Full Moon and Denver Seven
Chapter One - Chapter Four |
Chapter Five - Chapter Seven |
Chapter Eight - Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven - Chapter Thirteen | Chapter Fourteen - Chapter Seventeen | Chapter Eighteen - Chapter Twenty-Three
Barely controllable embers of rage burned deep inside Chris. His fingers flexed into fists, longing to feel the yield of Victor Fitzgerald's neck in his hand because he knew, instantly, that he was the person responsible for Ezra's detention.
Chris could feel his teeth squeak under the pressure of his jaws. Wordlessly, he pushed by Danny and headed toward the hospital exit. Both Vin and Ezra needed him, but Ezra had just been unwillingly shoved up on the priority list.
"Chris, hold on!"
The team leader allowed Buck's plea to ease his stride but not his fury. Buck caught up as Chris punched the elevator "down" button with his fist. His knuckles protested, the brief pain eclipsed by anger.
"You can't go in there like this, Chris. You gotta cool down."
Chris turned on him. "You of all people, Buck, should know that no one fucks with my team," he snarled, teeth grinding.
"I know, I know and you're right. I'm all for backin' up Ezra but you're treading on thin ice, here. It's another government agency, not a gun-running gang. You need appropriate ammo."
Samantha cautiously approached and stood behind Buck, her eyes shifting from one man to the other.
"I need to strangle a certain Deputy Director," Chris snapped. The silver elevator doors opened with a pneumatic whoosh and Chris had to step back to allow an occupied gurney with attendants to disembark.
"Ya can't go in there guns blazin', although there's not one of us that wouldn't like to do that," Buck said, his voice firm. "You need information. You need to know what they have first. There's no way they're gonna let you in to see Ez if he's being questioned. They might if you already know the answers." Chris stepped into the empty car and turned around. Buck hesitated, leaning on the frame to prevent the doors from closing. Chris glared at Buck but his old friend refused to give way. "Chris, let JD do some research. Get down there and find out what you can but don't press until we know more."
"You need to contact the F.B.I.'s Atlanta office, then," Samantha offered. Chris directed his glare to the blonde. She blinked, but stood firm. Buck glanced at her and then nodded at Chris. "Agent Standish told me that he knows Victor from that office."
Chris paused, his wrath dampened as his mind worked. He knew all about the Atlanta business - when he had background checked Standish while putting Team Seven together Chris followed every accusation to its end. Now he had to go back and figure out if any of it pertained to Director Fitzgerald. Buck was right, he had to admit; he probably wouldn't get access to the interview but he sure as hell could rattle some cages.
"How long will it take me to drive to the F.B.I. building?" Chris growled at Samantha.
She shoved a lock of hair behind her ear as the Larabee glare pinned her. "Um, from here, I'd say . . . twenty minutes, with traffic and parking."
Chris turned his smoldering gaze back to Buck. "Tell JD he's got nineteen minutes to get any information I can use." The statement brooked no room for interpretation.
"Sure . . . sure." Buck pulled out his phone. "I'm on it. Don't do anything stupid, Chris."
Chris let out a short, bitter laugh. "I'm the boss here. I decide what's stupid." He crossed his arms across his chest and glared at Buck again. "Can I go now, Agent Wilmington?"
Buck looked startled for the moment before he realized that he was still blocking the elevator doors. "Oh, yeah, right." He started punching buttons on his phone as he took a step back and allowed the doors to close.
Chris shook his head in amusement, frustration and fury as Buck and Samantha disappeared from his sight.
Complicated, irritating frustration was all Jack felt boiling inside his gut as he stood next to Victor in the viewing room. On the other side of the one way glass sat Agent Ezra Standish, who looked - how did he look? Jack thought. The man should be tense, frazzled, nervous. Instead, he looked cool. Tired and possibly in pain, but cool.
Jack had to admire that. He glanced at his watch. Victor hadn't let Jack leave his sight and had kept him busy every second since they left Martin's building. Jack suspected it was to keep him from calling Larabee.
"He's too calm," Victor grumbled.
"Probably because he's the victim and not the suspect?" Jack didn't miss the venomous glance thrown his way.
Victor regarded his Rolex. "It's time. Send in Harrington."
Jack picked up the intercom receiver and informed Agent Phil Harrington to begin his interrogation. The very words felt bitter on Jack's tongue as he hung up.
Within the minute a thick-muscled, thirtyish man with receding blond hair entered the room. Standish watched him with apparent indifference. Harrington didn't look at Standish at all. Jack frowned, still uncomfortable with any of this. He knew Harrington - the man came from the Violent Crimes unit and was very good at interrogation. Looking again at the nonplussed Standish, Jack couldn't help but wonder if Harrington may have met his match.
As the interview began with short, false pleasantries Jack glanced at Victor. "Why are you so sure about this?" he finally asked.
Victor's gaze didn't break from the room behind the glass. "This whole affair stinks of treason. Wu had moles in the Marshal's office, the courthouse and most likely in the F.B.I. itself. He's getting personal information, like Martin's home address, from somewhere. I know Standish from Atlanta. He was dirty then and he's dirty now. Standish is behind all the leaks, I'm sure of it. He's the only one that's been in it from the start."
"What about Agent Tanner?"
"Standish is a loner. He wouldn't share any payoff."
"Are you suggesting Standish probably arranged for Tanner to be killed, too?"
"I'm not suggesting anything of the sort. Yet. But Standish is capable of that, yes."
Jack grunted an acknowledgement and rolled that information over in his mind. After hearing, and seeing, the depths to which Victor could sink, Jack felt Victor was hardly the person to point fingers. "Chris Larabee does not seem like the type to be easily fooled and he vouches for this man."
"Agent Larabee has obviously been misled. Standish is very good at that."
Still not convinced, Jack turned his attention back to the interview. Standish was examining the fingernails of his uninjured hand and not even breaking a sweat. Jack smiled. "That man may be too cool for his own good," he thought.
They were fifteen minutes into the interview when the observation room phone chirped. Jack picked it up. "Malone," he said softly. He listened for a moment. "Uh, huh," he replied to the caller, glancing at Victor. "Send him up to Missing Persons." Jack hung up the phone and addressed Victor. "Larabee's in the lobby demanding to see Standish."
"No. There will be no contact until we know who's involved."
"Then you better work fast because Standish has an attorney on his way here. And from the looks of it," Jack tilted his head toward the interview room where Standish was now yawning and looking altogether bored with the whole situation. "This is all a pointless exercise anyway. He's not offering up anything anytime soon." He shrugged on his jacket. "I'll meet Larabee in my office. They want him out of the lobby. I guess he's raising quite a stink."
Victor didn't seem to hear him. Jack waited a moment for a response and after getting none, slipped from the unit to meet Chris two floors down in the Missing Persons unit.
Jack was in his office a mere few minutes when Larabee exited the elevator on the heels of a nervous F.B. I. escort. When Chris saw Jack, he pushed the escort aside and stormed into the office. The young escort hurriedly retreated.
Chris hit the door with enough force to shake the office walls. He started speaking as he stormed to Jack's desk and pounded one hand on the mahogany desktop. "What the hell's going on, Malone? Where's my agent?"
"Not my idea, Chris."
"I don't care whose idea it is! I want Standish released!"
Jack narrowed his eyes in the light of Larabee's intimidating glare and stood firm. He kept his voice even. "I don't have the ability to do that. But after watching Standish, I don't think he needs any backup. The man's as cool as they come."
Chris Larabee held Jack's stare, daring him to lie. And Jack knew that if he did lie, the ATF man would know it before it even passed Jacks' lips. Seemingly satisfied after several long seconds, Chris nodded sharply.
"So what's the Deputy Director looking for?"
"I figured as much." Larabee ran his hand through his hair. "It's Atlanta all over again."
"That's what Victor said," Jack confirmed. "You know all about that?"
"Yep." Chris hooked his hands on his hips and seemed to consider something for a moment before continuing. "Ezra Standish is the best undercover agent I've ever seen and the reason why is because he isn't acting. He's himself. It's like that saying about lies - the most believable ones are those that contain some truth."
Jack dropped into his chair and motioned for Chris to sit. "So tell me about Atlanta."
The urge to shift weight in the hard, unforgiving chair was nearly impossible to ignore, but ignore it he did. Ezra Standish knew he couldn't show one iota of discomfort to his audience. And he knew full well that there was an audience beyond Agent Harrington.
Ezra had to admit that the man was good - his hard-but-approachable manner probably brought more than a few deals to this very table, but Standish was not going to be one of them. As soon as he heard the Deputy Director's name in the hospital he knew this moment was coming. He'd had plenty of time to prepare, more time than he'd had in Atlanta, at least.
Ezra thought back to that time in his life.
When Chris Larabee had approached him three years ago the mess in Atlanta was just coming to a close. Ezra was very good at reading the writing on the wall; his F.B.I. career was as good as over. Knowing this, he wondered at Larabee's interest. Was this a man wanting to squeeze a few more assignments out of a doomed man to make himself look good or was he on the level about this team he was assembling?
Maude Standish hadn't raised a fool. Ezra did his homework on Larabee and although there was nothing he found that warranted concern, Standish knew very well that a man could easily hide his past and if Larabee had anything to hide, he hid it well. But the timing couldn't have been better so Ezra had jumped ship and joined the ATF team fully expecting Larabee, like every other Government agency boss he'd ever had, to show his true, self-centered colors quickly by sacrificing Standish in some fashion.
Standish needed only to get out of Atlanta and hold tight for a few months until some personal financial issues came to a close. Then he could bail on Larabee, the ATF and all other forms of conventional employment. He would be set for life.
But, three years later, Standish was still waiting for Larabee's expected betrayal. In actuality, it was Standish that had done the betraying by walking out of an assignment when his finances finally attained the level he'd worked so hard to achieve six months after his transfer. When he'd walked, though, he ran into an obstacle he'd never anticipated: Guilt. It seemed that Larabee and his team of misfits had unexpectedly given Standish not only a conscious, but a place he could call home as well. He found he couldn't walk away after all.
