Texas Hold 'Em
JD thought he had good reflexes. But when the van pulled up so casually followed by rapid gunfire he froze. He froze. It was probably only a few seconds, but it felt like forever and it was far too long. While he was able to react and reach for his gun, he wasn't prepared for Trey to shove him in the direction of the van from behind. One more shove had him racking his shins against the running board and tumbling inside. There was shouting. A woman was screaming. A scream of pain. And the gunfire. He didn't process any of it. But apparently Ezra had figured out what was being said even as he was much more violently thrust into the back of the van.
For a brief moment Ezra managed to fall next to the younger agent. "Do not tell them who we are! No matter what! It's a matter of life and death!" Ezra hissed. He was close enough for JD to feel the warmth of the other man's breath in his ear and it was so quiet that JD was positive no one else could hear. It was the desperation in the demand that registered more than the words themselves.
And then JD felt himself being pulled away and was caught up in a bear hug by Trey. Trey let loose with an adrenalin-fed Rebel yell as he pumped the air with his fist. The girl, already three blocks down from the courthouse made a turn on two tires.
The other young men who had been part of the escape were removing their cammo masks and long sleeve shirts to reveal everyday t-shirts. They stowed the guns in a gunny sack along with wooden and metal baseball bats. JD's eyes continued to take in the back of the van and saw Ezra holding on to a terrified Evie Travis, whispering in her ear. Was he telling her the same thing he'd said to JD? What had he said again?
Then the van slowed down and took some more turns. JD cursed himself that he hadn't been paying enough attention. He didn't have any idea where they were. He wondered if Ezra had been counting the minutes and turns. He felt the gun at the small of his back, hidden by his jacket. It was still there. Maybe he could get the drop on them now that most of the heavy artillery was in the bag.
Ezra must have read his mind. Because when the older agent saw JD's hand move to his back, he gave a barely perceptible head shake. The younger agent didn't want to admit he was afraid, but he did rationalize that maybe there would come a better time to play his .40 caliber ace.
The van came to a stop. Two of the young men grabbed Ezra and roughly removed his jacket and tie. Another man grabbed for Mrs. Travis. That was when Standish reacted. He tried to get between the older woman and their captors. One guy, JD thought his name was Sam, hauled off and backhanded the undercover specialist with the butt of the .45 caliber revolver he preferred.
Evie screamed. The kidnapper pulled her close. "One sound and I'll kill you both right here, right now."
She looked from Ezra to the others in the van. JD hoped it was his imagination that he read accusation or betrayal in her eyes when they landed on him. But she nodded her understanding.
JD watched the hooligans pull Ezra out of the van and then force Evie Travis to follow. They were at a baseball field complex. As they left the van in their t-shirts and guns hidden in a canvas bag with baseball bats, they looked all the world like no more than a social team that had gone out to catch a pizza after practice and were now separating to go their separate ways.
"One wrong move and we'll kill the old lady," Anson, hobbling on his crutches, hissed at Standish. And then they were shuffled into separate vehicles, no doubt to keep them more in line.
JD found himself following Anson to the BMW. He tried to take the driver's seat, to give himself some control over the situation, but Anson shoved him aside, tossed his crutches in the back seat and maneuvered himself behind the wheel. All JD could do was hustle to the passenger side, jump in, and hope for a chance to make some move sooner rather than later.
This kind of thing didn't happen in real life. Hell, Jack Bauer on "24" would have trouble dealing with JD's life in the last 18 hours and he had a stable of writers helping him work his way out. Well, that was Buck's influence, trying to calm himself down with humor, but this was reality. This was life and death. And JD couldn't shake the thought that he had missed his best chance to rescue his friend and Mrs. Travis. He'd told himself he was waiting for a better time, better odds. But he'd been scared. Drawing the gun would start a sequence of events that could never be taken back. He could see himself holding all of the domestic terrorists at gunpoint until Ezra could grab a gun to help; and then he'd be a hero when Chris, Buck and the others finally caught up. Or he could draw his gun and the terrorists were determined to go down fighting or looked at him as a kid and didn't think he would really pull the trigger; didn't see him as a real threat. His mind's eye could see Ezra and Evie Travis, unarmed and helpless, lying bloody and dying in the back of the van because of a gunfight. A part of JD said he thought he'd rather be dying, too, rather than live with that. So, while he told himself he was balancing odds and situations, JD had frozen and done nothing. At least Trey wasn't questioning his silence as he sat in the passenger seat and tried to regroup, tried to dig within himself and be ready next time. Next time.
"What happens now?" JD finally asked, trying to get enough information to form a plan of action or get word to the team.
"Now we get West back."
The sidewalk was littered with bodies, the majority of them were stirring. The shooting had mostly been a diversion. The courthouse security officers, retired police officers, guns still drawn, were trying to take control of the situation and see to the wounded. A lot of the media people, after realizing they weren't wounded, began to surround the guards and ATF agents with inappropriately timed questions. Larabee shoved through them with his men behind, trying to get to the epicenter. Steeling himself to see the bodies of Standish and Dunne, his own body almost betrayed him when he reached the crowd to find the guards leaning over the marshals. He didn't have to ask the question.
"They jumped out shooting and shoved three people in . . ."
An old, dull blue van squealing round the corner two blocks down told Tanner what the suspect vehicle looked like. He raced to a motorcyclist stalled in traffic from the event and pretty much shoved the rider off his bike. "Hey! Hey!" the college-aged man demanded as he ran after his disappearing transportation. "Hey!"
Buck met Chris's eyes. This didn't happen. The possibilities of what might be waiting for their kidnapped agents -- friends -- were almost crowding out reason and tactical thought.
Chris came around first, "Who was the third person?"
Buck was still staring after Tanner's confiscated bike. He tore his eyes away and looked back at his friend trying to process the question. Was it one of the marshals? An innocent bystander, or . . .
"What the hell happened here?" The rough, authoritative voice of Judge Orin Travis cut through the maelstrom. By the time he'd finished the first sentence, the retired judge had come face to face with Larabee. There was a tremble of dread in his voice as he asked, "Where's my wife?"
There were microphones shoved in between the two men as realization registered in their eyes.
"I want a news blackout. Starting now!" Larabee bellowed. They may well have heard him two counties over. The law enforcement officers all heard and got the message. The reporters howled in protest. Chris ushered the judge back up the steps into the courthouse. Buck stayed outside to assure that no one he had any control over said anything -- anything - to the media. At the same time, he flipped open his Nextel. He pushed a preprogrammed number. He was using the phone because he didn't want anyone overhearing the conversation, which was more likely on the two way radio feature.
"Go to private," Buck said flatly, to be sure Josiah's phone was silent as well. Leaving just enough time for the older agent to comply, Buck continued, "heads up, Josiah. We've had a shitstorm here. Be ready for anything. Anything. I mean locked and loaded."
"Buck," Josiah was responding to the shocky despair he heard in the voice. "What happened. Is everyone okay?"
"I don't know." But then he realized what a frustrating, unacceptable answer that was. "I'm sorry, Josiah, I really don't know. Two marshals and one civilian are down. JD, Ezra and the judge's wife have been kidnapped. I'll call you as soon as I know something, I swear." And he hung up. There was nothing else to say and he didn't want to anticipate, so he focused on doing the best damn job he could in controlling, containing the situation and keeping all information from the news.
Detective Briscoe, the FLEOA lawyer, and three more US attorneys besides the one that had been in the meeting crowded around Larabee and Travis. Several men and women stood around armed. They were feds who had run to the gun locker and retrieved their weapons as quickly as possible and now stood alert. They didn't know yet what they were guarding, but they would be ready. Somewhere along the way Buck had retrieved his own gun and Chris's loaner from the lockers and now they were armed as well.
Inside the foyer of the courthouse, as reality sank in as to who was missing, Larabee's Nextel chirped. "Talk to me," he growled. The readout told him who was checking in.
"Found the van. Abandoned. Empty. A little blood, not much. I need a forensics team out here. And a marked unit or two to help secure the place until they get here."
Without another word, Larabee handed his phone to Briscoe to coordinate with Tanner.
Chris Larabee ran his hand down his face, then ran both hands through his hair. He closed his eyes, allowed himself just that long for anxiety to overwhelm him and then he opened his eyes, "Let's get this Goddamn situation under control!" And he started giving orders.
