Full Moon and Denver Seven
Chapter One - Chapter Four |
Chapter Five - Chapter Seven | Chapter Eight - Chapter
Chapter Eleven - Chapter Thirteen | Chapter Fourteen - Chapter Seventeen | Chapter Eighteen - Chapter Twenty-Three
Their guard knocked on Vin's door precisely at 6:00 A.M. Already awake and annoyed with this whole set up, his response was less than amicable. "What?" he snapped, not bothering to rise from the padded chair he'd dragged next to the large window. The goon, who still didn't have a name to Vin, pushed open the door and stepped half way in.
"It's time to get ready. Mr. Wu is on his way."
Vin scowled, the feeling of working blindfolded keeping him continuously on edge. "Ya can tell Mr. Wu to . . ." his comment was cut off when Ezra pushed his way into the room. After taking in the unusual sight of a rumpled, practically undressed Standish, Vin's mood lightened. The grin that shaped Vin's mouth felt like a long, lost friend. "Hey, Ed, ya look like you been rode hard and put up wet!"
Ezra's narrowed eyes framed an impressive glare, which only made Vin's smile grow larger.
"I will handle this, my good man," Standish growled at the guard. He then slammed the door in the big man's face.
Vin's words were edged with laughter. "You'll never be a morning person, will ya?" Ezra paused just inside the door and took a moment to straighten both his posture and his shirt. Vin pointed a finger and waggled it at his partner's chest. "Yer buttons are crooked," he smirked.
Ezra looked down blearily and started undoing the row of buttons with a growl. "Good God. What an uncivilized hour in which to arise," he grumbled. "It tops off jet lag like a crown of barbed wire."
After watching to make sure Ezra started with the right button, Vin stretched. "Guess things are movin' now, huh? Any ideas what's up yet?"
"None. I do know, however, that you are to suit up, so to speak." Ez flicked his wrist in the area of the garment bag hanging on the knob of the closet door before returning to his mulish buttons. "I shall retrieve caffeinated sustenance from the kitchen while you shower and shave," he said with a yawn. Then he turned to go. "Dawn should be banned from the day."
Vin headed to the bathroom. "Hell no, Ed, it's the freshest part of the day. Nothin's had time to wreck it yet."
As he reached for the doorknob, Standish paused and tilted his head toward Vin, one eye squinted in displeasure. "And I cannot help but feel that this particular day is going to be 'wrecked' in spectacular fashion, Mr. Nicklin." Then he slipped from the room, taking Tanner's tiny store of humor with him.
A half-hour later, Vin stepped from his room feeling uncomfortably like a different person. The provided suit was mostly assembled; the colorful tie undone and draped around his neck and the jacket left behind on the bed. He dropped into the first chair he came to at the table and immediately went to work on the cup of coffee that appeared before him. Pointedly ignoring Wu, the guard and Mr. Ping gathered at the table, Vin, instead, spoke directly to Ezra.
"What now?" he asked.
"Eat," Ezra suggested as he lovingly nursed a steaming mug. "The repast has done much to enlighten my mood as it will yours, I am sure."
Vin accepted the breakfast plate with a grunt.
Wu's voice could not be ignored. "Mr. Nicklin, Mr. Ping tells me you have done well. I would like to hear what I am paying a premium for."
Vin bridled at the tone of the demand. He swallowed his first forkful of food, biting back a nasty retort when he heard his partner coughed softly. Vin reined in his temper.
"Mr. Nicklin?" Ezra prompted with a bit more subtlety.
Vin thought of the words he decided to say. He cleared his throat but the vaguely hoarse quality of both voices was still present when he spoke carefully. "I hear a beer calling my name," he said, reciting one of the recorded phrases he'd heard.
Wu's face remained unchanged and Mr. Ping shifted his eyes toward his boss expectantly. Ezra looked at Vin and arched his eyebrows in an unspoken request to continue.
Vin spoke again. "That's enough of a demonstration. When am I going to work?"
The flash of surprise in Ezra's eyes told Vin that his self constructed sentence passed scrutiny. Mr. Ping looked pleased. Wu's grin, though, gave Vin a feeling of dread.
"I am confidant my Plan A will succeed after all, Mr. Nicklin," Wu said with obvious satisfaction.
"And what, pray tell, was Plan B?" Ezra asked tightly.
A sharp knock on the apartment door stifled any reply Wu may have offered. The guard moved to the door to open it as Wu and Ping rose from the table. Ping collected his briefcase from the floor and Wu verbally released the linguist from service. By the time the pair reached the door, the guard had allowed a young woman to enter.
"I recommend that Mr. Nicklin speak in his new voice from now on," Ping advised with a short bow. He acknowledged the woman with an additional bow and then left the apartment.
The woman turned to Wu and bowed respectfully. Vin noted the Chinese features of her face and wondered what was in the boxy case she carried. When she stood up, she kept her eyes on the floor as Wu spoke rapidly to her in Chinese. When he was done, she scurried into the living room and set the case on the table. With a few sharp snaps, the lid popped open and she began setting up with a concentrated fervor.
The agents exchanged looks and Vin frowned. Wu joined them with a satisfied expression and the beefy guard at heel. He consulted his watch for a moment. "We are right on schedule," he said. "It is time to inform you of your duties." Wu stood at the head of the table, his gaze locked firmly on Vin. "You were selected for a role that only you can fulfill, Mr. Nicklin. Your partner, I feel, has deduced that much and I must applaud his negotiation skills. We are paying you a lot of money for something you will do in the next few hours. Only you are qualified."
Vin gave Ezra a sidelong glance as they waited for the other shoe to drop. They didn't have to wait long.
"Mr. Nicklin, from this point forward, you name is Martin Fitzgerald. In a few minutes you will be taken to another location where you will exchange places with Mr. Fitzgerald and assume his identity."
"What?" Vin yelped as he shot to his feet. "Is that who I've been listenin' to for the past two days?"
"Yes. And you will speak as you were taught." The demand was given with a tone that broached no argument. It was deadly look that confirmed in an instant to Vin that his suspicions about the violence this man could wield were valid.
"Mr. Wu," Ezra said calmly, his voice a balm and his body language relaxed. "Surely you realize that Mr. Nicklin has not had nearly enough preparation time to assume another man's life. What you propose is not only impossible, it is . . . unacceptable."
Wu's eyes danced with evil joy as he finally turned to Ezra. "Mr. St. James, as of yet, you do not know the details. You will soon. This task is not negotiable. Mr. Nicklin will only be required to play this role for a very short while - hours, at the most. All he needs to say are the words 'I refuse to answer on the grounds that I may incriminate myself.'" Wu chuckled frighteningly and shook his head. "Your American laws amuse me to no end and provide a perfect resolution to a problem I have been tasked to solve. We will leave within the hour." Wu produced a feral grin. "You and your partner are getting paid very well for this façade, Mr. Nicklin. I expect positive results. Just do as you are told, when you are told, and we will all be . . . happy."
"So I ain't . . ." Vin started when the guard instantly pulled out a small handgun and pointed it at Ezra. "Hey!" Vin protested.
"You will speak as instructed." The flatness of Wu's tone was chilling.
Vin pressed his lips tightly together, his fists clenched at his side. Ezra's only reaction was to freeze in place with an unreadable expression on his face. Vin tried to draw on Ezra's apparent cool.
"So," Vin said, slowly, "I'm not shooting anyone today?"
"Perhaps not," Wu replied. "The beauty of all of this is that if this switch doesn't work, we still can proceed with the assassination." He turned hi dark eyes to Ezra. "Plan B. I cannot fail this task. It is perfect save for one last detail." Wu raised a hand in the woman's direction. Both Vin and Ezra's heads turned in her direction. "She will now cut your hair."
"What? No way!" Vin took a step back and raised his chin in defiance. Within a heartbeat's time, a shot exploded and Ezra tipped backward to the floor with a yelp. Vin automatically crouched and reached for his non-existent gun, freezing in a defensive stance when the guard took a step forward and leveled the gun between Ezra's eyes.
Gasping, Ezra sat up with his hand pressed over the side of his face. Blood trickled from between his fingers. "It's all right, Mr. Nicklin. He has merely nicked my ear but I daresay he cannot miss from his current position."
"He didn't miss from his former position, Mr. St. James." Wu stated evenly. "You may want to keep that in mind as you decide what your next move will be, Mr. Nicklin." He held Vin's eyes in a challenging stare.
Fury built inside Vin as he realized his helplessness in his situation. He could feel the anger burning through his veins.
Ezra's voice registered in Vin's mind and he backed off a step, reluctantly breaking Wu's gaze and turning to his partner. The bodyguard's stance didn't waver. Although he must have been extremely pissed off, Ezra managed to show a calm demeanor even though blood ran down one side of his face.
Meanwhile, Vin and Wu's hard eyes were locked in a silent battle of wills, neither one willing to release. Vin stood rock firm in a stance that suggested attack. Wu's posture was solid and straight, his guard's gun speaking for him. Seconds dragged by, and eternity seeming to pass before Vin spared his partner a questioning look before returning his cutting glare to Wu..
