wide-awake daughter was excited to see a familiar face when he bent over the crib and gazed down into it. He picked her up and realized that she was dry and apparently fed not long ago.
The rocker was his personal choice for the room. He settled into it with Grace in his arms and began to rock, talking softly to this new love in his life. “Hello sweetheart, I hope you had a great day with Mommy. I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier, but Daddy had to take care of a few things for the rest of family. Your sister had a rough few days, along with your Uncles, Ezra and JD. It’s nothing for you to worry about and I’m sure it will all work out fine.”
Linda, awakened to the soft sound of her husband’s voice in the nursery, and crawled sleepily out of bed. She moved to stand in the nursery doorway and watch father and daughter converse for a few moments, before going back to bed, knowing that Grace was in safe hands.
Coming home to an empty house was not a new experience to Ezra; but since Barbara had come into his life it was not the norm. Barbara was out of town and would be until some time next week; her court case in Phoenix was taking longer than she had initially expected. Standish wished that she were there for him to talk to, because he really needed her level head to keep him calm. He fixed himself a stiff drink and settled on the couch, thinking over the events of the past week.
He was extremely angry with himself for not catching onto what was really going on around him. How could you have missed it Ezra! You were the senior agent! You are the one with the innate sense of knowing when things are not right! You of all people know how important it is for your partner to be there for you. You are also the one that knows how devastating it is when they aren’t. You know how it feels to not be believed. So why were you so far off the mark on this one? I will tell you why Standish. You did not want this assignment in the first place, a waste of your talents I believe you said. You discounted the importance of this one from the word go and it almost cost you your life and JD’s It could still cost you a partner and a good friend. Even more important Ezra is to decide how to go about making things right again.
JD replayed the contents of the videotape in his head as he drove home. He and Ezra arriving on the scene, both playing the parts that they had been arranged for them to play, and then signaling for the backup agents to move in when the buy had gone down.
Everything had happened pretty fast after that; he and Ezra pulling their weapons and diving for cover behind the crates, as the sellers had opened fire on them. He remembered feeling confident that things were going to be okay because he and Ezra had other agents backing them up, besides Kelli.
Only there had been no one backing him and Ezra up, except for Kelli, and if it hadn’t been for her extraordinary talents with her rifle, they would both very likely been coming home in body bags.
A shudder ran through him at the thought of just how close he had come to dying, leaving Casey a widow and their twin daughters fatherless. JD was used to one of the guys always watching his backside. Hell, they were all used to Vin watching over them and JD had not considered how much he took that for granted. Never before had he realized just how valuable it was to work with a team of men and women that you could count onto watch your backs at all times.
As he let himself into the house, he was met with the sight of Casey dozing in her favorite chair. An open suspense novel was folded into her lap.
JD smiled lovingly at her as he set his laptop down, along with his other gear, and moved to kneel down beside her. His dark eyes swept over her beautiful face, etching it in his memory. He reached up and caressed her face with his hand and whispered softly,
Casey’s eyes fluttered open at the sound of his voice.
“JD. “There was no mistaking the joy in Casey’s voice as she said his name and the way her doe eyes lit up as they focused on his faces. Both caused JD’s heart to do a little flip in response.
JD’s smile widened as he leaned forward and gently kissed her. Casey’s lips were soft and welcoming, and with very little effort the kiss turned more passionate as both of them gave into the longing that each had suffered through during their absence from one another.
Casey’s eager husband slid one arm under her legs, and the other around her back and lifted from the chair, straightened into a standing position and carried his wife into their bedroom. He was anxious to set his eyes on his daughters, but that could wait until after he and Casey had satisfied their hunger for one another.
Their kisses continued as he made the short walk from the living room into his and Casey’s bedroom, and he used his foot to close the door behind him. He set her down upon their bed and with gentle urgency shed her nightgown, and then allowed Casey’s hands to aide him in removing his own garments. He stretched out on the bed beside her, his hands and lips caressing her, evoking within her the fiery flame that only he could assuage, and felt his own desires surge.
It was sometime later, after Casey had fallen asleep beside him, spent from their lovemaking, that JD was still awake. He slipped out of bed and slipped into his robe, hanging on the closet door and left their bedroom.
He moved across the hall and into the nursery. Quietly he made his way over to the dual cribs. He stood in the little area between them, and gazed down at first one sleeping daughter, and then the other. They were so perfect, so innocent. They needed the love and the support of both parents to grow up in the dangerous world they had been born into. He said a silent vow to himself that he would do everything in his power to see to it that he not leave them any time soon.
After another few moments with them, JD slipped out of the nursery and headed back into his and Casey’s bedroom. He took off the robe, slid back into bed, reached out and drew Casey into his arms before he allowed sleep to claim him at last.
Friday ~June 23 ~5:00am
The distinctive sound of gunshots echoed through the darkness. Startled from her sleep, Kelli resisted the urge to scream out a warning as scenes from the warehouse bust played over yet again in her mind. The gunfire had seemed real, but she quickly realized that she was in her own home, in her own bed. She felt the solid presence of her husband beside her and tried to relax.
“The dreams won’t last forever Kel, after a while they’ll just disappear.” Vin strong arms wrapped around her and his soft and steady voice held reassurance
Comforted by the sound of his soft drawl she snuggled closer. “How long, Vin?”
The Texan stroked her back as he spoke. “It depends, a few days, maybe a few weeks, but I promise you it will go away and you will quit seein’ JD or Ezra dead.”
Kelli was not surprised that he knew what she had been dreaming about. Vin was too experienced as a sharpshooter not to know how she felt and he was the only one that could understand the thoughts that were running through her head. Even surrounded by people that cared, it was hard for them to comprehend the emotions that accompanied the singular responsibility for another’s life. In many ways it was a solitary journey, one that only those that had made it could understand.
Although she was grateful that he was here for her, she also knew that he had made that journey many times and had suffered through his own recurring dreams. However he had faced them alone and that thought saddened her. “I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t do anythin’ wrong and have no reason to be sorry!” He answered a little more forcibly than he intended, but he was not going to let her blame herself for what happened.
She raised her head to look into his eyes. “I was talkin’ about you, ‘m sorry that you didn’t have someone with you that understood when you woke up alone, and had to face your nightmares. I wish I could have been there to make it easier for you.”
Hell, she was the one that needed comforting as far as he was concerned. Yet Kelli’s thoughts lay with him and the solitary battles he had fought with the demons of his past. All the love and concern for him that he saw in her eyes touched him deeply, Vin managed to tell her in a raspy whisper. “You just did, baby.” A surge of powerful emotions drew them together. Vin possessed her with a insatiable kiss, washing away all the nightmares and hurt like a cleansing rain that quickly turned into a wild storm of passion.
Tanner arrived well before the start of work time, but it was later than he usually came into the office. He was somewhat surprised to find the same group from last night in the war room hashing out details for the report to Travis.
Vin took the cup of coffee that Gunny handed him and joined them, “Damn, did y’all even go home?”
“I ordered everyone back in this morning. I didn’t tell you because you and Kel are always here early anyway. “Where is she?” Chris was looking forward to talking to her.
“She’s at home, spendin’ the day with the kids.” Vin sat down and sipped on his coffee.
JD expressed his disapproval. “Hell Vin, I’d like to be home with my kids, too, but I managed to get into work today.”
“She quit yesterday or did you forget that?” Tanner shot back, irritated that JD was critical of her actions.
“I am not going to let her quit! Damn it Vin, you couldn’t talk her into staying?” Chris was sure that after a night at home, she would be back.
Tanner stopped him “I didn’t even try. I’ll write it up as unpaid personal time off, but she needs to work through this and I won’t rush her. It’s gonna take a while before she’s ready to come back to work.”
“I certainly understand her annoyance with us; however we cannot express regret for our lapse of good judgment if she stays away.” Ezra was a bit disappointed too.
Buck laughed, “The Larabee temper strikes again.”
“You call and get her in here now or I will!” Intense green eyes flashed with anger and Chris expected an immediate response.
The Texan stood up and gave each of them an uncomfortable glare of his own before he spoke. “Y’all just don’t get it, or else you choose to forget. This is not about being angry with Ezra and JD. Hell, do any of you care to remember how damn hard it is to be solely responsible for the lives of people you care about? One mistake in timing or accuracy and you have to watch ‘em die because you failed to protect ‘em.. Then you add in the guilt because you couldn’t prevent ‘em being in that situation and finally regardless of who it is, you have to kill one or more human beings to end the threat. It takes time to reconcile your feelin’s against the right or wrong of what you had to do.”
Silence hung in the room before Josiah voiced his observation. “I believe that our brother is speaking from personal experience that we all should be able to relate to. Even though this may have been caused by the ineptness of certain law official it does not change the outcome.”
“I think it was more than bad police work Josiah, I think it was premeditated. Those bastards deliberately tried to keep Kelli out of that warehouse and she had to put up with the five days of hellish treatment in the process. It was never intended for either Ezra or JD to walk out of that place alive. I want to know why.” Tanner dropped his bombshell and waited for the reactions.
“That’s a strong accusation Vin. You want to share with us how you came to this conclusion?” Chris was willing to listen.
Tanner thought long and hard before he answered. “Mostly a gut feelin’, even though I do know that Kel was subjected to five days of crude sexual harassment, questions about her abilities and that the locals tried every way possible to persuade her to be just an observer. They didn’t have the authority to order her not to go in there, but if they had ‘m sure they would have used it. It was just pure stubbornness on her part that she insisted on being inside when things went down.”
Chris knew better than to dismiss Tanner’s gut feeling. “JD, I want background information and financials on every man that was there. Buck, you and Ezra go over that cover story and look for any detail that may help us prove it was a set-up. Also take a good look at that FBI field office and get some stats on their arrest record. When the other agents come in, enlist their help wherever you need it. Josiah, I want a profile of the Chief of Police and anyone else that had command authority on this operation. We dig all the way to hell if we have to, but I want some answers.”
Larabee waited until the others had left before turning to Vin and asking, “How bad and does she want to file harassment charges?”
The Texan couldn’t hide his anger from Larabee. “Bad and brutal, but I don’t think she’ll file on it. Kel’s still kickin’ herself for not seein’ past it, she believes that if she had she could have stopped this before the bust.”
Chris was now aware that it was more than anger at her fellow agents keeping Kelli out of the office “Vin, I want to talk to Kel over the weekend, but if you think she needs some alone time first, we’ll take care of the kids for you. Maybe you could take her up to the cabin.”
“Thanks anyway, but close of business today, we’re takin’ off campin’ for the entire weekend and the kids are goin’ with us. We’ll be back Sunday afternoon.”
“Then, we’ll see, Chris.”
Travis’ office ~later that morning
Suzanne Mills had been the administrative assistant for Orrin Travis for three years and was very familiar with the many moods of Chris Larabee. When he exited the elevator she knew he was ready for battle and wasted little time warning her boss that a black storm was fast approaching.
Chris did not know yet what was actually going on, but he would and he intended to make sure that Travis knew it. Once inside the office he sat and waited for Orrin to say what he had to say.
“Chris, I have the FBI report and the pictures that had been sent overnight to him. I see nothing that indicates the apathy that Coulter accused them of, she was out of line.” Travis handed the FBI report and pictures to him.
Larabee viewed the pictures and read the statement. “Orrin, I think you should see this,” He took the tape and gave it to Travis. “This is the actual tape from the bust.”
Orrin immediately put the video in his VCR and watched it to the end. ““I was informed that the video camera malfunctioned and that there was no tape. Where did you get this?”
“We requested it and were told that the SAC ordered that it not it to be sent to MCAT. One of the agents evidently was not so good at following orders that he did not agree with and sent it to us by special messenger, unofficially.” Chris explained.
Deep in thought, Orrin did not answer for a full minute and the said. “We have to go by the authorized release, find me some proof that makes it clear that it was falsified.
“Orrin who called you for our assistance”
He hesitated. “My friend is with the California Attorney General’s office. He just has a feeling that all is not what it seems in beautiful Costa Mesa.”
Chris picked up the pictures, and report to take with him. “Tell your friend that he was right. I intend to find the truth and when I do, beautiful Costa Mesa may not be so beautiful anymore.” Larabee left without another word.
Costa Mesa, California
It was late in the afternoon and Agent Zimmerman barged into the office of the Costa Mesa Chief of Police. “We need to talk!”
Blain dismissed the officer he had been talking to and as soon as the door closed behind him he angrily turned on the FBI agent. “What in the hell do you think you are doing, barging into my office and making demands!”
“No apology, no reprimand! MCAT is conducting its own investigation of what transpired here!” Zimmerman spat back. “I thought you said that bitch was going to be taken care of!”
“For Christ’s sake, lower your voice! Do you want everyone in the damn office to know what we are discussing?” Blaine told him, settling into his desk and drumming his fingers on its top.
“I don’t see how you can be so fucking calm when we’re about to get screwed two ways, when MCAT discovers our money-making operation.” Zimmerman told his partner. “Becoming someone’s love slave in prison or getting whacked into a million pieces isn’t exactly my idea of having a good time.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to us.” Blaine said, looking up at Zimmerman. “I’ve got the perfect plan to make MCAT think twice in following through with their investigation.”
Zimmerman stopped pacing and looked at him. “What?”
“MCAT agents can’t cause any problems if they are dead.”
Sunday ~June 25th
When the Tanners retuned home it was mid-afternoon and the entire family was outside for the Sunday barbeque. Any thoughts they may have had about making a quiet entrance were squashed when Sarah, Joanne and Maria spotted Andi getting out of the truck. While Jason and Vin put up the camping gear, Kelli was overrun with chattering little girls.
“Aunt Kelli, can Andi come play?” Sarah turned on the Wilmington charm and was impossible to refuse.
“Sure, just stay where I can see you.” Kelli smiled and shook her head as they ran off; it amazed her how well Andi had made a place for herself in a relatively short time.
Vin and Jason were back with Jason adding his request. “Can I go tell Uncle Chris about the fish I caught?”
Tanner grinned, “Go on pard, we’ll be over there in a bit.” He took off running, eager to share his camping adventures.
Once they finished unloading the truck, Vin knew there were no more excuses for not visiting with the rest of the family. He was convinced that the weekend getaway had been good for Kelli, bit he wasn’t sure if she was ready to face the rest of the wild bunch. “Are you up for this, Kel?”
“Don’t worry, ‘m a big girl and I can handle this bunch, besides Vin, ‘m not going into hidin’, I just don’t want to go back to work, yet. I’ve enjoyed playin’ this weekend and I’m not so sure ‘m ready for it to be over.” She popped his butt with a rolled up towel when he bent over to pick up one of Andi’s dropped toys and laughed when he yelped in surprise.