It wasn't as if there was any conscious thought to it, more a feeling, but the essence of it was 'how could eight hours pass so quickly and yet seem like an eternity?' Eight hours and they hadn't heard a word from Ezra, JD or the kidnappers.
They were using the grand jury room for a conference room. There were too damn many people in on this meeting, but they all thought they had the right -- the necessity -- to be there. Vin and Buck were down the table from him. He liked to be able to see their faces and body language in a debriefing like this. It grounded him and gave him so much more information than any mere words they might offer. They were both shell-shocked in their own way and trying desperately, as he was, to block out the "what ifs" and "what's happening nows" that could cripple them. Josiah and Nathan were there, somehow quieter emotionally. Not being in the heat of the battle could give that to you.
"We've called in assistance from DPS and surrounding towns," the police chief was saying. "We've got all entrances to the hospital guarded. The ICU is guarded."
"ATF and DEA have added to that protection," Josiah offered. Without saying that also meant that those agents would be carrying their SMG's on fully auto. "They'll keep an eye on West so we can be on the street."
"They're still workin' on the van. Stolen. So far nothing that would help us. Sorry."
"They're crazy, but they're not stupid," Vin drawled. "They had a second getaway ride standing by so they could dump the one everyone saw. Maybe two or three other cars."
"Anything on the new car or cars?"
"So far, no. They put a lot of thought into the location. A little league baseball compex. Still in town, but lots of people coming and going."
"So they know the area," Larabee observed.
"Oh, yeah," Vin confirmed.
"Other members of West's cell?"
"We didn't know much about them," Detective Briscoe spoke up with more than a little accusation. Damn Feds coming in and taking over. To hell with 'em for not telling us what was going on.
"We're trying to track down friends, family and associates of the three men you've ID'd."
"Property they own," Wilmington said softly, but everyone heard him. They'd need to look for places to hold hostages -- or bury bodies.
"Telephones?" They were talking shorthand but the cops and feds knew what was being said. The prosecutors and politicians sitting around? If they couldn't keep up, to hell with them. Larabee was asking with one word what information they could get from cell phones, land lines, GPS encrypted in newer phones, OnStar -- anything.
"We're waiting for a ping from any of the phones we've identified," a DEA tech officer advised, referring to waiting for a phone call to be made to give them a clue what area the phone was in. Federal Agents had been kidnapped. This was personal. Everyone was involved to share resources. "We've got one Trigger Fish on the ground and two more being sent up from San Antone. And all the manpower you need is on standby."
Chris nodded his appreciation for that statement. DEA, and ATF to a lesser degree, were considered the mavericks of federal law enforcement. They shared that bond; understood and appreciated it.
Larabee turned to what was, at the moment, his last best hope, or the words of doom, "Josiah?" ATF didn't have profilers as such, especially not in enforcement groups, but Sanchez was an elder statesman. He had started his federal career rather late in life and had been a psychology teacher before. But more, he studied the people around him and truly listened. And the way he could put all of that together made him, in Larabee's perception, better than any profiler he'd ever met.
Josiah turned pale blue eyes to his boss. "Why didn't they kill them?" he asked bluntly.
The room went silent. Wasn't he supposed to say something comforting like, thank the Lord at least we have the hope they may not be dead yet? Or something patronizing like that?
The other men on the team waited patiently and realized it was hard to come up with a good reason.
"If it was revenge, they should hit and run," Tanner admitted.
"If they wanted to keep them from testifying or keep them from identifying the others in the group, they should kill them," Chris admitted. Buck closed his eyes briefly, but held it together.
"Too much television?" Nathan offered. "They think if they hide the . . ." he hesitated to say it, but had to, ". . . hide the bodies, they can't be prosecuted?"
"Television or not, they've got to know killing a federal agent . . ."
"And a judge's wife."
"Well, no one will stop looking for them. There's no place to hide."
"Mexico? South America?" Detective Briscoe didn't like these guys thinking they were so all knowing, all detecting.
"West's group are American citizens," Josiah explained, not that he'd explain to Briscoe, but the lawyers and politicians might come up with something with the information. "Mexico'll deport 'em if they're not Mexican citizens."
"Where is this getting us?" Buck finally lost it. "We all know all of this. We need a course of action. A place to look . . ."
"How do we know they don't still think one's on their side and one's a snitch? Hell, if they did know JD and Ezra were feds they'd be safer. We need . . ."
"What!" Josiah shouted. "Buck say that again."
"We need to get out there . . ."
"No. They don't know Ezra and JD are agents." Josiah looked around the room to see if anyone else got those implications. "They may well have been 'rescuing' JD just as they rescued Anson Jones."
"But that means Ezra . . ." Vin began.
"Ezra's still a snitch to them."
"And they are keeping him alive to find out who he works for? What he's told the cops?" Larabee offered it as a logical possibility.
"And my wife?" Travis asked quietly from the corner.
No one had an answer. Before anyone could even offer comfort, Buck's cell phone rang. Chris frowned, but no one had turned off the phones in case there was news or an emergency. Buck started to switch it off then froze. His eyes flew up to Chris's.
"Everyone shut up," Chris responded to the look in his friend's eyes.
"Wilmington," Buck said into the phone.
"Hey Mr. ATF," the angry voice that barely held any of JD's usual personality snapped through the speaker. Buck's eyes flew to Larabee's with such relief there was no doubt who was on the other end. Immediately people were scurrying to triangulate on the phone signal on the other end of Buck's phone.
"J . . .," And then the attitude in the voice registered. "John, can you talk?"
"I am talkin', asshole. You need to listen." So JD wasn't alone and, pulling the attitude, he might still have his cover intact. Buck would play it that way for now.
"Your friends aren't doin' you any favors with that stunt today."
"We won't let them control our minds like they do yours."
"No one's been hurt yet," Buck offered it up almost as a prayer, offering JD the opportunity to tell him how the others were.
"We've got your snitch and that judge's wife. We want to trade for West. Set it up. We'll be in touch."
"You people must know we can't . . ." But before Wilmington could finish, the line went dead. He didn't look up to see if the trace had been a success. He knew better. No one in the room outside of Denver's team 7 understood the dynamics going on as Buck slumped back in his seat.
"Wilmington," Larabee barked to bring Buck from his downward spiral.
Buck took the time for another deep breath then leaned forward and looked around the room. "That was JD Dunne. He's one of our men who was abducted today. It seems Josiah may be right and, for JD at least, like Jones, it was more of a rescue. They want to trade Mrs. Travis and Agent Standish -- who he called a snitch, so they don't know he's an agent yet -- for West."
"It was obvious you recognized the number. Call him back."
"Not 'til we have a plan."
"I doubt he'll hold onto the phone after that call."
"How new is the phone? It got a SIM chip?"
The questions flew as different people thought of potential ideas to track the phone.
"Next time your man calls, tell him to come in," the US Attorney stated flatly. Although it was an appointed office, it was still a political office and he was ready for personal damage control.
"He won't leave the others."
"You're his supervisor," the US attorney turned on Larabee. "Order him in."
Before the ATF supervisor could erupt, Buck stepped in, "Can't even if we wanted to. The way he was talkin', they were listenin'."
"Are you sure he's not helpin' them?" Briscoe snorted.
"What the Sam Holy Hell is that supposed to mean?" Buck roared as he left his seat to go after the Waco cop. Several other agents moved in to keep them separated. Chris and his men thought they were doing their part by not going after the asshole themselves. They didn't see any reason for Buck not to let off steam by thumpin' the jerk.
"Stop this!" Travis demanded and moved to the center of the room for the first time.
"Buck," Chris said easily.
Buck stopped struggling, shrugged off the hands and turned to Travis. "Sorry, I know we got more important things to do." He made it clear he was only apologizing to the man whose wife was missing.
"Why'd they let him make that call? Maybe it's that Oslo Syndrome or Stockholm Syndrome, whatever. Maybe he's switched sides," Briscoe continued. What was with this guy? The rest of the room breathed a sigh of relief when Team Seven decided he wasn't even worth the effort to dispute him.
"West is dead," Jackson stated bluntly to bring the meeting back on course. "They're only waiting for next of kin to pull the plug."
"No damn good reason not to give him back, then," Buck muttered with gallows humor.
"Did JD say when he'd call back?" Chris asked.
Buck shook his head no.