Knowing this made it easy to sit here and listen to Harrington's accusations without rancor. Ezra knew his team, his family, was working on getting him out. He simply had to wait and show no weakness. His body, however, wasn't cooperating and he decided to make his own move.
"Excuse me, Agent Harrington," Ezra suddenly said, breaking the interrogator's verbal dissertation of Ezra's Atlanta indiscretions. "I do not mean to interrupt your wonderful recount of my questionable past, but I simply have to know something."
Harrington paused and slowly laid down the sheaf of papers in his hands. "What's that, Agent Standish?" The tone was painfully polite.
"Have you and your glorious agency looked inward for the source of this betrayal you are so skillfully investigating?"
"Yes. I am sure you have heard of the endearing acronym 'K.I.S.S.'?"
Harrington blinked. "'Keep it simple, stupid'?"
"Precisely; I see that the F.B.I.'s well of knowledge is deep and you have certainly drunk from its depths."
The investigator frowned. "Yes, I'm sure you would know all about our resources. You are the clearest and most direct connection."
Ezra sighed plaintively, rolling his eyes as he leaned back and rubbed his tender shoulder. "Yes, I am sure I am the most obvious to you and your highly esteemed agency, but I have to wonder . . ." He put on a thoughtful look and turned widely curious eyes to Harrington.
Harrington bit. "Wonder what?" he warily asked.
Standish tilted his head as if mentally debating a point. "Oh, never mind me. I do not want to interfere with your little party here. Forget I asked." Ezra dismissed his idea with a wave and leaned on the table as if intrigued by the litany of dates, times and actions Harrington had been verbally listing. "Now, what were you saying about my activities five years ago? I seem to have lost track of where you were going with that." He frowned. "Or were you going anywhere at all?"
Harrington showed his irritation for the first time by pressing his lips into a hard, pale line. Ezra gave him points for lasting this long. As his team frequently pointed out, he had a knack for getting under another's skin in the shortest possible time
"Look, Standish, this isn't a game. This is serious." Harrington's tone proved that he was tired of this game.
"Well, I am certainly ecstatic that we have finally found a point on which we can agree upon, sir."
"We know you gave Wu information. We know you're dirty."
Ezra's eyes widened in obviously mock surprise. "And what information would that be, pray tell, Agent Harrington?"
Harrington's mouth opened and shut without issuing a word. His fingers rapped the table and Ezra could see that he was working to regain his outward calm. The man leaned back a little, away from Standish, and dropped his hands to his lap. He looked down and took a breath and then leaned back in, his cool demeanor restored.
"What was it you were wondering, Agent Standish?" The agent even managed a tight smile. Ezra thought he was going for "sincere", but had sorely missed the mark.
"Oh, it wasn't much. But I can't help but wonder how Wu found Agent Fitzgerald so quickly after he was discharged from the hospital."
In the pause that followed, Ezra could see Harrington's mind working furiously. "You told him."
"I did?" Ezra looked surprised. "When?"
"You were released before he was and you kept in contact with the hospital, along with your team. You had at least sixteen hours to pass the information!"
"Hm." Thoughtfully, Standish tapped his chin with his forefinger. "How?"
"Yes. It's a simple question. How did I contact him?"
"I don't know." Harrington tried to pull off another smile. "Why don't you tell me?"
"Well," Ezra said. "You have my cell phone and I'm sure you've checked my outgoing calls," he started. "And I'm also sure you've checked the hotel records on the telephone in the room . . . but, honestly?" he leaned in and dropped his voice, Harrington automatically responding in kind. "Hotel telephones are notorious for harboring all sorts of germs and other nasties, as are hotel bedspreads, and I, for one, avoid touching either of them." He wrinkled his nose in distaste and sat up again.
Harrington pushed angrily to his feet. "Quit playing games, Standish!"
Ezra also stood all pretense of play now gone. He pierced the agent with a glare and then turned to face the mirror behind his adversary. "I am certainly not playing games in the face of the danger that lurks out there for my friends and teammates as well as myself. If you had done your job instead of jumping on years old conclusions, you would find that I did not call anyone. Two agents were with me at all times and one is from your own esteemed agency. Wu knew exactly when Martin had been released and where he was going. I must ask you the obvious again: Who would have had immediate knowledge of that information?"
"Your team!" Harrington bellowed.
Ezra returned his gaze to the agent and added in a low voice, "And yours, Agent Harrington. Specifically, Deputy Director Fitzgerald's staff."
Jack and Chris both reached the same conclusion concerning Atlanta.
"Victor's going to be sure Ezra's the informant again this time," Jack said, leaning back in his chair as he thought. "Just like you said. It's Atlanta all over again. Did you run down any of those suspicions in the report? Obviously, Ezra's old team didn't bother."
"I followed a few as best as I could but nothing was conclusive. Knowing Standish now and looking back, those 'clues' were way more obvious that Ezra would leave behind. If Ez wants something hidden, it's hidden. I was sure then and I'm sure now that he was set up to look like a traitor. I haven't had the time to go any further than that and honestly, it hasn't mattered until now."
"Hm. You've never asked him about it? Get his thoughts on it?"
"Not directly, no. I have picked up things here and there that he's sure someone profited from the betrayal."
"Profited, as in cash money?"
Chris snorted. "That's the only profit Ezra truly understands. I get the feeling he's more ticked off that someone made money on him than being labeled as a traitor."
Their discussion was interrupted by the phone's ring. Jack snatched up the receiver. "Malone," he grumbled. After a few moments of listening, he glanced at Chris. "Uh, huh," he said. "Thanks for the information. Want me to look into it?" He grinned. "I understand completely. I didn't hear it from you. Thanks again."
Chris straightened at the cat-that-ate-the-canary expression Jack had. "What?"
"Seems we're on the right track, Agent Larabee. My caller prefers to remain anonymous, but I'm sure you'll figure out the source. He also said that he was ordered to tell no one what he just told me. It seems Agent Standish suspects the mole to be on Victor's personal staff."
There was an electrified silence as the men jockeyed the information in their minds. "Well," Chris finally offered, "there is a way to check that theory . . ."
". . . and finally be one step ahead of Wu for a change," Jack finished.
Chris shot to his feet. "Come on. We have work to do and we need to be away from this building to do it."
In complete and total silence the two men exited the building and climbed into Jack's car.
"Where to?" Jack asked.
"The hotel. I had everyone regroup over there before coming to the hospital. I think we need JD's expertise to narrow down the rat in your house."
"Did I tell you I offered that boy a job?" Jack commented as they left the parking garage.
Chris laughed shortly as he pulled out his cell and dialed.
Buck startled when his phone vibrated at his hip, garnering an amused look from Danny. Buck checked the incoming call's source and flipped open the device. "He's not awake but holdin' his own, Chris," he said without preamble.
"Okay smartass mind reader, what was I gonna say next?"
"That you have an idea but you can't talk over the phone."
"You're too smart for your own good, Wilmington. I'll be there in a little while."
"Okay, and yes, I'll call you when Vin comes around."
"Damn, Buck, cut that out! The idea of you crawlin' around in my head is too scary to contemplate."
Buck chuckled and snapped the phone shut. Danny grinned before he spoke. "What's up?"
"We'll find out when Chris gets here." Buck stretched where he stood. "It's my turn in the cage," he said, heading to the small ICU room.
As the doctor had promised, Vin's room was isolated at the end of the row of glass-faced rooms. As he got closer he could see Samantha and Martin huddled together in adjoining chairs in the close space. Martin looked more relaxed than he did an hour ago and credited the pretty blonde agent. 'That boy's got a lot on his plate right now,' Buck thought of the F.B.I. agent.
"Hey," he said softly at the open doorway. "Time for a break."
Samantha looked up at him and then rose to her feet. "Can I get you anything?" she asked Martin. He shook his head and Samantha smiled. "Okay. I'll be just outside." She ran her fingers gently through Martin's hair before turning to go. Martin's hand slid down her arm and his fingers brushed hers as she moved away.
Martin sighed and turned his attention to Vin. "Hasn't moved at all," he reported. "You know what's the weirdest of all this?"
"What?" Buck asked as he looked down at Vin's slack features for a moment.
"It's like there's a hole in my mind now. I never knew there was a hole there until Vin came along; he's just there, you know?" He tapped his temple. "And now that he's out like that," he nodded toward the still figure in the bed. "I can feel the hole. It's kinda hard to explain."
"I do get it," Buck said softly. He glanced at the monitors before turning to face Martin. "Chris 'n' I have been friends for a long time. He told me the same thing when he and Vin first met. It's the only way he could explain that 'talking without words' thing they have. It was hard to believe, and I admit I did razz him about it, but after awhile . . ."
"There were too many instances to back up what he - they - claimed."
"Yeah. That little parlor trick they do has saved our asses, both individually and collectively, too many times to count. So I believe ya."
Martin scrubbed his weary face with his hand. "This has been the weirdest week of my life."
Buck chuckled and decided to change the subject. "So, you and Samantha been together long?"
A slow grin erased some of the tired lines of Martin's face. "Yes. No. Well, we were starting to connect when the Full Moon case came up. We had to back off for awhile, but it looks like things are coming together."
"She's been a real trooper with all this, that's for sure. Don't meet many women that are so resistant to the Wilmington charm."
"She's worked with Danny, remember. Must have built up her immunity."
Both men chuckled softly and then turned their attention to Vin.
"Never thought I'd ever see the back of his neck," Buck mused. "He sure looks different without that hair." He glanced back to Martin. "But the style suits you. Why does it look so weird on him?"
Martin shook his head. "One of those mysteries that comes with twins, I guess." He looked thoughtful.
"Been quite a shock for y'all."
"Yeah, ain't that the truth." Martin sank back in the less than soothing chair. "It's given me a new appreciation for my mom - Katherine," he clarified. "In an odd sorta way she's got dad wrapped around her finger. I've never seen him bow to someone's needs like he does to hers. Guess everyone's got someone . . ."
