In The Company of Angels
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The man hugged the dark walls of the church, a shadow trying to remain unseen. He grabbed his filthy baseball cap from his head and stuffed it into his thin denim jacket pocket leaving errant, dark, greasy hair exposed. Claiming a seat behind a stately column he eased his exhausted body onto the wooden pew, allowing his eyes a moment to enjoy the luxury of closing, shutting out the world and the evil stalking him. Sighing he forced his eyes open, needing to remain on alert.
The huge nave shimmered in its holiday finery where green boughs decorated arches and windowsills. Large white ribbons bedecked the greenery while shiny red ornaments, like drops of blood, reflected the thousands of miniature lights wrapping the gigantic Scotch pine tree stately placed at the front of the sanctuary. The fresh evergreen scent wafted through the large room.
People of all ages, some in holiday finery and others in comfortable jeans and sweaters, continued to file into the church, eyeing the best seats. Those whose small children would be part of the festivities maneuvered to the front while grandparents and other adults filled the rest of the pews. A festive hum, ripe with Christmas excitement, rippled through the congregation as the parishioners greeted each other.
Following the crowds as they left the shopping malls, the young man sought refuge in the throng of people gathering near the massive wooden doors. The December evening air frigidly cut through his thin coat. If only for an hour he could be warm and hopefully safe from the men hunting for him.
"Excuse me. Are you saving this seat for someone?"
An older woman looked down at him. She pointed to the empty pew. Few seats remained in the main body of the church. He shook his head negatively and gingerly stood up, allowing the woman and her husband access to the center of the row. Ready to take flight from the close press of so many people the woman reached across her husband and gently held his hand, "Merry Christmas. Welcome to St. John's. My name is Maria and this is my husband Gabe."
The brilliant organ prelude interrupted him from returning the pleasantries as the congregation rose for the processional hymn. Wide-eyed youngsters marched down the center aisle progressing in height from the smallest preschoolers to preteens, nervous about remembering their memorized parts. The minister's short holiday homily introduced the children's portion of the service and the congregation settled back to listen to the retelling of the Christmas story.
The young man stole nervous glances at the couple seated next to him. The woman's gray hair seemed to shimmer and glow like the tinsel decorating the mall's trees. Her husband sat serenely beside her, holding her hand like a delicate glass ornament. His eyes sparkled like matching diamonds as he listened to the children recite their Bible verses and sing the well-known hymns and carols.
Parishioners smiled and small eruptions of laughter spread though the congregation as the tiniest children gathered on the steps to the chancel preparing to sing "Away in a Manger." Several tots waved to their adoring parents while others stared at the huge tree. As they were guided to their place the young man remembered another Christmas Eve, in another church, far away from Colorado Springs. He remembered the last time he sat with his mother, her frail body destroyed by a sickness no doctor could cure. She regularly took her son to church during his formative years but the temptations of teenager hood stole him from her, except for the Christmas Eve service. Even when she became too weak to attend the service, weeks before she died, they listened to the radio broadcast the service. Swiping the errant tears that escaped from his expressive eyes, he closed them trying to stop the flood of memories assaulting him. The present blurred with the past while his body tuned out the music and exhaustion claimed him.
"JOY TO THE WORLD THE LORD IS COME. LET EARTH RECEIVE HER KING!" The congregation rose triumphantly proclaiming the message and meaning of the special day. A gentle but comforting arm pulled the young man from his rest and supported him as he regained his wits. The older man smiled, no recrimination in his eyes, as he emotionally sang the joyous hymn by memory. Unwilling to sing the young man returned the silent support and smiled at the couple beside him.
As the service ended he rose, ready to slip out into the darkness, in search of some where safe and warm to spend the most holy of nights. The throng of parishioners exiting the church trapped him in the pew. He didn't want to cause a scene nor did he want anyone to recognized him here among these innocent worshipers.
"Do you have a place to stay?"
"Tonight, do you have a place to stay? You are welcome to stay with us. No one should be without a room on Christmas Eve."
"No, I couldn't. You don't know me." Who in their right mind would invite a dirty, grungy stranger into their home?