"Despite that, we still have some very real time constraints."
Chris and the others looked to Josiah to elaborate. "We won't be able to control the family when they are contacted as to what they say to the media. We don't know if they are sympathetic to his causes. Once word is out that we don't have our bargaining chip . . ."
"Can we delay the hospital's notification?" Chris turned to Nathan for the answer.
Josiah continued before Jackson could respond. "Even if you did, there are a lot of people who do know what's going on. Despite the news blackout and all good intentions, information is going to leak out. Someone will research our team from Denver. It's only a matter of time before JD and Ezra are identified as agents."
A sickly silence fell over the room as that truth sank in.
"But Ezra would probably be safer if they knew he was a fed and not a snitch."
"True. But if he tells anyone, even for self-preservation, that is bound to speed up JD's cover being blown. Gentlemen, time is not our friend."
JD shut off the phone after the call. Anson took the phone and threw it in the river that ran through town. JD watched the concentric ripples move out from where the Nextel disappeared. He felt like he was losing his last link to the others.
"Could they do that? Let West go?" JD was trying to get some information to help with his own equilibrium, a hint at what action he should take. He knew that the government would never negotiate with terrorists or hostage takers. Were these men so out of touch with reality that they believed differently?
"One way or the other, we've got to get West. He's weak."
"He's your leader."
"He never meant to use that bomb. He only intended to plant it and then tell the news media where to find it. Before it detonated. He wanted to advertise that it can be done."
JD got into the little white Caprice Anson was using now. "You're kidding, right? West would pay all that money, take those risks to make the feds look bad?"
"Pierce West is weak. For all the men he's killed, he doesn't have what it takes to go to the next level; to do what we have to do."
"But if all he wants is to show the leaks in U.S. security, why make it look like a mid-east faction . . ."
"That's my idea," Jones gloated. And suddenly JD had the feeling that he was in the car with a rabid dog and anyone he came in contact with was in danger.
"You're like me, John," Anson was continuing. "Fearless. Willing to do what's necessary."
"Well, that Dudley DoRight fed gave me his phone number. Think he wanted to rehabilitate me. Least I could do was use it." JD subtly reinforced the way he had come to be aware of Buck's cell number. Ezra had told him never to miss the chance to reinforce a cover, the trick was not to over do it and sound like you were feeding information to the bad guys. They couldn't all be stupid enough to miss something like that.
"You understand that bureaucracies, authority figures, the military, they are all like septic tanks. All the big chunks float to the top." Anson laughed as his own joke and then laughed harder when he glanced over and got a look at the expression on JD's face. And the laugh sounded a bit insane. "West was not the leader he was meant to be. You and I will have to take up the slack."
JD felt a little sick. He knew that agreeing to make the call to the feds had raised his stock in Anson's eye. But JD knew that the part he had been playing had come much too easily, too naturally, to him. Anson had seen that. Buck had seen it. JD had seen it now, and he scared himself.
Promising himself not to make any more mistakes, JD was watching carefully the route they were taking. But there were several turns. Too many. For all he was spouting how he trusted his new ally, Jones was backtracking and making it nearly impossible for JD to remember where he'd been. He resigned to just remember landmarks, hopefully a street name and numbers when they finally came home to roost. Then, if -- no, erase that -- when he got the chance, he would get word to the others.
It was a white clapboard house when they finally stopped, although it desperately needed a new coat of paint. There were black, wrought iron bars on the windows, but they didn't look out of place. This was clearly an older neighborhood and now, a high crime area. Many of the small homes had burglar bars. Sam was waiting and, once Anson pulled into the one car garage, he closed the door behind them.
The inside of the house had probably been nice back when someone's grandmother had owned it. Now, aluminum foil covered all of the windows to keep prying eyes out. The light fixtures in the ceilings were bare bulbs.
The couch and chair in the living room looked like they'd been picked up off the side of the road on trash day. There was no more furniture.
The ceramics in the one bathroom and kitchen were yellowy stained and there was an unpleasant, unrecognizable smell.
There, Sam, Boo and the others from the van lounged with five other men. The co-ed who'd driven the van and another 20 something female with ruddy dreadlocks were there as well. They were nowhere near Billie Jo Trainer's league.
JD was looking around for Ezra and Mrs. Travis. At first it worried him that he didn't see them. But he finally caught sight of a pair of legs in familiar dark grey slacks in the room at the end of the hall. Without thinking, he headed that way.
What JD found in the room brought him to a stunned stop. Evie Travis was sitting on the warped, hard wood floor since there was no furniture in the room. Her hair was disheveled and her eyes red and swollen from crying, but otherwise she seemed unharmed.
Beside her sat Ezra Standish. He was propped up against the wall, his legs splayed before him. His left eye was swollen shut. His upper eyelid poofed out until it resembled a hard boiled egg. The white of his right eye was bright red from a broken blood vessel. It was painful to look at. There was a ragged cut on his left cheek bone that didn't seem to want to stop seeping blood.
His shirt, buttons torn off, revealed more bruises to his chest and what very well may have been the imprint of a boot sole on his solar plexus.
JD's eyes met those of the judge's wife as if to ask what other damage was hidden beneath the clothing. She sat unmoving as silent tears started up again. Either she knew instinctively, or had been told in no uncertain terms, that her gentle touch would cause Ezra's composure to collapse.
JD fell to his knees beside his friend. "Ez . . ."
"Hit me." Standish cut him off with a low hiss before he could make the mistake and use the U/C's real name.
"I -- what? I can't . . ." JD resented the order.
"Hit me!" The words were garbled coming from the busted and swollen lips. The demand was heartfelt and touched JD in the pit of his stomach.
And then JD saw it. A shadow fell across Ezra and a newly terrified Mrs. Travis. Someone had followed him into the room. 'Damn it! Stupid! Stupid!' JD berated himself. Of course they would follow. And now, to stay in character, he'd have to do something. Any compassion would blow his cover and tear away all the hard-earned trust he'd built up with Anson Jones. JD had reacted to his emotions and Ezra knew the only way to explain coming in here would be violence.
And so he raised his arm and backhanded Ezra. He pulled his punch at the last minute. He couldn't do it. He couldn't add more injury to his friend. But while his fingers barely feathered across Ezra's jaw, the man's neck and head slammed backwards into the wall. Ezra faked the intensity of the attack. JD realized that, from the angle at the door, whoever was watching, couldn't tell JD hadn't delivered a violent blow. JD swung again and again. Under the pretense of gripping Ezra's neck to hold him, force him to take the blow, JD was able to follow through and hit his own arm to supply the sound of flesh on flesh. Standish played it up. He must have gone to the extra measure of biting his lip to make it look good, because his mouth was bleeding again, outlining his teeth in red.
Dunne turned away from the sight to address whoever he would find standing at the door. It was Anson. The hatred building in JD toward Jones must have shown and the domestic terrorist misread it as being directed toward their prisoner. "Go ahead, Kid," he laughed. "Take your turn at the traitor. He still hasn't told us who he's working for or how much he's told them."
JD just nodded. Then he waited until the man disappeared. He was a quick study, so he also waited until the shadow had disappeared down the hall, guaranteeing that no one was within earshot. He turned back to his friend, "Damn it, Ezra, tell them you're an agent."
Ezra shook his head. "No. This way," his voice was low and raspy, as if it hurt to talk. They must have hit him in the throat. "Mrs. Travis ... more valuable hostage . . . this way . . ."
"Oh, no," Evie moaned. Neither man told her to stay quiet. It added to the appearance of the beating.
"Protect . . . your . . . cover," Ezra continued to JD.
"Don't do this for me!" JD responded angrily.
"Your job . . . your resp -- responsibility . . . get word to others. My resp . . . give you time to do it."
"I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry," Evie chanted like it was a mantra.
"Dear lady." Ezra rolled his head, resting against the wall, until his one reddened eye met hers. "Don't apolog . . . we do what . . . do ..." Ezra was gasping and forcing the words, but they seemed important to him, so JD didn't try to stop him, "so that you and . . . innocents . . . like yourself . . . don't have to . . . worry that . . . everyone . . . meet . . . is a threat. Keep you . . . safe." Standish closed his eye, energy spent with just those few words. But there it was, that idealistic, good guy, John Wayne attitude. He was hurting too badly to hide it as he tried to console the poor woman. JD remembered very well Buck had told him that was why Ezra did what he did. JD had laughed. How had Buck known? What had he seen that JD had missed? JD realized once again how much he still had to learn. He hoped he got the chance. He hoped Ezra didn't suffer any more from his mistakes.