The Texan shot her a mock glare. “I can tell. Your sassy side is showin’, but I do know how to take care of that.”
Kelli started walking off and threw her last words at him as a challenge. “Guess you’ll just have to prove that, Tanner.” With her back to him, she missed the impish grin on Vin’s face, but was not surprised when he caught up with her and swatted her butt.
Throwing his arm around her shoulders, he stole a kiss as they walked toward the others. “I think I should take you campin’ more often.” As they approached the deck, Jason was animatedly retelling the story about catching his first fish without help. They stood and listened until he was finished; delighted that he was simply enjoying being a little boy, instead of the role as primary caretaker for his younger sister that his father had forced on him.
Chris was please to see him so happy, too. “It sounds as if you had a great weekend.” He couldn’t help but notice that the boy’s attention was now on the water spray that Buck and JD were using to wet down the girls. “Looks like fun doesn’t it? Why don’t you join them?” Jason didn’t need any urging, it was hot and that water looked cool. It wasn’t long before he was in the middle of all the fun.
She coming back to work, Vin?
Not yet, Cowboy.
Linda smiled, “You two look as if you enjoyed the weekend.”
Vin stood behind Kelli with his arms around her waist. “I’m not complainin’.” Tanner grinned, “Two days in the wild with this woman is quiet an experience.”
Kelli leaned back into the Texan and said teasingly, “Beside the weekend is not over, yet.” She looked at Chris with baby Grace snuggled in his arms and had to smile. “Linda, do you get to hold her at all when Chris is at home?”
“No, not very often, I only get her when he absolutely positively has to do something with both hands or it’s feeding time.” The blond laughed when Chris grunted.
“That not true, I only hold her ninety percent of the time that I am home. Besides, Linda has her all to herself the entire day so I’m entitled.” Chris said defensively.
“Is Max still here?” Vin wanted to talk to the woman as soon as she was finished with her duties for Chris and Linda.
Linda shook her head no. “Yesterday was her last day for us, but I tell you that lady is a treasure. She said to tell you that she would be expecting your call by the end of the week. I know she fell in love with Grace, but Jason and Andi I think she relates to more. Jason loves her stories and Andi loves her cookies.”
“I think between Max’s attention and Vin’s spoiling them while you were gone, that Jason and Andi came out ahead in the game last week.” Chris grinned.
What? You think I wouldn’t tell how much you spoiled them?
“Don’t worry Chris, Andi told me everythin’ about last week, The trips to the ice cream shop, McDonalds, Chucky Cheese Pizza…”
“Okay, ‘m busted by a three year old. I confess.” Vin laughed. “But we did have a good time.”
They were watching the kids and when JD picked up a water gun to soak the overheated children Kelli tensed. When he turned it toward the girls she froze. Suddenly she saw the scene in the warehouse play over again in slow motion, everything around her disappeared and she only saw the guns aimed at Ezra and JD and heard the shots…
Vin felt his wife tense up suddenly, and following the line of vision of where Kelli was looking, he understood that she was not seeing anything but the bust again. He tightened his arms around her, and whispered softly in her ear, “The kids are alright, Kel, it’s only a water gun. Don't give into your fear, but don't lock it up either."
Taking a deep breath she let his words seep into the vision and it began to fade. Her pulse slowed as she again became aware of her surrounding, while Vin’s solid presence and soft words provided support to anchor her to the here and now.
Although Kelli did not answer verbally, her body language told the Texan that she was relaxed once more. Josiah’s call to eat was timed perfectly, giving Vin an excuse to get the kids away from the water guns and it gave his redhead something to do. Together they helped Jason and Andi dry off, prepared their plates and after dinner they helped cleanup.
“See y’all in the mornin’.” Vin picked up tired Andi. “We need to get these two cleaned up before they crash. I think the last couple of days are catchin’ up to ‘em.”
Ezra opened his mouth to ask Kelli if he could talk to her privately, feeling the need to settle things between them. As if he was anticipating what Standish was going to do, Chris flashed him a wordless order that Ezra understood perfectly. His talk with Kelli would have to wait until another time.
“Goodnight.” Chris watched as the new family walked back toward their house. He was worried about all three of his agents and the riff that existed between them, but he acknowledged to himself that he was much more concerned about his daughter. Seeing her struggled though the results of what took place in Costa Mesa made him more determined to find the reasons that caused the turmoil that she was experiencing.
Two baths later, the youngest Tanners were finally in bed. The Texan had read three chapters of The Black Stallion to the children and then passed it to Kelli to read the next ones. While she read he prepared for the rest of their evening. He hurried though their bedroom to their private enclosed patio where they had installed a hot tub several months ago. Since the kids came to live with them they kept a lock on the cover, but tonight he had plans. He quickly had the cover removed and turned the water spigots on. He placed stereo speakers nearby, along with one lone candle that saturated the air with the scent of sandalwood. His final task was to place two fluffy bathrobes on the chairs and the romantic scene was set.
After two more chapters, Jason and Andi were asleep. Vin met Kelli outside of the kids’ bedroom, and took her by the hand, leading her through the darkened house toward the patio and out onto the deck that was bathed in moonlight. He had already made sure the front door was locked so that they could enjoy their evening together without worry.
Vin pulled Kelli into his embrace. “Now, what was that you said earlier about provin’ somethin’, Sassy?”
Kelli smiled and shrugged a shoulder, “I forgot, reckon you’ll have to remind me, Tanner.”
“Reckon I will,” The Texan possessed her mouth with a reckless kiss that pushed all thoughts of Costa Mesa into oblivion.
Linda sat next to Chris on the couch, Grace was finally asleep and this was the first time they had been alone all day. “There seemed to be a bit of tension with the family today. You want to tell me what’s going on?
“It is all work related babe. We had a few complications on that case in California and then things got ugly from there. I plan to give it some time, if the situation doesn’t resolve itself then I may have to push, but I hope that it doesn’t come to that.” Chris drew Linda close to his side. “That’s enough about work. When did you say you go for your check-up?”
“We have over two weeks to go Larabee, so don’t start anything that we can’t finish.” Linda laughed and snuggled closer to her husband. “Of course we could make-out here on the couch.”
“That’s the best idea I have heard all day.” Chris dropped his head and nibbled on her ear lobe, trailing light kisses down her neck and he began to unbutton her blouse. Grace’s cry on the baby monitor brought a screeching halt to any other ideas Larabee may have had. He sighed deeply, “I think our daughter objects. I do hope she outgrows this little habit or she may ruin her chances for having any siblings in her future.”
“Come on dad.” Linda stood up and offered her hand to Chris. “Let’s go check on the little angel.”
Ezra poured himself another drink, sat down on the couch and dialed the hotel in Phoenix. He had talked to Barbara early this morning and felt good most of the day. However, he was no closer to resolving the problem with his partner and now sitting alone at home he knew it would be a long night. The switchboard connected him to Barbara’s room and after seven rings he was compelled to accept the fact that that she was not there to answer.
Standish hung up the phone and downed his drink. Great Ezra, you are thirty-six-years old, have lived alone most of your adult life. Now this woman comes along and after eight days without her you are sitting here in the dark, drinking alone and counting the hours until she returns on. You do have it bad Standish. Maybe it is time to quit running solo in your life and make some permanent changes.
After all Standish, everything else has changed in your life the past year. Your entire career has focused on being someone else, taking on a role in undercover work, knowing that your teammates depended on you to ‘get it right’. One slip up and you along with the rest of them could die. Isn’t that why you always have preferred to work on your own Ezra? Do you think they understood what it was like to be out there on you own, cut off from the team and alone? Did they know how long it took to recover my true identity after a long assignment? Hell, Ezra what is your true identity? Why are you having doubts again? Thought we lost our doubts when we came to Denver and found this family of brothers?
I will tell you why Ezra, your role as undercover agent does not exist in the unit. MCAT does not need the long clandestine assignments that you are used to. There are others that fit in our new types of case better that you could. The only undercover work you are needed for now is to mop up some other agency’s mistakes. You have retrained as a negotiator and it is your vast undercover experiences that they need. So why aren’t you adapting Standish? Why are you so angry?
Ezra poured himself one more drink before he went to his lonely bed and tried to sleep.
Overlooking Larabee 7 Ranch
Wednesday morning ~ June 28
Through the binoculars he watched as one by one several vehicles left the ranch. “Damn, are you sure this is the right place?”
“According to Zimmerman, the phone number the bitch called is on this ranch somewhere.” Medora checked the slip of paper again. “Yep, that phone number belongs to a V.J. Tanner at this location.”
Ray sighed, “In case you can’t read, the sign on the entrance says Larabee 7, not Tanner and beside I though her name was Coulter.” He kept the field glasses on the buildings closest to the ranch house.
“Hell, how should I know why the names don’t match? I just follow orders and my orders are to kill the bitch, but after seeing this picture I might have some fun first.”
“We have to damn well find her before... Wait…Let me see that picture.” Ray looked at the photo and then picked up the glasses again. “That’s her! I guess Zimmerman is good for something after all. Shit, she’s talking to someone that looks like a ranch hand and she’s got two kids with her.”
Medora snatched the binoculars from Ray to see for himself. “Donner might be interested to know about the kids. I want to get my hands on her, but we’ll have to wait and catch her away from here. Who’s next on that list?”
MCAT Office ~War room 11:00am
Although the room was full of agents, Chris was acutely aware of the empty place next to Ezra. According to Tanner there was still no indication when or if Kelli planned to return to work. Taking his chair at the head of the table he was ready to begin.
“Tell me.” With those two words the reports started.
JD began to rattle off information. “There were two FBI agents there for the entire five days. Robert Zimmerman, ten years of service and he was assigned to that office two years ago. Michael Welch has two years of service. He was assigned there eight months ago and then partnered with Zimmerman. Both men have a few disciplinary reprimands in their jackets and live a very good lifestyle, too good for what they pay government workers” He flipped the page.
“The SAC was there as an observer only, I suppose hoping to get some press coverage. That particular field office does not have a history of any high-profile arrests, mostly small collars. In the last two years a large number of those have been thrown out of court for one reason or another …42% to be exact. The bust was definitely the boost he needed to hold his job.” He moved on to the locals.
“Costa Mesa Chief of police William Blaine, twenty-two years in law enforcement, has been chief for fifteen of those years. The two men he had at the bust are Jefferies, fifteen years and Shipley, sixteen years, both have worked with the Chief on every bust he takes part in. Nothing happens there that Blaine does not know about or give his approval to. Crime stats show a low crime rate and something interesting that CASSIE found. Even though 82% of the citizens in that town are married there has not been one single incident of domestic violence filed there in…fifteen years. However there have been several missing persons reported, mostly young women.”
“No domestics in a town that size? What about drugs?” Chris was curious.
“Very few drug busts even at the teenage level. Costa Mesa appears to be the perfect town.” JD answered. “A complete list is in this folder. He passed it over to Chris.
“I am working on the profiles, but I can tell you that every man there was capable and experienced enough to make it a clean bust…if they wanted to. All of their extra-circulative activities are expensive and according to their jackets they all lean toward aggressive behavior, especially where women are concerned. Give me the day on this and I’ll have more for you.” Josiah turned it over to Buck.
“The cover story was tight, but on a hunch Ezra and I checked out the perps. All of them recently arrived in this country on work visas, on the same day and had no criminal records. Raphael is going down to immigration today to obtain a rundown of who came in at the similar time to work for the same employer. Also to find out just how much labor that company uses from overseas or south of the boarder. Ezra and I are following up on some possible leads, but so far nothing else.”
“I have something I think you might be interested in.” Dr. Bones Medfield, head of the MCAT forensics department stood. “The FBI report states that the suspects were killed by the local police and FBI agents. I used my authority and a few persuasive tactics to retrieve these from the FBI lab” He laid a plastic bag on the table, containing spent shell casing and bullets. “There were five bodies, two were clearly killed by Agent Standish and the last three…all met their demise from Agent Coulter’s rifle. There was not one bullet fired in that warehouse that hit any of the suspects, except theirs.”
“Sonofabitch!” Buck jumped up, turning his chair over in the process. “Chris, that’s enough to prove that those bastards did this deliberately and then tried to cover it up.”
Chris cut his eyes to Bones, “You’re positive?”
“Without a doubt, Captain Tanner supplied me with Agent Coulter’s rifle. Agents Standish and Dunne volunteered their weapons for me to test and the results were conclusive. I have documentation from the FBI lab and a copy of the autopsy reports. I will stand behind my findings in any court in the land.”
“Good work Bones; anything else you can persuade them to release would be appreciated.” Chris made a decision. “For now, this information stays in this room. I want to see what else they try before we let them know we are onto their game. They are hiding something and I aim to damn sure find out what it is.” Chris stood and scanned the room.
“Paul, you and Ross work with Josiah. Justin, you’re with Raphael. Nathan, I want you to work the leads with Buck. Ezra… you know who to talk to, JD and Pam keep CASSIE going, dig into the company that’s using alien labor. I want anything you can get on these bastards, hell I want to know what they eat for breakfast. Move it people!”
Tanner waited until the room emptied. “Chris, ‘m workin’ some of my old contacts from my huntin’ days; I figured we might need some outside help on this.”
“Good, outside our unit we can’t trust anyone from law enforcement on this one. At least until we have proof of who the players are.” Chris agreed.
“Ezra stuck his head in the door. “I am departing to converse some associates of mine.”
Vin stood up, “Hang on and I’ll walk down with you. Kel is meetin’ me for lunch and should be waitin’ for me now.”
Ezra nodded and waited for Vin to catch up to him. They didn’t speak as they moved through the office and onto the elevators. The moment the elevator doors closed, Standish spoke.
“Vin…it was never my intent to malign Kelli’s abilities as a sharpshooter, or make her feel inferior in her role as my partner. I allowed my own pettiness in having to take the assignment interfere with my better judgment…”
“I think you need to be sayin’ all of this to Kelli, not me. She’s the one that needs to hear it. “Vin told him.
“I know…and I will gladly offer it to her as soon as she allows me the first moment of privacy that I can have with her. I just hope that things between you and I haven’t been adversely affected because of this.”
Standish’s green-eyed gaze was intent on Tanner’s face.
“Hell, Ezra, I wasn’t mad at you in the first place. I’m just mad over the whole situation and what those bastards put Kel through.”
“I look forward to seeing the terror on their faces when you get your hands on them.”