Slowly, Ezra rose from the floor, one bloody hand pressuring his injured ear, and moved smoothly to Vin's side with a reassuring nod. His voice was pitched low and even, as if to calm a wild animal. "I realize the significance of your tresses, Mr. Nicklin," Ezra said in calm sympathy, even with the guard's gun barrel floating in front of his face. "I want to assure you that you are still the same man without them. You are not diminished." Vin finally turned and faced his partner, knowing Wu's man wouldn't hesitate put Ez down. "Mr. Nicklin," Ezra said again. "Please."
Vin's fists finally began to relax as he considered Ezra's words. Finally, Vin inhaled deeply through his flared nose and visibly relaxed. The cold steel dropped its bead on Ezra. The gun quickly slipped away and the guard stepped forward, arm extended to take Vin's elbow.
"I'll do it," Vin snapped, yanking his arm from the goon's grip. "No one touches it until I say."
After a moment, Wu ducked his head, conceding the point. Ezra snatched a napkin from the breakfast table and pressed it to his ear. The woman, eyes wide with obvious terror, came forward with a pair of scissors at Wu's demand. Her hand visibly trembled.
"No," Vin growled. "My way."
He strode to the kitchen and pulled a knife from a butcher block. The guard immediately laid his hand on the butt of his gun in response. Quickly moving to his partner's side Ezra spoke lowly for Vin's ears only as, again, Vin defiantly held Wu's stare.
"I am so very sorry," Ezra said in a near whisper. "I know what your hair means to you."
"It's all right," Vin clearly said in his new voice. "It's only hair." Only then Vin dropped his eyes and retreated to his bedroom with Ezra close behind. Once inside, he closed the door and turned to his partner. "Let me see," he said.
"Just a scratch, I am sure," Ezra said, brushing Vin's hand away as he removed the napkin.
Vin looked closer. "Just nicked the top. Once it stops bleeding, it shouldn't be noticeable. Sorry, Ez."
"You have nothing what so ever to be sorry about," Ezra sighed, dropping on the bed. He dabbed at his wound and looked up at Vin. "I am regretful about your hair."
Vin mutely nodded his thanks. "What's he up to? How can I possibly pass as someone else? On the phone, sure, maybe even in video, but in person?"
Ezra only shrugged and sighed. Vin shook his head in resignation and went to the large picture window, slowly drawing the silky drapes aside. He looked out at the sun and the sky and lowered himself to his knees, sitting back on his heels with this back to his partner. His hands rested on his thighs, the knife's handle held in one hand while the blade rested flat across the other palm. As Vin stared out the window, he softly recited something too low for Ezra to hear. Then, Vin held the knife out in front of him and he said a few more words. As he continued to softly chant rhythmic words, he gathered handfuls of hair, slowly sawing across it until the locks were released from the rest. Before each handful was dropped to the floor, he held it up to the sun and spoke few words in another language. The ritual repeated until there was nothing left touching his collar. He'd angled the blade so that what remained was feathered against his head.
Then Vin stood and faced his partner.
Ezra studied him for a moment, his green eyes evaluating what was before him. "You look younger, less threatening," he said in summation. "You don't look like Vin Tanner anymore." He sighed and reached up, lightly brushing some loose hair from Vin's shoulder. "I am sorry, my friend," Ezra said softly as he did so. Vin gave him a short nod, and, without another word, stepped around him and exited the room hoping there were no more surprises. He heard Ezra following close behind.
When they entered the living room the woman motioned Vin to sit on the coffee table. She threw a towel over his shoulders and began to expertly shape what remained on Vin's head. As she worked, Vin heard Ezra catch his breath and shifted his eyes to one side where he saw his partner staring wide-eyed at a photograph. After a moment, the picture was shoved in front of his face.
Vin was staring back at himself from the photo. And he had short hair. And a suit. And he was smiling!
Vin's felt his eyes grow huge. His mouth worked a moment, trying to find adequate words. "This is Martin Fitzgerald?" he croaked.
Wu chuckled somewhere behind him. "I see you have finally seen the whole plan. It is remarkable, is it not??"
Ezra stepped in front of Vin, holding the photo next to Vin's face. His eyes darted back and forth from one to the other. "This is astonishing," he said. Vin glared at him. "Now that I know that Mr. Nicklin, and Mr. Nicklin alone, is the only person able to fulfill this role I am distressed to realize that the rules of supply and demand point out that we sold out too low." He faced Wu. "I understand now why you did not tell us everything. Bravo, Mr. Wu. You brokered an excellent deal for yourself. We, however, have missed a lucrative opportunity." He handed the photo to Vin. "What we are getting is not enough for this . . . unique . . . opportunity."
"What has Fitzgerald done to you?" Vin demanded.
Wu's reply was void of its previous humor. "That is none of your concern."
"What's gonna happen to him after this? Where will he be while I'm him?"
"Again, none of your concern." Wu's voice had taken a frightening edge. "All you need do is your job."
It didn't take Vin long to figure that Fitzgerald was not long for this world.
The woman was skilled and quick. Her eyes continually darted from the picture of Fitzgerald to her live model as she worked the shears, then, finally satisfied, applied a gel that made Vin's nose wrinkle in displeasure. She removed the plastic shoulder apron and finished by brushing Vin's shoulders and neck with a soft, full brush. Standing a step back she gave him a tiny smile and bowed.
Vin stood, his hand immediately going to the back of his bare neck. He felt chilled. Then he tilted his head sideways toward Wu and glared at him.
The man grinned wolfishly. "Perfect," he said with shining eyes. "Now we must go. Get your things."
Dismissed and feeling irritatingly helpless, Vin and Ezra retreated to Vin's room to get the suit jacket and Vin's rifle case. Before donning the jacket Vin ran a trembling hand through his newly shorn hair and ground his teeth together. He began to working the tie with shaking hands, swearing softly as the material refused to do his bidding.
Ezra had been watching silently but after a second round of increasingly foul language, he stepped forward and gently slapped down Vin's fumbling fingers and quickly working the tie into acceptable form. The guard handed him an empty shoulder holster, which the agent put on. Then Vin slipped on the jacket and shrugged back his clothes all around. Finally, he tugged nervously at the collar, feeling decidedly uncomfortable.
"Armani suits you, Mr. Nicklin," Ezra said evenly. "You could be wearing much worse, I assure you." Then, quietly and in deep thought, said, "This is a most creative ensemble. The tie is remarkable." He raised his eyes and met Vin's troubled gaze. "You can relax and walk in confidence, my friend. You look like a true gentleman."
Vin scowled and dropped his hands. "I just don't like feelin' outta control. Makes me fidgety."
Ezra frowned and stepped forward. His hands reached out and flattened the jacket lapels. "I do not believe you need a reason to fidget. It still amazes me how you can remain completely immobile when you are awaiting a shot when, otherwise, you have the outer calm of a Tazmanian devil."
Vin's scowl transformed into a delighted smile. "Hey, you actually got something out of those Looney Tunes I forced ya to watch!"
Ezra let out a long suffering sigh as he put finishing touches on the jacket. He slapped Vin's hands down as they rose to again fiddle with the lapels, and then stepped back. "That experience has been blessedly exorcised from my memory, I assure you. My comment is derived from my actual observation of the animal."
A look of awe crossed Vin's features. "You sayin' there really is a Tazmanian devil?"
A soft knock on the bedroom door set them in motion. "You had best start enunciating your words as Martin Fitzgerald. You can use the practice."
"Yeah, yeah," Vin replied, distracted. He'd retrieved his rifle case and opened it up on the bed. "Guess it's show time, huh?" He flipped on the GPS switch, wanting to say more but fully expected that the room was wired for sound. He closed the lid and took the case in hand. Before stepping to the door, the agents paused and their eyes met.
This was it. And they could only hope that the rest of the team would be there to help pick up the pieces. Ezra put his inscrutable game face in place and motioned Vin to take the lead with a gallantly raised arm.
Four of them gathered in the living room. - Vin, Ezra, the stalwart guard and Mr. Wu, who wore a smugly satisfied look. Vin thought he looked like the proverbial cat that had eaten the canary... or would soon eat it. And he couldn't help but think that he was the feathered target.
Jack raced through the streets of the city as fast as he was able. It had taken much longer than they had anticipated obtaining the address where Martin was sequestered. Part of him was happy to know how close-to-the-vest that information was held but the other part was furious at the wasted time it had taken to get the location. They didn't know who they could trust, so the Vin/Martin situation had been kept within the two teams. A phone call from Larabee's Federal was what finally freed the address.
All the while Jack could see the growing heat behind Larabee's eyes. Jack fully understood the festering anger - this man beside him was a leader and between the pressure of the situation and lack of sleep, he had to be ready to explode. Instead, he sat in the passenger seat working his jaw to the point where Jack expected to hear the snap of broken teeth. Jack knew exactly how he felt. Martin was to be on the stand in just over an hour and they were still scrambling to initiate the ATF's leader's plan.
A glance in the rearview mirror showed Agents Wilmington and Taylor staring out of their respective windows. Things were moving too slow for any of them; the tension in the vehicle was stifling and thick.
Once they reached the correct neighborhood, Jack slowed down to look at the address. It was a quiet street with signs of young families scattered about the various yards. When they found the safe house Jack felt that the car load of men looked rather conspicuous, but it was too late to worry about it now. He threw the vehicle into park a few doors down from the actual address and told everyone to pull out their identification - the marshals had not been notified of their visit and they would have to be appeased before anyone set foot in the house. Jack knew he'd have to keep Taylor close to control his mouth, and deduced that Wilmington was the calming influence for Larabee.