"Ezra, please tell them."
"It would make it too easy to identify you." Ezra was whispering now and it seemed to be less painful. The words seemed to come more easily, although Ezra still had to stop often to take a breath. It wasn't completely unselfish. As long as JD was accepted in the group he might get them help.
"I've got my gun . . ." JD began, still guilty that he hadn't pulled it in the van.
"Too many . . . of them." Had he said it out loud? Ezra couldn't be sure. His head hurt unmercifully and events were going on around him like he was a bit outside himself -- like a good buzz from strong whiskey. He more heard himself and the others speaking than truly felt like he was part of the conversation.
Then the room seemed to get darker, but it was because the stark light of the bare bulb was being blocked by the football linebacker-sized bodies of Anson and Boo. "Hey, snitch, I think we're gonna drop your body off in front of the police station to show the judge we mean business for his wife, here."
"No! No!" Evie screamed as she was dragged from the floor at the same time.
"You can't!" JD demanded as he turned on the ersatz leader of the group.
"Ain't got the stomach for it after all?" Anson goaded. He did a little hip-hop on his crutches to get more comfortable.
"Because he's a fed!" JD shot back.
Ezra's head jerked up in anger. Evie wept with relief.
"He told me. Just now." JD was making it up as he went along. "Guess he'd had enough beating. Or maybe I'm better at it than your asshole buddies. I started in on the old lady and he sang."
Jones looked skeptical. He wasn't buying. "He's stalling."
So JD had to sell harder. "His name is Ezra Standish. ATF. If he's lyin' finish him off. But find out for sure, for God's sake. 'Cuz I ain't runnin' for killin' a fed for the rest of my life. They don't stop lookin'."
Jones didn't like being defied or his order being questioned. But he could see that killing a fed was the kind of crime that didn't go away. More importantly, he could see his followers were afraid of the outcome. They still thought they were going to hide the bomb and report it before it detonated. Fools. He would pacify them until he and his inner circle had led them in too deeply to walk away. "Fed, huh?" saying what he could tell his people wanted to hear. "More bargaining chips. Trey, you and the others get our hostages moved. While John and I make the next call."
JD panicked. They were moving again. And he wouldn't know where. Anson Jones didn't trust anyone. He was good at this. Ezra stumbled when he was jerked too quickly to his feet and vertigo set in. JD caught him long enough to whisper, "It'll work out." What else could he say? And then Ezra and Mrs. Travis were being shuffled out the door. And JD felt very much alone.
As Ezra was forced down the hall, Sam bounced his head into the wall until it dented the plaster. JD's words rang in Standish's mind, 'It'll work out.' The boy was spending too much time with Buck Wilmington. His captors laughed as he staggered along the hall. Then a cool, gentle hand came around his shoulders to steady him. Even if there wasn't enough strength to support him, the support was there. And comfort. Apparently Evie Travis had decided not to be afraid anymore, at least to the point that it incapacitated her. And there was something in the look she threw at the young bullies that kept them a pace back. With more dignity than either of them should have been able to muster, the judge's wife and the injured agent moved toward the garage door.
Five of the men who made up Denver's Team 7 sat in their boss' 3rd floor hotel room.
Josiah Sanchez cast a glance toward the plain, digital clock radio on the bedside table. 1:30 AM. The time made him think of Orin Travis who was in the hotel's bar being consoled by the local judges and magistrates. He could stay there for another thirty minutes until it closed at 2.
Travis was a good man. He knew he didn't need to hover over them and was forcing himself to stay out of the way and let them do their jobs. Travis had seen these men work magic before, but this time there was very little to work with. For the judge, the ex-federal agent, the waiting was one thing. But what was this waiting like for Orin Travis the husband?
With that thought, Josiah ran a nonchalant eye around the room. He was trying to evaluate how the others were holding together. That's what he did. He was a pragmatist, unfortunately a realist, and needed to be the voice of counsel and reason when the time came.
As good as Larabee was at so many things, waiting wasn't one of them. Worrying wasn't either. And being out of control of the situation was an untapped pressure valve. So he was glaring at Wilmington's phone, demanding that it ring. They had figured out that all of the calls would come in on that phone because he had given Anson and "John" his business cards along with the standard, 'don't take the wrong path in life' pep talk.
Buck was scared. He was hunched over, ready to pounce on the phone. He seemed a little distant and lost. He got that way when reality didn't include good guys and happy endings.
Vin was leaning up against one headboard, conserving energy. In a lot of ways, the Texan could go into a near meditative state to conserve energy and be clear-headed when it was needed. He and Nathan had gone out for a while, hit some of his old haunts, looking for information, but had come up empty. What he had seen, he hadn't liked. Even as the sun set in an otherwise completely clear sky, he had noticed a thin wall of blue-black clouds on the northern horizon. They hadn't been paying any attention to the weather. How could that matter with everything that was going on? But Vin recognized those clouds. A blue norther was blowing in.
Temperatures had dropped from the 80's to near freezing in less than an hour. The thunderstorm that heralded the norther had dwindled to rain and occasional sleet. You almost had to live in this part of the country to believe weather could change that fast. And here, at almost 3AM, the weather was only getting worse.
And then the phone rang.
The ring tone was Margaritaville, but it might just as well have been a starter gun at a greyhound race. Buck jolted forward, but he caught himself, let the phone ring as he took a breath and then he answered the phone, "Wilmington."
"You've got ten minutes to get to the hospital." It was JD. He sounded hyped. "Then you'll have 20 minutes to get Pierce West out of there and into a car."
"Son, you know we can't do that." Buck played for time; looking for any room to maneuver, to negotiate.
"You're the feds. You can do anything . . ." another voice demanded. So they were on speakerphone.
"That's not true."
"A car will drive through the parking lot in thirty minutes -- if we see you arrive on time, if West isn't with you, we'll kill the judge's wife and your agent." JD again. And he emphasized the word agent. He was saying they knew who Ezra was. So it was only a matter of time before JD was found out.
"That's not enough time. . ." Buck tried again.
"The guy who shot West brings him. And he comes alone."
"Maybe we could. . ." The line went dead. Everyone sat in silence. There was no chance in hell West could be removed from the hospital, even if he were healthy.
It seemed like a lifetime, but within seconds Larabee stood up with authority. "Nathan, Josiah, stay here and coordinate. Get Briscoe. I want surveillance out there five minutes ago." Josiah reached for his phone to call the local comm center from the memory on his phone. Nathan reached for the phone list they had scribbled out during the day.
"Where are you going?" Josiah asked softly.
"Buck, Vin and I will head for the hospital. Showing up and going inside will buy us precious time," Chris said somberly.
"Keep your heads," Josiah cautioned.
Chris looked up, angry at being taken to task, but in the end he merely nodded that he understood. It was something that had needed to be said. There was so much at risk . . .
As the door closed, Nathan's phone was already ringing for Briscoe.
Reuben Briscoe tried to roll away from the irritating chirp of his cell phone. When it finally stopped ringing he scrambled under the worn, mismatched comforter and nestled back into his warm spot on the bed. And then the damn phone started again. "What?" he growled into the small instrument.
"Nathan Jackson," was the no-nonsense reply from the other end. "We've been contacted by the hostage takers. Get your people moving. We'll meet at the IHOP a mile from the hospital."
There was no response from the other end.
"Briscoe? We've got ten minutes to get enough people in place to start a surveillance until the others can fall in with us."
"Ten minutes. IHOP," came the mumbled response.
"Keep us informed."
And then the phone went dead.
In his nondescript bachelor apartment Briscoe stared at the cell phone in his hand. "You want to play by your rules until you need help? To hell with ya." He tossed the cell on the faded overstuffed chair where he'd draped his slacks the night before, rolled over and went back to sleep.
What the hell kind of weather was this, Buck bitched to himself. It had been almost 90 degrees on a late October afternoon. That was irregular enough. But now, not 12 hours later, it had dropped below 40 degrees. The cold drizzle that had lingered had a sharp bite of sleet. What in the hell kind of weather was this? Vin had drawled something about a "blue norther" and Texas weather. Well, you could keep it. To make matters worse, the rain caught the streetlights, strobed them and made it almost impossible to see anything, much less if anyone was watching them from inside the cars parked in the dark hospital parking lot.