Vin laughed and slapped Ezra on the back as the elevator doors opened.
Together the Texan and the Southerner walked through the first level of the parking garage, and towards the adjacent lot connected to it. Ezra was adamant about parking his beloved green Jag there, instead of inside. Tanner stopped at the exit of the garage and glanced around for Kelli, not spotting their truck yet, he said.
“I’m goin’ to wait here for Kel, Ezra. She must be runnin’ late.”
Ezra nodded and continued walking towards his Jag. He reached it a few moments later, and inserted a key into the lock. Just then he spotted Kelli pulling her truck into a parking stall several feet away, and realized that since she had entered into the parking lot from the opposite entranceway, that she hadn’t seen Vin waiting for her by the exit.
“Kelli, “ he called out to get her attention as he started towards her, hoping that she would allow him a few moments to apologize to her for the terrible way he had acted.
He was several feet away when an explosion rocked the parking lot behind him, and propelled him off of his feet and into the air. He connected hard with the ground a few minutes later; the air left his lungs in a rush, and his head bounced off of the asphalt. There was only a moment or two of panic that assaulted him when he found that he couldn’t breathe, before his head swam and darkness settled over him.
Kelli had just set the alarm on the truck when she heard her name being called and turned to see Standish walking toward her. “Great… ”She muttered, not at all in the mood to deal with him just yet, when an explosion rocked the parking lot. The concussion of the blast slammed her against the tailgate and she watched in horror as Ezra was thrown into the air and landed hard on the ground. Any thought of anger fled from her mind as she took off at a dead run to her fallen partner.
Pulling out her cell phone Kelli was dialing 911 as she knelt next to Standish, “Ezra!”
The emergency operator answered after one ring. “What is your emergency?”
“MCAT Agent Coulter badge ID # 6753. Explosion, Federal Buildin’, parking lot west entrance, agent is distress, needs immediate medical assistance.” Kelli yelled into her phone.
“An ambulance has been dispatched. Can you give me any details of the condition of the agent?”
“Unconscious male, lying face down on the ground, severe blood loss from head wound. “Kelli reported into the phone, as she took in Ezra’s condition. “He’s breathing, but it’s shallow and his pulse is weak, unable to establish if any bones are broken.”
Vin watched Ezra as he moved through the parking lot toward his green Jag while he waited for Kelli to arrive for their lunch date. He saw the undercover agent bend slightly to unlock his car. A moment later Ezra straightened up and looked off into the parking lot at something he couldn’t see from his position, due to the many cars in his line of sight.
As Tanner continued to watch for his wife, he saw Ezra step away from his car and move in the direction of whatever he had been looking at, and then felt the whole ground shake as Ezra’s car exploded.
“Ezra!” Vin called out, breaking into a sprint across the parking lot.
Vin raced through the lot toward where he knew Ezra’s car had been parked. He rounded a car onto the aisle and saw Ezra sprawled unmoving on the ground several feet away from him, with Kelli kneeling down beside him. He realized then that it had been Kelli that Ezra had spotted and started walking toward before his Jag exploded.
Kelli spotted him running towards them and felt relief flood through her. Ezra still hadn’t regained consciousness, and she was beginning to fear the worse. She pressed her hand against the wound in Ezra’s head, knowing that it was imperative that she stopped the flow of blood or he could very well bleed to death before emergency care could arrive.
Vin dropped to his knees beside them both. “You okay, Kel?” The Texan asked, his blue eyes sweeping over his wife, even as he asked the question.
“What the fuck was that?” Buck Wilmington exclaimed as he was thrown off balance into his desk as he returned to it after refilling his coffee mug. Hot amber liquid sloshed onto his hand and he let out a muffled curse as he quickly set the mug down and dried his hand on the back of his pants.
“Sounded like some kind of explosion.” Nathan commented, already on his feet.
“Shit! “ Chris exclaimed suddenly, rushing out of the war room, and heading toward the elevators at a dead run.
“What is it Chris? Something happen to Vin?” Josiah called out as he broke into a run after his leader.
Chris’ cryptic message spurred the rest of the MCAT team into motion, filling the elevator to its capacity as they headed down to the lobby of the building that was by now in lockdown mode.
“I have an agent down! Open this fucking door!” Chris shouted to security.
“Commander, it’s an automatic lockdown, I can’t open…” The security chief sighed, he knew Larabee well enough to know that he would shoot his way out if he had to. “This way, sir, It the only way out until we have an all clear.” He showed them an exit reserved for emergency personal.
Once outside sirens sounded everywhere, the smell of burning metal and leather filled the air. Panicked people were running to get away from what they weren’t sure, but memories of news footage from preciously attacked Federal buildings spurred them on.
West Parking lot.
“This way!” Chris ran and as he rounded the corner that exposed the charred remain of Ezra Jag he felt fear clutch his heart. Suddenly he saw another twisted mass of metal and burning vehicle from the past and froze, Not again!
“Nathan saw them first. “Chris, Chris! Over here!
Nathan’s word’s reached through the years and brought him back to the here and now.” I’m right behind you Nate.” Chris only prayed that they were in time.
“Let me get a closer look Vin.” Nathan said as he arrived on the scene, and dropped down beside the two Texans and their prone friend.
Vin scooted out of the way to allow Nathan room to examine Ezra’s injuries, slipping an arm around Kelli’s shoulder as Chris arrived with the rest of the MCAT team.
“What in the hell happened Vin?” Chris demanded.
“Ez and I separated when we reached the exit to the parking garage. I stayed there since I didn’t see Kelli yet, and Ezra continued on to his Jag. I watched him reach it, and insert his key into the door, then look up as if something caught his attention.”
“That was me,” Kelli broke in. “I came in from the south entrance and parked my truck in a stall about thirty feet behind us. Ezra called out to me to get my attention and started walkin’ towards me. He had walked about halfway when the Jag exploded behind him, threw him into the air and then he landed here. The blast threw me back against my truck, I got up and then I called for an ambulance as I ran over. They should be on their way. “
Nathan looked up, “Chris, you better get on that phone and tell them to hurry.”
Within the first few moments of his arrival onto the parking lot, Chris had taken charge of the situation. He had cordoned off the crime scene, placing MCAT members at strategic positions to prevent anyone from trespassing onto the scene, and tainting evidence. He had given strict orders that no one outside of their unit would be permitted on the parking lot, except for the medical personnel when they arrived.
His instructions did not sit well with the head of the Federal building’s security personnel, who strolled onto the parking lot as if he owned it, ignoring Justin’s attempts to get him to stop. Chris shot the other MCAT agent a look to let Justin know that he would deal with man himself.
Agent Larabee, I’m well aware of your tendency to run rough shod of over other agencies heads in order to get what you want, but try and be reasonable. Securing the building and the perimeter of the parking lot falls under my occupational title more than it does yours. Please allow myself and my men to do their job.”
Chris glowered at the older man. “No one is stopping you from doing your job Crandall, as long as you understand that it no longer consists of this parking lot.”
Crandall opened his mouth to say something else, but Chris’ cell phone rang and he held up a hand to stay the other man’s protests. “Larabee…Kat? What? I’ll handle it.”
Chris hung up the phone and turned his attention back onto the security supervisor. “Call your men Crandall and tell them to let my forensics people out of the building. Now!”
The older man paled under the glare that Larabee fixed him with and angrily dispatched the order over his handset.
The MCAT forensics team arrived a few moments later, and after checking in with Chris, went to work meticulously going over the tangled, charred heap of metal that had once been Standish’s most prized possession.
“We’re not through here Larabee.” Crandall said angrily.
“I don’t have time to waste coddling your hurt ego Crandall.” Chris spat out. “It’s one of my men lying injured and unconscious on the ground over there and that makes this MY case.”
Larabee heard his name being called and cast a glance over his shoulder to see Buck walking towards him. “We’re done here Crandall.”
“I’m going to take a look around in the rubble. Try and see whether or not I can come up with enough pieces of the bomb to figure out what it was made of and how it was detonated.” Buck told him.
“Have Kat and Greg assist you.”
“I will.” Buck agreed.
“How does it look Nathan?” Chris asked Jackson, crouching down beside the unconscious undercover agent.
“It doesn’t look good Chris. He hasn’t moved a muscle since I’ve been here, and that’s never a good sign. The one thing going for him is the fact that Kelli was so close to him and was able not only to call in an ambulance right away, but that she applied pressure to his head to slow the flow of blood. He could have easily bled out here in the parking lot before we got to him. Damn it! Where the hell is that ambulance?” Jackson yelled at Larabee.
“Easy…Nathan. You are doing everything you can.” Chris told the medic, knowing that Jackson had a tendency to take too much on his shoulders when it came to caring for his fellow team members.
“It’s not enough.” Nathan snapped.
The wail of a siren pierced the air and a collective sigh of relief went up from the other team members, knowing that help had finally arrived.
Ezra still hadn’t regained consciousness by the time that the ambulance arrived. Vin helped Kelli to her feet and stood back to watch with Chris, JD, and Josiah as the EMTS went to work on Ezra. Nathan worked with them to get Ezra onto a backboard so that they could examine the still unconscious undercover agent more easily. He filled them in on what he had observed of Standish’s vitals when he had first arrived on the scene.
When they were loading Ezra into the back of the ambulance, Chris said, “Nathan you ride with them. I don’t want Ezra left alone until we catch whoever is responsible for doing this to him. Besides, if he wakes up in route to the hospital he’ll be more obliged to listen to the medics if you are there too.”
Jackson nodded his reply a moment before the doors were closed and the ambulance raced out of the parking lot with its sirens wailing.
Chris turned to the rest of the unit. “Buck, you’re in charge of the investigation until you’re finished on the explosives part. Then hand it over to Justin to oversee. He can track down the owners of some of these other damaged vehicles, while you hightail to the hospital. Pam and JD, I want you to head back to the office and set CASSIE to work on looking through all of our back cases, but especially one’s in which Ezra played a key part in taking someone down. I want to know who the hell is responsible for putting Ezra in the ambulance that he is in, and I want to know NOW.”
“We’re on it.” J.D. told the MCAT leader, starting across the parking lot.
“Keep us informed of Ezra’s condition.” Pam added as she hurried to catch up with JD.
Chris turned his attention onto Vin, Kelli and Josiah. “Let’s go.”
In The Ambulance…Ezra fought against the heaviness that weighed him down in the murky darkness. As he slowly drifted towards consciousness, he became aware of a cacophony of sounds that reverberated through his head with the intensity of a herd of angry elephants. He tried to lift his right hand up to his brace his head, but found that it wouldn’t cooperate. In fact, he couldn’t move any part of his body and that knowledge filled him with panic, and he was suddenly awake.
His green eyes fluttered open and he let out a groan as pain spliced through his head in reaction to the light shining directly into it. He closed them quickly and found the pain in his head alleviated just a little.
Nathan had been watching Ezra’s unconscious form close, not wanting to miss even the slightest flicker of an eyelid or intake of breath that would signal to him that Standish was coming to. His prolonged unconsciousness was worrisome to the medic, even though his vitals were stable.
Ezra winced against the pain that shot through his head at the sound of his name being said. The voice sounded familiar, but as hard as he tried to place the name of the person who had spoken, he found that he couldn’t. He frowned. Usually his memory was far more reliable than this.
He slowly opened his eyes again, blinking against the bright light that filled them, and felt another intense feeling of pain shoot through his head.
“Ezra? How are you feeling?”
Nathan asked, leaning over so that Ezra could see him when his eyes fluttered open again.
Two dark-skinned images swam before his vision for a few minutes, as he tried again to connect the voice, and face…or…faces with a name.
“Nat…han?” Ezra rasped out through the oxygen mask he had on his face, once his addled memory had locked onto a name.
Jackson breathed a sigh of relief that Standish was not only awake finally, but he was coherent enough to recognize him. “That’s right, Ezra.”
“What the hell happened?”
“You were in an accident but you are going to be just fine. We’re in route to the hospital now, and they are going to take real good care of you.” Nathan had decided that it was probably best not to tell Ezra what exactly happened to him, just yet. He knew that Standish would only aggravate his condition, if he knew that his car was in ruins and that he had been the target of a murder attempt. “Why am I so encumbered?” Ezra queried.
“Mr. Standish, we haven’t yet determined the extent of your injuries, so that is why we have you immobilized.” The EMT told him. “How do you feel?”
“Wonderful.” Ezra retorted, and Nathan couldn’t help smiling despite the situation. Ezra’s cockiness was a good sign, that the undercover agent wasn’t injured nearly as bad as what they had first estimated. Ezra’s eyes drifted shut as unconsciousness claimed him once more.
In route to the hospital…“Come on! Get the hell out of the way!” Chris Larabee shouted out the driver’s side window of Kelli’s truck. He slammed his hand down on the horn, making both Kelli and Vin wince, as he had commandeered the keys from his daughter when they had raced over to the vehicle after the ambulance, with Ezra ensconced inside, had sped out of the parking lot, and he had shouted orders to Buck and the other MCAT team members who were staying behind to investigate.
Larabee swerved around the car holding up traffic, cutting another car off in the right lane, and racing through the yellow light. He weaved in and out of traffic, forcing both Texans to grasp the dash with their hands to keep from being jostled around too much.
“Easy, Chris...we’re not going to do Ezra any bit of good if we’re involved in a car accident.” Vin cautioned his best friend from the passenger’s seat.
“Don’t tell me how to drive Tanner!” Larabee snapped, as he took another sharp corner, making the right side tires leave ground for a second or two.
“I’ll tell you any goddamn thing I want to when you are jeopardizin’ not only your life, but Kelli’s and mine too!” Vin shouted back.
Ornery ass Texan…
“You two arguin’ over Chris’ driving, ain’t going to do any one a bit of good.” Kelli told them both in a calm voice, glancing from Chris to Vin from her place between them.
Larabee let out an explosive breath at her words and knew that she was right. Hell, they were both right. Getting the three of them involved in an accident wasn’t going to do anyone any good. It was just that he was so fired up with anger over what had happened to Ezra. Fear two, played a part in his actions as well. Seeing the twisted and charred metal that had once been Ezra’s prized jag, had sent his memory spiraling back into time to when he had lost Sarah and Adam.
He eased up on the gas pedal. “I’m sorry…”
We didn’t lose him Chris…
It was close…too damn close, Vin
I know….we’re going to find out whoever is responsible and make them pay for what they did to Ezra…you can mark my words on that.
Damn straight we are!