Jack once again wondered if he would be able to control himself as well as Chris seemed if their situation was reversed.
Buck erupted out of the car first, instantly placing himself next to Larabee who looked like he was ready to take on any comers. There wasn't a word spoken - the glare Jack could see on Larabee's face was enough and then some. Jack joined Danny, who was standing outside the car.
"Damn, Jack," Danny said lowly as he watched the pair. "I'm glad they're on our side."
"Me, too." Jack gently backhanded Taylor's elbow. "Come on. Let's go see Martin."
Danny nodded and they joined the others. Buck strategically placed himself to keep his boss from charging ahead, thus allowing Jack and Danny to lead. The four of them were met at the porch by two very able-bodied, casually dressed men. They all showed their identification.
"I'm Agent Fitzgerald's boss. I need to speak with him. Call your supervisor and he'll clear us." The big marshal that stood before them hadn't said a word but kept his palm on the gun under his arm. His other hand touched the device lodged in his ear. He cocked his head and then looked closely at Jack's ID card.
"We were notified when you drove up, Agent Malone. You're clear to enter but marshals will be in sight all times. And you will check your weapons just inside the door." The big man waited in their path waiting for a verbal indication of understanding.
Larabee started to protest but Buck said something too low for Jack to hear and Chris snapped his mouth shut. They started forward, passing between the two marshals, following Jack and Danny up the front steps. As they reached the porch, the front door opened and revealed two more marshals inside, flanking the doorway. The four agents entered and handed over their weapons in the entry way. After a quick pat down, the marshals checked their identifications against their faces and were finally satisfied. One marshal nodded to the other and the second man crossed the small living room and disappeared down a shadowed hallway. The group heard a short knock on a door.
Jack, Chris, Buck and Danny trickled into the living room, the depressing darkness jaundiced yellow by a pair of lamps. The remaining marshal made sure there were no openings in the drapes covering the large, barred front window. The agents heard a short exchange of words followed by muted footfall and then Martin Fitzgerald stepped into the room with a marshal lingering behind.
He wore a dark brown suit with fine pin stripes, a pale gold shirt with its own fine lines in box pattern and a tie that mixed light green, orange, and the same gold and brown of the suit and shirt. Somehow it all worked, Jack decided, but that tie took definitely took center stage and was typical Fitzgerald style. Martin smiled at the sight of his teammates. Jack was about to greet his agent when he heard the two ATF men catch their breath.
"Good lord," Buck breathed. "It's even creepier in person!"
Martin's eyes shifted from Jack to the staring strangers and his smile faltered. He paused just inside the living room and looked to Danny with a slight frown. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Jeeze, he even sounds like Vin!" Buck whispered, clearly shocked.
Chris, however, silently studied the man before him, more unnerved by the sight of him than he cared to admit. As he watched Martin Fitzgerald watch him, Chris tried to discern exactly why it was so disturbing to face Vin's doppelganger.
"He surely don't dress like Junior, though," Buck added. "Damn. That's some tie."
"What?" Martin asked, clearly confused and more than a little wary as he took a small step back and absently fingered the silky tie. His frown deepened as he studied the strangers, his eyes flicking between the two and them before settling on Chris. "Who?" After a long moment he looked back to Jack. "You mind filling me in, here? I have to leave for court in about twenty minutes."
Danny smiled lopsidedly and spared Chris and Buck a sideways glance. "You ain't gonna believe this one, ese," he laughed. Martin's suspicious expression changed back to one of confusion. Danny stepped up and pulled him to a couch where they dropped down, side by side.
Jack motioned for the rest of them to sit. Chris and Buck - unable to tear their eyes from Martin - ended up together on a small couch across from him. The ATF team leader finally broke into a grin, which loosened the tense grip on his frame. "I can't wait for these two to meet," Buck said.
"What? Meet who?" Martin's tone was turning angry. He glared at the two men then turned the frustrated look aside to Danny. "You mind filling me in?"
"He's about a patient as Vin, too," Buck said lowly to Chris.
This caused Danny to chuckle. Martin's eyes narrowed and his lips pressed into an angry thin line as he speared Buck with a glare. Again, he couldn't hold the gaze as it drifted back yet again to Chris.
It was then that Chris figured it out. He couldn't read this man like he did Vin; the unspoken understanding between them was simply not there and the emptiness left him stunned.
Jack sat in a chair between and at the end of the facing couches. He leaned forward, forearms on knees, the action drawing Martin's attention back to him. "Martin, we seem to have a situation brewing. First, look at this." He pulled a folded packet of papers from his inner coat pocket and tossed it down on the table separating the couches. The packet flipped open as it hit the table and Vin Tanner's face looked out from the first page.
Martin blinked. "What the hell . . ." he said softly, lifting the packet slowly.
"That is Agent Vin Tanner of ATF," Jack said, his voice pitched low so the marshals could not overhear.
"And he's part of my team," Chris added in the same quiet manner. He managed to shelf his unease and get down to the business of protecting these men and getting his friend back. "He's been working undercover with another agent and we believe he's here to take your place in court today."
As soon as he saw his twin's face staring at him from the packet, all the other voices seemed to recede in Martin's ears in the wake of a powerful vision. He picked up the photo, the face nudging a memory.
It was a reoccurring dream he'd had as a child - he saw his face in a mirror looking back at him as the mirror shattered. There were screams and crying, and a woman's voice; it was never very clear, but the dream had plagued him for years. It finally faded about the time he remembered starting school, so he would have been around five years old. It seemed impossible that he should recall that memory, but there it was, again, clear in his mind's eye.
He traced the cheek of the picture before him with his fingertip. It was his own visage, but . . . tougher. Longer hair, obviously, with an illusion of roughness that his own reflection lacked. As he stared at the photo, the dream voices whispered again - begging. The female voice in his dream was begging.
Jack's voice snapped him back to the now. "Um . . . yeah?" he said.
Chris and Jack exchanged glances. "Did you hear me?"
". . . No . . ." Martin looked down to see that his fingertips were still on the face in the photo. He immediately curled his hand into a loose fist and sat up, shaking his head. He faced Jack. "What?"
"Do you know him?" Chris asked suspiciously when he noticed the agent's distracted stare. When Martin didn't reply, Chris continued. "My name is Chris Larabee and this is Buck Wilmington." Martin turned his attention to them, still shaken inside. "We're from the Denver office and Vin is part of my team and a good friend. He was working undercover when he was contacted to take another job outside his current assignment. It was an assassination."
Martin gaped, his attention now sharp. "An assassination? Mine?"
"We think that's how it started," Buck continued, "but someone must have noticed the resemblance and now we think the plan has changed."
Martin's brow furrowed and he turned his gaze back to the photo. Suddenly, he felt very claustrophobic and his throat tightened, making breathing difficult. He loosened his tie and noticed how his hands shook. The paper rattled in his other hand and suddenly he felt uncomfortably hot.
"Martin?" Danny said softly. "You okay?"
Martin shot to his feet, his knees suddenly watery. "I need some air," he croaked, dropping the photo on the table. As he backed away, the others stood and Danny moved between them and Martin.
"Martin," Danny said lowly, grabbing his forearm. "You need to get a grip. We don't have a lot of time. Come on." He propelled Martin into the kitchen, motioning the others to stay back. Once in the small kitchen space Danny pushed him into a corner and retrieved a glass from a cabinet. "You gotta pull yourself together, bro. I know it's a shock, but there's no time to freak out." He filled the glass and shoved it into Martin's hand. "Drink."
Martin took a sip, the coolness in his throat just distracting enough to derail his frantic thoughts. "I . . . I think I know him, Danny," he whispered harshly. "I think I've seen him before . . ."
Danny's brow arched. "I'd really like to know more, Marty, but there's no time. Your life is at stake here. Can you focus for me?"
Martin's eyes found his partner and he made an effort to calm his thoughts. "Yeah . . . yeah. Sure." He ran his fingers through his hair and gulped. "What's all this about?"
"We believe that Tanner was contracted to take your place at the Full Moon trial. The only thing we can figure is that he is supposed to lie or plead the 5th or something, as you, to stop the trial."
It took a few seconds for that idea to sink in and then Martin realized his brain was engaged once again. "So . . . if I was to plead the 5th, Zhan would refuse to testify and Liang would get off."
"Yeah. But what's important here is what happens after the trial. You'd have to disappear. That way, they could never tie the Triad into the mistrial. You would never be able to tell anyone that it wasn't you. You'd have to disappear, Martin, to maintain the charade after the trial."
Martin's thoughts began to fall along rational lines again as he considered Danny's words. "If it looked like I committed suicide, there would be no suspicious death to investigate. It would never be tied to the Triad or Full Moon. I would look dirty . . . guilty, even."
"Exactly. Or to be even safer, you'd simply disappear and never be found. "
After a few long seconds of heavy silence, Martin asked, "How did you find out about this? Have you spoken to . . . Tanner?"
Danny leaned against the counter and ran his hand through his hair with a sigh. "No, we haven't. He's in deep and can't get directly in touch with his team. This is all a guess, but it's the only thing that makes sense. Somewhere between here and the courthouse we think they will make a switch, Tanner for you. That means that the team that picks you up from here is compromised - they are Triad bought and placed. It would be the only way to pull it off. It's the only thing that makes sense. Larabee and his team figured it out early this morning."