"But it doesn't help the hurt much, does it?"
"Nah. Not really. I can forgive her. Not sure I can do the same for old Victor." Martin sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. "I just want this all over so we can move on."
"I hear ya, son. New York's fun to visit, but I'll be very happy to head home."
Wu was deep into his meditation. He was upset that it had taken so long to achieve a calm, peaceful center.
Never had a hit gone so badly for him. Pride, he figured. Pride is what made him lose his focus. He wasn't a young man anymore and he had to realize that, along with the fact that he'd been out of the field for at least a decade. Dragon's Claw had to adjust his technique. After all, success was the only measure that mattered. He had to finish this because Dragon's Claw never failed.
He may have to try something different. He had to start from the basic idea again. He had to taste blood again. Literally
The Ancients believed that drinking the blood of their enemies brought them strength and power. It was time to embrace the lessons of his ancestors once again. It was time to start over again.
Wu felt his mind calm and his thoughts become focused. Yes, that was it. He'd ignored the Ancients and had paid for it with failure.
He wouldn't fail again.
"I got it!" JD yipped.
The six of them had spent the last hours making connections and running down threads and finally, JD was sure he'd found the common factor; the mole. The same mole here that had been responsible for Ezra's disgrace in Atlanta five years ago.
"Ted Cheever," JD announced.
Jack's face showed disbelief. "You sure? Cheever's had his mitts in just about every aspect of the F.B.I. A real climber - he's considered a golden boy."
"If he's such a climber than what's he doin' on Fitzgerald's staff? Aren't there better positions?" Chris took the sheets JD offered and began scanning them with Josiah looking over his shoulder.
The hotel room was getting hot and rather stifling. It wasn't meant to hold this number of people for any length of time.
"Being on anyone's staff in D.C. is the way to make influential contacts," Vivian said. "And I bet he's got more than a few secrets in his pocket, too. That's better than gold."
"I don't know what he plans for himself politically," JD explained. "But his bank account shows he's got a great shot at being a lobbyist or a congressman. With the timing of some of these deposits, it sure looks like he's bein' paid off. By lots of people. And the way he transfers funds is usually untraceable."
"Hm." Jack studied the figures with Vivian at his side. "He makes a lot more than I do, lookin' at this."
"He makes more than the F.B.I. Director, according to that." JD flexed his sore fingers. "And look back five years. I cross matched with the records of Ezra's investigation and I see a pattern of deposits around each of the events that were in the record - the events that tried to show Ez as a snitch. They couldn't find a money trail on Ez. That was the only thing that saved him from being prosecuted."
"So he was used for convenience. It was never the intention to pin the events on Ez to hang him," Chris mused. Nathan also read over his shoulder.
"Nope. He was the decoy only. The money was the only thing Cheever wanted. He hides it very well, too. He did a lot of stuff behind Victor's back in Atlanta and no doubt in D.C., either. He got lots of money then, and he's still getting it from even more sources."
"Yep. Look. There's a deposit and transfer to an offshore account just before Wu started shootin' at Vin. Cheever must have told him where Martin and Vin were."
"And I bet he was real pleased to hear Ez was involved."
"I bet he was. Ezra was an instant stooge. Like I said, Atlanta all over again and that was very profitable for him. So, what's next?"
"Time for a set up," Jack said. "Damn, an F.B.I. employee in cahoots with an assassin." He shook his head, speechless.
Chris could only nod in agreement that is was a horrifying precedent.
The humming was low and throaty and the only thing that didn't seem to throb in time with his head. It was deep hum that massaged his bones and wasn't particularly unpleasant until there was a sharp click and it was over.
He realized the word was repeated several times, but this time he finally understood it. He responded automatically - "Hunh?" the effort burning the back of his throat. The muscles of his forehead twitched into a frown. Sparks ignited in his head.
"Here." The word was followed by a sharp poke to his lower lip. "Drink something."
It was easier to simply follow orders because the pain in his head was taking all his attention. The water was blessedly cool as it spilled from the straw. Vin sighed.
"Come on, Vin, quit moanin' and open your eyes."
"I ain't moanin'." The words didn't sound like he thought they should.
"I know you're a little mixed up but it's time to wake up, pard."
Pard? "C'rs?" He worked to get his eyelids to obey.
"Yeah, it's me. Keep tryin', Vin. Come on."
Finally, both lids cracked at the same time and he saw fuzzy figures.
'You with us now?' Not Chris but still familiar in his mind.
"Yeah, yeah." Vin reached up and touched the wrapping on his head.
"Mr. Tanner? Can you answer some questions for me?" Fingers held open his eyelid as a painful probe of light pierced his eye. Vin reached for the fingers with the intention of breaking them for the intrusion. A strong hand prevented the motion.
"Stand down, Vin. It's only the doc." Chris said softly. His grip, though, was firm.
Vin forced his body to relax and tolerate the inspection. He realized he was sitting up and the humming sensation from earlier made sense - hospital bed. The light left his eyes and he tried to blink away the fuzziness.
"Do you remember what happened?" Strange voice. The doctor?
"Uh . . ." Visions rolled through his head like tumbleweeds on a desert. The headache dug furrows to in his forehead between his brows as he squeezed his eyes shut.
"Do you know your name?"
"Do you know where you are?"
Chuckling from a source in the background.
"Do you remember where? What city?"
Vin narrowly opened his eyes. His vision cleared and he saw three faces. Doctor dressed in white, Chris dressed in black and . . .
"Martin?" That's whose voice was in his head before.
His own face minus hair grinned back. "Yeah. Glad you remember me, brother."
Brother. The word organized his thoughts. He was far from home and he'd found family. "New York."
Apparently satisfied, the doctor's face disappeared but Vin could still hear his voice.
"Something for pain will be brought in soon. The CAT and MRI look good. I'll start on your release papers." Vin frowned and started to nod but the slight motion hurt too much. Chris moved aside and began speaking with the doctor near the door. Martin moved in closer and Vin noticed that his right arm was trussed up.
"Guess you're going to live." Martin hitched a hip on the bed and winced.
"You okay?" The reason for his brother's injury came to Vin in spurts.
"I'll survive. As soon as you're able, we need to bring you up to date."
'Wu shot me?' Speaking without words was easier on Vin's headache.
'Yeah. He's still out there . . .' ". . . and that's why we need to talk."
"There's a plan, then." The feeling had come to him bundled with Martin's mental message.
"Chris and Jack are working on it."
"We're gonna lure the bastard into the open, right?" Vin shifted and at that moment realized his left arm was in a cast. He regarded it blearily as Martin spoke.
"Neither one's too happy about it, but it's really the only way. We found a leak in dad's staff. That's how Wu's been getting information."
Vin pondered on that between the throbs of his headache. The word 'dad' brought the revelations of the past few days together in his mind. "Dad," he mumbled. "Don't sound right."
Martin's smile didn't include his eyes. "I know what you mean."
Chris returned to the bed as the doctor left the room. "Hey, partner," he started. "I hate to do this to ya, but we have to move fast if we want to control where we meet Wu again. Travis gave us the warrants we need and we're ready to go."
Vin forced himself to ignore the headache. "So start talkin'."
Deputy Director Fitzgerald hung up the phone with a decisive slam and let out a sharp breath. Ted Cheever, his personal assistant, twitched at the noise and saw his boss throw a furtive glance toward the bedroom.
"Is my wife still asleep?"
"Yes, sir. She took one of those pills, as you requested. She should sleep for another couple of hours."
"Good, good." Victor turned, his mind obviously distracted. The man had been gone for hours trying to keep tabs on his ungrateful son and had only just returned to the hotel suite. Things hadn't gone well, gauging by Victor's mood since then. "I'll be going out later . . ."
"Should I change your dinner plans, sir?"
"No," Victor said first. Then he ran his hand through his hair. "Yes, yes. Maybe you should. I don't know if I'll make it back in time."
His boss was uncharacteristically disjointed, his mind obviously elsewhere. Then Victor sucked in a sharp breath and regrouped right before Ted's eyes. "Yes. Martin's leaving for a safe house late this afternoon - before six, I think."
"Again? The same one? If it is, you can still make the dinner . . ."
"No, no." The Deputy Director shook his head and grabbed the back of his neck in a massage-like pinch. He turned his back to Ted. "It's out of town, off Dreyden Road, near the dead end. The ATF team will be returning to Denver soon but Martin and their two agents will be recovering at the same location for a few days before they leave." He let out a breath and dropped his hand. "And it's not soon enough for me."
"Good riddance, huh?" Victor shot his assistant a piercing glance over his shoulder that told Ted he'd overstepped again by sounding too familiar. Ted cleared his throat and dropped his eyes, busying himself with Victor's Blackberry. "So," he said as he poised the stylus. "When are they arriving at the safe house? Are you going to meet them there or go by later?"
Always efficient, Ted Cheever updated the Deputy Director's schedule for the day before excusing himself. He had just enough time to make a few phone calls from his room before having to arrange for the Deputy Director's car.
It was obviously taking every ounce of Larabee's self control to keep from strangling his team's sharpshooter. Vin dropped into the wheelchair with an ill-concealed grunt. His forehead was shiny with pain-induced sweat because he'd refused any help.
"You comfy?" Chris asked from between gritted teeth.
"Just fine, thanks," Vin growled back.
Martin found the whole exchange amusing. He could feel the frustration pulsing from both of them, the mental conversation fast and furious between them. Martin could only follow one side of it, but the emotion from both sides was very clear.
'At least now I know that stubbornness is hereditary.'
In response, Vin glared at his brother which made Martin's smile grow bigger.
"Amusin', huh?" Vin asked.
"Oh, yeah." He fell in beside the chair as Chris pushed. Martin felt the unease growing as they trio approached the elevator. "It's only three stories," he said. "Quick trip."
Vin nodded mutely.
"So JD's in the car already?" Martin figured they could keep Vin's mind off the trip by going over the plan again.