The man joined the conversation. "You look like you could use a safe haven tonight. The all-night stores are closed. Where will you go? I believe God directed us to sit beside you this evening and He will protect you and He will protect us."
The majority of the people spilled out of the warm building and hurried toward their cars. The anticipation of gifts and fellowship sent them scurrying away, leaving those with no place to go in their wake. The couple flanked the stranger ushering him towards a nondescript, serviceable automobile, and effectively surrounding him with friendship. Almost before he realized he'd accepted their invitation, he was ensconced in their vehicle on the way to their home.
As the car maneuvered safely down the snow-covered streets, Maria spoke from the backseat. "Every year we taken someone in during the holidays. We are so glad you were willing to share tonight with us."
The young man turned around in the seat to see the woman's face barely illuminated by the passing streetlights. "But you don't know anything about me." He turned toward the husband. "How can you open your home to a complete stranger? How do you know I won't harm you, or know that you can trust me?"
Without taking his eyes from the road the older man answered, "The Bible tells us to open our homes and share with the downtrodden, the homeless. You never know when you might be entertaining angels."
Peaceful quiet filled the car for several blocks before the stranger broke the silence. "J..Jack Donnelly, that's my name," he lied. "Sorry, but I'm no angel."
"Merry Christmas, Jack." The woman patted his shoulder and continued, "Did you wish for a hot shower, a warm meal and a clean bed for Christmas? I love it when I can get the present that someone wants and I don't have to worry about returning it." The dark haired man laughed at the joke as he thought about his friends gathered together in Denver. He silently added a wish for a way to let them know he was safe and that the case would soon be resolved.
The car pulled into an empty parking place behind a large apartment complex. As the young man got out of the car, Maria grabbed his arm. "This way, son. Our place is on the fifth floor."
The three people entered the small, comfortable apartment. Gabe flipped the switch by the door and the Christmas tree's many colorful lights bathed the room in a soft glow. The sight of the tiny lights reflected in the room's window sent memories of another apartment, miles away. Buck loved to dance to silly holiday jingles while setting the tree up in front of their window. Would he have bothered to decorate it with the silly ornaments Casey gave them last year?
"Sorry to break your reminiscing, Jack, but I thought maybe you would like to take a shower while I get the food ready. Gabe will show you where it is and get some clean clothes you can eat while I can wash your things."
"Son, you'll have to forgive Maria. She always seems to know what people need before they've recognized it themselves. You've made her so happy, she'll be talking about your gift for weeks."
The stranger, confused, looked at the man, "I'm sorry, I don't have anything for a gift."
"Yes, you have. You gave her the gift of fellowship. She loves to take care of others. You gave her the gift of trust. You were willing to trust her and accept her offer. You gave us both the gift of compassion. You are here, not dismissing us like a couple of old geezers. Here, this sweatshirt and sweatpants should fit you until your things are dry."
JD quickly stripped off his grimy flannel shirt. Carefully he removed the gun and harness hidden under his left arm. He wrapped the weapon in the dirty shirt, not wanting to alarm the kind couple if they would enter the bathroom before he could rearm himself. He pulled a sweat soaked black T-shirt from his bruised torso. As he removed his filthy jeans he fought back the urge to scream. Dried blood and pus glued the rough material to the nasty knife wound decorating his thigh.
The warm water washed away more than the sweat and grime covering his body. For a few moments Jack Donnelly disappeared and JD Dunne emerged. The young ATF agent, normally Team Seven communications expert, became the current undercover agent. Shipments of cheap handguns combined with the black-marketing of high-powered rifles to the state's high school students spurred the federal government's battle to control the problem. Dunne, a.k.a. Jack Donnelly, became a gunrunner for an underground distributor. The day after Thanksgiving the young man left the comfort of knowing six trusted friends watched his back to living solo on the streets of Colorado Springs in a quest to gather evidence against the dealers.
Knowing he was close to the climax of the deal, the situation soured when the distributor questioned the young man's loyalty. Switching to street survival skills, Dunne escaped from the brutal beating with bruises and the knife wound. For three days he hid, melting into the crowds doing their last minute Christmas shopping. As one store after another closed early the hiding places became rare, leaving only lonely convenience stores and rapidly filling places of worship. He chose the later.