Kelli gave an aggrieved sigh. “I wish the two of you wouldn’t do that when it’s only the three of us. A woman is likely to get a complex or somethin’.” Larabee and Tanner burst out laughing; Kelli didn’t mind. She had intended her comment to be the tension breaker that her father and husband had taken it to be.
They reached the hospital parking lot a few minutes later, and Chris found a space up front. Josiah, who had been following them in his own vehicle, parked his car further down in the same row, and jogged to catch up with the trio as they entered the hospital through the emergency room entrance.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Nathan had accompanied Ezra as far as the emergency room, and then handed over his injured friend to the doctors and nurses that swarmed around the gurney. He knew that Ezra was in good hands and moved into the waiting area to await the arrival of the rest of their team.
Larabee led the way into the emergency room, with Vin and Kelli a step behind him, and Josiah bringing up the rear. Chris shot the emergency room security guard a warning glare not to mess with him, seeing how the older man’s eyes had widened slightly, and knew the man had seen the guns that he and the others were wearing strapped to their waists.
Josiah flashed the security guard his MCAT badge, as he passed by the man, and indicated that his companions were also law enforcement agents too. The foursome didn’t break stride as they moved toward the triage desk to ask about Ezra’s condition.
Nathan called out from his position on the other side of the room near the doors that led into the triage area of the hospital. The MCAT leader changed directions at hearing his name called, and moved toward the medic with Vin, Kelli and Josiah following behind him.
Nathan’s brown eyes raked over the heads of the foursome, searching for his two missing brothers.
“Where are JD and Buck?”
“Buck’s overlooking the investigation and JD is running files through CASSIE to find the son of a bitch who did this to Ezra!” Chris informed him. “How is he, Nathan?”
“I don’t know yet, Chris. The docs are working on him right now.” Nathan told them. “Ezra regained consciousness in the ambulance on our way here.”
“Thank God.” Josiah exclaimed, casting a grateful look upwards.
“That’s good news, isn’t it?” Kelli asked.
Nathan nodded. “It is…it doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods yet, though. Head injuries are tricky things.”
“Was he able to talk? Did he know who you were?” Vin asked.
“He was able to talk, as much as the equipment would allow him too…and he didn’t know me at first. I could see the confusion in his green eyes…but then after a few moments he said my name.”
An hour had passed…. “Where the hell are they? Why hasn’t someone come out here to give us an update on Ezra’s condition?” Chris exclaimed heatedly.
“These things take time, Chris.” Nathan told the blond calmly. “The doctors will want to know all the results of the protocol of tests that they have put Ezra through before they come out here to tell us what’s going on.”
“Shouldn’t we call Barbara and let her know what’s happened?” Kelli asked, from her place beside Vin.
“No sense in tellin’ her about the explosion until we know more about Ezra’s condition.” Vin replied softly.
“She’s out of town on some court case anyway.” Josiah supplied. “Ezra mentioned it earlier today when we were at our desks. He had just received a phone call and then got up from his desk, so I asked him if he was going to meet Barbara for lunch.”
“A phone call?” Chris asked, stopping his pacing and turning to look at Sanchez. “He got a phone call right before he headed downstairs?”
Realization dawned on Sanchez’s face. “Maybe whoever has it in for Ezra placed the call…?”
“Pretendin’ to be one of Ezra’s informants’ maybe?” Vin added, “Ezra did say when he poked his head into the office that he was going to go check in with some of his ‘associates’. Maybe it was one in particular that he was plannin’ on meetin’?”
Chris digested the information. “Sounds plausible, I’ll have JD check Ezra’s phone records.”
He pulled out his cell phone and started to dial JD’s when he caught sight of JD and Buck walking through the emergency room doors. He turned off his cell phone and watched the two MCAT agents walk towards him.
Federal Building ~ earlier…It was taking all of Buck’s willpower to keep him focused on the task at hand, as he sifted through the charred, twisted remains of Standish’s cherished JAG, looking for clues. He, too, had flashed back on the night that Chris’s former wife and son had been killed in a car explosion meant for Larabee. Sarah and Adam had been his family too, and he had been the one to see Chris through those dark days.
Buck knew that it had been just plain luck that Ezra had spotted Kelli, and had moved to talk to her when he did. If he had been anywhere closer, or God forbid, inside, they would be planning a funeral right now. He hoped, no prayed, that the injuries that Standish had sustained weren’t life threatening. He didn’t think he could stomach losing another person he cared about to a car bombing, or any other way for that matter.
He shook his head of his morbid thoughts and went back to his search, being careful not to get in Greg and Kat’s way as they collected forensic evidence. He squatted down beside the hunk of metal that had been the driver’s side door, and carefully examined it. Blue eyes narrowed as he studied the door, and then shifted onto the ground in front of him.
A small fragment of shining metal caught his eye from underneath the door. He used one hand to lift the door up, and the other to pick the metal piece up out of the ashes. A slow smile brightened his face as he stared down at the intact keyhole, with Ezra’s keys still inserted in it. By the looks of it, Ezra had turned the key in the door, and for whatever reason the timing mechanism hadn’t set the explosives off right when it should have. That told Buck that the explosives hadn’t been planted in the door of the car, but mostly underneath somewhere, and that whomever had set them hadn’t done a very good job of it.
“Greg, Kat…come here.” He called out to the forensics team members.
“Yeah, Buck?” Kat said, as she rounded the car and came to his side. Greg joined them a moment later.
“Look what I found?” Buck held up the intact keyhole. He dropped it into the clear plastic evidence bag that Greg held out for him. “I’m going to let the two of you finish up here and head to the hospital to see how Ezra is, and let Chris and the others know what I’ve found. "
“Okay, Buck.” Greg said.
Buck started toward the underground garage where he had parked his vehicle, when he saw JD emerging from the exit, headed toward him.
“You are going to the hospital?” JD asked as they met up with each other.
“Yeah…I thought Chris told you to run files through CASSIE?” Buck asked him.
“He did…but I can’t get my mind off of Ezra. I want to go to the hospital too, Buck.” JD told him.
Buck sighed. “You know Chris isn’t going to be happy about this.”
"I don't care, Buck. I'm going to hospital regardless of whether I ride with you or I drive my own car. Either way I'm going, so don't try and talk me out of it."
"Don't say I didn't warn you."
Denver Memorial Hospital
Buck Wilmington led the way into the emergency room, pausing just inside the door long enough to scan the area with his blue eyes before catching sight of Chris’ lean figure watching them from across the room.
“There they are.” He said to JD as he threaded his way through the milling patrons and sporadically placed furniture over to the area that the four MCAT agents had staked out as their territory for the duration of their vigil.
“How is he?” Buck asked, concern for the undercover agent lining his face.
“Don’t know.” Vin told him. “No one’s come out to tell us anythin’yet.”
“That can’t be good, can it?” JD said, looking from one face to the other.
Chris’ green gaze fell on him. “I thought I gave you an order?”
JD looked him square in the eyes and said, “Yes, you did…but damn it, Ezra’s my brother, too, and I have just as much right to be here as you do.”
Chris glared at him.
“You’re right. Chris told JD.
“Gentlemen, Kelli. I am sorry that you had to wait so long for someone to come out and talk to you. I wanted to peruse the results of all of Mr. Standish’s tests, one last time before I spoke with you.” Dr. Landers said as he walked up. “Before I can give you the details of the tests results I need to ask which of you have the other POA for Mr. Standish?”
“I do.” Nathan spoke up quietly.
“So do I.” Josiah added. “Fire away, doc.”
Dr. Landers nodded. “Now that the formalities have been cleared up, we may continue.”
He glanced down at the clipboard he held. “Mr. Standish is a very lucky man. He did sustain a grade four concussion and for that reason I would like to keep him under observation for the next seventy-two hours. Amazingly he did not have any broken bones, but his left wrist is sprained, he’s got ten stitches in the left side of his temple, and asphalt abrasions down along the left side of his face, on the palms of both hands, and down the length of his left arm. Suffice it to say his body will be talking to him for the next week or so.”
Chris fixed his eyes on the doctor. “He will be all right?”
“Yes, he is a little bit groggy, but he is awake. Chris, he insists on leaving, convince him to stay.”
“Thanks, doc, I’ll see what I can do,”
“Can we see him?” Vin asked.
“We need to get him settled into a room first, and then I’ll have someone come back out to show you where it is.” Dr. Landers replied. “Only one or two visitors at a time please, and then only for a few minutes.”
“I’ll make sure no one stays too long.” Nathan reassured him.
“You do that.” Dr. Landers said and disappeared back inside the ER.
Chris made his way to Ezra’s hospital room and prepared himself mentally to face what he would find inside. Pushing the door open he did not expect to see Standish struggling to sit up on the side of the bed.
“Standish! Where in the hell do you think you are going?”
Denver Memorial Hospital
Ezra winced as Larabee’s question reverberated through his head, bringing one battered hand up to his equally battered and bruised face. “Mr. Larabee may I prevail upon you to keep your objections to my attempting to leave this dismal establishment down to a low rumble? My cranium already feels as if it is three times its size, and there is a rather obnoxious drummer beating out a distasteful tempo within it.”
Chris smirked at Ezra’s assessment of his concussion, but didn’t let it deter him from wanting to know why Standish was trying to flee the hospital when he could barely even move. “You still didn’t answer my question, Ezra. Where do you think you are going?”
“It should be perfectly obvious to you where I am going.” Ezra replied his head lowered as he worked single handedly to pull the lines to the heart monitor off of his chest. “I’m going home. I would much rather recuperate from my injuries within the comforts of my own adobe, than be confined to this sterile establishment one moment further.”
“Sorry to burst your fantasy bubble Ezra, but you’re not going anywhere until the doctor gives the okay. “ Larabee said, moving forward and taking the lines that Standish had already ripped off his chest and replacing them despite the undercover agents’ feeble attempts to stop them. “Leave them intact or so help me I’ll use duct tape to secure them.”
“You’re all heart.” Ezra said disdainfully.”
“I don’t know.” Chris told him honestly. “I suppose that is up to you and how well you cooperate with the doctor and nurses caring for you. Ezra, do you remember anything at all about what happened?”
Ezra leaned back on the pillow and closed his eyes. “Vin and I had walked out of the parking garage together. I left him at the exit because he didn’t see Kelli and he thought that she was late in arriving for their luncheon engagement. I continued across the parking lot toward my car and inserted the key into the door. I heard the sound of a motor and looked up to see Kelli pulling her truck into a spot several feet away from where my JAG was parked. I decided to walk over and inform her that her paramour was waiting at the exit to the garage, and perhaps apologize for my terrible behavior towards her. I don’t recall how far I have traveled before I heard what sounded like a sonic boom behind me and then I found myself propelled through the air. Last thing I remember is the asphalt rushing up to meet me at mach speed and feeling my head reverberate off of it before I passed out.”
“Nathan said that you woke up briefly in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Do you remember that?”
“Briefly.” Ezra said. “What exploded?”
Ezra grimaced. “Was anyone else injured in the explosion?”
“No…Kelli was shaken up a bit from witnessing it…but no one else was hurt.” Chris told him, keeping his own feelings about the situation buried. “I’ve got the team working on it. We’re perusing your cases, trying to narrow down a suspect. Until we find out who did this Ezra, you are going to have one of us with you at all times, and I don’t want any arguments.”
“Arguing with you would be futile.”
“Yes it would. Look, I’ve been in here longer than I should have stayed, but I wanted your input on what happened. There are quite a few people out in the waiting room chomping at the bit to get in here to see you.” Chris said as he moved toward the door. “I’ll drop by tomorrow and check on you.”
Ezra nodded and closed his eyes. Larabee left to allow the rest of the members of the original team come in and have a few words with the injured undercover agent.
“Ezra, you look like shit!” Buck exclaimed as he entered Standish’s room first, with JD behind him.
JD smacked Buck on the arm. “What was all that stuff you were spouting off to me in the hallway about being tactful about what we said, if you weren’t planning on using it yourself?”
“That was tactful.” Buck told the younger agent. “Otherwise I would have told him that he looks as if he…”
“It was an accurate observation JD.” Ezra cut Wilmington off, not in the least bit interested in hearing Buck spout off a string of colorful adjectives to describe what he looked like. Shit just about covered what he was feeling, and he assumed it was an accurate description for what he looked like as well.
Wilmington and Dunne left a few minutes later, and then Sanchez and Jackson came in and had a few words with Standish. The Tanners were the last to visit. Kelli had wanted to see Ezra with her own eyes to know that he was really going to be okay, but didn’t want to visit on her own. Her feelings were still rather raw over the way Standish at treated her; but witnessing the explosion and seeing Ezra injured firsthand had pushed back her anger with him. After all if she didn’t care about the man and his opinions in the first place, she wouldn’t have gotten so upset with him.
“How are you feelin’ Ez?” Vin asked softly when they entered the room.
Ezra opened one eye and looked at him. “I feel as if I hit asphalt at mach speed.”
Vin winced. “Sorry, stupid question.”
Standish sighed and opened both eyes to look at Vin, then Kelli. “No, it’s I who should apologize. I shouldn’t have snapped at you for showing your concern. I appreciate it.”
Appreciate. Show your concern. Don’t start back trackin’ on us now Ezra Vin thought, frowning at Ezra, not liking the tone of Standish’s voice. It was almost like how the undercover agent had responded to everyone the first time that he had been injured in the line of duty, and didn’t know how to react to the rest of ATF Team Seven being concerned about his well being. Of course, Ezra had suffered a concussion and that could very well be tampering with his emotions, how he was responding to things.
Kelli had remained silent beside him the entire time they had been in the room, and Vin knew it was because her feelings were in such a jumble where Ezra was concerned.
“Get some rest, Ezra.” Vin said at last. “And don’t be such a hard ass and not ask for pain medication when you need it.”
“If memory serves me well, it is you, Vin that has a penchant for being a horse’s ass when it comes to following doctor’s instructions, not I.”
"Like hell, you're as bad as I am." Vin laughed and the Tanners turned toward the door.
Kelli drew a breath and turned back around. “Yes?”
“Can I converse with you privately for a minute or two?” Standish asked.
“You really need to be gettin’ some sleep Ezra.” She replied softly not entirely ready to deal with the estrangement between them.
Kelli sighed. When asked so nicely, how could she possibly refuse? “Okay.”
“I’ll wait outside for you.” Vin said and left the room.
Kelli turned back toward the bed and waited.
