Wednesday 8:15pm Outskirts of Purgatorio
The harsh crunch of broken glass shredded the air as the fair- haired man stepped into the rundown convenience store that lay just on the outskirts of one of the worst crime areas of Denver. The dingy linoleum flooring matched perfectly with the less than pristine interior that the garish fluorescent lighting only accentuated. The flashing red and blue from numerous police vehicles outside played against the walls, reflecting off the glass drink coolers in a macabre dance. But the first thing that garnered the new arrival's attention was the large, dark red pool on the floor.
He had to swallow back his gut's first reaction and was glad he hadn't eaten recently. Not that the last cup of coffee he had drank was making any promises about staying put. Despite years of dealing with the criminal element and the evil deeds of man he was still affected by it and had decided that when it stopped bothering him, he would lay down his badge.
Unconsciously raking a hand through his shortly cropped hair, his eyes moved past the bloodstained floor and caught sight of the reason he was there. A familiar wave of coldness washed through him just as it had the moment he had gotten the phone call a mere twenty-five minutes earlier.
Raking his gaze across the inert figure, he noticed that the dark brown boots were spattered with even darker spots that looked almost black. God, he didn't want to be here, but he also knew there was no way he could be anywhere else at the moment. This was where fate, destiny, or a plain run of horrible luck had forced him to be. Continuing the visual assault he pressed himself to look further, letting his eyes travel up past the denim clad legs and on to the white t-shirt. He flinched inside at the further evidence of violence on the once clean attire. Reaching the face, the paleness of the skin did nothing to allay his fears and instead only added to his growing worry. But the eyes, the once sparkling blue orbs, were what sent his acidic stomach into overdrive. Dull and lifeless, they stared ahead unblinking.
He's right over there. Arnie Sawyers spoke, knowing it was a pointless statement, but not knowing what else to say. He had been with the Denver Police Department for nearly twenty-five years now and had seen his share of the worst life could throw at people. He also had earned his gut instinct and sixth sense the hard way. This neighborhood was known for its crime and poverty, but from what he had seen over the last few years there were a few bright spots. The man now on floor was one of them.
How long ago did it happen? The voice was direct and too controlled. It was the first words the man dressed mostly in black had spoken since entering the establishment at an urgent yet calm pace, his face a mask of stone chiseled from a life of seeing too much and surviving.
A little over an hour ago. Arnie looked over to the slim figure on the floor with sadness. Good thing you were in your office. I figured you'd be the best one to call.
Lowering his voice so not to be overheard by anyone else he continued. It's got the other guys pretty spooked. They know who he is and, well his reputation.
Yeah. The blond head nodded ever so slightly. Still not able to tear his eyes away from the too still form on the floor, he thought back. Had it really been just a few hours ago when those same eyes, though tired, had been full of life and mischief? The last to go home, besides himself, the team leader had to practically push the younger man out the door despite his obvious fatigue.
And now this had happened.
Regret washed through him. Maybe if he hadn't made him leave, maybe if he'd left with him, maybe ? It still amazed him how fast things could change. How fast one phone call could tilt the world on its axis. In the blink of an eye one's entire world, his entire existence, could be snuffed out or, sometimes worse, irrevocably changed. Shit, he was tired.
Chris Larabee stepped around the drying pool of evidence and walked over to the still figure seated on the floor. Squatting down he saw no recognition on the face before him. What's going on in that head of yours, cowboy?'
Vin Tanner was sitting cross-legged with his hands in his lap and his back to the counter wall, unmoving. Not sure what to do, the blond waited to see if his best friend would even acknowledge his presence. Just from looking he could tell Vin was wound pretty tight. Too tight. The head rested against the wall as the blue eyes kept staring at the same spot on the floor. The large pool of drying blood.
Vin?! His own voice sounded foreign to his ears, full of worry, pain, and stark fear. And he was praying to God no one else heard the tremble he felt.
Hey, pard? Why don't we get out of here? I'm sure Arnie here won't mind if you come down later to give your statement. Chris glanced up to the officer as he spoke the words, looking for some confirmation.
Sure thing. You can come by the station tomorrow and get things all wrapped up. Arnie tried to sound light despite the grim circumstances.
Still, no reaction.
Chris felt his knees begin a loud protest to the squatting position and he carefully stood up, renewed worry coursing through him from the lack of response from his best friend. He said anything? Anybody check him out?
He told us what happened. Lowering his voice he added, But it was like he wasn't really there, you know. Kind of all official and monotone.
Yeah, Chris knew exactly what he meant. Vin was hiding. Damn Texan was good at that.
So, what happened?