Stepping from the shower, JD grabbed the brown towel and rubbed his hair. Gently he patted the moisture from his leg, avoiding the flaming red swollen skin. Nathan would have dragged him into some emergency room. Treatment would have to wait. Tonight he would be clean, eat a meal and sleep in a fresh bed. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, he'd become a street grunge again; resume the Jack Donnelly persona and work for an end to the nightmare.
A full bottle of hydrogen peroxide sat in plain view on the bathroom vanity. He poured a healthy dose over the wound, clamping his jaws together against the surge of pain. Reasoning his hosts would prefer him using a couple of the large gauze pads rather than having the wound ooze and stain the bedding, he opened several packages and secured them over the injury with medical tape. The fleece clothing fit well yet was baggy enough to conceal the firearm strapped to his chest.
Maria grabbed the dirty jeans and shirts from him as he left the bathroom. "Have a seat. I'll get these in the wash and we'll eat." A bowl of thick chicken noodle soup sat on the table, its delicious aroma filled the air. Seven votive candles twinkled from the crystal candleholder, each glass sat on its own pedestal of the decorative piece while the combination of the small lights illuminated the room with a warm glow.
Gabe joined his wife and guest sitting at the table. "Let us pray. Dear Lord. Thank you for the gift of our Savior and for giving us the opportunity to share in your bounty. Keep a watchful eye on your child, Jack, and keep him from all harm and danger. In Jesus name. Amen."
JD choked, hearing the older man's prayer, wishing he could confess the truth to them, but knowing his life may depend on the falsehood he added his own prayer for forgiveness. Someday he would return to explain the situation and repay them for their hospitality.
The trio ate the meal in companionable silence while seasonal music played in the background. Maria set a plate of assorted holiday cookies before JD when he finished his bowl of soup. Buttery Spritz, Pfeffernusse and Kringla treats shared the plate with the merrily decorated sugar cookies. JD grabbed a green frosted tree complete with red-hot candy ornaments and remembered helping his mother decorate the delicate cutout cookies. She insisted he help her frost them and would laugh at his artistic attempts to add red noses to the reindeer, chocolate whiskers for Santa and multi colored bells and stars.
"Jack, feel free not to answer, but do you have any family, anyone who's waiting for you?" Gabe asked, his fatherly concern reminiscent of Josiah's counseling.
JD shook his head. "My mama died a couple of years ago. I've got a stepbrother, that's all." Inside his heart was breaking a little more with each white lie.
"Are you close?" Maria's concern evident. "Why don't you call him tonight? Let him know you're alright."
JD looked at his hosts with deep longing in his eyes. Though he and Buck only met two years ago the older man was family. "I can't impose; he's in Denver at his in-laws." The young man thought fondly of his family in the ATF.
Maria's smile warmed his breaking heart. "Call him. Let him know you're all right. On this night all family squabbles should be put away."
"Phone call won't cost that much, holiday rates and all, Jack."
Gabe and Maria's hospitality sent warm shivers up and down the guest's spine. Keeping a masculine mask in place he accepted the cordless receiver and pushed the buttons. When someone on the other end answered, JD said, "Merry Christmas, Judge. This is Jack Donnelly. Are Buck and Chris there?" After a slight pause JD's smile morphed into an ear-to-ear grin. "Hey, Buck. Merry Christmas .Chris and the boys there too? I'm fine No, really. I'm fine .No, I can't. I ain't ready yet Yes; I'll let you know. Tell everyone hi You're welcome, Buck. Bye."
Handing the phone back to Gabe, the young man tried to hide his yawns behind his hand but the need for a true nights sleep beckoned. "Merry Christmas, Jack. Sleep tight." Maria led him to the small guest room and closed the door as she left. He got undressed and put the gun and holster under his pillow. The clean sheets and soft comforter cradled him and he fell asleep dreaming of Christmas' past and with the hope that at this time next year he would be home, surrounded by the group of men he considered his family.