Ezra struggled to find the right words to say to make things right between himself and his partner. It was a harder job to do with the drum solo going on in his head, but he wanted things to be settled between him and Kelli. “I want to apologize for my appalling behavior in California, Kelli, and after we returned to Denver. I let my own pettiness and irritation over going on another clean up case fester up inside of me until it boiled over onto you. It was not only unprofessional, but it was extremely unfair to you. Especially since I recall a time not too long ago when I told you that I wouldn’t ever underestimate you or your abilities because of your gender, and I didn’t stick to my word. I would understand if you would prefer not to be partnered up with me on any case in the future, but hope that you would accept my apology nevertheless.”
Kelli took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You are right. It wasn’t fair to me, and it sure in the hell wasn’t professional, but if you were perfect you wouldn’t be one of us. I’ve had a lot of time to think about my own actions in California, and I realize that as right as I was to lay into the SAC and the other officials there for them not providin’ you and JD with proper backup, I shouldn’t have gone off like I did without lettin’ you in on what I had witnessed. You were the senior MCAT agent on site and if anyone should have been rippin’ into them, it should have been you on my behalf.”
“I thought I was the one that was supposed to be apologizing here?” Ezra said, a slight smile creasing his battered lips.
“You are.” Kelli said, fighting a smile of her own. “I’m not apologizing’. I’m just admittin’ that there was another way I could of handle things.”
“Sounds like an apology to me.”
“Shut up, Standish.”
There were a few moments of silence as the two MCAT agents stared at each other.
“Does this mean that you are accepting my apology?” Ezra asked.
“I’m acceptin’ it, Standish.” Kelli told him finally. “Now get some sleep.”
Without waiting for a reply, Kelli left Standish’s room and found Vin waiting for her just as he had said.
“How did it go?” Tanner asked as he slipped an arm around his redhead’s waist and the two of them walked toward the waiting room where the others were gathered.
“We cleared the air between us.” Kelli told him.
Once the Tanners had rejoined the others in the waiting room, it was decided that Josiah would take the first watch with the undercover agent. The rest of the team made their departures, while Josiah moved back down the hallway towards Standish’s room. As he walked, he dialed his home phone number. The phone rang twice before Mallory answered.
“Hello, right back at you. How’s Ezra?”
“Damn lucky to be alive. He’s got a grade four concussion, several stitches in his head, an assorted minor lacerations and abrasions. If he had been any closer to his car…”
“But he wasn’t…God was looking out for him today, Josiah. It wasn’t his time to be taken from us. I know you believe that as much as I do.”
“I do…just wish sometimes that God didn’t have to show us in such a traumatic way. Listen, I was calling to let you know that I’m going to be taking the first watch with Ezra tonight. Larabee doesn’t want him left alone until we find out who’s responsible for putting him in that hospital bed.”
“I’ll keep our bed warm for you.”
Josiah smiled. “What will you be wearing when I get home?”
“Nothing …but a big smile on my face,” Mallory huskily whispered into the phone.
“I’m going to hold you to that.” Josiah told her. “I love you. Give Joann and Adam hugs and kisses from me.”
“I will. I love you too, Josiah. See you when you get home. Goodnight.”
“Good night Mallory.”
Josiah hung up his phone and pushed the door to Standish’s room open and went inside.
Thursday ~ June 29th
Ezra Standish was a man swathed in pain and misery. Imagines of the ground approaching him at a speed in excess of mach 3 had chased away any thoughts of trying to sleep. The construction going on inside his head did not help matters; nor did the constant interruptions from nurses inquiring about how he felt aide his efforts for slumber. The final insult came when he attempted to move and he found that his bruised and battered body refused to cooperate
“Hell and damnation!” Ezra shouted at no one in particular.
“I’m glad to see that you are still with us Brother Ezra.” As far as Standish was concerned, Josiah’s booming voice sounded loud enough to cause an avalanche or at the very least a minor earthquake. Both seemed to have taken up residence inside his head.
“That sir is debatable.”
Josiah had watched the young man struggle with nightmares during the long night and he knew Ezra was hurting this morning. “Can I get you anything?”
“Yes, out of this prison.”
“Sorry brother, I can’t do that, but I can come close. I happen to know of a lovely young woman that is chomping at the bit to come see you. Barbara got back into town last night, and when she couldn’t find you, she called the office. I happened to be the one fortunate to take that call and explained your absence. She was ready to rush down here immediately, but after I assure her that you would be okay, I convinced her to wait until today.”
“Tell her not to come.”
“Ezra, I don’t understand, she’s worried about you…”
Standish interrupted. “I am certain that you understand the words of the English language Josiah. Tell her I said not to come!” Ezra turned his back to Josiah and refused to explain.
Josiah sighed, “I think I’ll go find some coffee. I’ll be back in a while.”
Ezra sighed when he heard Josiah leave. Standish, it’s better this way. You have only been fooling yourself into believing that you could actually have someone as wonderful as Barbara in your life. You have made too many enemies in this business and she would never be safe. It is better to end it now than to see her pay for you choice of careers down the line You are a loner Ezra and that is the way you need to stay.
MCAT Office ~ War Room~9am
Chris wanted answers and he wanted them yesterday! It was bad enough that the fiasco in California had happened to set his unit off balance. Now someone had attempted to kill Ezra on their home territory and that wasn’t acceptable! Of course if that damn southerner did not stay put in the hospital until the doctors cleared him to leave, Chris would be hard pressed to not strangle Standish himself. Buck was the last agent to sit down and Larabee was ready to begin.
“Buck?” Chris cut his green eyes to Wilmington.
“The explosive device was supposed to be initiated when Ezra put his key in to unlock the door. Fortunately the timer was defective and delayed the blast for sixty seconds, otherwise Ez would be history. The explosives were placed beneath the Jag and whoever set this up did a half-ass job of it. Whether it was out of ignorance or because they were in a hurry, I don’t know. The timer was old and we are trying to find out now where and when it was purchased. He, they or whoever, used c-4 for the explosive, unfortunately non-traceable. The bottom line …it could have been ten times worse than it was if everything worked right,” Buck was at the end of his notes. “That’s all I can tell you for now.”
“Pam and I pulled all of Ezra’s old cases and eliminated anyone still incarcerated, dead or accounted for as of today. If we look only at suspects that have any knowledge of explosives we can narrow that down to maybe forty files, give or take a few.” JD set the files on the table.
“Raphael and I talked to some of Ezra’s snitches at least the ones I know about and came up with nothin’. My own contacts haven’t heard of any contract out on him, but they are still checkin’.” Vin shrugged his shoulder. “It’s quiet on the street and usually if somethin’s going down there are some rumblin’s.”
“The call that came in just before Standish left yesterday was from a pay phone down the street. Forensics checked it over, but so far nothing.” Nathan added.
“JD, divide up those files, everyone take a stack and work through it. Somebody out there wants Ezra dead, and that is not gonna happen on my watch. Get to it!” Chris dismissed his agents and sighed in frustration.
“I’m gonna relieve Josiah at the hospital, he’s been there all night.” Vin said as he stood up and stretched before he picked up some folders. “I’ll work on these while ‘m there”
Chris nodded in agreement. “Just make sure he stays put.”
“Don’t worry, I will.” Vin assured him before he departed.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Tanner had been in the room for over two hours and Standish had not said ten words, not even one complaint had left his lips. Vin didn’t mind the silence, but he was concerned about his brother. Josiah had warned him about Ezra’s attitude regarding a visit from Barbara and his refusal to discuss the reason.
The door opened and Dr. Landers entered the room. Chart in hand, he acknowledged Vin’s presence with a nod as he went over to Ezra’s beside. “Mr. Standish, how are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Ezra was not ready to make this easy.
Dr. Landers examined his patient, checking his reactions to light, sound, and touch. Satisfied that his head injury was not impeding his responses, he removed the bandages on the worst of the abrasions. “It is going to take some time for these to heal. You are a lucky man Mr. Standish, considering what your body was subjected to, you are in reasonably good condition. If you behave today and rest, then I will think about releasing you in the morning.”
The doctor shook his head, “I see no reason to restrict your diet and if you need anything for that fine headache you don’t have, let one of the nurse know. I will see you in the morning.” He wrote in the chart as he spoke.
Before he left he gave Tanner a message. “Vin, tell that lovely wife of yours hello for me.”
“Will do doc.” My hardheaded brother may not have said it, but thanks for takin’ good care of him for us.”
“Don’t knock it too much, that hard head of his probably saved his life.” He patted Vin on the shoulder as he walked out the door.
Ezra turned to face the wall. Vin started on another folder and silence reigned in the room again. Standish did not react at all; when twenty minutes later there was a knock on the door.
Tanner had his hand on his gun as he answered. “Who is it?”
“Me, and my hands are full, so a little help would be appreciated.” Kelli responded.
The Texan relaxed, opened the door and took some of the bags from her, not passing up a chance for a quick kiss of hello. “You must have read my mind baby, ‘m starved.”
She noticed that Ezra had not moved since she came in. “Ez, I brought some of your favorites.” Kelli sighed, when that didn’t even get a response from the undercover agent; she narrowed her eyes at him. “Say thank you Kel; I appreciate you checkin’ with my doctor about what I can eat and then runnin’ all over town to find me a blackberry cobbler and my favorite glazed chicken from that special deli on fifth street. I reckon you enjoyed havin’ to listen to that eighty year old Miss Elsie at the deli go on and on about how that sweet southern boy has the prettiest green eyes and how that cute little dimple shows when he smiles and makes his whole face light up. You really shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble…because ‘m being an ass today and don’t deserve it.”
Vin smiled when he saw Ezra try to conceal a chuckle.
“Thank you.” Ezra mumbled from the bed.
Kelli ignored the sulky southerner, reached in the bag and passed Vin a covered plate. “I brought you one of your favorites too.”
Tanner grinned when he uncovered the dish to find pot roast and new potatoes. “It looks good Kel, thanks.”
“You are welcome,” She emphasized the word you and smiled. Then she turned toward the hospital bed, “Unlike that ungrateful jackass over there.”
“I did say thank you and…” Ezra heaved a sigh. “I am appreciative of the effort you made to bring me substance. Even a can of chili would be preferable to what the dieticians in the cafeteria believe passes for food around this deplorable place.” He sat up and pulled the bedside tray over the bed to bring his meal closer. “Miss Elsie is a sweet little old lady and she means well, but that woman can outtalk anyone that I know.”
“So I noticed. Now eat your lunch and try to make nice so I won’t have to kick you butt, Standish.” Kelli grabbed her own plate and the threesome ate in companionable silence.
After dessert, Kelli stood to leave. “Ez, ‘m going home, you do what Dr. Landers tells you and get well soon. I’d hate to have to train a new partner because the old one didn’t listen to his doctor.”
“Taking into consideration the fact that I haven’t completed your training young lady, I believe that it would be prudent for me to adhere to the doctor’s orders.” Ezra smiled, “It is my responsibility after all as senior agent, to be certain that you are properly instructed.”
Vin laughed, “I think I’ll walk my wife to the elevator before I need to dig out my hip boots, it’s getting’ kinda deep in here. By the way, I can see the door to your room from there Ez, so do us both a favor and stay put.” Vin walked out with Kelli, leaving Ezra to his own thoughts for a few minutes.
“Vin coming in,” Tanner announced as he reentered the room.
“Pray tell, how did you know I was armed?” Ezra took his hand off the gun concealed beneath the sheet.
“I know you Ez, someone tried to kill you yesterday and you are not about to relax your guard no matter who’s here with you. Vin smiled, “Besides Josiah told me that you insisted on havin’ that peashooter of yours close by.”
“I have been giving the matter some serious thought and have drawn a blank as to who may be responsible for my current condition.”
“You’re not alone,” The Texan pointed to the stack of folders on the table. “I’ve just gone through twenty of your old case files and found nothin’, same with the rest of the guys. I did talk to a few of your snitches and they we’re helpful either.” Vin pulled a chair close to the bedside. “The call you received just before you left the office came from a payphone three blocks from the Federal buildin’. Who was it?”
Ezra hesitated a moment. “I don’t know. The caller did not identify himself. He said he had some information that I would be interested in hearing and if I wanted to know more I was to meet him at a bar over on Wheeler Ave….The Wagon Wheel, I believe was the name of it.”
Vin nodded, “Yeah I know where it is. Did the voice sound familiar at all?”
“No, but …”Ezra tried to remember everything the man had said. “He did have a slight accent…maybe…hell I don’t know.” Standish rubbed his temples.
“Don’t make your head hurt worse, if it’s important it will come to you.” Vin placed a hand on Ezra’s arm. “In the meantime we’ve got your back.”
A knock on the door had both men placing their hands on their weapons.
“Who is it?” Vin answered.
A female voice responded. “Barbara Lindsey.”
Tanner heard Standish curse under his breath. “You want me to step outside so you two can talk?”
“For a few minutes, if you would.”
Vin stood and went over to open the door, allowing Barbara to come inside. “Hey, Barbara.” Tanner greeted the young woman with a soft smile, feeling sympathy for the hurt he knew was about to come her way. Even though Standish hadn’t confided in him, he had a feeling that his injured brother was going to do something foolish in an effort to protect the woman he loved.
“I’ll be right outside the door Ez.” He stepped into the hallway leaving Standish to face Barbara alone.
“Before you say anything, Josiah told me that you did not want to see me, but I needed to see for myself that you were okay.” She sat in the chair next to the bed.
Ezra put on his best poker face before he answered. “You should have listened to Josiah. I have had an opportunity to think about us while you were in Arizona and I had planned to talk to you when you returned.” Visions of the two of them flashed through his mind, making love, laughing, and enjoying life. Not now, Ezra!
Barbara did not like the tone of this conversation and felt very apprehensive about asking her next question. “Well, I’m here now so what did you want to say to me?”
After a brief hesitation Ezra plunged ahead. “I believe that we may have rushed things a little too much. It would be better for both of us to spend some time apart and sort through our feeling for one another. We should both date other people for a while and then…”
“I am not a child Ezra; please do not address me as one. You don’t want to see me anymore and you don’t have to sugarcoat it. I get the message. I’ll go and save us both some discomfort.” Barbara rose to leave, “It’s been fun, and I’ll see you around.” With those parting words she was gone and Ezra felt the invisible knife twist into his heart.
It is better this way. So why do you feel so empty Ezra?
Friday ~ June 30th
“That fucking sonofabitch is still alive! There were enough explosives in that car to blow him to kingdom come and he’s out of the hospital by the end of the week!’” Ray was furious. “Donner will have our asses if we fail on this one!”
Medora sat calmly and watched the older man fume.” Will you calm down? We know where he’s going and he’ll be staying put for a while. Right now they will be on high alert, looking for trouble. We’ll let things cool down before you take out the young one. I will take care of the bitch and then we’ll both pay Mr. Standish a visit.”