"Yep. Looked pretty good in Ez's suit, too." The elevator doors slid open. Chris let Martin push the chair in and turn it around as Chris pulled out his cell phone. He hit a few buttons to pull up a picture and handed it to Vin.
Martin nodded in approval at the well-timed action. Vin's nervousness waned as he took the small device in his hand. After a moment he chuckled and handed the phone back to Chris.
"Good thing the parkin' garage was dark. Looks like the shoulders need some paddin'. JD ain't quite as buff as Ez."
Larabee glanced at the picture with a smirk before closing the phone and putting it away. "Did the trick. Looked like Ez to Buck when they hustled him onto the car."
"Those windows better be pretty dark 'cos Wu'll be able to see faces with his scope."
"That's why JD's sittin' behind the driver and in the back. The side and back windows are pretty dark. The windshield's the only clear glass."
The elevator bumped to a stop and Chris pushed the wheelchair out. Martin saw Vin's shoulders visibly relax. They were met in the alcove of the elevator bank by security. Vests were draped over the three of them and they were surrounded as they moved to the exit.
"Quite a show we're puttin' on," Vin mumbled, clearly uncomfortable with the attention.
"As much as we trust your sniper knowledge, we aren't takin' any chances," Chris said and he quickly pushed Vin along. Once outside, Chris leaned closer to Vin's ear. "And it has to look good. We don't know who is watching."
The black Suburban was as close to the exit as it physically could get and a dark sedan was close behind. Vin and Martin were quickly ushered into the back seats and the door barely closed before the vehicle was in motion. Martin glanced back and saw Chris jump in the sedan.
"So far so good." JD's voice was breathy with excitement. He was in the third row seat.
The kid's mood was catching and Martin couldn't help but grin. He glanced at his brother and saw a small smile soften Vin's features. Apparently, the mild pain medication he'd taken helped.
"Calm down, JD. You're supposed to be in pain, remember?" Nathan said from the driver's seat.
"Was Ezra all right with this switch?" Vin asked. He found the handguns he'd requested in the seat pouch in front of him and handed one to Martin. They both automatically inspected the weapons as JD replied.
"He was the one that requested it," JD said. "It did make sense to have one armed, uninjured passenger back here, just in case. You know Chris, he . . ."
". . . he didn't want to take any chances. I got that." Vin's irritation at Chris' protectiveness made Nathan chuckle.
"Wu is a seasoned professional. The element of surprise is all we have workin' for us right now," Nathan reminded them. "We have Dreyden Road covered from all angles based on your instructions, Vin. If you're right and that's where Wu hits ya, he ain't gettin' away."
"And that's another reason why Ez suggested the switch," JD said. "He left Wu for Vin while he settled an old score somewhere else."
Vin grunted and glanced at Martin. "You better be right about that part, brother, or we're puttin' on a show without an audience."
"Victor Fitzgerald is driven to gain status and power. Cheever threatens both. Dad'll do what needs to be done to save his own hide." Martin awkwardly thumbed the safety of his weapon with his uninjured left hand and tucked the gun in his waistband with a sigh. "He's very good at taking care of himself."
Nathan snorted. "I'll say."
Sharp raps on the door drew Ted's attention from his laptop. He glanced at his watch. "Damn, fastest dry cleaning delivery I've ever seen," he mumbled as he closed the computer lid. A second assault started on the door. "Okay! I'm coming!" he said loudly as he approached the door. "Fast, but rude," he grumbled to himself. He pulled the door open and was shocked to see a familiar black woman standing there. Her eyes locked on his and he immediately felt fearful. "Agent Johnson, right?" was all he could think to say.
"Good day, Mr. Cheever. I believe this is for you." She slapped his chest with a folded paper and pulled him from the room.
Ted stumbled into the hall, juggling the paper in surprise. "Hey!" he yelped, finally getting the paper under control. All he saw was the word "Warrant" before another presence made him look up.
Victor Fitzgerald's eyes pinned him with an arctic glare. "Cuff him," he said shortly. A man came forward with handcuffs.
"What?" Ted sputtered as cold metal clicked over his wrists.
His boss stepped into the hotel room behind Agent Johnson, clearing the way for another's piercing glare to freeze him in his tracks.
"My dear Mr. Cheever," Ezra Standish stated dryly while still managing to appear elegant even with one shoulder heavily wrapped in bandages. "It has been a while since we last met. About five years?" The smile that shaped his mouth somehow made Standish's eyes grow impossibly harder. "I see you have finally earned your true reward. You have no idea how happy I am for you."
As more agents moved past Standish and spilled into his hotel room, Ted Cheever knew he was in trouble. Big trouble.
Dreyden Road began where the city of New York ended and led travelers along a path that slowly became rustically rural with each passing mile. It began at the edge of the city as a four lane, divided highway and eventually ended as a two lane country road. As it narrowed, the roadway became as curvaceous as a 50's pin-up gal.
Vin found the gentle turns relaxing. Between the crooked roadway and increasing number of trees overhanging the pavement he knew there was no chance of being the target of a distance sniper. That feeling would evaporate when the road eventually straightened out near its termination. There was a very small window of opportunity on this particular roadway which was why the team chose it to make a stand. There was only one area of opportunity for sniper ability of Dragon's Claw.
Dreyden Road dead-ended in a collection of scattered estates and open land. Wu would be trapped inside an unbreakable perimeter of ATF, State Police and Federal Park Rangers that knew this area well. The hastily collected law enforcement personnel were mounted on everything from horses to small all-terrain vehicles and 4-wheel drive trucks, all of which blended in to the area to look like residents.
With only a half a day to pull the plan together, Chris has been impressed at the response. Victor Fitzgerald and Jack Malone had a lot of contacts and they had all acted quickly. The hard part had been convincing Victor of Cheever's double dealings. Once Judge Travis had approved the search warrants for Cheever's phones and financial and personal records, the limited information they'd had time to retrieve was damning. And when the Deputy Director intentionally let the location of the safe house off Dreyden Road slip, Cheever's following phone call to Wu quickly hung him.
Victor Fitzgerald had been uncharacteristically quiet since then.
Vin cast his eyes in the direction of his brother, trying to read his expression. Martin, too, had been subdued since they'd started their trip. He must have felt Vin's gaze on him because after a moment, Martin met his brother's concerned look.
"I'm fine," Martin assured him with a half grin. "When this is over, we need to get away and talk."
Vin nodded. "I think we've earned some time off, wouldn't ya say, JD?" The only response was a grunt from the back seat. Vin turned as much as his aching head would allow. "You okay back there?"
A mumbled "yeah" was all he uttered. Martin turned to the back seat, having a better angle to see the agent. Vin saw his brother frown at first and then break into a smile.
"Are you carsick?" Martin prodded.
"Carsick?" Vin laughed. "JD, are you really carsick?"
"Who's carsick?" Nathan demanded from the driver's seat. "I can't pull over! If you're gonna heave, JD, use this!"
An empty paper coffee cut flew backward through the air and bounced off Vin's shoulder. HE cringed as he automatically tried to grab the cup before it hit the floor. "Ooh, shouldn't move that fast," he winced, his head a constant reminder of his injuries. Much more slowly, he retrieved the cup and handed it over his shoulder to JD. "You ain't gonna ruin Ezra's jacket, are ya?" he commented.
"Shut up," JD growled, grabbing the cup. "I'll be fine when the road straightens out."
Martin tried to look sympathetic but Vin saw the amused shine in his brother's eyes. Martin's mouth opened to issue what Vin knew would be a smart-aleck remark when a loud bang was suddenly followed by a jerking movement of the Suburban.
"SHIT!" Nathan yelped. Vin saw him glance to the rearview mirror. "CHRIS!"
A louder bang made the big SUV cut sharply to the left, and then to the right, giving Vin just enough time to press his body against the side before his world turned sideways and the sound of screeching metal drove him painfully into darkness.
Wu relaxed, allowing the rifle stock to drop from his shoulder. The two vehicles had come to a crashing stop exactly where he'd planned. He had not instituted a medium range attack in decades and was pleased that his accuracy and speed was still intact. Wu whispered thanks to the Highest Powers for giving him the chance to prove himself.
Wu strode to his nearby Jeep and slipped inside, driving a few dozen yards to reach the wrecked vehicles. The smell of hot antifreeze and burned rubber ignited excitement in his veins but his tight and practiced control kept him to an efficient pace. Wu carefully and respectfully stored his rifle and retrieved his handgun, tucking it in his waistband. As he exited the Jeep he felt for the knife pouch on his waist and patted it to make sure his knife was where it should be. It would soon be time for close work and again feel the essence of his victims' blood on his fingers.
The sedan was nose down in the muddy rut of a small stream. Steam rose from the grille and the shredded tire he'd shot out still twitched from the front wheel hub. There was no motion inside from the body draped over the steering wheel. After a quick visual inspection, he moved to his main target.
The Suburban was on its left side in the same ravine, the shot out tire hidden under the vehicle. Wu was momentarily annoyed that he had to climb up to the side door, but then chastised himself for being ungrateful. The Powers that gave him his ability to shoot would not be pleased with that attitude. Wu immediately banished the thoughts with a mental apology and focused on finishing his task.
Wu climbed onto the side of the vehicle and reached inside through the broken window to unlock the door. It took some effort, but the door finally groaned open. The sight of the bloodied, tumbled bodies inside caused his heart to race with anticipation. He grabbed the closest arm and tugged - it didn't move. Wu slipped into the metallic hulk and used his knife to cut the seatbelts that kept his prey from him.
The familiar Fitzgerald/Nicklin face, lax in unconsciousness, showed no reaction at being pulled free. The way the arm was wrapped against the body made it easy to push the first figure out the and over the edge of the SUV. There was a dull thud as it hit the ground.
Wu reached in again, ignoring the tug of long unused muscles in his back and freed the second twin. Blood marred on side of the injured man's face, the sweet and heady copper scent exciting Wu to the point of losing concentration. Wu paused, mentally berated himself and asked the Powers to forgive his momentary weakness. Then the second body joined the first as the assassin focused on his task. Wu heard the hard cast on his second victim's arm banging loudly against the vehicle as it fell to the ground.