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear on the central Colorado city. A new dusting of snow whitened the ground leaving a pristine blanket covering the streets and sidewalks. JD awoke to dust motes dancing in a sunbeam cascading into the small room. Momentarily forgetting where he was, he smiled as the memory of Christmas Eve reran through his mind. Strangers opened their home to him and gave him one night of refuge.
Opening the bedroom door he listened for any clues that the couple were awake. Music softly played in the kitchen and he could smell the distinctive aroma of freshly baked muffins and frying bacon. He couldn't hear what was being said but the household began its morning routine without disturbing his needed sleep.
His clean clothes, neatly folded, sat stacked in front of the door. Grabbing the pile he stepped across the hall and entered the bathroom. Peeling the fleece pants off of the wounded thigh, JD grimaced. The wound stung worse than the night before and the gauze bandages were saturated with blood and drainage. He gently cleaned the wound and doused it with more hydrogen peroxide. He pushed the pain away and quickly dressed. The reprieve was over and he needed to return to the streets, searching for his assailant. The atmosphere in the underground predicted the looming gun sale and if it was in his power the perpetrators would be arrested before the deadly 'toys' made any appearances on the streets.
"Good morning, Jack."
"Merry Christmas, Maria." JD smiled at the woman filling a bowl with scrambled eggs. Gabe took the dish from her and carried it to the table. The aroma blended with the other items already set.
The young man's stomach growled its own greeting and the older man laughed. "Guess I don't need to ask if you've got an appetite, son. Go on. Sit down and dig in."
The couple joined him and after saying grace the quiet clink of glasses and utensils added to the merry music coming from the radio. As JD put the last bite into his mouth, Gabe handed him a brightly colored package. "Merry Christmas."
JD looked at the present and didn't know what to say. "You shouldn't I can't You've given me so much already." "It's nothing compared to what you have given. Go on; open it."
Afraid to look the two people in the eyes, JD stared through tear-filled eyes at the wrapping paper where gold, smiling stars decorated a red background. "You both must be angels, sent to watch out for me."
Maria and Gabe smiled at each other before pulling JD into a caring hug. Whispering in the young man's ear, the woman encouraged, "Open the present."
He quickly tore off the wrapping and revealed a black and white checked flannel shirt. He slipped it on over his long sleeved t-shirt and ran his hand over the soft fabric.
"You take care of yourself, out there. Can't have you taxing your guardian angel. Keeping you warm is the least we can do."
Keeping the goodbyes short, the undercover agent left the warm apartment and its kind inhabitants, ready to return to the streets. He needed to retrace his steps to locate the kingpin of the gun running ring, the man responsible for the festering wound he carried in his thigh. Stepping off the stairs, a catchy Christmas tune in his mind, JD stopped abruptly when he heard familiar voices around the corner.
"Meeting is set up for this afternoon at 4:00."
"Today? It's Christmas."
"Exactly. Day of peace and all. When better to do this? Cops are home with their families. No stray witnesses. All them homeless got gathered up last night."
"When did you get to be so smart?"
"Smarted than you. How did you let that agent get so close?"
"Never figured a long-haired gutter brat to be a Fed."
"He's still out there somewhere. Went to ground but that don't mean you can let your guard down."
"I got him good, bleeding like a stuck pig."
"No body means no cigar. Make the calls and get the boys down to the Mesa street warehouse before four. The truck will show up at five minutes after. I've got to get back upstairs. Mollie ain't got a clue what's providing her with all her Christmas wishes."
JD flattened himself into the narrow space between the stairs and the soda machine as he watched the man who'd stabbed him get into a flashy red SUV. The unknown man walked by him without noticing that the walls possessed ears.
Waiting until he heard a door open and close, JD restrained the urge to run as he walked away from the complex. He thought about returning to his new friends' apartments to use their telephone but quickly dismissed the idea. The more distance he put between himself and them the better.
Several blocks away he saw an open convenience store. As he walked towards the outdoor phone he started patting his pockets for change before remembering he'd lost all his money when he'd been attacked. He slipped his right hand into the tight jeans and felt a small, wadded piece of paper. A five-dollar bill folded into a small square came out with his hand. Where did it come from? Why did Maria or Gabe put money in his pocket?