Vin said he just stopped by to pick up a few things and while he was back on the snack aisle the suspect just walked right in and pointed a gun at the owner. Arnie jerked his head toward the door. The clerk's out there talking so fast we can barely keep up. Real excitable little guy. Anyway, seems our resident good Samaritan Texan' tried to talk his way out of this one. Still had his weapon in the holster hidden under his shirt.
Vin was still wearing the shoulder holster, the gun nearly hidden at the moment by his arm and Chris had already noticed the missing faded denim shirt that Vin had been wearing earlier and had a pretty fair idea where it had ended up. Another shirt bites the dust.
The clerk had tripped the silent alarm immediately and we arrived, saw it was a hostage situation, and took up positions outside. Tried talking the suspect out ourselves. Didn't know Vin was even in here until after.
The sharpshooter's death trap on wheels' as Buck had so affectionately labeled it, a.k.a. Vin's beloved jeep, was in the shop again and he was driving a faded blue 1969 mustang his mechanic friend had loaned him. Otherwise, Chris figured most, if not all, of the policemen would have recognized Vin's signature ride right away.
It happened pretty fast. One minute we were watching the suspect through the front windows and the next he was starting out the door with his gun pointed in our direction. Arnie just shook his head at the memory of it all. It had seemed so simple at the time. Robber points gun, police shoot robber. They had asked him to surrender. Told him to lay down his weapon. Practically begged him to exit with his hands on his head. It was a no win situation. There was no way the suspect was going to get away. Then it all turned bloody in the blink of an eye; leaving a very dead suspect, a bunch of adrenaline fueled cops full of anger at the situation, and one shell-shocked Vin Tanner.
Earlier on the outskirts of Purgatorio 6:25pm
Vin was on his way home when he decided to stop into the convenience store closest to his apartment to grab some chips and junk food before settling in for a night of relaxation and comfort food. It had been a long day with finishing up the mountain of paperwork on the major case that he and Ezra had spent over a month and a half of undercover work on and then the big bust that team seven had provided backup on earlier in the day. The latest bust had gone down smoothly, with only a couple of well-placed shots having to be fired, both of which had been from his rifle. And he was still wired. It always took him some time to come down from the adrenaline rush of these types of operations. Add to that the stress of just coming off a major undercover operation and he was one frazzled Texan.
Chris had sent him home right after he had finished typing up his report for the afternoon's operation. The headache he had been fighting all afternoon was at this point threatening to make his eyes cross permanently and even though he had hated leaving Chris at the office alone, he was just too damn tired to offer a righteous argument. After warning Chris to get his sorry ass out ASAP' he had made his way to the mustang he had borrowed and started home. His rumbling stomach reminded him that he'd missed lunch due to the bust and his routine of not eating or drinking much before a takedown had also limited his breakfast. And there wasn't much of a selection at home since shopping hadn't been a high priority in the last few weeks either, so he decided to stop at the Quik Mart for some snacks and maybe some aspirin.
Nathan would have a cow if he knew that the balanced dinner Vin was shopping for was a coke, some chips, and a candy bar. Vin would just have to make up for his lack of nutrition tomorrow because tonight he was too tired to think, let alone fix something and he had eaten enough takeout lately while on the job. Besides, the snacks would be gone in minutes and after a couple of aspirin for the headache and a hot shower he was going to crash. Tomorrow he would worry about what he ate and possibly the fact that he needed some groceries.
Now as he stood on the chips aisle, his brow furrowed in concentration, he contemplated the great debate. BBQ, Sour Cream & Onion, or Plain? Hmm?
Vin's concentration was broken by the sound of the bell on the front door and the gruff, demanding voice that followed it.
Give me the money and do it fast.
Shit, this just isn't my year.'
Ducking down slightly so as not to be immediately noticed he used his trademark stealth to move up to the top of the aisle and check out the situation in the cracked surveillance mirror in the far upper corner. From the angle he was at he could just make out the clerk with his hands held high in the air, shaking like a naked lady in a snowstorm.
Just give him the money.'
Not wanting to make the situation worse or force the guy's hand, Vin waited to see what would happen. He couldn't get a good look at the robber, just the barest glimpse of a gun. But what he did see next had him cursing under his breath. The clerk, a nice enough guy that Vin had seen in the store before, glanced in his direction.
Come out now or I swear I'll kill him.
Vin felt his stomach drop. So much for the element of surprise. Making sure his service weapon was well hidden by his loose denim shirt he also quickly unbuttoned it all the way just in case he needed quick access to his gun. With his hands held out to his sides he slowly stepped out into view. The sight before him made his stomach sour.