The driver moaned and stirred. Wu struck black man's skull with the butt of his knife to send him back into unconsciousness. Wu turned to the third passenger and was momentarily taken aback when he realized it wasn't St. James. The figure moaned and an arm jerked just before the eyes snapped open. Wu found that he was looking at the face of a boy.
Wu pursed his lips in disgust. Who did these people think they were, sending out a mere boy to protect Dragon's Claw's victims? The blatant disrespect was insulting. Wu thought about cutting the boy's heart out in anger but then remembered why he was here. The Powers were testing his humility! Wu took a deep, relaxing breath, ignored the tantalizing blood perfume and knocked the unknown boy into the same darkness as the driver. Wu congratulated himself on his restraint.
"This is a clever, convoluted test," Dragon's Claw complimented the Powers in a reverent whisper, bowing his head with respect. "I can only hope I have proved my worthiness so far."
Wu crawled out from the wreck and laboriously dragged his two sacrificial entities to the Jeep where he threw them in with little finesse. Wu was reminded that this was the kind of physical labor that started his climb to becoming Dragon's Claw and thus confirmed to him that he was on the right path. He quickly bound the arms and feet of his victims with duct tape.
Now he had to get his victims to the sacrificial site for the Blood Offering ritual and Dragon's Claw would be redeemed.
Chris came around abruptly with the sound of a vehicle starting. His body jerked into motion and he sat up, looking around wildly as his hand felt for this weapon. His stomach lurched when he saw the Suburban on its side and it took a moment for the sound of wheels on dirt to register. He twisted his head over his shoulder and saw a sage-colored Jeep executing a careful Y turn.
"Hey!" Chris yelled as he tried to undue his seatbelt. "STOP!"
Realizing he wouldn't get loose in time Chris fumbled with the car's radio.
"All units, the suspect hit early and is on an off-road westbound trail. I repeat, the suspect hit early! Suspect vehicle is a light green Jeep. I need back up now! Outside the perimeter to the east!" Radio chatter immediately cluttered the airwaves and Chris returned to fighting his seatbelt. Finally, it released and he erupted from the smashed vehicle, stumbling as his feet hit the uneven ground of the ravine. Finding his balance he dragged his weapon from his shoulder holster and shot off three rounds at the retreating Jeep. There was at least one solid strike that he could hear but the Jeep didn't hesitate in its departure.
"SHIT!" Chris screamed as the vehicle moved off in a cloud of dust that obscured the license plate. "GOD DAMN IT!"
Chris clawed his way out of the ravine and wobbled toward the SUV. "Nathan!" he called. "NATHAN!" He ran around to the front, barely able to make out the still form behind the wheel. Chris yelled again and Nathan jerked, coming to life much too slowly for Chris.
Squealing tires from the road caused Chris to duck down and bring up his weapon toward the noise. Buck leaped from a car before Samantha came to a complete stop.
"He's getting away!" Chris yelled.
"Which way?" Buck responded, sliding to a stop and pulling out his weapon.
Chris pointed to the brush-hidden off-road trail beyond the ravine. The only evidence of the departed Jeep was the remnants of a dust cloud settling on the path.
"Damn! We can't follow in this car," Buck said with a nod toward Samantha's sedan. "I'll see if there's air support and if anyone else is . . ."
Before Buck finished his sentence a park ranger emerged from the trees on a leggy bay horse, his radio alive with chatter. "Everyone alright?" he asked as he pulled up.
Without a word, Chris stalked to the man and yanked him from the saddle. The ranger, taken totally by surprise, fell without a sound. Chris stuck his foot in the stirrup; the horse danced in place, its ears flicking nervously.
"Chris, are you nuts?" Buck called. "Wait for a helo! You'll never catch him on a horse!"
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" the ranger demanded as he gained his feet.
The angry team leader barely heard the last words as he pulled himself into the saddle, reined toward the off-road path and urged the horse into a ground pounding gallop.
Orders and directions were quick and furious, spilling from Chris' earpiece nonstop and he quickly built a mental picture of he back up; he realized he was on his own for now. After a dozen more strides of the running horse, Chris blocked all the chatter and became completely focused on pursuit.
The narrow roadside ravine where he left his car was a tributary to a larger creek that ran, more or less, parallel to the trail the Jeep followed. There was very little water in the creek this time of year and the sandy-loam bed proved to be a good surface for the galloping horse. The Jeep had to follow a trail that had more curves than the riverbed - one thing in Chris' favor.
Chris figured his luck wouldn't last - it never did. The creek bed would run out soon or the Jeep would take another trail up one of the numerous valleys; trying to plan ahead was impossible since he didn't know the area. He had to come up with a plan, and fast. Chris noticed the roof rack on the Jeep and worked it into an idea.
The Jeep bounced along the trail with impressive speed. Chris figured the passengers were getting a very rough ride and that he probably couldn't count on Vin or Martin at the moment - if they were still alive. He moved his hands down the length of rein and urged the bay to a faster speed by leaning over the horse's extended crest. The animal complied. Chris knew it would tire quickly at this rate.
He saw an out and immediately took it. A narrow path that led to the creek's edge came into view and he directed his mount toward it. The pair thundered up the slight slope and through a primitive dirt parking area. A low log fence bordered the area and the bay jumped the obstacle without hesitation. Chris grabbed a handful of mane and managed to stay aboard. Upon landing, he glanced up and saw the Jeep's rear bumper disappear behind a low rise.
Chris spat a curse and headed for the rise. Suddenly, the ground in front of them dropped away where another creek had cut a path. The horse's ears shot forward and Chris barely had time to adjust his seat as the horse took a gallant and powerful leap.
They cleared the void - barely. The horse stumbled on landing but quickly found his feet and resumed his furious pace. His mount was starting to lather and Chris knew it would soon be spent. He could only pray that his vague idea panned out before the horse tired completely.
Man and horse attacked the small rise. When they reached the slope's crest Chris instinctively guided the spirited bay to follow the slope's crest. The timing was perfect. As the Jeep straightened out parallel to their course and below them, Chris asked the horse for more and it complied, probably for the last time, he realized. He had to act now.
Chris leaned to the side and pushed off the thundering horse, landing on the roof rack with an ungainly thump. He grabbed the leading edge of the roof rack with both hands and braced his feet against the back section. The Jeep swerved violently from side to side, but he held on even though the ride was violently rough. When he felt somewhat secure Chris released one hand and reached for his handgun.
He pulled out his weapon and frantically tried to figure his next move. He looked ahead and saw that the off-road trail emptied on to a narrow roadway so he waited. The bumpy, wild ride immediately became smoother as the Jeep transitioned from dirt to pavement with a wild jump that lifted Chris' belly from the roof.
He'd just slammed back onto the metal when a loud bang produced a sting in his thigh. Gunfire! Another bang quickly followed. Chris looked over his shoulder and saw a bullet hole next to his hip. A second later another shot burned a trail along his side.
He had to move.
Chris scooted to the right edge and dropped his arm. It was an awkward angle - too awkward to shoot through the window - so he needed a secondary target, one that would allow the vehicle to come to a controlled stop rather than spinning out. Chris swung his arm to the front and started shooting at the hood, hoping to hit the distributor cap or the radiator; damage to either one would eventually kill the engine and hopefully that would happen before he got gut shot.
Firing off a trio of shots, Chris rolled aside as quickly as his predicament allowed. A pair of shots zinged through the roof where his abdomen had just been. He fired another trio of shots through the hood and rolled to his side to make the smallest target he could. Another pair of holes burst through the roof next to his chest.
Chris concentrated on staying aboard and listened to the radio chatter in his ear, trying to estimate when he's have backup. The Jeep was far outside the established perimeter but a helicopter unit answered up and was heading his way. For now, Chris was on his own. He twisted and snapped off another trio of shots and was finally rewarded with a violent spray of steam and antifreeze. The hot concoction came down in a fiery rain and he gasped. The Jeep jerked suddenly, the engine screaming.
Another shot pounded the roof and Chris' left bicep erupted blood, tearing his grip on the rack. He yelped in pain and frantically grabbed for the rail with his right hand. His gun disappeared over the edge of the roof. Adrenalin dampened the hurt but didn't dampen the dizziness that attacked him. Mentally, all he thought to do was hang on and survive.
Chris tightened his grip on the rack rail and braced himself with his feet. His left arm refused to obey him. The Jeep's motor whined as it seized and died. The vehicle slowed rapidly and then jerked to a near stop, the engine grinding sickly.
Chris heard the driver door open. Rolling to the right side and felt brief weightlessness before painfully hitting the asphalt with a loud grunt and a spray of bright lights.
Shocked, Chris froze for a moment. Blinking rapidly, he worked to ignore the pain of his arm and slowly turned his head aside. He saw feet on the other side of the Jeep and was reminded of Ezra - the shoes were the expensive kind. Automatically feeling for his gun, he remembered that it was somewhere on the road behind them. A renewed adrenalin rush forced focus.
The feet weren't moving. A door open.
'Vin!' his mind screamed.
The roar in Chris' ears grew louder very quickly. He tried to push to his feet but his left arm collapsed when he tried to use it. Liquid fire immediately shot up his arm and directly to his head and he reeled, gasping. Chris rolled to the other side, trying to ignore the blinding pain, and again attempted to stand. His body wouldn't respond.
Chris collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily and fighting darkness as he commanded his limbs to work. He growled in frustration at his body's betrayal. Chris fell back again and tried to yell a warning but the roaring in his ears was too loud. He suddenly felt bits of dirt bite his skin on a hard wind and then realized that the roaring he heard was a helicopter. Backup had arrived.
Although he tried to hang on, Chris dropped into a black abyss.
Buck swallowed hard in a supreme effort to keep his stomach in place. The noise of the helicopter bundled with the abrupt landing maneuver and what he saw below him suddenly brought back many suppressed visions from his SEAL days. None of them were pleasant. He glanced at Jack, sitting next to him, to see if the man had noticed his discomfort. He hadn't - Jack's eyes were fixed out the small window of the craft.
