The backbone of our lives is the love of family.
Characters: Vin, Chris, Ezra, Buck, Josiah, JD, Nathan, other original characters, the Wild Bunch, and MCAT Team members. OW Seven and special reference to MCAT Charlie Team in Texas.
*MCAT San Antonio est. Turn the Page * OW Seven first appeared in Shades of Gray
Rating: Gen- mild profanity and some violence in the MCAT case.
The MCAT AU: Series #1, Turbulent Transitions, forms the foundation for this AU. Series # 2, Strength & Solidarity, are stories, which center on the Seven's intrinsic bonds of friendship, and brotherhood, forces that have no boundaries. Series #3 brings MCAT to its fated conclusion. Further background and information about the characters of MCAT, and the Larabee 7 families, is available @ Magnificent Seven Heaven MCAT terms reflect actual police jargon. If you need clarification check out http://www.tannertexaslady.com/Whatdidtheysay.html
Ties that Bind: A wedding, the approaching arrival of new babies, shared memories, shifting roles in relationships, and Wild Bunch gatherings all strengthen the ties that bind a family. While seven brothers try to untangle Vin's visions, MCAT agents have their hands full with a serial killer on the loose and more trouble on the horizon.
Tannertexaslady: Any mistakes are mine. The original characters in the MCAT series belong to the authors who created them. Wendy, you have been there from the start, thanks for agreeing to finish the journey. Series 3 will conclude the MCAT adventure. It has already been one hell of a ride for me and muse. Muse is in complete control, and I hope y'all like where she takes us.
Wendymypooh: I am honored to be once again writing with Sherry. MCAT has, and will always, hold a very special place in my heart.
Acknowledgments: Mary Ann thanks for signing on as collage maker for series 3. Thanks for the once-overs and all your arduous work for the series. Sue, your poems for Vin are awesome. "To Love Again" was beautiful. Muse Ladies...thank you. Miranda, appreciate your advice. Nancy, the home you give the boys @ Blackraptor is greatly appreciated.
Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction for entertainment purposes, based on the characters from "The Magnificent Seven." I don't own 'em. No infringement of any copyrights intended. Any references to locations or people are for story use, and do not depict any real place or person.
Vin's personal journal:
Damn, already another Saturday. I can't believe it's been six weeks since I stopped long enough to jot down my thoughts. My only excuse is, I've been busy as hell. At work, we a have few slim leads to work with, although Ezra and Ramon have been ‘clubbing' three nights a week. Ezra is not a happy camper about this assignment and has no problem sharing his feelings about it. Truthfully, after reading his reports, I can't say I blame him. Our killer has decided to hunt in Texas since he barely escaped capture after his last murder here. Charlie Team aided in the investigation of three kills, the same MO but different than what we've seen. My gut instinct says he won't stay away from Denver much longer.
My visions are still around, but not any more specific than before. It has helped that we are having regular Legacy meetings, at least I haven't gone off the rails lately. Each of us is more aware of any mental stress that may drag one of us down. In about an hour, we'll meet at Camp Larabee for another session. We'll unload on any issues we feel need discussing and, in the process, strengthen our mental connections.
Ezra and Barbara are making great foster parents. Bianca feels accepted and comfortable here. Also, thanks to them starting an investigation, the Chansons will never be foster parents again. Buck is finally out of shock after hearing he will be a father for the sixth time. He says Inez is acting stranger this time than with their other four pregnancies. But, he'd never say that in front of his wife. Chris is concerned about Cait. Doctor Weeks told them she would be more tired as the weeks progressed, and she is, but Chris won't relax until Tempest arrives and he knows Cait is fine.
Kelli, on the other hand, after a rough beginning, is having a great pregnancy. She is back at work, thriving behind a desk and hardly complaining about it at all. Reckon the decision to let Doctor G repair her old injuries, was the right one. Her energy level increases every day, but her hormones are all over the place. I don't mind though, because it just feels too damn good to see her happy and healthy. Today she and the other ladies of the Wild Bunch will take on Cherry Creek Mall, with ten little girls in tow. They call it a girls' day out. I call it something else to worry about.
Tia Isabella is taking on the babies of the bunch. Since it's too cold outside the boys are having a' One Day Out West' marathon at our house. Max is gonna play chuck wagon cook and plans to feed them beans, with a few sides they love like roasted hot dogs and such. They even set up a small table with a cover for a Coleman stove with a ‘pot of cocoa' on to heat. Walter has plenty of old west stories to tell, and Dad picked out a few western movies for them to watch. They circled the furniture in the den as a pretend Wagon Train and Dad added a few pieces of western paraphernalia to make the boys feel like cowboys. Should be fun for our boys.
+ + + + + + +
Camp Larabee was as up to date as the MCAT office, best of all, it had a great heating system. "Damn, it's cold," Vin muttered as he discarded his coat and savored the warmth of the room. He then made a beeline for the coffee machine.
Chris looked up from the paper he was reading and chuckled, "Your Texas blood is just too thin for Colorado winters."
"Hell, I'm as warm-blooded as any of you yahoos, but fifteen degrees is cold any damn place."
Ezra arrived. "Sorry I am late. My Mother chose today to call and delayed my departure."
"Maude?" Chris knew that whenever Ezra heard from her, it was not often good news. "All good?"
"No, however, I prefer to consider the particulars when we begin our discussions." Ezra already had an agenda to vent about when they talked, Maude only added to it.
Buck and JD entered next, brushing snow off their clothes, and complaining about the cold. They too were looking for hot coffee and a warm place to sit.
Josiah grinned. "Guess Boston and Vegas blood is thin too."
"What about Boston?" JD asked as he sipped on the hot brew in his cup.
Nathan shook his head, "Nothing JD. How's the redecorating going?"
JD shrugged. "I thought Keira had everything picked for her new bedroom, but Tess said they had more to add. Thus, today's shopping trip includes wedding stuff and things for Keira's room."
"Get used to it," Buck told him, "it's been my experience that the females in my life are never happy unless they can change the color, styles, or fabric of bedrooms and such."
Chris grinned. "You should know, Buck. Are you looking forward to another girl come August?"
"Hell, you know, I don't care. Girl or boy, it doesn't make a difference, as long as there's no problem with it or Inez," Buck glanced at Josiah. "Are we starting yet? Cause I got more to say."
"Well, we're all here, so yes. Start away, Buck." Josiah smiled as he listened.
It was getting easier for his brothers to share their concerns. When he first suggested these bi-monthly meets, it was as a tool to share and discuss the visions Vin had and the ramifications they produced concerning their Legacy. It had since turned into bonding sessions, each one making them mentally stronger, more aware of their skills, and an unexpected result, experiencing less stress on the job.
Buck told them, "Inez is different this time around. I swear she's pricklier than a rattlesnake. I know being pregnant is no picnic for her, but it's not like we haven't been here before."
Nathan laughed. "Granted, we don't have as much experience as you do, Buck. But each time is different. You should know that."
"At least you're not going twenty-seven years between pregnancies. Cait is just plain tired all the time." Chris noted, "I try to make it easier for her, but when I do, I risk getting my head bit off."
"Hell Chris, if you had it your way, you'd wrap Cait in bubble wrap and make her stay home ‘til Tempest arrives." Vin ignored the glare Chris shot his way. "Kel's problem is just the opposite, she has too much energy, but same as with Inez and Cait, I don't dare say much or she gets snippy. I'll be happy when Rebel gets here, and I don't worry about her so much."
Ezra interjected. "While I have empathy for your situations, remember it is a temporary circumstance. My problems are more imminent and longer lasting, however. My nightmares are increasing. Filled with ungodly strobe lights flashing, insanely loud music. Almost naked crazy women throwing themselves at my persona and wanting to ‘share their blood.' Much more of this nightmare op and I will be the crazy one."
Vin sighed. "It won't be for much longer, I promise. The last leads you gave us sound promising and I'm hoping at least one pans out."
"Can't come too soon for me." Ezra continued, "In addition to that enduring nightmare, now I have another one to face. Maude informed me this morning that she will arrive later this afternoon for an extended visit. Due to my busy schedule the past few weeks," he shot Vin a disgruntled look, "I have not had the opportunity to inform her that we have a new family member."
JD laughed. "You mean she doesn't know about Bianca."
"I'd love to be a fly on the wall for that meeting." Buck chuckled. "You know we love Bianca just the way she is, but for Maude…."
"Appearances are everything." Ezra finished that thought and sighed. "I know, and Goth is not something my mother would relate to. I am not certain who I should warn, Maude about Bianca or Bianca about Maude."
"Definitely Bianca about Maude," JD said as he saw the agreeing nods from his brothers.
Josiah waited a few moments to be sure no one had anything to add, then asked, "Vin, any new visions you wish to discuss?'
Vin sat straighter and became more serious. "Not new really. The same warnin' that somethin' evil is comin' and it's tied to our Legacy. My frustration comes from the fact I feel someone close to me is in danger, but there's no sign of who it could be. Sharin' with y'all makes it easier though. At least I'm not up roamin' the house most nights, ‘cause I can't sleep. But until I know for certain, I'm gonna stay alert for any trouble."
Chris corrected him. "WE are gonna stay alert. None of us walks alone with worry."
Josiah, stood, "I believe we've had a good session. Unless there are any other concerns, I say we adjourn."
As the men gathered their coats and prepared to leave they still had one thing on all their minds. Their women and ten of their children were at the mall today. They would each feel better when they all made it home safe and sound.
+ + + + + + +
It was a caravan of four Larabee 7 vehicles that pulled into the vast parking lot of the Cherry Creek Mall. Within minutes of arriving, the seven Wild Bunch women, with their daughters of varying ages in tow, merged with the other shoppers inside the mall.
"Kelli and I are going to take Andi and Grace to the baby boutique, so they can pick out presents to buy for Tempest and Rebel," Cait informed her sisters.
"The girls and I will go with you," Inez spoke up. "Buck and I held onto several items of Isabella's when she outgrew them, but I always like to buy a new layout for each baby before she's born."
"Who knows, this time, you might end up having a boy," Mallory commented with a grin.
"From your lips to God's ears." Inez crossed herself. "I love my girls, and I will be happy if Buck and I are blessed with another. However, I can't help hoping just a little that this one is going to be a little brother for Caleb, and another son for Buck."
"That's understandable." Rain told her.
"Bianca and I are going to Hot Topic," Barbara said. She hoped to bond some with the teen while they were here.
"I haven't seen Velvet, Sheena, Devon or Eric since before I left the Chansons." Bianca added quietly, shifting nervously from one booted foot to the other, "I've talked to Velvet just long enough to tell her that I wasn't coming back to work, but that's all. I know they are all probably wondering what happened to me."
"I'm sure they will have questions." Barbara agreed, "But it will be totally up to you what you share with them."
"Okay." Bianca smiled at her words.
"I told John Daniel that there were a couple of things I wanted to finish Keira's new room, but that wasn't entirely truthful." Tess grinned. "I also plan to pick out a wedding gift for him with our girls' help."
"Neither Rain or I had any set plan for what we were going to do when we got here. Except for treating our girls to lunch, so we'll window shop a bit," Mallory said, glancing at Rain, who nodded her agreement.
"Why don't we all meet at the food court in an hour for lunch then?" Kelli suggested.
The other women quickly agreed to the arranged time for them to meet, before separating into smaller groups. Inez, with Sarah and Maria, stayed close to Kelli and Cait. They steered Andi and Grace down the crowded walkway toward the baby boutique store that, Inez knew well, Kelli loved, and both had mentioned to Cait.
Sarah and Maria immediately looked for girl clothes, while Inez hovered over the baby boys' outfits. There were a lot of ‘oohing' and ‘ahhing' from all four little girls as they explored the store filled with all things baby, from nursery furniture to bath accessories to stuffed animals and clothing galore.
"Can I get this for Rebel, Mama?" Andi asked Kelli, holding up a praying bear for her to see. "It plays the prayer we say at night when you pull the string."
"I think Rebel will love it," Kelli told her.
With some guidance from Cait, Grace picked a lamb that played lullabies for her gift to Tempest. Inez chose a layette in aqua, suitable for a girl or boy. Kelli and Cait each added a couple of selections of their own to their daughters' purchases before their group left the store to meet the other ladies.
"Dark Energy" by The Cult played loudly in Hot Topic when Barbara and Bianca entered the store. Crowded with an eclectic group of shoppers from teenagers in full Goth clothing like Bianca to twentysomethings wearing heavy metal t-shirts and ripped jeans, the place emitted an aura of strange. An older couple wearing conservative clothing looked vaguely uncomfortable as their preteen granddaughters rummaged through a selection of movie posters hanging on the wall.
Both Barbara and Bianca turned at the sound of the teenager's name called out from a corner of the store. A moment later, a young woman with spiked red hair, and a black leather halter and miniskirt set threw her arms around Bianca and hugged her.
Bianca extricated herself from her ex-boss's embrace and introduced her to Barbara. "Velvet LeCroix, this is Barbara Standish, my new foster mom. Barbara this is Velvet."
"It's nice to meet you Velvet," Barbara said.
"Likewise." Velvet eyed the older woman." I hope you are treating her better than the last set treated her."
"Velvet!" Bianca flushed and sent Barbara an apologetic look.
"My husband and I are quite fond of Bianca." Barbara smiled at Bianca, assuring the teenager that her friend's comment hadn't upset her. "As is our whole family."
"Good. She deserves to be happy." Velvet said, "Excuse me, I've got a customer."
"I'm sorry," Bianca started, but Barbara cut her off.
"Don't be. She's only showing that she cares for you. Why don't you go see if your other friends are working, while I browse a bit?"
"Okay." Bianca disappeared into the back of the store.
Thirty minutes later Barbara and Bianca left the store to meet the other women for lunch.
+ + + + + + +
"Now the three of you are going to have to remember not to touch anything in this store unless I tell you it is okay," Tess instructed Keira, Daisy, and Lilah as they entered Things Remembered. They had already stopped in a bedding store and picked up the skirting and curtains she needed to complete Keira's room.
"We will," the three little girls said together.
Tess smiled. They had been on their best behavior all morning. She wasn't sure they remembered her telling them that morning if they were good, they would have ice cream for dessert as a reward after they ate lunch.
"Hi, can I help you?"
Tess smiled at the older man who greeted her and the girls, "I am looking for a special present for my husband-to-be."
"We have a nice selection of watches, cufflinks, briefcases, etc.," the salesman said. He led Tess and the girls over to an area of the room filled with all sorts of items designed for a man in mind.
"These are all nice, but not exactly what I had in mind." Tess told him, "You see, we're joining our family together, so I'm thinking about something that would say that."
The man smiled. "I have just the thing. Come with me."
Tess and the girls followed the man over to a counter displaying a collection of glassware. The salesman selected a crystal heart whose front design made it look like the heart was a puzzle. In the center of the heart were the words ‘Together we make a family.'
"It's perfect!" Tess said.
She carefully picked up the heart and held it so all three of her and JD's girls could see it. She read to them what the words in the middle said and asked, "Do you think this is the perfect gift for your Daddy?"
"Yes!" Daisy, Keira, and Lilah exclaimed together.
"Guess that's a yes?" The salesman chuckled as Tess returned the heart back to the counter.
"Yes." Tess wrote down the names that she wished to have engraved in each section of the heart. He assured her the piece would be ready in two weeks. She agreed on a date and paid the man, before shepherding her three girls out of the store to meet the other Wild Bunch ladies and their daughters at the food court.
Mallory and Rain with Joann and Ronesha arrived first, scouting out open seating for themselves and the rest of their gathering. Barbara arrived with Bianca, quickly followed by Tess and her girls. Inez, Cait, and Kelli rounded out the group. After receiving their food orders, they ate a leisurely meal, talking, laughing, and enjoying one another's' company for another hour. Without mentioning any of their previous bad experiences at this mall, together they made their exit, loaded packages and safely made their way home.
+ + + + + + +
After picking up their sons from the Tanners', Josiah and Nathan waited together at the Sanchez home for their wives and daughters to return. Not that they expected trouble, but given the knowledge of ‘something coming', they felt better once their families arrived. Buck and JD did the same and waited at Buck's house for Tess, Inez, and the girls.
Chris and Vin sat at the Tanner kitchen table, waiting for their respective spouses and daughters to arrive.
"How much longer you think Ezra will last on this op?" Chris knew that Standish, when unhappy about work, could make his life miserable.
Vin leaned back in his chair. "Ezra will do what needs doin', and I'm still hopin' that sketch from the Witness at Wreckroom pays off. But, if somethin' don't break soon, we may have to rethink our strategy."
"Sam Cain said he would have their latest reports and autopsy results on my desk by Monday morning." Chris spun his empty coffee cup around, contemplating other options for MCAT.
"Charlie Team has been on top of the kills in Texas, maybe a lead will break from that." Vin heard Kelli's Yukon approaching. "Reckon, that's our wives." He knew he should trust Kelli to handle herself, but between his visions and the cases they worked, it took all the discipline he had to temper his Obsession about her and their children's safety.
The two men went outside to aid their wives.
"Daddy!" Andi yelled when she saw Vin. "I got a praying bear for Rebel." Running toward him, she leaped into his arms, never for a second considering he might not catch her. "We saw lots and lots of baby clothes, and you know what..."
"Andi, slow down," Kelli said with a smile. "You'll have plenty of time to tell Daddy, Jason, and Grandpa, all you saw." When she reached her husband, she slipped her arm around his waist, gave him a kiss, and whispered, "thanks for not goin' all primitive about our day. It was fun, and Andi enjoyed herself."
Vin could only nod. Chris, Cait, and Grace were coming up right behind them.
Chris with one arm around Cait and the other holding Grace said, "Move it, Tanner. I wanna get this woman home to rest. And we have a couple of cowboys to pick up first."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra wasn't home more than thirty minutes when he heard Barbara's car pull in their driveway. Going to the front to meet them, he was surprised to see a smiling Bianca, already with the back door open, taking Pearl from her car seat. He opened Barbara's door, offering his hand to help her from the car. Taking their packages from the trunk he followed them inside. Chuckling to himself, it occurred to him how happy having his family home made him
Bianca handed Pearl to Barbara and excitedly showed Ezra her purchases. "Not only did I find this cute skirt, I got to see my friends and my ex-boss."
Barbara exchanged a look with her husband and smiled. "We had a good day."
"I see that…" Ezra paused to answer his phone. After a few moments he ended the call and sighed. "I did not have an opportunity to tell y'all earlier. My mother is coming to visit us for a while."
"How long is a while?" Barbara stopped smiling. "And when is she arriving?"
"She said about a month." Ezra cleared his throat. "That was Walter on the phone. He just allowed Maude through the security gate. My guess is she'll be here in about five minutes."
Somewhere near Denver
A gloved hand hovered over a tray of cherished tools, each one a beautiful instrument of torture. Which one would he choose this time? The eight-inch blade is a beauty, but the curved blade made such interesting slices when cutting into human flesh. His eyes scanned his arsenal one more time, before selecting the six-inch knife. Grasping it he turned to his fresh prey, slashing her ivory skin, his eyes fascinated by the sight of the rich blood rivulets rising and spilling over the sides of her torn flesh. His victim's blood-curdling screams pierced the night, though no one heard them but him. She fought against her tight restraints, to no avail, as he continued to flay open her tender flesh.
Her screams, her fruitless struggles, the intoxicating aroma of her rich blood, filled him with a sense of encompassing power bordering on orgasmic. He bent his head to her flayed flesh, pressing his face into the copper-scented liquid, and relishing the feel of its fading warmth against his skin. He licked out with his tongue, bringing some of the nectar into his mouth, savoring the miniscule droplet as it slid down his throat.
Hunger coursed through him, hot and fast, and he could no longer restrain himself from partaking of the life-sustaining elixir. He clamped his mouth onto a severed, pulsing vein and thirstily sucked, savoring every delicious drop.
Visible through the skylight, streaks of pale orange and deep purple broke the darkness of the night sky. Vin, waking when Kelli left their bed, watched the wondrous transformation as he waited for his wife to return from the bathroom. Nature's offering of a new beginning each morning made the pre-dawn hour his favorite time of the day. Sharing these moments of private tranquility with Kelli was something neither of them took as a given. They knew life could change in an instant and took every minute they had together as a gift. From the start of their relationship, Vin had insisted that they take time to be a couple first, reinforcing their love and commitment to one another. The rest of their family ties, be they father, mother, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, brother, or sister, all benefited from the strength of their enduring promise to never take their love for granted.
Seeing his beautiful pregnant wife coming towards their bed, he lifted the covers to welcome her back beside him. "All good, Baby?"
Snuggling into the warmth her husband's body offered, she sighed when his strong arms wrapped around her. "Yep, I think our daughter likes sleepin' more than her brothers did."
Chuckling, he remembered the antics the twins performed when she carried them. Smoothing one hand over her growing baby bump before it came to rest beneath her breasts he said, "Rebel knows her mama needs rest and is storin' up her energy for after her arrival."
"I reckon. Hard to believe how much easier this pregnancy is from the last one."
"We're blessed, in fact, since the moment I first laid eyes on you, I've never had any doubt about our destiny."
"I call BS," Kelli laughed, "you couldn't wait to seduce me. Destiny was not on your mind."
"You're right. All I could think was how in the hell I could get you alone for the night. Little did I know at that moment, Fate opened a door to my future. Giftin' me with a piece of my heart and soul I didn't know was missin' and a lifelong love affair that is never-endin'."
Cuddling, Vin pulled her closer, kissing the top of her head. Their life had not all been carefree, but her unconditional love, soon to be five children, and their time together, gave him more than he ever imagined Fate had in store for him that day. He would fight to keep it, lay down his life to protect Kelli and their kids if necessary, and pray they had a long time to enjoy their destiny.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and Kelli parted ways at the door, she headed to Josiah's desk, while he picked up his daily assessments from Gunny. Hearing curses coming from Chris' office, he abandoned his plan to go to his and decided to see what had Larabee in bad sorts.
Sticking his head through the open doorway, he asked, "You okay Cowboy?"
Chris threw down the folder he'd been reading. "I never thought I'd see names like Taos Wolfram, Nicu Dragon or Desdemona Scarlett, in any report for MCAT. Where the hell does Ezra find these people?"
Vin laughed and continued inside, sitting in the chair opposite Chris. "Why do you think Ez and Ramon have been complainin' so much. Those clubs are full of people with weird names."
"I guess." Looking at Vin, he asked, "you decided what to do about our undercover op?"
"Yeah, end of the week I'm pullin' them out. Talked to Sam and recommended he pull the one for Charlie Team too." Setting down the assessments Gunny gave him, Vin picked up a file from Chris' stack. "These the autopsy reports?"
Chris nodded. "I didn't like what I saw in them either." Giving Vin time to read, he kept talking, "Justin and Guy are on their way back to Denver from Texas." He slid some photos across the desk. "Said they saw the bodies and it's ugly."
"Damn. He's not even tryin' to stay with his rituals anymore. Looks like the work of a savage animal."
"Gunny is making copies for your team, and until Justin is back, you're in charge of Bravo too."
Vin laid down the pictures. "Think I'll keep Bravo Team workin' our perp's evolvin' victimology. Alpha Team meets in an hour, conference room. Reckon you wanna be there." He took Chris' nod as a yes, stood, picked up his reports, and started for the door.
He snapped his fingers and turned around., "Almost forgot. Dad said to let you know he had news for you."
Chris could only hope it had to do with answers he's been searching for. "I'll talk to him tonight. See you in an hour."
+ + + + + + +
Most of Alpha Team had already assembled in the conference room awaiting their Captain, Ezra and team tech, JD. They could not resist teasing one of their own when Standish entered looking like something the cat dragged in.
Chris laughed. "Ezra, you look like hell."
"Good Lord, Ezra, what happened to you?" Kelli asked, not used to seeing her partner look so disheveled.
Sighing deeply, Standish sat down before explaining. "Maude happened. I had a five-minute warning to tell Barbara and Bianca she'd arrived. Our lovely teen has a wicked sense of humor and when she answered the door, she yelled, ‘Hi Grandma'."
Buck chuckled. "Bet that went over like a lead balloon."
"Indeed." Shaking his head Ezra told them, "I have been running interference every moment since. Trust me, it has been a full-time endeavor and Barbara is caught in the middle."
"I know your mother was a challenge for her on the last visit," Kelli patted Ezra's hand, "but Barbara can handle Maude, and if push comes to shove, my money is on your wife."
"If it gets violent, Rain and I are close by." Nathan hid his smile.
Josiah reminded him. "If you can handle being Goth, you can handle Maude." The sound of laughter filled the room as Ezra lowered his head and banged it on the table.
Outside the door, Vin stopped a grim-faced JD before he went inside. "Relax, Brother."
JD sighed and studied Vin's face. "You know, don't you?"
"Yeah, you're broadcastin' loud and clear, but don't think the rest of ‘em know." Placing an arm around JD's shoulder, he spoke quietly, "she'll understand, and things will work out as they should."
Relaxing his features JD said, "Thanks, that Heart Warrior thought reading stuff is good sometimes."
"You're welcome." Watching JD go, Vin solemnly agreed, *Sometimes…. and sometimes not so much, * he followed JD inside and walked over to the empty seat reserved for him.
+ + + + + + +
Captain Tanner began, "Okay so far we are strikin' out. The sketch the ‘witness' gave from the kill at the club before Christmas has produced nada. Could be that he was so focused on the blood drippin' down our unsub's face he didn't notice much else. Before we get into more information I want your assessments on what we do know. Nathan?"
"On the forensic side, not much. Our killer has been very careful not to leave any trace evidence behind. Even the mauling at the Wreckroom, left us nothing to work with."
Vin noted, "That might change. Justin and Guy are comin' in from Texas and bringin' you new evidence. Some fibers found on the most recent victim and a few strands of hair. JD they also have some DNA. There is no match in the system, but it might give us more with the right programs".
"I'll get CASSIE on it as soon as they arrive. An in-depth analysis could give us his race, info on genetic markers, and age." JD looked at Nathan, "Forensics can run the tests and CASSIE will work on the analysis. If we're lucky and it's in good condition, we might even get an idea of what this creep looks like." He explained.
Ezra was next. "I feel we are reaching a dead-end with the Goth club scene. All we are getting is a lot of speculation and insane theories about the kill at the Wreckroom."
"I agree, which is why after you and Ramon go to the last club on the list…" Vin searched through his papers, "…here it is, a place called, Disintegration Saturdays, ironically open five days a week. Y'all check it out, ask your questions and then if nothing pops, y'all are done."
Ezra gave a half smile. "Those are the sweetest words I have heard in days."
Ramon looked at the ceiling and said, "Praise the Lord."
Buck shook his head, "Damn, if you two end the op, what will we do for entertainment?"
"I'm sure you'll find something Buck." Chris grinned. "You always do."
Tanner let them have fun for a moment and then turned serious. "The folders in front of y'all have crime and autopsy reports on the kills in Texas." He nodded to JD who put up the accompanying pictures. "These shots show our unsub breakin' his MO. Josiah, you have an idea where this is leadin'?"
"Kelli and I read over these reports before the meeting and came to a few conclusions. While up to now he has been very careful and ritualistic about his methods, something changed, a stressor in his life, which at this point we don't know, is causing him to spiral, which makes him even more dangerous. The blitz attacks of his last kills are for gathering the blood he thinks feeds his life force. I expect to see this pattern continue with victims of both genders," Josiah looked at Kelli. "Your turn."
She nodded. "He feels he needs the blood, but he will not be able to give up takin' victims back to his safe space, or what we call his lair. While the ‘feedin's give him, in his mind, strength, and power, he also needs the feel of control. The torture of the women he takes and the fear he creates in them, is a sexual turn on for him. The act of rape is secondary and for him, it doesn't matter if they are alive or dead."
Josiah finished. "Bottom line, anything is on the table at this point. The good news is, while he is spiraling out of control, he will get careless. That leads to evidence, which gives us a better chance of stopping him sooner rather than later."
The silence in the room was deafening. Each agent letting the information before them, the meaning of it, and the graphic photos sink in. One thing certain to them all… they had to stop this sick sonofabitch.
+ + + + + + +
After a delicious supper, Tess and JD spent time with their daughters and JJ. Once the little one played out, they put JJ to bed and started a Disney movie for the girls. Satisfied that they would stay settled for a while, JD led Tess into his den, so they could have a private conversation. This talk he'd put off for too long and he decided to get it over with before Tess and Keira went to their home for the night.
Tess was happy to have John Daniel all to herself. It seemed that between work and kids, their alone times were few and far between. "Now that I have you to myself," she smiled and tugged on his shirt. Once he was close she surprised him with a searing kiss.
Lost in the moment, JD almost forgot what he had planned. Coming up for air, he groaned, then hoarsely whispered, "Tess…Baby…we need to talk."
"Hmm. okay," Tess mumbled reluctantly and rested her hands on his chest. "Should we sit for this talk?"
JD sighed, "Yes." Once they settled on the couch, he wasn't sure where to start. "Tess…about our wedding…"
"Oh John Daniel, I have so many ideas," she began excitedly. "Of course, I want to hear yours too, and we need to agree on what we want."
"Tess…wait…before we do any planning…we need to discuss something." He knew what he planned to tell her could very well blow up in his face, but she had to know what she was signing up for by marrying him. His earlier conversation with Vin bolstered his confidence.
She leaned back and gazed at him in puzzlement. Noting the seriousness on his face and the note of solemnity in his voice chased the smile from her face. Her heart lurched as she said, "You've changed your mind about us getting married, haven't you?"
"No!" JD exclaimed taking in the hurt look on her face. "Oh God no! Tess, I haven't changed my mind at all! I want nothing more than to marry you and be a father to Keira. I just have to tell you a story first, one I have not shared with any woman."
Reassured that their wedding was still on, but wary about the way he was acting, Tess nodded her head, "Okay, I'm listening."
"My brothers and I have known each other forever…" JD began haltingly and saw Tess' eyes widen at his words, but she did not interrupt him. He proceeded to share the truth about his brothers, their beginning, their Legacy, the lessons they learned and were still learning from their Old West forefathers. When he finished, he dared to look into her eyes. Did he really see understanding mixed with…wonder?
"Say something please?" He urged her anxiously, "Please tell me you don't think I'm crazy?"
Tess smiled at his nervousness, reaching out to take his hand in hers, "John Daniel, I love you. I would have to be blind not to see the special connection you have with your brothers. The bond you have with them and the women of this glorious Wild Bunch is extraordinary. The love that your brothers and sisters have for one another, as well as the support the women give to you men, is so wonderful to me. I've never witnessed anything so…magical."
"Magical?" Tess took what he'd just told her more calmly than he had expected. He hadn't thought she would call him an outright liar exactly, but he had certainly expected her to have questions or maybe scoff a little at what he told her.
"Yes, magical." Tess gave his hand a gentle squeeze. "I… what you just told me, it will take a little time for me to fully digest it and to realize that I'm going to be a part of something so…special. But I believe you, John Daniel."
JD sighed with relief. "I've wanted to tell you before, but I never could find the right time."
"Well, now you have and… Oh, John Daniel, I have the most amazing idea for our wedding!" Tess leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
Grinning by the time she finished telling him her plans, he signed on enthusiastically. Wrapping his arms around her waist he smiled and said, "We're going to have one hell of a wedding to remember!"
+ + + + + + +
Chris arranged to meet Brodie at the ranch office after supper when the babies were down for the night. All he told Cait was that he would be back soon. He did not like holding anything back from her, but until he knew more, and how it might affect his family, he wasn't sharing. Besides, she had more than enough to handle with this pregnancy. Every day that passed he could see the toll it was taking on her and he was not willing to add to her concerns.
Opening the door, he stepped inside to find Brodie working on his computer. "Sorry I made you stay so late." Pulling up a chair he sat down on the opposite side of the desk.
Brodie shut down his PC and gave Chris his full attention. "No problem, I just got here myself. I had supper with Vin and Kelli, played with my grandkids, and helped put them down for the night."
"Bet you enjoyed every minute of it too."
"Yes, I did, but you're not here to make small talk." Brodie rose, went to the ranch safe, opened it and brought out a small box. Setting it on the desk, he reached over for a laptop before he sat down again. "Before we talk I need to ask are you sure about this?"
Hesitating for only a moment Chris answered, "Yes."
He opened the box, retrieved three flash drives, and passed them to him, Brodie explained. "My former associates were very thorough and while it took time, exhaustive investigating, and a lot of patience, I believe they got what you wanted and then some."
Chris took the drives, which seemed hot to his touch. He laid them on the desk, unsure why he suddenly wavered. Taking a dep breath, he calmed his apprehensions. "I'm satisfied that they were certain about their results or we wouldn't be sitting here."
Pushing the laptop toward Chris, he said, "Before you read what's on them, there are a few things you should know. First, I personally fact-checked the information and can verify its authenticity. My report in detail is on the third drive. Second, aside from your original need, there is detailed information about several individuals you may want to follow up on. Enough, in fact, to keep you, and your team ass deep in investigations for a good long while. A Southern gentleman you had dealings with last year for one and I'd be happy to dig deeper on him or any of them if you want."
Brodie looked him in the eye. "Last, a piece of advice…don't get so caught up in the past, you lose what's right in front of you."
He understood Brodie was stalling, giving him time to think about the consequences of his decision. Despite their rocky beginning, they had become good friends and their family ties made them closer. He also gave damned good advice
Chris understood, too, it was his fear of losing again that had caused his hesitation about opening a potential can of worms.
"Damned if I do and damned if I don't." Reaching for the laptop, he powered it on. For better or worse, he would finally have his answers.
After two days of staying sequestered in his office all day, Chris called Vin and told him he was not coming in for the rest of the week or longer. Said he would let him know. Tanner was not surprised, given the choices weighing heavily on his brother's mind. He was aware Chris needed some time and space to sort through the information he obtained from Brodie. Arriving early at the MCAT office, he told Gunny that until further notice he was in charge. The least he could do was lift the work burden from Larabee's shoulders and run interference for him with their brothers.
Before Vin made it through the door to his office, Buck arrived and waylaid him. "I know you know what's going on with Chris. So, fess up."
Tanner chose his words carefully. "We got things covered here, and he wanted some personal time."
"Yep. You know how stressed he's been lately. Some time off will do him good."
Buck was not convinced that was all, but he trusted Vin to tell him if Chris needed help. "Okay, but if anything changes, I expect to hear about it." He started to walk away and then remembered. "Oh, I forgot. Inez has a doctor's appointment this morning and asked me…"
Vin stopped him with his words, "Go with her, just be back for our meetin' later today."
"Will do." Buck hurried off to call Inez to tell her he would meet her at the doctor's office.
*Okay Cowboy, I've got your back, make good use of your time.*
+ + + + + + +
Cait sat at the table where Chris insisted she relax and watched her husband flit around the kitchen making breakfast. She could not help but wonder why he was home suddenly playing Mr. Mom. "Chris, you sure you wouldn't rather be at work?"
"You trying to get rid of me woman?"
"No, it's just so unlike you to take off work unless you're at death's door or we have an emergency of some kind." She knew he was wrestling with something important on his mind, just not what.
Chris enjoyed pampering Cait a bit and kicked himself for not thinking of it sooner. He knew she had been extra tired lately and worried about the test results Doctor Weeks promised to have for them on Friday. *Another thing to consider. *
After setting a huge platter of bacon and scrambled eggs on the table, he slid another plate of hot pancakes in front of her. "You eat Mama, while I hustle our kids in here."
Leaving her to enjoy the heap of food he had fixed, he helped Grace and Cody dress and told Jesse to get a move on before he was late for school. After breakfast, he asked Jesse to get his younger siblings in the truck, so he could drop them at daycare before he took him to school.
Alone for a few moments, he took Cait in his arms and kissed her before saying, "I love you. Be patient with me. I'll work out my problem and then tell you about it."
"Take all the time you need Chris, I'm not going anywhere."
+ + + + + + +
After dropping the little ones at daycare and Jesse at school, Chris drove around Larabee 7 trying to untangle his turbulent thoughts. Stopping by the barn, he tramped through the snow and went inside to groom Pony. As he brushed his beloved horse, he was able to think more clearly about his choices.
Opening those flash drives was like a punch to my gut. Ice's confessions and the details she left about her crimes, not so much. I'll have Gunny discreetly transcribe the second one, adding in Brodie's report authenticating the facts and send a report to Interpol, keeping a few names, closer to home for MCAT to work with. The first one, however, is the one that has me torn about how to handle. That damn flash drive revealed a hell of a lot more than I expected and I'm still not sure how I feel about it.
It is past time for the truth to come out, but when I think about Cait, Jesse, Grace, and Cody, I can't make myself act on what I know. Yet, it's all I have thought about the past two days and it feels like I'm carrying the weight of a hundred stones around my neck. More than once I've started to tell Cait but can't do it. In her delicate condition, it would only add stress she doesn't need.
When Sarah, Adam, and my unborn daughter died, I spiraled into an ugly chasm of indifference, depression, and alcohol. I rebuffed any efforts to dissuade me from the course of self-destruction, even from my oldest friend, Buck.
What I didn't know then, was how Fate was intervening in my life. She sent Vin along and in his gentle, tenacious way, he reached into my soul and pulled me back from the depths of my despair. Then Travis made me a job offer, Team 7 formed, and as they say…the rest is history.
So now, I need to decide.
On one hand, I now know the name of the man who paid to kill my family. Turns out Hank, while driving drunk had an accident, which resulted in killing the man's son. He never spent a night in jail over it either. Looking back at his behavior through the years, I guess he did his own Penance for the boy's death. Rich and powerful, State Senator Richard Eastland had a Vendetta. He never got over his only son's death and wanted my father-in-law to pay with the loss of his own child. Ice only left his name and why, but no proof. I'm guessing it was a final jab at me. Granted, I can't arrest and convict the man, but I could go after him and he would pay for what he did. That old hot-headed, ‘I'll do it my way' Chris wouldn't be here. He'd be out tearing into the bastard who murdered his family.
I could find some satisfaction in that, but it wouldn't bring back Sarah, Adam, and our daughter. It would continue the vicious chain of retribution. I would kiss my career goodbye and drag a few of my brothers down with me. My life as I know it would disappear, and I could find myself alone again.
On the other hand, although I'll never forget, I've kept my promise to Sarah and made my peace with the deaths of her and our children. Cait, Jesse, Grace, Cody and our almost here Baby Tempest belong to the new chapters of my life. My eldest is close by and I have four, correction, almost five beautiful grandchildren. I love my family, my brothers, and the crazy extended Wild Bunch we've created on the ranch. Do I dare risk losing all that?
Laughing for the first time in days, Chris realized the fact he even questioned what to do meant he was getting way too mellow as his older self.
Might be because I often talk to my forefathers' ghosts. Could be I've learned more about the importance of patience, the strength of family, and trusting Fate to do the heavy lifting. Prioritizing the important things in my life is foremost for me, too. I've learned how strong the ties of family are and it doesn't matter if the distance is in miles or time. Our spirits are free-flowing and infinite, linking us to our past, giving us strength in the present and guiding us to our future."
He remembered what he'd written after meeting Cowboy and the rest of the old-timers.
*The things I allow to influence me, good or bad, are only as strong as the importance I give them. I may not get all the answers, but I can live with the ones I do have. Life is too fragile to waste a moment of it wondering about what ifs. Damn, why didn't I remember all this before? *
Cowboy's voice entered his head *Told you once, Son. When the time is right, you'll find the answers. *
Nodding, he whispered, "Just need reminding sometimes."
Chris put Pony in his stall, gave him extra grain and patted his rump before leaving. Satisfied, he knew he could live with the answers he had and build on the life Fate blessed him with. Brodie's advice rang true. 'Don't get so caught up in the past, you lose what's right in front of you.' Sweet memories filled his past and, in the past, they would stay. Vengeance had no place in his present, he would share his discovery with Cait because his future was waiting for him at home.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner's team began to gather in the conference room for a late afternoon briefing. Vin shuffled through papers and made some notes as they waited for Ezra and Ramon to join them. Five minutes late for the meeting, they arrived, dressed for their night of clubbing as Dante Winters and Vincent Valerian.