The robber was a kid, probably no more than fourteen or fifteen years old. With dark dirty hair stuck up underneath a ball cap that looked a bit too small it was hard to tell his ethnicity but he looked to be of mixed heritage. Not quite Hispanic, but also not quite Caucasian. And more than likely not fully accepted by either. Vin knew all about the pain of not fitting in.
Quickly accessing the situation, his professional instincts kicking into full gear, he took note of every aspect of the situation, the first being the initial threat. The gun the boy had grasped between his grubby hands was a .357 magnum Smith & Wesson 360 Kit Gun. This particular revolver held five rounds and from the dirt and grime that covered the titanium barrel; it was not in the best of repair. It was likely some cheap sell off of the street. With the trained eyes of one of the best sharpshooters in his field a cursory inspection revealed that the four chambers in the cylinder that were visible were all empty, however that still left in question the fifth chamber, the one currently lined up with the barrel.
With that information filed away for future reference Vin zeroed in on the kid himself and felt his blood run cold. A chill ran down his spine as he locked eyes with the boy before him. The dark brown gaze held an all too familiar sadness. One Vin had seen before when he himself was about the same age as this kid. The ripped and dirty clothes and unkempt appearance spoke of a life on the streets, another striking similarity that mirrored Vin's own adolescent years. It was like looking into the past and the memories that assaulted him were staggering.
With a concerted effort Vin finally managed to bring his mind back into the present to focus on the problem at hand. He couldn't be certain that there wasn't at least one bullet in the gun and one bullet was all it would take to end a life. Maybe he could talk the kid into surrendering the weapon before that happened.
Come on now, you don't want ta do this. Vin worked to keep eye contact with the boy, hoping beyond hope he could get through to him and his own personal understanding would show through. Nobody needs to get hurt here. The few bucks in that there drawer ain't worth it.
Just shut up. Just shut You don't know... The kid was beyond nervous, waving the gun back and forth. The young voice shook with fear and uncertainty. Get over there next to the counter. Now!
The kid's eyes kept shifting between Vin and the clerk, his inexperience showing with dangerous clarity as he backed slowly toward the door.
God, let that gun not be loaded.'
Vin was all too familiar with just how easily the gun could be fired, even accidentally. Especially accidentally.
Then, at the same time he heard the sirens in the distance, he saw the change in the kid's eyes and he knew with a sickening clarity that the past was about to be relived.
What happened next was like a macabre movie playing out in slow motion as past horrors melded with the present tragedy. Too many memories and nightmares became reality once again and Vin felt like a puppet as the strings of responsibility pulled him without his consent.
Vin watched as a strange look of calm came over the young man's face as the sound of screeching tires were heard outside the door. Flashing red and blue lights, along with the bright headlights of the patrol cars, lit the stage as the drama unfolded before him. He heard the officer outside demand surrender. Heard the request to reconcile the situation peacefully, and still Vin felt powerless. His own body seized with a paralyzing realization he heard a voice speak, not recognizing it as his as it softly pleaded with the memory before him.
Don't do this, God, please don't Anything else his mind was about to say was silenced as he saw the kid cock the gun and start to turn. Vin's eyes were glued to the cylinder, watching as its turning motion confirmed his worst fears. In that split second Vin knew exactly what was going through the young man's mind.
His own anguished cry filled his ears. Noooo!
Without thought, or maybe it was with years worth of thoughts and regrets, Vin dove forward, grabbing the kid from behind as the door glass shattered and hell rained down.
Tanner here practically tackled that kid, but it was too late. By the time we got in here he was using his shirt to try and stem the blood flow. Kid was already gone. Arnie's head shook in resignation at the memory of the tough ATF agent cradling the dead boy in his lap, denim shirt pressed against the bloody wounds and the boy's dark eyes staring up lifeless. What a waste. Sure wish it could have been different.
The whole thing made Chris cringe and he stared down again at Vin. Hadn't he seen enough shit already to last a lifetime without this? Another young life lost to the violence of the streets.
The rest of Arnie's words drifted on the night air as Chris wondered if he should call in reinforcements.
The gun wasn't even loaded. I've seen this kind of shit way too much I tell you. In fact I remember one case; oh it was quite some years ago
Nathan might be able to help if Vin was suffering from shock. Or maybe Josiah, he was good at counseling, maybe he could talk to Vin and bring him around. No. That's one thing he didn't have time for and secondly it would not be met kindly by the overly private sharpshooter.