JD watched as Buck and Chris climbed out of the Ram. They burrowed into their too light jackets against the suddenly freezing weather as they hurried inside. No other car had followed them in. It was just after 3AM. Any traffic would be easy to track. JD felt surreal. How did it get to this? How had he come to sitting in the car with a terrorist kidnapper, not knowing where Ezra or Mrs. Travis had been taken, but what he did know was that their bargaining chip, Pierce West, was technically dead and nothing could change that.
The only access to the hospital at this time of night was through the emergency room. Chris and Buck entered through the emergency room doors, and headed straight toward the elevators and ICU. If Jones had thought to place anyone inside to watch their entrance all they got was an eyeful of two determined ATF agents on a mission.
Chris was already speed dialing Josiah as the doors closed. The signal didn't get out in the elevator car but by the time they reached the ICU waiting area he heard the deep, "Chris," acknowledgement from the other end.
Buck made a quick turn of the area to make sure no one else was there and Larabee focused on the call. "Talk to me."
"Nathan and I are at IHOP. No one else is here yet. Briscoe's not answering his phone." He heard Chris curse on the other end, but continued. "Travis has had a local take him over to see what's going on with Briscoe. G/S Parmer is trying to get people out but it's slow going. We've lost a lot of precious time."
"Damn. Shit. Hell," Chris vented.
"What now, Boss?" Josiah asked with more calmness than he felt.
"Round 'em up, Josiah. Fast as you can. Buck and I'll figure some way to stall."
Chris hadn't showed up at the hospital until 9 minutes and counting. Now he and Buck had been inside for 22 minutes. JD had been watching the digital clock displayed at a bank building across the street and down a ways. He didn't dare look at his own watch or even move for that matter. He didn't want to do anything to help Anson realize their deadline had passed.
'A fighting chance.' JD thought back to a slow day at the office. It had been late, but they couldn't leave because a snitch was supposed to call. The deal was already set up, but, as was so often the case, the last minutes of a deal came down to "bad guy time." And so they were waiting. And Josiah and Ezra had gotten into a discussion on how we really misuse the English language when we toss out clichés or "ism's" without taking time to hear what they are really saying or how profound the phrases had been and are when you pay attention. Josiah had recalled a Red Skelton skit where he broke down the Pledge of Allegiance beyond just a memorized speech to what the words were really saying. Waiting is the hardest part, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, if all else fails, manipulate the data. A fighting chance. It played over and over in JD's head like a song he couldn't get rid of. Please, God, just give us one chance to fight our way out of this. Or go down fighting. A fighting chance. Just give us the chance.
"Those sons of bitches aren't coming out," Anson muttered as he stared through the drizzle.
JD hunched in the heavy coat they had loaned him against the surprise weather change. "But they came this far," he stalled. "Maybe they're trying?"
"I could go check . . ." JD began.
"To hell with 'em. To hell with 'em all." Anson, for the first time had a hint of false bravado in his tone. He turned the ignition on the car.
"Wait, look." JD leaned forward.
An orderly, hunched over against the cold, pushed a wheelchair through the doors. West was bundled from head to toe in thinnish hospital blankets against the gusty winds and cold rain. Buck was running interference between the wheelchair, a security guard and a doctor who were behind him and seemed to be arguing furiously against transporting the prisoner. Buck, being Buck, was trying to play mediator and focused back on the hospital personnel as Chris directed the orderly who was pushing the chair toward their ride.
Chris, with single minded determination, opened the passenger side door and turned to help Buck and the orderly maneuver the patient up into the seat.
The tableau froze as JD and Anson watched. Then the cop, his hand on the wheelchair arm finally seemed to deflate into his heavy jacket and start helping lift the patient.
"They're stalling," Jones growled.
"You're paranoid," JD replied, playing his part. "It can't be easy to steal a patient."
"We're going. If they aren't ready to follow, tough shit."
Anson pulled out of his parking spot and crawled past the Ram. JD rolled down the window and shouted, "Hey, Fed! Just you, remember?" to Larabee. JD hoped he never really had to face down that look on Larabee's face when it was really directed at him. He hoped it really wasn't directed at him, now.
Anson Jones leaned forward. "Throw your cell phone on the ground."
"Now unscrew the head of the police radio in your truck and throw it out."
Larabee flinched that he'd thought of that, but did as he was told.
"Now or forget about it." And the white Caprice was moving. It wouldn't stop. Caprice. For some untenable reason, JD's mind went back to the debate on words. Caprice. It wasn't just the name of a car. Caprice. Whim. Impulse. Damn.
The men rushed to get the patient positioned and the Ram pulled out after the sedan.
JD scanned the area, praying to see someone else pull out with them. Only the dark truck was behind them on the stark, rainy street. As he took one last look back at Buck and the other men under the hospital overhang, his jaw dropped and he got a sick feeling in his stomach.
"Josiah?" Buck began.
"Not a damn soul here with us," was the reply without preamble.
"Not enough traffic this time of morning. They'll make us in five minutes."
"I'm gonna give you enough head's up to stay two blocks back. Just do the best you can."
"Don't tell me you got West." Josiah couldn't figure out how the ruse was still playing out.
"Sorta," Buck hedged as he threw back the blankets he'd used to disguise himself as West.
"Tell me," Josiah demanded.
Just inside the sliding doors of the hospital the doctor, security guard, orderly and a second security guard who had been wearing Buck's clothes hustled to make phone calls and try to figure out what the hell they'd just been dragged into.
JD was trying not to hyperventilate. If Jones realized something was wrong, he hoped the man would think it was just a case of nerves. JD couldn't put his finger on it, but something about Buck's posture had been wrong. Only after they were moving did he realize what it was. That man hadn't been Buck. That had to mean that Buck was pretending to be West in the Ram. JD tried to figure out what that meant. What was JD supposed to do next?
"Josiah," Buck tried. "Josiah . . ." he tried again.
Chris knew that Sanchez was slowly and methodically tapping off all the reasons this was a crazy, impossible idea.
"We're just stallin'," Buck offered. "Look, Josiah, I gotta go -- conserve batteries. Yeah, I know ya will. Thanks."
"It's just us?" Larabee guessed when the other man had hung up.
"Yeah. Josiah and Nathan were expecting a surveillance team so they paired up in the same car. They'll do the best they can. And I'm gonna have to hustle to get a piece of Briscoe's ass before Sanchez tears him up when this is over."
"At least we've got your phone. That little shit's not as smart as he thinks he is," Larabee observed, referring to Anson. It wasn't in the group supervisor's nature to try to put a good light on a situation and that's not what he was doing. He was stating a fact. The phone was a bright spot.
"They're sort of doing us a favor. Rushing the timeline like this. We don't have to worry about JD being found out. It'll all be over before the news comes out tomorrow."
Larabee didn't reply.
"So," Buck continued. "Break the rules much?" He smiled a little at the driver.
Chris shook his head and smirked. Buck was talking because he was gearing up for action. But he was right. "Hell, Buck, it would be easier to list the rules we aren't breaking."
"We'll be gettin' days off no matter how this turns out, that's for sure," Buck laughed.
"Hey, boss?" A muffed voice came from the small back seat of the Ram.
"Tanner?" Larabee's voice was dripping sarcasm. He recognized that tone of voice.
"Can I have my 30 days off when I want 'em?" the Texan drawled from where he'd been hiding the entire time in the floorboard of the back seat.
"What 'cha got in mind?" Buck bit.
"Summertime. Sunnin'. Campin'. Maybe head back down here toward Galveston and do a little Gulf fishin'. I hear the red snapper are bitin' like perch on South Padre." There was a pause as Vin ran his finger over the SMG machine gun he'd borrowed. "I got the feelin' I'll get my fill of huntin', tonight."
Chris and Buck glanced at each other. They were afraid he was right.
Living in the city, you forget how dark it can get at night. Somewhere, somehow, there is always at least a distant glow of light. Anson Jones had led the Ram down farm to market roads and directly to some dirt paths. Between the dark of night, the overcast and drizzle, nothing but the headlights of the cars made anything visible.
"Chris," Buck said softly. Larabee could tell by his tone that his partner didn't want to say what he was about to say. Larabee knew he didn't want to hear it. "Mighty far out here."