"Wow," Martin breathed. He opened his mouth to speak again but was unable to frame a sentence. "Wow," he breathed again.
"You ain't kiddin', partner. When we saw those photos, we about had a collective heart attack. Samantha nearly fainted."
That caused Martin to chuckle nervously, dispelling some of his queasiness. "How'd she like the hair?" he asked, his stomach still giddy with butterflies.
Danny looked thoughtful. "Actually, I think she kinda digged it," he said with a cocky smile. "So did Viv. They whispered something to each other and they both giggled."
Martin's eyes widened. "Giggled? They actually giggled?"
"Yup." Danny smacked Martin's shoulder and nodded his head toward the living room. "Come on, man. There's not a lot of time. You got a grip now?"
Martin nodded and downed another swallow of water before following Danny from the kitchen. When he settled once again in the living room, he was able to think clearly. The lingering stares from Larabee and Wilmington were easier to accept. He was able to push the meeting of his twin aside and focus on surviving the day, or at least this morning.
Larabee dropped a worn map on the table and found a point at the edge of Central Park. "We think they've been holed up there for the last two days teaching Tanner to sound like you. He's gonna have to control his accent to pass as you."
"Accent?" Martin asked.
"Texas." Buck replied. "You can take the boy from Texas, but not Texas from the boy."
Larabee's smile was brittle and short lived. "One of our team has been sitting outside the apartment complex since we found it. We can't pinpoint which apartment it is, so we just have to wait and see if Vin or Ez can signal somehow when they're on the move." He leaned in. The others copied his action. "The switch has to be made near the courthouse.
"We have to assume that Vin and Ez will make sure the switch isn't made so you get to court. We'll have a team following Vin, a team following you that will take the dirty marshal escort into custody, a team in the courthouse to make sure there are no warnings about your testifying getting out and an assault team standing by to take the perpetrator of this whole fandango into custody - we hope that person will be with Vin and Ez and he'll be a direct tie to the Triad."
What Larabee didn't say struck Martin hard. He forced the team leader to meet his gaze. "What you're saying is that Tanner will make sure I get to the trial, but after that, his life is forfeit if you can't find him or they lose you after the switch."
Buck's lips tightened and Larabee's eyes grew hard. "We do not take Vin's life lightly. We will find him, and if we're delayed for some unforeseeable reason, he and his partner will stay alive until we do. I know them."
Martin could see Wilmington's eyes shifting between the two of them. Oddly, as frightening as Larabee's eyes and demeanor were, Martin did not feel cowed. He held the man's eyes more easily that he held Jack's. The connection felt - solid. "I won't trade one life for another," he said.
"You won't," Larabee immediately assured him. Martin believed it.
"What's his partner's name? Ez?" Martin asked. He saw Larabee's eyes soften as their agreement was settled.
"His cover name is Edward St. James. His real name is Ezra Standish."
"He'll be the one talkin' with the $10 words," Buck added. "And Vin's cover name is Mark Nicklin but I think you'll figure out pretty quick which one he is."
Jack laughed shortly and nodded. "Yeah, I think so. Well, Martin? You ready for this?" He glanced at his watch. "Your ride should be here soon. We need to be out of the way."
"So why don't we stop this now?" Martin had to ask. "Blow the whistle on this now and you take me to court."
"Because that would tip them immediately and not only would they kill you, we'd have to assume they'd kill my men, too. And with this plan, we have a good chance of getting the man that arranged all this as well as get solid evidence of Triad involvement."
Martin nodded, understanding that it was a gamble that could result in a huge payoff. The chance couldn't be passed up.
Jack and Chris stood, moving next to Martin, who sat with his head between his hands studying the photo of Vin. "This is crazy," he whispered.
"Look," Chris said firmly, eyes turning hard. "I have two agents at risk. I need to know that you can do this, and I need to know now."
The hard edge of Larabee's demand seared the air, causing an immediate reaction from Martin. The agent's head snapped up, eyes instantly blazing.
"No need to worry about me," he replied sharply. "I'll do what needs to be done."
His quick reply coupled with the fact that Fitzgerald didn't back down from Chris' intimidating glare only made the ATF team leader smile crookedly - Martin got the feeling that the man wasn't surprised by the reaction.
"Yeah," he said. "I think you will." Larabee rested his hand on Martin's shoulder for a moment before moving away to join Buck near the front door.
"You gonna be okay?" Jack queried softly.
Martin tipped his head in Jack's direction and nodded. "Yeah. I'm good."
Jack patted him firmly on the back. "Couldn't imagine being in your shoes at the moment. I wouldn't put you through this if I weren't sure you could handle it."
"Thanks, Jack." Martin was encouraged by his team leader's faith in him. There were times when he wondered; he'd pulled some pretty bonehead moves since being on Jack's team.
"You'll do fine, Martin. We'd wire you, but we don't know if they have surveillance detection devices."
"I just hope we all get out of this alive."
Jack firmly gripped his shoulder. "We'll do our best to see that happen."
With that, Jack and the other three left him to his thoughts.
The teams rapidly dispersed to their assigned locations when the electronic ping of the GPS caused Chris to scramble for the receiver. "Atta boy, Vin," he muttered as he opened the viewing screen. He was in Jack's car outside Vin's apartment building. Buck and Samantha were in a car near Martin's safe house to follow the transporting vehicle.
Nathan was with the ATF mobile backup unit ready to deploy at Chris' word. Vivian and JD were in the courthouse keeping an eye on the court audience. Josiah and Danny were also at the court house, keeping an eye outside the courtroom to keep an eye on Martin when he arrived.
Chris got on the radio to Buck. "Vin's activated the GPS. We'll have no problem following them."
"Good for Junior. That'll make this part a lot easier. Let me know where you end up."
"Sure thing." Chris turned his attention to the building. "The parking garage has two exits."
"The other exit goes to a one way street in the wrong direction," Jack reasoned. "I'm sure they'll come out on this side."
Chris could only nod and impatiently wait. He tried to visualize what was going on inside the building to ease his anxiety, but it didn't help. Adrenalin began to build in his system. After what seemed like an eternity, the GPS signal appeared to be directly in front of them. "There," he barked, looking up. "That white sedan."
Jack dropped the car into gear and pulled into traffic behind the vehicle. "Looks like a custom limo." He read off the plate and Chris got on the phone with JD, relaying the info. In less than a minute, there was a reply.
"Uh, huh," Chris said, jotting the information down. "Thanks." He hung up. "JD says the vehicle comes back to Argon Enterprises. Sound familiar? I think that was the same group that rented the jet."
Jack shook his head; it was probably another angle to the already complicated Full Moon Shipping case. "It must fit in somewhere. I'll contact the DA's investigator -"
At first, the sharp reply chaffed and Jack nearly snapped a challenging rebuttal. Instead, he realized that he and Chris Larabee were two men used to being in charge and to work together, both of them had to consider the big picture. Jack also grudgingly admitted to himself that Larabee had the most undercover field experience between them. Now that this plan was in play, Larabee was the better one to take the lead. Jack reined himself in and let Chris' instincts lead them for now.
The white sedan weaved smoothly through traffic, expertly avoiding the major trouble spots and arriving at its apparent destination without any delays. As the vehicle pulled into a private parking garage and disappeared, Jack passed the entrance and took a spin around the block. They ascertained that there was only one exit and one entrance so Jack parked as far away as they could while keeping the exit in sight. Chris relayed their position to the others with the wrist radios Jack had dug up.
"This garage is six blocks from the court house and stands between it and the safe house. I'm sure this is where the switch will take place," Jack observed.
"Guess we'll see." Chris' words sounded tight with worry.
It wasn't long before Buck reported that Martin was on his way.
It was a quarter to nine when Jack and Chris observed a heavily tinted, black Suburban entered the parking structure. One call to Buck confirmed the plate to be the U.S. Marshal vehicle that carried Martin. "That's it," Jack confirmed out loud. "Martin's in play now. Wilmington and Samantha are set up on the other side of the entrance."
Chris growled. "I don't like being this far away."
"I know, but we don't want to tip our hand."
"I still don't have to like it."
"I just hope your men can pull this off."
Larabee's brief glance burned. "They can and will. I have no doubts."
It was a long stretch of minutes watching and waiting, ears tuned for telling sounds of gunshots or shouting, but the atmosphere remained as innocuous as a New York City street could be. Finally, the large SUV exited the garage and turned Buck and Samantha's way. Jack expelled a breath that had been caught in his chest.
"There he goes," Chris whispered. "All nice and quiet. Looks like it worked."
Jack immediately got on the radio. "Sam, stay on the Suburban and make sure everything's okay. Call me when they deliver Martin. You and Wilmington take down the marshals away from the courthouse but let me know before you act." He released the transmit button. After getting Spade's verbal confirmation, he started the car and waited for their quarry. Chris' eyes were glued to the GPS tracker.
"It's moving," Chris said. The white sedan exited the garage shortly thereafter. "There we go."
Jack fell in behind the vehicle. "I'd feel much better if I had an idea where we were going."
"You 'n me both," Chris muttered darkly. "I just hope we can nail a major player in this game and make someone pay for us having to make this trip." He glanced at Jack. "From what I've read, Liang and his ilk manage to cover their tracks very well and we may have nothing with just a couple of musclemen in that limo."