The smell of cigarette smoke wafting through the air from outside tickled Chris's nose and he felt his fingers twitch instinctively. The incredible urge to break his three year fast was nearly overwhelming. Truth be told he had broken down on a few occasions, giving in to his long time vice. Most of the time, he noted, it was when he waited for news on whether or not he was about to lose one of the newest members of his family. Something about the sterile atmosphere of the hospitals seemed to weaken his reserve. Squashing his own qualms he returned his focus to the reason for them.
Chris knew he needed to get Vin out of there, but first he needed to get him off of the floor. And to do that he needed to get Vin's attention. His gut twisted as he once again took in the drying stains. How easily things could have been so much worse. Something in the back of his mind made it hard for him to tear his gaze away from the darkening stains. Maybe it was the fact that to look away from one horror would only force him to confront another. The death- like stare of his best friend. It was almost as if two lives had been lost here tonight.
No, damn it. Chris Larabee might be willing to quit on himself, but there was no way in hell he was going to give up on Vin. The very man who had shown him that there was still some sunshine lurking within the shadows that had become his existence after his world had been ripped apart. There was no one else who knew him quite like Vin or understood his moods with such accuracy. The same uncanny instincts that had saved the lives of his fellow teammates time and again were also just as astute at knowing exactly when Larabee needed to be left alone or more importantly when he needed a swift kick in the hind quarters. This same stubborn Texan was also one of the few more than willing to do just that, staring back at the infamous Larabee glare with an indifference that was infuriating. Vin said it was his natural charm, while the others just called it a death wish.
All of the members of Team Seven were like family to Chris now. Somehow the strange group of men had slid, crashed, and weaseled their way right through his hard won defenses to mean more than he had ever suspected anyone ever would or could again.
And Buck, good old Buck Wilmington had been his friend for more years than he liked to admit now. Even when the whole relationship was way too one sided, the big hearted ladies' man had ground in his heels and his heart to hang in there. Chris would be forever grateful that he had, not sure if he would even still be here without the constant presence of a man who had literally picked him up when he was down. It was a friendship built through years of good times and hard losses. Though it was stronger than before; it was also very different. He loved Buck like family, like a brother, but one thing he couldn't tell the big lug was how much of a reminder of Chris's lost loved ones he was. It was an unspoken fact that both knew but dared not speak of. Yet now it all seemed to be becoming much easier as the reminders became less painful, merging to bittersweet, and subtly blending into a warm feeling of remembrance. Despite Buck's tireless efforts it had taken a chance, or more like fateful, meeting with one scruffy blue eyed Texan to put the whole healing process in motion.
It was just so easy being around Vin. The friendship had been almost instantaneous, as if they had met before. Chris swore that if he had been one to believe in reincarnation the two of them would have met in another life. From the moment Larabee's pale green eyes locked with Vin's sky blue there was an underlying current of incomparable understanding. The both of them seemed to know, with an almost eerie accuracy, what the other was thinking with just a shared glance. It both amused and unnerved others, especially their coworkers.
Pulling his thoughts back to the current problem, Chris would have given just about anything to feel that connection, that understanding, at this very moment. From the second he had stepped his black booted foot onto the dirty linoleum he had felt nothing. It was like a huge void had opened up, swallowing the sense of peace that had begun to dwell within him. A feeling he had decided was the very essence of who Vin was. Like a heater on a cold winter day, Vin radiated a warmth that had helped to thaw the coldness that had dwelt in Chris's soul. The loss of that warmth, that presence, could result in the dawn of a whole new ice age. Something he dared not even think about.
Still, it didn't take a genius to know that what had happened was eating Vin alive from the inside out. If nothing else, Vin was one of the most conscientious and responsible men Chris had ever met. Guilt being a path Chris was familiar with he wasn't about to let Vin succumb to it. But what had really happened tonight? There was something more to it. Call it gut instinct, an educated guess, or experience, this time was different.
Being a trained and most heralded sharpshooter, Vin had killed before, though that hadn't even been the case tonight. His young eyes had witnessed and even participated in things that would curl the hairs on the average persons' head. Nearly four years with the Rangers, three years of bounty hunting, and now with almost three years under his belt as an ATF agent, life's horrors had sadly become commonplace. And Chris didn't even dare revisit some of the horrific tales that made up the younger man's childhood. How Vin had survived this long was a miracle in itself. But what made tonight's incident different? What had put the vacant look into the normally emotive blue depths before him?
It wasn't that Vin was cold and insensitive about killing. In fact the opposite was true. How many a night had Chris watched protectively as his friend purged his frustration and anger out after a particularly bloody case when the choice to kill or be killed had been made necessary? More often than not, Vin was forced to kill in order to protect one of the team and it pained the leader to watch his young agent agonize over what had really been a no other option scenario. Vin generally chose to take out his anger on some unsuspecting punching bag and had even been known to fix up half a playground in the middle of the night. But that was who Vin was.