Neither Chris, nor Vin, still hidden in the floorboard of the back seat, responded.
"They haven't been all that careful. They could have checked and seen Vin pretty easy. That was a long shot, hidin' him back there."
"Maybe we got lucky."
"They ain't particularly checkin' for backup."
"I can't see Josiah's headlights." He left it hanging that if they couldn't see the other car, neither could Anson or his men. What they were all leaving unsaid was that West's people weren't taking even due precaution to be sure their rules were being followed. It was if they didn't care.
Before any of the men could continue to speculate, Buck's Nextel chirped, a signal that someone wanted to talk if it was safe.
"Go ahead, Josiah," Buck responded.
"We're having to drive without headlights. We can still see your lights. Barely. It's slow going and getting slower." The rest was lost to unintelligible garble.
"You're sounding like you're underwater," Buck clicked back, they all knew that was a sign of bad reception.
"We've lost phone contact with the others. No street signs. Only the locals could follow us with the landmarks we're giving them. They're playing catch up. Big time." Again the words were broken and garbled.
"We're out of tower range, Chris." Buck didn't say more. He didn't have to. They were on their own and every mile they went put the odds in Anson Jones's favor.
Chris stopped the truck.
The sedan went several more yards before they must have realized they weren't being followed any more. Chris watched first the brake lights then the back up lights engage. When the car had come back to within 20 yards, he opened his door, still using it as a partial shield, stepped out, and waited.
Anson Jones and JD both got out of the car, and turned to face the occupants of the truck. Jones was tense, Larabee observed. Too much distance separated them for Chris to tell how JD was standing up through all this.
"We've played your game long enough," Larabee shouted. "You show us our people or we'll just arrest your sorry asses and take what we can get."
Jones gave a nervous laugh. "I just wanted to see how far you'd play cowboy." It was false bravado. He must have realized Larabee would draw this line in the sand. He had called another car that was already showing up from down the lane. With the Caprice between the newly arrived car and the Ram, three men dragged two forms out of the back seat.
Suddenly grateful for the darkness and the headlights that blinded anyone trying to look through the windshield, Buck held up a pair of binoculars. "It's Ezra and Miz Travis," Buck informed Chris. "They look the worse for wear, but both seem mobile and on their own power."
"Get West out of the car," Jones shouted.
Slowly, Chris moved to the back of the truck, got the wheelchair and opened the passenger side door. Buck arranged the thin blankets back over his head and around his shoulders to conceal his identity. Under the pretense of maneuvering a seriously wounded man from the truck, Chris discussed the situation with the others. "Vin, get out when you get a chance. Cover us."
"You got it," Vin replied. "Chris, they're flyin' fast and loose with all this. Until now they've been all caught up on details. I don't like it."
"Just be ready for anything."
Chris made a show of moving 'Pierce West' into the wheelchair. Once he was situated, they moved forward, leaving the door open to conceal Vin's exit.
"Bring him towards the car," Anson ordered.
"We start moving, our people start moving," Larabee challenged.
He could see Anson's form, silhouetted by the headlights, lean across the hood of the car and say something to JD. That was an ace in the hole. - JD. He was their ace in the hole.
JD walked back to the second car and ushered Ezra and Evie Travis toward the Caprice. With a deep breath, Chris started pushing the wheelchair forward.
"I'll follow your lead, Pard," Buck said. He may not have been confident of the situation, but he was confident in Chris Larabee and his instincts. "Once you figure out what's up, let me know."
Larabee didn't reply. He didn't have to.
JD was almost physically ill, he was so tense. He was as frightened of making a mistake at this moment and getting one of his friends killed as he was of dying himself. In this life and death moment, JD realized how afraid he was of failure, making a mistake, any mistake, and disappointing people around him. It controlled his life. It influenced everything he did. His mother didn't mean to place so much responsibility on his shoulders; it wasn't her fault that he had interpreted his life this way based on obstacles presented to him. In this moment he realized that he led his life hiding his anger and fear of failure. He didn't need to be perfect 24 hours a day. But he needed to be perfect now. He said a silent prayer.
And something was wrong. Anson hadn't tried to confirm that Chris was alone. Jones had said he wanted the man who shot West to drive out here tonight. Had there been a way for Anson to know that Chris had been the one to shoot West? It was almost like he didn't care. It was like he had thrown details into the mix to add legitimacy to his actions, not as if he really cared if anyone followed through.
Buck stayed hunched over in the hospital blankets to hide his identity. He was built enough like West that that wasn't an issue. He let Chris force the wheelchair along the rough, muddy terrain.
"Stop right there," Anson called out from beside the newly arrived car. Both Chris and Buck and JD, Ezra and Evie Travis froze at the tone in the voice. Chris had made it as far as the rear quarter panel of the Caprice. The headlights from the Ram illuminated the scene. Anson and three other players were accounted for, not counting JD.
"Back up, Larabee," Jones ordered.
Well, that answered one question. Somehow Jones knew who Chris was.
"Play it out 'til we get Ezra and Miz Travis as close as we can," Buck said. He was volunteering to let the situation play out until the very last minute to give them the most advantageous positioning in the night as possible.
"Jones," Larabee called. He wanted to hear the voice more. Try to get a feel for what was going down.
"Move back! You've come this far." Then he seemed to throw the feds a bone, "John, move back here, same as Larabee moves this way."
JD and the hostages were within six feet of the man in the wheelchair. He looked up. Buck. It was Buck. JD felt like he was turning his responsibility for the two over to the older agent. "Take your time movin' back, Kid," Buck whispered.
It was all a guess, now, intuition when to make a move.
JD took a step backwards. Evie helped support Ezra as they moved quickly toward freedom. Ezra knew that the sooner they could get out of Chris and Buck's line of fire, the sooner they could make a move to get JD back on their side as well. So he forced himself to shuffle forward. The Southerner knew it was important to see and hear what was going on around him, but the ringing in his ears was drowning out any other sound. And his peripheral vision was gone in a wave of dizziness. Only a pinpoint of motion directly in front of him held any definition. He was useless. He was a liability. And he couldn't do a damn thing about it. It took every ounce of his endurance and strength to just put one foot in front of the other.
"I want you to go back, Larabee. I want you to go back and tell everyone who will listen that Pierce West is weak. Anson Jones is strong. Anson Jones is not afraid to do what needs to be done."
And that was it. Suddenly JD looked up. Boo. Where was Boo? And he was running back toward Anson and the others. He sprinted like it was an Olympic event. 'Keep talking, you lunatic,' the young man prayed. He knew Chris would be cursing him and Buck would be worried. Hopefully Anson would just think that his dash back toward the terrorists' cars was because his nerve gave out, if he noticed him at all, so fixated was he in mocking Larabee.
"I want you to witness the birth of a new generation of American Freedom Fighters!"
JD's lungs were on fire and he felt a deep cough building up in his chest, the kind that came from too much sudden exertion. But he was there. He made it. He grabbed an Uzi from one of the followers. It was almost a machine gun version of a Saturday night special, and JD barely had any experience with one. But he grabbed it and aimed. "Ambush!!!" he screamed back at the others. "Ambush!" He had figured it out, but was he too late? Anson Jones wanted to kill Pierce West -- to take his place as head of the cartel. He wanted West dead. But it wasn't West, it was Buck.
And then all hell broke loose -- in too many directions at once. The trunk of the white Caprice sprang open. Boo, another antiquated Uzi in hand, hunkered down to use the inside of the trunk and the wheel well as cover, sprayed the area with bullets. Buck jumped from the wheelchair, enveloped both Ezra and Evie Travis with his own body and the blankets. The bullets hit Wilmington starting at the lower left torso near his hip and walked up and to the right across his back. Buck fell on top of Ezra and Evie.
JD was running back toward his friends laying down cover fire. Anson was screaming incoherently. And then there was a loud, shrill whistle that ripped through the air. An instant later, the Ram exploded into nothingness.
Chris was physically lifted into the air only to be slammed violently into the ground by the concussion of the blast. He looked up, trying to catch his breath and, for a split second, Chris Larabee was enveloped in a paralyzing, cold dread. Vin Tanner had been in the truck that was now completely engulfed in flames.