The radio chatter was incessant, bursting with directions of travel and sightings of Wu and his captive - one captive, Buck knew, and both on foot. From what he could see from the sky it wasn't Chris because the sprawled figure on the street next to the green Jeep was dressing in Chris' signature black. The body was and very still.
The helo's runner barely touched the ground when Buck leaped from the cabin feeling, more than seeing, Jack on his heels. Admittedly afraid as to what he would find, Buck skidded to a stop a few feet from his oldest friend before taking a breath and crossing the final void. He dropped next to Chris and his hand stalled for a moment over the motionless form. Blood stained the asphalt under one of Chris' arms and one side of his shirt was shiny. Buck finally reached out and touched the glossy cloth, knowing what he'd find. His hand came away red.
"Medic!" he yelled over his shoulder, shocked into motion. "I need a medic, here!"
After receiving a faint acknowledgement from the helo Buck turned his attention back to Chris.
"Hey, stud," he called through a tight throat. "Chris?"
Buck felt for a pulse and found one that was stronger than he'd expected. It pushed him into motion and he rolled Chris to his back. Chris responded with a sickening groan. Buck gave him a quick going over, thrilled when an EMT dropped down next to him with a loaded medical kit.
"Yeah, Chris, it's me. Or should I call you Indiana Jones?" Buck said with relief.
"Where's Vin?" Chris tried to move, but gave up with a pain-filled hiss.
"That'll teach ya." Buck looked apprehensively toward the Jeep. Jack was talking lowly and helping someone from the back seat. "One of 'em's here, Chris, but Wu has the other and is usin' 'em as a hostage."
"Who? Who's here?" Chris chewed his lower lip and squirmed in obvious pain.
"Looks like Wu has Martin," Jack said, puffing a bit as he assisted Vin to Buck's side. Vin appeared to be barely aware of his surroundings. A piece of silver duct tape dangled from the cast on his arm.
"Take a seat, Junior, you're next." Buck pointed to a spot next to the medic as he stepped back toward the helo.
"I'm comin' with ya," Vin said, his voice breathy and slurred as he braced his wobbly legs.
"Don't be stupid, Vin!" Buck yelled, his nerves finally snapping. With the cervical collar on and his disheveled clothes Vin looked like a refugee from a war zone field hospital. "You stay here!"
"He's my brother, Buck," Vin said hoarsely. He raised his eyes from Chris and met Buck's stern gaze without flinching. "I'm goin'."
Buck looked at Jack. The FBI leader was holding up the injured agent with one arm around his waist. Vin's good arm was draped over Jack's shoulders. Jack adjusted his grip and pulled Vin in tighter. "If tea time's over then let's get my agent," Jack growled.
Malone turned Vin toward the helo and they stumbled away. Buck hesitated a moment, his eyes on Chris.
"Go, Buck. Cover his sorry ass." Chris mumbled, ending the order with a breathy expletive as the medic tightened a field dressing. His body went limp as he sank again into unconsciousness.
Buck sprinted to the chopper, passing the stumbling pair. Once at the craft he stepped up and turned to help drag Vin inside.
"You're heavier than you look," Jack panted when they finally settled Vin enough to lift off.
"Must be all those bandages," Buck yelled over the growing engine noise. He threw Vin an exasperated look.
Vin didn't see it. His eyes were closed because he'd passed out again.
Wu pushed onward with purpose, driven to complete the task set to him. Purposely keeping a fast pace to keep his captive off balance, Wu already knew that he was not destined to reach is prepared arena. Instead, he would have to use what the Powers allowed. Again, he'd have to prove himself.
He held his captive tight, their bodies pressed into one silhouette. The blade Wu held was long, obscenely sharp and very special. Wu had only used it twice before in two other rituals to the Powers. Both times he'd been rewarded with power and skill beyond expectation; he'd been humble then, not expecting much. This time was different - Wu knew he'd taken the Powers for granted the last few years, his expectations of greatness higher than, perhaps, they should have been.
It was time to beg forgiveness, and Wu wasn't used to begging. A blood offering was the only way to prove his respect.
Wu dragged his weakly struggling victim with a physical strength that came from somewhere deep inside. His eyes locked on a circle of rocks in an open field beyond the trees and he felt giddy with pleasure. The Powers had purposely led him to this exact point to offer him a perfect alter.
To get there, thought, he would be in the open and dangerously vulnerable.
Wu barked a short laugh. The Powers' test was exquisitely difficult - to get to their selected alter Wu had to cross the treeless meadow and rely on the Powers to protect him. They were testing his trust!
The assassin hesitated for just a moment, tightening his grip on the weakly squirming sacrificial lamb and the shiny blade. Wu was well aware of the powerful handgun tucked in his waistband, teasing him and testing his restraint. Using the firearm, though, would indicate a lack of trust to the Powers. It had to be the blade.
Wu started forward, the circle of rocks lying in wait for the blood offering. All else around him faded away as he pressed the blessed blade against his victim's throat and again set his course for immortality.
As the helo cleared the tree line, Jack scanned the area ahead as he settled a microphone fitted helmet on his head. The radio chatter was nonstop.
"He's in the field, crossing eastbound," Josiah's unmistakable voice reported. "There's no shot from here without endangering the hostage."
"I'm almost there, south side," Samantha said, panting.
Other officers also reported in and Jack imagined a tight circle closing in on the field.
"This is Malone. I have an aerial visual from the east side. Sanchez, can you see how the suspect's armed?"
"Checking." There was a long pause as Jack imagined the big agent adjusting binoculars. Jack could see the open field now with a dark speck moving unsteadily across the green. "I see a knife on the hostage's throat. At least ten inches. Looks like a gun in Wu's waistband, in the back."
"How does Martin look?" Jack asked.
"Looks like brother Martin's slowin' Wu down. He's upright and moving but Wu's having to work."
"Does anyone have a shot?"
"Not that I can see." Josiah's voice was breathy. He was obviously on the move as he spoke. "He's got Martin too close. Looks like we have a good perimeter around the meadow, though. He can't get out."
"Everyone hold positions. Do not expose yourselves. Wu is an accurate shot and we don't have a clear target." Samantha acknowledged Jack as did several other voices. Jack recognized Danny and JD among them.
The dark figure crossing the meadow grew in size and clarity as the helicopter drew closer. Jack could differentiate between Wu and Martin now, but the visualization did nothing to lighten his dread. The pair was melded close, and once they got to the rocks there wouldn't be any chance for a shot.
As the aircraft approached the edge of the meadow, Wu twisted around and raised his chin. The pair paused, and Jack saw Wu press the enormous blade tighter to Martin's throat as the Chinaman defiantly glared at them. The message was clear.
"Back off!" Jack yelled at the pilot. "Back off and hold position!"
As soon as the craft pulled back and hovered, Wu continued his trek to a rough circle of boulders in the center of the field.
"Looks like Stonehenge," Jack muttered, the significance of that suddenly hitting him. "He's heading for the rocks," he said softly, his thoughts turning. Jack dug out a pair of binoculars and focused on Wu's hands and the knife against Martin's throat.
"He'll be trapped, then," Danny offered excitedly. "He'll have to negotiate."
Jack studied the lay out and Wu's direct and this determined expression as he trekked to the natural theater. From somewhere deep in his mind, the memory of a training class about sacrificial rituals sprang forth.
Theatre. Or was it an altar?
Something clicked in Jack's mind and he was spurred into action. Turning, he began a frantic search.
Buck startled from his position over Vin. "What's up?" he snapped.
"Rifle. I need a rifle. When he gets to those rocks, Martin's as good as dead." He found what he was looking against the fuselage behind Buck. A rifle, locked to the frame. "Key! Who has the rifle lock key?"
"I'll get it . . ." Buck lurched to the pilot and after a moment, returned with a key. Jack snatched it away and worked the lock as Buck looked out of the small window. "You gotta be kiddin' me!" Buck yelled. "Can you make that shot? From HERE?"
Jack determinedly pressed on, checking the weapon thoroughly as he ordered Buck to slide open the side door. The pilot and co-pilot worriedly glanced back over their shoulders. "What the hell's going on back there?" the pilot demanded.
"Keep it steady!" Jack barked. "Put me in line with the suspect!"
Jack pulled off the helmet and held the rifle to his shoulder, peering through the sites. It was difficult - no, nearly impossible - to keep a bead on Wu. Through one eye he tracked the assassin as he approached the rocks. First, Jack stood. Then he kneeled. Finally, he lay flat on the floor.
"He's going to sacrifice Martin," Jack said steadily as he tried to find a shot. "That's no ordinary knife. That's the Chinese version of a hari-kari knife, made for sacrificial purposes only."
"Can you do it?" Buck asked sharply. "You have one chance, Malone. If you miss . . ."
The following silent seconds were heavy and tense. Wu and Martin disappeared momentarily behind a large boulder that thrust solidly upward from the earth. When the pair appeared on the other side they were mere steps from the center of the circle.
The gun site bounced. "Shit!" Jack spat - he could feel the sweat percolation along his hairline. His hands felt damp. "I don't know . . . I just . . . can you . . ?" Even he heard the desperation in his voice.
"Hell, no," Buck choked. "I know only one person that could make that shot." He dropped by Vin's side and shook Team 7's sharpshooter into awareness.
Vin awoke to a cacophony of sound, the force of it making him cringe. A constant roar in the background made the layering of words impossible to understand. It was a hand on his shoulder that helped him to finally focus.
"Vin!" a man's voice called. "Junior! Wake up!"
'Buck?' Vin frowned at the voice and struggled to concentrate. "Wha . . ?" he managed to croak.
"Come on, hotshot, you have a job to do."
"Job?" Vin's thoughts felt like scrambled eggs and his head felt like the cracked eggshell. He hurt. Everywhere. Corralling the various agonies took some effort and he wasn't helped in the least by the jarring motion of whatever he was sitting on.