One gruesome night in particular came to mind. A late night phone call from one of the dispatchers for the Denver PD had awakened the team leader. Buck had dated Cindy Reynolds a couple of times and still agonized over the night he had introduced the young brunette to the team's sharpshooter, saying Vin had practically stolen her right out from under him. Of course, it had taken two months of phone calls and messages left, along with the ladies man's long winded assurance that he really was okay with it, before Vin had even gone out with the poor smitten woman. It had been nice, but in the end it hadn't become anything more than a good friendship. And Cindy had been working the night the call came in about a murder outside of Vin's apartment building.
Not being able to track down Buck she had called Chris. Her voice had been shaking terribly when she phoned, not really having too many details at the time. After a harrowing drive into the city Chris had felt a horrible sense of dread as he drove upon a scene much like tonight's, with flashing lights and policemen everywhere. Not until he had found Vin doing his best to console the distraught mother of the dead youth had his heart returned to a more realistic beat. Even later, after Chris had finally drug Vin away at the early morning's dawn, the sharpshooter had been filled with anger and sadness. He poured out his frustration by cleaning Chris's barn from top to bottom and kindly repairing the punching bag he rendered useless in the process of beating it to a pulp.
But tonight was different. There was no anger, no sadness, no There was nothing but a void, a terrible haunting void.
Running his hand again through his hair he stared out the front windows and the shattered door. Okay, he had to do something. Steeling his stance and looking back down at Vin he spoke again.
Vin?! Using his commander in chief voice he tried a new tactic. Time to go home. Get your scrawny ass up off of that floor. Let's go.
Nothing. Chris wasn't even sure if he'd seen Vin blink since he walked in. For his own peace of mind he checked the Texan's chest and saw the faint movement. Least he was breathing. Shit. He was too old for this. Okay, time to try something else.
Arnie, think you can give us a minute. Looking over to the veteran officer, he knew he'd get his wish. What he hadn't expected was to see his own worry mirrored in the policeman's eyes. The quiet Texan sure made an impression on people. And the funny part was that Vin really had no idea of his power. He was totally oblivious to just how big of an impact he had on others or how much he meant to not only Team Seven, but to the people of this deprived community. Feeling a tightening in his gut Chris couldn't help but wonder if Vin really knew what he meant to one bad-tempered ATF team leader.
I'll make sure you have some Arnie started to say privacy', but it didn't sound right. Take all the time you need. I'll take care of things.
Chris gave a quick nod of thanks as the other man made his way outside, leaving the two friends alone. He could already hear the sounds of the wolves at the door, wanting to get back to the crime scene and get their jobs done, but he didn't care and he'd eat alive the first person to step through that door before he could get Vin out.
Slowly Chris slid down next to Vin and just sat, crossing his wrists over his knees and waiting. The minutes passed and he had to close his eyes to keep at bay the visual assault the sight of the store was. Shattered glass and blood did nothing to calm his own nerves and right now he needed to stay calm and collected for Vin's sake. Without conscious thought Chris allowed his upper arm to rest casually next to Vin's, the contact minimal but there.
More minutes passed as the silence within the little establishment was only interrupted from time to time by the noise of the humming coolers and muffled background noise from outside. It wasn't any movement or any sound that alerted Chris to the subtle change. In fact, if he was asked how he knew when Vin came back to the here and now, he wasn't even sure he could explain it. He just knew.
I ever tell ya bout Pete? The throaty drawl came out so low and breathy that Chris was almost afraid he hadn't heard anything at all.
On some level Vin had known the second Chris had walked through the shattered front door. He had felt the presence and power that Team Seven's leader exuded without any effort at all. That sense of power and strength was more than a touch frightening to a large majority of the population, but to one Vin Tanner it was like manna from Heaven. His friend was here now. The man who knew him and knew more about him than any other human being walking this earth and despite that knowledge was still his friend. A man who had faced hell and knew the way back out. Right now Vin needed that guidance because hell was exactly where he was.
But even as a part of him recognized the new arrival and confirmed that there was no new threat, the other part of him was not ready to come out of the shadows. It was safe in the shadows. People didn't bother you or hit you or die. It had been a long time since he had thought about Pete. Too long, he reckoned. No one should forget a friend, no matter what. But forget he had or more like buried. Deep down where all of the demons of the past lived he had buried Pete and the memories of what had happened.