Two men on a motorcycle raced past. It looked like they had a long piece of PVC pipe across their shoulders. It was the second shoulder mounted missile. Chris emptied his .40 trying to get a clear shot at the bike's riders as it sped along and bounced over the soggy ground. It didn't stop them. "Change!" he shouted reflexively to let the others know he would be out of commission for 3 seconds as he dropped the empty clip out of his gun and slammed a new one in place. He moved further out of the light of the flames that made him an easy target, but he didn't move too far from his downed men.
JD downed one of Anson's followers and wounded the man himself as he backpedaled toward his downed comrades.
"JD!" Larabee warned, "sniper in the trunk!" The kid had tunnel vision on the people shooting at him. Nothing else was registering except shooting back and getting to his friends. The best Chris could hope for was to keep the sniper's head down with randomly placed shots. His bullets didn't penetrate the sides of the cars.
And then he heard a quiet "ping" over the rest of the gunfire. Ping. Ping. Three bullets bit through the sheet metal of the trunk. And then 20 more shots made sure that the man in the trunk was no longer a threat.
Vin. Vin had made it out of the Ram before it exploded and now he was invisible in the night and shooting that SMG that should have been surplused for something newer four years ago. But he said the gun was foolproof, whether individual rounds, three shot bursts or fully auto. And it gave him distance on the other weapons. So, once the threat in the trunk was neutralized, he took out another of Anson's men and kept them from shooting. Chris took a brief moment to rest his brow on his forearm. He wiped cold sweat from his face. He hadn't realized the vortex of anxiety he'd been in until he knew Tanner was alive. Then he was looking up again and taking aim. Buck and Ezra were still down and JD was a bit manic, standing there with no cover and firing at the enemy. But maybe JD did have his perspective where it should be...
JD ran to Buck and slid to his knees. "Buck, Buck. Ezra."
A low voice moaned under the bulk of the bigger man's body. Then Chris was with them, using his adrenalin enhanced strength to lift Buck off of the others. Evie scrambled away only to go around and try to help JD lift Ezra. He was conscious, but barely. Buck was out.
The Ram was engulfed in fire. The cold drizzle was no challenge for the flames.
JD and Chris were shooting more conservatively now, not wanting to run out of ammo and leave themselves helpless.
Ezra, trying to push himself to his feet, felt his knees turn damp in the mud. But more importantly, he felt his hands land on something cold and metallic. Buck had been hiding two .40 caliber Sig Sauers under his blankets.
Standish scrounged some more and found what he knew would be there. Extra clips already loaded with 13 bullets each. Ezra's hand closed around the butt of the gun and its familiarity gave him a degree of comfort even though things were much too chaotic for him to assess his own damage or the injuries to the others. But what he did know was that if he didn't find it within himself to fight now, he and his friends and innocent Evie Travis would not live to fight another day.
Ezra was getting his bearings when he saw the slide on Larabee's gun stay open. Empty. "Chris!" he shouted and threw an extra clip, loaded with ammo, to his boss. This was why they hadn't bitched and moaned when the ATF ordered all of its agents to carry Sigs and only Sigs. Team Seven already did that so if they ever had a firefight like this one, everyone could change out loaded clips and no one would run out of ammo because they couldn't get the gun loaded in time. It tore at his bruised muscles to throw the thing as far as Larabee but he got it there. The second one didn't go quite so far because he couldn't help anticipating the pain and it made him pull up the last minute. But it was close enough. Larabee rolled, picked up both magazines and was loaded again.
"It's me," Tanner called moments before he materialized from the darkness. He reached down with his free hand to grab Buck's shoulder and help Chris drag their partner back toward the protective darkness and shadows of scrub mesquite.
How much time had passed? Larabee knew he lost all spatial perspectives in a firefight. He knew that it hadn't been as long as he thought.
And then they were almost thrown to the ground again by another explosion less than a mile back from the direction they had come.
Chris met Tanner's eyes only by the grace of the flames that engulfed the Ram and painted their faces with reds, yellows and shadows. He wished it had been dark enough not to see. Vin's eyes only confirmed his worst fear. That explosion had to have been the second shoulder launched missile hitting Josiah's Suburban.
There was no time to worry now, to dread, to miss. There were five of their team still here in this moment, in this place, fighting for their lives.
As bullets thudded and ricocheted around them, the four mobile members of Denver's Team seven moved backwards into the darkness. Each had one hand supporting a comrade, the other free and returning fire.
Anson Jones and his followers were making the tactical mistake of moving directly toward their enemy. The headlights from their cars and the flames from the Ram backlit them and gave the ATF agents good targets.
Larabee, on the other hand, was steering his people into the darkness and, as slow as they moved with their injured, they were gradually disappearing into the night.
About the time JD gave a yelp and he heard a thud, Vin realized that they had backed up to one of the deep culverts that were often found at the side of Texas country roads. Evie Travis and Ezra had dropped and sacrificed their footing to the three foot incline before Tanner could warn them, but a shove forward on Chris's shoulder warned him in time so that Chris and Vin and their burden, Buck, had a more controlled drop into the two inches of cold rainwater, mud and dead, winter grasses.
As soon as JD caught his breath, he raised up to find another target.
"Wait, JD," Vin whispered.
He could see the white of the young agent's haunted eyes outlined by his dirty, mud smeared face, but only because they were almost nose to nose. "They can't see us in the dark. Crawl up the other side of the culvert. Ain't a doubt in my mind that the land yonder is fenced off, so watch out for barbed wire. Get across it and move as fast as you can."
"What about you?" JD could tell there was more to the plan.
"They're gonna lose perspective in this dark. I'm gonna run down the road a few yards, pop a few caps their way. I'm bettin' that'll angle 'em away from us; buy us some time." He looked toward Larabee, not so much as looking to a supervisor for permission, more checking to see how his friend was holding up.
Chris had his hand to the pulse point at Buck's neck. His eyes were closed; his features etched with worry.
"Chris?" Vin attempted.
"He's alive," Larabee said with some relief. They had lost the blankets in their dash for safety. Ezra, watching the byplay, realized for the first time that Buck had been wearing a ballistic vest under the blankets. The man could be reckless at times, but never foolish and never took unnecessary risks. "But he's still out cold," Larabee continued, worriedly, then he glanced at Standish. "We need a place to lick our wounds. How you holding out, Ezra?"
"Better than I was before you arrived." Ezra didn't want to admit that he had wondered if they would consider him expendable or come for him.
None of them completed the thought that would usually follow a statement about their health; that they wished Nathan was there since he was the team member that had taken all of the trauma courses. Right now, they all just hoped Nathan and Josiah had somehow survived the missile and were alive.
Chris let the night wrap around him. The crackle of the flames eating his Ram interrupted the silence. The rain was coming down a bit harder, and icy cold, but it wasn't freezing yet. It had made the ground and detritus soggy and he couldn't hear if any of Anson Jones' men were moving their direction. The gunshots had stopped now that there were no targets visible. There was a dim aura of orange back down the road, an ominous reminder that there had been a second explosion.
A low moan came from the ground. JD immediately scooted closer and Chris leaned over Buck. "Quiet, Big Dog, we got trouble," he warned.
Buck's eyes opened a crack and looked for Chris. It was clear from the unfocused eyes he wasn't hitting on all cylinders yet.
"How do you feel?" Chris asked in a whisper.
"Like I got run over by a stampede." Buck didn't have to whisper, he couldn't get enough air to speak up. He was trying to figure out what had happened and where he was. Everything was black except Chris's face inches from his face, and the shadows left it looking like an X-ray image.
"Hang in there." Chris glanced over toward Ezra who was overly silent. "Ezra?"
"Mr. Larabee, we need a doctor." It was Evie who spoke up first.
"I am still aware of the situation and am able to walk and cooperate in any plans you come up with," Ezra responded.
Tanner listened carefully to make sure no one was sneaking up on them. There were shouts from near the headlights of the other cars.
"I'll lead 'em away. Away from you and Nathan and Josiah. Then I'll circle back, check on the others and get help.
Chris looked at his friend. He was most likely to be able to pull it off. He knew directions like he had a built in lodestone. But it was asking a lot. This was an untenable situation. There was no good answer. No easy or safe way out. And there was no time to think about options; they could barely talk without calling death down on them.