Ray stood up and towered over Medora, “You get her because?”
“You’re the one that screwed up with the Jag, that’s why! Besides you and I both know she’s not your type.” Medora laughed, “Or have your preferences changed?”
“Fine,” Ray spat. “But when we finish all three of them had all better be dead!”
Thursday ~ July 6
The spectacular array of colors on the horizon announced the coming sunrise. There was something special about the time just before the sun came up to turn the light on for a new day. A fresh pallet on which one could paint a piece of their life on or mark in such a way to make a memory to hold forever. For Kelli the problem was she had too many questions about what she wanted to paint on her new pallet, to even decide on which colors she wanted to use Standing at the kitchen window awaiting the morning sun, she was lost in thought.
Vin stood in the kitchen doorway for a few minutes just watching her, before speaking softly. “I can hear you thinkin’ from way over here”. He walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Want to share?”
Kelli leaned back against him. “I’m thinkin’ too much probably. I have enjoyed spendin’ extra time with the kids and hate to imagine givin’ it up. I’ve had a chance to reacquaint myself with all of our horses again and have even been able to start some packin’ for when we move to the new house. I really hope we can finish it and be settled in before too much longer. Once we are there, then we need to think about bein’ available again for emergency foster care.”
The sun was peaking over the mountain and as they watched Vin chose his words carefully. It wasn’t what she had said, but what she hadn’t said that concerned him. “I know the kids have enjoyed you being here, the horses have loved the extra attention, and our house is comin’ along just fine. As soon as we know the kids are okay with it we’ll go back on the foster care list, too. Why do I get the feelin’ that you are tryin’ to justify stayin’ at home?”
Tanner felt her sigh, “Maybe because I am and ‘m lookin’ for a good excuse not to go back to work.” Kelli turned in his arms to face him. “First it was Costa Mesa, then those damn nightmares and then seein’ Ezra get hurt when his car exploded…I don’t know if I can do this anymore. What if I can’t shoot again? What if I freeze up in the middle of a raid and someone dies because of it? If I make one mistake…”
“Hold it right there, Kel. You don’t want to work, that’s one thing and you’ll get no opposition for me, if that is what you really want. But if you are thinkin about quittin’ because you doubt yourself, then plan on us arguin’ about it. You are damn good at your job and have a natural aptitude with firearms. I know there haven’t been too many opportunities for you to demonstrate it yet, but when it counted, you were right on the mark. I love you, but I would never have certified you if I didn’t believe you are capable of handlin’ the job of a sharpshooter.”
“How do you know I can still do it, if I don’t?”
“If you weren’t apprehensive about it then I’d be worried. Havin’ a conscience is the difference between bein’ a good marksman …or woman and a cold-blooded killer. Sometimes that conscience sneaks up from within the compartments in our minds that we have to push the ugly side of this work into. Every law enforcement officer that has had to kill to save others, includin’ you and me, has had to deal with their consciences at one time or another. It’s part of the job, baby.”
Kelli laid her head against Vin’s chest; she always found it reassuring just listening to his heartbeat. “It’s not the first time I’ve had to kill someone, so why is this time different?”
“It could be because it was your first solo assignment as a sharpshooter outside the unit, and until now you have not had to kill to protect anyone in the family. Now you know that Ezra and JD were left with no one else to cover ‘em and that they would have died if you weren’t there. Before MCAT you stayed distant from you co-workers and worked with multiple temporary partners, not as part of a team so that makes it different. Or maybe it’s because it the first time you found yourself in the position of havin’ to kill someone since we adopted the kids. Of course the fact that you had to contend with doubts from people you counted on didn’t help, but you knew the truth and stood your ground.”
“You may be right; I just wish I could be certain.”
Vin lifted her head and looked into her eyes. “You are gonna have to trust me on this one, Kel. Believe me when I tell you, if you need to count on your skills they won’t fail you when the time comes.”
“Tanner, one thing I am certain of is that you will not lie to me and I do trust you. However, work will have to wait until tomorrow because I already have plans for this mornin’. Today ‘m going to brave the mall and take the kids shoppin’, Jason needs new clothes because he is fast outgrowing the old ones and they both want to make a list of ideas for their room furnishings. I also promised Andi that we would look for some purple boots.”
“You and shoppin’, I wish I could be there to see that.” Vin smiled, “Maybe I should issue some kind of alert to the mall.”
“Very funny, I never said I couldn’t shop, I just don’t like to do it.”
Vin became serious again, “Kel, if you make your mind up later that you want to quit work to be at home, you know I’ll support your decision. I just want it to be right for you.”
“I know and that is one of the reasons I love you.” Kelli kissed him as she handed him his coffee. “Of course after a mornin’ at Park Meadows Mall, goin’ back to work is gonna be the easy part of my week.”
The Texan sat down and pulled her onto his lap. “Why don’t we discuss some of the other reasons you love me?” Their long leisurely kiss quickly threatened to become more and would have except for the sound of four little feet running down the hall. Vin sighed,” Reckon we’ll have to finish this later.”
Jason ran into the kitchen with Andi fast on his heels. “Vin, we’re going to the mall today!”
Kelli stood up and Andi did not hesitate to climb onto Vin’s lap. “We gonna find some purple boots.”
“So I heard,” Tanner grinned. “I can’t wait to see ‘em and Jason, while you’re there, show Kel that new video game we talked about.”
“Oh yeah, it’s the one with the race cars and…” Jason was prepared to go into detail, but Kelli stopped him.
“The one Vin wanted to play, right?” Kelli smiled at both of their innocent looks, “I do listen you know and we’ll try to find it. Breakfast first, the horses next and then we go to the mall. Maybe later we can check in on Uncle Ezra and see how he’s doing.”
It never ceased to amaze Vin how Gunny was able to be the first one in the office, no matter what time he arrived, “Mornin’ Gunny.”
“Morning Captain, the coffee’s on, mail is on your desk and a fruit plate is in the fridge for you.”
“Thanks,” Vin started for his office and stopped. “Gunny, call Charlie at the firin’ range and tell him I need a couple of hours tomorrow on the tower.”
“Affirmative sir, and will that be for you only?”
Tanner shook his head and grinned, the woman had a sixth sense. “Actually Kel’s comin’ back tomorrow and she’ll need some time to qualify for active duty again.”
Gunny smiled, “It’s about time that girl got her butt back in here.” She saw Chris walk in. “Morning Commander, coffee’s made; mail is on your desk and your breakfast in waiting for you, sir.”
“Thanks,” Chris waited until she was back at her own desk before he asked. “Your sources have anything on Ezra’s attack?”
“Nothin’, but I still have a few more to contact. The names Ez gave us can all be accounted for, but we’re cross checkin’ new prison releases with his old cases. If I know Standish, he also is doin’ some research of his own.”
Good, one less person to worry about.
Chris headed toward his office and called back over his shoulder. “JD will relive Nathan at Ezra’s before noon; have the rest of the team meet in the war room at eleven.”
Park Meadows Mall ~ 11:00
Two hours at the mall and Kelli was ready for the plains of Texas. But they did have new clothes for Jason, purple boots for Andi and a new game for Vin, along with a few extra items and a wish list of stuff that both children wanted for their new rooms. They were taking time for a pizza break before leaving.
“You shop faster than Aunt Linda.” Jason said between bites of pizza.
“Honey, everybody shops faster than your Aunt Linda.”
Andi was so busy admiring her new boots that it took both Jason and Kelli to keep her from toppling out of her chair. “Pretty boots,” She giggled.
“I think Vin will like what you found for him, Jason.”
“Yeah, he likes to listen to that kind of music when he’s driving.” Jason found a CD of Native American music that Vin did not have and insisted on getting it for him. “I kinda like it, too.”
“Okay, let make sure we have everything before we leave, new clothes, racing game, ideas for decorating your new rooms, a get well gift for Uncle Ezra, and…”
“Boots!!!” Andi shouted.
“Yes, purple boots for our little princess.” Kelli wiped the pizza from Andi’s face and hands. “Did we forget anythin’?”
“Nope, we got it all.” Jason was about as ready as Kelli was to get back outside and away from the crowd of people in the mall.
“Then how about we blow this place and go see Uncle Ezra?” Kelli helped Andi down and took hold of her hand. She knew Jason would stay right beside her, but Andi tended to get distracted too easily. “Jason, why don’t you be in charge of my keys, that way you can unlock the truck for us.”
They walked out of the mall at eleven fifteen, laden with packages and full of pizza. Jason took his job of key keeper very seriously and was ready to hit the remote to unlock the truck as soon as they reached it. Kelli let her guard down and quit being a cop first, for today she was just a mom enjoying a day with her kids.
“That’s the last one, and we are done.” Kelli threw her bag in the front seat, Jason took Andi’s hand went to the passenger side and opened the door to get in.
Kelli had turned to close the back door when she felt the barrel of a gun jam against her ribs and heard a gravelly voice close to her ear whisper. “Tell the brats to come to this side of the truck.”
“Leave them out of this, you want money, take what I have and go.” She cursed herself for not paying more attention, but no way would she make any risky moves when the children were involved.
“I plan on taking what I want, but it ain’t money.” The man moved the gun slowly across her breasts in an abhorrent way. “Get them over here now, bitch.”
“Andria … you take your brother’s hand.” She spoke softly and hoped that Jason would understand her reason for using Andi’s given name. “Stay with Jason and …run!” Kelli screamed.
“Bitch!” Medora reacted by hitting Kelli across the face and then forced her ahead of him around the truck. The door was open, but the kids were gone and he was enraged. With a gun to her upper body, he dragged her by the neck against him in a lewd way. His free hand grabbed her butt cheek and squeezed, then he crudely rubbed his lower body against her thighs to emphasize his next coarse remark. “I had planned on fucking you first.” He pressed the gun harder into her breast. “But now you’ll have to die and I’ll take your brats instead. The right buyer will pay well for all that young blond innocence and I know right where to find one.”
Suddenly the alarm on the truck was activated and Kelli took advantage of the momentary distraction. Years of training took over her actions; Kelli twisted her body in the opposite direction and with her bent elbow shoved into the man’s arm broke his hold on her throat, she brought her left hand up to strike him in the face. She then had her right hand on the gun, finding herself in a life or death struggle to gain control of the weapon as it alternated direction between them.
Safely hidden between two vans, Jason opened Kelli’s cell phone that he had grabbed from her bag when he ran with Andi. He punched number one and counted the rings, on the third ring it was picked up by someone other than Vin. “I need my Dad now!” Jason yelled into the phone
Gunny answered Tanner’s phone that he had left on his desk when Chris began the case review in the war room. Easily identifying the caller and recognizing the panic in the young boy’s voice she tried to calm him. “Hold on Jason, I am getting him now.” She burst into the meeting ignoring the warning glare from Chris for interrupting him and she spoke directly to Vin as she held out the phone. “Captain your son needs you now!”
Tanner grabbed the phone and heard Jason still yelling for his dad. “Jason ‘m here, calm down and tell me what’s wrong.” As he listened he snapped his fingers and indicated he needed paper to write on. “Don’t hang up, no matter what, ‘m on my way, just keep talkin’ to me” He wrote Park Meadows Mall, parking lot, call for closest assist. Chris picked up enough from Vin through their mental connection to know some of what was happening, but there was only so much the boy could tell them. “Stay where you are and hold on to Andi ...Kel will be okay, just stay put.” He prayed that he was right.
Chris was on his phone giving information on Kelli’s truck to the local police while he and Vin raced down to the garage. Larabee drove his truck while Buck and Josiah followed him in Wilmington’s. Even with lights flashing and sirens blaring it was going to take at least ten minutes for them to reach the mall. Vin kept Jason talking, he wanted to keep the boy calm, but when he heard two gunshots he was having a battle to keep himself composed. He knew Jason was really scared because until now he had always called him Vin, today he was dad and his son trusted him to make his world okay again.
During the struggle with her assailant, Kelli had managed to get the gun they were grappling with between them aimed away from her and the muzzle directed toward her opponent. She wasn’t certain if she pushed it far enough, but her finger found the trigger and she fired anyway. Two gunshots sounded and as her attacker started to fall, a look of disbelief crossed Medora’s face; he was dead before he hit the ground, a bullet to the heart ending his life.
The threat to her children gone; Kelli threw the gun inside her vehicle, locked the door and leaned against the truck to catch her breath. Now she had to find the kids and she prayed for their safekeeping while she screamed their names.” Jason! Andi! Jason!”
An extremely relieved Texan heard his wife’s voice in the background and instructed Jason to answer her. “It’s okay to answer son, she wouldn’t call for you, if everythin’ wasn’t all right.”
”Here, we’re here!” Jason stood up, still holding Andi’s hand and waving his arms to gain her attention. Tanner listened as she found them, but all her could hear was the sound of a dropped phone and the three of them crying.
“Damnit Chris, hurry, I need to be with ‘em!”
“Five more minutes, Vin, but help should be there by now.”
Kelli had hold of Jason and Andi with no intent of letting them go anytime soon. She sat on the ground with them and the only thing that mattered to her was that they were safe and sound. Denver police arrived and tried to talk to her. She ignored their efforts and declined to answer any of their questions.
Jason told her. “I called dad, he’s coming.” He suddenly remembered the phone and managed to pick it up from where he had dropped it when Kelli grabbed him. “Dad?”
“Still here son,” Vin wasn’t sure he could talk to Kelli without giving in to his own emotions so he didn’t press to do it.
“Mom needs you and … me and Andi do, too.” Jason managed to get out between the sobs that he attempted to conceal.
“I’ll be there in about two minutes, just hold on a little longer for me. You hear those sirens? That’s Uncle Chris and Uncle Buck makin’ all that noise.” Vin felt helpless and wanted to be there now.
You hold on too, Tanner
Just get us there and I’ll be fine.
Chris slid to a halt with Buck right on his bumper.
Vin opened the door, jumping out before Chris could put the Ram into park only to find several Denver cops between him and his family; they quickly discovered that was not a safe place to be. While Buck and Josiah took over the crime scene, Tanner and Larabee pushed their way through the officials that were trying to stop them.
“Get the hell out of my way!” Vin did not take time to show his badge as he physically created a pathway to reach his family. Fortunately Chris thought to have his ID shoved into their faces and the officers made the wise decision of moving out of Tanner’s approach pattern.