Buck chuckled. "Every time I see you guys like this, I have an urge to grab a cross and some garlic. Not even your mamas would recognize you."
"Hilarious Buck," JD shot back. "While you're at it, don't forget the wooden stakes."
Vin shook his head. "If y'all are done, we have business to tend to."
"Wait," Buck looked around, "is Chris coming?"
"No, told you earlier he's takin' some personal time." Vin reminded him.
Nathan frowned. "Is Chris sick?"
Sighing deeply, Vin decided to tell them about the phone call he received from Larabee an hour earlier. "Chris is fine, Cait is tired, and he decided to take a few more days off to play Mr. Mom, so she can rest."
"Well damn." Buck was disappointed but wanted to share his news anyway. "I was hoping to have everyone here, but I'll tell Chris later. I went with Inez this morning to her doctor's appointment." He broke out a broad grin and announced, "We're joining the parents of twins' club."
"Congratulations." Kelli grinned, "Just think, it could be two more Wilmington girls." She made a mental note to talk to Inez later that evening.
"Bite your tongue, Darlin' I got a feeling about this go around." Buck would love either, but two boys would fit in with him and Caleb just fine.
After congratulations from his brothers and the rest of Alpha Team, Buck leaned back and smiled. "You may continue now, Captain."
"Thank you, Agent Wilmington." Vin cleared his throat. "Now, back to business. Nathan, you have any forensic results yet?"
"Yes, I do. Normally it would take more time for a lab to produce results, but since we have prioritized the work, we don't have to wait in line for testing, so we made fast progress. The fibers we're still working on. However, we have more interesting facts to share. Using the DNA gathered at the last crime scene, we broke it down. We now know this person has an Eastern European ethnicity. A rare set of genetic mutation in one gene that makes heme which manifests as Porphyria, which means there is a malfunction of the hemoglobin production, causing adverse effects from exposure to sunlight. That is the scientific term. It's also called the Vampire disease because their skin is sensitive to sunlight, their urine is reddish to purplish in color and their gums shrink, making their teeth look more prominent and canine-like. And yes, they do have an adverse reaction to garlic. Other major symptoms include problems with the nervous system and muscles, causing seizures, mental disturbance, and nerve damage. I could list eight diverse types of the disease and more symptoms, but you get the idea, I'm sure. Treating it is challenging, and the only heme therapy approved in the U.S. is glucose or Panhematin injections."
Ezra asked, "Does that explain his thirst for blood too?"
Josiah answered. "That would be what they call Clinical Vampirism, more commonly called Renfield syndrome, an obsession with drinking blood. It's behavioral, not genetic, but is associated with acts of violent crimes and sexual deviation."
"I fed CASSIE the information from Nathan's report. First off, I'm doing a search for any prescriptions in the five-state kill area for Panhematin. Also using the genetic information, CASSIE worked out the best probabilities for us on what this perp looks like." JD handed each of them a printed photo. "It's not precise, but it is in the eighty-eight to ninety-three percent range of accuracy."
Studying the picture Vin knew in his gut, this was their killer. "Okay, last night at the clubs. Ezra, Ramon, push hard for information usin' this sketch. Y'all won't be goin' back so ruffle feathers if you need to. Buck, JD, y'all ready to cover our Goths?"
"Yep," JD answered for both.
"Tomorrow this photo goes to the press. We'll set up a hotline for tips." Vin looked directly at Kelli. "All leads will be worked out of the MCAT office only. Dismissed."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra parked his JAG beside Barbara's Lexus and killed the ignition. He leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes. He had a throbbing headache from having to endure the past several hours of listening to the God-awful noise those in the Goth/Vampire community thought of as music. He smelled of perspiration mixed with cheap perfume, alcohol, and cigarettes, and was in desperate need of a hot shower.
Never was he more relieved to finish an undercover assignment as he was this one. He was getting too damn old for this kind of work, and besides, he was now a married man and father. Any time he spent apart from Barbara and Pearl was brutal on all three of them.
Now he not only had to consider his wife and baby daughter's feelings, he had Bianca's to think of as well. In the short amount of time living with them, she was blossoming under his and Barbara's care and he didn't want anything to jeopardize that, especially not his absence from home due to his undercover assignment.
Maude's sudden appearance this week had already thrown their new family dynamics off kilter. She made her disapproval of Bianca's hair and clothing choices known from the first moment the two met. Bianca, however, seemed to not let it bother her. Instead, she thrived on egging Maude on by calling her ‘Grandma' and acting saccharine sweet to her. Ezra had to admit he rather enjoyed the disgruntled looks that came over his mother's face every time Bianca called her ‘Grandma'.
With a weary chuckle at his wandering thoughts, Ezra slid out of his car, hitting the locking mechanism as he exited. He closed the door quietly behind him and headed up the front walk. At the entrance to his home, he inserted his key and stepped inside. After locking up, he made his way slowly through his dark house toward the staircase.
A sudden noise to his left and slightly behind him, had him turning his head in that direction. Searching for the source of the sound, a blood-curdling scream pierced his ears, moments before something hard connected with his head, threatening to send him spiraling into darkness.
+ + + + + + +
Maude had waited up for the sole purpose of speaking to her wayward son. How dare he spend his nights out carousing around and leaving his wife alone to deal with their infant daughter? And she wasn't even about to start on the weird teenage girl that Ezra had dumped on his wife as well. Didn't Ezra realize just how much Barbara suffered to bring his child into the world? And now she not only had to deal with a baby but a teenager too? Well, she was not going to have any of it! She would set her son straight and make him see the error of his ways. Certainly, she taught him better than to act like one of the miscreants she had been married to!
She had just retrieved another bottle of wine from the kitchen when she heard a noise coming from the front part of the house. She hastily turned off the light above the stove she had used to guide her way, and froze, listening intently to the otherwise quiet house. There, she heard what sounded like the shuffling of a foot on the hardwood floor, and it was coming near her.
Cautiously she stepped out of the kitchen, gripping the neck of the bottle of wine firmly in her hand, ready to wield it as a weapon if necessary. She caught a glimpse of a tall figure dressed in black, at the bottom of the staircase. She felt fear for the safety of her grandbaby, daughter-in-law, and yes, even Bianca, flood over her. She stepped closer to the intruder. Her toe connected with the small decorative table that held some of Barbara's porcelain figurines, and she bit back the curse that flew to the tip of her tongue. She saw the trespasser glance her direction and let out a blood-curdling scream as she took in its dark sinister face.
She swung the wine bottle with all her might and heard it connect with the intruder's head with a resounding thud. "Barbara, call Ezra's brothers! Call the police! There's a prowler in the house!"
Ezra reeled sideways from the blow, sharp pain, and a wave of dizziness added to the throbbing headache he already had. He placed a hand to his forehead, feeling a bump already rising, and felt the sticky ooze of blood More screaming, and the sound of running feet from somewhere up above him urged him into action.
"Mother, cease your caterwauling before you wake Barbara and the children!" Ezra hissed angrily. Then, realizing where she now stood by the alarm console on the wall, he paled, "Please tell me you did NOT push that button!"
Maude turned to look at him in shock, "Ezra?"
"Maude, what's wrong? Are you alright?" Barbara's alarmed voice floated down to them from the second floor.
"Everything is fine, Sweetheart," Ezra called up to her, blinking in the sudden brightness when Barbara hit the light switch on the wall at the top of the stairs. He could just make out his wife quietly assuring Bianca that everything was all right, and turned glittering eyeliner-rimmed eyes back onto his mother who stood gawking at him as if she didn't know who he was, "Are you happy now? You've not only awoken Barbara but scared Bianca too!"
"What in the hell have you gotten yourself into Ezra?" Maude demanded, ignoring his remarks, as her own anger flared, "You look like the Devil and smell like you've been hanging out with Working Girls!"
"The nature of what I've been doing or who I've been hanging out with is none of your damn business!" Ezra told her as Barbara sent Bianca back to bed and came hurrying down the stairs.
"What's going on? What's all the fuss about?" Barbara looked from Ezra to Maude and back to Ezra, "Ezra why are you holding your face?"
"Because I was assaulted by a mad woman in my own abode!" Ezra exclaimed. He staggered to the alarm panel and pushed cancel. The last thing he needed now was for all the men on Larabee 7 to arrive at his door.
"It's your own fault for coming in here looking like that!" Maude snapped.
"A man should be able to enter his own domain without fear of being assaulted, regardless of his chosen attire!" Ezra said angrily.
The alarming sound of screeching tires, the slamming of several car doors, and multiple male voices outside alerted them to the arrival of the cavalry.
"Great Mother, not only have you awakened my household, but you've disturbed my brothers and their families slumber as well. Perfect ending to the already hellacious night I've endured!" Ezra walked unsteadily to unlock the front door before one or more of his brothers began pounding on it. Pearl had so far slept through his mother's caterwauling, Barbara's alarmed words, and his shouting. He was hoping to keep it that way.
Several of his brothers peppered him with questions. "Walter called us, what's going on? Who hit the panic button? Why is your head bleeding? Are Barbara and the children okay?"
Ezra stepped out onto the porch, hoping to stave off any more anxious queries. He glanced around him at the concerned faces of Vin, Buck, JD, Chris, Nathan, Josiah, and Walter. "Please accept my apologies for being dragged out of your warm beds on this cold night. Maude mistook me for an intruder and decided to use my head for batting practice, then sounded the alarm before I could stop her."
His words were met with relieved grins and a few chuckles.
"Damn Ezra, maybe you ought to invest in some protective gear if Maude is going to stay around too much longer." Buck quipped.
"Got the manufacturer's number on speed dial," Ezra said wryly. "Go home to your families."
"I'm not going anywhere until I've checked out your head," Nathan said, holding up his bag.
"Nathan, I am…" Ezra started, but under the glares of all six of his brothers, he sighed and stepped back into the house.
Nathan and Josiah, who had given Jackson a ride over to the Standish house, stepped inside after him, while the rest of the men headed back to their homes.
After greeting Barbara and a suddenly quiet Maude, Nathan shepherded Ezra into a chair in the living room.
"Josiah turn on that lamp." Nathan directed his brother as he began removing items from his bag. To Barbara, he asked, "Would you get me a bowl of warm water and a clean cloth?"
Josiah turned on the indicated lamp, while Barbara disappeared into the kitchen. She quickly returned with the requested items.
"Really, this isn't necessary," Ezra protested.
"Ezra, do what Nathan says," Maude said, earning her an emerald-eyed glare from her son.
"One more word Mother, and I'll have you arrested for assault!" Ezra snapped.
"Maude, perhaps it would be best if you retire now," Barbara told her mother-in-law, intervening before more words flowed between mother and son.
"Fine." Maude huffed and left the living room.
"Thank you, Darling." Ezra smiled at Barbara, then hissed in pain as Nathan applied pressure to the wound to stop the flow of blood. "OW!"
"You aren't going to need any stitches," Nathan told him as he finished with his doctoring. "You've got quite a lump on the above your left eye, and a one inch cut across the top of the bump, which required a band-aid. Take some Tylenol and go to bed, but if you develop any dizziness or slurred speech, you better tell me, Ezra. Head wounds are tricky; sometimes they don't seem serious at first, and later do so."
"I will make sure he follows your directions, Nathan," Barbara answered for her husband. "Thank you for staying and tending to him."
"No problem," Nathan replied with a smile.
He and Josiah bid the Standishes goodnight and left the house. Barbara locked the door behind them as Ezra turned off the living room light and returned the bowl and washcloth to the kitchen.
"Ready for bed?" Barbara asked him as she joined him at the bottom of the stairs.
"I was ready hours ago." Ezra slipped his arm around her waist and together they ascended to the second floor where they checked first on Pearl and found her sleeping soundly, and then stopped outside of Bianca's room. They found her in bed, but still awake.
"Are you alright?" Their teen asked Ezra.
"I'm fine," Ezra assured her. "Are you?"
"Now that I know you are, yes," Bianca answered honestly.
"Get some sleep, Honey," Barbara said before she and Ezra retired to their room.
Ezra finally got to take a hot shower before joining his wife in their bed. Sighing deeply as his body relaxed, he said, "The one thing I can always count on with Maude is never having a dull moment when she's around."
Barbara had to ask, "How long did you say she's staying?"
"I didn't, but however long she's here, is too damn long for me."
Vin pushed through the ferocious storm intensifying around him. Broken intermittently by flashes of lightning, unnerving sounds filling the pitch-black night and flying debris. Darkness enfolded the hard rain pelting the ground, leaving rivulets of water rushing through the land. No structure escaped the whipping motion of fierce winds barreling across the countryside. He continued fighting against each barrier the wicked storm produced. His family was there…somewhere. Another flash of lightning exposed the shadow of a new threat, a vortex of wind turning in the distance, sucking up anything in its path. Disappearing into the night as the light faded, he knew it was still there. In the distance, he saw his brothers riding towards the ranch and shouted a warning, which faded beneath the shrieking gusts of wind. Lightning flashed again, the silhouette of the maelstrom was right on top of them and one by one each vanished into the spinning twister. Vin watched in horror as it moved over Larabee 7, destroying everything in its path. His family, his brothers, their families…were all gone.
Vin bolted upright in bed, his mind racing with the vivid images of his latest vision. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he immediately reached for Kelli, needing her to ground him, to bring him back to reality, but she was not there. Panic swept over him. Throwing back the covers, he scrambled hastily out of bed, leaving their room at a dead run, racing through the house, wildly searching for her. He was in full-blown terror mode by the time he hit the kitchen and came to an abrupt halt.
Kelli was sitting calmly at the kitchen table eating ice cream when Vin ran in the room. Her eyes widened as she took in her husband's wild-eyed gaze, and disheveled mane. He was taking gasping breaths and the hand he ran over his face was trembling.
"What the hell are you doin'?" Vin demanded, his tone harsher than he intended.
Standing to set her bowl in the sink, she answered, keeping her voice even-toned, "Was eatin' ice cream, Rebel wanted some. What are you doin'?"
"Lookin' for you." Vin's relief at finding her alive and all right was helping to calm his turbulent thoughts and emotions.
"Well, you found me," Kelli said. Inwardly alarmed by the look on his face, she intentionally stayed calm to give her husband time to find his balance. "Another vision?"
Vin moved close enough to wrap his arms around his wife and brusquely pulled her against his body. Tightening his hold on her he rested his chin on the top of her head, soulfully whispering, "A bad one."
Resting her head against his chest, she felt his racing heartbeat slowly returning to normal. "The sun's goin' to be up soon, and so will the kids. As much as I enjoy havin' my sexy, naked Texan to myself in the kitchen, I suggest we head back to our bedroom. You can tell me about your vision and we won't have to explain to our eldest daughter why her daddy was streakin' through the house in his birthday suit."
Vin managed a soft chuckle. "Reckon, that would be kinda awkward." Leaning back, he kept one arm around her waist as they walked out of the kitchen. "It might take more than just talkin' this time."
Kelli tilted her head, so he could see the expression of love on her face. "Whatever you need, I'm here, and I have no plans on leavin'."
Vin could not find a way to tell her how much those simple words affected him. He could handle all the visions and whatever else evil threw his way, as long as she was beside him to help pick up the pieces once the worst was over.
+ + + + + + +
Winter still had Colorado firmly in its grasp. Although the snow had stopped for a few days, it was still damn cold. Vin was the first to arrive at Camp Larabee, and headed straight for the thermostat, turning it up five degrees. He was much calmer than he'd been a few hours ago, thanks to his wife. Yet, it bothered him a great deal to consider the implications of his latest vision. It was perfect timing for another brothers' meeting to discuss it.
Alpha Team was on call since they handled the MCAT tip line yesterday. Justin had Bravo Team working it today, knowing the Wild Bunch usually kept Sunday reserved for family time whenever possible. He did promise to call Vin if anything broke on the case.
Josiah and Nathan entered next, closely followed by Buck and JD. They removed their outerwear before finding comfortable places to sit and talked quietly among themselves as they waited for Ezra and Chris. As busy as they were with their current case and family matters, each looked forward to an hour or two to share their concerns with one another. In addition, they all wanted to stay focused on Vin's visions and what they could mean for their future.
Ezra arrived, and before anyone had an opportunity to say anything about his black eye and bruised forehead, stayed their remarks by holding up his hand and saying, "Not a word, please."
"Ah, Ez, take away all our fun." Buck quipped.
Removing his coat, Ezra glared at Wilmington. "I assure you, it has been anything but fun at our house since Maude arrived." He hung his coat by the door and then moved across the room to sit next to Josiah.
Josiah told Vin. "I stopped by your house on the way over, checked on the grill. Those briskets were coming along great."
"Yeah, Dad and Walter promised the meat would be tender and ready by two o'clock."
Chris hurried in late, apologizing for making them wait. "I stopped over at the Kerr place to have a word with Lillian and Donald and they were in a talkative mood."
"How is Cait?" Nathan asked.
Sitting down beside Vin, Chris explained. "Cait is the reason I wanted to see her parents. We saw Doctor Weeks on Friday. She wasn't happy about Cait's blood pressure and the constant swelling of her feet. Also, her blood count was off, so now, she's ordered to cut her activities to the bare minimum, must have twice a week testing, and rest a helluva lot more. I figured Lillian and Donald could keep an eye on her when I'm not home. "
"Smart idea," Buck nodded in agreement. "Inez is having a rougher go this time and I'd worry a lot more if Tia Isabella wasn't there."
JD and Vin exchanged expressive glances. Buck had no idea yet, how having a twin pregnancy was different.
Chris said, "I hear you, Buck." Gauging his brothers' demeanor as he scanned the room, he could see they expected more information from him. He decided he needed to tell them what he had done. "It's been a difficult week for me, one of my own making, I suppose. Other than worry about Cait, I set the wheels into motion a couple months back on an issue that you all should know about." He cleared his throat. "I took it upon myself to ask for Brodie's help deciphering a disk from our old Nemesis, Ice. He still has contact with some of his former associates and good or bad, I accepted their help." Apart from Vin, the astounded looks on their faces made him wince. "I know, I should have said something earlier but…damnit…I wanted to spare all of you the pain of rehashing what that bitch did."
JD asked first, "Were they successful?"
"Yes, and I'm glad I told you to stop working on it. Turns out, Ice still played games even after her death. The disk left clues to the next set of information and it took Brodie's associates halfway around the world, following one clue to the next, to finally get hard facts to give me."
Croaking out his question, Buck asked, "So you know who had Sarah killed?"
"I do and that is what kept me awake nights and out of the office last week. I wasn't sure what to do about it. Kill the SOB and lose my family and career or let Fate do the heavy lifting instead. I finally decided that my family needed me more than I needed vengeance. I told Cait about it after I made my decision and I'm telling you all now." Chris paused, "The rest of the information Ice left is dynamite in the right hands. I'm having Gunny transcribe it and will give potential international cases to Interpol and keep the domestic leads for MCAT to look into…after our current case is closed."
All the brothers accepted what Chris told them without asking for more details at this time, but the silence in the room was deafening.
Vin was anxious to get to the vision discussion. "If y'all are ready, we need to talk about my vision last night." Looking around the room he saw he had everyone's undivided attention. He went on to relate the detail and the terror he felt seeing them disappear, along with the ranch and everyone on it. "Now, I know these visions are only symbolic, but I gotta tell ya…next time the wind picks up I'm gonna pay attention."
Chris studied Vin for a few moments before speaking. "You said before that this evil is already affecting all aspects of our lives and we are tested more, right?"
"Right." Vin read Chris' thoughts and saw where he was going. "So, you think breakin' Ice's code at this time is related."
"I do, and we need to examine every name she gave us with a damn magnifying glass." Chris was sure that somewhere in all the information Ice left was at least part of an answer for Vin's warning visions. "I believe the warning you saw was for all of us. "
Josiah agreed. "We all need to be aware all of the time."
Ezra thought about Maude's timing. "I believe I will have a sit down with my mother and find out why her visit coincides with Brother Vin's increasing visions."
Buck looked at Ezra like he was nuts. "You don't think Maude is…?"
"No, of course not, but trouble follows my mother like a magnet. I will feel better when I know why she is here." Ezra made a mental note to schedule a serious talk with Maude.
Nathan was concerned about the signs of tension showing on Vin. "What you're seeing may happen tomorrow, months from now or even years. Don't let the stress of these visions drag you down, Vin."
"Together we can defeat anything," JD was certain.
Chris laid out his hand, and one on top another the others followed. He said, "We were, we are and will be forever."
Watching them don their coats, scarves, and hats, Vin felt much better after talking with his brothers. He reminded them, "See y'all at my house by two."
Chris waited until he and Vin were alone and said seriously, "I know this shit bothers you more than you're letting on. And as much as I love my daughter, I know she is your Achilles Heel. Don't let your fear of losing her or the kids cloud your sight."
"Tryin' not to, Cowboy. Aside from knowin' my brothers are in here," he laid his hand on his heart, "Kel is the only thing keepin' me grounded. I don't plan on droppin' my guard or gettin' careless. The stakes are too fuckin' high."
Chris nodded. "Let's get the hell out of here, we have family waiting."
+ + + + + + +
While they all preferred an outdoor barbecue, it would be a few weeks before that was possible. In the meantime, the Tanner home was abuzz with activity. Tia Isabella had volunteered to oversee the older children in the loft playroom, while some of the sisters gathered together with the babies' downstairs. Walter, Brodie, and Max ran everyone out of the kitchen as they finished the food. Gunny, who Max called yesterday for reinforcements, oversaw the set-up for the buffet table. Already laden with several salads, vegetables, and a steamer filled with baked potatoes, she only needed a place for a few additional side dishes. The dessert table overflowed, and Gunny was satisfied all was ready for the main course of barbecued brisket, chicken, and sausage.
Ezra parked Barbara's Lexus behind Nathan's car at the Tanners' and killed the engine. He turned his head toward the passenger seat where his mother sat. It irked him that his mother insisted that she sit in the front, instead of his wife. Barbara had quickly agreed to the seating arrangements, staving off his argument on her behalf.
"I want you to be on your best behavior." He said aloud.
"I'm sure Bianca and Pearl will be fine Ezra." Maude patted his leg as she reached for the handle on her door.
"I wasn't referring to Bianca or Pearl," Ezra told her. "I was talking to you, Mother."
"Me?" Maude exclaimed incredulously. "I've dined with fine Southern gentlemen, attended opera with French Aristocrats, and attended Cotillions held by royalty on five continents. I am quite capable of fitting in with your Wild Bunch."
"Your idea of fitting in and mine are two very different things." Ezra opened his car door and got out.
He held Barbara's door open as she unbuckled Pearl from her car seat before exiting the Lexus to stand at his side.
Bianca, was out of the backseat and opening Maude's door before the older woman could do it. The teenager held out a hand and said, "Here Grandma, let me help you."
Maude glared at her. "I am quite capable of getting out all on my own."
Ezra leaned down and shot Maude a heated look through the window, which hastened Maude to add, "but, thank you anyway."
Bianca smiled sweetly at her and moved to stand by Barbara and Ezra as they waited for Maude to join them. With a disgruntled expression on her face, Maude got out, slammed the car door, and moved to join her son's family as they headed down the walk leading to the Tanners' front door.
Barbara went one direction with Pearl, while Bianca searched for Jesse in the crowded room. Ezra's black eye received a couple of double takes from a few of the other women and he braced for concerned inquiries, but none were forthcoming. It was obvious that Barbara had spread the word to her sisters that the events of the night before were a sore subject for him. He was grateful for his wife's intervention on his behalf.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra wanted to get Maude settled somewhere out of the way. Alas, the best-laid plans…Chris almost ran into them.
"Hello Maude, good to see you again." Chris felt he needed to at least talk to the woman.
"Christopher, just the man I wanted to see." Maude smiled. "My son tells me nothing, but since you are in charge, maybe you can enlighten me."
Chris looked at Ezra, who shrugged his shoulder, then turned his attention back to Maude. "I can try. What do you need to know?"
"As you know, I try to keep up with the latest news. I saw in the morning paper that MCAT is involved in a case about finding a man the press is calling ‘The Lady Killer'. Do I need to be concerned for my safety in Denver?"
"Mother!" Ezra gave her his harshest glare, but Maude ignored him while she waited for Chris' response.
"I'm sorry Maude, but I cannot discuss an open investigation and have no control over the press." Chris felt for Ezra and added, "I can, however, assure you that you are safe." He offered her his arm. "May I escort you around and introduce you to Cait's parents?"
Maude sent Ezra a smug look, "Certainly, Sir. I would be honored."
As they walked away, Ezra felt relieved and, he owed Chris big time. He then went in search of his wife finding her in the living room talking with several of her sisters. Inez was holding Pearl, Barbara held baby Bella on her lap, and Kelli held JJ, while Cait was waiting for her opportunity to hold one of the babies. Tannis lingered close to her mom, but when she saw Ezra, she gave an excited cry and hurried over to greet him.
"Uncle Ra!" She held her arms out to him, signaling to Ezra she wanted him to pick her up.
"Hello, Pumpkin," Ezra settled her on his hip as he rounded the chair Inez was sitting in, so he could sit down on the couch next to Barbara with Tannis on his lap.
Tannis looked up at him with wide brown eyes that reminded him of Inez's. She reached up and gently touched the darkened skin under his eye, "You's got a boo-boo?"
"Yes." Ezra said solemnly.
"Me kiss it make better." Tannis stood up on Ezra's lap and first kissed his black eye, and then the band-aid covering the bump above it. "All good now."
Ezra smiled. "All good indeed."
+ + + + + + +
Across the room, Tess, Rain, and Mallory were deep in conversation about the upcoming wedding. Tess laid her hand on Mallory's and said, "I have an important question to ask you."
Mallory smiled, and said, "I'm listening."
Tess started, "If it were not for you and Josiah, I would never have met John Daniel or this wonderful family. He's already asked Buck to be his best man and Josiah has agreed to officiate. We're only planning to have one attendant each, so would you please be my matron of honor?"
"Oh Tess, are you sure? I mean you have a sister…"
"I'm sure. My mother is coming in a week early, my dad arrives on the twenty-sixth and the rest of my family can't get away until a few days before the thirty-first." Tess explained.
"Then, I would consider it a pleasure." Mallory was honored by Tess' request and felt a little emotional as well. She enfolded Tess into a big hug while she composed herself.
"Thank you, Mallory." Turning to Rain, Tess continued, "Rain, since my mother won't be here for the planning, and several of our sisters have more than enough on their plates with impending baby arrivals and a visiting mother-in-law, I was hoping you would agree to be my mom's stand-in for helping with the details."
Rain smiled, "Of course, I love weddings."
"Just one thing. The plans are secret until John Daniel and I give out the invitations." Gaining their agreement, Tess lowered her voice and shared with them what she and JD had planned.
+ + + + + + +
Jesse's eyes lit up when he saw Bianca enter the Tanner home with his Uncle Ezra and Aunt Barbara. While he would always think that she was someone special, she was no longer on his ‘possible girlfriend' list, but firmly planted in his heart and mind as family. As another person ‘adopted' into the Wild Bunch, he knew how totally overwhelming his family could be at first, and he wanted to help make the transition easier for Bianca.
He watched as Bianca scanned the room and realized she was looking for him. The moment her eyes settled on him, Jessie rose from his place on the couch and went to greet her.
"Hi." He grinned at her.
"Hi." She returned his smile with one of her own.
"You want to go hang out in the loft until Uncle Vin and Aunt Kelli announce it's time to eat?" Jesse asked her.
Jesse turned and led the way up the staircase to the second floor ‘loft' area that was designated as a playroom for his Tanner cousins. The teenagers settled in an area of the room unoccupied by any of the younger kids.
"So, how are things going?" Jesse asked Bianca.
"Good." Bianca was quiet for a moment. "Except I don't think Ezra's mom likes me very much."
"I don't think she likes anyone all that much." Jesse said honestly, "please don't tell Uncle Ezra I said that."
"I won't," Bianca promised. "Jesse…how did you get adopted by your mom and dad?"
"What do you mean?"
Bianca tried again. "What did you do to make them adopt you?"
"I didn't do anything." Puzzled by her words, Jesse thought a moment and then a light dawned. "You want Aunt Barbara and Uncle Ezra to adopt you?"
"Yes." Bianca chewed anxiously on her bottom lip. "But maybe they wouldn't want to because I'm too old."
"How old I was didn't matter to my mom and dad," Jesse told her. "That won't matter to Aunt Barbara or Uncle Ezra either. They cared enough about you to become your foster parents, and that was before you all knew one another. Now, I reckon they probably love you as much as they love Baby Pearl."
"You think so?"
"The only way you can find out for sure is by being brave enough to ask them."
"Being my friend."
"We're not friends," Jesse smiled at her, "We're family."
+ + + + + + +
When Chris left Maude with Cait's parents, she and Donald were already talking about life in the United Kingdom. Seeing Cait with Kelli, Barbara, and Inez, surrounded by babies, brought a smile to his face. He approached the group directing his comments to Ezra first.
"Ezra, are you cornering these beautiful women all to yourself?"
"Indeed, their company is most enjoyable." Ezra tilted his head to see around Larabee. "You are alone?"
Chris moved to stand behind Cait, placing his hands on her shoulders. "Yep. Grace is in the playroom, Buck and JD are harassing Gunny at the buffet table. Josiah and Nathan decided you need a break from your mother, for both your sakes and are staying close to the Kerrs in case they need reinforcements for ‘Maude-watch.' Vin is around here somewhere with the twins and Cody."
"I do appreciate the break and thank you for your earlier rescue." Ezra also gave a silent thank you to his brothers, certain they would feel his gratitude.
"Here comes Vin and the boys now." Chris noted as Cody ran across the room yelling, "Daddy!" Lifting his son into his arms, he smiled. However, his grin turned to a look of surprise when Bren and Trey, hot on Cody's heels, ran to him shouting, "Uncle Grandpa!"
Kelli frowned giving Vin a pointed look. "I thought you were gonna straighten them out on this."
When the twins started referring to her dad as ‘Uncle Grandpa' after coming home from daycare a few days earlier, they had tried to explain to them that they were only to call Chris ‘uncle', even though he was biologically their grandfather.
Vin shrugged. "I tried, but our sons are stubborn, and their mind is set on Uncle Grandpa."
Cait laughed. "I think it's cute."
Chris, now surrounded by a trio of little boys, shook his head and grinned. "I've been called a lot worse." Gathering all three close, he nodded to Bren and Trey. "Uncle Grandpa it is."
Laughing, Vin informed them. "I was just gonna ring the dinner bell." Glancing towards his wife he told her, "You stay put, I'll get our kids settled and then bring you a plate."
Vin let out a shrill whistle to gain everyone's attention. "I could make a speech." He smiled when the boo's started, "but I reckon I'll just say food's done, let's eat."
+ + + + + + +
Once everyone was full and had most of the mess cleaned up, they began to go their separate ways. Chris handed Vin one last chair to stack when Tanner's phone rang. After a brief conversation, Vin disconnected the call, sighed deeply and then told Larabee, "The bastard don't even take Sundays off. Our lady killer has struck again. He's back in Denver."
Dawn was almost breaking; accordingly, he increased his speed, wanting to reach his destination before the sun rose. Energized by his most recent hunting trip, he licked his lips in remembrance of the especially sumptuous blood he had ingested at his last feeding. His victim was young, nubile, attractive, and intoxicating. Her hysterical cries and fruitless struggles intensified his completion. A fresh kill always made him feel better and Colorado was his favorite hunting ground.
Turning his black van onto the long, winding dirt road leading up to his house, he couldn't help feeling relieved to be back at his ancestral home. He hated leaving his sanctuary for any length of time, and only did so when his need to hunt became unbearable or his need to temporarily disappear to one of his smaller lairs arose.
The usual thrill filled him as the van made the last curve in the road, and his house suddenly loomed before him. It was an enormous dark gray, three-story Gothic Revival house with multiple rooms, castle-like turrets, parapets, tracery windows, arched entries, steeply pitched roofs, and front facing gables with wrought iron accoutrements. He was particularly fond of the secret passages and spiraling staircases leading to hidden rooms.
He parked the van in front of the house. Climbing out from behind the wheel, his eyes scanned over his surroundings, breathing in the familiar scents of his territory. Before entering, he smiled as he thought about what lay beneath the surrounding frozen grounds. That was where his rejects lay, in the dirt with the worms where they belonged. He only displayed his finest trophies for others to see.
The interior was dark and dreary, and he made a mental note to remind his mother to leave a light on for him. He moved through the darkened corridors and rooms with a familiar ease, lighting oil lamps and igniting candles as he went.
He paused in the arched entryway of the cavernous living room to alert his cherished mother of his homecoming. "I have returned, Mother. If you have need of me, I'll be downstairs."
Without waiting for her reply, he continued down a winding staircase leading to his ‘workroom'. This was where he prepared his trophies and received his greatest pleasures. Eager to write down the exciting details of his latest hunt, he sat at his desk and opened his diary.
+ + + + + + +
Vin read the report Gunny slipped him. He was certain Chris hadn't seen it yet or he would have felt his reaction. Finishing a few details of paperwork first, he then stood and headed to Larabee's office, finding him also working through a stack of papers on his desk. Walking in unannounced, he sat in his usual chair, waiting for Chris to look up.
Chris sensed Vin had something important to tell him. He stopped what he was doing and leaned back in his chair. "What?"
"State Senator Richard Eastland was killed last night in a single vehicle accident." He handed the report to Chris. "You can read the details if you want, but authorities say he was DUI. Payin' for his Sins of the Past, I reckon."
Dropping the report, unread, Chris sighed, "Karma's a bitch, huh?" Closing his eyes momentarily he said, "It's over then and I can't say I'm sorry the bastard is dead or how it ended." Opening his eyes and leaning forward he was all business. "Sitrep?"
Vin knew how much heartache Eastland caused Chris and was also glad it was over for his brother. Putting his mind back on the case he told him, "Forensics' pinpointed the area the soil sample on the fibers recovered from the Texas crime scene came from. CASSIE gave us the highest probabilities of places to check into. I sent that report to Captain Cain earlier. He's organizin' a grid search as we speak to try and find a specific location. The kill early Sunday mornin' was about thirty miles south of here. Seventeen-year-old female and it was a quick strike, brutal and savage. I figure he's on his way to wherever he holds up when he's in Colorado." He stood and said, "I'm headed to the briefin' room to help sort out the leads from the tip line. You're welcome to join us unless you need some time to…"
Chris stood too, "I'm good. Let's go see if anything leads to finding that SOB."
+ + + + + + +
One lunch and three hours later, they were still at it. Buck, JD, Josiah, Chris, and Vin worked on the weekend tip sheets while the rest of Alpha Team staffed the phones.
Chris tossed the page he was reading into a pile on the center of the table. "Damn, that makes twenty-something tips from women who called in saying they think their ex-boyfriends or ex-husbands might be our perps."
Buck chuckled, "This stack is of doctors, coaches, teachers, dentists and so on, who our callers thought fit the description of our creep."
Josiah picked up another tip sheet and read, looked up and asked, "Did anyone else come across the name Lucian Satana?"
"Name sounds familiar," Vin shuffled through papers. "Yeah, woman said she met a guy at a Goth clothin' shop a few months back by that name. Said he kinda looked like the picture in the paper."
JD asked, "Ezra, wasn't that name from your notes that you gave me to add to our task force database?"
"Yes." Ezra searched his memory. "Two patrons of the Wreckroom recalled him as a semi-regular who was into vampire role-playing. To their knowledge, he stopped coming after the kill outside the club door last December."
"So, we know who he is? Why the hell are we just now hearing about this?" Chris yelled, thinking they had missed an opportunity and more young women died because of it.
Ezra remained calm. "First, we do not know he is our suspect. Second, no one in those places uses their real names." He stood, "Excuse me while I retrieve my notebooks."
"CASSIE could not find any other aliases connected to the name either." JD explained. "At best, we can only say he is a person of interest. Although, his name coming in on the tip line twice, increases the probability he could be more than that."
When the door opened Kelli and Nathan entered each carrying a large box. Vin started to jump all over Kelli for lifting the box in her condition but bit his tongue. Chris saved him from reverting from MCAT Captain to a concerned husband in the workplace.
Jumping up from his chair, Chris grabbed the box from Kelli. "What are you thinking? There's enough manpower around here so you don't have to be lifting."
Kelli rolled her eyes at him but decided not to begin an argument about overprotectiveness. Instead, she sat down, while Nathan slid his box on the table and told everyone what was inside. "More tip sheets to sort through, I'm afraid. The phones haven't stopped ringing all day."
Vin pulled the closest box in front of him, and after lifting the papers out of the container, split them up among his agents. "For now, we are lookin' for the name, Lucian Satana, full or partial. If he is our man, then more than two people might have recognized him."
As each agent flipped through the papers, Ezra re-entered the room and announced, "I found the name of the woman who thought she knew Lucian. Senna Graves aka Cyndi Porter. I remembered she gave me her card with her work number in case I wanted to, uh...connect with her outside of the Goth world. I called her and asked for her description of the man she knew as Lucian. She informed me he looked a lot like the composite drawing of the man in the paper."
"Good work, Ezra. Reckon those club dates are payin' off after all." Vin smiled as he said it.
Buck hollered, "Found another one!"
The excitement level in the room grew as Lucian's name appeared twice more.
Vin pushed the stack of papers in front of him over to Chris and then stood. "Okay, I'd say it is no coincidence Satana's name, real or not, showed up five times through tips, so far, and a couple more at the clubs. JD, have CASSIE search more on his name or any variations of it. The rest of y'all keep diggin' on these tips. I'm gonna call MCAT San Antonio and see if we can connect him to the clubs in Texas." Vin left the room, returning to his office to make that call.
+ + + + + + +
Talking with Agent Emma Shannon, Tanner received an update on Charlie Team's search around Helena, a ghost town near the San Antonio River in Karnes County, Texas. Also, he now could connect Lucian Satana to a club named 1313 in San Antonio. He was even able to speak directly to Agent Louise McCloud, who went undercover in two Goth clubs in the area. She remembered the conversation about Lucian, with a girl named Lucia Hades aka Lucy Stanley. Said Lucia told her she had a secret crush on Vampire Lucian. Vin thanked her and slowly hung up the phone, thinking they might have their man. Now if they could only figure out who the hell he really was.
+ + + + + + +
Six A.M. was not their regular starting time, but since a vampire sicko started killing in their own backyard, nothing was normal. Captain Sam Cain stood at the front of the conference room, watching as his MCAT agents arrived. He smiled at Emma as she swept into the room, with Agents Cody, Hickok, and Dixon directly behind her. Cross and McSwain were next and bringing up the rear were Kidd and McCloud. As soon as everyone sat down, he began the meeting.
"First off. I l know it's way too early for some of you, but we have a long day ahead of us." A map of San Antonio and the surrounding areas popped up on the digital screen with one swipe of Cain's tablet. "Let's get to it then. The MCAT forensics team identified a unique mineral compound containing black alkaline, clay loam, and limestone from miniscule soil samples found on our last victim here in San Antonio. We have narrowed down the possible sites of this mixture to a small area along the river here." He pointed to a place on the map. Helena, a ghost town near the San Antonio River in Karnes County, Texas. "With the exceptions of Agents Shannon, Kidd, and McCloud, our unit will meet officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, volunteers from both the San Antonio Police Department and Company ‘D' of the Texas Rangers, along with a K-9 Unit there by seven o'clock. Let's get a move on."
Agents scrambled out of the room, but before Sam made the door, Emma, Lou, and Kidd waylaid him.
Emma spoke for them all. "Why are we stayin' behind?"
Sam sighed, expecting this protest. "Lou and Kidd were workin' undercover at Club Haven until after two. With less than three hours sleep neither of you belong in the field." He then addressed Emma. "I need you here to coordinate information from our search to the Colorado MCAT office." Gruffier than he intended he followed up with the most significant reason. "Most importantly, until I am no longer y'all's Captain, I don't need to explain my orders. Do NOT question any decisions I make again." With that remark he hurried out the door, first picking up copies of the search area from Rachel and leaving her instructions for later. Then he was out the door and headed for his truck to catch up with the rest of his team.