Then a memory hit him. "Martin?" Vin struggled to sit up. Rising alarm temporarily drowned out the pain of motion.
"He's outside with Wu. We need you to . . ."
"Chris? Where's Chris?"
"If you'd just shut up a second, I'll tell ya! Damn, Junior, I never thought I'd hear myself say those words to you . . ."
Vin gritted his teeth and silently accepted help to sit up. His stomach rolled dangerously. Then he realized what the loud background noise tormenting his head was a helicopter. And he was in it. Sharp, exquisite pain enveloped in his head and neck making focus difficult before moving like lightning down his torso and extremities. Vin pressed his abdomen with his free hand to still the awful nausea the pain caused.
"Chris is fine. He's back at the car." Buck licked his lips nervously as he shifted to get into Vin's line of sight. "I'll just tell ya strait, Junior: You gotta make a shot. Neither one of us trust our eyes or our accuracy at this distance. Martin's only got one chance, Vin, and it's you." As he spoke, Buck turned away and Vin heard the jingling of keys. Buck reappeared with a zipper pouch in his hand that had a large, red cross on the outside. He practically ripped it open.
A very familiar clicking noise on Vin's other side shifted his attention from Buck. He tried to breathe through the pain and quell his rapidly growing nausea. Jack held a rifle and was positioning a sandbag next to the open side door of the aircraft. An electrified zing of fear jolted Vin into awareness.
"You need to take the shot, Vin," Buck said sternly. "It's Martin's only chance. We only have one shot."
Vin tried to move but sharp and sudden pain took away his breath again. The battle to push back the fiery tendrils that laced up and down his body was paralyzing. He gasped; the jolt of adrenalin that followed still wasn't enough to mask the agony.
"I can help ya." Vin felt Buck's warm breath brush his ear, his closeness overriding all background noise. "This'll take away the pain long enough for you to do what you do best. You're all Martin has, Vin. You have let me give it to you."
Vin's hazy gaze fixed on the small item in Buck's fingers and he shuddered. Vin was all too familiar with the Army's field morphine ampoules; he'd seen way too many of them. He was well aware of what they could do for him as well as to him.
Vin flicked his eyes from the obscene device to the view outside. Two fuzzy figures - Wu and Martin - were surrounded by a natural circle of rocks in the middle of an open field. The one obviously in control forced his captive to his knees as Vin watched. Wu was behind Martin, holding the agent tight to his chest. Vin frowned at the position - pain narrowed his field of vision, but he could see that not one of the surrounding agents could approach the pair and remain unseen.
"Someone's trying to negotiate," Jack said above the noise of the craft. Wu made no indication that he heard.
"He's got a knife to Martin's throat, Vin. Right over his jugular." Buck's words cut through the fog clouding Vin's thoughts. "Wu's gonna sacrifice him. Martin will bleed out in seconds. One shot is all we have or Martin's dead. You have to do this, Vin!"
Vin swallowed rising bile and nodded, knowing if he unclenched his jaws to speak he'd probably throw up, scream or do both. The needle stick was quick and hardly noticed over his tumultuous thoughts and overwhelming physical distress. As the familiar, calming warmth spread all through him, Vin blinked rapidly at the dark figures on the ground, embraced by the circle of rocks. His vision cleared to an unnatural sharpness. His hand rose to his throat and his fingers danced on the cervical collar.
"Off," he rasped.
He heard more than felt the cervical collar as it was peeled from his neck. Firm hands pulled him forward to his stomach and placed him behind the sand bag. The rifle was pressed into his good arm and he heard someone's voice telling him what the load of the ammunition was. Vin automatically adjusted his body and the casted arm into position, calculations of speed, distance, angle and wind already racing through his brain now that the outside distraction of pain was shoved to the background, behind a terrible opiate dam.
Vin kept his eyes on the pair below him in the distance knowing if he thought about the cloying warmness that washed away his pain he would never get focus back in time. All that mattered now was what he saw through the sight on the rifle and how to best use the weapon. He couldn't allow his thoughts to wander. Not now, not this second. He had to go for a body shot, he knew, because he couldn't chance anything else - Vin didn't know this rifle and the largest mass of target was the best target at this point.
The majority of Wu, though, was covered by a lot of Martin. Vin found his eye focusing on a small triangle of opportunity in Wu's upper chest. Vin centered his site and prepared to fire, the jerk of the helicopter his only nemesis. He'd have to feel out some kind of rhythm to the motion and use it accordingly.
His thoughts centered and his sight focused. All that existed was the tiny, circular world in the scope, centered in the triangle of Wu's upper chest and the movement of the chopper. All else faded away . . . then he felt it. A rhythm. Vin waited . . . then counted . . . then held his breath and squeezed the trigger as Wu's blade flashed in the sun.
'Breathe. Think about breathing.' Martin found it getting more difficult to concentrate. All he recalled was pain and confusion for the past minutes? Hours? At this point, he couldn't remember.
His shoulder burned like molten lead. His head felt like spikes were being driven in his temples. The brightness of the sun caused needle-like stabs in his eyes and this physical force kept driving him forward. Martin knew on some level that it was Wu - but he found that it was taking all he had to simply stay on his feet as he was forced to move.
Memory was sporadic - a flash of a hospital room, another of sitting in a car looking at his twin and then a loud noise and a spray of dazzling light behind his eyes. Now he smelled dirt and grass and sweat. Pressure on his throat made breathing nearly impossible.
'Breathe. Relax and breathe.' Simple steps in order to survive. If he couldn't intake air then the other pains didn't matter a whole lot. 'Breathe.'
It took many moments to realize he wasn't moving anymore. Martin felt pressure on his shoulder and he dropped to his knees, grateful for the respite. 'Breathe.' He closed his eyes, forced his muscles to relax and focus simply on expanding his chest and lungs, forcing inhalation.
After a few pain-filled breaths, Martin realized the buzzing in his ear was words. Soft words that he didn't think were directed at him, but to comprehend them took too much effort - effort he needed to simply breathe.
Martin was physically weary. He tried to sit back on his heels but a mass at his back kept him upright, that and the unrelenting, upward pressure on his throat. Martin raised a shaky hand to dislodge the sharpness on his neck. Weakly working his fingers, the pressure refused to yield. All Martin could do was hang on, his trembling grip ineffectual and weak.
He heard spoken words crooned hotly in his ear. Martin ceased all motion and tried to listen and breathe at the same time, fighting to understand and live at the same time.
Martin's mind clicked for a handful of seconds. The words he heard weren't English. He felt his forehead crinkle into a frown but it was only for a moment. The pressure increased on his neck and the speech level raised a notch.
His fingers clawed at the pressure, making no difference.
The cadence of the words quickened as the pressure against his skin began to burn. There was a roaring in his ears as his air was sharply cut off.
Martin's eyes flew open, shocked that his body was unable to intake air anymore. The brightness of the day created instant tears and he felt cold trails down his cheeks. There was a horrible gurgling sound and it registered somewhere in the back of his fading mind that it he was making the noise. He felt his body lurch to one side . . .
. . . and then he was falling heavily to earth, the musty smell of dirt invaded his nose as soon as he hit the ground with a painful thud. Cool air rushed down his throat when he gaped widely and expanded his chest in desperation.
Energy drained away and Martin simply and gloriously breathed, each intake of air more cool and refreshing than the last. He felt his body slowly revive, and, as it did so, the various pains made themselves known. It was best to just lie still he figured out quickly. After all, he could breathe now and that was all that mattered.
Awareness of what surrounded him came slowly. Voices, footfall and then gentle hands on his body, face and neck.
'Sweet Samantha. When did she get here?'
Blinking, Martin brought her golden-haloed face into focus and grinned weakly. "Hey, beautiful," he thought he said, the words unclear to his own ears. He was rewarded with her bright smile. After a moment, his own smile drained away and he frowned as he studied her. "Tears?" he asked.
"Happy ones," she explained softly, still smiling. "We're gonna get you out of here, okay?"
"Fine," Martin sighed, closing his eyes. It really was tiring to hold them open. He felt pressure on his throat again but this time it was gentle. His body was jostled and he jerked in a painful response. It was getting difficult to ignore. "I'll just rest a bit," he said shakily.
Martin felt Samantha's hand gently stroke his cheek. "Yeah," she whispered. "You do that. I'll take care of everything."
A tiny smile twitched one corner of his mouth as Martin dropped off. He finally felt safe.
"Jesus," Danny mumbled as his eyes fell on Dragon's Claw. The Chinaman was flat on his back, his hands stained with what he realized was Martin's blood. One dead hand still clutched a shiny silver knife, the blade also stained red. Wu's eyes were open and blindly gazing skyward, his mouth agape.
There was a dark red hole at the base of his throat, only slightly off-center. Danny knew that the back of his neck was flayed open in typical exit wound style. Wu had died almost instantly. Danny hoped those last seconds were pain-filled.
Quiet murmurs became plain as the helicopter moved off, taking the rotor noise with it. He glanced skyward, sending mental thanks in its direction. "Hell of a shot," he said to no one in particular as he turned his attention to his partner.
Martin was unconscious. Samantha held his head as it rested on her thigh while paramedics worked on his body. Danny heard the constant stream of numbers and medical terms between them knowing only that it meant Martin would be alright. One of Martin's arms was still bound snugly to his body and as far as he could see, there were no new bruises to his face. The only new addition was a thick layer of four-by-four pads on his neck and some blood visible on the collar of his shirt.
An unexpected vision of that memorable tie Martin wore to court being used to bind the injury caused Danny to bark a laugh; there was a good use for it after all! He'd have to remember to hide it in the first aid kit in Martin's agency car.
Agents Dunne and Sanchez helped roll Martin onto a back board and then onto a stretcher.
"Is he being air lifted?" JD asked as they raised the stretcher. He glanced skyward.
"No, there's an ambulance waiting right over there," one medic grunted as he shouldered his pack. He indicated the closest road with a nod of his head.