Time was irrelevant. A minute, an hour There was no telling how long he had been sitting here on the cold floor, staring at the dark red pool that he couldn't quite tear his eyes away from. Hypnotic was the drying liquid fountain of life that dragged him down into the dark recesses of his memories and ripped open emotions he wasn't sure how to handle. A wealth of guilt and remorse that even now, some fourteen years after the fact, he was ill prepared to deal with.
He knew he should say something to Chris or at least look at him. There was that undercurrent of worry in his friend's tone that Vin had come to find soothing though still a little surprising. A gentle reminder that he was no longer riding the trail alone. An almost overwhelming realization that someone gave a damn what happened to him. Yet, try as he might, he couldn't answer. He couldn't tell Chris he was fine', because if there was one thing he wasn't that was it. Not only could he not speak, but he couldn't move, as if his body was frozen in time, the memories of past and present rolling through his head like a movie stuck on replay. Over and over and over
Then he felt it. Warmth that started in his upper arm and slowly made its way through the rest of his body. And like a spring thaw the coldness gave way and reality returned. Taking a few moments to gather his senses he wondered what he should say. Then it came like a repentant sinner confessing to his priest as he opened up a part of his soul to his best friend.
I ever tell ya bout Pete?
His voice sounded like rough sandpaper as the words seemed to form on his tongue. His mouth was dry and he worked his tongue around, trying to gain some moisture before continuing.
I's pretty young when I hit Denver. Ya already know about my time on the street. Well, there's this kid. He's a couple years older n me. Name was Pete. Sorta took me under his wing. Showed me around. Vin paused, breathing in deep and releasing it with a quiet sigh.
Chris listened, trying to hear every word and hoping that he'd catch at least a portion of what wasn't said. Now he was the one afraid to move or breathe, not wanting anything to interrupt Vin now that he was finally talking. Even if what he was saying seemed sort of unusual under the circumstances, Chris was well versed in Vin's roundabout way of getting to things. Tanner had his own sense of logic and eventually it would all make sense.
See, he's from Denver, just didn't stay home much. Ya know the drill, bad family life and the streets just seemed safer to em. Even as he spoke to Chris about the past, his mind relived it all.
Purgatorio 14 years earlier
No! You have to stay here. The taller of the two bedraggled looking boys was almost towering over the smaller one as he spoke. But seeing the flash of fear in the sky blue eyes he backed off a little.
But The smaller boy's voice seemed small and frightened.
No, Vin! You can't go with me. Not this time. Pete was adamant. Since running into the younger boy nearly three months before they had barely left each other's sights. The older boy knew the area and had been staying out on the streets for over a year now. He knew his way around and had taken it upon himself to watch after the little lost waif, teaching him the lay of the land.
The next words sounded more like someone of Vin's true age instead of the world hardened young adult he had been forced to become. I'll be quiet. You won't even know I'm there.
Pete sighed loudly, a mixture of frustration and regret. I know. You're a good kid and don't let anyone ever tell you different.
Big blue eyes filled with uncertainty stared up at Pete. But a steely determination filled the older boy's dark brown eyes. Decisions had already been made and nothing could change it now. Handing Vin the small leather change purse he carried hidden within his sock he bent down low, placing his hands on the bony shoulders.
Look, runt, you'll be fine. I need you to hang on to this for me and remember everything I taught you. Stay out of sight as much as possible, don't take food from strangers cause the stuff in the dumpsters is safer. Stay away from Forty-Fifth Street. The mission down at Saint Catherine's is pretty good, just keep your mouth shut and get there early. And if any man is too friendly and tries to give you money or food, run like hell. Nothing's for free and the prices are way too high. Especially for a little runt like you. And if they make a grab for you scream bloody murder and fight like hell.
Pete's eyes held a glint of the fire that Vin hadn't seen in over two weeks, but it didn't last. The strange sadness that had begun to hang around his new friend and protector descended once again like a shroud. And the weight of it was so heavy that it caused Pete's shoulders to slump even further as he stood and turned to go.
Vin sensed that something was wrong, but he had no idea what. Sometimes he still found adults hard to figure out and even if Pete was only a couple of years older than him, he still looked up to him as a mentor. What little he did know about Pete had confirmed that living with your real parents was sometimes as bad as not having any at all. The older boy had taught him so much about life on the streets. How to find food, stay clear of trouble, the best and warmest places to sleep; all of the basic in and outs of surviving. Things no human should ever have to know, let alone a boy of only fourteen.
For the past three months, ever since Vin had accidentally run into Pete, the two had been together, fighting to survive, side by side. Like a little shadow Vin had followed him, the older boy rallying into the new roles of protector and tutor, relishing in the responsibilities.