+ + + + + + +
When attempting to locate evidence, an investigator must be methodical. Grid search patterns are especially effective when searching large areas, such as fields or other vast pieces of land. Each grid block is assigned a number or letter. Investigators will begin in one direction, then search from another direction, crossing over some of the areas already searched.
Sam conferred with the commanders for each of the other groups who were on the task force with Charlie Team. Captains Tyler ~Texas Rangers, Reynolds ~DSP ~state police, and Mendez ~SAPD each took copies of maps for the areas that they were responsible for searching. Captain Cain then stood on the bumper of his truck and spoke to everyone. "Forensics' tells us our victim was murdered within a three-mile stretch of land from here to the river. I want anythin' we can find to prove that or find evidence connectin' her death to our killer. Your Captains will make their assignments and we will meet here at noon for a short lunch break and to assess our next sector if necessary. Keep plenty of water on you and pay attention to what you're doin'. This terrain is rough, and we don't need anyone sustainin' any injuries."
Jumping down from the bumper Sam huddled with his team, showing them which section, they'd be taking. "Stretch out in a line with no more than two feet between y'all and head towards the river. Any questions?" Seeing they had none he said, "Let's get started."
Cody chose a spot beside Sam and as they moved forward he talked about the area. "Did you know Helena was named after the wife of Lewis Owings who founded it? And that he went on to become the first Governor of the Arizona territory?"
Sam grunted an answer, "No."
Turning over a rock, Cody continued talking. "Yep, and Helena once held great promise. It was the first county seat of Karnes County situated on the San Antonio River and the Chihuahua Trail guaranteed it would become a major city. But according to history the demise of Helena traced back to one man, a rancher whose son was shot and killed. He demanded revenge and when he couldn't find the individual responsible, he instead swore to kill the whole town. When the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway came through the area, the rancher practically gave the railroad their right-of-way, resulting in the death of the town."
Stopping, Sam turned to Cody and said, "Cody, while I appreciate the history lesson, this is not the time or place for it. So, shut the hell up and focus your attention on findin' the evidence we need to catch our killer."
Cody obediently fell silent and Sam refocused his attention on the task at hand. The following few hours passed slowly and proved unproductive. At noon everyone gathered at the command post to eat the sandwiches and fruit Rachel arranged to have delivered. Once lunch finished, Sam conferred with the other Captains. Deciding to move on to the next sector each man vowed not to quit until they found something.
Repeating their earlier patterns, Sam and his team continued their search through a small copse of trees, fighting the overgrown shrubbery and hilly countryside. With every step they took, each became more frustrated at how fruitless their search had been up to this point.
Pushing aside a low hanging branch, Sam stepped out from under the last tree and came to an abrupt halt. At about 300 yards from his location, there stood a dilapidated old barn. Captain Cain held up a hand, signaling his agents to stop, and then crouched down.
Cody, Hickok, and the other Charlie Team members quickly gathered around. "Looks like we just might have something. From this distance, it appears to only have one entrance, but we won't know for certain ‘til we've checked it out. Hickok and McSwain, y'all approach on the east side. Cross, Dixon, y'all do the same on the west side. Cody and I will take the front. Be ready for anythin' and watch for potential booby traps."
Slowly, and cautiously they made their approach to the ramshackle barn. When they were about a hundred yards away, the six men broke into the previously arranged teams of two to carry out Cain's instructions.
Once assured his other agents had both sides covered, Cody and Sam, with their guns drawn, made entry through the busted up front doors. Sam went to the left, while Cody took the right, as they quickly scanned the dusty, cobweb strewn interior of the old barn. At first glance, it seemed to be just what it looked like from the outside; an abandoned old barn. Cain knew that appearances were deceiving, and his gut was telling him that there was something more to this place than what they could see with the naked eye. His team would not leave until he was certain they had searched it thoroughly.
Sam gave a shrill whistle, signaling the all clear for the rest of Charlie Team to join him and Cody inside.
Sam asked, "Y'all find anythin' out there?"
Dixon nodded. "A couple of animal traps, not rusted, so they haven't been there very long."
"Same on our side," Hickok told him, "along with a snare trap."
This new Intel made Sam even more convinced that his gut was right. He ordered, "Search every inch of this damn place."
The six MCAT agents tore the place apart. Sifting through the piles of detritus, they used two ancient rakes and a rusty shovel found hanging on one of the walls, to remove dead animal carcasses, moldy hay, splintered wood, and broken glass from the floors.
Cody stopped shoveling and yelled. "Captain, you need to see this."
Sam hurried over to the back corner of the barn where Cody was crouched over something in the floor. He felt adrenaline flood through him as he saw what his agent had discovered. There was a trap door in the floor. As his men gathered close, Sam reached out and grabbed hold of the handle. Cautiously he tugged on it, surprised at how easily it opened, despite how ancient it appeared.
Sam pointed his flashlight downward and saw its beam cross over a set of wooden steps leading down. He tested the top step to see if it would hold his weight, before setting both boots onto it.
"Y'all stay here." Sam ordered his team, while he used the hidden stairs to descend warily into the unknown.
The five agents above waited anxiously for their Captain to either yell out or reappear.
Sam's first indication that something was not right, was when his nose caught the pungent and slightly sweet smell of decaying flesh. He tightened his grip on his gun, as he reached the last step. Panning his flashlight around, Sam felt trepidation fill him as he surveyed his surroundings. It did not take him long to realize that he was in an old cellar or cold pit. It was no bigger than a 12x20 storage unit, with cement walls and wood flooring. Once used to keep food cold, the place was now being used for far more sinister purposes.
Arterial sprays of now dried blood covered the walls, and a quick flick of his flashlight, showed a blood splattered floor. On the wall to his right hung a collection of saws, axes, bats, kindjals, and shears. They, too, were covered in dried blood and bits of things Sam didn't want to think too much about.
In the center of the room sat a metal examining table. At the head and foot of it, two iron posts like the ones used in fencing, fastened with their ends drilled into the floor to hold them in place. Makeshift bindings of leather and metal attached to each post, could keep a person strapped there for hours. Next to it stood a small table, its top covered with a collection of ice picks, nail files, scissors, and knives.
When the beam of his flashlight swept across the back part of the room, Sam caught sight of iron bars. He cautiously approached the area and saw that the bars were part of two small cages. Sam gagged and felt bile rise swiftly within him as his flashlight's beam played across the two decaying bodies within.
Fighting to keep from throwing up, Sam made his way quickly back to the staircase. He hastened his ascent to his men, who waited anxiously for him. A couple of deep breaths later, Sam felt confident he could speak without spewing his lunch all over his team.
"We're gonna need forensics and the State Medical Examiner here asap." Sam used his phone to make those calls and notify the other Captains of their discovery.
+ + + + + + +
It took several hours to sort through the hell found in the hidden room. Sam was convinced they had found their killer's Texas lair. He called Emma and had her begin a search of property records to find out who owned the land. While they waited for results and forensics to finish, Sam and his men read through a pile of handwritten notes found stashed in a small box hidden inside a cabinet next to the examining table. So far, the papers had given them detailed accounts of kills dating as far back as fifteen years.
"Oh hell." Sam muttered. "Accordin' to this entry, there are bodies buried on the property. "Hickok, notify the K-9 units and have them start workin' their cadaver dogs."
Grabbing his phone when it rang, Sam listened as Emma gave him information on the property owner. Disconnecting the call from her, he made another call. This one was to Denver.
When Captain Tanner answered, Sam told him, "I hope your sittin' down. I'm standin' over a hellacious abyss and have plenty to tell you."
Captain Tanner ended his call with Captain Cain. A name, Traian Vladimir the third... Was this man responsible for the deaths of so many young women? Vin began making a mental list of things to do. Leaving his office, he motioned for Captain Michaels to join him. Stopping at Gunny's desk, he told her to expect emails from Captain Cain and to get copies of them to Josiah asap. He also asked her to set up a meeting in the War Room with both teams within the hour. Detouring to the com center he gave JD a name to feed into CASSIE, before entering Commander Larabee's office. Justin followed.
Chris knew from the thoughts he was picking up from Vin that something big transpired. When he saw his Captains together, he knew their day just got longer. Waiting as patiently as he was capable of, he let Tanner lead the discussion.
Vin didn't waste any time. As soon as they sat down, he began, "Just talked to Sam Cain. About an hour ago Charlie Team made entry into an old structure they came across durin' their search. Not only did they find the murder site, they found the place that SOB was usin' as a lair in Texas. The property belongs to a man named Traian Vladimir the third. They found two deceased inside and are already findin' bodies buried on the grounds. Notes Sam found in his torture room will give us some insight into our perp, and he's e-mailin' ‘em over now. I told Gunny to get ‘em to Josiah when they came in, then stopped to give JD the name, so CASSIE can do her magic. Also asked Gunny to set up a joint meetin' in MTAC within the hour."
Justin nodded and asked, "Want me to make calls to the State Police in New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma?"
"Since we know our perp killed in those states, yes." Picking up his pen, Chris made a list of names. "Talk to these men only. They will get a start on searching state property records and organizing their manpower. Tell them you'll update them as we know more."
"On it." Justin took the list and rushed to his office to make the calls.
"Let's hope this is the break that'll lead us to nailing the bastard." Chris took a deep breath. "Can't say I'll be sorry to see the backside of this one."
"Me neither." Vin stood to leave. "Reckon we got a Manhunt to organize. Best get started."
+ + + + + + +
Alpha and Bravo Teams, along with Detective Lou Masterson, assembled in MTAC or the War Room as they called it. They immediately felt the change of mood in the room, different from previous Task Force meetings. The fact their Commander was seated in front instead of one of their Captains alerted them to the seriousness of whatever they were about to hear. Larabee now had their full attention.
Chris stood before them. "I know it's already late, but due to events that unfolded earlier this afternoon, our workday just got longer. MCAT Charlie Team in their search for evidence in Helena, Texas came upon an old barn, which once entered, led them to the Texas lair of our unsub. Unfortunately, they also found several deceased bodies on the property. We're now working on the evidence they retrieved there to identify our unsub and have good reason to believe he is back in Colorado." Larabee turned to the left. "JD, you have anything for us?"
JD nodded and passed a document, which was a death certificate, to Vin to hand to Chris. "Traian Vladimir the third is the recorded owner of the property in Helena, Texas, but he is not our unsub. He died a brutal death under mysterious circumstances fifteen years ago and was survived by his mother Allyssa and a younger brother, Soren Vladimir." He swiped his tablet to show two photos on the digital caseboard. "As you can see, Soren is a dead ringer for the composite we've been circulating to the press for our sicko…uh…unsub. There are no properties in Colorado in his name, but we do have two listed under the deceased brother's." he swiped again to show addresses and property descriptions.
Chris looked at Captain Michaels. "Justin?"
"I've been talking to State Police in the three other states we've recorded deaths from this killer." Justin flipped a sheet on his notepad. "Oklahoma and Kansas authorities have already found a property under Traian's name and are sending units and cadaver dogs to those locations. I'm still waiting for an update from New Mexico."
Josiah looked at Chris who nodded and began. "That brings us to the information we've been reviewing in the handwritten notes found in his Texas lair. In his own hand, Soren detailed his kills, beginning with his brother. That I believe was his first murder, his mother's disappearance followed closely after. From there he began to develop his fascination with blood and his quest for immortality, which evolved into his vampire beliefs. His early kills were many, and he used trial and error as a guide. About five years ago, he had perfected his methods enough to begin exhibiting his ‘trophies' as he called them, which were found showing a ritualistic display. I still have a lot to scrutinize, but suffice to say, an unknown stressor occurred in December, which caused him to begin a downward spiral, resulting in him making reckless kills."
Chris was ready to go after Soren Vladimir. "JD, I want detailed maps of those properties. Bones, bring in whatever help you will need to identify the bodies we expect to find. Tanner, you get our warrants, Justin reach out to your contacts with Colorado State Police and DPD. Get us some added manpower and cadaver dogs. Buck, you, and Alex breakout the new equipment Travis gave us. We're going to break down some doors. The rest of you, call your families and tell them you won't be home anytime soon. Prepare your gear and inspect your weapons." Placing both hands on the table and leaning forward, Chris' eyes darkened, with resolve. His message was strong and clear. "Soren Vladimir is a serial killer. I don't care what he thinks he is or why he does it. Let's end this bastard's reign of terror. Dismissed."
+ + + + + + +
It was after three a.m. before they had warrants in hand, equipment loaded, vests on, plans set, local PDs notified, medical units on standby, and teams ready to go. A convoy of trucks, SUV's, and utility vehicles headed east on Interstate 70. Larabee and Tanner took the lead, and both had concerns. Chris made sure Donald and Lillian could stay with Cait, which eased a load off his mind. Vin sent Kelli home and for once she admitted how tired she was after an eighteen-hour day and did not argue. As always, they worried about their teammates. Even with all their experience, training and precautions, anything could go wrong at any time, putting one or more of them in peril.
When they reached the cutoff for 79, Alpha Team continued, while Bravo Unit's vehicles, one utility truck, and a K-9 unit, followed by a DPD Swat Team, veered off and proceeded to the first target. According to the map, they had eight miles to travel to a five-acre property with two structures, a house, and a barn. A solitary dirt road led up to the farm.
Pulling over, Captain Michaels brought his vehicle to a halt. He climbed out from behind the wheel and waited until everyone else gathered close. "The property is a mile up this dirt road. We'll make a stealth approach with no lights or sirens. We don't want to spook our perp if he's there. Everyone clear on what their job is once we arrive?"
His only answer was the anticipatory readiness of the men gathered around him. "Okay, let's go, Lou, with me. Alex, take point with the Tactical Utility Vehicle."
"Yes, Sir," Sandoval called out as they all returned to their assigned vehicles.
Once the TUV, with Alex at the wheel, rolled past him, Justin pulled in behind him. The other vehicles fell in line as they made the turn onto the dirt road. Each man's focus was on the task at hand and making sure they carried out their individual assignments so that they all lived on to fight another day.
As the farmhouse loomed before them, the vehicles branched out on either side of the TUV. Once they entered the frozen yard surrounding the small one-story home, all the vehicles, except the TUV, came to a halt. As Captain Michaels and the other men exited theirs and positioned themselves, Alex swept past the small front porch. Maneuvering the TUV so the rear of the truck with its attached battering ram was in the position to do its job at his command.
The DPD SWAT unit accompanying Bravo Team broke off into two smaller groups and began to circle the house. Agents Saunders and Cordova went with them, while Brad Garrison, Russell Miles, and Mark Westin gathered near their captain.
Justin pulled out his cell phone and dialed Larabee's number. When Chris answered he said, "Commander, we're in position."
"Proceed as planned," Chris commanded.
"Yes, Sir." Justin hung up his cell phone and turned to his men. "Let's do this."
Quietly the men moved onto the porch. Justin pounded on the door and yelled, "Federal Agents, open up!" At the same time, he signaled for Alex to breach.
Alex simultaneously hit the operating mechanism to the battering ram as he pressed on the gas, making the TUV lurch backward. With a resounding ‘Boom' the ram connected with the front door and splintered it off its door frame. It went flying back to land with a heavy ‘thud' just inside the entryway. He pulled forward twenty feet and killed the ignition. Jumping out of the driver's seat he fell into place behind Westin as they followed their Captain into the house.
They moved through the interior together, clearing seven rooms and a cellar, swiftly and efficiently. Justin radioed Saunders to take his group to search the barn and outlying structures, while Cordova and his unit set the cadaver dogs free to canvas the frozen ground for any signs of buried bodies. The rest of the team tore the interior of the farmhouse apart, looking for any signs of Vladimir or evidence of his crimes.
Within the hour, Captain Michaels reported back to Commander Larabee. He was releasing the SWAT Team and there were no visual signs that their killer ever frequented the farm. Also, the cadaver dogs were unable to discover any bodies buried on the property.
+ + + + + + +
Once Bravo Unit and their entourage broke off, Chris' group continued driving east on 70. They still had forty-five-minutes before reaching their targeted destination. Thankfully there was no moon tonight and the chances of them getting close enough without detection was good.
Twenty minutes in, Chris got a call. "Larabee," he answered, and then listened for a moment before saying, "proceed as planned."
Vin overheard and commented. "Maybe they'll find the bastard, then we can go home."
"We can dream."
Reaching the turnoff to a dirt road twenty-five minutes later, Chris drove a half-mile, cutting his headlights before pulling over. Those following him did the same. Gathering behind his Ram, they unfolded the map, huddled, and using one flashlight reviewed the layout of the property.
Chris went over their positions. "K-9 units stay back until after we clear the house. Buck, you'll take point with the TUV. DPD SWAT will cover the perimeter. We'll breach as soon as Buck pops the door. Josiah, JD to the left, Nathan, and I to the right. Sergeant Perez, your men will follow Captain Tanner and Agents Wilmington and Standish inside to rush the second floor. Any questions?" He waited, looking from man to man until he was satisfied they were clear about their responsibilities. "From here on out we go dark, we'll move as soon as I hear back from Captain Michaels."
Fifteen minutes later Justin called. Bravo Team cleared their target, finding nothing and were en route to Alpha Team's location. They would not arrive in time for the initial breach but would be helping with the clean-up.
Addressing the men around him, Commander Larabee told them, "We're a go."
The TUV moved out with Buck on point. Making their way up the winding road leading to the house on the hill. When they were close, the Swat Team stopped their vehicles, exited, and then broke into two units. Silently they moved into position around the perimeter.
An old dark gray, ill-kept, three-story structure of Gothic architecture, came into view. Buck at the wheel of the TUV, moved into position to breach. Chris gathered the rest of Alpha Team, taking shelter from the biting north wind behind a black van sitting in front of the house. Perez held his men on the other side of the TUV. Some among them doubted they were going to find Soren, but for the brethren, they could already feel the blistering evil radiating from inside.
Vin closed his eyes, reaching out to each of his brothers. A warm whish of air swirled around them as a feeling of strength, seven strong, rushed through them, electrifying energy flowing around each as they drew on the ancient gifts, passed down by their ancestors, to enter the darkness, exhume the evil within, and abolish it.
A collective impulse racing to him from the others set Buck into motion. With guns drawn Chris banged on the door yelling, "Federal Agents," moments before the battering ram cleared the entrance for them to rush inside. Josiah and JD turned left into the dark interior, illuminated only by candlelight. Quickly clearing one room, then moving on to the living area, lit only by an eerie glow from the fireplace.
A rocking chair by the hearth drew their attention, not for its décor, but for the mummified body, it cradled.
"Jesus, who do you think that was?" JD scowled.
Josiah surmised, "My guess, the missing mother."
JD shuddered at the thought. "That's a whole ‘nother, Norman Bates level of creepy in my book." The duo moved on to the next room.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Nathan turned right, quickly clearing three rooms, before retracing their steps. Locating a locked door, Nathan kicked it in, revealing a spiral staircase leading downward.
Larabee took point as he and Nathan cautiously descended into the unknown abyss. Nothing but eerie silence and darkness met them when they reached the subterranean floor below. Chris and Nathan moved together off the stairs, their flashlight beams panning into the blackness of the underground area.
They were in a closed, dead-end space both found bizarre, given the enormity of the house above them. But as they flashed their lights around, they took in the natural stone foundation on two sides. Directly to the left was a wall of sheetrock, attached to another across from them. There was a carved door frame in this wall, and they could make out an open metal padlock hanging on a latch a few inches above the doorknob.
In silence, and cautiously approaching the door, Chris pressed himself into the corner closest to the knob. Nathan positioned himself on the other side. Chris nodded, signaling go. Nathan jerked the door open. Larabee moved to cover the dark interior with his raised weapon.
Eerie silence welcomed them, and then they heard several dissimilar sounds in the near distance. The ‘whoosh' of billowing cloth, the scuffle of a hard-soled shoe against the floor, the creak of a door opening, and soft moaning.
Chris cleared the doorway with Nathan behind him, their flashlights revealed a macabre scene before them. Arterial sprays of fresh and dried blood covered stone walls. Torture tools of every shape and size hung from the walls with more scattered across a makeshift stand. Strapped to a metal examining table in the center of the room was the body of a young woman.
Nathan moved to her side as Chris made sure no one else was in the room. Larabee joined Jackson as he examined the condition of the woman on the table. Both men could see multiple lacerations on her arms and legs. There were also several puncture wounds that resembled human teeth marks.
At Chris' questioning gaze, Nathan said, "Her pulse is weak, her heart rate rapid, she's lost a lot of blood due to the multiple cuts, and she's going into Hypovolemic Shock. We've got to get her out of here asap!"
Speaking into his com-mic, Chris alerted the ambulance on standby to move in closer.
The young woman stirred and opened her eyes startling both MCAT agents. She gazed up at them with glassy eyes and opened her mouth as if to scream, but Jackson hastened to assure her that they were harmless. "We're Federal Agents. You're safe now."
"He hurt me."
Spoken in a whisper, the fact she was speaking at all, gave Larabee hope that she was cognitive enough to answer a question or two. "Do you know where he is?"
The young woman slowly, as if it took all her energy to do so, tilted her head upward and to the left. Chris shined his flashlight in the direction she indicated and saw something askew.
Leaving Nathan to attend to the young woman's wounds as best he could, Chris walked over to the far wall and found what appeared to be an edge. Slipping his fingers underneath it, he gave it a tug. It surprisingly opened a hidden door leading to a secret entrance. Beyond that was a dark passageway.
"Nathan, get her outside. I'm going after Vladimir." Chris gave the order, disappearing into the mysterious opening.
"Chris, no!" Jackson shouted after his brother, but his words fell on deaf ears.
+ + + + + + +
Soren raced through familiar passages, cursing the intruders, who arrogantly entered his beloved home. *How dare they interrupt me before my sacred rite was completed? Before I drank my fill of the delicious life-sustaining nectar from my young, fresh donor? Damn them to hell, for their invasion of my sanctuary! For now, I must flee, but they will pay for what they've done! *
Making his way from one hidden area to another, a sinister idea formed in his mind. His home was his refuge, paid for with the life's blood of his sibling. No one had the right to destroy it…except him. Passing an alcove where unlit torches lay waiting, he snatched one and struck a match. *I will live to kill again, today the men who hunt me will die fiery deaths.*
He touched the blazing end of the torch to a wall and watched in avid fascination as the flickering flames ignited a pea-sized tear, which quickly grew into a much larger hole. Then he was on the move again, winding his way through the twisting maze of passageways, touching the torch to multiple walls and floorboards as he passed them.
Soren busted through another of the hidden doors. Emerging into the dark interior of the second floor, he tossed the lit torch behind him, then sealed the entryway. He listened quietly for a moment, hearing boots approaching from the grand staircase. His fury of the invasion of his home, intensified.
He fled down the hallway away from the intruders, turning sharply right into a tiny alcove, where another hidden doorway was located. He barely managed to slip into the small passageway and seal the door behind him, before the voices of his enemies reached his ears. He turned and fled up the secreted staircase and out onto the roof, waiting for the moment when he would make his escape.
+ + + + + + +
After jumping out of the TUV, Buck joined Vin and Ezra, leading several DPD officers up the staircase to the second floor. Clearing ten rooms didn't take long. With the staircase to the third floor beckoning an invitation to the darkness above, a decision was necessary. Making a silent assessment among the three of them, Vin, Buck, and Ezra, opted to take on whatever was up there themselves, sending the DPD officers back down. The trio began their ascent. In contrast to the bitter cold outside it was becoming warmer inside, hotter still, when they reached the top of the staircase.
The quarters were smaller here, and it appeared they had been unoccupied for years. Swiftly moving through the rooms, they found nothing, but the feeling of evil was present. Upon closer inspection, the size of the rooms did not match the area beneath them on the second floor.
Buck ran his hands along the walls of the room furthest from the stairs. "I think there's space behind here."
"Older homes often have hidden gaps or passageways throughout," Vin said as he began looking for other signs.
Ezra discovered what appeared to be the outline of a door. "Gentlemen, may I draw your attention to the suspicious marking on this wall?" He picked up an old piece of broken glass, trying to pry the wooden boards apart.
"Stop!" Vin yelled when he noticed wisps of smoke curling upwards from the baseboards. Laying the palm of his hand low against the area above the floor, he felt heat, hotter than hell heat, and that meant one thing. "Fuck, there's a fire inside these walls. We need to get the hell out of here!"
Hastening down the hallway to the stairs, walls behind them began imploding. Three brothers were trying to outrun the flames breaking through and spreading rapidly. Ezra hurried down, Vin, and then Buck right on his heels. Almost reaching the second set of stairs to the first floor, their world came crashing down as the blazing floor from above collapsed.
+ + + + + + +
Sensing danger for their bothers, Josiah and JD raced up the stairs, while Nathan, turning his patient over to EMS, sensed the same and ran back inside.
Dazed, Ezra was the first to move, groaning as he did so. Rising to his knees, he tried to stay low as thick smoke drifted around him. Managing a few words, he mumbled, "Vin, Buck, where are y'all?"
Next to him, Vin roused and began the painful process of moving. "Here." Following the reverberation of Ezra's voice, he found him and asked, "Where's Buck?" The only sounds they heard were the crackling flames licking the walls around them.
"Buck! Answer damnit!" Vin forced himself to crawl closer to the fire, an aura of energy unexpectedly surrounded them, keeping the flames at bay. Then he saw Buck's still body lying under a smoldering rafter. Images of another fire, which bypassed him, leaving him wounded but alive, flashed before him. He was then certain they would all make it out of this inferno. "Ez, help me with this." Vin was trying to move the beam off Buck.
Ezra saw what Vin was doing and joined the effort, both men struggling to lift the heavy piece of timber off their fallen brother. Suddenly, it was gone, replaced by Josiah and Nathan, who along with JD, were now trying to get Buck on his feet.
When Buck groaned, JD started talking, trying to keep the larger man awake. "Buck, I swear if you die on me and miss my wedding, you'll have hell to pay."
A muttering Buck answered, "Not…gonna…miss….it."
Leaning on one another, six brothers, none too concerned about the raging fire, made their way down the staircase to the front entrance. Their only regret was in not finding Soren Vladimir.
"Wait," Nathan stopped. "Chris was downstairs, and he didn't make it outside."
"Take them out Nathan, I'll go find Chris." Josiah started to go alone but found that wasn't happening when five others moved with him.
"All for one and one for all, Brother," Ezra recited a line from the Musketeer movie, earning a couple of chuckles from his brothers.
"Right you are Ezra, and I stand corrected." Josiah wrapped his arm around him and said, "Let's find our wayward brother and get the hell out of here."
*Chris? Where the hell are you? *
+ + + + + + +
Chris ignored Nathan's shout to not go it alone, hell-bent on making sure Vladimir didn't slip away. He maneuvered his way slowly through the narrow, twisting passageway, cautiously moving around corners, expecting at any moment to come face to face with Vladimir. Taking a dozen steps inside, he rounded a corner and saw to his surprise that it broke up into forked directions.
The passageway had now become a maze of dark corridors and he pondered how wise it was for him to continue after Vladimir. Images of the countless bodies of this psycho's victims flashed before his eyes and that was all it took for him to start down the right path.
Minutes later he was cursing his decision. He couldn't recall how many turns he made that came to dead-ends, causing him to retrace his steps until he was back in the corridor where he began. Sweat was pouring off him and it was becoming harder for him to breathe, to which he blamed initially on poor ventilation until he caught a whiff of smoke. Rounding the next corner, he came face to face with an inferno.
Coughing and choking with dark smoke curling in front of him, Chris whirled around and hurried back down the passage the way he'd come. He could feel the blistering heat of the fire behind him growing closer, as flames licked hungrily along the wooden walls, ceiling, and floor. He forgot about Vladimir and instead focused on finding a way out.
He began banging and kicking at every wall he could, searching for another hidden door or opening that would free him from this hellish maze and prevent his fiery demise. He was choking and coughing when he heard an anxious Texan's voice in his head.
*Chris? Where the hell are you? *
*Inside a maze within the walls. Fire's on my tail! *
*Hang on, we're comin' for you! *
Chris felt a rush of energy surround him, keeping the fire at bay, and making it easier for him to breathe. He heard what sounded like splintering wood, before unseen hands shoved him from behind, sending him crashing through a wall, and onto a hard floor.
Coughing and choking as he lay on the floor, he caught a glimpse of a black cowboy hat in his peripheral vision. Six men appeared out of nowhere. Vin and Nathan hauled him to his feet and together seven brothers fled the fiery inferno.
+ + + + + + +
MCAT vehicles, an ambulance, two fire trucks, a TUV and a local sheriff's car, all with lights flashing, now covered the snow-laden lawn. Heavy equipment, needed to cut through the frozen ground to dig for bodies, would arrive after first light. Volunteer firefighters sprayed water around the house to keep the fire contained. They had no hope of saving the structure.
Captain Justin Michaels was having a hell of a time keeping his agents from storming inside to search for Alpha Team. At this point, there were flames escaping every floor and window of the house. All they could do was pray for their teammates.
Moments before the flames fully engulfed the house, they saw the outlines of seven men emerging through the shattered remains of the front door. They were soot covered, a bit battered and obviously fatigued, but they were alive. Not one suffered any visible burns. Rushing towards them with blankets, Justin, Raphael, Alex, Russell, Guy, Mark, and Brad were the first to reach the seven. Shouldering the load of the injured, allowing the rest to breathe easier, they helped them walk a safe distance from the burning house to lay on the clean snow. EMS personnel gathered beside them to evaluate their conditions.
While lying there catching their breath, JD pointed to the roof. "Look, that's our Vampire guy isn't it?"
It was thirty minutes before sunrise and at the highest point of the old Gothic structure, Soren Vladimir insanely danced on the wrought iron rail enclosing a Widow's Walk atop of the house. Having destroyed his ancestral home, he prepared to leave and begin anew. With flames licking at the arched roof surrounding him and wearing a cloaked hooded robe, his arms stretched toward the sky. He was shouting for the whole world to hear. "The blood of the living dead flows through my veins! I will reign forever! I am immortal! You cannot kill me! I will fly away and return to kill again!"
A blazing firestorm consumed everything around him. With his final words, he bounded off the railing, flames eating hungrily at his cloak. His confidence in his immortality gifted him with the belief that he would soar through the air and make his escape.
Instead of flying away, onlookers below watched as the sick evil man plummeted to the frozen ground. When the flames abated, Buck stood on shaky limbs and walked to the burned body, toeing it with his boot. Turning towards his teammates he said, "Dead as a doornail. Guess he wasn't a Vampire after all."
Vin's personal journal:
Damn, it's been a long two weeks. Took Vladimir less than a minute to die and we've been cleaning up after him ever since. Bones still has a few bodies to identify, but our part is done. Lou Masterson returned to DPD, only sorry he wasn't there to Witness Vladimir's demise. Friday we finally put all the paperwork behind us. We marked the case closed with a tally of forty-six kills, spanning fifteen years that we can connect to that bastard. I say good riddance to him and January, and hello February.
The past few years our work keeps getting darker and spreads into our lives, beyond just protecting the innocent and saving lives. No telling when it's coming or what our next major case will entail. I just know there will be another grueling one that will test our limits and threaten our existence as MCAT agents and men …always is.
Since its Saturday, and we have free time again, my brothers and I are meeting at Camp Larabee this morning. Our Legacy meetings as Josiah calls them, have strengthened our bonds and each of us speak freely. We share our concerns with one another, which aids in reducing the stress in our lives. Chris and Buck will stop by to pick me up on their way. We do need to talk about what happened during the fire at Vladimir's house. We easily came together to beat the odds of dying that day. It was an awesome stepping stone for us, and our Legacy.
No new visions lately, but I don't think just because we found our serial killer they've ended. Whatever my visions stand for, it's something bigger than one killer. I reckon Vladimir was a forewarning of the evil looming on the horizon, but I'm sure he wasn't the ominous threat coming into our lives.
On the home front, lots going on. Josiah received word that Hannah is doing much better on her new meds. Wedding plans are keeping a few of our women busy, and I think Rain even roped Nathan into the hoopla. I'm glad JD and Tess found each other, both deserve the future they're building with their kids.
Cait's blood work came back and Doctor Weeks ordered her to bedrest for ten days, minimum. The next report had a little better news, but it's still a wait and see what happens game. Chris is more worried about her than he lets on. Inez is having a rough start with the twins too. Buck tries to stay cool, but if Tia Isabella wasn't around he'd be a basket case. Kel is feeling good. Our baby journal is more up to date than my own, and my wife is getting bigger every day, but… I'd never say that to her. I believe her working is tougher on me than her because I'm finding it harder to separate Captain Tanner and concerned husband Vin. By the time May rolls around I'll be right there with Buck in the same basket.
Max is off for the weekend, Dad has the twins, Jason is at Caleb's, and Andi spent the night with JoAnn, so our home is quiet. Time for me to track down my wife and catch a few minutes of ‘us' time before Chris and Buck show up.
+ + + + + + +
Vin found Kelli in the kitchen, making a cup of hot apple cider. Wrapping his arms around her from behind, he leaned down to nuzzle her neck. "Mornin', Baby," he whispered as he smoothed his hands over ‘their' baby bump.
"Hmmm, mornin' yourself," she leaned back, enjoying the feel of his body. "It's not often we have the house to ourselves. Too bad you're gonna leave soon."
Swiftly turning her around in his embrace, he grinned. "I'm here now." Before Kelli had a chance to answer he lowered his head and locked her into a deep, passionate, take your breath away kiss. It only took a moment for them to lose all conscious thoughts about the world around them. Male laughter from behind them finally penetrated their display of lust.
"Hey Chris, you think we ought to let them know they aren't alone?" Buck thoroughly enjoyed teasing them.
Chris laughed. "I think they know and don't care."
Vin loosened his hold on his wife and grumbled, "Damn shame when a man gets no privacy in his own home." With her head buried against Vin's chest, Kelli giggled.
"From the looks of your pregnant wife, Son, you had some privacy, once upon a time." Buck smiled when Vin made a gesture with his finger, aimed in his direction, behind Kelli's back.
Seeing no end to the teasing, Chris intervened. "If you two are done, we have a meeting to get to."
Vin sighed. "Reckon they aren't goin' away, Baby." Kissing her once more with less passion, he reluctantly released his hold on her. Reaching for his coat, he told them. "Y'all keep annoyin' me and I might just stay here."
"Go, Tanner. I'll take a rain check for later." Kelli turned and smiled at the interlopers. "You two are bad."
"Yes Ma'am, and proud of it," Buck snickered, "it's called brotherly love."
Chris rolled his eyes, walked over to his daughter, kissed her on the cheek and said, "You just thought all the kids were out of the house."
Shaking her head, Kelli shooed all of them out the door.
+ + + + + + +
When the trio arrived at Camp Larabee, the energy level in the room increased. Their four brothers were already there and comfortable, the mood of the room seemed light and relaxed. After removing their coats, and before sitting, Chris and Vin poured themselves cups of coffee, while Buck settled in between JD and Nathan.
Josiah looked around the room, satisfied to see everyone comfortable. "Any thoughts or concerns anyone wants to talk about?
JD started. "I do and it's Brother business more than concern. We always discuss and vote on any changes we want to make to L7. I have a proposal." When no one objected, he continued, "I want to build a new structure on the property next to mine. While normally, now would be the Q &A period, it's supposed to be a surprise and I'm asking to go straight to a vote."
Chris studied his youngest brother for a moment before speaking. "I think we'll all concur. As long as it's nothing illegal, we're good." Agreeing nods from the others confirmed his statement.
Smiling, JD responded. "No, not illegal. It has to do with wedding stuff but it's something that will be an asset for L7 property." Relieved to have that over, without questions, JD leaned back in his chair.
The younger Ezra would never talk about his personal demons. Yet, here, sitting among men he loved as brothers and trusted with his life, it came easier. "I would greatly appreciate any supplementary energy, y'all wish to direct my way," Ezra decided to share his concerns. "First, let me say, I do love my mother. Most of you know, however, Maude is not the poster woman, for Mother of the Year. She can irritate me to extremes with her brashness and secret agendas. However, it's past time for us to have a serious talk." He didn't share the conversation with his wife when Barbara had told him in no uncertain terms, he needed to pin Maude down about the motive for her presence.
"You mean you still have no clue why Maude's here. Are you sure it's not just because she misses her baby boy?" Chris grinned when Ezra gave him a look that said, ‘hell no'.
"Maude never does anything without a specific purpose." Recalling earlier this morning, Ezra tilted his head to contemplate a moment. "Although, in a rare moment of candor after breakfast, she actually behaved like a grandmother with Pearl, was cordial to Barbara and Bianca, and dropped her usual facade. She even smiled and hugged me when I requested we have a discussion concerning her plans. She agreed to sit down with me this evening. Whatever her explanations, I am certain it will deplete all my energy to deal with her convoluted reasoning."
"Whenever one of us is in need, I am certain, those needs will be met." Josiah assured him by repeating the words Ezra threw at him a couple of weeks ago. "One for all, all for one."
"Touché." Ducking his head, Ezra tried to hide the pleasure he felt, knowing his brothers understood his quandary and had his back.
"Okay, anything else? Perhaps about our last case?" Josiah waited for reactions and it didn't take long to get a few.
Ezra sighed. "It was an assignment I never wish to replicate."
Buck snorted. "You mean the sicko killer, wannabe vampire, who wasn't? Hell, I'm happy it's all over and he got what he deserved."
"I agree. The Trial for that nut, would've turned into a three-ring media circus." Nathan shuddered, just thinking about the forensics nightmare connecting all the bits and pieces from forty plus murders.
Vin leaned forward. "I think we'll agree we're all glad Vladimir is dead and gone. What's more important though, is what happened with us durin' that raid. We took a big, amazin', step with our Legacy."
"Yes, we did," Chris took the lead in their discussion. "After all the missteps we've made over the past couple of years, trying to make things work, it turned into a good day. We've learned to trust and use our inner code. With no hesitation and without overthinking what we had to do, we came together naturally. We held our mental connections throughout the event and because we did, we walked away with only minor injuries. I also know, without question, our ancestors were there with us." His brothers chuckled as they mentally saw Chris' recounting of the unseen hand and cowboy hat. "Bottom line. We're stronger now and will continue to grow more so in the days, weeks, and months ahead."
"Long way from that botched laser tag competition with the ATF." Buck hated to even remember how that pompous ATF team leader Grant Dean crowed about beating MCAT. Didn't matter they took him down later for being a vigilante lawman. It was humiliating.
"Or from the unwanted projecting episode with Vin concerning his wife." Nathan laughed when Vin scowled at the mention of that day.
"It was a rough beginning for us." Josiah conceded, suppressing his amusement. "We still have things to learn and perfect, but I'm certain we're on the right track."
Josiah directed his next query to Vin, "New visions?"
"Nope. I believe they're gone for a while, but I do think we've deciphered enough that they're not needed for now." Vin looked around the room. "The visions got us here. The results of us havin' regular meetin's and stayin' focused is one reason I think we did so well connectin'. All in all, I'd say here is a damn good place to be." Six heads nodded in agreement.
"If no one else has anything to add," Josiah assessed by the looks on their faces they didn't, "then I say we get out of here and have our next Legacy meeting when March rolls around."
Seven men stood, stretched, then grabbed their coats. It was cold outside, but they had warm homes and families waiting for them.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra returned home to find his wife and Bianca watching Pearl play in the living room. Barbara looked up when he walked in and smiled. "Look Pearl, Daddy's home."
Pearl made a sound she thought was a greeting when Ezra lifted her into his arms. "Pearl, have you been entertaining these beautiful ladies?"
"She has." Bianca said, then hesitated a moment before asking, "Would it be okay if Pearl comes to my room for a while? I'll keep a close eye on her."
Barbara answered for her and Ezra. "Of course, Hon. She loves spending time with you."
Ezra handed Pearl over to Bianca and sat down next to Barbara as the girls left the room. "Do I dare ask where Maude is?"
