Main Characters: Seven, Orin Travis, Inez, villains and others
"It's a science, Buck!" JD complained as the pair returned to the ATF Team 7 offices. They had gone out to lunch, and on the way back, Buck had relentlessly teased JD. About women, about his hat, and finally about JD's methodology for tracking criminals...nothing was off-limits.
"Science," Buck scoffed as he held open the door for JD to precede him into the office area, "all that technology mumbo- jumbo sounds more like voodoo to me. Besides, if you don't get away from that keyboard and pay some attention to your girlfriend, you'll lose her."
JD laughed. "Buck, you're the last person I'd go to for advice about long-term relationships." The office felt so empty without Chris, Josiah and Nate. Chris and Josiah had been injured in the team's most recent bust, and Nate refused to take for granted that the hospital staff actually knew what they were doing. As a result, only Vin, Ezra, JD and Buck were holding down the fort back at Denver's Federal Building.
Buck ducked into the kitchenette to see if Vin had left any of the donuts from the fresh box Ezra had brought in that morning.
Instead of a barbed come-back, JD heard a startled exclamation from Buck and the sound of someone hitting the floor. Concerned, JD moved forward to check on his friend, but was brought up short by an armed janitor, who appeared from the doorway of the kitchenette, dragging a stunned Buck before him as a shield.
JD paused to re-evaluate the situation. Buck's assailant, though he was dressed as a janitor, moved with a purpose and litheness to his actions that gave JD the impression of military training somewhere in this man's past. The assailant was over six feet tall, broad-shouldered and holding a gun to Buck's head. JD spread his arms in surrender, trying to silently convey that there was no reason to hurt Buck any further.
"Who are you? What do you want?" JD asked of the larger man, ashamed to hear his own voice tremble with fear.
The taller man stared at JD with supreme disinterest, his eyes cold and distant. "Drop your guns," he ordered in a gravelly voice, tightening an arm around Buck's neck until the agent began to suffocate.
JD quickly complied, removing his sidearm from its shoulder holster, his backup piece from his ankle and his knife from the waistband sheath Vin had recommended. He placed all of the weapons on the floor and stepped away from them. "Let him go," JD demanded, though his tone was more pleading than authoritative. Buck's face was turning red from oxygen deprivation.
Despite JD's desperate protests, the taller man squeezed Buck's neck until the agent slumped into unconsciousness, let the neutralized agent slide to the floor, and then, while training his gun on JD, took a small device from his pocket and spoke into it. "Secondary target down, primary disarmed. Awaiting orders."
As the intruder spoke, JD thought he heard the same voice coming almost simultaneously from Chris' office, which had a door separating it from the rest of Team 7's space. It had barely occurred to JD that he had been referred to as the primary target, when a deeper voice replied through the device, "Begin extraction."
The tall assailant reached briefly into the kitchenette, grabbed something that was out of sight, and tossed it at JD's feet. "Put it on," he ordered, aiming his gun at Buck.
JD glanced down, noted that the object was a small duffel bag, and crouched down, unzipping it. Inside was a uniform identical to the one Buck's assailant wore. He pulled out the uniform but glanced at the tall intruder skeptically. "Why? What's all this about? Where are Vin and Ez?" JD felt his face flush in anger as he continued, "If you've hurt them..."
The assailant gave what might have been a sigh, and lifted the communications device again. "One, this is Two. Primary requests confirmation."
"Path clear," the deeper voice replied, "you have a go-ahead."
The taller man jerked his head toward Chris' office. "Your friends are in there. Make it quick."
JD took the duffle bag with him, hurriedly bursting through the door of Chris' office. What he saw their made his stop in his tracks. Ezra was unconscious on the floor, the back of his head bloody. From the track visible in the plush carpet adorning the floor of Chris' personal office, JD assumed Ezra had been dragged there. Vin looked far worse for wear; he was curled protectively around his ribs, as though they had taken one too many hits, and his face was battered and bloodied. His condition did not prevent Vin from glaring at his captor, or from shooting a look of encouragement in JD's direction. The captor stood across the office from both men, aiming a handgun at Ezra. JD nodded, understanding why Vin, who was probably still quite capable of inflicting damage to his captor despite his condition, was choosing not to resist. None of the Seven would intentionally endanger each other, and it was obvious that these attackers were aware of that weakness.
"The other three are at the hospital, no?" The stranger asked, and JD recognized the voice from the communication device.