But a little over two weeks ago things had begun to change. It had started the day Pete returned from a night at home. He would periodically return for clothes, food, and other supplies when things became desperate. Having made sure Vin was tucked away in a nice safe corner of an abandoned building he had gone home for the night. But the one who had returned in his place had been like a stranger, withdrawn and quiet. Pete talked less and less, which normally Vin wouldn't mind, but he began to miss the teaching and the silence was gloomy. Most of all he missed his friend. The dark brown eyes that before had been cautious but full of life were now dull and haunted.
Vin also hadn't missed the telltale signs. The stiff way Pete walked after his return, the stifled grunts and groans and the darkened left eye. It was obvious that his visit home had not come without a price. But it wasn't something you talked about or told people about. Vin's experience was that grown-ups could pretty much do what they pleased and no one listened, especially to some parentless child. The best and safest thing to do was to stay out of sight and keep your mouth shut. So since Pete hadn't mentioned it, he hadn't asked. Just like he didn't ask about the look he saw in Pete's eyes that night. A decision the young boy had no idea would haunt him till the end of his days.
I shoulda been paying better attention, shoulda known.
Vin's next words made little sense to Chris, but he listened, trying to piece together the disjointed thoughts his friend was sharing.
Shoulda suspected something when I found the fifty bucks in the purse. I tried to follow, but I didn't know where he'd gone. Not until I saw the The words trailed off into expelled air.
He was a good friend and one of the first ones I ever really had.
Chris noted the was' in the last statement and had a sinking feeling where this story was headed. The following silence hung like a heavy cloud, finally broken as Vin started speaking again.
I's in Carolina once. North part.
Chris had almost gotten used to the way Vin's mind tracked, but even this sudden change of subject caught him a bit off guard. Still he held his tongue despite his initial worry that the Texan's head might have took too hard of a bounce off of the floor. Vin didn't speak unless he had a reason to, usually thinking through what he wanted to say carefully beforehand. He'd wait and see where this new tale led before he carted the younger man off for a head CT.
I's tracking some no good scumbag half across the country and ended up in some little middle of nowhere town near the mountains. Pretty country. Wish I'd had time to really look around though. It's about a year fore I met up with ya.
Well, I's hold up outside a this little motel just a waitin', early morning just fore dawn. Started thumbing through the stations on the radio. Little beat up rental I had could only pick up AM and I heard this lady's voice. Don't know why, but just sat back and listened for a bit. Turned out to be one of the local stations playing some type a music I weren't too familiar with.
Chris still sat, trying to keep his jaw from dropping at all of the words pouring out of Vin's mouth. This was more than Vin usually said in a month, let alone all in the span of a few minutes. But he dare not stop him, even for one of the hundred questions running through his mind.
Then this song came on. Nice little tune, but the words Vin's voice faded as if his air had suddenly run out.
That crisp autumn morning came back to him with a rush of memories and emotions.
North Carolina four years earlier
A mixture of adrenaline and peace radiated through him as he waited. Such a strange combination, but Vin had always loved the mountains and this small town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains called to his inner soul. Nature's beauty was just beginning to paint the mountain canvas in brilliant colors of red, brown, green, and gold. And he secretly hoped to be around long enough to see the completed work, although with the man he was currently pursuing that wasn't very likely.
Vin had spent the entire night in the cramped little rental he was driving while staking out the little out of the way seedy motel. The fugitive's old girlfriend had booked a room using her sister's credit card and all he had to do was wait for the scumbag he was chasing to show his face. He knew he'd crawl out from under his rock eventually and every nerve and instinct in his body was telling the bounty hunter that this was exactly where he would crawl to first.
Fumbling with the radio dial, he found a local AM station and liked the lady announcer's voice, so he left it there and listened to the unfamiliar mountain music she played. Luckily his taste for music varied greatly and he usually found himself liking a little of just about everything. A few minutes had passed and he listened as she gave the local weather forecast. It was going to be a nice day. What he wouldn't give for the chance to ride his motorcycle through the mountains, taking in the scenery with the wind in his hair and his camera capturing something with a lot more aesthetic value than a greasy thug sneaking into a back door.
The next song began and he listened to the gentle music. A woman's voice began to sing and Vin listened. The words became a story and the tale she told took his breath away. It was as if she had stolen the images right out of his mind. Memories long buried resurfaced and a face he hadn't seen in years hovered before him. The eyes pleaded with him for help, but he hadn't seen it then. Hadn't known what would happen until it was too late. The song was Pete's life and death incarnate.