Sighing deeply, Barbara hated to answer, but she did. "She's gone Ezra. Left shortly after you did this morning."
Speechless for a moment, he quickly recovered. "She just left, saying nothing?"
"She gave Pearl a kiss and then hugged Bianca and me. Said she had to go and you would understand." Reaching over to the end table she picked up a letter passing it to her husband. "She asked me to give this to you."
Fingering the envelope, Ezra hid his disappointment. "Typical Maude exit." Setting the letter down, he told her, "I'll read it later." Pulling Barbara closer, he dismissed it from his thoughts. "Notice anything new with Bianca?" They both had been watching the teen for signs she may be receptive to talking about a more permanent status with them.
Smiling again, Barbara shared. "She loves Pearl and spends special time with her. I know she cares about all of us and we already love her. It's time for us to take the next step."
"Set the paperwork into motion, Love. Once it's finished we'll talk to her." Ezra was certain they were doing the right thing. Bianca needed them.
+ + + + + + +
It was late evening by the time Ezra got around to considering the letter Maude left for him. Pearl was asleep, Bianca was preparing for bed and Barbara headed upstairs to take a long hot bath. He retrieved the letter from the table where he left it and walked into his study. Turning on the desk lamp, he sat down to open the envelope. It had one single sheet of writing, a business card and an address written on a note card. Setting the cards aside, he began to read.
My Dearest Ezra,
By the time you read this, I will be halfway to Italy. Yes, I know you well, Son. You tossed this letter aside when Barbara told you I was gone. Then waited until later to finally open it. Doesn't matter. You and I have been playing this game most of your life. I never mastered the art of having serious conversations, face to face. Perhaps that is the reason my personal relationships never lasted. Except with you, we did all right. Didn't we?
I am certain you are curious as to why I chose to spend the past month at your home. Well, first I needed to be certain your choices were good ones. Barbara is a keeper, Ezra. Take it from a woman who has searched her whole life to find ‘the one'. She loves you enough to put up with me and my interference in your lives. Count your blessings that you found her. She is lucky to have a handsome, debonair, intelligent man such as you, for her husband.
Pearl is absolutely the most beautiful child on this planet. I suspect she takes after me. Don't you dare laugh. She is destined to do wonderful things, but please, give her siblings. One of my greatest regrets is leaving you alone too often with no blood relation nearby. A brother or sister would have been good for you. Although, I see you took care of that lacking detail in your life. You found your own. They are all good men, with wives, who are strong, independent thinking women. You chose well.
Your Bianca was a surprise. When I arrived, I could not imagine what you were thinking taking that girl into your home. After getting to know her better, I had my answer. I see in her the same qualities, I saw in you at that age. She is quick witted, and farseeing about the affairs of life. She wears a mask to hide her pain and disappointment and is looking for a place to call home. You and Barbara need to see to it that she gets one.
Which brings me to my second reason for coming. I needed to reconnect with you to retrieve old memories I suppressed long ago. I am writing my memoirs. Yes, me, writing. Remember the time I checked you out of boarding school and we traveled to a little blue cottage on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico? It was a delightful week. But then, you had to go back to school and I went to Spain, met husband number four, and you know the rest. When I finish writing my walk down memory lane, I intend to turn my journey into a book. One, my grandchildren should not read unless they are of age. It is a bit racy in places.
For you, it will answer questions you wanted to ask me, but didn't. Things I never had enough courage to tell you but should have. Forgive me for keeping my secrets. Know that it was not out of shame, spite or indifference, or any other ulterior motive. I simply lacked the backbone to tell you. I do know there have been times you have not liked me much or approved of the way I conduct my affairs and that's okay. I also know that you love me as I do you. Remember that.
Finally, the reason you are reading this letter instead of us talking in person. I've only known a brief time but have made my decisions. Ezra, I am dying. The doctors say possibly another six months, if I have chemo, but that is not going to happen. I won't spend my last days in and out of hospitals. I also DO NOT want or expect sympathy.
We can communicate by post, but the next time we meet will be on the ‘other side'. My wish is for you and your family to remember me as I've been during my stay. Trust me, I plan to enjoy the hell out of the time I do have, and no telling what I'll look like after. My attorney has my affairs in order, with explicit instructions as to my final wishes. His card and an address for you to write me is in the envelope. He will be expecting your call when the time comes.
Don't try to do anything rash, Son. My mind is made up and my course is set.
I may not have been the best mother to you, but no mother could have loved you more.
A single tear rolled down his cheek as he tried to grasp the written words. Maude had given him a goodbye letter, and he wasn't sure what to do with it. Yes, they'd had a rocky relationship at times, but she was his mother. She could be brash, irritating, pretentious, aristocratic, and bossy. All the times she left him behind and he cried, he still knew deep down she cared and she always came back, eventually. As he grew older he understood that Maude was… well, Maude. She really couldn't help the way she behaved, because to her, she never saw her shortcomings as a mother.
Good or bad, he loved her. Now she was telling him their relationship was ending?
Reading the letter again, he tried to make the words compute, but he could not accept their meaning. That this was the last time she would leave him in this world.
Experiencing unfamiliar gut-wrenching emotions Ezra had no clue how to handle, he pushed his chair back to the wall and hurried upstairs. He had an overpowering need to see Barbara, to assure himself she was nearby. Rushing into their bedroom, his breath left in a loud whoosh, once assured she was there.
Barbara laid her book aside when he entered. She knew by the look of desperation in his eyes something was wrong. "Ezra?"
Unable to speak, he walked to the side of the bed and handed her the crumpled letter he still clutched in his hand. While she read, he stood before their bay window, which overlooked the rolling hills leading to the mountains beyond. Listening to his wife sob as she read Maude's words cut deep into his soul.
The sobbing sound lessened, and he heard the rustle of the bedding behind him. Turning, he opened his arms to embrace his wife. Absorbing her strength, Ezra broke down. She held him as his emotions flowed freely, along with his tears.
Tonight, was the first step of the difficult journey to letting go. Tomorrow, would reveal the importance of holding on…together.
Chris was on his third cup of coffee. He tossed another file onto the large stack of folders already taking over his desktop. When he first decided to follow up on the names Ice left after her demise, he believed it would be an easy task. He should've known better. Turned out he did open a can of worms when he asked for Brodie's help deciphering Ice's code. And now the worms were creating chaos in his MCAT units.
For more than three weeks CASSIE had been spitting out page after page of information relating to those names, and their connections to open cases, both domestic and international. Organizing the materials, fact checking incident reports and preparing folders for senior team members to sort through, was keeping his agents busy.
Chris leaned back and closed his eyes to ponder his growing list of concerns. In addition to complicated work issues, his anxiety about those he loved only made his qualms worse. Cait and the toll her pregnancy was taking on her topped the list. The brothers worried about Ezra and how he'd reverted to his old stand alone, withdrawn self, a persona they thought he'd shed years ago. Vin and his refusal to discuss his mental read on Standish, to the point of shutting Chris off to his thoughts about Ezra. Saying only, ‘Cut him some slack and be patient'. Inez and the tough time she was having with a twin pregnancy, making Buck irritable at work. JD running in overdrive, dividing his time between CASSIE and wedding preparations. Overall, it had been a turbulent month for his Wild Bunch.
A sharp rap on his door interrupted his reflections. "Enter."
Chris sat a bit straighter when Orrin Travis stepped into the room and then sat in the closest chair to Larabee's desk. "Director, what can I do for you?" He felt certain that Travis's presence meant more work for him, just wasn't sure how.
Orrin nodded, "Right to the point, Chris. I appreciate that." He passed several folders to his Commander and explained. "Russo came to me with a request. After reviewing the information, he gave me, I've decided it warrants a covert once-over by MCAT." Travis continued while Chris opened the first file. "I am not a big believer in coincidence, nor are you. That said, this may amount to nothing or turn into a nightmare for us all. It's up to you to figure out which. Several agencies are already involved. I only ask that you be discreet, try not to ruffle too many feathers, and don't start any interagency wars. At least until we know if we're dealing with more than a fluke."
Chris looked up from the paper he was reading and steadied his gaze on the Director. "If we are?" He waited for the response he needed to hear.
"Travis sighed. "Then, all bets are off. MCAT takes lead, I buy more aspirin, and fend off the grievances I'm sure will be loud and long."
"We'll get right on it, Sir."
Orrin stood to leave. "I'll be expecting your evaluation a.s.a.p."
Travis was barely out the door before Chris hit the intercom., "Tanner, my office, now!"
+ + + + + + +
Vin was trying to work through his own stack of paperwork when Chris summoned him. Grabbing his coffee cup to refill on his way to Larabee's office, he sent Larabee a message. *Be there in a minute.*
*Bring me a coffee, too.*
Grumbling something about being a lackey, Vin stopped, filled two cups with coffee, and headed to Chris' office. Entering without knocking, he sat one cup on the desk and found his favorite chair. "What's up?"
Handing Vin a folder, Chris told him to open it. "Recognize those names?"
"David Jenkins, Saul Blackman and Liam Henson." Vin looked at Chris. "These men were part of the Task Force y'all ran last year aren't they?"
"Yep. All three men worked with us to bring down the vigilante conspiracy. All are dead now. Each one under different violent circumstances since the first of the year."
"Damn." Vin thought for a few moments. "You think their deaths are related, don't you?"
"Don't believe in coincidences, neither does Travis or Russo apparently. He took the cases to Travis, who brought them to us."
Vin sighed, his gut telling him trouble was on the way. "Full team or discreet investigation?"
"Until we know what we're dealing with, keep it discreet. If you can make a connection, then we'll bring in the teams." Chris knew Tanner had ways of getting information without involving MCAT. For now, that's how they would proceed.
Vin understood what Chris was asking him to do and carefully considered who he would ask to assist him. "I'll use Ezra on this." He stood. "We'll make it happen, you keep Alpha Team busy."
"You sure Ezra is the right choice, he…"
"Ezra will do just fine," Tanner closed any further discussion by walking out the door.
+ + + + + + +
After grabbing his coat from his office, Vin stopped by Kelli's desk. It was husband Vin who told her, "Gonna be out most of the day. If you need anythin' go to Chris."
"You don't owe me any explanations, Captain Tanner." Kelli understood Vin's concern for her, but she was safer here than anywhere on the planet. "I'm fine. You're the one who needs to watch your back."
"Point taken." Vin leaned closer, squeezed her shoulder and whispered in her ear, "Love you." Her smile in response was all he needed to see. She may raise a fuss when he veered off his Captain role, but he knew it pleased her too.
Moving on to Ezra's desk, he said, "Grab your coat and laptop. We're workin'."
Ezra glanced at Tanner and responded. "As you may plainly observe by the vast amount of paperwork in front of me, I am already working."
"Not a request Agent Standish, it's an order. Now move it." Vin left no room for excuses. "My truck, we leave in five minutes." Tanner continued walking towards the exit, and then on to the parking lot to warm up his Silverado. He used his phone to call in a couple of favors while he waited.
Five minutes later Standish joined him.
+ + + + + + +
JD watched the comings and goings of Larabee's office for a while. He waited until he saw Vin and Ezra exit before he approached Chris' door and knocked.
JD opened the door and went inside. "Chris, can we talk?"
Chris glanced up from his paperwork. "Sure." He motioned for JD to sit down.
Once settled, JD began. "We've been so busy catching up on paperwork after the Vladimir case, tracking down details on those names from Ice's disk..."
JD was on a roll, and Chris knew if he didn't stop him, the younger MCAT agent would never get to the point. "Cut to the chase JD." Larabee commanded.
Grinning awkwardly because he knew his rambling annoyed Chris and he called him on it, he took a breath and told him. "I know we still have a month, but I want to put in my request for time off for my honeymoon."
"Where are you going?' Chris hoped they had something wonderful planned.
"Boston. Tess wants to see where I grew up. My old neighborhood, schools I went to, houses I lived in, stuff like that. We're also taking a trip to the cemetery, so I can introduce her to my Mom. We'll do the tourist thing too." JD had a list of places in mind, but he figured Chris had heard enough already.
"How long do you plan to be gone?"
"Her parents arranged to stay with our kids for two weeks," JD hastened to add, "but I could make one work if we catch a hot case between now and the wedding."
"Two weeks…" Chris started to say, but JD cut him off.
"One week would work too," JD started to say more. "If you need me…"
"Stow it, JD."
Silence filled the room
"The two weeks are yours. You and Tess deserve time alone before you settle into married life."
"No, buts. I'll clear the time for you. Just make sure Franklin and Walton are up to speed on your newest additions to CASSIE." Chris understood how hard it was for any of them to take time off. The ‘what if's' never completely left their minds. JD worked hard to make the tech end of the business easier for the teams to maneuver and was an asset in the field. "Things run smoother when you're here, but we'll manage. Regardless of our workload, we've got you covered…here and at the ranch."
"Thanks, Chris." JD left Larabee's office feeling good about their conversation and marked one more task off his to-do list.
+ + + + + + +
JD hadn't been gone more than five minutes when another knock at the door interrupted Chris. Throwing his pen down in frustration, he yelled, "Enter!"
Kelli opened the door enough to stick her head inside. "Is it safe?"
"Yeah," Chris changed his demeanor fast as she came on inside and sat down. "Sorry I yelled. It's been one of those days." Suddenly her condition crossed his mind. "Are you okay, you need..." The sound of her laughter stopped him.
Shaking her head, Kelli held her mirth and sighed. "You and Vin need to chill. IF I need help, I'll yell." Still smiling she explained her reason for being there. "Carmen Johnson from CPS called me. She had a situation arise concerning a little girl. The child needs emergency care and she hoped we could take her for a few days. I texted Vin and called Max. Tanner said do what we need to. Max said for us bring to her home, there's always room for one more. I told Carmen yes."
"Sounds like Max and of course you and Vin would agree. But are you sure you're up to doing this? I mean, you don't have long before Rebel arrives."
"We have plenty of time before Rebel gets here, and Carmen said a few days. My only problem is Carmen needs me to come now, and even if you let me take a couple of hours off, Vin has the truck."
Reaching into his pocket, Chris pulled out his keys and passed them to her. "We're only working on grueling prep work here. Take my truck and see to that baby."
Standing, Kelli leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks Commander Dad."
Chris smiled as she walked out the door.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner drove for ten minutes before Standish finally asked, "Do you wish to disclose the reason we are traversing through a frozen landscape, instead of enclosed in our warmer workplace?"
"Check out the folders on the console." Vin wanted to engage Ezra into their old working routine with the hope he would loosen up and allow his inner code kick in.
A few minutes of reading convinced Standish there was more to the situation than the reports showed. He told Vin, "I will reach out to a few of my contacts and make some inquiries. If there are rumors floating on the street concerning deceased federal employees, I will find out." Pulling out his phone, he began making calls.
Vin maneuvered through traffic until they arrived in front of the Federal building. Between phone conversations and using his laptop, Ezra was so engrossed with gathering details, he didn't even realize they'd stopped.
Without looking up or acknowledging Vin yelling his name, Ezra began talking. "I believe we may have a genuine problem. Word is out that someone is hiring out hit work directed at a task force, which took down a big conspiracy last year. If the information is correct that would be ours. We need to get to the Federal building and somehow acquire the complete reports about the three deaths." When he did glance in Tanner's direction he noticed where they were, his left eyebrow arched. "You're reading me, aren't you?"
Tanner chuckled, "No. It's the logical place to go. I already called my contact at the Marshal's office and he's gettin' us the investigation reports we need." He glanced at Ezra. "Is there a reason I should be readin' you?"
Ezra hesitated for a moment. "I only thought…hell, you probably already know, don't you?"
Now Vin hesitated before he answered. "You've been sendin' us loud signals. We're aware somethin' is goin' on, but I reckon I'm the only one who knows what it is. And, it will stay that way until you're ready to share. Just do us a favor please?"
Deep down Ezra knew his brothers would notice his inner turmoil, and that Vin would be the one to decipher it. He was slowly coming around to accepting Maude's terms and had exchanged letters with her. However, he wasn't quite ready to share with all his brothers. How could he when he didn't understand how he felt about it himself? Sighing he asked, "And what would that favor be?"
"Don't shut us out and go back to bein' the standoffish jerk you were before we all met." Vin reached over and squeezed Ezra's shoulder to soften his words. "When it's time, we're here, we care, and we're not goin' anywhere."
Clearing his throat, Ezra pushed down his emotions. His brothers wouldn't push and when he was ready to discuss the situation about Maude, he knew they would listen. He also knew he'd been a difficult bastard to be around the past few weeks and his brothers didn't deserve that. "Favor granted." He reached for the door handle. "Shall we gather the reports we need to blow this investigation wide open?"
Relieved their brother Ezra was back. Vin opened his door and said," Let's do this."
+ + + + + + +
Kelli spent over an hour with Carmen and the beautiful baby girl, only a few months old and needing shelter. When neighbors complained about a foul smell, and a crying baby, the building manager summoned the police. They discovered a woman they presumed to be the child's mother, deceased in her apartment. She'd been dead a few days, and the baby was wet, dirty, hungry, and alone during that time They found nothing in the home to name either the female victim or the baby. The police classified the death as a homicide. Until they had more details and identifications, the child could be in imminent danger. Enter emergency protective care, set-up for placing children considered at risk or needing protective custody.
Carmen signed the last document needed to hand over the baby to Kelli. "We don't have a name for her, but I've been calling her Leia, because she looks like a delicate little princess."
"Didn't know you were a Star Wars fan, Carmen." Kelli smiled when her friend blushed. "Leia it is."
"What can I say, I love the movies." Carmen handed the paperwork to Kelli. "You know the drill, I'm giving you a carrier, car seat, and a bag of essentials. Buy what she needs, the agency will reimburse you."
Kelli stood, lifted the carrier with the precious cargo strapped in, and reached for the diaper bag. "We'll be fine."
"I know, that's why I called you." Carmen carried the car seat for Kelli. "I'll walk you out." Together the women exited the building and settled baby Leia into the car seat in the back of the Ram. As the older woman watched Kelli drive away, knowing Leia was safe, she whispered a prayer for the baby.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner's contact was thorough. He gave them detailed investigative reports. Much of which wasn't included in the case files released to Director Travis.
Ezra read the detailed accounts aloud, while Vin drove, "January second, Davis Jenkins, Special Agent DOJ, the man who supervised the undercover operation for DPD officer Leo Neilson aka MCAT Agent Russell Miles. Jenkins died when his car exploded after he unlocked the door. January twenty-eighth, U.S. Marshal Liam Henson, shot and killed during an alleged robbery two blocks from the Federal building. The last one happened only two days ago. On February twenty-sixth, Saul Blackman, lead prosecutor in the Special Crimes Division of the U.S. Attorney's office, stabbed to death during a home invasion. Different methods but all believed to be the work of paid assassinations."
"They have evidence to prove that?" Vin wondered why one paid killer would be so diverse in his methods. Unless, they were dealing with more than one assassin.
Flipping a few pages, Ezra explained. "Ah, the one detail guaranteed to make this a MCAT case. At each crime scene, they found a card. There were no fingerprints, only a message, presumably a signature." Standish read, ‘Greetings from The Trinity Brotherhood & Ghosts of the Confederacy.'"
"Damn. Sounds like our Southerner is back."
+ + + + + + +
Back at the MCAT office, Kelli returned, and baby Leia became the center of attention. Her choice to bring her here, necessitated by the fact she and Vin rode in together, meant Chris had his Ram back. In her carrier, which now sat on Kelli's desk, Leia charmed each agent who stopped by to see her.
Even Commander Larabee ventured out of his office to visit the newest arrival. He tried to sound gruff, "Agent Coulter this is an MCAT office, not a day care." But once he saw the child, his gruffness faded, his paternal side kicked in, and his heart melted. "Damn, she's small. How long did you say she was alone?"
Shrugging her shoulders, Kelli answered, "Not sure, two, maybe three days." Lifting Leia into her arms, she continued, "We'll know more when DPD finishes their investigation."
Leia had a unique shade of green eyes, light brown skin, and delicate facial features that could belong to an angel. Chris surrendered. "I suppose I could authorize her presence here, since she is in your protective custody."
The outside door swung open allowing a blast of chilly air inside. Standish entered first, coming to an abrupt stop when he saw Kelli holding a baby. "Good Lord, how long were we gone?"
Tanner followed Ezra inside, he smiled. Seeing his wife holding the infant made him even more anxious for Rebel to arrive. Glancing over at Chris, Vin read his unasked questions.
*Trouble's headin' our way, Cowboy.*
*Always is isn't it."
*Damned annoyin' if you ask me?*
*My office in five.*
Vin wanted to take a minute to meet the new member of the Tanner household and told Ezra. "Go ahead to Chris' office and get started, I'll be right behind you."
"On my way." Standish, folder in hand and laptop case slung over his shoulder, left.
Not sure what was going on Kelli gave her husband a concerned look. "It's not good is it?"
Vin shook his head, "No. I need to meet with Chris and Ezra. Don't know how long, but from now until further notice, you don't go anywhere without me. Got that?" He and Kelli were both on sick leave when the task force took down the conspiracy and neither of their names showed up on official reports. Although no one knew who else might be on a target list, he wasn't taking any chances. He handed Leia back to her. "You take care of this one and I'll break away when I can."
Watching him walk towards Chris' office, Kelli felt as if an icy wind entered the room and shivered when a chill ran down her spine.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was already looking over the investigation reports Ezra handed him when Vin entered. "You two were busy today."
Tanner closed the door behind him and moved to the chair next to Ezra. "We got what you wanted without flashin' any MCAT badges. We're in for a hell of a ride with this one."
Ezra concurred. "Captain Tanner is right. The Trinity of the Brotherhood reference is obviously an open taut to MCAT. Whoever is involved with ‘Ghosts of the Confederacy' is patient, plans each assassination to the smallest detail, and manages to get away without leaving any evidence. Judging from the length of time between each of the killings, this could drag on for a long time."
"You two believe it's the Southerner behind this and our task force is being targeted?" Chris' gut told him, yes. This case would consume most of their time, energy, and resources.
Ezra nodded, and Vin verbally answered. "Looks like it. We need to notify everyone involved to stay vigilant."
Blowing out his breath, Chris said. "I agree. We're going to find these bastards. This investigation just moved to the top of our case list. Ezra, you contact the Marshals' office, the DOJ, and the U.S. Attorney. Give them a heads up and suggest they issue a warning to any of their agents who worked on the task force."
"On it." Ezra made his exit.
"Vin you confer with JD. Tell him to put everything on hold except the info Ice left us on the Southerner. Ask him to start running CASSIE on this Ghost group, too. I doubt we'll find anything on these assassins, but we can try. Bring Justin up to speed and have Gunny arrange a meeting with both teams in MTAC in…." he glanced at the time, "… thirty minutes."
When Chris stood before Vin did, Tanner asked. "Where are you going?"
"Gonna break the news to Director Travis. He should know when MCAT declares war."
Gunny ‘kidnapped' Leia, while Kelli joined her teammates. Within thirty minutes Director Travis, ADD Russo, all agents, and their Captains, gathered in MTAC. It was unusual to have the teams meeting this late in the day, so they presumed a serious matter awaited them. They found seating and waited for Commander Larabee to begin. Chris took a folder, which JD passed to him and when the last agent sat down, he turned to the group.
"Early this morning I received a visit from Director Travis. He gave me information brought to him by Assistant Director Russo. Since the first of this year there were three deaths. The victims all associated with the Task Force we ran last year. He asked us to discreetly check out the details and see if their murders were in any way related. Captain Tanner and Agent Standish reached out to some of their contacts and followed up on the results." He nodded at JD, who used his tablet, to change the display on the digital screen to start a presentation coordinating with the Commander's words
"Suffice to say they found three connections between the victims. One, a U.S. Marshal, the second, a DOJ Supervisory Agent and the third, a Special Prosecutor for the Justice Department. All were men of law, worked on the same case with MCAT, and each died a violent death. A calling card found at each crime scene read, ‘Greetings from The Trinity Brotherhood & Ghosts of the Confederacy'. The investigation of these murders is now under MCAT authority. As of today, we only work at finding the people responsible for these crimes. Everything else goes on the back burner, with one exception."
Chris waited a moment to make certain everyone present were paying close attention and realized the seriousness of the facts he'd given them.
"Preliminary evidence indicates this GOC group is somehow tied to a man we know only as the Southerner. His name has appeared in the records we've been poring through the past three weeks. We have no description or alias for him, but we know he hires outsiders to do his dirty work. According to Interpol, he's a retired professional contract killer. One trained by the military, skilled in covert ops, and they consider him a lethal threat." The screen on the digital board changed, showing the make-up of their earlier task force.
"In recent years this Southerner has used his charm and abilities to conspire with others to make millions in illegal activities. We also believe he orchestrated the vigilante conspiracy we took down last October. Allegedly he's responsible for the deaths of Judge Davidson Farley, and six others at Lake Evergreen Mountain Retreat who were known as The Trinity Brotherhood."
Chris fixed his gaze on the agents before him. "No one, who worked on or was attached to our task force is considered safe until we can prove otherwise. That means, be vigilant. Carry your weapons with you, on or off duty, and report anything suspicious. MCAT is on high alert status. Once we have all the files and evidence concerning the three murders delivered to us, we will be tearing apart anything we find on the names Southerner or Ghosts of the Confederacy."
Larabee looked at Nathan. "Agent Jackson, every scrap of forensics gathered from each crime scene should be in our possession, and at your disposal by 8A.M. tomorrow. Whatever resources you need to expedite forensic examinations are available." He shifted his gaze to Josiah. "Agent Sanchez, I have reports for you to read to begin our profile."
Addressing the full room, Chris stressed his earlier statement. "Given MCAT's history of cases exploding when we take over, we cannot dismiss this as simply a coincidence or let our guards down. We must assume each of you has a target on your back. I do not intend to lose any agent to an assassin. DO NOT take any unnecessary risks, and when in the field, always work in pairs, no matter what."
Chris understood he was asking a lot from his agents and intruding in their personal lives but felt it imperative to add. "Erring on the side of caution, I strongly suggest any of you living alone, temporarily reconsider your living arrangements. At least until we can prove there's no risk to our teams. Your Captains can help you make interim arrangements if necessary. And last, whenever possible, do not travel alone outside of work. This man is dangerous and ran his conspiracy in Denver for ten years without detection before MCAT became involved. We're not taking that long to bring him down this time. He's ours, he just doesn't know it yet. Dismissed."
Captain Michaels huddled with his agents in one corner. Chris in another with Travis and Russo. While his newest agent, Ramon Hunter, asked Captain Tanner for a word in private. "Sir, I wasn't in Colorado in October. Do you think it's necessary for me to make different living arrangements?"
Vin realized Chris' request from single teammates seemed extreme, but he had to agree. Moving a few steps away from the rest of Alpha Team, he told Ramon, "Until we can prove MCAT agents aren't targets, I'd have to say yes. Not sayin' pick up and move, but temporarily roomin' with another agent who also lives alone, isn't a bad idea." He felt for the younger man, seeing the uncertainty in his eyes. "Look, you're welcome to stay at the ranch if you want or I can introduce you to a couple of single teammates in the same dilemma."
Ramon decided ‘what the hell,' and grinned. "Any of them female?"
"Not a chance." Tanner laughed. "Get with Langley or see Captain Michaels. Most of his agents are single too. He'll introduce you to ‘em and help you figure it out."
Once Vin saw Justin take Ramon under his wing, he knew they'd work it out. He turned his attention back to the conversations of Alpha Team. He listened for a bit as they discussed probable scenarios and courses of action to take, and then interrupted. "Go home. We'll tackle this in the mornin' with fresh minds and rested bodies."
Justin wrapped up the mini-meeting with his team, having decided who was bunking with whom. Travis and Russo left, so Chris joined Tanner as the rest of the agents filed out the MTAC door.
Chris glanced at Vin. "Think they're taking this serious enough?"
"Hope so. My gut says we're in for a rough ride on this one." Vin retrieved the folder he'd left on the table. "Kel is gettin' Leia ready for our trip home. Need to introduce her to the rest of the family."
Picking up his own notes and files, Chris stated. "Brodie offered to do some investigating on the Southerner even before we knew anything on the murders. I think we should take him up on his offer."
Nodding Vin agreed. "I'll see him in the mornin'. You want me to ask him?"
"Do it. I'd like to go straight home to be with Cait. Donald and Lillian took her to have bloodwork drawn today. She's been nauseous and tired already. After a trip to the lab, she's worn out."
"Consider it did and done." Vin smiled when Kelli appeared at the door with Leia. "Almost ready, Kel. Just gonna drop this paperwork in my office and grab my coat." He moved to the doorway to join her but stopped to ask, "You comin' Cowboy? "
"I'm right behind you." Chris walked over, flipped off the light, and closed the door behind them, his thoughts reflecting his mood. *It's been a hell of a day. *
Tracker and Cowboy loitered nearby, frustrated by their knowledge of the future and their lack of power to divert trouble on the horizon
*Hell of a day? Try hell is on the way. Makes more sense. It don't seem fair.*
*Fair has nothing to do with it. Their courses are set, just as ours were. Each of their seven faces a trial in the upcoming months, and no matter what we do, they're in for a hard ride.*
*I reckon, but damnit, ain't all of ‘em and their Heart Warrior had ‘nough laid on ‘em already?*
*Not up to us. Unfinished business needs resolving.*
*Good thing we've had practice breakin' the rules.*
*Bending not breaking. *
*You bend ‘em Cowboy. Me? I'll do what needs doin'.*
*We'll ALL do what we can. *
+ + + + + + +
Chris hurried home and a worried looking Donald met him at the door. "Before you go in there with Cait, can we talk first?"
"What wrong?" Chris set his attaché case on the table and waited for an answer.
"Easy, Son. Nothing specific wrong. It's just a small concern." Donald sat down and urged Chris to join him at the kitchen table. "Lillian is in the den with Cait, Jesse, and the babies." He sighed. "It's just hard to see my baby girl so weary. However, the woman you hired to help is great."
"You mean Lena Diaz?" Chris rehired Mila's aunt when Doctor Weeks told Cait to rest more. He also wanted to lift the load off her parents, of keeping up the house and watching their kids. The one drawback…she worked here when Linda resided on L7.
"Yes, wonderful lady." Donald continued. "My concern is what's ahead. Cait still has two months to go before Tempest arrives. We want to be here to help and we don't want you to feel like you need to hire anyone else. We're not so old we can't manage."
Relieved to know Donald's issue wasn't specifically concerning Cait's health, Chris smiled. "Donald, we wouldn't consider pushing you and Lillian away. Cait needs the two of you and I need to know she always has family with her. We expect both of you to help us across the finish line."
"Good," Donald smiled and stood. "Now that's settled. The little ones have eaten their dinners, had their baths, and are ready for bed. Jesse wanted to wait for you before he ate, so two plates of food are in the warmer. Cait didn't eat much, and she should be in bed, but she insisted on staying on the couch until you arrived. Her Mother and I are leaving the evening for you, and we'll be here by seven in the morning."
Placing his hand on his father-in-law's shoulder, Chris told him. "In case I haven't said it, Cait and I are both glad you two are here."
Together they walked to the den. Donald to say goodnight to everyone and collect his spouse. Chris, to take over Dad duty and settle their babies and his wife down for the night. Then he'd spend some time with his eldest son to discuss their day while they ate.
Buck glanced at Tia Isabella when he walked in the kitchen door asking without words about his wife.
Isabella smiled. "Today's been a good day."
"All Right." After checking the mood of the day, he moved on to the living room to join Inez and the kids. "Daddy's home!" He never tired of the greeting his children offered him when he arrived each evening. After hugs, a few swings in the air, and listening to the retelling of their day, he moved on to sit by his wife on the couch. He slipped an arm around her waist, shifting her closer so that she fit snuggly against him. He leaned down for a tender kiss. "How are you, Sweetheart?"
"We had a wonderful day, Husband." Inez reached for a pad beside her. "I've been thinking. With two new babies coming we need more room. Here are a few ideas relating to remodeling we need to discuss." She handed Buck the notebook.
"Uh…Okay.." Buck looked at the detailed notes and drawings she gave him. "I guess we do need room, but Honey, this remodeling job is way more than one more room."
"Si. If we are going to tear out a few walls, we might as well add some of the things we always said we wished we had."
Buck swallowed hard. He had not considered a major makeover for their home. He turned the page. "What's this?" He showed her the lengthy list she had written.
Patting his knee, she smiled. "We have much to do. We need to plan the dinner at the Standish Tavern. As best man that is your responsibility. You have a fitting for your wedding outfit. Then, I want us to go to the mall afterward and find me and the children something suitable to wear for JD and Tess's special day. While we are there, we can pick out color schemes for the new rooms and swatches of material for curtains and…well we can make a day of it."
The room suddenly felt warmer and Buck tried not to lose the smile fixed on his face. Inez was set on doing all this and the best he could do for now is roll with the flow. "I'll check with some contractors about the changes and additions. We can work on the rehearsal dinner after supper, and my fitting is not for two weeks. We can go to the mall then."
Throwing her arms around his neck she smiled and hugged him tightly. "Te amo, esposo."
Not sure what all he just committed to doing, Buck let it ride for now. Inez was happy and just said she loved him. He figured that's all a man could ask for. He captured her lips in a tender kiss, and said, "I love you too."
Nathan walked in and shed his coat. Expecting a peaceful home, instead he found his son and daughter at odds with one another and in the middle of a standoff.
Ronesha saw him first and ran with her arms raised for him to lift her. "Daddy! Can we trade ‘Rell for a sister?"
He laughed as he picked her up. "We're not trading Terrell. Why are you upset with him?"
"He mean." She crossed her arms and glared at her brother.
Rain stood in the kitchen doorway, obviously not happy their children were fighting. "These two have been at it all afternoon." She scowled at Terrell. "Someone doesn't want to play with his sister because she's a baby."
Shaking her head so hard Nathan almost dropped her, Ronesha yelled, "Not a baby!"
Nathan set Ronesha on her feet and gave his son ‘the look'.
Terrell knew what that look meant. "Aww Dad." He gave an exaggerated sigh as only a six-year-old can. "Come on ‘Nesha, I'll play one game with you."
Happy again, Ronesha followed her brother into their playroom.
Satisfied that Nathan had diffused the stalemate, Rain turned to her husband. "Thank you and how was your day?"
Walking over to his wife he drew her into his arms, and kissed her before answering, "Okay." he had no intention of telling her they just took on another major case. He chose a lighter subject instead as they entered the living room and sat down. "Pretty routine until this afternoon, in fact."
"What happened then?"
"Carmen Johnson from CPS called Kelli. Looks like the Tanners are taking in another foster child. This one is a baby girl and she is a beautiful child." He slid an arm around her shoulders, his fingers playing idly with a curl of her dark hair. "How about your day? Wedding plans finished?"
"Almost, Tess is well organized and has every detail covered." She laid her head against his broad chest. "I found the perfect outfits for Terrell and Ronesha. You and I still need to decide on what we're wearing, but most everything else is done for now."
"Maybe this weekend, we can slip away for a few hours and find our perfect outfits?"
"You mean if MCAT doesn't need you for a breaking case."
"Yeah." Fully aware his work usually disrupted their plans, he didn't blame her for being skeptical. For now, he'd enjoy cuddling his wife. He knew he'd be busy with the forensics of their new case but hoped the rest of the week wouldn't bring any more bad news for MCAT.
Tess and JD didn't have a moment alone until JJ slumbered in bed, and their three daughters settled down in the living room to watch a Disney movie. She'd barely entered his den, when he pressed her up against the wall, locking his lips with hers. She looped her arms around his neck, willingly giving herself over to the kiss, feeling his strong arms encircle her waist.
As if their minds harmonized, both wished they hadn't vowed to stay celibate until their wedding night… Then she reluctantly broke the kiss, as he lowered his hands from her body. They stood with their heads touching for several moments, as both worked to get their raging libidos under control.
"Damn, is it too late to elope?" JD exclaimed as Tess reluctantly wriggled free of his hold on her and moved to stand a foot away from him.
"Yes," Tess replied. "We've held out this long, we can manage for another month."
He had his doubts that he could but knew the importance to her of them waiting. Hell, it was important to him too. He would just have to give his ‘boys' a swift talking to and take a lot of cold showers between now and then. "Maybe we should turn our attention to making the final preparations before it gets much later?"
"Good idea," she agreed.
He pulled out his checked off to-do list. "Told Buck and Josiah the day for the final fitting and what we wanted at the family is dinner. Picked up the engagement pictures. Had Chris approve my time off for our honeymoon. Airline tickets bought and confirmed. Reservations made at The Gryphon House for our stay in Boston. I've verified our gifts for the Wild Bunch couples will be ready for pickup by the twentieth."
She walked over to his desk to grab her clipboard, on which she had detailed list of all they'd done in preparations for their upcoming nuptials.
Settling on the couch beside him, she flipped through the pages. "A hundred and fifty invitations have been sent out. So far, we have one hundred and five who have RSVPed. Some have called concerning the meaning of the circa 1870's dress reference as well as the website to donate to in lieu of gifts. I need a definite number to give the caterer for the reception buffet by the fifteenth. We decided on the cake and final fittings for the bridal party in two weeks. My mother is coming on the twenty first, my dad on the twenty-sixth and I've confirmed my time off from the daycare. We also need to verify with Shelley's Floral Arrangements that our flowers are ready and delivered the morning of the thirty-first. We meet with Barbara about the adoptions on the tenth. I finished writing my vows, just need you to finish yours. I'm half way through packing for our trip. All the kids need to have haircuts, and I started a list of information my parents will need, while they watch our kids. Favorite foods, bedtimes, daycare schedule and so on."
"Breathe, Honey." He grinned at her, taking the clipboard from her hands, and setting it on the coffee table. "Everything is going to get done and we're going to have the wedding of your dreams."
"Our dreams." She corrected him gently. "I can't wait until the day is finally here and I get to call you my husband."
"And I can't wait to call you my wife.," He leaned back on the couch and tugged her closer. He kissed the top of her head and stroked a hand through her dark hair. "I'd like to hold our next Brother's meeting at the Carriage House. I know we wanted to surprise them, but I'd kinda like to show them around early. Okay with you?"
"Of course. I think that's a great idea. After all, they are the main reason we wanted to build it in the first place. I'll stock the fridge and then help you set up when you know the time."
"Tess McCall, you are an amazing woman and I love you."
"I love you too, John Daniel."
Ezra gave thought to the pressing issues in his life on the drive home. Before Maude dropped her news, he'd been content with the love he found with Barbara, Pearl, Bianca, his brothers, and their families. Since reading her letter he'd reverted to the idiot he used to be. He pushed those he cared for away and refused to acknowledge his personal desires, for fear of losing them. It was no way to live. The events of this day brought home to him the realization that he'd wasted precious time. Making three life altering decisions, he wanted to go home posthaste to share them with his wife.
The first thing he noticed when he entered his home was the sound of laughter coming from the kitchen. He smiled as he listened. * Ezra, when did you stop hearing the love surrounding you? *
"Honey, is that you?" Barbara entered the foyer with a smile and walked into his open arms. After a long searing kiss, they both came up for air. Once her breathing stabilized, she slipped her arm around him and they proceeded to slowly walk into the kitchen. She felt the change in his mindset and whispered softly to him as Bianca turned with Pearl in her arms to greet Ezra. "Welcome back, Love."
The Standish family shared a leisurely dinner and then followed their evening routine. Bianca went to her room to study, while Ezra and Barbara put Pearl down for the night. Alone finally, the two of them sat together in the den.
Ezra took Barbara's hand and began, "First, I wish to apologize for being an insensitive jerk the past few weeks. You did not deserve it and I should have handled things differently."
"You were hurting, and I understand you needed time…."
With a finger on her lips he stopped her and raising their joined hands, kissed hers. "I love you Barbara, but don't make excuses for my deplorable behavior. I am thinking clearer now and have made three important decisions. One, after exchanging letters with Maude, I am ready to accept her choices and will respect her wishes. Two, it's time I share with my brothers. At our meeting next week, I will tell them about Maude, so they'll stop worrying."