JD looked at the distant apartment complex and made a promise to his new found friends. "I'll pay you back as soon as I can. Got to take care some crooks first and then I'll be back."
A bored store clerk exchanged the paper money into coin while trying to engage him in conversation. JD felt bad about running out on the lonely man but needed to make his phone call.
The outdoor telephone offered more privacy from inadvertent eavesdropping. Punching the memorized number, JD waited for an answer. "Come on, Chris. Answer the darn phone." By the fourth ring and debating about trying a different number, a gruff voice sounded in his ear.
"This had better be important."
"Chris, it's JD. I only got a minute to tell you everything so don't interrupt."
"Just listen, Chris. They're making the delivery today, around four this afternoon. Two straight trucks, one full of automatics and the other will sell door to door off the street, handguns. Get everyone down to Warehouse 2, near the intersection of Mesa and Vegas. I'll meet you there. Crooks decided law enforcement wouldn't bother them today."
"You ok, son?"
"I'm fine, but I'll be better once this business is over. I gotta go 'fore my time runs out. Remember four o'clock, Warehouse 2 on Vegas. Bye."
JD slammed the receiver down just before his minute ended. He looked at the coins remaining in his hand, 2 dollars and sixty-five cents, barely enough to buy a cheap burger. He stuffed the coins deep into his pockets and felt something else. Removing his hand and the strange item, he found a white feather wrapped with gold, metallic thread. The edge of the feather fluttered in the winter breeze and JD remembered the conversation about guardian angels. Yep, his angel must be earning hazard pay, keeping the impetuous and over exuberant agent around to see his next birthday.
Knowing the others would need a couple of hours to organize and drive the seventy miles down Interstate 25, he expected they'd make it to the rendezvous site before he hiked the seven miles across the city.
The remaining six members assembled at the Federal building within forty-five minutes of the young undercover agents call. With an action plan already designed the men split into two groups, each traveling a different route. Chris reviewed his paperwork while Vin drove the older Astro van. Ezra double-checked communications equipment and ammunitions, a job normally completed by the missing team member. Larabee knew the younger Dunne would be a better choice to infiltrate the gun-running gang, as a street-wise homeless trouble magnet than the well dressed, refined mannerisms of Agent Ezra Standish.
Easily maneuvering through the empty city streets, Vin relaxed as they approached the Interstate approach ramp. The beautiful Christmas snow blanketed the city but left the streets treacherous. Road crews cleared the Federal expressway first, making the window of time to reach Colorado Springs widen somewhat.
The agent known for his sharp shooting ability glanced at his boss before returning his eyes to the road. "How did he sound?" "Not good." Larabee responded, knowing immediately whom Vin meant by the 'he'. "Claimed he was fine but then we've all seen his definition of fine. I haven't got a decent night's sleep since he went under." Chris looked up into the visor mirror at the third team member. "Ezra, we got a floor plan for this place?"
"I believe our industrious young friend acquired the blue prints to every structure in existence in our sister city." He pulled a copy of the building's layout from a manila folder and handed it to the man in the front seat, lines of worry evident on all three men's faces.
The youngest member of Chris Larabee's magnificent team slipped into a neighboring warehouse and familiarized himself with the layout. A large, open area occupied the majority of the first floor. JD quietly climbed the stairs to the upper loft, a former employee lounge. The room sat void of furniture but several counters offered potentially good hiding places. From the narrow windows he could see the main gate and the large parking lot. The large window on the opposite side of the area offered a clear vista of the entire warehouse.
A small office occupied the area to the right of the stairwell. With his gun ready, JD opened the door and searched the smaller room. He rubbed his aching leg before easing himself down to the floor. His body shivered from the penetrating cold as he fought the urge to succumb to sleep. Glancing at his watch, he knew the exchange wasn't scheduled for another three hours. How soon would the others arrive and give him the backup and support he craved? All he wanted for Christmas was to sleep in his own bed in his own room in his own apartment, to sleep until the exhaustion he felt dissipated. He wanted to feel safe, to be surrounded by his new family, his brothers.