Although Vin had an idea of what to expect, he was not prepared for what he saw and his underlying anger threatened to erupt .Kelli sat on the ground clinging to Jason and Andi ignoring the cops that were pelting her with questions. A large crowd of onlookers had gathered around his family, ogling them and trampling over possible evidence without restraint.
Chris scalded the closest officer with a blazing glare. “Do your damn job and get these people back!”
“Dad!” Jason saw him first, but he wouldn’t leave Kelli to run to him. Obviously she was injured, but she refused to have anyone touch her or the children.
Tanner knelt down beside them, placing one arm around his wife, the other around the kids and spoke softly, “Baby look at me.” She responded to his voice and looked up at him. Vin saw the stressed look in her anguished eyes and he knew that he needed to get her off the ground, away from the people crowding around her. “Come on Kel; let’s go sit in Chris’ truck.”
Chris was immediately beside him lifting Andi into his arms so Tanner could help Kelli to stand. Larabee knew better than to get out of eyesight with the child, so he stayed close, keepin Jason sheltered between him and Vin. The Texan secured his arm around his redhead’s waist and she leaned into him for support as he assisted her to the backseat of the Ram.
Jason and Andi sat in the front seat with Chris while the Texan assessed Kelli’s injuries. He cleaned the blood off her cheek, noting the bruises beginning to form on her throat and saw the mark left by a man’s fist on her face. He swallowed the curses he wanted to make and instead spoke softly. “You need to see a doctor, Kel.” Although recognizing how close to she was to breaking down concerned him the most.
Kellie hoarsely whispered, “No doctor ’m okay.” She swallowed hard, “The gun is in my truck and Jason has my keys. Please get us out of here, Vin.” Her voice wavered and Tanner felt her body tremble.
The Texan held her securely at his side and spoke quietly. “It’s over baby, and ‘m right here with you. Jason and Andi are safe and Chris will take us to the office.”
I’ll tell Buck where to find the gun and that we’re leaving.
I want the kids back here with us before you do.
Vin was certain that he would not like hearing the details of what had transpired this morning, but that explanation could wait, along with his anger. Tanner protectively held on to his wife as Jason and Andi snuggled close to both of them. Today he and Kelli had graduated to being parents; his family needed to draw from his inner strength and calm presence, giving them that was his priority.
Justin took over the crime scene relieving Buck and Josiah while the MCAT forensics team moved in to do their work.
Larabee and Tanner had similar offices; each one was big enough to meet with several agents at one time. Both had a small refrigerator, couch, TV, assorted chairs and a private bathroom, complete with a shower. Even though it was designed to be home away from home during demanding cases, for today Vin’s was a sanctuary for his family, he took them inside and shut the door.
“Gunny, I need a status on Jackson.” Chris ordered on his way to Tanner’s office.
“Sir, he just called. Agent Dunne stopped to pick up some lunch for them and is on his way to Agent Standish’s home as we speak.”
“Call him back, tell him I need back here the minute JD arrives. Tell him to use to his lights and siren if he has to, but get here!”
Chris walked into Tanner’s office hoping to get some answers for his at least twenty questions, but it appeared that Kelli’s only agenda at the moment was making certain the kids were unharmed and not overly traumatized by the day’s events. He studied his daughter and knew she was hurting, but she gave no indication that she was ready to discuss details.
Although he hated the circumstances that had brought them to this point, he reminded himself that out of the worse times of our lives good things could happen. Chris, along with the Tanners had waited for the day that Jason was ready to call them Mom and Dad, instead of Vin and Kelli. Evidently Andi had only held back until Jason came around to it before she would say it, but she was all for the idea. For Jason though, there was no going back, he had established his claim on them as his parents and planned to keep it.
A knock on the door announced the return of Buck and Josiah before they came inside. Wilmington turned on his charm. “Wow, would you look at those boots!”
Andi immediately stood up to show them off. “Pretty boots and I didn’t get ‘em dirties either.” She said proudly.
“We got lots of other stuff too, but it’s still in the truck.” Jason was a little disappointed that the gifts that he picked out weren’t here to show them.
“Well, I thought you might want those packages, so Agent Westin is gonna bring them in here for you in just a bit.” Buck grinned. “Anyone interested in a trip to the vending machines? Uncle Josiah is buying.”
Jason looked over to Kelli. “Mom might want us to stay here, she thought we were lost, but we weren’t.”
Kelli knelt down next to both of them and spoke softly because her throat was still sore. “No they weren’t, in fact I can’t tell you how proud I am of how they acted. Andi listened to her brother and stayed really quiet for a long time and I know that was hard.” She hugged Andi. “And Jason was a real hero today. He took charge of his sister, got her to safety, thought to grab my cell phone to call for help and was smart enough to set off the alarm on the truck to create a diversion for me. He is the best key keeper that I know.” She hugged him, too.
“I’ll take good care of Mom while y’all are gone and I reckon you both deserve somethin’ special. Pick anythin’ you like and Uncle Josiah will get it for you. I can personally recommend the snickers.” Vin was satisfied that they were unharmed and he was anxious to hear the full story of the assault from Kelli.
“I am okay and ‘m not goin’ anywhere without y’all, besides you know everyone that works here and your only goin’ down the hall.” Kelli wanted Josiah to listen to them because he would recognize any problems they might have dealing with today’s events. “Jason can I count on you to make sure Andi doesn’t get too carried away showin’ off her new boots?
Jason thought for a moment, he knew his dad would take care of things and a snack sounded good. “Yep,” He grinned. “I won’t let her fall over looking at the darn things either.” Josiah picked up Andi, took Jason’s hand and they were off for the snack machine.
“God, do you think they’ll really be okay with what happened today?” Kelli felt the tears she had been holding back come to the surface.
“Kel, those are two tough kids, Jack put them through worse than this and they learned early on that bad things can happen.” Chris knew from experience how tough they could be. “Nathan will be here soon and he will decide if you need a doctor, but we need to know what went on in that parking lot while the kids are not around. I know Josiah will keep them busy and give us some warning before they come back.”
“I realize that it hurts you to talk darlin’, so let me tell you what we know. Buck pulled a chair close to the couch. “I know this is not easy, but it’s important to know as much about what he said as what he did. He was waiting specifically for you for a long time Kel, we have to know why and then figure out how he knew where you were.” Buck saw the surprised look on her face and decided to explain. “We found enough to prove that this was not a random assault, what we don’t know is if he was acting on his own or for someone.”
“Sorry, I...’m not sure that I can...”
“You don’t think we’ll blame you for what that bastard did or said do you?” Chris thought she knew better than that.
“No,” She met Vin’s eyes, “But this is worse than what I told you happened in Costa Mesa.”
The Texan knew that there was very little holding his redhead together at the moment and he was ready for the tears. If she was going to have to relive what happened, she needed his support to get through it. Sitting with her on the couch he held her close and gave her the time she needed to think.
“It’s only you and me Kel, forget anyone else is in here and start where you want to, ‘m listenin.” Vin did not let go and he tried to will her the strength to hold together.
She understood that he was reminding her of what she already knew. Vin was her shelter from the storms life threw at her, giving her his protection and his promise that his feelings would wait, no matter what she had to say. Suddenly it all began to pour out, every word, every touch and all her fears, especially the anxiety and fear that if she failed, the kids would be lost in a world of hurt and unspeakable abuse.
Buck took notes and somehow resisted the urge to display his anger. He despised any violence toward women, but especially one that was family. Most of his questions were answered by Kelli’s recount of how the events had played out.
Chris sat quietly and listened, he felt his anger rise, but deferred to his parental love and held it in check. He realized that this was not easy for his daughter to tell or for his brother to hear. As Kelli came to the end of her narration, he knew that her emotions were spent and the stresses of the day’s events were wearing on her. When she finished Chris and Buck slipped out of the room unnoticed.
Her voice was almost gone and fresh tears appeared to replace the last of her waning resolve to get through the accounting of her assault.
Tanner wasted no time on anger; there would be an opportunity later for that. He drew his redhead to him and surrounded her with his love, offering her the reassurances she needed to regain control of her emotions.
“Kel, it’s over, you’re all safe. I don’t know who sent that bastard, but he won’t have another chance to hurt you or the kids. We’re together and no one is gonna change that.” Vin tiled her head up to look at him. “I love you baby and ‘m damned proud of how you handle things today.”
All Kelli could do was nod and hold on to her Texan.
A knock on the door was followed by Nathan’s tentative entrance. “I hate to interrupt, but I want to check Kel over for injuries before Chris has a coronary.” He smiled to ease the tension.
“Come on in Nate, we’re ready for you.” Vin responded for both of them.
Ray was getting impatient; he had followed Dunne straight to Standish’s house and watched the other agent leave. He knew both targets were inside that townhouse and if Medora didn’t call him soon to report a successful hit on that bitch; he would take these two out without any help.
How hard could it be? An injured man and a young agent wouldn’t be much of a challenge. He looked at his watch it was one-thirty. Three o’clock Medora. You screw around any longer than that, these two are dead and I’m on my way back to California alone.
Chris could feel his anger colliding with what was left of his rationale thoughts. The only thing that stopped him from going into an uncontrollable rage was the thought of two little ones that had seen and heard enough violent behavior today. He paced his office while Buck watched and waited for the eruption that he knew had to be coming. Larabee thought about what Kelli had told them and one part stuck in his mind.
“Buck, let me see those notes.”
Wilmington passed them to Chris. “I’m ready to tear something apart and I have as good idea where your anger level is. How do you think Vin is handling this?”
“The same way he shoots. Vin will hold his rage until he has a target in his sites and the timing is right before he cuts loose.”
“What about you?”
“I’m working on it Buck.” Chris read over the notes to try and sort out what was nagging at him, suddenly he knew what it was. “If this is work related, then he should have known to check her for a weapon. This guy didn’t… he knew she wasn’t carrying…How?”
Buck shook his head, “I don’t know…unless our files have been compromised. The only place that would show Kel on inactive duty would be …personnel records.” Wilmington stood up, “I’m on it.”
Nathan walked in, passing Buck as he left. “Vin will be here in a few minutes. I examined Kel. The bruises you can see are the worst, her throat will be sore for a while, but aside from that it’s only scraped hands with some tenderness in the ribs and chest area from the pressure of the gun barrel. She’s also on the downside of a surge of adrenaline and emotional stress. Bottom line, she should be okay after a couple days of rest.”
“Thanks Nate. Is Ezra doing better?”
“He’s complaining constantly, so I guess that’s a yes.”
Tanner joined them, “Josiah still with the kids?” He sat in the chair opposite to Chris’ desk.
“Yeah, but he’s on his way here. Jason talked him into a tour of the building and Andi has made an impression on every floor they’ve been on.” Chris smiled, “You’re gonna have your hands full with that one, Vin.”
“Hell Chris, she’s just a younger version of your eldest daughter and I’ve had plenty of practice handlin’ Lar’bees.”
“You are a brave man, Vin. Living with a houseful of Larabees, I bet life is never dull.” Nathan concluded.
“No it’s never dull, my life is full of little moments of unpredictably that I live for and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” The Texan grinned when Josiah came in carrying a sleeping Andi.
Josiah acceded to Vin, handing Andi over to him. “Jason will be here in a minute, I asked Gunny to divert him because I wanted a chance to tell you what I think. These kids have not been isolated from violent encounters in their short lives and they both have some terrific coping skills for their ages. You should also know that they didn’t see anything from where they hid. However, they heard it all…every word and I suspect that Jason has some questions. Overall though, they both seem to be dealing with what happened today very well.”
“Thanks Josiah, we were both concerned about their reactions and I’ll give Jason a chance to ask whatever he wants. If he doesn’t then we’ll find another way to help him understand.” Tanner was patting Andi’s back reflexively as she slept on his shoulder.
“Jason has already come a long way, but today he took a giant leap. He called you...his dad… instead of 911 for help, showing complete faith that you would be there for him. I believe that he has finally put Jack’s cruelty behind him and he is looking forward. You and Kelli have done well with him and should feel good about what you have accomplished.”
Vin could only nod, he had waited a long time to hear Jason accept him as his dad and today was one that would be highlighted in his personal book of memories.
Feels good don’t it?
Damn good, Cowboy.
Tanner found his voice, “Kel’s takin’ a quick shower; as soon as she’s done I’ll put Andi on the couch in my office.”
“Until we find out what in the hell is going on, I want them to stay here.” Warning bells were echoing in his head, Chris did not believe in coincidence and having two of his agents targeted within such a short time period was unacceptable. At least here Kelli and the kids had plenty of protection. “You think Kel will have a problem with that?”
“No. If it were only her involved you might catch an argument, but the kids’ safety is our first priority.” Vin changed the subject when Jason came in. “I think Kel will love the idea of takin’ over my office for a while. What do you think, Jason?”
Jason came over to sit with Vin and Andi, he whispered so he wouldn’t wake her. “Is mom really okay?”
The Texan put his arm around him and whispered back, “Uncle Nathan checked her out and he said she will be just fine. She needs to rest some and can’t talk very loud, but in a couple of days her voice will be back to normal.” Tanner smiled when he saw Kelli standing at the door. “See for yourself.”
Nathan started to get up so she could have his chair and she gestured for him to stay seated. Kelli had showered and changed; the sweatshirt she wore was loose and the bruises on her neck becoming visible. However she chose not to try to cover them up, instead she wanted the kids to see her injuries so they would know that it looked worse than it was and that she was okay.
Jason slid off the chair and walked up to her. He pointed at the bruises and asked, “Do they hurt?”
Kelli knelt down and spoke softly. “A little, but no more than that bruise you got climbin’ the fence last week.” She pointed to the fading mark on his arm. “Next week these will be fadin’, too.”
The child reached out and tentatively touched her neck; she stayed still and let him. “When it gets real purple, you might have to watch Andi, she’ll want it to stay that way.” With those words, he accepted her assurance that everything would be all right.
“We need to let these guys get back to work. You wanna keep me company in dad’s office? We can veg on the couch and watch some TV.”
The boy looked over at Vin and grinned. “I think you’re right, she is gonna love taking over your office.”
”I’ll be back in a few minutes Chris.” Still holding Andi, Tanner stood and offered Kelli a hand up. “I’m gonna get these females settled and put Jason in charge of ‘em for a while.” Vin took his family back to their temporary refuge.
War room ~ 2:00pm
All the agents were back in the office and present for this meeting. Forensics was running a few minutes late, but Chris was ready for a report from the others.