"I'm glad." She snuggled closer, savoring the feel of her man and relieved he'd worked through his demons. "You said three decisions, that's only two."
"Yes, I did. The third one is the most important for us." He looked down to view her reaction. "It's time we talk to Bianca and make her ours. I wish to watch our daughter walk across the stage for her graduation in June."
Barbara's face broke into a beautiful smile. She worried he might've change his mind after the emotional turmoil he'd been through. "All we need is for her to agree. I've finished the paperwork. All it needs is for a judge to sign off on it."
"Then we should talk to her this weekend." He leaned down and tenderly kissed her. His next words were unexpected. "Perhaps we also should think about giving Pearl another brother or sister? We wouldn't want her to get lonely when Bianca goes off to college."
Surprised, but also pleased, she knew her happy tears were coming and barely managed to reply. "I believe that's doable."
Two Red-tailed Hawks glided amid the clear blue skies of Colorado. Male and female, they circled one another, soaring on updrafts and thermals. With four-foot wingspans they orchestrated a beautiful ballet dance in the sky. Their raspy cries echoed through the mountains, expressing their joy.
Without warning the blue sky turned to black. Harsh winds blew across the land below them, forging a path of indescribable destruction, leaving only heart-rending waste in its aftermath. The male hawk flew in circles looking for his mate to no avail. The strong drafts of the raging storm below had claimed her, refusing to set her free.
Startled awake, Vin reached over to assure himself his wife still slept beside him. Dream? Nightmare? Vision? What if the downed hawk represented Kelli? Was the image a prophecy, a riddle or a parable? Was she safe or was he the one in danger? Who else could it be? Too many questions, too few answers. Whatever the hell he'd just experienced, it was troublesome. Cursing his supposed ‘gift', he knew he'd better find a way to decipher the mysterious messages before it was too late.
Slipping his arm around Kelli, he held on to her, burying his nose in her hair. While she slept peacefully in his embrace, he lay awake, silently brooding about his damned visions.
After dropping off the older children at school, Brodie and Vin returned to the house to finish the discussion they'd started. Waiting for Kelli to return from taking the twins to Reins, they wound down from the chaos of the Tanner morning with a welcome last cup of coffee.
Max came into the room and lifted Leia from the pack ‘n play they had set up. "Unless you two need anything, I'm taking our little sweet one for her morning bath and then put her down in Andi's room for a nap."
"We're big boys, Max. If we need anythin' we can handle it." Vin grinned at the older woman when the baby grabbed hold of her blouse and pulled. "Besides, looks like Leia is demandin' your attention."
Max smiled. "She is a charmer, for sure." Turning her attention to the baby, now cooing at her, she walked out of the kitchen.
Brodie laughed, "Son, judging from the reactions around here last night, you might have a fight on your hands when it's time for that one to leave."
"Ya think? Max is in love with her. Trey and Bren hovered over her all evenin'. Andi and Jason wanna keep her, and Kel is …well she is in nestin' mode, and Leia brings out the nurturin' side of her." Vin didn't blame them, she already had him wrapped around her little finger too.
"She is a doll, I'll say that." Beautiful babies brought another subject to mind. "Rebel will be here soon, when are we going to get that new nursery going?"
"Hell Dad, I haven't had time to do anythin' but draw up the plans." Vin grimaced. "Wanted to do it myself but with the new case and May rollin' around so quick, I'm probably gonna have to contract the work out. That is IF I have time to make the damn calls."
Brodie looked at his son. "Why don't you let me work on your plans and make those calls? With all this snow, we're not moving herds yet, so I have the time."
It would take one worry off his mind and Vin trusted his dad but hated to add to his workload. "You sure?"
"For my granddaughter? Hell yes. I'd build it myself if my talents leaned in that direction."
Vin chuckled. "Yeah, I reckon your skills are better for other things. Thanks, Dad. It'll be one less thing for me to worry over."
Brodie nodded his acknowledgment, then changed the subject back to the one they'd been discussing in the truck. "Speaking of other skills. Like I told Chris, I'd be happy to investigate more on this Southerner guy. I may be retired, but I still have good contacts."
"I reckon we can use all the help we can get on this one. My gut says we're in for a major disaster or two before we catch these bastards." Vin grabbed his empty cup, stood, and walked over to the sink to rinse it. Hearing the door open, he turned, expecting Kelli instead he saw Walter. "Mornin' Walter, Max is in Andi's room with the baby."
Walter laid some torn letters on the table. "I'll get to Max but figured you ought to know about these. Somebody vandalized our mailbox last night. Letters scattered all over the place. I picked up all I found and gonna hand deliver what's left to the ones they go to. I already reported it to the Post Office."
Located outside the gates by the road, their mail center needed a key to open the door of the rectangular container, which held tiered steel shelves for baskets, one for each family on L7, to set on. The mailperson had a key, would open it, sort everything by names, and place the letters in the proper baskets inside, then lock it up again.
Vin looked at the letters on the table. "Mostly junk mail. The Post Office has a procedure for investigatin', let ‘em handle it."
"Will do." Walter said as he headed to the other room. "Might get a chance to see Leia before she's asleep."
"Leia conquers another admirer." Brodie stood shaking his head. "Drop those plans off at the ranch office on your way out. On the other thing, I'll put out feelers for information." As he started to walk out, Kelli walked in. He kissed her on the cheek and told her. "You and my new grandbaby have a good day."
Kelli smiled, "Every day is a good day lately." Closing the door behind him she turned to Vin. "Sorry, I took so long. Tess tellin' me about their weddin' plans took longer than I expected. One more trip to the bathroom and I'm ready to go."
He stole a quick kiss before she left. "Take care of what you need, Texas. I'm gonna run downstairs to my office to pick up somethin' for Dad, then I'll tell Max we're leavin'."
Five minutes later the Tanners were out the door on their way to the MCAT office.
Josiah and Mallory were running behind. They'd gone together to take Adam and Joanne to school and a traffic accident near it held them up for way too long. Now Mallory still had to drop Josiah off to pick up his truck before she headed to work. Five minutes from home, Josiah's cell rang, he answered, listened a couple of minutes, said, "Absolutely," then disconnected. Turning to his wife with a broad smile on his face he told her. "That was Hannah's doctor. She is doing great on the new meds, interacting with others well, and asking for us. He said he'd allow her to come visit a few days around Easter and see how it goes. That would be the good news."
It pleased Mallory to hear Hannah had responded to her new meds. Josiah loved his sister and his concern for her was heartwarming. After Ice messed up her meds, he feared she would never come back from the catatonic state the wrong ones left her in. "Honey, that's all good. What could be bad, when she's getting better?"
"Mal, when she comes here, one of us should be with her, easing her into a new situation." Josiah knew he would be busy with the Southerner case. He couldn't ask Mallory to do what he should do. "This case…"
She shushed him before he went on. "We are partners. I know you can't take time off, especially since JD will be gone on his honeymoon during that time. I have twelve vacation days accumulated. It'll be fine. The kids will be on Spring Break, I'll be here with Hannah and you'll spend as much time as you can with her."
Josiah gazed at the remarkable woman he'd had the good fortune to find and smiled. "I love you, Woman, and if we weren't going in separate directions, I'd show you how much."
Stopping her car next to his Suburban, she turned and gave him a long, lusty kiss before saying, "Love you too, Big Guy. Tonight, you show me. Today, you watch your back."
The first thing on Larabee's work agenda included setting a plan into motion. He didn't waste any time calling his Captains into his office. Vin and Justin barely sat down before Larabee started pushing paperwork in front of them. "These are lists of every name even remotely associated with our earlier task force. I've had their names flagged for a call to my encrypted line. Anything happens to one of them anywhere in the state, I'll know about it first. I know we talked with each agency, but I also want everyone contacted directly by us. Justin, you have the DOJ list. Have Bravo Team call each member to make certain they know they are at risk. Vin, you have the Marshals and U.S. Attorney's names. Three of them no longer work there. Make certain one of your agents speaks to them personally. Justin, sitrep on your team?"
Michaels knew exactly what Commander Larabee wanted to know. "With a bit of encouragement, most of them agreed to make different living arrangements temporarily. Sanders and Cordova. Westin, Bandit, and Sandoval. Garrison, Miles, and your man on Alpha, Hunter, will bunk together. Of course, Walton already rooms with Santos and Ramsey will be staying with them. Gunny said she'd take care of Judy. That only leaves Spencer and Bones without firm plans."
Nodding Chris thought for a moment. "Good work convincing them. Get them started on those contacts. If you run into anything unexpected, let me know."
"Yes, Sir." Justin picked up his lists and left.
"Langley's good and I checked with Bones." Vin studied Chris. "You're wound up tighter than an eight-day alarm clock. I hope you don't plan on micro-managin' every move we make. ‘Cause if you do…then we've got a problem."
Chris tossed his pen on the desk and sighed. "Hell, Vin. Just too much shit going on at once. Bad timing for the Southerner to surface, with a team of assassins no less. I want to get ahead of him and nail his ass."
"We all do, but realistically, we both know it's not gonna happen overnight." Vin poked the bear. "Besides, it's not the case makin' you crazy. It's Cait."
Tanner words busted the dam Chris used to hold back his fears. "Damnit, every day it's something new. Doc said rest, she did. Have bloodwork twice a week, she did that too. Take iron shots, she did and for a while it made her feel better. Now she's nauseous again, tired all the time, and this morning she threw up for thirty minutes, then had to go back to bed, exhausted. I put a call into Doctor Weeks, and she said as soon as the lab results came in and she looked at them, she'd call me. Cait's not due for another seven weeks, and I'm not sure my nerves will make it that long. If anything happens to her…" His raw emotions showed on his face... "…I love that woman and need her…. what if…?"
Vin did understand the emotions raging within his brother. Hell, he had enough of the same fears himself, but that's not what Chris needed to hear. "No what if's. I agree that none of us knows what will happen in the next minute, hour, or day but…" he waited ‘til Chris looked up so he could look him in the eye. "I do believe in fate, faith, gut instinct, and our Legacy Code. They're all tellin' me our girls are gonna be best friends and in a few short weeks they're gonna be layin' side by side in a playpen on your deck or mine. You may have a rough ride gettin' there, but you and Cait are both gonna make it."
"Fate, faith, gut instinct, and Legacy Code." Chris nodded. "That combination is hard to beat." He smiled. "Thanks for the reminder."
"You're welcome. Now will you quit tryin' to do your job, mine, and Justin's?"
"Kinda pushy, aren't I?"
"Yep." Vin took his paperwork and stood. "Seriously though, you need time to be with Cait, we've got you covered. No questions, no guilt, no worry. This case will go on with or without you." He left Chris with a few things to think over while he went to his office to work.
+ + + + + + +
While busy at her computer Kelli received a call from Carmen Johnson. She gave her the preliminary police report and a few facts included in it made it difficult to find a foster family willing to take in Leia. She told Kelli she would keep trying, but it might take more than a few days to find the baby another home. After assuring Carmen they had no problem keeping the baby longer, Kelli hung up and then placed a call to DPD, Homicide Division.
She reached Detective Lou Masterson and gave him the details concerning baby Leia and requested more information on the mother. Familiar with the case Lou told her he would fax over the information they had concerning the murder a.s.a.p.
Thirty minutes later, the fax arrived. Reading it over Kelli understood Carmen's difficulty in placing Leia. She also recognized a name in the report from a previous MCAT case. Knowing the computer records would only tell her what Lou already discovered, she decided she needed to look at the hard copies of the reports, and handwritten notes kept for each case. She felt sure she could find the personal notes Vin had given Chris about his informant, Gino Galina.
Grabbing her coat, she left the main building and headed for the storage unit next door.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner sorted through the list of names and divided them up for his team. Using the intercom, he told Gunny, "Have Alpha Team assemble in conference room one in ten please." He continued to write down assignments, adding a few extra tasks. Satisfied he'd covered all details possible for now, he put his notes inside his leather day planner and left to join his team.
Josiah. Ezra, Nathan, JD, Buck, Michael, and Ramon talked among themselves while they waited for Captain Tanner. When he arrived, he glanced around the room and missed seeing one agent, Agent Coulter. He wondered why she wasn't there, but figured she had bathroom pregnancy issues and decided not to make an issue of it. Instead he took his seat and gained his team's attention.
"I'm givin' y'all your next assignment on paper." After passing five agents a list with their name on it he continued. "These lists contain the identities of every DOJ agent and U.S. Attorney who worked with our Task Force last year. I'm aware we notified those departments, but until we've contacted each individual ourselves, we're only half done with notifications." He glanced at his watch, then his cell, resisting the urge to call about his wife. "If you can't talk to someone on the phone, I expect you, and your partner to see them in person. Michael and Ramon, y'all have a different assignment."
"You're assigning us partners?" Buck heard what Chris said yesterday but didn't expect it to mean Alpha Team.
Vin glanced at his watch, his concern about Kelli's whereabouts growing. "No agent works alone, until further notice."
Being the newbie, Ramon still had a few things to clarify in his mind about Alpha Team. "So, we don't usually have permanent partners?"
Vin explained. "It varies. We typically work independently unless a specific skill is needed. On occasion we do have two agents who work well together and prefer it that way. However, today I am makin' specific assignments for this case. Josiah, with Nathan. Buck, you're with Ezra. Michael with Ramon. JD, we need you more in Com-sat. I'll cover y'all when anyone is not available."
Checking his notes, he looked at Michael. "You're a qualified instructor. Ramon needs time on the range. Go with him and put him through the paces."
He didn't give Ramon time to protest, directing his next comment to him. "You're due to requalify. We all have to do it no matter what else is goin' on. You're no exception, so you best get on it." Michael and Ramon made their exit and Vin continued.
"The rest of y'all, I want…" Tanner's cell rang, and when he read the caller ID he grabbed it off the table. "Where are… aww hell," he threw his phone, jumped to his feet, and ran out of the room, without an explanation.
Ezra stood to follow. "What the…"
"We're right behind you." Buck was on his feet as they all rushed to catch up with Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Vin didn't feel the frigid air as he ran to the storage unit and almost took the door off its hinges when he threw it open. Pushing aside an avalanche of boxes and scattered papers, he bellowed, "Kelli!"
"I'm here." Her voice sounded far away.
"Where the hell is here? Are you hurt? You need 911?" He threw cartons aside as he plowed through the cardboard mountain, "Answer me damnit!"
"Behind the damn boxes, Tanner. Where do you think? I'm okay, just stuck."
Ezra, Josiah, Buck, JD, and Nathan pushed through the door. Entering first Buck exclaimed, "Aw crap."
Vin began issuing orders. "Don't just stand there and stare. Kel's under all this. Get these damn boxes moved!" He didn't need to say it twice. Within seconds, his brother agents were helping him clear a pathway to the back of the unit.
Hearing the voices of her teammates Kelli's distress increased. "Tanner, why did you bring them? It's bad enough bein' in this situation without broadcastin' it to the world. I just need you to get me out."
"Workin' on it Kel." Climbing over the heap of rubble, Vin finally reached her. She sat on the floor scrunched up in the corner. Relieved, but still fueled by fear, he growled "What the hell were you doin' in here?"
Kelli huffed, "If you'll help me up, I'll tell you."
Reaching to help her, he stopped. "You sure you're not hurt? I shouldn't move you ‘til we're certain."
"I'm not hurt and don't need 911." She didn't want to admit the truth but having no choice, she continued. "I'm just too damn big to get to my feet in this small space, and don't you dare say a word…"
Vin, who knew better than to mention her size, had her on her feet and in his arms before she'd finished talking. "I swear, Woman, one of these days you're gonna give me a freakin' heart attack. What happened?"
"I came in here to dig out hard copies of a case and find the personal notes you gave Chris last year on Gino Galina. The shelves gave way, boxes went everywhere and … all this happened."
"Gino Galina?" JD remembered that name. "He's the informant who started us digging on The Trinity Brotherhood."
Kelli closed her eyes. She'd momentarily forgotten her teammates were there. Sighing deeply, she responded. "Yeah, he did, but it wasn't him I was lookin' for information on, it was his girlfriend."
"Desiree Adams," Nathan and Josiah said at the same time.
"Why her?" Vin asked, not sure he wanted to hear the reason because he knew it wasn't going to be anything good.
Holding up the papers she still grasped in her hand, Kelli told him. "Desiree Adams aka fifteen other names but born as Elizabeth Lynn Simon …is…. was Leia's mother and accordin' to the police report, she died as a result of an execution."
"Damn." Buck shook his head. "Puts a whole new spin on who's at risk. Don't it?"
Tanner wasn't going to discuss it out here in a cold storage building. He wanted to get Kelli someplace warm first. "Let's get back to the office before we begin speculatin' on what this means. Grab some hot coffee, make your calls and we'll regroup once I sort out the details."
When he and Kelli were alone, he needed to make sure she was all right. "You sure you're okay? Do you need to go home?"
She reassured him. "I'm fine Tanner. It was only a dumb accident. I'd rather stay and hopefully find out more about Leia's mother. If she was involved with The Trinity Brotherhood, Leia may be in danger, too."
"Alright, but so help me Kel, you so much as take one step away from your desk, I wanna know about it." Her accident could simply be an accident. Though, after his morning's vision, Vin wasn't convinced. Regardless, she and Rebel were safe, and he planned on them staying that way.
Kelli sighed. "You're the boss." Leaving the scattered mess behind, he walked Kelli back to the main building. She told him more about the police report and Carmen's request.
+ + + + + + +
Once inside, Vin watched as Kelli settled in at her workstation before he went to his office. He was anxious to talk to DPD Homicide and examine any evidence found at the scene. If the woman's death, in any way, related to the Trinity Brotherhood…then there were more victims out there.
Tanner had just hung up from talking with Detective Masterson when Gunny entered without knocking. "Sir, you should see this."
Taking the note she handed him, he read it and cursed. "Damnit, another Marshal murdered." he looked up at her. "Did you notify Commander Larabee?"
She shook her head. "No Sir, he received an urgent call twenty minutes ago, then left the building without saying a word."
Surprised by her statement, he didn't let it show. Standing, he grabbed his coat, while giving Gunny instructions. "I'll be in the field with Agents Standish and Wilmington. Have Bones and Forensics meet us at the scene. Captain Michaels will be in charge ‘til I get back." She turned to leave, and he added, "and Gunny. Keep an eye on Kel for me. Preferably without her knowin' it."
Gunny left, with Captain Tanner right behind her. He paused to tell Ezra and Buck they had a murder scene and to update Justin. On his way out the door, with Standish and Wilmington, he sent a message to the other Larabee who tended to make him crazy.
*Your turn, Chris. Where the hell are you?*
Agents Standish and Wilmington flashed their badges to the police officer guarding the scene. It was a remote section of the City Park and usually, not a lot of foot traffic came this way. Lifting the yellow tape, they stepped under and moved to the murder site. Captain Tanner stopped to get a report from the Officer in Charge, and to inform him MCAT was now in charge. When he recognized his friend, U.S. Marshal Logan Teller, Vin walked over to him.
Logan turned towards Tanner as he approached, extending his hand to the Texan. "Vin. Good to see you. Wish it was under better circumstances though."
"Me too." Vin tilted his head toward the scene. "You know the victim?"
"Not well. I'm here because my Superior Deputy wanted a Marshal on the scene." He shrugged his shoulder. "You know how it is. Don't think he's happy we're not taking lead. Wants me to make sure you guys are thorough."
Vin remembered his days as a Marshal and understood. "Not a problem. We're not hidin' anythin'. You're welcome to observe."
Logan didn't miss the word ‘observe', understanding Vin had set his boundaries. "Thanks. At least I'll have something to report back."
The two men walked over to join Ezra and Buck. Bones and the Forensic team had arrived only a few minutes earlier. Vin made the introductions.
Crouching to look at the body, Vin asked. "What do we know?"
Buck answered him."The victim is U.S. Marshal Kevin Anderson. We found him like this. Clothes disheveled in a kneeling position, with one shot to the back of the head, execution style. Robbery wasn't the motive, because he had his wallet on him with cash and credit cards intact. No signs of a struggle either. Haven't found his vehicle yet, but we did find this wedged in a crack of the tree next to the body." He handed Vin a plastic bag with a card inside. "Same message as the others."
Standing now, Tanner asked Bones. "How long before you can tell me about the bullet?"
"You'll know when I know, Captain." Bones prepared to move the body. "Y'all ‘bout done?"
"We're finished here." Ezra was unwilling to comment further until Marshal Teller left.
"All right. Bones he's yours." Vin told Logan, "We'll copy a report to your supervisor."
Once Logan left, Tanner turned to face Ezra, "What didn't you want him to know?"
Ezra shrugged. "A feeling more than fact. I believe the victim knew his killer. We should revisit our other homicides to see if task force participation is their only connection."
Tanner acknowledged Ezra's comment as he scanned the crowd of people standing behind the yellow line. "Forensics will finish collectin' evidence. Let's go back to MCAT. I feel like a fuckin' target out here."
+ + + + + + +
*Your turn, Chris. Where the hell are you?*
*Explain later, I'm off until further notice. You're in charge.*
On the drive home, Chris thought about the call he received at work from Doctor Weeks. Since then, he'd been fighting the urge to panic. Until today they had been lucky. Aside from a few fixable and non-life -threating problems, Cait's pregnancy risks had been minimal and going well. Now, the doctor upgraded her to high risk and wanted her on 24/7 monitoring. Pulling up in front of the house, he sat there for a few minutes deciding how to tell his wife without stressing her more.
Heaving a sigh, he exited his truck and headed inside.
Cait was laying on the couch laughing and talking with her parents. She glanced his way when he entered. "Hey Honey, you're home," she looked at the clock, and her happy mood disappeared, "way too early. What's wrong?"
Chris moved to sit on the couch with her, lifting her feet onto his lap. "Does something have to be wrong for me to come home to see my beautiful wife?"
"This early? Yes."
Donald and Lillian stood to leave. "We'll be in the kitchen if you need us."
"No…stay." Chris raised his hand to stop their exit. "This is a family matter and you two are family." Once the older couple sat back down, he rubbed his wife's feet as he explained. "Doctor Weeks called me. The lab work is back." He hesitated when he saw the alarmed look on Cait's face. "Relax, Babe. She read the results and yes, she did say they troubled her. She just wants us to err on the side of caution."
Lillian grasped Donald's hand. "What does she want us to do?"
Chris reached for Cait's hand and squeezed when she started to sit up. "Our baby is fine." He waited to be certain Cait was listening. When she laid back and nodded, he continued. "For now, I've already arranged for a nurse to be here 24/7 and you're confined to complete bed rest."
Taking a few moments for that bombshell to sink in, Cait finally asked, "What does ‘for now' mean?"
"We're going to try it this way for two weeks." He sighed deeply. "If your labs don't improve by then…you'll finish this pregnancy in the hospital."
"No! I can't…we can't… I mean…the nursery's not ready…you said Tempest was okay." Cait began to cry.
Donald closed his eyes and whispered, "It's not the baby. It's Cait she's concerned about isn't it?"
"Yes." Chris moved behind his wife and gathered her into his arms. "We're going to do whatever we have to, Baby. We may have some rough days ahead, but you and Tempest are going to be fine. I promise you."
Clearing his throat, Donald told his daughter. "You're a strong woman, Kit. We'll be here with you and Chris…"
Chris finished Donald's sentence. "…will be here, too. I'm taking an open-ended leave from MCAT."
+ + + + + + +
Tanner conferred with Gunny when they returned to the office. He informed her about the change in command and made several requests. Once done he stopped by Kelli's desk, told her they were leaving early, then moved on to his office. He made two phone calls while he waited for his brothers to gather.
Twenty minutes later, Josiah, JD, Buck, Ezra, and Nathan entered and pulled up chairs to hear why Vin wanted to see them.
"First off. This get-together is not goin' on record. I asked Gunny to get y'all here for a private meetin'. As of today, Chris is takin' an extended leave of absence. Cait's pregnancy is now considered high risk. I agree with him; his place is with her."
"Are we talking not good a little or serious as hell?" Buck asked what they all wanted to know.
"Not sure. He said the baby is fine, it's Cait's health that's a concern." He looked at JD. "Which means she is on complete bed rest either at home or in the hospital for the duration. She's gonna miss your weddin'."
"Hey, as long as she's okay that's what matters." JD smiled. "I'll set her up with Skype."
Vin nodded and moved on. "I've already talked to Travis. I'm fillin' in for Chris as Commander."
"Meaning one of us has to fill in for you." Josiah looked at Buck along with five other sets of eyes.
"Aww hell, "Buck squirmed in his chair. "You know I usually do, but with Inez…"
Vin interrupted him. "I got Travis to agree to a substantial sign-on bonus. It's yours if you want it."
Thinking about Inez's extensive list of wants, and the cost of remodeling, Buck knew he couldn't turn down the offer. "I reckon I'm filling in for the Captain."
"Good." Vin knew from what Inez told Kelli that Buck had a lot of extra expenses coming up. One reason he'd pushed for the bonus with Travis. "Gunny is, as we speak, gatherin' specific files for us. When we leave here, we're movin' our investigation on the Southerner and Ghosts of the Confederacy to Camp Larabee. At least until we know more about what we're dealin' with. We, Kelli included, will be the only ones workin' it ‘til we discuss our options."
Josiah questioned. "Do you know something we don't know. Or, are you speculating?"
Vin looked at Ezra. "A feelin' more than fact."
Buck asked. "How do you wanna handle the workload here?"
"We'll still work here, but at least two of us plus two from Bravo Team will be workin' from Camp Larabee at all times." Vin began passing on Captain duties. "Top priority, we're puttin' Russell Miles in our protective custody. Miles isn't gonna be happy, but I believe it's necessary. You get to break the news to him. I suggest you assign Langley and Hunter first watch. Co-ordinate with Justin for two more details to rotate in, and y'all set up a schedule." He handed Buck a slip of paper. "Here's the address of the safe house. The fewer people who know about this the better."
"I take it we're not sharing info outside of MCAT." Buck memorized the address.
"You take it right. We're not trustin' anyone other than our own agents." Vin continued giving orders. "Nathan you'll stay in touch with Greg for the latest Forensics results. JD, do what you do to keep us connected at the ranch. Ezra, use your infamous contacts. I wanna know if any of the Trinity Brotherhood is active. Josiah, scratch whatever profile you've started. We're headed in another direction." Blowing out his breath, he said "I realize this is not an ideal solution. We'll just have to make it work. Any questions?"
When there were none he told them, "I know tomorrow is Saturday, but we need to meet at Camp Larabee by nine a.m."
Whatever Vin had on his mind, the brothers believed he had good reasons for changing direction on their investigation. They left his office to finish what they needed to do before leaving for the day.
+ + + + + + +
The Tanners stopped by to see Chris and Cait before going home. He met them in the kitchen. "I've been expecting you two."
Kelli gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Is Cait up for a visit?"
Chris smiled. "She'll probably be glad to see you. Jesse has Cody in the playroom. Lillian is supervising Grace's bath. And I think Cait's had enough of me and her dad for a while."
"Then, I reckon I'll go see her." Kelli left the men to talk as they sat down at the kitchen table.
Vin studied Chris before he spoke. "You can drop the smile. Kelli may buy into you bein' okay, but I don't."
Sighing, Chris leaned forward in his chair. "Hell, Vin, I feel like I've been kicked in the gut by a damn mule. After Sarah died, I figured I could handle anything, but now I'm not so sure."
"Yep, It's the ties to a relationship that matter. They bind you to all those emotions that make life worth livin'." Vin glanced at Chris. "They can make a man glad to be alive or make him crazy worryin' ‘bout his woman. When all's said and done though, it's those ties that give us the strength to get through whatever fate throws our way."
Chris recalled the conversation. "You remember everything I tell you?"
"Mostly." Vin laughed. "You just need to practice what you preach, old man."
"Good advice for a wet behind the ears, long-winded Texan." Chris shook his head. "Faith, fate, gut instinct, our code, and ties. Points taken." He leaned back, "You talk to Travis?"
"Yep. You're approved for extended leave, so, I need your MCAT phone, badge, and your encrypted cell." Vin wasn't surprised that Chris had them ready to hand over. "And no, we're not discussin' MCAT business or any investigations. You take care of Cait, I've got you covered at work."
"I still want to make our Legacy meetings. The nurse I hired will be here in the morning. Plus, Cait's parents are staying close by."
"Probably tomorrow afternoon or Sunday would be the best time. JD told Josiah he wants us to meet at the new place he's built. I'll let you know when."
Kelli walked in and told Chris. "Cait said to tell you she's gonna wait on you before she goes to sleep. As tired as she is you'd better hustle."
Chris stood. "Guess I'd better get in there."
"If you or Cait need anythin' Dad, we're only a few minutes away." Kelli gave him a hug.
Holding onto his daughter, he spoke softly, "I know." Letting her go, he handed the couple their coats and shooed them out. "Go home and hug your babies. I'll yell if I need you."
+ + + + + + +
Giving way to the bright bands of orange streaked with purple, blazing on the horizon, the night skies disappeared. Walking out of the barn side by side, Vin and Brodie discussed pressing issues.
Brodie stopped and placed his hand on his son's shoulder. "From the information I've seen already, you're on the right track."
"This ‘Ghost of the Confederacy' shit is just too damn convenient. Someone wants us to think they're a new threat, but I'm not buyin' it."
Vin nodded, and the two men continued walking toward the house. "Glad you're workin' on this, Dad. Got a feelin' I'm gonna need all the trusted help I can get."
"Pace yourself, Son. With Chris out, Cait having problems, five kids, a pregnant wife, a few hundred other things, and this damn case, you've got a hell of a lot on your plate. Don't make me worry about you too."
He didn't answer his father's concerns as they parted ways at the back door. Vin walked inside. Max was making breakfast. The usual chaos hadn't begun yet.
"Max, we appreciate you comin' in on a Saturday." Vin swiped a piece of bacon. "Hate leavin' you with five kids, but it'll only be for a few hours. If…"
Max wasn't about to let Vin say another word. "Hush. Walter will be here, and you know we love all the kids. We'll manage just fine."
"Yes, Ma'am." Vin looked towards the door when Kelli entered with Leia in her arms. Mornin' Texas." He took the baby from her, leaned in to give his wife a kiss, then laid Leia in the playpen. "You ‘bout ready?"
"Almost." Kelli started giving Max a verbal list. "Leia took a full bottle. I changed her, and she'll probably go back to sleep. The twins are in the playroom with Jason and Andi. I told em' to be at the table for breakfast in fifteen minutes. Also, not to give y'all any trouble ‘til we get home."
Max shook her head "Go Missy. We got this."
Glancing from Max to Vin, who was standing by the door with her coat in his hands, Kelli relented. "Reckon I'm ready."
+ + + + + + +
By the time the others arrived, Vin had two case boards set up. He'd also unpacked three boxes of the files Gunny pulled for him. Kelli sipped her hot apple cider as she poured five cups of coffee for her teammates.
Buck set a paper bag on the counter. "Tia Isabella made breakfast wraps for everyone."
Kelli peaked inside the bag. "Smells good. I'll get us a plate."
"You notice he brought a bag, not a box." JD snickered. "Can't take any chances with those sneaky boxes you know."
Josiah grinned. "Yeah, you ever know when one will fly off the shelf and attack a Federal Agent."
Kelli rolled her eyes and turned around to place the wraps on a platter. She set it on the table and then sat down between Ezra and Nathan, ignoring their smiles.
Vin let them have their fun for a few moments, then began. "None of wants to be here all day, so I got us started." He moved to turn over the two case boards he'd been working on. One had ‘Southerner' written on top, the other The Trinity Brotherhood. "We've been thinkin' all wrong about what we're facin'. The case files from last's years task force are sittin' on this table."
Ezra agreed. "Word on the street says, ‘Our Southerner', who orchestrated the ten-year reign of vigilante justice in Denver, is behind all our problems."
Nathan opened one of the folders. "We never did find out who else was working with him."
"No, we didn't." Josiah opened another one. "We said then, he'd be back."
"I'm not so sure he left, at least not permanently." Vin wrote on the board. He marked through the name Trinity Brotherhood. Then wrote ‘Ghosts of the Confederacy' instead. "Our assassins, up to now…are in law enforcement. The remnants of the group we thought we cleared out last year. Our ‘Ghost' is the Southerner."
Josiah shook his head. "He only changed the name to throw us off."
Ezra explained. "The murder of Marshal Anderson showed signs that he knew his killer. After the warnings, we issued, who else could lure an experienced lawman out to a remote area?"
JD questioned. "So, is he after specific targets or restarting the vigilantes?"
"I'd say both." Vin passed them the report on the murder of Leia's mother. "He's cleanin' house. Anyone he believes wronged him is on the list. Elizabeth Simons aka Desiree Adams returned to Denver at the cost of her life. She knew too much to live. Ultimately, he wants MCAT out of the picture. Whoever he is, he doesn't care who dies in the process. He's repeatin' his recruitment of law enforcement to accomplish it."
"Damn," Buck said. "That's why you wanted Miles in protective custody."
"Yep, with his involvement in takin' him down last year he's got to be close to number one that kill list." Vin looked at Josiah. "You wanted a crack at the Southerner, now you have it. He's the only Ghost out there." He glanced around the table. "This man wants his power and control back. Since we don't know how many loyal followers he still has…we trust only us. Buck, arrange for interviews with the eighteen men and women the task force put in prison. Start with Grant Dean."
Nathan wrote down a list from one of the files. "I'll review the Forensics on the earlier murders."
"I'll talk with Justin and decide who's going to be working with us. Then make the assignments." Buck added one more task to his growing list.
Vin told them. "Report to Buck and he'll keep me informed. Unless y'all can think of anythin' else, we're done for today."
Josiah halted them before they left. "We need to hold a Legacy meeting. All of us should clear any non-work stress issues off our minds. That way we can concentrate on the job at hand."
JD reminded his brothers. "Whenever we meet I want it to be at the new building."
Vin thought for a moment. "Chris wants to attend. If he does, we don't discuss work."
"Agreed." Josiah asked, "How about tomorrow morning. Nine a.m.?" Five nods gave him his answer. "Okay nine it is. Vin you'll let Chis know?"
"Yeah. See y'all in the mornin'." Vin watched them leave and helped Kelli clean up. As he did his thoughts turned to family.
*How could he protect the ones he loved, from a man who's a ghost?*
Nine o'clock found seven brothers standing in front of what appeared to be an old-fashioned barn. The parking area in the back was big, and a u-shaped driveway in front added to the charm of the structure. Three beautiful little trees were growing beside it. The ones Tess helped JD's children plant in memory of their mother on the day of her funeral.
JD unlocked the door to allow his brothers to enter. Inside whole ‘nother world unfolded. Hanging from the rafters were three enormous ceiling fans. A polished oak floor covered the huge room. Two stone fireplaces with flames blazing filled opposite corners. A western bar with foot rails and stools filled the third. Natural lighting filtered through from several skylights, along with recessed track lights. The start of western décor, including horseshoes, lariats, spurs and old west paintings, dotted the walls.
"Wow." Buck whistled. "So, this is what you've been up to."
JD grinned. "Yep, and you've only seen part of it. Later when spring rolls around we can add to the outside area. Of course, we have the fireplaces for heat, but we have central heat and air, too. Let me give you guys the grand tour."
Chris told him. "Lead on."
"As you can see this part is big enough for dancing, parties, family gatherings or…" he smiled, "a wedding. We chose refurbished wood for a rustic look. On the left, three doors. The first opens to a lean-to with plenty of stacked firewood. The next one to a playroom for the kids and the last is the cowboys' bathroom. The right side opens to a kitchen, fully stocked. We have a double oven, side by side fridge, six burner stovetops, and a microwave. All stainless-steel appliances. Granite counter tops, farmhouse sink, dishwasher, and dark stained cabinets included. The door past that leads to a larger lean-to housing a four-tiered stainless-steel grill with side burner and rotisserie. Next is a room for napping babies or nursing moms, and then the cowgirls' bathroom." JD led them to a row of built-in tables and a sidebar. Breakfast pastries and doughnuts were ready to eat. A pot of hot coffee awaited, with seven cups around it, ready to fill.
Vin liked what he saw. "You did a fantastic job here, JD. This is a place to be proud of. I'm sure you, Tess, and your kids will enjoy it for years."
"It's not mine." Judging from the surprised looks on their faces, JD felt further explanation was necessary. "I mean it is, but it isn't. Aw hell. Read the damn plaque on the wall."
The brothers gave JD strange looks but moved to see what he was talking about. On the wall was a beautiful mahogany frame, encasing a pewter plate with inscribed words.
The Carriage House
When I was homeless, you gave me shelter
When I felt alone, you surrounded me with caring souls
When I needed aid, you gave me protection
When I was at my weakest, you lent me your strength
When I celebrate life's joy, you celebrate with me
L7 Community Center
Donated to the Wild Bunch of Larabee 7 with love and appreciation
Tess and John Daniel Dunne
Nathan turned to JD. "Community center? We talked about building one last August, but never found the time to do it. Appears you did."
Josiah said. "Well done, John Daniel. Our ladies will love this. When do they get a look?"
"Probably at the wedding, unless Tess sets up a preview with them. I understand they're all, except Caitlin of course, at Vin's this morning for brunch."
Speechless for once, Ezra could only say, "This was no small expenditure."
"Of course, we'll divide the costs among all of us," Chris told him.
"No." JD shook his head. "Every word inscribed there is true. For Tess, and for me. It may have been at separate times and circumstances, but you guys were there for both of us when we needed it. Those words explain how unique our family is. The deeds done by the caring, extraordinary people on this ranch brought Tess and me together. This Carriage House is our gift to the L7 Wild Bunch. We just want to use it on the thirty-first for our wedding. Oh, and before I forget, you all need keys." He reached into one of the drawers, retrieved six envelopes and passed one to each brother.
Buck threw his arm around JD's shoulder. His eyes glistening from unshed tears, he grinned. "You did good, Little Brother."
Vin understood JD's feelings. "I think we can all relate to those words. The Wild Bunch is not just a family, it's a way of livin'."
"Amen to that." Chris threw his arm around JD's other shoulder. "Through the ages, you've always been our communicator. The one who gives voice to our presence and message."
Josiah saw where this was leading. "Now would be the appropriate time to begin our Legacy meeting."
After grabbing coffee and doughnuts, the brothers sat around an oak table and were ready to talk.
JD started. "I'm glad you guys liked our surprise." he hesitated a moment, "but I'm feeling a bit guilty."
Buck jumped in. "Hey, this place is what we needed. You don't have any reason …"
"Stop Buck, it's not that." JD shook his head. "Things are getting complicated for all of us. At work, at home…this month don't seem to have enough days to do what needs doing. In the middle of all that, I'm happier than I've been in…hell, I don't remember when. Plus, I'm taking time off for a wedding and honeymoon when I'm needed here. Our timing sucks."
"JD, I told you before, it's the same for any of us. Hard as hell to take time off. I'm the one who should feel guilty. Stepping down as Commander when we're facing God only know what as agents and brothers." Chris scanned the faces around him. "However, as some of you reminded me, we don't work alone. When one needs to step back the rest of us take an extra step forward. It's always been our way. You deserve all the happiness you and Tess have found in one another." He smiled. "Besides, if you wait for the perfect time with our bunch, you'll be waiting ‘til hell freezes over."
"Always expect, the unexpected." Vin chuckled, remembering when he told Brodie the same thing. "It's how we live."
Josiah added. "I feel bad that I can't spend more time with Hannah when she comes to visit. I know Mallory and the kids will keep her occupied, but still… she's my sister."
Vin wanted to give them profound answers, but he could only think of one thing to tell them. "Balancin' our Legacy with our personal lives has never been easy. None of us have the perfect solution. And, maybe we're not supposed to. We can only do what we've always done. Believe in our code, rely on our strengths, and build on our solidarity."
Josiah nodded. "It's worked for us for a long time. No reason to think it won't now." Allowing his brothers to reflect on their Heart Warrior's words, he waited a few moments before asking. "Chris, how are you and Cait holding up?"