"And your agents," Jack reminded him, probably more sharply than he intended. For a moment, he thought Larabee would explode. The heat he felt sizzling his direction was practically palatable.
"My team feels the same way," ATF agent growled. "We intend to take someone down. If you have a problem with that, I need to know now."
Jack felt his ire rise several notches before reminding himself of the experience under Larabee's belt. To be as successful as this team was, their leader couldn't be as cavalier as he sounded about their welfare. And this was not the time to bicker the point; Jack had to trust the man's instincts. It wasn't easy, though - Martin was at risk.
He gave a sharp nod and readjusting his grip on the steering wheel allowed him to release tension. When he next spoke, he managed to soften his tone. "Worst case scenario gives us until Martin testifies," Jack calculated, defusing most of the tension. "That's a half hour at the most. Best case scenario is that the no one knows Fitzgerald testified until the noon news. How about we simply follow for now; maybe in that time we can get a solid Triad connection for the kidnapping."
"Agreed." Jack's olive branch was accepted with Larabee's short response.
Jack sped up to make a light. "Then our deadline's thirty minutes."
"I'll only be happy if I can nail the asshole that put my agents through this," Chris immediately responded. "Noon."
Jack's glare rivaled Chris'. Not wanting this man to show him up in the self control department, Jack swallowed his initial response and, instead, compromised. "How about we see how far we can push this and take it from there."
Larabee's anger was thinly disguised. "Fine."
Compromise was obviously something either leader was used to accepting.
After a few thick moments, Chris let out a snort and his lips cranked into a tight smile.
"What now?" Jack growled, his grip again tight on the steering wheel.
"I've gone from the Magnificent Seven to the Dirty Dozen."
The courtroom was packed.
JD, seated on the aisle in the third row, hoped his anxiety didn't show and again wished he had Josiah's calm spirit. He stole a glance Vivian seated to his right, envious of her outward coolness. She must have felt his gaze because she turned and gave him a comforting smile. JD exhaled and felt a little tension drain away.
He mentally ran through the sketchy plan again - Travis, as a retired federal judge, had managed to bend the ear of the trial judge here and brought him up to date on the possible scenarios that could transpire in the courtroom. The trial judge allowed Josiah and Danny access to the inner courthouse areas and was well aware of JD and Vivian's presence in the audience, and was alone in that knowledge.
If Fitzgerald showed up, Josiah and Danny would keep an eye on him to and from the courtroom. Meanwhile, JD and Viv would try to pick out any Triad affiliates in the audience who would try to raise an alarm at the testimony and stop them.
If Vin showed up, things would be a bit trickier. They would allow Liang's plan to play out, and then follow Vin after he testified to try and locate Fitzgerald. The judge would declare a mistrial when it was proven that is was not Martin testifying. That was the tricky part because when he made that declaration was rather vague. It depended on what happened. Luckily, this particular judge relished a challenge.
JD was pulled from his thoughts with a clank of chains. Mee Liang was escorted to the Defense table from the prisoner's entrance near the bench. Although he'd been allowed to wear one of his own expensive suits, there was no compromise about the leg shackles. The fact that he was escorted in by no less than three uniforms spoke volumes; the court expected trouble.
The jury was already seated when the District Attorney and his team filed in. They walked in line down the aisle to the front of the room. A marshal opened the gate for them, and the team wordlessly settled at the Prosecution table. No one outside the twelve agents and the judge knew what was supposed to happen - well, themselves and Liang's bunch. JD knew that anyone in this room was suspect at this point.
JD shifted in his seat. He found his eyes constantly drifting between the judge's entrance and the wall clock above it. He checked his own watch for the umpteenth time just as the minute hand swept to one slash past nine.
The bailiff's deep voice made him jump.
The courtroom, which had been humming with whispers, grew completely silent. Then there was a rustling wave when everyone stood as one with the entrance of the Judge.
"The courtroom in now is session, Judge Scott McKinley presiding. Please remember to keep cell phones and pagers turned off inside the courtroom."
A tall, grey haired man swept through the Judge's door behind the raised dais and claimed the bench. Black robes settled royally around him as he immediately sat and gathered the papers before him in a no-nonsense style. Only then he raised penetrating brown eyes and scanned the room. Opening statements had been the previous Friday so he started right in to the meat of the case and fixed his gaze on the District Attorney's table.
"The prosecution will call its first witness," he announced, leaning back in expectation.
An attorney stood at the Prosecution table and spoke clearly. "The people call Martin Fitzgerald to the stand."
JD felt his heart surge and turned to face the back of the courtroom where Martin Fitzgerald was to make his entrance, studying the faces in the audience as he did so. Would he be able to discern Fitzgerald from Tanner? Would anyone that mattered in this audience be able to prior to his testimony?
A moment of silence stretched into long seconds. The audience shifted nervously. Faint voices were heard outside the double doors at the back of the court. A uniformed bailiff stationed by the doors glanced through the small viewing window and pushed a door open. The muted voices became clearer and Martin Fitzgerald strode confidently into the room, his eyes locked straight ahead and closely followed by two uniformed bailiffs. JD studied the agent when he entered and was dismayed that he was unable to discern if it was Vin or Martin.
Danny was the last to enter the court room, shoving the door open again when it was inches from the frame. JD noticed that his temporary team member was winded as he parked himself to one side of the doorway. Danny found JD's eyes and shook his head with a slight shrug. He didn't know who was taking the stand, either and that fact made JD feel a little better in one way but worse in another.
JD turned his attention back to the witness and worked to school his face into neutrality. When the man had passed, JD noticed that he looked a little pale and there were sooty smudges hanging under his eyes, but his jaw was firmly set. If this was Fitzgerald, the similarity to Vin in determination alone was astounding.
The witness pushed open the gate at the head of the aisle and walked to the dais without pause. He stepped up into the witness box and raised his right hand as instructed. As he was sworn in, JD studied him intently, trying to get a clue on what to expect. JD had only seen the two together in photographs; seeing one of the two in the flesh and not being able to tell who it was, was disturbing. JD glanced at Vivian and read the woman's hooded eyes instantly - she wasn't sure who this was, either.
The swearing in was over and the witness sat. JD tried to read the witness's sharp, blue eyes, but they were deceptively veiled.
"Please tell the court your name and occupation."
"My name is Martin Fitzgerald and I am an FBI agent with the missing person's unit in Manhattan."
JD blinked, surprised at the Vin-sounding voice. What had he expected to hear?
"In your own words, tell us what happened on the night of September 2, 2006."
The witness dropped his head momentarily to regard his hands clasped loosely together in his lap. JD could see him take a deep breath to get focus. Would Vin plead the 5th Amendment or would Martin tell his story? Had their hastily pulled-together plan worked?
JD turned his attention to Liang, seated about fifteen feet in front of him. The crime boss looked calm and completely relaxed. JD's eyes narrowed angrily when he noted the hint of a smile grow with each silent second that passed.
The quiet was swollen with anxiety. "Agent Fitzgerald?" the attorney urged.
Finally, the witness lifted his head and straightened, his arms crossed low across his abdomen. Was it in a self protective manner or one of defiance? For JD, the heavy anticipation thickening in the air made it hard to breathe.
And then the witness pinned Liang with a piercing stare and spoke directly to him.
"I worked late that night and didn't leave the office until after 8:30 . . . "
Vivian's smile relaxed her whole face - their Martin was safe. In contrast, Liang's face changed from confidence to bewilderment, and then became tight with rage. JD immediately looked to the back of the courtroom as two men slipped out to the hall with Danny right behind. He tapped Vivian's arm and she acknowledged his leaving.
From here, Vivian would keep an eye on Fitzgerald.
Josiah had been standing by in the hallway and the trio of agents quickly overtook the two retreating men in the courthouse hallway. One had opened his cell phone and was poised to dial when Danny snatched it away. "Don't you know that reception in here stinks?" Then he shoved the man to the wall.
Josiah relieved the other man of his cell before the shock of their appearance wore off and positioned the surprised man against the wall next to his partner. As the two men began to protest, Danny shushed them and pulled out a set of cuffs. Josiah already had his man cuffed and was patting him down.
JD called Chris as the protesting pair was hustled to a holding room, hoping that stopping this pair from checking in gave Vin and Ezra the time they needed to extricate themselves from whatever position they were currently in. And knowing those two, they were probably hip deep in all sorts of crap at the moment.
Ezra still couldn't believe they'd pulled it off. It had been like a classic shell game.
He'd had to choke out Vin to make it believable and the fact that Martin obviously knew what was going on was what turned the tide. Even though both Martin and Vin knew what they would be facing, Ezra still saw the dual looks of shock when the FBI agent was dragged to them and locked eyes with Vin. Wu spies had done their homework well - Vin and Martin were dressed exactly alike all the way down to that most unique silk tie and shoulder holsters.
Since they first entered the parking garage Ezra was on the look out for a place to fake the switch. He was pleased when Wu's driver tucked the sedan into a dark, deep corner among a cluster of vans and SUVs. The vehicular obstacles provided enough concealment for their illusion of a trade.
Vin and Ezra exited the sedan and placed themselves in what they thought would be the best area to use. As soon as Martin had been pulled from the Suburban by Wu's man, Ezra wedged himself between the struggling agent and the goon in the guise of helping subdue the captive. Since quarters were tight, the guard had no course but to back off which gave Ezra and Vin the few precious seconds they needed to initiate their unspoken plan.