“We have no witnesses to the assault and any mall security officers for the parking lot are non-existent. However we did obtain the video from the cameras mounted by the exit door. Fortunately Agent Coulter parked close enough to the doors that everything was recorded.” He passed a copy of the tape to Larabee. “The entire incident is on here, as well as the vehicle that the assailant arrived in. Forensics has it and will be able to tell you what they found. From the time stamped on the tape, he appeared a few minutes after Coulter went into the mall at nine and waited over two hours for her to come back out.” Justin scanned his notes.
“Denver police reported that Kelli refused to give them any information and basically they waited for us. Her truck is also with forensics, but Mark brought the packages that were inside up here. We are still trying to identify the man…so far we don’t have a name. If you want to play the tape I can go over what we know from it.”
You okay seeing it?
Play it, Chris.
“Go ahead Justin, show us.” Larabee instructed.
Michaels put the video in the player and narrated. “Nine o’clock Kelli arrived and see that green car…that belongs to our mystery man” He hit fast-forward on the remote. “He made several phone calls while he waited and from where he was, he could see the exit, but not be seen…right here.” He froze the frame and pointed out where the perpetrator had lain in wait for Kelli and the kids. “There is no way Coulter would have seen him.” Justin fell silent while he waited for the others to absorb the information.
As Chris watched the tape he also kept an eye on Vin, especially when Kelli and the kids were shown exiting the mall and heading to the truck. Larabee rose from his chair and moved to stand directly behind Tanner laying a supportive hand on his shoulder.
Justin continued. “This is where he appears for the first time… note that the kids are on the opposite side of the truck. It looks as if Kelli argued with him and then … she evidently told the children to run. This is where he hit her the first time…note also Jason grabbing her cell phone; he went far enough not to be seen, but not too far…”
The commentary continued, but Tanner wasn’t listening anymore. As he watched Kelli struggle with the man, he could still hear Jason’s plea for help replay in his head. He realized how fortunate they were that this had not end in tragedy. Was it just this morning that he had told Kelli that her skills would be there when she needed them? It was Kelli’s training, and her fierce need to protect the kids that saved them. This man was there for one reason… to kill her and Vin had no doubt that had he succeeded he would have gone after the children. The pencil he held snapped into two pieces.
Chris squeezed Vin’s shoulder to let him know he was not alone with his anger. They’re safe in your office…remember that.
“That’s the end of it… anything else we get will have to come from forensics.” Justin finished his narration of the video and turned off the VCR. When he turned his attention back to the room, he saw that every agent present had been affected by what they had seen.
Greg Ramsey stood by the door. He had waited for Michaels to conclude before he interrupted. He was not looking forward to showing Larabee or Tanner what forensics had found.
“Sir, I am sorry to be late, but I wanted to have a name for you.” Greg addressed Chris.
Sit down Cowboy, ‘m okay.
Larabee sat back down. “Go ahead Ramsey.”
“The man’s name is Juan Medora. Allegedly he was a professional hit man and did time in prison for rape. Authorities never had enough evidence to convict him for murder, but suspect that he was responsible for over twenty ‘hits’ in the last five years. He demanded the big bucks and got it or he did until today. The car was a rental and evidently he was confident enough of his ability to succeed that he left these in plain view.” Greg laid several photo the table. “These are some of Kelli with the children, taken over the last several days, as well as photos of Agent Standish.”
“Ezra? The sonofabitch is responsible for blowing up the Jag, too?” Chris grabbed the pictures. “Fucking bastard! “
“Sir, there’s more. When we hit the trunk we found the surveillance equipment and more pictures… of Agent Dunne.”
“I want Standish and Dunne brought in here!’ Chris was on his feet. “Josiah, Nathan, escort them in here, now!”
“Commander, we have a list of phone numbers that Medora called.” He handed a list to Chris. “As soon as Dr. Metfield releases his personal items we may have more information.”
“I checked with our personnel department and no one has asked for Kel’s records.” Buck reported.” Evidently, he had watched her long enough to know that she was not working and not armed.”
Chris looked at the pictures spread on the table. “Buck, Nettie is in Arizona with her sister, track Casey down, I want her and the rest of the women to stay on Larabee 7. Tell George to set up his men around the perimeter and nobody gets on the ranch, unless it’s one of us. The rest of you, secure your families, we don’t know who is behind this or how far they are willing to go and we will take no chances.”
“My family is out of town with relatives this week.” Justin informed.
“My wife took the kids to Detroit to visit her folks. Ross added.
Since Raphael and Paul had no wives here to worry about that accounted for the extended family.
“Pam, run these phone numbers and match them to addresses.” Chris handed her the list. “Also run Medora for known associates. Greg, you and Kat continue to process the evidence, let me know if you find anything else.”
You do realize that this all points back to California.
Yeah, someone wants us to stay out of their business.
It’s our business now, Vin.
JD hung up the phone and stared thoughtfully at the instrument. Larabee had been brisk and to the point, “That was Chris; he wants us ready to move out of here and back into the office. Josiah and Nathan are on their way to escort us there.”
“Did our illustrious Commander provide any details or reason for our summons to headquarters or why he feels that we require supervision?” Ezra refused to vacate his prone position on the couch until they arrived, choosing instead to pamper his aching head and sorely abused body.
“Uh uh all he said was that they were on their way.” JD went to the window, lifted the slats of the blinds and looked out. “Guess we’ll find out when they get here.” He dropped the mini blind and turned toward Standish, feeling the impact that sent shockwaves through his back before he heard the window break. A burning pain shot through his body and he tried to speak, but found he could not make a sound. The young agent wanted to reach out and grab something to stop his fall; however his limbs would not respond to his commands while his uncooperative body slowly descended to the ground.
Ezra heard the sound of glass shattering and cringed. “Good Lord, please be careful. What did you break?” Instead of an answer he heard the thud as Dunne’s body hit the floor. “JD?”
Immediately Standish’s senses went on alert and he rolled off the couch, reaching beneath it to retrieve a weapon he kept there for emergencies. Gingerly he crawled toward the window, staying close to the floor. The sight of the young man’s motionless form before him sent a wave of dread through him. Quickly he reached JD, intently aware of the puddles of blood forming that were drawing the life from his brother’s body. Ezra tried desperately to stop the bleeding.
Tentative fingers brushed across the pulse point on JD’s neck and relief flooded though Standish when he detected a faint but definite pulsation. “Hang on, son.” Ezra fumbled with his cell phone and began punching in the three numbers that could send help. Although it seemed that it has been hours, it had only been three minutes since JD had walked to the window and Ezra was aware that every second counted.
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
Before Ezra could answer the front door was forced open and then a spray of gunfire permeated the room. Standish threw himself over JD to protect the young man while he fired at the intruder. Well aware that he hit his mark, Ezra was surprised when the sounds of gunfire continued, only now it was coming from outside. The assailant was face down on the floor as Josiah and Nathan burst in, guns drawn.
“Nathan we’re over here! Ezra moved aside to let the medic in close.
Josiah stopped long enough to confirm that the trespasser was dead and to remove his weapons. “Ezra, are you okay?”
”Yes, but our youngest brother is in bad shape.” Standish retrieved his phone, gave the required information to the 911 operator and held on to relay updates from the medic.
“Nathan how is he?” Ezra was afraid to hear Jackson’s answer.
“Tell them to forget the ambulance and send Flight for Life instead! Respiration is shallow, he is experiencing extreme blood loss, and it appears that at least one bullet entered through his back with no exit wound.” Ezra communicated details of JD’s condition to rescue.
Josiah was on his phone informing Larabee of the situation. “It’s bad Chris; I’ll call Mallory and have her take Casey to the hospital. Nathan will stay with JD and as soon as another team gets here to take over the investigation we’ll be on our way there, too.”
Chris hung up the phone and read the apprehension on the faces around the room. “Justin I need a team at Standish’s house and tell Bones we have a DB on the scene. JD is being life flighted to the hospital, Mallory is informing Casey, and Nathan will stay with him. Josiah and Ezra will meet us there as soon as you can relieve them. Buck you and I will meet the helicopter at Denver Memorial. Vin, you should stay here with Kel and the kids.”
Buck was stunned; he was having a hard time accepting that JD was hurt badly enough to need Life Flight. “He will be okay, right?”
Larabee sighed, “I hope so Buck, I just don’t know.” He took Buck’s arm and urged him out the door.
“Justin, take Ross and forensics with you. Raphael, I want you and Paul to start checking out the addresses for those phone numbers. Pam…Pam!” Vin tried to get her attention.
She was in shock, not believing that JD was actually seriously injured. Tanner’s voice finally got through to her. “Sir?”
“Pam we all feel the same way, but I need you to concentrate. Give Raphael the addresses that CASSIE found and show Mark what he can do to help you.” Vin did not yell, but he was firm. “We can’t quit on this. If we’re gonna find the person responsible for these attacks we need CASSIE’s help and right now you are the only one that knows how to do that.”
It took a minute for Vin’s words to register and then realization set in. Pam composed herself, “I’m on it Captain.” She turned to give instructions to Judy and Mark.
Satisfied that Pam could function and having handed out the assignments, Vin knew he needed to let Kelli know about JD. For the second time today, Tanner felt helpless. A member of his family was hurt and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. First it was Ezra, and then Kel, now JD; someone had a lot to answer for before this was over.
Vin stopped at Gunny’s desk. “It’s gonna be a long night, arrange for some deli food to be brought in for everyone and see if you can find a roll-a-away bed in this place. Kel and the kids will be stayin’ and I don’t wanna put them in the lounge.”
“Captain, if you need me, I have plenty of experience with children. I raised four boys and have ten grandchildren, plus worked with elementary schools kids for twenty-five years. I can watch the two little ones if you and the Mrs. want to go to the hospital for a while.”
“Thanks Gunny, I’ll keep that in mind.”
The Texan stood outside the door to his office and listened to the sounds of the kid’s laughter from inside. He sent up a prayer of thanks for their safety with a request to aid JD and his family through the crisis they were now facing. Turning the knob he opened the door to go inside to his wife and children. Andi was snuggled in Kelli’s lap and Jason was lying on the floor watching one of his favorite movies.
“Dad!” Jason jumped up off the floor and ran to the Texan. The child trusted that Vin would catch him as he launched himself into his dad’s arms. “You’re back!”
Tanner caught him easily and felt a warm rush of emotions stem within him from the boy’s enthusiastic welcome. “Hey pard, have I been gone that long?”
“Yep you have, for hours and hours.”
“Jason, daddy had to work.” Andi said with the voice of authority.
“I know that, but now he can see what we got him.” Jason whispered in Vin’s ear. “We can show you now can’t we?”
Vin sat on the couch next to Kelli, still holding Jason. “Sure you can.” The boy scrambled off his lap and went to rummage through the packages that Mark had left for them.
“Me help, too.” Andi slid off Kelli lap and went over to take part in the show and tell.
The Texan took his wife’s hand and squeezed gently. Kelli knew something was wrong, but she would be patient until Vin had an opportunity to share it with her. She squeezed his hand in return and smiled. “This won’t take long.”
The kids showed off this morning’s purchases and proudly gave the Texan his gift of music. “This is one of my favorites, thanks.” He hugged both of them. “Looks like we have a new game to play and you have some great new clothes, too.”
“We have something for Uncle Ezra, but mom says we’ll have to wait to give it to him.”
“You’ll see him soon.” Vin helped them to put the clothes back in their bags and then sat on the floor with them. “I need to let y’all know what’s goin’ on. I want all of us to stay here tonight. Gunny is having dinner brought in and we’ll fix up a bed in here, then tomorrow we’ll make other arrangements. A little later mom and I are going to go see Uncle JD; he was hurt this afternoon and has to spend some time in the hospital.”
“Is Uncle JD gonna be all right?”
Vin wasn’t sure how to answer that question, but they had always been truthful with the kids and now was not the time to change that. “I hope so Jason, that’s why we need to go to the hospital to see how he is. Gunny will be here to keep an eye on y’all.”
“Y’all will be coming back here, right?”
“Absolutely! We’ll eat first and then you can watch your DVD’s that I brought up from my truck with your clothes. We won’t be gone long.” Vin and Kelli both made a practice of keeping a bag packed for all of them in each vehicle, just in case they were called out to work in a hurry.
“We like Gunny so I guess that it’s okay.”
“Great, now how about we get this place turned into a bedroom for the night?”
They spent the next hour rearranging Vin’s office and preparing the kids for the evening. After they ate dinner, the children settled in to watch Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron with Gunny keeping a close watch on them.
Justin gave Tanner a report before they left for the hospital. “I’ll stick around here and call you if we learn anything new. Tell JD…we’re all praying for him”
Denver Memorial Hospital
JD had been in surgery for over four hours and it was a tense group that had gathered in the waiting area. Mallory and Inez sat with Casey, who had not said one word for over two hours. Chris stood staring out the window, while Buck paced the small room and Ezra sat still trying to keep his head from exploding with pain.
“It’s been long enough! Can’t they tell us something?” Buck had waited too long in his opinion for some answers.
“Buck, you have been here too many times not to know that these things take time.” Josiah tried to reason with him.
Nathan stood up, “I’ll see what I can find out, just try to stay calm.”
The Tanners walked into this simmering pot of emotions and it was not difficult to read the situation or to become a target of frayed nerves.
Chris launched the first attack. “What are you doing here and where are the kids?”
“We came to check on the family and the kids are with Gunny, in my office, watchin’ a movie.” Vin approached Chris and laid a hand on his shoulder. “They’re fine and everythin’ is under control at work, so relax.”
Kelli sat with Mallory.” Let me guess, Linda and Rain have all the kids.” She smiled thinking about that.
”Yep, and counting their own that’s eight children under the age of five.” Mallory smiled back at her. “Josiah told me what happened to you today. How are the kids doing?”
“Actually, they are doing great. I’m the one that has to resist the urge to not let them out of my sight for the next twenty years or so. I know I can’t give in to my fears, but…”
“It’s not easy and you would not be normal if you felt any differently” Mallory patted her on the arm. “When it gets bad call me and we can vent together.”
Dr. Gilford walked in and all conversation stopped as he sought out Casey. He sat down next to her and took her hand. “JD’s still with us, but I do have him on life support. There were two bullets, one I removed easily and repaired most of the damage it caused. The other one…is lodged against his spine. There is too much swelling right now for me to even attempt removing it.”
“So, that means more surgery?”
“Once the swelling reduces we will re-evaluate our options about more surgery. All we can do is to wait and see what happens, for now I will not even consider further surgical treatment.”
“You said he was on life support…why and for how long?
“I … I’m sorry that I don’t have better news to tell you Casey. JD is on life support for the immediate future because he is partially paralyzed and needs assistance to breathe.”