"I'm hanging in there. Cait's worried. Her parents are hovering and we're all just waiting. We'll know in a couple of weeks how this will play out." Chris sighed. "Either Cait can stay at home with 24/7 monitoring or she spends the remainder of her pregnancy in the hospital. Regardless, we're going to make it. Her, me and Tempest."
"You know we're here if you need us," Josiah said before turning to Nathan. "Anything you want to discuss?"
"Yeah." Nathan searched for the right words. "I've been thinking a lot about Desiree Adams, or whatever her name really was." He saw a couple of raised eyebrows. "Not that way. Rain and I were talking last night about the woman. How her bad choices in life left an innocent baby with no parents. We want to make sure we make the best choices for our children. It's not always easy."
Buck huffed. "Tell me about it. Inez and I think about those decisions all the time. Now with two more coming…well, let's just say we're gonna have our hands full and lots of choices to make."
"Ezra, you've been quiet." Josiah wasn't going to allow him to sit this one out. "Would you care to share with us?"
When Ezra walked in here, he still had not decided if he was ready to share. Seeing only concern on his brothers' faces, he made his choice. "At times, it is difficult to remember what we have all been through together. Not today or yesterday, but during the boundless years of the past. We all have loved, lost, and lived to do it over again. However, I did forget how much each loss hurt. Instead of leaning on the strength y'all could offer, I tried to stand alone. Failing miserably." He paused to gain control of his emotions. "I did not have my discussion with Maude. She left, leaving me a letter, instead. It is not necessary to repeat all that she wrote. The most important message it held, and I'll leave it to y'all's discretion when to share with your ladies. … Maude is dying. The doctors gave her a few months, if she has chemo, which she refused. We have exchanged posts. However, bowing to her wishes, we will not see one another again. At least in this lifetime."
Josiah whispered a prayer. "Dear Lord, please bless and comfort our brother Ezra. Lift his burden of sorrow to allow his true strength to surface. Also help our friend, Maude, find peace in her final days. Amen."
An intense flow of powerful energy cloaked all seven. Ezra needed no words as his senses absorbed the love his brothers sent to him. Sitting in silence each mentally shared their memories, reflecting on the losses and loves they had known. Finally, their Chief Warrior spoke.
"Vin, you've given plenty of good advice over the past few days. Think it's time you took some." Chris cut his eyes to their Heart Warrior. "By now, we've established the fact that you can't do it all. We're in this together. So, it's time to spill whatever vision, you've haven't told us."
"Visions? Nightmare? Hell, I don't know the difference anymore." Standing up to walk around, Vin took his time. "They've all been disturbin' but this last one convinced me I need to find some way to decipher the damn things." He shared his vision about the hawks with them. "I've been told by the ‘old ones', images I see are symbolic. Tracker tells me, I'll understand when it's time. Y'all seem to think they all relate to our Legacy. All I know is they're hittin' too close to home. I'm known as Hawk. Kelli's been referred to as Lady Hawk." He stopped walking and turned to his brothers "Can y'all guarantee what I saw was not an omen or warnin'?"
"None of us get guarantees." Chris stood to face Vin "You told me, faith, fate, gut instinct, and belief in our code, are the things we need to get through whatever shit life sends our way." Throwing his words back at him, Chris continued, "Practice what you preach, Brother."
Sighing, Vin nodded and sat down when Chris did. "I believe in all those things. Don't keep me from lookin' for answers."
Josiah thought for a bit. "Call on Tracker. He went through this when he became Heart Warrior for his seven. Perhaps he'll have answers for you, we don't."
"I'll reach out to Tracker again." Vin grumbled, "Though he seems to be avoidin' my calls lately."
Buck told him. "Use your MCAT voice of authority. Works with us."
"Or you could glare at him." JD chuckled. "That works, too."
"Perhaps he would respond to a trip through the frozen countryside." Ezra added. "It did gain my attention."
"All right, you yahoos, I get it." Vin tried to suppress a smile.
Josiah threw out his closing statement. "With everything going on the next few weeks, we may find it difficult to meet for a while. That doesn't mean we let things slide. We are separate, but one. Nothing can stand between us or break us down as long as we stand together. If not physically, then mentally, because not one of us ever carries the burden of worry alone. Allow our code to guide us as it has since the beginning."
"Well said, Josiah, and before we leave I want to say something." Chris looked around the table at the men he loved. They were his brothers, friends, co-workers, and family. "I understand why no one mentioned what's going on at work and that's okay. I may be on leave and concerned about Cait, but know this… When you face our adversaries, we walk through those doors together, and we've got each other covered. Even though I'm not there with you, it'll be my hand you feel on your backs…always."
Chris held out his palm. Each brother followed, one hand atop another, reaffirming a promise made eons ago.
+ + + + + + +
After dropping off prepared dinners at the Larabee home, Barbara and Mallory joined their sisters at the Tanner's. The older children gathered in the loft, while the babies stayed within sight of their mothers. The subjects of discussion varied, however, their main purpose was to plan the family dinner at The Standish Tavern, the evening before the wedding.
"I've placed orders for the extra decorations the Tavern will need and have confirmation of delivery. Since work is tying up our menfolk, I had Nick, the night manager at the tavern, arrange for extra help to set it up for us." Inez smiled at her sisters. "As Buck would say, we got this."
"I think we‘ve covered everything." Barbara scanned her list. "Now, we can catch up on more personal issues." Placing her hand on Inez's arm, she asked. "We don't want you to overdo. Are you sure you're good for all this?"
"Si. I am feeling much better and Tia Isabella offered to help also." Inez patted her tummy. "We had a rough start, but our babies are doing fine."
Tess loved these women, but she was still trying to get all their histories straight. "JD told me how amazing you all are. Seeing for myself how easily you organize major events, he understated your abilities. Mallory, you, Rain and Inez have been in the family the longest, yes?"
"Actually, Inez and Rain are our ‘Elder' sisters." Mallory explained and smiled when Rain returned. "Rain introduced me to Josiah."
Rain sat on the couch between Kelli and Inez. "Leia is down for the count," she told Kelli. Then she turned her attention to Tess, having heard her question as she walked in. "We won't go into Casey and Linda's histories. They are gone, and we are here. After Mallory, I suppose Kelli was next, then Barbara and Cait."
"Any suggestions of how to handle visits from your extended families?" Tess felt her sisters' hesitation to answer, then added. "I'm only asking because my parents have plans to come often. I suspect my siblings do, too."
Inez answered first. "Buck's mother is gone now, and Tia Isabella is the only other family I have."
"The Wild Bunch is my extended family. My sisters are scattered across the country with their own families. We stay in touch, but they rarely find time to get away. Nathan's brother never visits." Rain looked at Mallory.
Mallory said, "Josiah, the kids, and the Wild Bunch are all I have, too. His sister, Hannah will be coming soon though."
"Can't help you on that one, Tess," Barbara told her. "My parents have never expressed any interest in visiting and I doubt that will change. I haven't seen them in ten years. Ezra's only relative is Maude.…We don't expect her to be visiting again."
"Don't look at me either." Kelli sighed. "Vin's dad is here, and he has some kin in Texas but, they don't visit much. My only encounter with ‘the other side' was disastrous. Not one I wish to repeat for sure. The people I count as family are all on the L7."
"Cait's parents live nearby and she was an only child," Barbara answered for her. "Cait and I were friends before either of us arrived on the L7. I'm happy to claim her as my sister."
Tess laughed. "Then I guess I'm on my own figuring it out."
Malory gave Tess's arm a squeeze. "Never alone, Hon. You have all of us to help you."
The sounds at the back door of stomping boots, male voices, and the refrigerator chiming when someone opened it, alerted the women. Their menfolk were here. The ladies' planning session was over. After a brief time of visiting and collecting children, the families headed home. The Tanner household was quieter. Andi went home with Joanne. Caleb and Jason were watching a movie in the loft. Vin tackled the job of getting the twins down for their afternoon nap, while Kelli loaded the dishes from brunch into the dishwasher. They met in the den once they finished their tasks.
Vin stretched out in their double recliner. "Get your pretty butt over here, Woman." When she came close he whisked her off her feet and sat her across his lap.
"Lord, Tanner. I'm too big for this."
"Never." He launched an attack of kisses. Starting behind her ear, he trailed down her neck to the silky skin of her throat. The sound of her lyrical laughter warmed his heart. Attempting to sound insulted, he said. "Damn, I'm tryin' to be romantic and you're gigglin' like a school girl."
Lifting her hand to his face, she cupped his cheek. "I love you Vin. I'm thankful every day our paths crossed when they did. Without your love and this amazin' family of ours, I'd be a miserable, lonely woman."
Vin studied her face, seeing the mix of emotions and unshed tears in her dark blue eyes. Tightening his hold on her he asked. "Are your tears comin' ‘cause of pregnancy hormones or from somethin' more serious?"
Dropping her hand, she looked down. "Both I reckon.The subject of extended families came up today. Got me thinkin' ‘bout Marissa and the Slades."
"Look at me Kel." He used his hand to lift her chin. "Those people are nothin' but a bad memory. They can't touch what we've created, and I'd stop ‘em if they even tried. You, me, the kids," he smoothed his hand across her pregnant belly and felt Rebel kick, "are the only ones that matter." He lifted her in his arms as he stood. "You, Love, need to get off your feet. I'm takin' you to our bedroom. If you're good, I'll give you a back rub."
"Tanner, I'm always good."
"Then I reckon you're gettin' a backrub." He grinned. "Smile for me, and we'll talk about what else you get." She did, which pleased Vin. Keeping his woman happy was his job and he was damn good at it.
Thirty miles west of Denver
Admiring the gorgeous view from their recently purchased multi-million-dollar home the couple spoke of their plans.
"I love this place."
"You and our son deserve the best, Love."
"I'm aware it's necessary. I only wish you could be here more often. I hate those trips that take you away from us."
"My business trips pay for all this, Dear. Our plans are working. So well in fact, I've found the need to outsource our next big project. I expect things to be booming for some time to come."
Vin's personal journal:
I should be in a warm bed cuddling my redhead. Instead, I'm wide awake at four a.m. on a Wednesday morning ‘cause my mind won't stop working and let me sleep. It's been twelve long days since we've seen any incidents involving our Ghost. My gut says he's up to something. Nothing good, I'm sure.
Haven't had any nightmares-visions-omens, or whatever the hell they are, since the hawks. That's good I reckon. Tracker is flat out ignoring me so I'm on my own trying to figure out what the damn things mean. It's frustrating, but I'm not going to stop trying.
I finished the gift we're giving JD and Tess. Kel thinks it's perfect. I hope they think so too. Did manage to run a few overdue errands this past weekend. Picked up Dad's birthday present. It's a custom-made saddle. If I'd the time I'd have made it myself, but the man who made it is good. He's been crafting saddles for fifty years and it turned out just like I wanted. Kel and I also selected our outfits and the kids for JD's wedding. My wife thinks she's too big to look decent, which is ridiculous. It's her pregnancy talking. She looked beautiful in the dress she decided to wear. JD is holding up better than I expected with all the wedding stuff going on. He's not crazy yet, but, he still has ten days to go.
On the home front, it's been a busy month. Chris is using some of his time off to prepare Tempest's nursery, while he and Cait wait. Our ladies take over hot meals and make regular visits. Their time for a decision is coming up fast and according to Doctor Weeks, Cait doesn't seem to be improving. No matter what, Cait will be in the best medical hands available in Denver. Chris is trying to keep up a good front for her, his in-laws, Jesse, Grace, and Cody. I know he's got to be scared, I would be if it were Kel. Cause, we're men, we're not supposed to admit our fears. Wonder who made that rule?
Aside from tiring a little faster and a few hormonal crying jags, Kel is doing great. I still worry about her, but she plans to work at least until May first. That gives her a couple of weeks, give or take, to relax before our baby arrives. Gives her time to put the finishing touches on Rebel's nursery. Dad is supervising the contractors for our additions, which should be finished sometime next month.
Leia, whose birthname we now know is Elizabeth, is still with us. Just to be on the safe side, I did discourage Carmen from pushing to move her until we have our Southerner either identified or better yet, in custody. If Kel, Max, Jason, and my Dad had their way she'd be here permanently. Ezra and Barbara made the decision to formally adopt Bianca, if she agreed, which she did. Ezra came into work last week with a big smile on his face and made the announcement, then passed out cigars. They're planning to go to court and complete Bianca's adoption on the thirtieth, the same day Tess and JD go to make their mutual adoptions official. Later that evening, the Wild Bunch has a shindig planned at the Standish Tavern for the family dinner.
We did have another mailbox break in. According to the Post office, we're the only address having a problem. Walter is installing a concealed camera to try and catch whoever is doing it.
Guess I'm just rambling to pass the time. Maybe I should go raid the fridge and put on some coffee. I'm sure as hell not going to be sleeping.
+ + + + + + +
Vin did better than just raid the refrigerator. He found a triple chocolate fudge cake waiting for him to cut a big slice. Sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of hot coffee and a heavenly piece of cake, he figured it wasn't all that bad being up in the middle of the night.
Waking up to find Vin missing from their bed, Kelli went in search of her husband. Finding him, she walked over to stand beside his chair. "What are you doin'?"
With his mouth full, all he could do was point at the mound of chocolate delight. Taking a swig of coffee to wash it down, he could finally speak. "Couldn't sleep. Then, Rebel told me she was hungry. Bein' a good dad, I ‘m eatin' a piece of cake for her."
Kelli rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Right."
She shrieked when Vin unexpectantly swept her off her feet and onto his lap. Cutting another bite of the gooey concoction, he lifted the fork to her mouth. "I don't mind sharin'."
Taking the bite, her eyes never left Vin's face. "Umm, that's good." Both felt it when Rebel kicked. "Reckon our daughter approves."
Using his finger, he brushed a crumb from the corner of her mouth. "Want more?"
Trailing her fingers down his cheek she whispered, "Yes, but not cake."
"My bed or yours?"
"Surprise me, Cowboy."
Vin helped her to her feet and into his arms. Lowering his head, he tenderly touched his lips to hers. Deepening their kiss, he groaned when the sound of an alert blared from his encrypted cell, designated for MCAT top security threat assessments only.
Taking a deep breath, he saw the elevated threat level, which meant calling in both MCAT teams a.s.a.p. He then entered his security code into the phone to access the message. A call immediately rang through and Tanner listened for a minute. "Secure the exits. No bodies move ‘til our Forensics Teams gets there, ‘m en route."
Before he made his next call, he told Kelli, "Sorry, Baby. Someone hit the safe house. I need you to meet JD at Camp Larrabee. The two of y'all need to monitor what's goin' on from there. Also need you to contact Walter. Tell him we're rollin' on MCAT business, and not to alert Chris. Nothin' he can do, and he don't need the extra worry. When I know more I'll call." She took a deep breath before disappearing from the kitchen.
Calling Buck, he began issuing orders as soon as his Captain answered. "Alpha Team Code Red. Get Forensics and Bones to the safe house a.s.a.p. JD to Camp Larabee. I'll pick up Ezra. You, Josiah, and Nathan meet us at the front gate. We roll in ten."
His next call was to Justin. "Bravo Team Code Red. Safe house attacked. Secure Denver Memorial. Injured en route."
The last call went to Ezra. "I'll be there in five."
Kelli returned with his gun and badge. While he pulled on his boots, she reached for his coat. Slipping into it, he grabbed Kelli, kissed her, and said, "Love you," before disappearing out the door.
+ + + + + + +
Within the allotted ten minutes, a caravan of three vehicles were in motion. With Vin's Silverado taking lead, he accelerated, flipping on the lights and sirens once they cleared L7. Normally the trip to Englewood would take forty minutes, he planned to make it twenty.
Racing his Silverado down the residential streets of the nondescript neighborhood, Tanner almost missed his turn. Making a hard jerk to the left, he heard Ezra mutter a curse as they made the corner on two wheels. He roared down to the end of the street to a cul-de-sac. A one-story, two-bedroom house sat on a quarter-acre lot. Slamming on his brakes, he shut down the engine and jumped out of the truck with Ezra right behind him. The sound of screeching tires alerted both to the arrival of their fellow teammates.
The scene was chaotic. There were four State Police vehicles and two locals with flashing lights out front. Both MCAT Mobile Analysis Units had already arrived as well as a couple of news crews. Yellow crime tape cordoned off the crime scene. Two Colorado DPS Troopers were keeping the growing crowd of curious onlookers and rabid news reporters back.
Tanner started across the lawn and moved to duck under the yellow tape, when one of the CDPSs moved to block his advancement.
"Commander Tanner, MCAT. Who's in charge here?"
"I am, Commander." A tall, dark haired man with slate blue eyes and greying hair stepped forward. He motioned to his man to move. "'I'm Captain Braden, we spoke on the phone."
Buck joined the two men. "Captain Wilmington will be takin' charge of the scene. Tell us what you know."
Braden nodded. "Five unknowns made entry into the structure. A shoot-out ensued. Three DOS, three transported to Denver Memorial. After identifying them as LEOs, I had two of my men escort the ambos." He handed Vin the MCAT IDs. At least now Tanner knew which agents had been on protection duty.
"Appreciate that, Captain. For now, we need your men to assist with crowd control and canvassing."
"Copy that." Braden walked away.
Tanner turned to Wilmington, showing him the ID's before slipping them into his pocket.
"Buck, make your assignments, then walk with me through the scene."
+ + + + + + +
Buck didn't waste time. "Nathan, coordinate the Forensics Teams inside and out. Josiah, talk to the party that called it in. Ezra inside with me and Commander Tanner."
Tanner was already at the front door when Buck and Ezra joined him.
Splintered in several pieces and hanging at a haphazard angle from its hinges, there wasn't much left of the door. Stepping across the threshold into what was once the living room, they saw it now resembled a war zone. The shattered windows, upturned furniture, and bullet-hole peppered walls, told them a hell of a battle took place.
Tanner shook his head. "How the fuck did a routine protection detail turn into this?" The walls showed arterial splatters of blood, which also covered some of the furniture, pooled under the bodies of the deceased, and soaked into the carpet at their feet.
"I don't know, but I reckon it's my job to find out." Buck sent Ezra out back to look for signs of escape routes. Standish exited the house through a hole in the back wall where a door once stood, and only a pile of kindling remained.
Buck and Commander Tanner did their walk through, skirting around evidence markers on the floor. On their way out of the living room the two maneuvered around Bones as he bagged one of the deceased. They paused in the kitchen, giving it a quick glance, noting its pristine condition before moving down the hallway toward the back of the house. There they found a single bathroom and two bedrooms.
A shattered window in the first bedroom showed where one of their perps had penetrated the house. There were pieces of glass strewn across the floor and bed, but otherwise the room appeared to be untouched. So was the bathroom as they passed by it to the last bedroom.
This last room was a mess. Pieces of broken glass lay scattered around the room. Bullet holes had penetrated the walls, and the frame of the bed. Tossed blankets, bloody crumpled sheets, and pillows littered the floor. There were pools of blood at the foot of the bed and inside the doorway.
Buck took the lead as they walked back into the living area. "Jesus, P90smgs and AK-47s. In close quarters like this, it's a miracle anybody survived. Who the fuck are we dealing with?"
"Hell, if I know." Vin pinched the bridge of his nose. "Finish processin' the scene. I'm headed out."
Vin sat in his truck for a few minutes, assessing the ramifications of the fiasco he'd just left, and mentally reviewed the facts he knew. Finally, he reached for his cell and made the first of many calls. "Sir, we have a situation." He gave Travis a sitrep and arranged to meet him at the hospital.
Then he called JD. "I wanna know how the hell the attackers found the safe house, and I needed answers ten minutes ago."
After telling Justin he was on his way, he started the long drive to Denver Memorial.
+ + + + + + +
Running CASSIE through her paces, JD worked to find how and who compromised his teammates' location. Kelli was on the phone with Josiah, writing down the information he was giving her about witnesses. The door to Camp Larabee opened, allowing a blast of cold air to enter the room. Chris removed his coat and hung it by the entrance.
"Which one of you is going to tell me what's going on?"
JD and Kelli stopped what they were doing and exchanged glances.
When she saw her teammate was not going to saying anything she walked over and kissed her dad on the cheek. "How's Cait?"
Chris tilted his head back and frowned. "What? ... She's the same and that's not why I'm here, Missy."
"Oh. I hoped you were here to tell us Cait had a miraculous recovery and you're comin' back to work."
"You know I'm not."
"No? Then you must be here to find out business about an agency you're on leave from. Or, you're here to get us in trouble if we drag you into MCAT work. Right?"
"Damnit, I know MCAT rolled on something big this morning. Just tell me…anyone on the team down?"
Kelli didn't ask how he knew. She looked over at JD, who looked as frustrated about separating work and family as she felt. "Last we heard, three transported to the ER. Haven't had any updates on who and what condition."
Chris finally sat down in one of the chairs around the table, clearly not liking the lack of information. "Waiting sucks."
Sitting down next to him Kelli placed her hand over his. "Dad, you've been in law enforcement too long to not know, it's part of the job. So, what are we really talkin' about?"
Massaging his temple, Chris shook his head. "Cait's not doing any better. Her blood pressure is elevated and…. Doctor Weeks wants her admitted to the hospital no later than noon tomorrow. When I left the house, she was sleeping. Then I ran into Walter, he told me the guys rolled out early. I can't be a help with MCAT right now, and with Cait… the waiting's been hell on both of us."
JD set a cup of coffee in front of his brother and then joined them. "I won't say you're not missed at MCAT, because you are, but we work as a team. Vin and Buck stepped up to fill in just like you've done for them a time or two. Let us do the jobs you trained us to do. We'll be okay while you deal with personal priorities."
"Yeah, I guess I have been down that road a time or two."
Kelli squeezed Chris' hand. "Now, while we all wait. What can we do to help you get Cait ready for the hospital move?"
+ + + + + + +
Justin paced while he waited on any news from the doctors. Three of his teammates had been in surgery for more than an hour and he'd heard no word about any of them. He looked down the hall when the elevator dinged. Vin stepped out and was walking towards the surgical waiting area.
After seeing the damage at the safe house, Vin was not expecting good news. Judging by the look on Justin's face he didn't have anything good to tell him. "Sitrep."
"By the time I arrived, Miles was already in surgery. I spoke briefly to Hunter and Langley before the nurses ran me out. Neither one could give me details about the assault. Both went in for surgery shortly after and all three were listed as critical. I have two agents outside the doors of each of the three operating rooms."
"I'm not sure how any of ‘em survived." Vin sat in one of the uncomfortable chairs hospital are noted for having. "Travis is on the way. We wait." He made a call to JD and Buck, then spoke to Kelli a few minutes.
Ten minutes later the elevator dinged again. A grim-faced Orrin Travis exited and came down the hallway.
Vin stood to meet him. "Sir, no word yet."
Orrin held his hand up. "Before we start, I have a feeling I should sit down. I have already contacted next of kin for our agents. Suzanne is arranging their travel and lodgings. Any ideas on how they found our men?"
"No. Buck will have a preliminary report for us soon. Although we know it wasn't through the phone GPS, because JD disable them for the agents on protection detail. JD is also workin 'as we speak to discover the how, and we will find out. Unfortunately, it won't help with our current situation even when we do." Vin sat back down, leaving the pacing to Justin. "Another thing we should consider. It's gonna take time to find the man responsible for the four previous assassinations and today's assault. He's shrewd, cautious, and has no problem cuttin' ties with anyone who knows too much about him. It will take either him gettin' careless, a stroke of luck, or long gruelin' investigative work to find him. Regardless, with Chris on leave we're gonna be down four agents, when Kelli goes out on maternity leave, five. Plus, JD will be away for two weeks. We need additional personnel we can trust, for protection duty. Not only for our injured, but accordin' to Kel, Cait is goin' into the hospital for an extended stay. She and Chris should have someone guardin' them. He's still a target on or off leave."
Clasping his hands in his lap, Travis heaved a heavy sigh. "I have given that some thought and already have Russo assessing our options with Homeland. I am aware we cannot rely on local law enforcement until we know how deep the roots are this Southerner seems to have. I've even considered calling up all or part of Charlie Team to Denver to assist until we resolve this case. I want this SOB as much as you do, Vin. I trust you to find out what went wrong with our detail and handle it. Until I decide about additional personnel, I want you to do what is necessary. But prioritize the safety of our units because I know you are right. Finding our adversary is going to take time."
When the doctor walked in, Justin stopped pacing as Orrin and Vin stood.
Doctor Gilford, wearing blood stained scrubs, acknowledged the men he'd come to know, care about, and respect over the years. "Hunter and Langley each did well during their surgeries and they are currently in recovery for another hour, then I'll have them moved. Before you insist, and tell me about risk, protection, and several other reasons. Yes, they are assigned the same room. While both their injuries are serious, I expect them to make full recoveries given time and rehabilitation." He pulled off his surgical head cover, holding it in both hands, and sighed. "I'm sorry to say Russell Miles' head injury was too extensive and he expired on the table."
"Damnit." Justin dropped into a chair.
Travis pulled out his cell. "I have arrangements to make. Tanner, let me know if Wilmington arrives before I return. I want in on your briefing."
Vin started at the double doors Doctor Gilford disappeared though and then turned to Justin. "We might'va lost this battle, but the war's not over yet. That bastard is gonna pay."
An hour later Hunter and Langley were in a regular room, still a bit dopey, but otherwise awake. Huddled in a sitting area not far from the ER entrance, administrative members of MCAT were discussing security issues. Buck and Ezra had concluded their part of the investigation at the crime scene. When they arrived at the hospital, they joined Director Travis, Commander Tanner, and Captain Michaels. Ezra stood behind Buck as he gave his verbal report.
Buck knew what was expected from him. "Director, Commander. Agents Sanchez and Jackson returned to MCAT with Forensics. My preliminary findings indicate the ‘hit squad' consisted of five men. Two came through the front door, one from the rear entrance and another two from the back of the house. They used P90smgs and Ak-47s and their main mission was to take out Agent Miles. We did find a GPS tracker hidden on the underside of Agent Hunter's truck. I replayed the serial number to Agent Dunne. He determined it came from a batch of one hundred sent to the Denver Police Department last year. All it took was one man to follow Hunter, place it at an opportune time and track him from then on. It wouldn't take a genius to narrow down the location of his assignment."
"Another reason we need to tread with caution." Travis nodded and glanced at his watch. "Thank you, Captain Wilmington. I need to leave for a while to meet Hunter's father at the airport."
Justin reminded the Director. "Cordova and Westin are out front waiting on you, Sir."
"Ah, yes. My escorts. I suppose I should get used to them."
When Travis left Vin filled in Buck and Ezra. "Miles didn't make it. Hunter and Langley are in serious but stable condition in a room guarded by one of our agents."
"Hate it about Miles, but truthfully, I'm surprised any of them made it." Buck told Vin what he wouldn't say in front of Travis. "They were outnumbered, for sure, but they left themselves wide open for this shit. If they'd made smarter decisions, I think Miles would still be with us. Instead of making themselves a smaller target, they spread out all over the house. When they realized they were out gunned they should've fallen back to protect their charge. Instead, they engaged in gun battle that makes the shootout at OK Corral look like a damn Tupperware party."
Vin shook his head. "It's a damn shame. I figured as much when we did our walkthrough. But really wanted to be wrong."
Ezra, who had been quiet up to now voiced his opinion. "This will be a hard lesson for our two younger agents. One I am certain neither will repeat again."
"Probably not, but the lesson comes first and it's my job as Captain to teach it." Buck looked at Vin. "Do they know about Miles?"
"No. We've been makin' plans for extra personnel and haven't been in to see them yet." Vin urged Buck on. "I'll fill you in later. You go in first. Cait was admitted today and I'm gonna stop by her room and see her and Chris. I'll see Michael and Ramon after that."
"Don't seem like those two are gonna get a break. I'll take care of Captain stuff then go see Chris and Cait, too."
+ + + + + + +
Chris fluffed the pillows before helping Cait settle her weary head against them. She shifted about, trying to find a comfortable position for her cumbersome body. He lifted her feet, slid a pillow beneath them and pulled the blankets to cover her.
Cait sighed, already worn out from the excursion from Larabee 7 to the hospital. Though she pretty much did most of it as a passenger. She only walked from their house to Chris' truck at the ranch. At the hospital, she was whisked straight into a wheelchair. Once they got her through registration, and up to her room, she'd only taken mere steps to get into the bed, but it felt as if she'd walked miles.
That was how zapped her energy had been the past couple of weeks. Adding to the list of other pregnancy symptoms she couldn't remember experiencing with her first two children. Of course, she'd been twenty-five years younger when she'd had them. They'd been easy pregnancies with only a variation of the normal symptoms most women experienced when they were carrying a child.
Nothing about her pregnancy with Tempest was normal. Her and Chris' baby girl's organs were reversed, and all the symptoms she'd had from the start, seemed to be at the extreme end of things. Culminating in her being a resident in Denver Memorial for the rest of her pregnancy.
She hated that her body was letting her down when she needed it to be the strongest. She hated that she had to be away from her home and other children. Most of all she hated seeing the hint of fear in Chris' eyes in brief unguarded moments when he didn't realize she was watching him. He was trying hard to stay strong for her and their children, but she knew him too well. She knew he wasn't as unaffected by her pregnancy crisis as he was letting on.
"What is it, Sweetheart?" Chris asked, taking her hand in his.
"Talk to me." Chris gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
"When they first told us, we were pregnant with Tempest, I didn't think I would be the one facing complications. My biggest fear to now, was about what kinds of problems having reversed organs would have on her health. I hate that I'm causing you and the children so much added stress and worry."
"We've been through this. None of this is your fault. It is what it is. I believe that as long as we do everything that Doctor Weeks asks us to, that you and Tempest will be okay."
"But what if…?"
"I don't believe in ‘what ifs'. Only certainties. You and Tempest are going to be fine."
+ + + + + + +
Buck nodded to Brad Garrison, who stood watch outside the door, when he entered Ramon and Michael's room. Stepping inside he heard the two talking about their injuries and the gun battle at the house. Standing there for a moment, it was clear neither man realized he was in the room. He cleared his throat to gain their attention.
"Captain Wilmington, good to see you, Sir." Langley moved the remote on his bed, so he could sit up more and groaned when his bandaged leg stretched.
"Easy there, Stud. That leg's in bad enough shape." Buck glanced over to Ramon. "You don't look so hot yourself."
"No, reckon not, but doc says I'll heal. At least we got two of the bastards who came through those doors." Ramon grimaced when he moved his arm, momentarily forgetting about the damage.
"Can either of you tell me what your assignment was?" Buck looked from one to the other.
Michael answered, "Protection detail."
Buck nodded. "You're correct. So, why in the hell was the man you were supposed to be protecting left alone in the back of the house? And why, when you realized you were under attack, didn't you fall back?"
After a few seconds of silence Ramon ventured a question. "Uh, weren't we supposed to shoot the bad guys?"
"Only to protect your targeted teammate." Buck dropped his bombshell. "You two engaged in a wild west shoot out. Might I add, the only reason you're here is because of the vests you were wearing. Two other assailants made entry into the bedrooms behind you. One is dead, the other got away, but Russell Miles died in surgery."
"Dear God." Michael closed his eyes and uttered a prayer.
"There were more? I… thought if we stopped the three who broke through the doors, Russell was safe." Ramon wasn't sure how, but he knew he'd screwed up big time.
"I want both of you to think about what you could have been done differently. Tomorrow, when you're more alert, I want a written report. After that we'll review what went right and what went wrong. Then we'll talk more about alternative actions." Buck knew the hard part was ahead for his agents. "This is a tough job. Today's been one of the toughest days in a long time. For now, get some rest. I'll come by tomorrow." He left his agents with a lot to think over.
+ + + + + + +
Vin made a mental note to thank his wife for having flowers waiting for Cait when she arrived at her hospital room. After making small talk for a bit he told Cait he and Kelli would be by as often as they could. Then he said his goodbyes and started for the door.
"I'll walk you to the elevator." Chris kissed Cait on the forehead and then followed Tanner out the door. He guided Vin to a small alcove, away from Cait's room. "How bad?"
"Bad enough, but not your problem today."
"Look, I'm staying with Cait for the duration. That doesn't mean I can't offer you support and advice if you need it."
"Hell, Chris, we lost Miles. Plus, two more are down and out for weeks."
"You know who?"
"Fuckin' hit squad assaulted the safe house. I know that Southern bastard is behind it. Same as the other four assassinations, but he's a damn untouchable ghost. Also, just so you know, I'm assignin' protection for Cait's room."
"You're going to be shorthanded, you don't need…"
"Non-negotiable Chris. You're as much of a target as Miles was. If he hadn't helped us while he was undercover, and you didn't form the task force, the bastard's empire would still be up and runnin'. We know he still has deep ties in Denver law enforcement. That's why Travis and I worked out a way to bring in additional help we can trust. Two agents from Charlie Team will be here Monday. Plus, Russo is vettin' six Homeland Security agents from out of state for protection duty."
"You know if you need me, I'll do what I can."
Vin nodded. "What you can do, beside takin' care of Cait and Tempest, is put your brain to work. Figure out a way for us to ferret out a damn ghost."
"I'll work on it."
+ + + + + + +
Teaspoon took a steadying breath before he opened the door and entered the room his injured son and teammate were sharing. A quick scan of the interior told him that the bandaged, sleeping figure in the bed closest to the door was Langley. He quickly crossed the room to Ramon's side. His blue eyes scanned over his boy. Taking note of the ashen complexion, dark circles under his closed eyes, the oval imprint over his nose and mouth where the oxygen mask had set during his operation, and his cracked lips.
Ramon's left shoulder was wrapped in thick bandages. Dressings traveled halfway down his arm, before disappearing under the blanket covering the lower half of his body. Black pads were taped to his chest to monitor his heart, and he had an I.V. in the bend of his right arm.
Teaspoon leaned over and pressed a kiss to his son's forehead, struggling with the wealth of emotion flooding over him. Grizzled lawman that he was, seeing his child injured in such a manner, brought his paternal instincts roaring to the surface.
Ramon's eyes fluttered open and he straightened up. He licked his dry lips. "Hey Pop."
"You look like hell."
"Feel like it too." Ramon, shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position. He mistakenly tried to use his left elbow for leverage, causing spikes of white hot pain to arch through his wounded shoulder and chest.
Teaspoon grasped Ramon's floundering right hand, feeling his son's fingers grip it tightly as he fought silently through the pain coursing across his upper body.
"Damn…remind me not to do that again." Ramon gasped before the pain lessened and became manageable again.
Ramon eyed him quietly for a moment. "You been briefed on what happened?"
"I screwed up, Pop. I lost sight of what my assignment was and now a good man is dead."
"That's all you're going to say? No reprimands? No ‘I told you so'?"
"Nope. I heard Captain Wilmington already did that."
"Pop, I…" Ramon closed his eyes for a moment, struggling under the weight of knowing his actions had contributed to Russell Miles losing his life. His thoughts gave voice to the lingering doubt troubling him. "I don't know…if I'm cut out to be an MCAT Agent."
Teaspoon fixed him with a hard stare. "You are a Hunter. We don't run from our mistakes. We own them, learn from them, and do our best not to repeat them."
Teaspoon softened his expression, aching for his son. He knew only too well what it felt like to have the lives of teammates weigh heavy on you. It took guts to come to terms with such costly mistakes. He had done so in the past and had no doubt Ramon could as well.
"You'll have plenty of time to ponder on it while you're at home recuperatin'."
"Home? I can't go home. We've got an active case going on."
"You're lookin' at six weeks or more of healin' on that shoulder and arm of yours. You can't work and under the current circumstances, you can't be left to your own devices. So, protest all you want, but as soon as the doctor okays it, you and I are headed home to Texas."
+ + + + + + +
Sitting at his desk, Vin felt the strain of the long day. Muscles stretching from the base of his neck down the center of his back ached. He'd finished reading Buck's report on the morning attack and was three-fourths through the Forensic analysis. A knock on his door gave him the break he needed.
Buck walked in with another armload of folders. He dumped them on Tanner's desk before he sat down. "The finished transcripts of the interviews with the inmates incarcerated due to the work of our task force. Inmate 78's on top."
Tanner's hand stopped in midair, as he reached for the file. "Seventy-eight? I thought it was only eighteen."
Shrugging his shoulder, Buck grimaced. "Seventy-eight, eighteen, what's the difference? It felt more like a hundred and all of them were pretty much useless for us."
Dropping the top folder in front of him, Tanner looked at Buck. "Not one of ‘em had anythin' on the Southerner?"
"Oh yeah. He's six feet, or six feet-four, or five-ten depending on who you ask. His eyes are brown, hazel, or grey. He has black, blond or brown hair. I guess you get the picture. The few things they all agreed on, he has a Southern accent, he's a male, and he dresses well."
Running his hand down his face, Vin sighed. "Hell, Buck, they could be describin' Ezra. I'd bet not one of ‘em actually met the bastard."
"What makes you so sure?"
"They're still breathin' aren't they."
"I guess that's a fair assessment." Buck leaned forward. "I want this SOB as much as any of us. But how in the hell are we gonna find a damn phantom?"
"He's gonna slip up somewhere, somehow, and we have to be ready to take advantage when he does. In the meantime, we don't make ourselves any bigger targets than necessary, and protect the ones we know are."
"We better do a damn sight better than we did with Russell. The man risked everything to go undercover with those vermin and what did he get for it? A coffin and a military burial in Virginia."
"It's our job to keep workin' to find the SOB responsible. Hopefully, before anyone else dies. Monday mornin' two agents from Charlie Team will be here. They'll belong to you. Russo has six vetted Homeland Security agents comin' in to relieve our agents on protection detail. Travis made the arrangements to fly Russell's body home to his parents." Vin twisted his upper body to unknot the kink in his back. "Nothin' more we can do here tonight. Go home. We'll start over tomorrow."
+ + + + + + +
When the last baby was down for the night. Vin and Kelli finally had some time alone. She knew he was operating on fumes because he'd had little sleep last night, but he wanted to talk. They cuddled together in their double recliner, enjoying the heat, which radiated throughout the room from flames in the fireplace.
"I know losin' Russell is hard. Are you okay?"
"I'll never be okay losin' an agent on my watch, but I don't have much choice about it. The only thing I can do is find the man who ordered his death. The way things are lookin' that's not gonna be easy."
"Good thing you're a patient man, Tanner."
Vin laughed. "Patient for you, yes. Not so much for our ghost."
"You should be, Sassy" Vin held her tighter, kissing the top of her head. "You're not always easy to be patient with, but I happen to be in love with you the way you are."
"Good thing, ‘cause I'm in love with you, too." Placing her palms on his chest she leaned back and looked at him. "I'm worried about Dad. He tries to hide it, but Cait's health issues are really gettin' to him. Did you get a chance to talk with him today?"
"Yes. Chris is only doin' what I would be doin' if it were you. He'll be fine once Tempest arrives safe and sound, and Cait is okay."
Kelli nodded. "I reckon, but I'll still worry. It broke my heart today to see him and Cait so down when they left for the hospital. I know she'll get the best care, but, as you and I know firsthand anythin' can go wrong durin' a pregnancy. We've been lucky with Rebel."
Vin saw where this conversation was heading. The last thing he wanted was for Kelli to start worrying about Tempest, Cait or Rebel. "She'll be okay, Kel. Tell me what else you did today waitin' for me to get home."
"I talked to Barbara a bit. You know their adoption thing is the day before the weddin'. One of us should be there with them. If you can't get away, I can go for us."
"WE will go together. From now until our brazen Southern Serpent is apprehended, your days of goin' anywhere solo are over. You can argue all you want, but I'm not budgin' on this."
"Not arguin' Vin. I won't do anythin' to add to the load you're carryin' with Chris out and that crazy man on the loose." She smiled. "Course, after Chris is back and we arrest the Southerner …all bets are off."
"Then you can go back to givin' me heart attacks again." Drawing her face closer, he lightly kissed her, reminding him of their morning. He stopped and licked his lips. "Is there any of that chocolate cake left?"