The shocked stare between the look-alikes froze action for a scant few seconds. Then Martin launched himself as if on cue, landing squarely on Vin. Tangled, they dropped to the ground between parked vehicles, disappearing temporarily from the guard's sight. Ezra then pulled Vin to his feet and initiated a paralyzing choke hold on his partner to seal the con.
It was Martin, however, that put the crown on the illusion. He'd stood, breathing hard and glaring, and snarled a perfect, Texas-accented curse as he straightened his tie. For a fleeting second Ezra wondered if he'd choked out the right man; Martin's sly wink chased the doubt away.
Martin nodded to the goon and smoothed his slightly rumpled suit. Ezra looked down at his unconscious partner, then back up to the FBI agent. Their gazes momentarily met and it took all of the Ezra's well-schooled willpower to keep the wonder from his face. This man was undeniably and unnervingly Vin's twin.
Before another thought could form Ezra left Vin sprawled on the garage floor, took Martin's elbow and steered him to the Suburban. Wu's goon retrieved Martin's gun from the escorting marshals and then stuffed the unconscious Vin into the sedan. Ezra opened the door of the SUV for Martin, carefully eyeing the two dirty marshals inside in case he had to identify them later. One of the marshals handed Martin another gun; by the way Martin hefted it and looked at Ezra, it was obvious the gun was empty; Wu wasn't that trusting. Martin gave Ezra a sick smile before storing the useless weapon in his holster.
Ezra slammed the door shut. The Suburban tires squeaked as the vehicle leaped away. He noticed the goon carefully wipe Martin's gun clean of prints before slipping it into a soft gun case.
Ezra gave a passing thought to Fitzgerald's safety as the Suburban sped away, but immediately turned his attention to saving his and Vin's hides. Entering the sedan he surreptitiously glanced at his partner, relieved to see that Vin was still breathing. He also noticed that his partner was showing signs of waking up and Ezra wondered about Vin's ability to pull off Martin's way of speaking in his current dazed state.
That concern was unexpectedly squelched when Ezra saw the guard pull out a tiny bottle and pour the contents onto a small cloth.
"Roll down the window," the guard ordered. "Fumes."
Concealing his alarm Ezra hit the button to open his window as the guard pressed the cloth to Vin's nose and mouth. Vin bucked once, twice and his eyes flew open only to slowly sag shut again as he melted against the car door, unconscious. Ezra felt his teeth squeak as he ground them together in fury. It took every reserve he had to put on a bored face and turn to his open window.
"My, aren't we prepared," he said smoothly even though is stomach churned sickeningly. "Poor sot. I do hope we get to our staging area before the gentleman expels any of his breakfast. Chloroform has that effect on most people."
Wu chuckled darkly, motioning for the windows to be shut again as the odor faded away. "If it gets too unpleasant, we can store him in the trunk."
"Ah," was all Standish could say, internally appalled at the thought. "There is that option, yes."
The vehicle accelerated smoothly from the parking structure. Once they were on the road Ezra lifted his computer case onto his lap. Before opening it, he regarded Vin's rifle case and maneuvered it next to him, hoping at the GPS disc was still functioning. Returning his attention to the computer, he flipped open the case. "You may transfer the balance due now, Mr. Wu," he said as he powered up the computer. At least the cell signal would let the others know they were alright for now.
"The balance will be paid when Mr. Nicklin joins us," Wu answered flatly. "Once I know the plan has worked."
"Then I insist on our agreed upon installment."
Wu's dark look chilled Ezra but eventually the man gave a short nod of agreement. The agent spoke as he typed. "May I inquire as to the time and place of our rendezvous with Mr. Nicklin after the job is finished?"
"No." Wu turned enough for Ezra to see his eyes as he spoke. The previously unseen coldness there caused the fine hairs on the agent's neck to snap to attention; only then Ezra knew for certain that this man could - and would - kill. "Your final payment is ample compensation, Mr. St. James. You are not being paid for the privilege of information. You are being paid to simply do as you are told."
Ezra's fingers moved deftly over the keys of his laptop. He arched a brow and then lifted his eyes, trying to keep the tickle of fear he felt from the man's hard gaze. "Your input, please," he said smoothly, putting the computer in Wu's lap. Wu's fingers typed deftly, sending another million to the holding account. Ezra checked the account, nodded in satisfaction and closed the computer.
Although was the picture of calm on the outside as he stowed the laptop, Ezra glanced at his partner and took a firm grip on his internal fear when he surmised that he, Vin and Martin would be dead by nightfall.
Traffic had been building since Chris and Jack had arrived at the parking garage. As the sedan merged onto the roadway Jack still found it fairly easy to keep the white vehicle in sight. They crawled through the central part of Manhattan, heading steadily south. He was surprised that they were being lead out of the downtown area.
"Huh," he uttered softly, dropping back a little further.
"What?" Chris replied sharply, turning to query with his diamond sharp green eyes.
"I'm not sure where we're headed, is all. From what your JD has said, the Argon office and holdings are behind us on the north end of the city." He followed their quarry around a turn. "Looks like we're headed into a warehouse district." As they rounded a second turn, the sedan was no where in sight. "Damn! Which way?"
Chris focused on the GPS. "Um. . . right. Turn right." His shoulder bumped the door with the sudden sharp turn. "SHIT! The signal's gone!" He whacked the side of the device, cursing, and then switched on the wrist radio. "Buck, check in!"
His friend's voice answered up. "Here, Chris."
"Don't stop the Suburban, you hear me? Abort the stop!"
There was a nerve wracking handful of seconds before Buck replied. "Your timing is really somthin' pard. We were about two seconds from callin' in and flippin' on the lights."
"Drop back and follow. We've lost the GPS signal and our car. All we have now are those guys Josiah and Taylor have at the courthouse. Call Josiah and see if the crooked marshals are supposed to take Fitzgerald home after the trial."
Jack pulled over as Chris alternately cursed and jabbed the hand held GPS without results. The radio crackled to life after what seemed like several lifetimes had passed.
"Chris? That's affirmative - Agent Fitzgerald is supposed to be driven home by the same guys that delivered him to the courthouse and then released from marshal custody. You want to give him back to the bad guys?"
"Hold on," Chris snapped, releasing the transmit button. Chris rubbed forehead, eyes squeezed shut as his mind worked.
Jack watched as the ATF team leader gathered his thoughts and scrambled to pull together a plan. He hadn't known the agent for long, but Jack already knew that this man could think on his feet. Finally, Chris spoke.
"I think that whoever's in charge will want all of them - Vin, Ez and Fitzgerald - together before he ties this up," Larabee reasoned out loud. "If he's as careful as Liang, he's going to wait for conformation that things went his way in court. When he finds out his plan's failed , Vin and Ez are toast. We'll follow Martin and those marshals back to Vin and Ezra and hope he hasn't heard anything yet."
"Putting Martin back in play is not my favorite plan," Jack interjected. "Especially since I think he's going to 'tie all this up' by killing all three agents. That's Liang's style and I have no reason to believe this guy's any different." He gripped the steering wheel tightly in frustration.
Agent Larabee's icy eyes locked with Jack's. He spoke in a flat, deadly tone. "If you have a better plan - hell, any plan - I'm all ears."
Grimly, Jack shook his head and begrudgingly accepted that he didn't. "I'll speak to Fitzgerald when he's clear. Have someone get him on the phone as soon as he's off the stand."
Chris relayed the information over the radio and waited for all teams to acknowledge the new plan. Silence settled in the vehicle, stifling in its weight. Jack drove slowly through the area while both of them looked for any hints as to where the sedan could have gone. He was struck by the seediness of the area as well as the lack of traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.
As if he'd read Jack's mind, Chris said, "I'm putting JD on task to find the owners of these building." He immediately issued the order over the radio.
Intuition told Jack not to question how Agent Dunne would do that. He just knew it would get done.
Larabee wasn't finished. "And we need more bodies out here. Josiah, get out here with Taylor and Spade. JD, you and Johnson follow Martin when he's done testifying. Call when you leave the courthouse. And JD, get that warehouse information to me ASAP. We have a big area to search."
Ever since their vehicle had taken that quick and unexpected turn, Ezra's sense of this whole affair had turned irreparably sour. He was glad that Vin was still unconscious, as the pressing narrowness of the tunnel they were now in would surely push the buttons of his partner's claustrophobia.
Ezra realized instantly that they had entered a passage intended for smuggling. The sedan had turned sharply into a rather scruffy-looking warehouse then turned abruptly again to travel down what initially looked like a loading ramp. Then, a wall had opened and the sedan plunged into sudden darkness. His internal bump of direction told him they were headed to the waterfront and probably somewhere underneath an above-ground docking facility. It was a perfect set up for moving illegal imports.
They eventually stopped in a poorly lit area he estimated to be just big enough for three vehicles to maneuver. After sitting in the veiled darkness for many minutes, Ezra dared to speak.
He cleared his throat then said, "Pardon my boldness, but how long are we going to wait in your personal bat cave?"
"Not much longer," Wu surprisingly answered from the front seat. "Mr. Nicklin should be arriving very soon."
"And what follows our reunion?" Ezra pushed.
"We leave this place."