Non-too quiet footsteps echoed from the stairs and the young agent pulled himself into the shadows. Through the dim light, JD saw the glint of light reflected off the scope lens of a high-powered rifle. He caressed his own small weapon as he watched the person slither through the darkness. The shooter checked all of the windows and relaxed next to the one overlooking the parking lot.
The ache in JD's leg throbbed with each heartbeat and the young man could feel the heat radiating from the limb. The jeans restricted the swelling and his toes felt numb. The longer he remained in the cramped quarters the warmer he felt. Sweat ran down his back. His breathing became more rapid. He didn't know what was worse; his pounding heartbeat or raspy breaths. Couldn't the other person hear the involuntary noises emanating from his body?
Believing he could remain still no longer he looked for an opportunity to stretch his stiff muscles. The sound of a slight hum brought the other person to attention. JD froze.
"Pike one, ready." The whisper echoed through the tomblike office.
The ATF agent's heartbeat pounded faster as he recognized the voice, the same one he'd heard this morning, the one belonging to the man who sliced his leg. Movement outside of the window captured the mystery man's attention and JD grabbed the opportunity to stretch his cramped legs.
He pulled himself upright holding onto a countertop. The dirty window illuminated the face of the other man. JD watched as the man brought the rifle to watch something out in the parking lot. He looked out of the window nearest his hiding place and saw a familiar van near the far gate, a sight that made the younger man's blood run cold.
Knowing he needed to stop the man from using the weapon or alert others with his radio, JD shouted, "Hold it. Drop the rifle." The man jumped and twirled toward the voice. "How the hell did you get here? You croaked. You gotta be a ghost."
"Shut up." Holding his small gun still took an enormous effort as dark spots danced in front of his eyes. "Drop the rifle!"
"No scrawny, street-boy's going to tell me what to do. I killed you once and I'll do it again, Agent Dunne."
The man's crouch would have forewarned the injured man if he was healthy but the sudden swing of the rifle stunned him as the stock slammed into his side and jarred the gun from his hand. It spun out of sight into the murky darkness. As the shooter tried to reverse his gun, JD recovered and tackled the gunman. The two struggled as fists struck faces and limbs, each man giving as much as he received, trading blow for blow. Dunne pulled the rifle away just as the other man connected with the wound on JD's leg. The abscessed wound exploded and the pus and blood soaked through the denim material.
Along with the jolt of pain, JD's body shot adrenaline into his system, giving him momentary super strength. His fist struck the man's throat, sending him backwards into the corner of the window frame. As fast as the fight began it ended with both men down.
Looking out of the window JD saw the towering Pike's Peak in the distance, a white snow cover decorating the famous mountain. Rays of sunlight sneaked through the clouds creating a marvelous vision of heaven in a fever-filled mind. The angels were dancing in heaven, celebrating the holy day.
Arriving more than two hours early, the ATF agents coordinated efforts with a select task force of the Colorado Springs police force, and secured the empty warehouse. Other officers remained on alert, hidden from view, but in the vicinity of the expected exchange. A half hour before four, two vehicles drove into the building's parking and storage lot. Almost to the exact minute two trucks, void of any advertising arrived and pulled into the service bay doors that opened and closed on cue.
Hidden in the shadows the ATF and police exercised patience, wanting to apprehend the buyers and seller, patience and persistence that paid off in huge dividends. Within minutes incriminating evidence sat in the hands of the law enforcement officials and the criminals were apprehended. The two truck drivers refused to surrender and began firing at the approaching men. The well-armed vehicles rammed through the chain link fence in an attempt to escape only to be met by the police armored vans blocking their exit.
"Round them up, boys," came the command from the different team leaders while the others gathered the evidence.
Buck Wilmington jogged toward the stranded trucks where the rest of Team Seven began inventorying the confiscated arms. "Anyone see the Kid?" specifically not mentioning JD's name in the slim chance he needed to remain undercover.
Almost unanimously the gathered men shook their heads. The absent team member continued to elude the expected reunion. "I'll do a recheck of the building," he offered, heading back towards the large complex.