The next hour passed in a rush as he used every hunter's skill he possessed until he had tracked down that station, that announcer, and that song. The look on the poor young woman's face when he had trudged into the small radio station stayed with him. He had been a sight, with a week's worth of stubble on his chin and his clothes rumpled from his long night on stakeout. But he hadn't thought about how he looked or anything else really. All that mattered was finding that haunting melody.
After reassuring the young woman that he didn't mean her any harm he tried his best to explain that he just wanted to know about a song she had played. The flabbergasted announcer took pity on the young blue eyed man who had nearly given her a heart attack. After forcing a fresh cup of coffee into his hands she not only gave him the information he so desperately wanted, she gave him a copy of the CD after quickly explaining that the station was sometimes provided with extras to give away as prizes to faithful listeners'. After blushing considerably and thanking the young woman profusely Vin left with his new prize clutched tightly in his hands. Then stashing the CD safely away he finished with the task at hand, nabbing the sneaky fugitive that very night as he made his way into the girlfriend's motel room.
Vin dragged his mind back to the present. Something he seemed to be doing a lot of that night.
The song? Well, I got the CD, but it's still in the wrapper. Can't bring myself to listen to it again.
What was Vin trying to tell him? Chris's mind flooded with questions, but they were not to be answered. At least not for the moment as the sounds outside grew suddenly louder. One demanding voice could be heard above the others. I need to get in there, Sawyers, so just let me through.
Just stay back. You can go in there in a few minutes, but for right now just Chris recognized Arnie Sawyers's loud baritone voice and saw Vin wince.
What he didn't recognize was the weak sound that came from beside him. Gotta get outta here.
Vin felt like the walls were beginning to close in. As irrational as he knew it was he still felt like his lungs were being compressed in a vise and his vision seemed to tunnel in on him. Most unfortunate was that the only sight before him was the same puddle that had drug him down into the depths of darkness before. Like a caged animal when the door was finally open Vin was up and out the door before Chris knew what was happening.
Damn it. Chris hissed as he pulled his weary body up off of the floor and followed after the sharpshooter.
Stepping outside Larabee swept his gaze over the scene, the congregating policemen and the leftover sightseers that still had yet to find something more tantalizing to fill their time. News cameras and overly made-up reporters lingered on the outskirts and he wondered if it had been a slow news night to get them out into this part of town where violence was almost the norm. Still not seeing hide nor hair of Vin he caught Arnie's eyes as the policeman walked over toward him.
Slipped around back before anyone could corner him. Probably headed home.
Probably. Chris said one thing as his brain thought another. Sure hope to hell that's where he's going.'
Jumping into his truck he went in search of his friend.
Streets of Purgatorio 9:08pm
It was only a few blocks away that he spotted the familiar lone figure on the side of the street, the white t-shirt, or at least the parts of it not darkened with blood stains, glowing like a beacon in the headlights.
Getting out he walked over to the forlorn figure, watching once again for recognition and movement. Please, I'm not in the mood to start this all over again.' Glancing around to assure himself of no immediate threats he again turned his attention downward. This was not a safe part of town in daylight, let alone right now. For probably the thousandth time Chris wished his friend would choose a nice quiet neighborhood in which to reside.
Vin sat upon the curb, his forehead resting on his knees. Taking a deep breath, Larabee prepared for a new battle.
Vin? Come on, cowboy. Let's go.
I'll give you a ride home. You can get cleaned up.
And He inwardly cringed at the next part, not sure if it was the right thing to say or not. And we can talk. Hurriedly he added. That's if you want to.
The simple one word answer from Vin only led to more questions.
Can't talk? Can't go home? Can't
Got a problem.
The voice was soft, too soft. And very shaky.
Vin? Chris heard the sudden worry creep into his own voice as his mind replayed what Arnie had said had happened.
Look at me, Vin! He knew his voice was edging slowly into the panic zone, but his racing heart had already beaten him there.
Damnit Vin, I don't have time for word games. His fear lashed out as anger at the situation and his heightened worry for his friend.
Chris reached down, hooking his right arm beneath Vin's left armpit. With a good solid tug he helped the sharpshooter to his feet. Vin's head rose, his eyes locking with Chris's in the strange glow of the street lights. Maybe it was the harsh lights, but Larabee would swear Vin was five shades paler than before. Then the hard set in the finely boned jaw as the teeth were clenched tightly shut made him glance down at the ground where Vin had been seated and there he saw a pool of fresh dark liquid.
Shit. Bringing his eyes back up to Vin's he saw the blue eyes roll back before the body went limp.
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