Still not entirely satisfied, Ezra opted not to push. For now, they were trapped. As Ezra tried to figure out their next step he heard noises that signaled Vin's waking and knew that things were going to go downhill rapidly from this point forward. As he leaned over the reviving agent, Ezra heard Wu speaking to the guard in their native tongue. Even though they spoke Chinese, Standish could tell that Wu was not happy about something.
Wu stepped from the car, his fists clenched. With Vin's growing restlessness, the guard reached under his coat and pulled out his handgun, leveling it in front of Vin's eyes. It would be the first thing the waking man saw even in cavern's darkness.
Ezra ordered himself to sit quietly, hoping that Vin roused with the ability to maintain the façade that he was Fitzgerald. If not, Ezra knew he'd have to go for the guard's gun. He kept any outer indication of his thoughts from showing on his face but the tickle of sweat around his collar was not so easily suppressed.
"Shouldn't you subdue him?" Ez asked, genuinely curious as to why they would leave the person they saw a Martin Fitzgerald unbound and physically unrestrained.
"He needs to remain unmarked," the guard replied sharply from the facing seat. "No bruises."
The mysterious reasoning did not make Ezra feel any better.
Vin moaned. His head rolled to one side and he worked his mouth a moment before his eyes cracked open. Ezra could see him frown in the poor light, shadowed lines of concentration forming on his forehead, which, for Vin, heralded only one inevitability where chloroform was concerned. Then the telltale signs began - Vin began swallowing, first cautiously, then rapidly as his eyes peeled open and grew wide.
"There is a good possibility that the gentleman is about to gastronomically relieve himself," Ezra announced, noting Vin Tanner's notoriously squeamish stomach regarding the inhaled chemical.
Ezra yanked the door handle next to him and found it to be locked. The guard looked puzzled for a moment but Vin's first short gag put the large man in motion as he yelled something in Chinese. He scrambled for the doors' locking mechanism.
Vin gagged dryly one more time before the locks clicked and the guard bailed out. Ezra managed to shove his partner out behind the guard as he jumped through the opposite doorway. Stumbling momentarily in the darkness Ezra finally found his feet and warily started around the sedan and toward the sound of Vin's distress. The nauseating noise echoed in the enclosed space.
As Ezra circled around the vehicle he took some time to study the cavern. He could just make out two wide alcoves at one end, each with a large, shiny, silvery pole in the center that disappeared into the ceiling. 'Elevators,' he realized. 'The floor above must lower down to this level.' This was a deceptively sophisticated set up.
But currently, his impression of the cavern was marred by the sound of Vin's retching. Ezra peeked around the back of the vehicle and saw his partner on his hands and knees being piteously sick for the second time. The guard was to his side a safe distance away and looking ill himself. Finally Vin, over the effects, sank back on his heels, groaning.
"Clean him up," the guard ordered Ezra.
"Me?" Ezra protested. "That is most definitely NOT scribed within our agreement!"
"Do it," the guard said again, bringing his weapon up to Ezra's chest. "There are things in the trunk."
Ezra unconsciously touched his still nicked and tender ear, and pulled off an annoyed expression. Anxious as he was to get to Vin's side, he managed to appear most put out at the unfolding events. He pawed through the trunk and found several towels along with a small stash of tools. Keeping up appearances and grumbling complaints all the while, he slipped a small screwdriver in his pocket and then slammed the trunk shut before cautiously making his way to Vin's side.
As he leaned in to wipe his partner's face, he heard the guard and Wu talking again but still couldn't understand the conversation. Turning his attention back to Vin, he noticed glazed, blue eyes darting in confusion.
"Leave me 'lone," Vin growled, pushing Ezra's hand away as the towel touched his chin. He tipped sideways onto his hip.
Ezra pulled him upright against the car and spoke quietly in Vin's ear. "You're sick from chloroform. Remember that you are Mr. Fitzgerald. Understand?" Vin blinked rapidly a few times and then nodded slightly. Ezra saw that his partner's eyes clearing up. "Now, now Mr. Fitzgerald," Ezra said a little more loudly. "Luckily, you managed to miss your person but you have blessed all of us with this enchanting aroma."
"Fuck you," Vin grumbled loudly, pulling away again.
"A true gentleman, just as I surmised," Ezra replied sarcastically, keeping up the charade.
"Stand him up over there." The guard indicated an area near the lifts. Ezra threw him a dirty look and proceeded to drag Vin to his wobbly feet and maneuver him to the wall section between the two lift alcoves.
"Where am I and who the hell are you?" Vin croaked loudly, leaning heavily into Ezra for balance. The Fitzgerald accent wasn't as good as it could have been and Ezra was thankful for the raw hoarseness resulting from Vin's sickness.
"Please direct your inquires toward our host, Mr. Fitzgerald. I am unable to satisfy your requests."
"We in a cave?"
"That is about as much as I know, sir."
When they reached the indicated area Vin slumped to the floor, alternating his glare between Ezra and the guard. Not quite yet fully aware, Ezra hoped his partner could rein in any claustrophobic feelings when he came around fully. Ezra thought it best to stay close just in case and positioned himself next to Vin.
Motion near the sedan caught Ezra's attention. The guard skirted the clumpy puddle steaming in the coolness of the cavern and stopped silently in front of them. Mr. Wu bent down by the driver's window and spoke briefly to the man behind the wheel before coming their direction. He'd circled around the front of the car to avoid Vin's deposit and as he got closer, Ezra could see that their host's face was pinched in displeasure. The agent figured Vin wasn't the sole reason for the mood.
"We will be joined shortly," Wu stated sharply and obviously angry. He held something up to the guard. "Hold this." Ezra recognized the soft, zippered gun case.
"What the hell do you want?" Vin rasped, pulling his coat back together into some semblance of order as he addressed Wu. The elder Asian approached and studied them from a few feet away. His eyes burned.
"You will soon see," Wu hissed. Agitated, he turned away. The guard stepped between his departing boss and the agents.
It seemed like hours before the sound of an approaching vehicle echoed down the dark tunnel.
Testifying against Liang and Full Moon lifted a shadow that had been lurking much too long in Martin Fitzgerald's mind. When he finally stepped down from the witness box, a great weight was gone from his shoulders. Logically, he knew that his part of this whole charade was over when he left the courthouse so he began to gear up mentally in preparation to justify to Jack why he needed to take this to the end.
Fitzgerald was taken aback when Vivian pulled him aside in the courtroom hallway.
"Listen up, Martin, there's been a change in plans." Then she brought him up to date on the latest events. "Since they lost Tanner and Standish, things need to proceed the way the Triad planned so you can lead us to them."
"Give me some ammo," he asked. "They my gun's empty." She handed him her extra magazine and he reloaded, giving her the empty magazine Wu had supplied. Then an ATF agent that looked more like a college student joined them and explained that there wouldn't be a microphone because the Triad most likely had devices to find unwanted electronics and that he'd be going to a warehouse district.
Viv didn't have to remind Martin that his escorting marshals were turncoats, but she did anyway. She briefed that Jack and Chris were still in the area where they'd lost the sedan. Viv and the kid . . . Dunne? . . . had some intel requested by Jack and that she and Dunne were heading out to join the others in the field. Danny, Sanchez, Samantha and Wilmington were set up to follow Martin's SUV.
They couldn't chance losing him, Vivian reiterated - the Suburban was their only hope to find the undercover ATF men and, hopefully, the person that would connect this to the Triad once and for all.
And now here he was, hoping the vehicles shadowing him hadn't lost them on those last two sharp turns. Well disguised, the sophistication of the hidden tunnel would have been impressive if the agent wasn't concerned about losing his back up. He was glad the gun he had was loaded but Martin had a feeling that it wouldn't be enough if he was on his own down here.
Fitzgerald didn't suffer from claustrophobia but the narrow darkness of this tunnel was extremely unnerving. Just as his hands were beginning to feel sticky from anxiety, the tunnel opened up to a dully lit cavern. Recognizing the white car from the switch point, Martin felt his nervousness disappear in the wake of angry determination.
"In there!" Chris pointed at a faded green warehouse, one among many on the street but the only one with a door standing open. "They had to go in there!"
Jack jerked to the curb a half-block away as Larabee radioed their position. As they exited the vehicle, Jack listened as the ATF team leader directed the others in so that the large building was as surrounded. Nathan was ordered to bring the back up squad to the area, but to wait for dispersal orders.
"I don't see anything." Buck's voice, pitched low over the radio, caused Jack and Chris's steps to falter. "Nothing's inside, Chris. I'm up on a ledge lookin' in - it's empty!"
"What?" Jack barked, flattening against the wall on one side of the open door.
"Hold on," Chris snarled in the wrist radio. "Buck, get the others and clear the inside. Do it now." He took up a position on the other side of the open door from Jack.
Silence ruled the air for agonizing minutes before Samantha voice reported in. "It's clear, Jack. No car, no anything."
Chris immediately addressed the computer wiz kid. "JD," he snapped, "What's in this area . . . "
Jack didn't linger to hear the rest of the conversation. Instead, he stepped inside the warehouse, gun hanging limply at his side. A feeling of dread fought to rise and strangle him, but he swallowed it back and jogged to join the others heading his way from various entrances. Samantha had on her mostly unreadable game face, but her eyes gave her away - Jack could read the fear there.
"They couldn't have gotten around us," she said firmly.
"Not with one of us seeing them, anyway," Buck confirmed, standing shoulder to shoulder with Spade.
Danny and Josiah, eyes still searching as they stood, both looked grim.