During the past week, it seemed agents hit one dead end after another in their quest to identify the Southerner. There were very few things they knew about the men who attacked the safe house. They were professionals, probably paramilitary, the prints they did find produced no results, and a damn signature card was left behind. The frustration level in the MCAT office remained high. Vin cursed the never-ending paperwork piled on his desk. He didn't mind covering for Chris and knew Larabee would do the same for him if it were Kelli in the hospital. Yet, between the new forms, reports, and files Travis wanted, Vin knew being Commander would never be the job he'd seek voluntarily. He was already behind on his morning schedule and it was only nine o'clock.
With a light tap on the door, JD walked in with even more files for Commander Tanner. "This is the next batch." He set them on the desk and turned to leave.
"JD, hang on." Vin gestured for him to sit. "You've been workin' non-stop for a week, trackin' down the officers associated with that DPD shipment of GPS trackers. I want you to stop."
"I still need to check their financials, shift schedules, backgrounds, and…"
"Stop JD. Franklin and Pam can do that." Vin leaned forward "Go home."
"There's too much to do here."
"Keep your priorities straight, JD. You deserve to be happy, regardless of what's happenin' with a case. Family will be with you long after MCAT work is a distant memory. You're gettin' married in three days. I also understand the rest of Tess's family is comin' in today. You should spend time gettin' to know them. The adoption hearin's Friday. So is your rehearsal and the shindig at the Tavern. Share these days with your bride-to-be."
"Are you still Commander or is this brother advice?"
"Reckon it's brother advice. It's easy to let days slip by and take for granted what's important. There will always be a big case, urgent MCAT business or one more thing needs doin'. Long after you and I retire there will be bad guys to catch and cases to solve. My point is…your place right now is with Tess. Just as Chris' place is with Cait."
"Well, I did want to visit with Chris and Cait. Plus, I've got a ton of stuff to do at home before the wedding."
"Then get ‘em done." Vin smiled. "As Commander, I'm givin' you an order. No matter what does or doesn't happen here, I don't want to see you back in this office until after your honeymoon."
"Yes, Sir." JD stood to leave, but had one more thing to say, "Thanks, Brother."
+ + + + + + +
An hour later it was Josiah walking through Tanner's open door. "Is now a good time?"
"Since you don't have an armload of paperwork to drop on me, yes." Vin laid down his pen, giving Josiah his full attention. "Progress on the profile?"
"Not much. By keeping himself isolated from his crimes, he is limiting what we can find out about him. I have however, been able to narrow down the possibilities of who lifted the GPS tracker from DPD." Josiah passed a slip of paper to Vin with two names written on it. "According to what JD found so far, these two men are living way beyond their means. When I dug deeper, I discovered both have repeatedly expressed their frustrations about the legal system on social media and apparently, they are good friends. My suggestion, we put them under surveillance and see where they lead us."
"It's a place to start." Changing topics, Vin asked. "How is the visit with Hannah goin'?"
"Actually well. She and Mal clicked and Joanne and Adam are excited about having an Aunt Hannah. I'm glad we picked her up early and it's been quiet on the work front since she's been here. I do believe though, she's ready to go back to Centennial Peaks. Next time she comes perhaps, she'll stay longer."
"When will she go back?"
"Mallory is taking her back later today."
"You should be with her. Our teams are meetin' at one. If you leave after, will that be soon enough?"
"Should be. Are you sure about me taking off?"
"Like you said, our ghost has been quiet. Let's hope he stays that way, at least ‘til after JD's weddin'. We should take care of family business while we have the chance. If nothin' changes, I'm givin' most of Alpha Team Friday off anyway. I'm sure you have a few things to tend to before then."
"I'll take the time then, and appreciate you thinking about Hannah. But if you need me, I have no problem switching gears back to MCAT."
"Never doubted it. Meetin's gonna be short. Unless we get an alert, don't plan on comin' back before Monday."
+ + + + + + +
Shortly before one, Tanner met with Captains' Michaels and Wilmington. First, they discussed surveillance for the DPD officers Josiah identified. Then Tanner gave them updates to pass along to their teams. Finally, he steered them to security issues.
"Remind them we are on elevated alert status. Particularly those plannin' to attend the weddin' Saturday. If they have extra guests with ‘em, they should take separate vehicles in case they need to leave and make sure they have their ‘go' bags."
Justin nodded and then asked. "Are we expecting trouble at the wedding?"
"Around here, we always expect trouble." Vin rubbed his neck. "I figure if our Southerner finds out about Saturday's event, he might choose that time to make a statement."
"God, I hope not." Buck shook his head. "I assume we have extra security at the ranch."
"We do. Brodie and Walter are setttin' it up. That bastard won't be able to even get close. Might not stop him from doin' somethin' else to get our attention though." Vin leaned forward. "I just wanna cover all our bases."
"I'll make certain Bravo is prepared. Anything else?" Justin glanced at his notes, ready for his team meeting.
"That's it." Vin motioned for Buck to wait as Justin left.
Once the door closed behind Justin. Vin looked at Buck. "The agents from Charlie Team workin' out for you?"
"Hickok and Cody? They're doing fine. Told me they want to help any way possible. Even grunt work if necessary."
"Good. Few things you should know. Hunter is back in Texas. Langley, crutches and all, is headed home to Oklahoma to heal. I sent JD home, told him not to come back ‘til after his honeymoon. Josiah is leavin' after your meetin' and I see no need for him to come back in before Monday. Also, except for Hickok and Cody, the rest of Alpha is off Friday. Course it all depends on things stayin' quiet."
"I just wanna get our boy married. After he and Tess leave on their honeymoon, I'll breathe easier."
"All we can do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
+ + + + + + +
Tess' dad insisted on having their own transportation while they were in Colorado. JD pulled his truck in beside Paul's rental, exited, and headed for the door. It swung open and before he had a chance to step inside. Lilah, Daisy, Kiera, and four other children crowded around him chattering away about airplanes, horses, and he thought he heard a mention of SpongeBob in the mix.
"Hey, kids, let the man inside the house before you swarm." A tall, dark-haired man dispersed the crowd of children and extended his hand. "I'm Micah, Tess' brother. You must be John Daniel."
Shaking hands, JD acknowledged. "I am. Good to meet you and thanks for the rescue." The two moved further into the house. The scene before him reminded JD of the Tanner chaos usually displayed at Vin's home. Counting his, there were eight children, his future mother and father-in-law, and another man he had yet to meet. Tess was standing between two women he assumed were her sister and sister-in-law.
"Allow me to introduce you to this crazy bunch. Everyone this is John Daniel. The blond lady over there is my wife, Nell. Next to her is our sister, Susan." Micah grinned. "The ugly one standing next to Dad is her husband Andrew Phillips. The extra rug rats who met you at the door are your new nephews and niece. The older boys, Matthew and Mark belong to me and Nell. The younger boy is Drew with his baby sister Sandy. Susan and Andrew claim them."
Tess broke away from the two women and walked over to take JD's hand. "Gee Micah. Takeover, why don't you?" Sending her brother a frown, she leaned into JD's side. "He thinks, because he's the oldest it gives him privileges."
Looking into her smiling face, JD knew Tess was excited about being in the middle of her family again. After being on the run for three years, and distancing herself from them, he couldn't complain. "All good, Sweetheart. I'm home for the duration. Gives me time to get acquainted."
Louise smiled. "We're just figuring out who is sleeping where tonight, while we wait on lunch to be ready."
"There's plenty of room at my house. I'm sure we can accommodate everybody." JD held firm to Tess' hand as they moved into the middle of the McCall family reunion.
+ + + + + + +
Before going home Kelli and Vin stopped by the hospital to visit the Larabees. It appeared staying a week in the hospital not only improved Cait's health stats, but her depressed feelings as well. When they entered the room, Chris had his wife laughing.
Kelli smiled as she walked over to hug her father, before moving beside the bed to take Cait's hand. "You look rested and beautiful. "
"I do feel better. Of course, I don't do anything but lay here, which doesn't exert me much."
The room was private and large. However, it seemed crowded. "What's all this?"
Cait pointed to a garment bag hanging on the closet door. "Mom brought up the western garb we selected to wear for JD and Tess' wedding. Said we needed to dress the part even if we're only there by Skype. Barbara left me a ton of make-up and Inez has been giving me the latest gossip from home. Rain and Mallory make regular visits, too. So, tell me what's going on with you?"
Kelli noticed the men step outside and settled in to visit.
Chris and Vin walked down the hallway to talk. "I hear you sent JD home."
"Yeah. He was wearin' himself out between CASSIE and weddin' details. He the one who brought you the big screen laptop in there?"
"He said he didn't trust me to set it up and wanted to make sure we don't miss anything. And he's probably right. I barely do email. Skype is not something I'd normally use." Chris stopped walking and turned to face Vin. "You going to tell me what's troubling you or do I have to guess?"
Vin knew what Chris was talking about even though he'd hoped to block it from him. "Too many little things happenin 'out of the ordinary for me. You know about the mailbox break-ins. In addition to the break-ins, Walter told me this afternoon, a man came to the front gate asking to see Kelli. He refused to leave his name or a card, so Walter turned him away, but he did get a license plate number. I ran it and it came back as a rental under the name John Smith. The man used a bogus ID to rent the car and the address he gave doesn't exist. Add that to several strange hang-ups at the house lately."
"Kelli has no idea who he is?"
"I haven't told her and don't plan to. We have less than seven weeks to go before she delivers. She doesn't need the extra worry."
"You think it has anything to do with the Southerner and his vendetta against MCAT?"
"Don't know, she wasn't even workin' in October when the task force formed. Hell, neither was I, for that matter. But I've already told Kel, she goes nowhere without me."
"Watch your backs, Vin. Neither of you were working then, but I doubt that matters to the SOB behind all this. His beef is against MCAT and last time I checked, you're both listed as MCAT agents. I know you know the danger or you wouldn't have an agent outside our door here."
"Got Travis and Russo covered and extra security for Saturday's weddin', too." Vin ran his hand over his face. "I won't take any risks where Kel in concerned. I know, too, even with me stayin' vigilant, there are ways he could strike at us if he puts his mind to it."
"Faith, fate, gut instinct, our code, and ties. I haven't forgotten, and neither should you."
+ + + + + + +
JD took charge of working out the lodging arrangements. Since Paul and Louise would be watching over their kids while he and Tess were gone, it made sense for them to settle in at his house. There was plenty of room at her house for her siblings and their families to stay. It also became clear that with extended family in residence, he and Tess would have very little alone time until their honeymoon. In fact, the only time they had was when they put the kids down for the night.
JJ turned over to his favorite sleeping position. JD and Tess quietly backed out of his room and closed the door. Pulling Tess into his arms, he grinned. "Finally, I have a minute alone with you."
Placing her palms against his chest, she smiled. "Have I told you today how much I love you?"
"Hmmm, let me think." He laughed when she punched his arm. "Is that any way to tell me?"
"Seriously, you've been great with my family. I know my brother and sister can be a lot to take sometimes."
"Correction, our family and they aren't so bad." JD pulled her closer. "You show me in a million ways that you love me. For the record, I love you too."
Lowering his head to meet her lips, he kissed his bride-to be. Just when they were ready to leave love and hit lust, her mother yelled her name. "Tess, Honey, we need your advice."
"Damn." JD whispered.
"Two more days John Daniel, two more days."
+ + + + + + +
After returning home and a late supper, Josiah closed himself inside his den. He wanted to find the right words to say for JD and Tess at their wedding. Standing in front of a wall of books, he ran his fingers across titles. Instinctively he stopped to remove his Legacy book from its place. He walked back to his desk and lowered his large frame into the massive swivel chair. Smiling, he knew he would find his answers in their Legacy.
Thoroughly engrossed in his reading, an unidentified voice startled him. "Who's there?"
"Hello, Josiah. I can call you that right?"
When a figure materialized beside him, Josiah smiled in recognition. "Of course, Sheriff."
"I know it's not usually me delivering messages but for this one it seemed appropriate." Old West Sheriff perched on the side of Josiah's desk. "We need to talk."
"I am listening."
"My great-granddaughter, Rachael, God rest her soul, was an amazing woman. She raised your JD in circumstances that were not always easy. Aw, but she loved him more than life itself and taught him the important things he needed to know. Fate directed him to his brothers, who have helped him grow into the remarkable man he is today."
Josiah's brows narrowed, absorbing what Sheriff was telling him. "I thought JD's connection to you was through his father."
"You're thinking traditionally."
"I suppose I am. Are you saying the old ways are not traditional?"
Sheriff laughed. "Really now. Nothing about our lineage could be called traditional. Wouldn't you agree?"
Trying not to laugh, Josiah nodded his head. "You are right."
"All of us have strong women in our lines, too, and Tess will make a wonderful addition to mine." The young Sheriff heard Cowboy growl. *Okay, okay.*
"Sorry Josiah. Reckon, I drifted off track. What I'm trying to say is we're not about the names as much as we are the meanings. We are all connected by the ties that bind us. Instilled in us is an innate sense of right and wrong, strength of character, and perpetual love. Above all else we cherish the importance of family. Our ties represent who we are, always have been, and always will be. Each generation teaches the ones who follow, regardless of which side of our linage they come from. Those are the ties that matter. They are the ones that make us stronger, the ones to comfort us when the road ahead is rough, and the ones which insure our descendants continue to learn the lessons from our past. Trust our code and heed my words. In the following weeks and months your siblings will have need to hear them."
Jumping off the desk, Sheriff unpinned the badge he was wearing and laid it in front of Josiah. "I trust you'll see to it that my great-great-grandson is wearing this, instead of the fake one on his wedding get-up. You tell him, his mama loves him and we'll all be there." With a tip of his bowler, he disappeared.
Josiah picked up the badge and held it in his hand. Sheriff may not be as forceful as Cowboy or Tracker, but his message was received loud and clear.
+ + + + + + +
Sheriff rejoined his Old West Brothers. *Hope I don't have to do that again.*
*You did fine.*Rogue grasped his shoulder. *But Cowboy could've gone.*
Cowboy frowned at Rogue. *You know why I couldn't go or send Tracker or Gambler. I can't answer any questions for now, and those two interfere too much.*
Tugging at his cuffs, Gambler defended himself. *Sir, I am known for my finesse. I am certain my words would not panic the man.*
*Still say I could help.* Tracker grumbled.*Tell him Preacher.*
Preacher regretfully told him. *Sorry, I must agree with Cowboy."
Healer looked at them all. *Hey, I know the damage those two can do.*
Glaring at his brothers, Cowboy told them. *You all better behave at the wedding or else.*
Today is a big day for the Standish family. Although merely a formality, Bianca will become a legal Standish later in the morning. She has already carved her place in their hearts, and firmly established her role as big sister to Pearl.
Ezra sat at the kitchen table, working on his second cup of coffee while he waited for his ‘girls' to join him for breakfast.
Barbara walked in carrying Pearl in her bouncer. "Your turn to keep her busy, so I can finish making breakfast. She's in a good mood."
"She's always in a good mood, Mama."
"With you, maybe." Barbara laughed. "We have our unhappy moments."
"Any idea what our other daughter was up to last night?" Ezra bounced Pearl and smiled when she laughed.
Barbara set a platter of eggs and bacon on the table. "Not sure. All I know is she went upstairs early and moved around in her room until after midnight. I was tempted to check, but she deserves her privacy."
"Whatever she was doing is moot. She needs to get moving now or we'll end up being late." Ezra passed Pearl to her mother. "Here, you take our little angel and I'll see what's holding up Bianca."
At the base of the stairs he looked up and called loudly, "Bianca, breakfast is on the table."
"I'm too nervous to eat, but you guys go ahead." He heard her yell. "I'll be down in a minute."
Standing there for a moment he debated whether to go upstairs himself. He decided to wait and started to go back to the kitchen. A noise at the top of the stairs stopped him. Turning to look he had to smile. Bianca was coming down, minus her Goth look and purple hair. Instead he saw a beautiful young lady with honey blond hair, wearing a white A-line dress with long lace sleeves. In her hands she carried a large package.
When she reached the bottom step, Bianca stopped and anxiously glanced at Ezra. "Do I look okay for court?"
"You look lovely, Dear, but then you always do." Taking her free hand, he led her into the living area to sit. He saw Barbara with Pearl in her arms, standing by the door, and motioned for her to join them before he continued. "Bianca, we love you as you are. You don't have to change for us, for court, for anyone."
Avoiding eye contact as she picked at the hem of her dress, she tried to explain. "I know… it's just…I've been to court plenty of times and always ended up somewhere I didn't want to be. This time, I get to come back to a home I belong to." She risked a glance at the two people who, in a few short hours would be her parents. "I wanted this time to be special."
Sitting down beside her new daughter and fighting back tears, Barbara took her hand. "Honey today is only a formality. You've been ours since we brought you here."
"Indeed, I believe fate planned for us to be a family long before we met." Ezra reached into his pocket, retrieving a gift-wrapped jeweler's box. "We planned to give you this after court, however, now seems to be an opportune time." He passed the box to Bianca. "With love from us."
Bianca took the box and hesitated a moment before she opened it. Inside was a 14k Pandora Rose gold bracelet with two charms. One of her new initials BJS, the other represented home. She immediately slipped it on, squealed with delight, and then jumped up to hug both Ezra and Barbara. "Thank you."
"You are welcome, Hon, and you can add whatever charms you want to it." Barbara pulled Pearl back slightly when she reached for the gleaming bracelet. "Pearl approves."
Biting at her lower lip, Bianca reached for the package she brought down with her and handed it to Ezra. "I have something for the two of you, too. It was supposed to be a present for your anniversary, but today seemed to be a better time. I hope you like it."
Ezra glanced at Barbara who nodded for him to open it. He smiled and quickly unwrapped the gift. Once he saw what it was, he was in awe. A framed, beautifully sketched likeness of Pearl stared back at him. He turned it for Barbara to see. "Your talent is amazing. How did you get her to sit still long enough to do this?"
Bianca smiled and winked at Pearl. "We worked on it for weeks and she cooperated. I guess it's a sister thing."
An emotional Barbara held Pearl with one arm, her other wrapped around Bianca's waist. "Ezra, you mount that beautiful portrait over the mantel please, while we finish breakfast, so we can leave. We have a daughter to legalize and we don't want to keep the Judge waiting."
+ + + + + + +
The Dunne household hummed along amid controlled chaos. Everyone arrived at JD's house for breakfast and the children kept the noise level high. It was different from what JD was used to, but he found himself enjoying the diverse dynamics Tess' family displayed. Her parents were down to earth. Micah was a typical big brother, who felt it necessary to direct and protect his sisters. They in turn, rebelled against his bossiness. Nell tended to keep her husband, Micah, in check most of the time, which helped. Andrew on the other hand, had a full-time job keeping Susan grounded. Once she started talking, JD swore the woman forgot to breathe.
Tess elbowed him. "Earth to JD. Wherever your mind meandered off to, we could use your assistance."
Brought back from his musings about family, he grinned at her. "Just thinking about how much I love you."
Shaking her head, she laughed. "Good answer, John Daniel, but could you help wrangle our kids to your Explorer. We don't want to be late."
Walking outside with kids trailing along behind him, he made a mental note to check on trading in Tess' car for an SUV or van. After all, a growing family needed room.
+ + + + + + +
In the courtroom, family members filled most of the seats. Chris and Cait were the only adults of the Wild Bunch missing and Jesse sat directly behind Bianca. Tess' family filled the remaining seats. All were there to share this special day with Ezra, Barbara, JD, and Tess. The first case on the docket was Standish.
The court clerk called for Bianca Justine Lanier to stand. Then the Judge asked, "Miss Lanier, I have in front of me a petition of adoption by Barbara and Ezra Standish. Since you are above the age of fourteen, your wishes must be considered. Do you have any objection to this adoption?"
Clearing her throat to speak, Bianca answered with a firm, "No, your Honor."
The Judge banged her gavel, signed and passed the papers to the clerk. "Approved. As of this date your legal name is Bianca Justine Standish." She smiled at the cheers from the gallery and said, "Congratulations."
Banging her gavel again, the Judge called for order. "I have petitions before me from Tess McCall and John Daniel Dunne for mutual adoptions of four minor children. Having reviewed the statements filed on your behalf, I see no reason to object." She signed the documents in front of her, passing them to the court clerk as she finished. Taking off her glasses, she addressed Tess and JD. "I've approved your adoption petitions pending the filing of your marriage license at the county clerk's office on Monday, when you will legally become the parents of Keira Louise Allen, now known as Keira Louise Dunne, Lilah Rose Dunne, Daisy Jonetta Dunne and Jared John Bucklin Dunne. Congratulations on your impending nuptials and your new family. Your legal representative can retrieve copies of the documents from my clerk."
Exiting the courtroom there were lots of hugs and two sets of relieved parents. The Wild Bunch now had another milestone to celebrate.
+ + + + + + +
Brodie, Walter and Vin oversaw security for the wedding. They set up a station at the front gate to check vehicles before they parked in a designated gravel area specifically cordoned off for wedding guests. From that point names will be checked against the list of attendees, then guests will board one of two stagecoaches to travel to the Carriage House.
"I like how y'all laid this out." Vin walked through the process. "No weapons or vehicles past this point, unless they're MCAT. Write down every license plate. Oh yeah, the two stagecoaches. You vetted the drivers and attendants?"
Brodie exchanged a look with Walter then grasped his son's shoulder, urging him toward his Silverado. "We can tell you what they ate for breakfast. And even the names of the horses they'll be using. So, take your paranoid butt back up to the Carriage House. Leave this to us."
"If I'm paranoid, it's hereditary, and I have you to blame for it." Vin pulled his keys out of his pocket. "I'm goin'. See y'all tonight at the Tavern."
Vin made it to the Carriage House as the rehearsal finished. The ladies were giving the room one last check. White lace cloths adorned the square tables. Matching cornflower blue napkins and seat cushions, along with the antique scalloped china, and crystal glassware set the scene of an elegant 1870's hotel dining room. Antique milk churns were set strategically around the room to hold the flowers tomorrow. Bridal party clothes and accessories were ready in the bride's dressing room on the left, while the groom, preacher, and best men's suits and accessories hung in the room on the opposite side of the building
Tanner wanted a word with Buck. Motioning to him, he stepped back and waited for his brother.
"Lord, I'll be glad when this is over." Buck heaved a sigh. "I keep expecting something to go wrong."
"I have one less thing for you to worry about then. I'm takin' over your job as Captain for tomorrow. Have your surveillance teams report to me." Vin slapped him on the back. "Do your Best Man job and get our brother married."
+ + + + + + +
The posted sign outside said, ‘Closed for Private Party'. Inside, the Standish Tavern transformed into an Old West Saloon. Modern bar stools and tables were replaced with reproductions from the 1870's. An antique piano nestled next to a platformed stage where a live band warmed up. The walls depicted facsimiles of late 1800's newspapers and typical decoration portraying that era. Old chandeliers added to the ambiance as did an old safe sitting at the end of the bar. The only nods downstairs to the twenty-first century were a huge screen for Skype, indoor plumbing, and electric outlets. Upstairs the rooms next to the office held baby beds, TV/DVD players for older children, and places for toddlers to sleep. Three professional nannies were on watch away from the noisy celebration, yet the children were close enough for mamas or daddies to check on them.
The invitations mandated a dress code of casual western attire. Set before an array of liquor, beer, soft drinks, and tea or water for the ladies, the long bar served a dual purpose. It held a buffet of barbecue brisket, chicken, and ribs set among salads and side dishes prepared to accommodate the varying preferences of the guests. Doors opened at six o'clock.
By six-thirty the families were present, and Ezra stood to say a few words. "Welcome all to the Standish Saloon. Tonight, we gather to celebrate with Tess and JD as their nuptials rapidly approach. I would like to thank our ladies and Nick Waller, my manager, for their hard work in creating tonight's festivities. Nick has also volunteered to be our piano player. The band is taking requests if you have a favorite you would like them to play. Also, if you noticed, we have an antique floor safe at the end of the bar. Our couple has set the combination and inside is a thousand dollars' worth of gold. If you fancy yourself a Safecracker, try your luck. At the end of the evening, if no one guesses the correct combination, the contents revert to Tess and JD. Enjoy the food, dance all you want, and we'll be back up here at seven- thirty when our missing sibling and his lady will join us by Skype."
JD leaned back in his chair popping peanuts in his mouth with one hand, while holding a mug of beer in the other. "This is great, sawdust on the floor and an endless supply of peanuts. Really makes you feel like you're in an old saloon in the west."
"I love it. You know Andrew and I have been to a lot of ‘period' weddings. Renaissance, Medieval, and even one duplicating a Royal wedding. This one though, is priceless. I would never have dreamed our baby sister would go Old West. The little suit you have for JJ is so cute, and the girls' dresses fit perfect in your time frame. I told Andrew if we re-do our vows I want to do one like this. Well, not exactly like this but something similar. Course you know dad is a western fan. Is that why you chose it? Hey, it's doesn't matter, I love it all. This saloon, the stagecoaches, the bar, the dresses and the men look great in western garb…."
Andrew laid his hand on Susan's arm. "Breathe, Honey. I think they get that you like it."
"Right." Susan was used to her family indulging her when she got carried away. "What I meant was, you did good, Tess."
Tess took JD's hand. "We did good, it's a team effort."
Music continued to play while everyone filled up on good food. Before long it was time for more fun. Ezra placed a call to Chris to tell him they were ready for him and Cait to join them. Then he stepped back up to the front to call for everyone's attention. "I hope y'all enjoyed the food, but now we turn to more family matters. JD, Tess will y'all join me up here, and take a seat at the honor table, please?" He looked up at the big screen hoping to see Chris. "Seems we have…there they are."
On the big screen they could see Chris and Cait, who obviously didn't know that yet. Chris fiddled with the laptop. "Is this the button JD said to push?"
"I think it's the other one." Cait pointed to the laptop.
Laughter erupted inside the saloon. Buck yelled, "We can see you, Cowboy."
"Oh, yeah, there. We can see all of you, too." Chris relaxed a bit. "JD, Tess, Cait and I would like to be there, but this is the next best thing. The nurses are letting us have thirty minutes. We want to wish you both a long, and happy, life. The road ahead may not always be smooth, but as long as you travel it together it will always be bearable. You two requested in lieu of gifts, donations be made to the Denver Women's Shelter. It's my honor to let you know we have a check ready. Jesse is going to present it, well a facsimile of it, to you. It's given with love from our Wild Bunch."
Jesse carried a larger than life version of the check to the front. "Dad wanted to do this but I'm happy to help out. This check represents a fifteen-thousand-dollar donation given in your names, to The Denver Women's Shelter."
JD nodded. "You guys are great. We thank you, and I know this gift will help a lot of abused women."
Buck stood, then exchanged places with Ezra. "I had a bunch of notes about what I wanted to say but threw them away. First off, I wanna tell the McCall family something. Our Wild Bunch is unique. We may seem crazy at times, and fuss among ourselves, but you couldn't find a better group of people if you searched a million years. We love Tess and welcome her and Keira into our family." Turning to JD, he continued. "You joined us way back when and we're all proud of the man you've grown to be. We love you and it pains me greatly to tell you, you're not keeping your place." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a shiny badge. "Tess, we understand the New Law has arrived in JD's life, and we give you this to prove it."
A round of laughter prevailed when Buck handed the badge to JD to pin on his bride.
"Wait, I'm not done yet." Buck pulled out a paper. "After years on the L7, and observing the effects, I have to warn you. Don't drink the water! Over the past seven years we've had more than twenty babies born here, including two sets of twins and counting. This certificate is for a year's worth of bottled water."
JD laughed and took the certificate. "You know Buck, since you and Inez are expecting number six and seven, I think you might be right."
Next, it was the ladies turn. While Mallory talked, Inez showed Tess what they had. "Tess, your new sisters put together a JD survival kit for you. We have this lariat for you to keep him close. A jailer's key to lock up his computer room when necessary. Handcuffs for when he tends to drift off with his thoughts, and a bandana to stuff in his mouth when he gets stubborn, won't listen or talks too much."
Tess took the bags of goodies. "I'll do my best to use every one of them."
Nathan walked to the front with a small medical bag. "When you two go on your honeymoon, Rain and I want you to enjoy. Inside you'll find the sunscreen you'll need and antibiotic cream for the blisters you may get walking around Boston. We have bandages, gauze, and tape, because we know with JD you might need them. Also, so nothing interferes with the important things on a honeymoon, we want you healthy. So, Pepto-Bismol, Imodium and Excedrin are included."
JD turned to Tess. "Think he's got us covered."
Ezra stood to make another presentation. "We all contributed to the shelter, but we wanted to also give y'all a personal gift." He handed JD an envelope. "For your dining pleasure in Boston. You'll find a gift certificate from your brothers and their ladies, for seven-hundred dollars. Barbara, Bianca, Pearl and I wish you both much love and happiness."
"Wow, thanks guys."
Vin took his turn. "JD, Tess. Tomorrow y'all will take the first step into your future. One thing that helps me and Kel navigate the good and bad times is our memory book. I made one for y'all and added a poem to get you started. May y'all find as much joy in your relationship as Kel and I have in ours."
JD took the leather ‘memory book' from Vin, running his fingers over the words, ‘The Journey Begins'. He silently read the poem, then asked, "Thanks Vin, it' says exactly how I feel. Do you mind if I read it aloud to Tess?"
"It's yours. So, if you want to, it's fine." Vin sat down next to Kelli, laying his arm over her shoulders.
JD cleared his throat and gazed at Tess, then began to read,
To Love Again
Six hearts entwined,
Two fused by love, God's supreme gift.
Forged from pain, The Lord's most grueling test.
Adoring eyes radiate belief and acceptance.
Bands of gold hold testament to promises made.
With happiness as a willing companion
Anticipation's gossamer wings delicately embrace,
To guide through this blessed adventure.
The past is no more, the future not yet written.
We are our own scribes, write long, write well,
Chosen words etched with love
And carved out from united inspiration
Will stand the test of time.
A new beginning is for the taking.
Contentment in all it brings.
Ending his recitation with a soft kiss for his bride, JD gave her his handkerchief to dab at the tears in her eyes.
Josiah walked over to stand beside the couple. "I could be philosophical and talk about love, fate and commitment for a while, but not tonight. You two found your way to one another and that's what's important. Mallory and I wish you both a lifetime of happiness. Tess, I apologize that my presentation is more for JD than you, but please indulge me. JD, we all know you are The Collector in the family of old west artifacts. I have a special gift I've been asked to give to you. It is expected that you will wear it tomorrow." Josiah took a small box from his coat pocket. "I'm not at liberty to say how I received this, but it is authentic, and it did belong to your great-great-grandfather."
JD took the box from Josiah and lifted the lid. Inside was an Old West Sheriffs badge. He understood who it came from, and knew it was delivered to him via his ties to the past. Without thinking he jumped up and gave Josiah his version of a bear hug. "Thanks, Brother."
Five more of his brothers felt their connection as well. The words of Cowboy echoed through their minds. "Within all of us is the same spirit, passed down from our forefathers and fathers."
Ezra had a few final words to say. "The band will remain for another hour, if y'all wish to continue dancing before you depart. We thank you for sharing the evening with us to celebrate our young couple. Also, no one has cracked the safe's code. So, JD and Tess, you have the combination. Open it and claim your gold."
+ + + + + + +
JD and Tess sat in his Explorer in the parking lot of the Tavern. Her parents volunteered to take their children home, which meant the young couple was finally alone.
"It was a wonderful evening, John Daniel. So many surprises and so much love in that room."
"I have a confession to make. I asked your mom and dad to take the kids. I figure we won't have many moments to ourselves before we board the plane for Boston." JD reached into his pocket and handed her a small jeweler's box. "My wedding gift to you."
Inside she saw a sterling silver, vintage blue, cameo necklace. She stroked it fondly with her fingers. "I love it. It's perfect to wear with my dress tomorrow."
Expecting a kiss, JD watched in wonder when instead, Tess turned to reach for something in the back seat. "Got it." She pulled at bigger box over the seat and gave it to him. "I was hoping I'd have a chance to give this to you. My wedding present to you."
Opening it, JD lifted out a crystal heart whose front design made it look like it was a puzzle. Each piece had one of the Dunnes' names engraved in the crystal. In the center of the heart were the words ‘Together we make a family.' After a few moments of silence, he turned to Tess and smiled. "Yes, we do, and I want this on my desk." Drawing her to him, he wrapped her in his embrace, leaned his head and kissed the woman he planned to spend the rest of his life with. It didn't take long for lust to ignite and they almost forgot where they were.
Both a bit breathless, Tess was the first to speak. "Tomorrow, John Daniel. Tomorrow our wait is over."
Rays of sunshine shone across the clear blue skies of Colorado. With temperatures forecast in the mid-40's, it was the perfect day for a March wedding. JD woke early, wanting to speak to his lady love before the children awoke and assured chaos followed.
JD dialed Tess' cell number and waited for her to pick up. Smiling when he heard her sleepy whisper, "Morning, John Daniel."
"Morning, Sweetheart. Why are you whispering?"
"Keira's still asleep beside me."
"Soon, I'll be the one sleeping beside you."
Tess shivered at the sudden huskiness in his voice. "I can't wait."
Noise outside his room alerted him that his kids were awake.
"Got to go. Kids are up, and I want to wrangle them before they wake your folks. See you in a few hours."
"You will. I'll be the one wearing white. I love you John Daniel."
"I love you too."
JD ended the call and got out of bed, dressed quickly, and went in search of his children.
Tess sighed. She placed her phone on the nightstand and shifted her position. Turning on her side, she saw Keira's hazel eyes looking back at her.
"Morning, Baby." Tess kissed Keira's forehead.
"We getting married today?"
"Yes, we are."
"Me glad. "
Tess hugged Keira. She was marrying the man of her dreams, her daughter was gaining the father she'd never had, and she was gaining three more children to love.
"Come on, you can help me start breakfast."
Keira scrambled out of bed and waited for her mother to join her at the door before they left the bedroom together.
+ + + + + + +
By noon Larabee 7 was abuzz with frenetic activity. The florist and caterers were escorted to the Carriage House. While the florists moved about arranging fresh flowers, the caterers began their preparations for the reception. By two, Jensen Shelby, the photographer arrived also. After setting up his equipment for the ceremony, he roamed about snapping pictures of the festive decorations, More of the exterior of the Carriage House, the activities of the Stagecoaches, as well as the comings and goings of the Wild Bunch.
"Daisy and Lilah hold onto your brother's hands." JD instructed his daughters as they headed toward the Carriage House.
"Okay Daddy," Lilah called back over her shoulder as the threesome skipped ahead of him.
"Well, there you are. Inez sent me to find out what was keeping you." Buck hurried up to his brother. He was already decked out in his Best Man's outfit and looked like he had stepped out of an old western. He cut a fine figure in his black jeans, black western shirt, turquoise vest, bolo tie, black Stetson, and black duster.
"You look great Buck." JD complimented his friend. "Have you seen Tess? Is she here yet?"
"Yes, Tess is already inside. No, I haven't seen her, but Inez has, and she wanted me to assure you that your bride is in high spirits."
"We talked briefly this morning, but I haven't had a chance to talk to her since."
"You'll have time to talk to her after you're married." Buck grinned at him as they reached their destination.
The large barn doors were open, and his three offspring disappeared inside. JD quickened his step to catch up to them before they could get into any mischief. Fortunately for him, several family members were already on hand and corralled the trio for him.
Paul, dressed in a black western suit, pale blue shirt, and black Cattleman's hat, held JJ by the hand while Susan, wearing a pale green dress and matching bonnet, talked quietly to Daisy and Lilah. "I'll take these two into the bride's room. Tess is a little anxious to see them."
JD picked up JJ and carried him into the room designated as his dressing area. Paul offered to assist JJ while he got ready. The younger man readily agreed, thankful to have one task off his hands.
+ + + + + + +
"Is John Daniel here yet?" Tess asked anxiously, trying not to move her head as Nell wrangled her dark tresses in an intricate weave on top. Her sister-in-law allowed the rest of the curled ends to trail down over her bare shoulders.
"He is here and getting ready as we speak." Susan assured her as she entered with Daisy and Lilah.
The twins ran over to Tess, announcing her ‘pretty'. She hugged them before they were ushered away by Mallory, who made a beautiful Maid of Honor in her lavender dress and Filly riding hat, while Inez looked exotic in turquoise and black. Keira chatted happily with the twins as they donned their flower girl dresses.
"That's good." She took a deep breath to slow her racing heart. She wasn't nervous exactly, just ready to become Missus John Daniel Dunne.
"This is your something ‘borrowed'." Mallory dropped a white and blue garter into her lap. "I wore it when I married Josiah."
"Tess, Honey, I have something for you too." Louisa looked beautiful in a pale blue schoolmarm dress and matching bonnet. She held out a small, square box to her daughter. "It's in keeping with the ‘something borrowed, something blue' tradition. Mallory gave you the something borrowed, John Daniel gave you that lovely blue cameo, and your dress is new. What I have is something old."
Tess took the box from her mom and lifted the lid. Inside was a handkerchief with delicate stitching and fine lace. "It's beautiful."
"This handkerchief has been carried by three generations of women in our family when they married, including me. You will be the fourth."
"I'll treasure it always." Tess hugged her mom and rapidly blinked back happy tears.
As final preparations were made on clothing, makeup, and hairstyles, Tess chatted happily with those surrounding her. She was truly blessed to have such wonderful women to call her family, whether by blood or by heart.
+ + + + + + +
As the last of the guests arrived by stagecoach, JD had one more task to complete.
"Can you guys see?" JD gazed into the large screen TV he'd set up near the altar so Chris and Cait would be able to watch the ceremony from start to finish.
"We can see you."
JD smiled as he caught sight of Cait, decked out in an emerald green dress, her hair perfectly coiffed atop her head, and a bright smile on her face. "You look beautiful Cait."
"Thanks, JD. You look quite dashing."
JD glanced down at his Old West Sheriff's outfit. He wore black slacks, silver striped black vest, cornflower blue dress shirt, and black duster. His treasured badge was affixed to his shirt, and his cornflower and Baby's Breath boutonniere was pinned on his lapel. He did a double take, then smiled as he caught sight of Chris. He was dressed all in gunfighter black and was wearing a black sombrero on his blond head. Larabee resembled his favorite Old West outlaw.
+ + + + + + +
The Old West Seven were quietly meandering about, unseen to anyone. After all they were there only to observe and found some of the guest's choices of attire amusing. They did agree, however, that for a bunch of twenty-first century folks, who weren't ever there, they hadn't done half bad at recreating the 1870's. That peaceful co-existence threatened to change when Cowboy caught sight of Chris on the big screen.
*Johnny Ringo? An outlaw? No way in hell is my great-great grandson going to favor an outlaw! Give me my gun! It's time I teach the boy a lesson about the right side of the law!" Cowboy fumed, forgetting all about keeping his cool.
*Not going to happen Stud.* Rogue blocked his path.
*Get out of my way!* Cowboy demanded.
*Ain't goin' to happen, Cowboy. If we can't interfere, neither can you!* Tracker grabbed him from behind.
*Let go of me damn it!*Cowboy tried to break free from Tracker's hold.
*Now boys,*Preacher stepped forward, stopping things before they got out of hand. "Fighting amongst ourselves is not going to do any of us any good.*
"Preacher's right." Sheriff stepped forward, followed by Healer and Gambler who quickly made it known they agreed with the others.
*Fine.*Cowboy huffed, *But that boy has a talking-to coming from me in their future.*
The Old West lawmen breathed a sigh of relief. A pissed off Larabee in any generation was never a good thing.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was dressed splendidly in black slacks, lavender dress shirt, black vest, black Stetson, and black suit coat. Buck was waiting with him when JD joined them.
"Are you nervous?" Wilmington placed a bowler hat on JD's head.
"Not at all." JD said. "Anxious to call Tess mine forever maybe, but not nervous. She's my soulmate, Buck. We were meant to be together."
"Then let's get you married." Josiah told him.