"Lead 'em off," Larabee was deciding as he levered himself to his feet, but kept low, below the cusp of the culvert. He reached for Buck. The bigger man had enough of his senses about him to help a little. "Just get them on the wrong route then get back to us." Tanner took the direction, confident that his boss had thought things through and was just as worried about the other two as he was. This was taking too long as it was.
JD moved to help Ezra stand up. Evie was already there, lending her strength to the other man.
Ezra looked around when he heard gunshots to his left. Only then did he realize Vin had put action to words and was playing fox and hounds to lead the enemy away from his friends.
"JD, I am mobile. If I do need some support, Mrs. Travis can provide it. You would be more helpful assisting Mr. Larabee with Buck."
JD took the logic of the statement and moved back. Even between them he and Chris were practically dragging the other man. Ezra, trying to stay low, was limping on one leg, using Mrs. Travis as a crutch.
They got a few feet to the barbed wire. They had to lay Buck down and drag him on the muddy, sodden ground. He tried not to make a sound as the movement pulled on his back that felt like he had wrenched it. In the end, Ezra had to go through the same torture. There was more wrong with his right leg now than when he had walked toward the wheelchair oh, so long ago. But he wasn't 'fessing up to what was wrong and they didn't have time to ask.
As soon as they were on the other side, they were on the move again. The two and three inch long thorns of the mesquite bit at them like demon's talons and you couldn't see where you were going to avoid them. Chris, who was no stranger to hunting and camping, couldn't believe the darkness. And it was unnerving. To bump into the occasional, heavy, thick trunked oak tree and never see it coming. And then he stumbled. The ground was suddenly rutted and even softer. He couldn't see the web-like strands of mesquite and vines that he'd been working through.
Vin reappeared then, and it unsettled Larabee even more, realizing that it could have just as easily been one of the terrorists.
All Vin did was help take some of Buck's weight and move forward. Vin didn't stop, so Chris kept going as well.
"Plowed field," Vin explained, recognizing the feel of the land. "Follow me." Still doing his share to support Wilmington, Tanner moved to parallel the field where it met the scrub brush.
The red clay was a viscous matter and stuck on the soles of their shoes up to an inch deep. Pulling his feet out of the thick, sucking ooze was an unimaginable exertion and Larabee's calves were burning like he was running a marathon. He knew it had to be even worse for Mrs. Travis and Ezra. He was about to call for a rest stop even though they'd probably only been moving 20 minutes. Then Vin stopped.
There was a wood structure before them. It wasn't even as tall as Vin, and only covered an area 6 foot x 6 foot if he was being generous.
"Deer blind," Vin whispered. There was satisfaction in his voice. He would have bet Ezra good money that somewhere on the perimeter of this plowed field there would be a blind for hunters to sit and wait for white-tailed deer. He had been afraid it would be up in a tree and worthless to them, but in this part of the country, where there were really no trees tall enough or strong enough to hold a blind, there was a good chance it would sit here on the ground. And here it was.
Vin and Chris led Buck forward, opened the homemade door and maneuvered him, as gently as possible, but not gently enough. He was in considerable pain.
They had hit a goldmine. Since it was the beginning of deer season, the blind was stocked, although that only meant the basics. Chris shoved the supplies to a corner and turned to help JD and Evie position Ezra in the shelter. There wasn't room for all of them.
Vin took the Coleman lantern outside, lit it and quickly moved it back inside the structure. He almost wished he hadn't and by the gasp he heard from JD who was leaning over his shoulder, he wished he hadn't seen either.
Ezra's face was even more swollen and mottled with bruises. His hair was plastered to his neck and scalp by the rain. He was leaning against the thin 2x4's that made up the uninsulated wall of the blind. The blood over his shirt hinted that things were even worse than they looked. He was fighting to stay conscious and quiet, but was rapidly reaching his limit. And now he had a bullet hole in his thigh. One of the bullets that missed Buck had found another mark
"Damn it," Chris growled when he was given the light of the lantern. "Why didn't you say something?" He was looking at a soaking red patch on Ezra's thigh. Even as he took his knife and cut into the cloth, he knew that the blood was from a bullet wound. "How long?" the group supervisor demanded. He wanted to know how long the wound had been unattended.
"It must have happened when the felon opened fire on us from the trunk. I didn't realize what was causing the pain."
Larabee nodded. Between adrenalin and having to move, he might not have realized he'd been hit. Or, he could be lying. It didn't matter now.
"It ain't that bad, Hoss," Vin offered from his position as he watched Larabee tear a sleeve from his shirt and tie off the wound, not a tourniquet, just to try to stop the ooze. Vin didn't know how bad it really was. Should it still be bleeding? Well, they had been moving; not giving it time to coagulate. But he put every bit of encouragement in the statement. He knew that believing you would live was very important in a shooting situation. He was the tactical expert of the group. He had read many studies that some police officers who had seen a lot of death had died or been more critically injured than the wound itself would dictate because they thought they would die if they were shot. The mental activity of never giving up, believing there was help and that a bullet wound is not necessarily fatal were important instructions in police work now. And Vin believed it saved lives.
Vin looked around the inside of the blind. He had hoped for a first aid kit. What he found was little more than a few Band-Aids. No help.
Evie Travis, who had been wearing a pullover sweater all this time pulled it off. The thin blouse underneath wouldn't protect her from the cold, but she was willing to make the sacrifice. She took Larabee's knife and made short work of cutting the sweater to pieces. She used the front to fold into a thin pillow for Ezra and as she maneuvered the man she had gone through so much with into a more comfortable position, she handed the back of the sweater to Larabee for Wilmington to rest back on. One of the sleeves, already wet, she used to try to wash some of the mud and blood from Ezra's face. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," she repeated over and over.
"Mrs. Travis?" Again from his specialized tactical training, Vin had little doubt that the older woman was verging on shock. Traumatized? Who wouldn't be. But she responded to his call and met his eyes in the dim light from the lantern. Vin had set it just high enough to give them light to work by, to delay attracting Anson and his men. Vin let his eyes slide down toward the woman's feet.
She was barefoot. Her panty hose had split and were riding up her calves on both legs. Her feet were covered and caked above the ankles in the gummy red clay and black field soil they'd tromped through. "I was wearing heels. I didn't . . . I couldn't walk . . . couldn't keep up . . .." Silent tears were streaming down her cheeks, she'd made it to her limit and beyond.
Before Vin could say anything, Ezra lifted his heavy arm, gently touched her shoulder and pulled her back to rest on his shoulder, her head nestled under his chin. "Mrs. Travis, you have been truly heroic during this entire ordeal. I assure you my compadres are more than capable of handling the situation for a short time. Consider this, there are four of them, counting Mr. Wilmington who is never out simply because he is down. Surely the four of them can do what the two of us have been accomplishing for this long? Hmmmm?"
Ezra met Chris's eyes and saw that they were full of a gratitude he couldn't express verbally. It wasn't in Chris's nature. He wanted to ask where Josiah and Nathan were, but was afraid to hear the answer. And so he closed his eyes and rested for a moment with the comfort of Evie Travis beside him.
"Chris," Vin said. "JD and I are going to take up cover positions on the perimeter."
Larabee heard the rest although it was left unspoken. Jones would eventually see the lantern light coming through the gaps in the makeshift deer blind. They needed to be ready for him. There was a haunted look in those Texas topaz blue eyes. There was something bothering the younger man. Chris tried to read what was bothering him, but couldn't decipher anything. And he didn't have time to worry about the ones that were mobile. He needed to keep the injured alive.
So all he could do was nod as the two youngest moved into the dark. And then, as if he had predicted it, his attention was drawn back to Buck who was beginning to struggle inside the deer blind. "Hey, hey, Buck, leave the vest on, it'll keep you warm." He didn't want to think, much less say aloud, that the vest might be the only thing holding his old friend together.
Wilmington was fumbling at the Velcro straps that held the vest in place; fighting desperately to get a grip and pull them loose. "Can't . . . breathe . . ."
"Buck?" Wilmington's panic was contagious and Chris couldn't keep it out of his voice. He ripped the Velcro free; not sure if it was what he should do or if it would be better to leave it for support like a splint for a broken bone. He didn't know. "Better?" He hoped above hope.
"Can't . . . breathe . . ." Buck repeated and began to pant.
"Stop it, Buck, stop it. Relax. Slow your breathing. Can you take a deep breath?"
Buck tried and almost came off the ground as his back arched in pain. He couldn't hold back the cry of pain.