"Hey," Chris called as he trotted in. He swung his arm toward the west as he approached. "JD says that Full Moon shares a warehouse two blocks from here, near the waterfront, that way."
He and Jack met eyes. "Tunnel," Jack concluded as Chris nodded. Jack had heard of some pretty impressive tunnels running under the border to Mexico - it was possible. "Has to be. Look closer, everyone!"
The combined team spread out and concentrated on the west end of the building. Chris got on the phone and ordered Nathan to start setting up a nine block perimeter and detailed a team from Nathan's group to set up inside the warehouse where they stood.
"Here!" Josiah's rumbling voice commanded attention. He knelt at the bottom of a deep loading ramp. "I feel a breeze. It's hollow behind this wall."
A tight smile curved Larabee's mouth but didn't reach his eyes - they burned with dark anger. "Josiah, stay here and direct the backup where to set up then join us two blocks west."
"I just hope we're not too late," Jack growled as he ran to the western exit. The others separated into pairs and followed. "Nine blocks is a lot of area for the backup squad to cover."
"Once they're in place I'll have Nathan bring 'em in tighter."
"Like a noose," Jack imagined.
"Exactly," Larabee growled.
"How appropriate," Danny added.
When the black Suburban glided into the cavern Wu was still unable to bask in his success. One detail had yet to be explained - why hadn't his courtroom spies checked in? Even with the fruit of his success right here in front of him, that little bit of minutiae tasked him.
"Mr. Nicklin. I would think that you will be pleased to finally fulfill your contract," he addressed the figure exiting from the large SUV.
The figure paused at the rear of the vehicle as he visually took in the cavern with wary eyes. His gaze finally stopped on the two forms against the wall.
"Nice set up," Nicklin replied. Before he could say anymore, St. James was allowed to join his partner and they stood shoulder to shoulder, facing their contractor. The two marshals from the Suburban moved in and stood behind the pair.
St. James' usual poker face finally showed some emotion - anger. Wu squelched a smug smile and stood his ground as St. James spoke those expected words. "This is unacceptable. This part of your charade is complete and we expect payment. Now."
Wu then let a short chuckle escape and shook his head in amusement. "You are so predictable, Mr. St. James. I assure you that you will have payment in full in the next few minutes."
"Now." St. James stood fast, his partner silent beside him.
"I do not have time for this." Wu turned away from the pair and waved an arm. "Bring them."
The rogue marshals stepped closer to the hired pair, guns drawn.
"'salright," Wu heard Nicklin drawl. "The sooner we're outta here the better, wouldn't you say?"
There was a pause before St. James replied, his voice more calm. "I do share your sentiment on that account, Mr. Nicklin."
When Wu was in the area of the lift alcoves, he turned around to face them again. "Then come here and stand by Mr. Fitzgerald."
After a quick glance at each other, St. James and his partner walked in the direction indicated. Once the three captives were grouped together Wu approached the marshals and had them verbally relate their actions of the past few hours.
It did little to settle Wu's mind on the infuriating pair that had yet to check in from the courthouse. They had become a loose end. He wasn't used to loose ends. He was used to working alone and leaving nothing behind.
And yet his plan was nearing its conclusion. It was time to move, and move quickly. With the ultimate deed done in the next few minutes the missing court house team would be a moot point. Wu would deal with them later. Loose ends infuriated him; the two missing men wouldn't live long enough to regret their negligence.
Martin could feel his heart racing beneath his outer calm as he and Standish approached Tanner. Standing next to him, it was impossible to not look at him with wonder. As he did so, that unnerving feeling of familiarity washed over him again. The blue eyes returning his gaze were easily read and reflected the same feeling - they had met before.
A loud click followed by a humming noise caught Martin's attention and he turned to see one of the alcove poles moving. 'An elevator,' he realized. It wasn't long before weak daylight streamed in from above and a cement platform dropped to their level. The alcove now contained a large dumpster. As the silent marshals watched over them, Wu's beefy bodyguard rolled the dumpster out and to one side with relative ease.
Looking at him in action, it was obvious that Wu's guard could probably break a neck with his fingers alone, Martin thought. Fitzgerald reacted to the thought by swallowing and touching his neck lightly. 'Definitely keep that one at a distance,' he surmised.
Once the elevator alcove was clear the marshals and the guard herded the three of them onto the platform. A rectangular section of rusty roof was high above them. Wu and his body guard were the last to step aboard. With a short nod from Wu, the marshals were excused and the lift jerked upward. Martin heard the Suburban's doors slam and the engine start up. In his narrowing view of the dark cavern, red tail lights disappeared.
'Heading right for Jack,' Martin hoped.
They were boosted upward into the muted light of a warehouse. The platform stopped within a three walled area designed to corral the large dumpster that was left below. The location was brilliant, Martin realized. Anyone searching this warehouse would never consider examining the pavement under a dumpster.
There was another surprise waiting for him when he looked around.
Martin glanced at his twin, his shock evident. Tanner frowned slightly at the reaction and then regarded the silver vehicle. Martin saw that he'd figured it out when the concentration lines on Vin's forehead smoothed and he nodded slightly. Now they both knew how this was supposed to end.
The warehouse facility in which they now stood was pier side. One of the building's rolling doors stood open, exposing the dock and the harbor beyond. Sitting mostly inside the cavernous opening, Martin's personal truck was easily identified by the ding in the rear quarter panel. The vehicle faced the water. Martin felt a tingle of dreaded anticipation course through his veins; this stage had been set just for his swan song, which he knew was to be bloody.
Automatically, he glanced at Tanner with wide eyes. His twin unflinchingly met his gaze. The strong measure of fiery determination Martin saw there immediately calmed him and a vision of fighting side by side with this man appeared in his mind's eye.
"All this ends," Wu stated matter-of-factly, "with Mr. Fitzgerald's unfortunate demise. After failing the FBI with his self-incriminating testimony, Martin Fitzgerald's body will be found here in his own vehicle. The implication will be that guilt drove him to suicide."
"What?" Tanner protested as Fitzgerald. "If you think I'm getting in that truck and shooting myself, you're crazy."
Martin noticed that Vin wasn't too steady on his feet. When the guard stepped up, Tanner took a step and swung his fist but the big man easily deflected it and engulfed the smaller man in a bear hug as the agent's wobbly legs betrayed him. He easily carried Vin the short distance to the truck , shoved him through the open driver's side door and slammed the door shut. Wu joined him immediately and held a gun firmly against the agent's temple. The guard then wiped his prints from the vehicle door. Breathing angrily through clenched teeth, all Tanner could do was grip the steering wheel and wait.
The guard approached Martin and pulled out the soft gun case from the back of his waistband. He unzipped the case and held it up to Martin. "Take it," he ordered. The heft of it in Martin's hand indicated it was loaded. His fingers encircled the grip and he looked up at the guard. In those few seconds, the guard had drawn his own gun and stepped behind Ezra, the muzzle pressed against the base of his partner's neck.
"That's in case you object to a close-in kill, Mr. Nicklin," Wu stated darkly. "Sniper shots are normally too far out for the shooter to get dirty, so I daresay that this is outside the parameters of the contract you have in mind. My colleague's presence also nips in the bud any tiresome claims for additional compensation from Mr. St. James."
Ezra's throat convulsed as he swallowed. Martin found the man's green eyes filled with confidence that he, himself, didn't feel at the moment. His gun felt impossibly heavy in his hands. Standish shifted his eyes toward the truck and then met Martin's gaze again. Martin interpreted that as a go ahead. He ducked his head as he took a steadying breath and mentally ran through his limited options.
Here he was with two loaded guns that were impossible to use at the moment. Martin also had this feeling that Standish had something in mind by the look in his eye; whatever it was, it had to happen very soon.
Martin slowly walked around to the passenger side of the truck where the door stood open, waiting for him. When he reached the seat, Tanner started to move but was immediately stunned when rapped on the temple with Wu's gun. Martin froze.
"That will certainly leave a mark," Ezra loudly and bitingly observed.
"It will be obliterated by the gunshot," Wu replied with confidence. "A Coroner will not find any sign of struggle on Mr. Fitzgerald's body."
Martin set his jaw. Things weren't going well for the good guys.
Wu continued. "You will shoot Mr. Fitzgerald with his own gun in the right temple. Close range. This is suicide, after all." Wu's voice had taken on an excited edge. "Then you will wipe your prints from the weapon and wrap Mr. Fitzgerald's hand around the grips and trigger to leave prints. The gun will be left with the body. Do not touch anything else in the vehicle. When you are in position I will step back and you will shoot."
Martin nodded once and tried to swallow with a suddenly dry mouth. He dropped one hip on the passenger seat and lifted one leg into the truck. Then he turned, surprised to meet Tanner's foggy gaze. When their eyes connected that feeling of familiarity returned in force as if he'd known this man his whole life. Then, unexpectedly, a voice entered his mind.
'They're here.' Tanner's words were remarkably clear.
'I know,' Fitzgerald replied, the inexplicable knowledge ringing true. He threw a glance toward Standish.
'Ez can take care of himself,' Tanner assured. A twitch of a smile moved his lips.
'Then I'll go for the Chinaman,' Fitzgerald decided.
'I'll be sure to duck,' the Texan drawled lazily in Martin's head.
Before either one could move, the abrupt sound of shouting voices and nearby gunfire electrified the air.