Another large group of officers gathered near a pair of ambulances, whose doors closed before the normally gregarious agent witnessed the vehicles' departure. "Didn't know we had any officers down," he said to a nearby detective.
The man turned and smiled, recognizing the ATF jacket. "Unfortunately, yes. Found him upstairs in a different building with one of them, a coward punk. If your agent hadn't taken the perp out we might have a high death tally. Found a spectacular high-powered rifle near them. They fought a while before each succumbed to his injuries."
"ATF? How did you know he was ATF?"
The detective pulled a familiar badge from his pocket. "Found this in his suit coat. Name of Agent John Dunne."
Buck grabbed the small leather wallet and lovingly caressed the metal emblem as his mind processed the detective's narration. "You said he was wearing a suit? JD wouldn't be caught dead in a suit. Describe the other man."
The officer took a step back, wanting to avoid the simmering volcano in front of him. "Just one of them street brats, ripped jeans, shaggy, dark hair. Course we didn't find any ID on him. Just these two guns." He held up the small, standard federal issue and the high tech, well-scoped rifle.
Without explanation, Buck turned and ran toward the rest of his team. "Chris, it's JD. I found him." He jogged toward the company van.
Chris caught up with his long time friend and grabbed his arm. "Where you going? We aren't finished here yet."
"JD, they took two men to the hospital. Found them in that other warehouse. One had JD's badge in his pocket. From the detective's description the other had to be JD. They got the shooter and the agent mixed up. We need to get to the hospital before they let the guy loose."
Within an hour five members of the team assembled in the waiting room, ignorant to the stares they received from the other unfortunate holiday hospital visitors. Buck paced anxiously, unable to sit. Chris kept an eye on his men, gauging each one's reaction to the day's activities. Ezra and Josiah typed reports into their laptops, wanting to record as many details as they could. Vin created drawings of the warehouse and how the bust progressed. Nathan ran interference with the hospital staff, completing forms and answering answers about JD's medical history.
Chris talked to the local police and arranged to have the other man found with JD arrested on an attempted murder of a federal officer charge. He was pleased with the successful assignment. His young agent preformed with professionalism though he knew that the true story of the last two weeks would be less than a fond memory for the easterner.
Nathan approached the group of men, a serious look on his face. The foolish kid, he knew better than to go without medical attention. He needed to have a serious conversation with the young man about how to survive to get as old as Josiah. No, make that Vin. The way JD attracted trouble he should make a goal of living until thirty, one than might be obtainable.
"Nate, did you find the Kid?"
"Take it easy, Buck. I found him. He was in surgery. Seems like he skipped getting a knife wound looked at. Now the doctors are cleaning out a serious abscess. He'll be lucky if he don't loose some mobility in his leg, least ways he shouldn't loose the limb. He'll need to stay overnight for observation and then take it easy for a few weeks. They're starting him on a strong antibiotic. He needs to stay off that leg until it stops draining."
"Can we see him?"
JD sat in the lobby of the Colorado City Medical Center, waiting for Chris to bring the truck to the loading area. He'd spent two days battling a fever and dehydration before getting permission to return to Denver to complete his recovery.
Buck visited with the nurses waiting with other patients, a diversion JD appreciated. The two men argued about JD's plan to return to visit the couple that befriended him Christmas Eve. The younger man wanted to repay the couple for their hospitality in person while Buck offered to deliver the present for JD.
Being the smallest of the team meant that JD usually rode in the back seat of Chris's club cab truck. He sat with the injured leg propped on several pillows during the short ride from the hospital to the apartment complex.
"Now you just stay put, Kid. I'll go get your friends and have them come down here."
"Buck, I can ," JD protested.
"No argument now. You shouldn't even be sitting up. The doc said to keep that leg elevated. I'll be right back."
Chris hid the smile ready to erupt. 'Those two could argue about anything trivial thing, they were almost like siblings the way they carried on,' the team leader thought. 'Hope this don't take too long. Gotta get the Kid and Buck home before dark.' He looked into the rearview mirror and saw the younger man resting, his eyes closed, the look of pain etched across his forehead. In a few minutes Buck returned solo with a worried grimace. He came to the driver's side of the vehicle.