JD fidgeted as he waited for the ceremony to begin. He glanced around at the filling seats, catching sight of Nathan and Rain, each decked out in charcoal and black 1800s doctor and nurse outfits. A black Brick hat completed Nathan's look. Rain held Baby Leia in her arms, and both the baby and Ronesha wore frilly dresses, while Terrell looked adorable in his jeans and western shirt.
JD smiled. It wouldn't surprise him if something was developing there. Next his eyes traveled to Ezra and Barbara, with Pearl in her arms, looking splendid in cobalt blue and black. A black Gambler's hat completed Standish's attire. Bianca wore a black vintage lace dress.
All five Tanners stood out in their Old West outfits. Under his buckskin colored vest, Vin's shirt was the same rich shade of yellow as Kelli's stylish gown, and both wore matching tan hats.
As his eyes continued to travel over the gathering, they picked out the rest of his and Tess' family. Assistant Deputy Director Russo, Director Travis and his wife Evie, Gunny, some of his Bravo Teammates, and Tess' Reins of Change colleagues were scattered around the room. All were dressed to the nines in various 1870s costumes in rich gemstone colors of emerald, sapphire, topaz, garnet, ruby, and amethyst. Some wore hats in a variety of colors and styles, while others did not.
+ + + + + + +
"You look beautiful." Paul choked up as he gazed at his youngest daughter.
She looked stunning in her wedding gown. And the happiest he'd seen her in a very long time. His father's intuition and cop instincts had pegged Troy as someone untrustworthy, and he'd been correct. His disapproval nearly cost him his daughter and granddaughter's lives, but that was all water under the bridge.
Troy was no longer a problem for any of them, and Tess had found herself a man deserving of her. In the short time he had known John Daniel, he'd come to respect the younger man, and knew he truly loved Tess and Keira.
"I want you to know how happy I am for you. It does my heart good to know that you found such a fine man as John Daniel. "
"Dad." Tess blinked back happy tears as she hugged him. "Don't make me cry. It will ruin my makeup."
"Sorry," Paul handed her his handkerchief.
Tess dabbed the tears from the corner of her eyes.
Louisa came swirling into the room, her eyes shining with love for her husband and daughter. "My Darlings get ready. The processional music is starting."
"We're ready." Paul assured her as he guided Tess over to stand before the doorway leading into the large common area where the ceremony was taking place.
Louisa disappeared from their sight and Tess took a calming breath. She couldn't wait to set her eyes on her John Daniel.
+ + + + + + +
JD ‘s fingers toyed with the rim of his hat but stilled his fidgeting the moment he heard the processional music start. At last, the ceremony was beginning, and soon he would set eyes on his Tess. Mallory looked elegant as she walked down the aisle toward him. Behind her came Keira, Daisy, and Lilah, each carrying a basket of multi-hued petals they dropped along the aisle as they meandered towards him.
He chuckled at the antics of JJ as he paused occasionally to wave a hand or say a ‘hello' to his aunts and uncles. Inez slipped from her seat and prodded him along, making sure that he didn't drop the pillow holding the wedding rings before he reached his dad's side.
"Good job, Son." He smiled his approval and was rewarded with a big grin.
The beginning words of ‘Bless the Broken Road' drifted through the room as the music began,
"I set out on a narrow way many years ago Hoping I would find true love along the broken road But I got lost a time or two…."
Ignoring the music, the view of Tess as she came into sight on her dad's arm, captivated JD's attention. She looked amazing in an off-white dress that was made up of lace and fringe and fit her frame perfectly. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears and love.
"You look amazing." JD took her hands in his as they turned to face Josiah.
"So, do you." Tess whispered back.
"We gather here today to celebrate the union of this man and woman." Josiah began the ceremony. "Who gives this woman to be wed?"
Paul answered, "Her mother and I do." He unwrapped his arm from Tess', taking her hand. With a kiss to her cheek, he placed her hand into JD's and then moved to sit next to his wife at their table.
When the young couple turned to face him, Josiah continued, "Mistress Fate set her plans for Tess and John Daniel into motion the moment they met. Embarking on their future together, they will weave the eternal ties that bind us as families and strengthen our relationships with love. Since they have prepared their own vows, I now defer to them." He nodded at Tess to go first.
"John Daniel, I never knew true love until I met you," Tess' voice broke and she struggled to get her emotions under control. JD gave her hands a reassuring squeeze, helping her to regain her composure. "I promise to be your lover, companion, and friend. I will be your greatest fan and staunchest supporter. The mother to our children, and your confidante. With all my heart I pledge you my love, devotion, and faith. "
JD began, "Tess, you broke through the wall surrounding my heart and made it possible for me to love you. I promise to encourage your compassion, nurture your dreams, help shoulder your challenges, and protect you and our children with everything I am. I will Love and Honor you all the days of my life."
"May we have the rings please?" Josiah smiled as Buck crouched down to help JJ untie the wedding rings from the heart shaped pillow. He handed them to Josiah who blessed them before giving them to the bride and groom.
"JD repeat after me." Josiah instructed his younger brother. "Tess, I give you this ring as a token of my devotion and love."
With shaky fingers JD slipped the ring onto Tess' finger. He lifted her hand momentarily to kiss it before lowering it once again.
"Tess, repeat these words." She followed Josiah's directions, sliding the solid gold band onto JD's finger.
"With the power invested in me by the State of Colorado, I now pronounce John Daniel Dunne and Tess J. McCall husband and wife." and nodding to JD he grinned. "You may now kiss your bride." JD pulled Tess into his arms and kissed her for a long sweet time.
Turning to the audience, Josiah said, "May I present to you Mister and Missus John Daniel Dunne,"
Everyone in attendance clapped and shouted ‘congratulations'.
+ + + + + + +
A blend of country and classic rock music filled the interior of the Carriage House as the bride and groom, their family members, friends, and colleagues continued the celebration. Voices and laughter echoed throughout the room as everyone settled in to enjoy the delicious entrees of prime rib, rotisserie chicken, lemon and butter tilapia, and sides provided by the caterers.
Buck stood up and tapped his spoon against his glass to get everyone's attention. "As Best Man, I'm duty bound to give a little speech in honor of the newlyweds!"
"Keep it short and sweet, Bucklin." Vin called out. "JD and Tess have a plane to catch tonight!"
Laughter erupted. Grinning good-naturedly, Buck spoke, "May you always find comforting strength and endless happiness in one another. Please join me as I raise a glass to the newlyweds."
As the tinkling sound of glasses connected, JD curled his arm around Tess' as they sipped champagne from one another's flutes. Mallory, as Maid of Honor, wished for them an infinity of love and happiness.
Before too long, it was time for the bride and groom to cut their cake. JD happily escorted Tess over to the table that held their western themed cake on it. Cute mismatched cowboy boots represented the happy couple on top of three- tiered triple chocolate cake, with JD and Tess' initials written on a fondant heart.
Tess picked up the silver serving knife. "Do you want to cut it or shall I?"
"We can do it together." JD moved behind her until she stood between his arms. The fingers of his right hand curled around hers on the handle of the knife, while his left arm wrapped around her slender waist. Tess shivered at his nearness and fought to focus her attention on the instructions from the photographer. Amid flashes from multiple cameras, Tess and JD first cut the cake, then fed pieces of it to one another. The caterers wait staff came forward to finish cutting the cake, handing out plates of cake to the wedding guests, giving JD and Tess the opportunity to spend a few minutes alone while they ate their cake.
"Oh God that's good!" JD licked the frosting from his lips.
"Heavenly." Tess agreed.
Inez sashayed up to them. "Come on you two, it's time for your first dance as husband and wife."
She grabbed JD's arm and began to tug him out from behind the wedding cake table. He, in turn, laced the fingers of his other hand through Tess' as they laughingly allowed Inez to lead them to the dance floor.
JD took Tess in his arms and swept her onto the floor to the first strains of "Perfect" by Ed Sheeran.
"I found a love for me Darling just dive right in And follow my lead."
As they whirled around the dance floor, Tess couldn't remember ever feeling happier than she did in this moment, dancing with her new husband.
JD was aware of nothing else except the gorgeous woman he cradled in his arms. Tess was the woman of his dreams and he was grateful fate had intervened to bring the two of them together.
Vin stood and reached for Kelli's hand. "Dance with me?"
"Would love to." She allowed her husband to help her to her feet, then he led as they glided across the floor. Thoroughly enjoying their dance, both winced when Vin's encrypted cell vibrated.
Quickly walking Kelli to her chair, he exited the building for privacy. Entering his code, the call came through. The timing was lousy, but the urgency was real. As he listened, his anger rose. "Don't say a damn word to anybody. I'll be there as soon as possible."
Now all he had to do was go back inside, brief Director Travis and let his teams know that for them, the party's over.
Buck watched Vin hurry Kelli back to their table, then disappear out the door. His gut told him something was up. When Vin returned and stopped to talk to Travis, he knew. Under his breath he muttered, "Well, hell."
"What did you say?" Sitting next to his best man, JD heard the utterance.
Watching Vin's movement, Buck was preoccupied. "Huh?"
JD followed Buck's line of sight and saw Vin coming their way. He recognized the look on Tanner's face. "Uh oh."
Before Vin reached him, Buck was on his feet. Laying his hand on JD's shoulder, he told him, "Not your problem. You're going on your honeymoon."
Justin, too, observed Tanner's behavior and after whispering a message to Beth, excused himself from their table to join Buck and Vin. It didn't take long for their Commander to update them about a developing situation. The two subjects under surveillance met at Joe's Diner and perished along with several café employees and customers, in an explosion ten minutes later. Complicating matters, the DPD investigators were holding their two MCAT agents as potential suspects.
"Buck, Justin, get your agents to the crime site. Travis is makin' the calls to ATF and DPD informin' them y'all will be in charge. Our Forensics unit will meet you there. Cooperate with the fire department arson investigators the best you can, but don't take any crap from any other agency on the scene. I'll take care of gettin' our agents released."
Buck hesitated a moment. "I'll put the message out to Alpha, but I need to make arrangements to get someone to take JD and Tess to the airport."
In law enforcement for twenty plus years, Paul McCall knew how to read people. When he witnessed the huddled MCAT agents' animated discussion, he sighed, and then butted in." I don't have to be a Colorado cop to know something is developing. Buck, if you need to leave, I can get Tess and John Daniel to the airport."
Buck nodded in relief. "Appreciate it."
Vin addressed his Captains. "You two need to hustle. Alert your agents, change clothes, say quick goodbyes' and get our teams movin' a.s.a.p. I want a word with JD, then I'm right behind y'all."
Within two minutes, the alerts reached the MCAT agent's cells. The rest of the wedding guests had no clue about what was going on. Buck and Justin disappeared through the side room door and the agents in attendance left behind them.
Vin went to Kelli first, and together they walked over to JD and Tess. "I'm sorry y'all's celebration got interrupted, but work calls. JD, Paul will take you two to the airport and you're gonna hav'ta explain to your guests about the alerts goin' off."
JD glanced at Tess. "Sweetheart, I'm sorry, this happened on our special day." He looked back at Vin. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Shaking his head, Vin understood JD's offer, but declined. "No. Go on with your plans and enjoy your honeymoon. We've got everthin' covered but… I do want you to hand over your MCAT phone to Kel before y'all leave." Averting the protest he knew was coming, Vin placed his hand on JD's shoulder. "No arguments. For the next two weeks, forget MCAT exists. That's an order."
Tess gently put her hand on JD's arm. "Honey, nothing's ruined. We're married now. That's all that matters to me. If you want to postpone our trip, I understand."
Seeing the love and understanding in his bride's eye, JD felt a lump form in his throat. He squeezed her hand. "No. We're headed to Boston. MCAT doesn't need me as much as I need you." His next words were for Vin. "Kelli will have my phone before we leave. Watch your backs out there."
"Always." Vin gave his new sister a kiss on the cheek and nodded to JD. "Good decision, Brother."
Taking Kelli's hand, they walked to the changing room together. After shedding his 1870's garb and giving her a kiss, Vin Tanner transformed from brother and husband, to MCAT Commander.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner pushed through the double doors of Denver Police Department Headquarters. A man on a mission, he didn't stop until he came face to face with Deputy Chief Richard ‘Rich' Maitland, a man he'd known for fifteen years. Maitland motioned for Vin to follow him into an empty conference room.
Closing the door behind him. Vin wasted no time. "You're holdin' two of my agents, Rich. Release ‘em."
"We're holding two men found at the scene of a bombing, who claim to be MCAT agents."
"Bullshit, you know who they are. By now you've also received word that the SOC is now under MCAT authority."
"You're running surveillance on two of MY officers and you didn't let me know! What the hell's going on Vin?"
"MCAT business, not yours. Now you can stop this BS pissin' contest and release my agents or I'll have your badge before midnight. Your choice."
Rubbing his hand across his mouth and chin, Maitland thought about the validity of Tanner's implied threat. "Fine. I'll let them go." He opened the door and ordered one of his officers to bring the agents up from holding. While they waited, Rich sighed and told Vin, "Whatever you think you're onto, I hope it's worth damaging the up to now good relationship between MCAT and the DPD."
Tanner watched as Hickok and Cody retrieved their guns, badges, and personal effects from the officer on duty. "When I find what I'm lookin' for, I hope for your sake you're not part of it." He turned and walked out, his agents one step behind him.
+ + + + + + +
Outside the building, Tanner directed Hickok and Cody to his truck. Before he started the engine, he asked, "What did y'all tell DPD?"
Cody popped off. "Not a fucking thing." Realizing what he said and who he said it to, he added, "Sir."
Hickok was a bit subtler. "We figured they were fishing for info and stayed quiet. As far as we know they didn't even tow the van."
"You're right and they didn't tow it. We're headed over to the SOC. Give me a verbal recap of events, while I drive. How did our subjects end up together and dead?"
Hickok started. "We picked them up at three, replacing Sandoval and Saunders. Both subjects have been in the same vehicle all day. They appeared to be driving around aimlessly, waiting on something. Ten to six they headed for the diner. Once inside, no one exited. A few minutes later…Boom."
Cody continued. "We jumped out of the van to see if there was anyone we could help. DPD arrived and detained us. The rest you know."
Vin mulled over what they'd told him. "Sounds like someone set them up to be killed."
"Either that or wrong place, wrong time." Hickok said as they arrived at the surveillance van. He reached for the handle to open the door then stopped. "Course I'm more inclined to believe they knew too much to live."
"Yeah, me, too." Cody agreed as he exited the truck.
The three men began to walk towards the burnt shell which used to be a diner. A piece of white under the windshield wiper of the van caught Cody's eye. He reached for it, but halted when Vin shouted, "Don't!" On closer inspection, it was easy to recognize as a card. One identical to the others found at previous crime scenes.
Tanner grabbed an evidence bag from his truck and carefully slid the card inside. He gave the bag to Hickok, told him and Cody to take it over to the MAU for Greg.
Vin anger was still building when he walked over to Buck. "I'm gettin' damn sick and tired of that egotistical son of a bitch."
"You and me both. Seven dead this time."
Vin looked at Buck. "Let me guess. No one saw anybody suspicious. The explosion erased any viable fingerprints. Autopsy and Forensics' results are gonna take a while cause of the damage. Plus, the fire department arson investigators won't have a report ready for at least two weeks and ATF another two on the bomb materials."
"Damn, Son. Sounds like you've played this rodeo before." Buck gazed over the scene. "Firemen won't clear us for entry into what's left of the structure for hours. Justin is staying with four agents until Bones can get in to remove the bodies. Not a hell of a lot the rest of us can do until morning."
"Decide who's gonna relieve Justin and his agents, then wrap things up for the night." Vin pulled out his keys. "I'm headed back to L7."
"Sure. "Buck frowned. It was unlike Vin to leave before a scene cleared. "You okay, Vin?"
Closing his eyes, he exhaled, trying to calm the anger building inside him. "Got a lot on my mind, Bucklin. Need to rethink a few things. You're in charge here and I don't expect any written reports before Monday." Slowly Vin walked back to his truck. He did have some things to figure out and his gut said he didn't have much time to do it.
+ + + + + + +
Despite the late hour, it didn't surprise Vin to find his father waiting for him to get home. Brodie had worksheets spread out on top of the kitchen table and a beer sitting in front of him. The elder Tanner stood, walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of brew for his son. Passing it to Vin he said, "You look like you could use this."
"Thanks, Dad." Vin didn't join his father at the table, instead he leaned against the kitchen counter. "I appreciate you stickin' around to watch over my family."
Brodie nodded. "My family too, Son. We got all the extra guests, vendors, and stagecoaches off the property safe and sound. JD and his bride made their flight and should be in Boston by now. The Carriage House is clean and back to its original state. Kel was tired so I helped with the kids. We got them down and she went to bed early. I have ranch paperwork to finish and figured I could do it here as well as home." He leaned back, aware Vin had something chewing at him, but willing to be patient…to a point. "I did make a few observations today."
"Yeah? Gonna share?"
"Walter and his team are top notch. Security on L7 has never been tighter." Brodie emptied his beer, stood, and then tossed the bottle in the trash. "I also noticed the Jacksons' interest in Leia is more than casual. Don't think she's going to be a member of your household much longer."
Vin smiled. "I reckon I saw that one comin', too." He took a swig of beer, hoping to quell the gnawing in his gut.
Clasping his hand on Vin's shoulder he said, "You might have Kel, and maybe a few of your brothers fooled. But I know something's stuck in your craw and it's not going away. You want to tell me what it is?"
"Hell, take your pick. Bad enough we got mailbox break-ins here, a stranger wantin' to talk to my wife, and caller hang-ups. I'm concerned about Chris and Cait, Kel, the kids, Rebel, you name it." Vin began to pace the room and his thoughts change direction. "We've got a crazy bastard with a hit list runnin' around killin' at will. That SOB taunts us with those damn cards like he knows we can't stop him. I have a feelin' he was watchin' us at the crime scenes, too." Vin tossed his empty bottle. "How did he know we put Russell in protective custody? The only GPS tracker we found was on Ramon's vehicle. How did he know Hunter was on that detail? I only decided a few days ago to put those two DPD officers under surveillance. Yet somehow, he knew. Our van was not the only one on that street. How did he know which one was MCAT? I ask myself all these things and keep comin' up with the one answer I find difficult to believe." He stopped pacing and looked at his father. "There has to be another explanation. What the fuck am I missin'?"
Brodie understood Vin's anger. Betrayal is a hard pill to swallow. "Son, you already found your answer. My question is what the hell are you going to do about it?"
"Was hopin' to be wrong." Vin ran his hand through his hair and plopped down in a chair. "Reckon I need a plan and I'm gonna need your help."
Brodie cleared the table of ranch work and turned to a clean page in his notebook. "Your woman's asleep and I've got no place to be, best we get started."
It took most of the night. By the time Vin crawled into bed and wrapped his arms around Kelli, he had a damn good plan. All he had to do now was set it into motion.
+ + + + + + +
The Gryphon House is a luxurious bed and breakfast housed in a turn-of-the-century brownstone in the Beacon Hill area of Boston. It's within easy walking distance to many of the historical attractions the newlyweds planned to visit while on their honeymoon. It was late when they arrived at their destination. JD assisted Tess out of the cab as the driver placed their suitcases on the curb. He paid the man, picked up their luggage, and followed his wife to the entrance. They entered a charming foyer filled with antiques, flowers, and a smiling older couple standing behind a four-foot high mahogany counter near the base of a winding staircase.
"Hello, I'm Seth Mason and this is my wife Clara. Welcome to Gryphon House."
"Hi, we're the Dunnes. We have a reservation for…."
"The Tuscany, one of our most popular rooms." Clara turned and retrieved a key from a slotted shelf behind the counter.
She handed it to her husband, while JD signed his and Tess' name to the registry. Seth picked up the suitcase. "Please follow me." He started up the staircase with the young couple following him.
"Trust me?" JD asked his bride as they trailed the older man as he led them to their suite.
"Yes," She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Why?"
He moved behind her, covering her eyes with one hand, while wrapping his other arm around her waist so he could guide her the last few steps to their suite. Seth stood in the doorway, waiting for the bride and groom to precede him.
"Keep your eyes closed." He removed his hand from her eyes and swept her up into his arms.
"John Daniel!" Tess gave an involuntary cry as she was lifted off her feet. She fought the urge to open her eyes, and instead clutched at him as he carried her into their suite.
He set her on her feet, keeping a steadying hand around her waist. "You can open your eyes now."
Tess blinked against the brightness from the overhead crystal chandelier. Her hazel eyes widened as she took in the suite's decor. It was decorated in warm tones reminiscent to the Victorian era, with a queen-sized sleigh bed, intimate eating area in front of a gas fireplace, a grouping of chairs by the large windows, and small kitchen with a granite countertop, sink, mini fridge and microwave. She glimpsed what appeared to be a clawfoot tub through a partially opened doorway on the other side of the bed.
As much as she loved the suite, it was the dozen gorgeous bouquets of red roses placed sporadically around the room, which brought tears to her eyes. "John Daniel, they're beautiful."
"Not as beautiful as you." JD commented, before turning to tip Seth.
Seth took the money and handed him the key to their suite, along with a folded slip of paper. "A message I was instructed to give to you upon your arrival."
The older man left the newlyweds alone. Tess turned as he unfolded the note and read aloud, "We ordered some of your favorites. Check out the fridge. Love the Wild Bunch."
"It was sweet of them to plan this for us. They've already done so much."
"You couldn't find a better bunch of people to call family." JD drew her into his arms and kissed her tenderly.
"Thank you for giving me the wedding of my dreams, John Daniel." She gazed lovingly up at him. "It was a magical day I will never forget."
"You're welcome." His voice grew husky as he whispered, "It's not over yet."
Tess felt a thread of heat rush over her at his words. "No, it isn't."
JD fought his rising desire. He wanted the first time they made love to be special, memorable, not rushed. He kissed her again, and then stepped back. "Why don't you unpack while I put together something for us to eat out of whatever ‘favorites' the Wild Bunch put together for us?"
"Sounds good." Tess slipped out of her high heels, sighing as her aching feet sank into the plush carpet.
He opened the refrigerator and gasped at the array of items in it. There was a bottle of Dom Perignon, deli packages of sliced salami, ham, turkey, cheddar and provolone cheeses with crackers, another tray of fresh fruit, and a small chocolate cake. There were also two different flavors of whipped cream, a bottle of chocolate syrup and a case of bottled water.
Tess felt her finger graze against something along the side of JD's suitcase as she reached in for another pile of clothing. She leaned over and could see it was a slip of paper that was half in, half out of the lining. She pulled, unfolded it, and read the few short words. Laughter erupted within that she quickly squelched. She crossed the room to stand near the kitchenette.
"Hon, did you find whip cream in with the other food items?"
JD didn't look up from where he was pulling things out of the mini-refrigerator.
"How about a case of bottled water?"
JD dumped the stuff in his arms on the counter and turned to look at her. He took in the mischievous twinkle in her eyes and smirk on her face. "What's going on?"
"I found this when I was unpacking your suitcase." She held out the slip of paper.
With a puzzled look, JD took it from her. He recognized the handwriting as Buck's. "I had them include a case of bottled water, two cans of whipped cream, one regular, one chocolate, for your preference, as well as a bottle of chocolate syrup. Play it safe, don't drink the tap water while you're there. In case you might be a little out of practice on what to do, I've Included a number you can call for instructions. 877-BABE. Buck."
By the time he had finished reading, Tess was giggling uncontrollably, and JD couldn't hold back his own mirth. When he could talk, he gasped out, "Bet you didn't know your new brother-in-law is a pervert."
Tess' giggles turned into full blown laughter at his words. "There's always one in every family."
Her comment set him off in another peal of laughter. It was some time before they were able to gain control of themselves. Tess went to finish the unpacking, while JD worked to put their meal together. They sipped champagne, fed each other morsels of food, reminisced about key moments at their reception, interwoven with tender kisses and caresses that quickly became heated. Both moaned softly as they were overwhelmed with the multitude of emotions sweeping through them. Love. Passion. Commitment. Unity.
"John Daniel, I need you."
"You have me…now and forever."
Vin's personal journal:
The past week has been one of the longest in my life. I've made decisions I thought I'd never face doing. All necessary, but damn hard all the same. Except for Chris, I've kept the rest of my brothers in the dark about what I've done. I've asked them to join me at Camp Larabee tomorrow morning for an important meeting to share with them. I hope they'll understand why I didn't include them until now.
I haven't had any visions since the one about the hawks, but that fact hasn't helped me relax. Maybe I'm getting as paranoid as my old man, but my instincts tell me there is danger to my family lurking close by. I plan to do everything in my power to protect them, which is why I made an announcement at work about dismissing the Homeland Security Agents, and Kel taking early leave, per doctor's orders. As of today, she's on maternity leave from MCAT. The truth is, she's fine. Doctor Weeks did an ultrasound Wednesday and told us everything looks good. Rebel is already five pounds or so, and we still have a little over five weeks to go. I just want Kelli out of the office and at home where I believe it's safer for her and our baby. We may not agree all the time on the small stuff, but on the important issues, we've always been in sync. She understands and supports my decisions one hundred per cent.
On the home front, the construction on our additions are finished. Now we paint or wallpaper, whichever Kel decides. I promised her a shopping trip after my meeting in the morning, so she can select colors and we'll pick up or order the rest of what's needed. Dad's birthday is also tomorrow and Kel and the kids have a special celebration supper planned for him. So, I reckon some last-minute touches for that will be on her list. I also told her we'd have lunch at her favorite place in Chinatown. Last, a visit to see Chris and Cait is on our agenda.
As I expected, Nathan and Rain approached us about Leia. They decided she need a safe, permanent home. Carmen Johnson agreed and will be here Monday to transfer guardianship from us to them. We're happy she'll be a part of the L7 Wild Bunch and wish them well. Cait's mom and dad are overseeing the finish of Tempest's nursery per Cait's instructions. There's also changes going on at the Wilmington house. Like me, Buck accepted the fact that due to work, he couldn't do it all. Contractors are due over there mid-week.
Gonna spend some time with my wife before our night slips away. More next time.
+ + + + + + +
Setting his journal on the nightstand, Vin smiled when Kelli entered their room. "Kids' asleep?"
"Yes." She flitted around, picking up clothes, putting order to the dresser tops, and such.
"Kel, you're nestin'. I can think of better things for us to do. Drop all that and get your sweet ass over here."
She stopped and met his mirth filled eyes across the room. With a wicked smile on her face, she asked, "In a hurry, are we?" Kelli deliberately slowed her pace and exaggerated her movements for his viewing pleasure.
Watching her sashaying across the room, elicited a deep growl from Vin. Tossing back the covers, he was out of bed and beside her within seconds. Her laughter when he swept her off her feet and into his arms made him ache to have her closer still. Looking down into her passion filled sapphire eyes was his undoing. Huskily whispering he told her, "You have never been more beautiful than you are at this moment." Walking slowly back to their bed, with her nestled close, filled him with a deep contentment only Kelli could give him.
With her arms wrapped around his neck, she looked up into his handsome face. Seeing the love and desire in his eyes made her pulse quicken. "We gonna talk about your better Idea?"
+ + + + + + +
Saturday morning dawned crisp and clear. Vin wanted to get an early start and planned his meeting for eight. He still had to drop Jason at the Wilmington's house. "Finish your breakfast, Son, we're burnin' daylight."
He walked up behind Kelli, who was pouring coffee into a mug. Wrapping his arm around her waist, he kissed the back of her neck and whispered in her ear, "Last night was great. Want another round tonight?"
"Yes, it was, and yes, I do." She smiled when his hand slid down her back and briefly across her butt before he released her. Turning to face him, her heart skipped a beat when she saw the look in his eyes. "Keep lookin' at me like that and we won't be waitin' ‘til tonight."
Vin laughed. "Might wanna turn down the heat to simmer. We've got a lot to do today." He took the travel mug she offered and reminded her about their lunch date. "Plan on leavin' here by eleven."
"Max is comin' over at ten to ‘help' Andi watch the boys. I'll be ready."
Another quick kiss. "Love you, Baby." Vin turned to Jason, who had just put his plate into the dishwasher, before hugging his mom. "Let's go, Son." The two Tanner males hurried out the door.
+ + + + + + +
After dropping Jason off to spend the morning with Caleb, Vin headed to Camp Larabee. He pushed the door open and was met by the sight of Brodie and Colonel Michael Tai. The latter two stood beside a computer and appeared to be in deep conversation. Before interrupting, Tanner checked out the coffeemaker. As he expected it was almost empty, so he started another. If he had to face unhappy brothers, he damn well needed fresh coffee to do it.
"Morning, Son." Brodie held out his empty cup. "Gonna need a refill."
"It may be your birthday but stand in line." Vin refilled his mug, then Brodie's. He extended his hand to Colonel Tai. "Glad you're on board."
Tai nodded. "My men are already in place. Are the other expected attendees aware of why I'm here?"
Vin laughed. "Not yet. Though, I 'm sure after their initial shock, they'll think to welcome you."
Brodie grinned. "Not that I mind a challenge, but I'm glad it's you and not me telling them, Son."
"You two best sit and be quiet while I do." Vin turned his attention to the door. His brothers were arriving, and it was time. "Coffee's hot and I'm ready to start when y'all are."
Buck grumbled as he pulled up a chair by Ezra. "You mean you're actually going to tell us what the hell you've been doing all week?"
"Patience, Brother. I'm certain Vin has good reasons for making us wait." Josiah sat down next to Nathan. "I believe we are ready Vin."
Vin remained standing. "I'm here as Commander of MCAT, but also as your brother. I know some of you aren't happy about being left out. I know I would be, but in this case, it was necessary to wait ‘till I had a few things taken care of. Reckon I need to backtrack a bit. Last weekend when the diner was hit, and our agents were pegged as suspects, it got me askin' myself questions, although truthfully, I had a feelin' somethin' was wrong before then. Or, maybe I knew and just didn't like the answer I came up with. That Southern bastard has been one step ahead of us from the get-go. He taunts us with those fuckin' cards, and he knows things…he shouldn't. The only way he could know about Russell in protective custody, the safe house, the DPD officers we put surveillance on, or what vehicle MCAT uses for surveillance, and which agent to tag with the GPS…was if someone told him."
Tanner knew he had their full attention and could read their thoughts. "I had a hard time acceptin' the answer, too."
"One of our own? No... no." Nathan was shaking his head. "Has to be another explanation."
"Son of a bitch!" Buck jumped up and began pacing. "Right in fucking front of us!"
"I dare say, it makes sense." Ezra thought for a moment. "Vin, you said at the Marshal's crime scene you felt like we were targets. He knew which agents were there and was watching, wasn't he?"
"Probably, or if it wasn't him, it was someone he paid to be there."
Josiah made a statement. "Obviously you don't know who it is because he or she would be in custody. You've been working on a solution outside of the MCAT office."
"Buck, sit down please." Vin then explained. "It was imperative that no one in the office knew what I was doin' and the MCAT office kept doin' business as usual. Brodie and I came up with a plan last Saturday night. We talked it over with Orrin, Sam, and Chris and enhanced it. I've spent the week settin' it up. Outside of us and the people here at Camp Larabee, only Travis, Russo, and Larabee know any details. It must stay that way."
"We're listening, and it better be a way to catch the bastard responsible." Buck said aloud what they we all thinking.
"We're working two MCAT Agencies. One at the office, one here. Travis met in secret with the two men who will be working from here. Y'all know Michael Tai and Brodie Tanner. Colonel Tai owns and operates Axis Communications, a private investigation firm. His associates are skilled, experienced, and vetted. Travis authorized him as an official MCAT consultant. When I dismissed the Homeland Security agents, Tai's people replaced them, covertly of course. Several members of his tech division will be workin' from here with a team Brodie pulled together. Travis also temporarily hired Dad…Brodie as an MCAT agent, and given his experience in ops, an official title. He'll carry the rank of Commander and will oversee our ‘Shadow MCAT Unit'. Both of ‘em will give y'all a rundown on their activities in a minute."
Vin took time to say what he wanted to. "This was not an easy decision to make. I hate like hell to think someone we ‘ve worked with has betrayed us. It's puts all of us in a dangerous position. Unfortunately, it is what it is. Any one of us could go down …" he snapped his fingers "…just like that. We need to prepare in case our rankin' agents are targets." He glanced from one brother to another. "The only people I trust, aside from Chris, JD, and Kel are in this room. I selfishly pulled Kelli out of the office early, not because she's havin' health issues, but because, I want her somewhere safer. If any of y'all have concerns about what we've planned, I need to know now."
Buck laid his hands palms down on the table and leaned forward. "You did what had to be done, Vin. I'm with you. I hate to think anyone we've worked with could do this, but it makes sense." He looked at Nathan, then Ezra, and finally Josiah, reading their faces. Addressing Brodie, he said, "We're all aware of your experience and the connections you still have access to. I see no problem with you joining MCAT."
"I concur and using private security from Axis for protection details is a logical conclusion for our dilemma." Ezra sharply exhaled. "The difficult part of your strategy lies in our ability to detach our anger and behave normally in the office."
Nathan nodded in agreement. "While, I'd like to go in and confront everyone, it won't get the results we need. In this case, a covert operation appears to be our only option."
"Other than pretending all is well at the office, what can we do to help?" Josiah glanced from Vin to Brodie.
Brodie stood. "First off, I want you all to know the L7 ranch work is covered for as long as it takes to resolve our problem. This operation has my full attention. I've brought in men I can trust to assist, and they will be staying here at Camp Larabee. The computer system you see over there is comparable to your CASSIE system and between Colonel Tai and myself we've assembled a team to run whatever we need." He reached down and lifted a box, setting it on the table. "These are the files we started on your Southerner and any known associates of his we've found." He flipped over the caseboard behind him. "These names we can rule out as your mole. Hunter and Langley. While they did know about Russell and the safe house, neither had access to the surveillance information or knowledge of the two officers we think lifted the GPS tracker from DPD. Also, Hickok and Cody weren't here at that time. Anyone else is still a suspect. Any information you pass on at work, will be deliberate and controlled by us. Josiah, I'm aware you are one of the best profilers in the country. You have any issues about profiling your teammates?"
"Under these circumstances, not at all."
"Good, then, let's get down to details." Brodie started a new list on the board.
For the next three hours they worked. With Tai's help, they developed a way to securely communicate without compromising the lines at MCAT HQ. Satisfied everyone was in sync and knew what was expected of them, Vin called a halt to the meeting and had the last words.
"I'll see Chris in a couple of hours and update him on the issues we discussed. No matter what happens when we walk out this door, our mission is clear. We identify our traitor and bring down that Southern bastard by any means possible. Watch your backs."
Brodie stayed and helped Vin straighten up. "Considering you had to tell them there's a traitor at MCAT. They took it well."
"I was sure once they knew what was goin' on, they'd be okay. I just hated bein' secretive with my brothers." Vin rinsed the last coffee cup. "You, I'll see tonight. Right now, I have a lunch date with my gorgeous woman."
"Enjoy, Son. Let the rest of this go for the day. We'll find that SOB and life will be back to normal chaos again."
Vin waved and left the building.
+ + + + + + +
Neither Vin or Kelli liked to shop much. Therefore, their shopping trip was ‘get in, get what we need and get out'. Lunch in Chinatown, however was a lingering affair. They wanted to get Chris and Cait some takeout but had to call and see what Cait could eat. They didn't mind waiting on the extra food because it gave them a few more coveted minutes alone.
"I've been thinkin'. We're almost seven years married. I didn't plan a fancy honeymoon for you and the longest trip we've taken together is to Texas."
Kelli laughed. "South America doesn't count?"
Frowning, Vin snapped, "Hell, no." Taking her hand in his, he smiled again. "After Rebel is born, if we could travel to any place in the world. Where would you want to go?"
Gazing into his eyes, she realized he wanted a serious answer. "Vin, anywhere you are, is where I want to be. I don't want or need a fancy trip or some vacation destination thing. For me, our cabin is the most beautiful, exotic, magical place in the world and that's where I want us to go."
Vin fought back the sudden urge to drag Kelli away to their cabin right now. "I love you Kel, and the cabin it is."
The waitress brought their order. Vin paid, walked Kelli to the truck, and then they headed to the hospital to see the Larabees.
+ + + + + + +
"Prego Delivery." Kelli's voice preceded her and Vin's entry into Cait's hospital room.
Chris chuckled and rose to greet his eldest daughter with a kiss to her cheek, as Vin set the Larabees food order on the table at the foot of Cait's bed. "You are a welcome sight."
"Good to see you too, Dad."
Kelli turned immediately to Cait. "How are you feeling?"
"Hungry." Cait eyed the takeout box.
Kelli laughed. "Best feed you and Tempest while the food's hot."
Vin helped his wife hand out the containers of food. Cait got the order of Vegetable Lo Mein in light sauce with chicken, while Chris dived into his hot and spicy Mongolian beef.
Chris talked between bites. "You just missed Rain and Nathan. They told us the news about Leia."
"I'm happy for them, but I'm gonna miss Leia." Kelli looked at Chris. "Dad, I seem to have a lot of free time comin' in the next few weeks. If you need to run errands or want to see your kids, I can visit with Cait while you're gone."
Chris exchanged looks with Vin. "Donald and Lillian make sure I have time with our children. But it's always great to see you and Vin."
Cait glanced at Kelli. "I thought you were working until May first."
Kelli turned her head back towards Cait. "I'm takin' my maternity leave of absence early. Gives me time to work on the nursery."
"Mom and dad are working on ours. We're going with lavender instead of pink."
Chris finished his meal, wrapped up the trash, and threw it away. "While you two talk nurseries. I'm going to step out the door with Vin."
Cait laughed. "Guess you've had your fill of nursey talk. Go, I'll be here when you come back."
+ + + + + + +
Once out the door, Chris stopped Vin a few steps down the hall. "Sitrep."
"Damn, and I thought Commander Larabee was on leave."
"Just tell me."
"Meetin' went well. Dad easily stepped back into Commander mode. We all played well with Colonel Tai and when we finished everyone agreed on our action plan."
"Good. I hate being away when the shit hits the fan, but..."
Vin stopped him. "You're where you need to be. Any update on Cait?"
"Pretty much the same. Borderline preeclampsia monitored daily for her high blood pressure, protein levels, blood count, and accelerated heart rate. Doctor says she's stable. I'm doing my best to keep her stress levels down. I need to be here, but I want to help MCAT, too."
"Hang in there. We're takin' positive, proactive steps to find the SOB. Whatever's gonna happen at work will take place with or without you."
"Who all knew you and Kelli were coming here today?"
"No one who shouldn't know has any way of knowin' what our schedule is. I'm keepin' my eyes open and if I see anythin' out of place, I'll take care of it."
"I know Vin, but my gut's been working overtime making me paranoid. Even the best plans can miss something."
Tanner's own gut had been working overtime, too. With more confidence than he felt Vin tried to dismiss Chris's concern. "We've set our plan into motion, and all we can do now is patiently wait for results. When Kel and I leave here we're headed home. Dad's birthday celebration is this evenin' and I have a date with my wife later tonight. All good."
Chris nodded to Tai's men as he and Vin walked back to Cait's room. Before he pushed the door open he told Vin, "Keep communications open. I want to know if anything changes."
+ + + + + + +
Leaving Cait's room, Vin and Kelli took a detour by the nursey to see the new babies. Vin didn't mind indulging his wife, knowing she was in nesting mode and they both enjoyed viewing the newborns.
Kelli held on to Vin's hand. "Just think, five more weeks and Rebel will be in one of those bassinettes."
"I don't know which one of you is more excited. You or Andi."
Walking through the emergency room exit, hand in hand, Kelli leaned into Vin. "I don't know, but I am gettin' a bit impatient. I can't wait to hold her."
"Soon, Baby. Soon." Vin instinctively scanned the area around them, as they approached his truck, looking for potential trouble. Almost to his truck, Vin moved from Kelli's side to open the door for his wife.
Continues in: MCAT: Hell of a Ride #2:
Family Trilogy Part 3
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Chapter 16 "To Love Again" by Sue M
Chapter 12 "The Carriage House" by TTL