"They're going to meet us at the hospital," Sanchez said, adjusting his grip on one corner of the stretcher.
"Is Vin okay?" JD asked as they began the short trek to the road. He had another corner of the stretcher in hand.
Danny laughed shortly at the question as he followed Samantha behind the odd caravan. "I'd say he's more than okay if he's the one that made that shot."
"Yes, I'd say that shot had Brother Tanner's signature all over it." Josiah's tone was one of admiration. "No one's better."
"Which is what got us here in the first place," JD added. He sounded amused at such a logical ending to a case.
Danny backed off as the stretcher was loaded, shifting his feet with impatience. When the doors were ready to be shut, he raised a foot to climb in but was pulled off balance by a sharp tug. He turned and came face to face with Samantha's big, brown eyes.
She didn't have to say a thing. Danny just quirked a grin and stepped back, helping his partner into the back of the ambulance with a steady grip on her forearm. She gave him a grateful smile just as the doors were slammed shut.
Danny heard a rumbling chuckle just before he was knocked off-balance by a friendly slap on the back. "Come on, son," Josiah said. "We'll give ya a ride to where Agent Spade left her car."
"Looks like we'll be meetin' up at the hospital," Danny replied, falling in behind the large agent and the computer wiz-kid.
"So what else is new?" JD mumbled.
It had only been two days since Martin had been snatched from Dragon's Claw. It only felt like an eternity.
"Hey, JD, did ya bring th' coat hanger?"
Chris pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut in an effort to ward of the growing headache that his pain meds didn't seem to touch.
"Sure did, Vin, and I even unwound it for you. I started bending it to shape, but I need to see your . . ."
"Tanner, your gonna scratch your skin under that cast and get an infection and then you'll be sorry!" Nathan tried to snatch the wire from JD but Vin managed to be quicker, even with one arm in a cast and cervical collar around his neck.
"Don't worry, Nate, I'll be careful. Lookee here, JD's even made it so there ain't no sharp edges." Before Nathan could grab at it again Vin stuck the twisted wired under his cast and began scrubbing in earnest. "Ahhhhh!" he sighed blissfully.
"I brought your stuff," Josiah said, dropping a duffle on the foot of Vin's hospital bed. "Gettin' sprung, huh? Guess the swelling around those vertebrae finally went down."
"Not soon enough," Chris groused, any hope of control over his injured teammate long lost. The hospital, now more than a little leery about this odd collection of agents, had managed to find a room just large enough for three beds and after the first half day, Chris, fresh from the minor surgery required to sew up his various wounds, was handed over the duty of keeping an eye on Tanner and Fitzgerald.
He'd requested handcuffs but the staff kept insisting they didn't have any. The uninjured part of his group just laughed off the request. Apparently, pain meds reduced the potency of Larabee's infamous glare.
Samantha trailed in with a small backpack. "Looks like a mass exodus," she said, dropping the pack on Martin's lap. "Your release papers are on their way."
"That's great!" Martin sighed, slowly reaching for the pack. Chris saw him winch, his newly re-set collarbone making itself known.
"Need help dressing?" Samantha asked innocently.
Chris laughed at the flustered expression as Martin glanced nervously around the room. Since Josiah's, JD's, Nathan's and Samantha's appearance, Danny, Vivian, Ezra and Jack had strolled in - or mostly in. The room was packed.
"Uh . . ." Martin stuttered.
"Aw, leave him alone, Sam. Can't you see he's in pain?" Danny quipped with a huge smile as he stepped up to Martin's bed.
"Pain in the ass, you mean," Chris muttered, settling back on his pillow.
"I see Agent Fitzgerald has finally shown his true colors," Jack said brightly.
"Fitzgerald, Tanner - I've come to the conclusion that they're interchangeable." Chris said.
"Hey," Vin interjected, frowning. "Be nice to my brother, cowboy."
"Don't call me cowboy," Chris growled, again pinching the bridge of his nose.
"He doesn't like to be called cowboy?" Martin asked, thrusting his clothes in Danny's direction in an obvious plea for help. "You said he did."
"He loves it, actually," Vin replied.
"I do not."
"Ah, we know that's jist the drugs talkin'," Vin said sweetly. "Right, cowboy?"
Chris merely glared at his friend knowing he wasn't going to win in any way, shape or form it was 2-to-1 now. It was best to concede the point for the moment.
"Hey!" Buck's voice carried easily from the hall. He extended his long arm in the full room, waiving papers over everyone's heads. "I got Chris' release papers here. Gimme some room, will ya?"
"Thank God," Chris sighed.
Those not tasked with assisting the wounded to dress wandered into the hall, effectively clogging the passageway. Vin and Martin's cheerful demeanor wavered then dropped to Chris' level by the time they were dressed and settled in their wheelchairs. All of them were obviously feeling their wounds and Chris tried to keep his snarling to a minimal level. It wasn't easy.
Buck claimed Chris' seniority and pushed his boss into the first elevator ahead of the others. A majority of the crowd joined them, leaving Martin and Samantha to accompany Vin and JD in the next empty car.
"So," Chris said to Ezra, trying for some level of professionalism during the short ride. "I hear things went well with Cheever?"
The instant grin that revealed a shiny gold incisor told Chris everything he wanted to know.
"Ah, yes. There's a special kind of delight when one is redeemed by clean, cold numbers."
Buck snorted and grinned. "Ol' Victor looked out-and-out constipated by the facts," he chuckled. "That was the most unenthusiastic apology I've ever heard."
"Victor Fitzgerald apologized? To your face?" Danny asked, awed.
"He sure did," Jack chuckled. "And I know he choked on every syllable."
Ezra's grin widened. "Ah, yes. And it was most sweet. I shall relish that particular vision to the end of my days." He smoothed the sling that was color coordinated to his jacket, the smile unfaltering.
Chris felt as if a great weight were lifted from his shoulders at the sight. It felt like this crowd hadn't had much to smile about recently. It was well deserved.
The elevator doors opened and the crowd spilled out into the lobby. Danny and Buck departed to get the vehicles.
"So how long until you blow this town?" Jack asked.
Chris shifted in the annoying wheel chair. He knew better than to try and stand; the nursing staff had their eyes on him from every part of the lobby. "Well, Vin and I will stick around a while longer. I want to make sure there aren't any loose ends in our part of this mission."
"I appreciate it. It'll also give Martin a little time to connect with Vin."
"Yeah, by the sound of it Denver's doomed to a double dose of Tanners come winter."
"Martin is an outdoor kinda guy," Jack affirmed.
As if on cue, two more wheelchairs joined him at the lobby door.
"Where's the car?" Vin immediately asked, craning as much as he could to look through the glass exit doors.
Chris, watching him, pursed his lips and counted silently to three. Vin yelped right on cue as he over extended his neck right on cue. Chris rolled his eyes, dreading the next few days cooped up with his best friend.
"You okay?" Martin asked, looking a little worried. Vin must have replied in their silent language as Martin frowned slightly. "How many languages do you know?" he asked with an approving nod. "Danny's teaching me Spanish but so far what I've learned I'm not sure is useable in the general public."
"Ah, but you'll reek of authenticity once you get the hang of it," Danny crowed, grinning unabashedly.
"If I still have my teeth from being slapped," Martin muttered.
"Agent Tanner," Jack said, stepping forward in an obvious attempt to change the subject. "I didn't get the change to thank you for getting Martin out of that spot. That was an amazing shot."
"You're welcome," Vin said distractedly, tugging at the padded collar with his good hand. "I'm jist glad this is all over. Is the jackass responsible for all this doin' time yet?"
"Not yet, but that's only temporary." Samantha said brightly as she gently squeezed Martin's good shoulder. "Mee Liang's trial will probably go for another week, at least, but the outcome looks pretty bleak for him. Martin's testimony was devastating. Word on the street says the Triad has a contract out on him already."
"Didn't waste much time," Nathan said. "Guess the Triad don't take to folks makin' 'em look bad."
"Yeah, they'd rather keep everyone guessin' instead," JD mused.
"We just have to prevail," Josiah said quietly.
"Amen," Chris agreed.
"But we'll do it from Denver, thank you," Vin groused.
"My town getting a little to close for you, brother?"
"I recken." Vin frowned. "Hey Chris. Is my rifle okay? Is it safe somewhere?"
"Safely tucked away in evidence. I've arranged to have it released to you when you're ready," Jack said.
"And no one has found anything more on Wu?"
"Nope. The man's a ghost. He had to live somewhere. The apartment you were holed up in was rented and the money trail, dead. Something will come up, and you sure as hell can bet that we'll keep digging." Jack glanced at the exit doors. "Looks like your rides are here."
Bickering and complaining, the three discharged agents were finally loaded up and they headed out. Jack and his team, minus Martin, were going back to the office to check any loose ends. The first stop for the remaining agents was Martin's apartment where Vin, Martin, Nathan and JD were going to stay for a few days. The others would rest up at their hotel room.
Five of the Denver Seven were flying out the next afternoon. Chris was looking forward to getting home, too, but he had promised Travis that he'd clean up any loose ends first and Vin had offered to stay with him; his friend's real reason for staying was blatantly obvious but Chris didn't mind. Martin offered his place and Vin had accepted for the both of them. Chris wondered if it would be better - or safer - to stay elsewhere.
But for now, he had his crew around him and Chris had to admit, it gave him a level of comfort he'd missed. Even thought this had been a tough assignment, the unexpected bonus of Vin finding family made it worthwhile. Chris was thrilled for his best friend. He settled back in the SUV's leather seats and let out a satisfied sigh. Buck's gave him an amused sideways grin.
"Feelin' pretty good, pard?"
"Yeah," Chris had to admit. "Yeah, I really am."
'Me too, cowboy.'
Chris grinned and closed his eyes at the comment. 'Don't call me cowboy,' he mentally ordered, knowing the anger he tried to infuse in the comment was woefully lacking.
'Whatever you say, cowboy.'
Nope. He wouldn't give up this job or this unorthodox family for the world.