"Something ain't right. Looks like the place had a fire."
"Fire! Did they loose everything?" JD yelled.
"JD, you sure this is the right place?" Buck questioned. "That fire had to have happened a couple of months ago."
Seeing the determination now evident on JD's face, Chris offered, "I'll go get the building super. We'll check it out, son." JD struggled to exit the truck where Buck handed him the crutches. The two men slowly climbed the five flights of stairs, the older slowing his pace to stay in step with the younger. The lingering stench of smoke assaulted their nostrils as the walls became more covered in a greasy, black film.
"This ain't right, Buck. It ain't right. I was here, here Christmas Eve." JD, winded from the climb, looked at his friend as they passed the waiving yellow police tape still attached to the fourth floor railing. "This is the right place. I made sure I knew the address so I could thank them and tell them the truth, that I'm not Jack Donnelly."
As the two men finally reached the fifth floor apartment door, Chris and the building superintendent met them. Having heard the team leader's request, he unlocked the door and started explaining. "The apartment a few doors down burned back in September. All the places on this floor received smoke damage. The water ruined next floor down. We relocated the tenants to other buildings. No one lives on the fourth or fifth floor. The company hasn't gotten the insurance yet so they can't afford to refurbish the rooms."
"What about the old couple? Christmas Eve, they brought me here Christmas Eve." JD pleaded.
The man removed his stocking cap and scratched his thinning gray hair. "I don't remember any older folks living here. Older tenants usually take a first or second floor apartment. In fact this one's been empty for more'n six months."
"Their names were Gabe and Maria. I'm not crazy; I stayed in this room." He pointed at the bedroom. They had a tree in the window. The place was clean and, and." JD looked at his friends. Did they believe him? He knew what he could see in front of him, the sharp, lingering, smoke odor and the soot stained rooms, but he also remembered the night he was welcomed in this home.
JD hobbled from room to room looking for any clues to prove he wasn't wrong. Other than the footprints the men made walking on the dirty carpeting, nothing had disturbed the space.
Chris walked into the kitchen, hunting for clues to offer JD some closure to the mystery. He wanted to believe his younger friend but he knew the young agent had been brutally beaten and was malnourished. Had he participated in questionable behavior and sampled some of the gunrunners other business? He didn't want to accuse Dunne of using drugs but the tale being spun had more holes than Swiss cheese. A list of post trauma psychologists began to form in his mind.
The same greasy film covered the countertops and cupboards. One doorknob appeared brighter than the rest. Larabee pulled a pen from his pocket and without touching the front of the door he used the writing instrument to pry it open.
A new sheet of paper laid on the shelf and two pristine, white feathers wrapped with gold thread rested on top. "Someone's been here."
The other men gathered in the kitchen to see the discovery.
JD's eyes lit up when he saw the feathers. "I found a smaller one in my pocket after I called you, Chris."
Passing the paper to JD, Chris frowned at Buck, worry expressed with a glance. Nothing else seemed disturbed and the superintendent seemed eager to get out of the cold room.
Holding the feathers in one hand, JD looked at the folded sheet of paper. Turning it over he almost dropped it when he saw the front. His finger traced the faces on the cover of the church bulletin from the Christmas Eve service where he met Gabe and Maria. Looking closer at the picture of angels, a heavenly host singing praises over the lowly shepherds, he could swear one of the faces winked. Gabe!
JD opened the bulletin and read the scripture located at the top. "God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man name Joseph. The virgin's name was Mary."
'Gabe. Gabriel!' he thought, looking at the bulletin cover and only seeing the serene painting. A peace settled in his heart. He'd been in the company of angels.
Looking at Chris and Buck, he smiled. "Guess I'm ready to go home and celebrate our Christmas! Thanks for letting us in here." He shook the superintendent's hand and left the room ready to return home, in the company of his friends, his brother; a piece of paper and two feathers safely tucked in his shirt pocket.
'Merry Christmas, Gabe and Maria,' he silently sent heavenward. 'Thank you, Mom!'
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