This man, though scarcely taller than JD, was powerfully built and carried himself with confidence. JD doubted he could take the man in a fair fight... and circumstances were far from fair. "I don't know who you mean," JD bluffed, but the intruder was not fooled. "There are seven of you," the man stated, his face calm but his voice full of pent-up anger. "I know two are injured, but where is the other?"
JD did not test the man's patience by continuing to lie. From the white-knuckled grip this intruder had on his weapon, JD guessed that either Vin or Ezra (or maybe even both) had somehow earned his ire, and JD wasn't about to press their luck by being less than completely cooperative. "Chris and Josiah are at the hospital," JD confirmed dispiritedly. "Nathan is visiting them."
The powerfully built man's grip relaxed slightly. "Good." The man's voice had calmed as well, as he ordered, "Strip, and change into that uniform."
JD hesitated, not out of defiance, but for modesty's sake.
Vin smirked. "Don't worry, kid. Ez ain't lookin' and I won't tell any tales."
JD smiled weakly. Leave it to Vin, who was also wiry and slight of build, to realize how uncomfortable JD could get in a situation like this. Quickly, JD changed into the janitor's uniform, finishing by donning a baseball-style cap made from blue jean material. The bill would hide his features from most security cameras mounted at ceiling level.
"Good," Vin and Ezra's captor repeated once JD had completed the process. He tossed one of the small communication devices to JD, who caught it with hands that were only shaking slightly. "Go to this building's garage. You will see a blue van parked in a handicap spot. Go with them, and your coworkers will not be harmed. You can use that to confirm their well-being. You have two minutes."
With a last look of apology in Vin's direction, JD took off running for the stairs. He could not take the chance that the elevators would still be heavily in use by people returning from their lunch breaks, and if he ran, he would probably make it to the garage in time. JD was out of breath by the time he reached the garage and the van. Before JD could remove the miniature walkie- talkie from the pocket he had shoved it into for his sprint down the stairs, the side door of the van flew open, and two men grabbed him and dragged him into the vehicle.
Inside the van, one man handcuffed JD to a metal pipe bolted into the floor while another pulled a hood over JD's head, and then the van meandered out of the garage at a leisurely, legal speed, alerting no one to the crime being committed.
JD squirmed around until he felt the 'power' button of the miniaturized walkie-talkie. Figuring that if he saved the battery power, he might be able to do something with the device later, JD turned it off. Then, instead of panicking about his current state of helplessness, JD listened to the sounds around him and counted off the time spent in the van. After struggling through two hours of traffic and a gas station stop, the sounds of the city gave way to the relative silence of the countryside. The road became rougher at two and a half hours, and the van stopped in a dark place fifteen minutes later.
Without speaking to him, the people in the van disembarked and walked away. JD heard another vehicle start up and drive away, and he wondered what this was about. Had the criminals gone to so much trouble to isolate him only to leave him out here to either starve to death or be subjected to the elements? Already, the day was turning cold, and the flimsy uniform JD had been given did little to stop the chill from creeping through the cold metal floor of the van and into his bones.
JD had begun shivering when the van doors opened again, and someone climbed in. Though he was cold, JD still felt his left sleeve being pulled up, and when he felt the contact of a sterilizing alcohol cotton swab, JD started struggling, trying to edge away from what he guessed would come next.
Since his arms were restrained by the handcuffs and the newcomer trapped JD's legs with their own body weight, JD could not prevent the syringe from plunging into his arm and emptying its contents. The darkness imposed by the hood became deeper as the chemicals spread through his veins.
Ezra was the first to recover from the subduing efforts of the ill- tempered miscreants who had so brazenly invaded territory previously considered a safe haven by the members of ATF Team Seven. Furious with himself for being incapable of preventing the dastardly interlopers from rendering him unconscious, Ezra crawled over to Vin, freed the sniper from the handcuffs and shook Vin awake before succumbing again to the effects of a concussion.
Vin was livid. Cradling bruised ribs, he called the building's security from the phone on Chris' desk and waited for them to arrive. Barely keeping control of his emotions, Vin reported what he could remember about the two men who had surprised Ezra and beat Vin soundly for resisting. In truth, Vin had been glad to take the beating, as he suspected another blow to Ezra's head might have proven fatal. Buck awoke midway through Vin's report and tore through the office area on wobbly legs, desperately searching for JD.
The first person Buck asked about JD's location was a new arrival to the building. Having already heard the germane parts of Vin's report, and not knowing how close-knit Team Seven was, the rookie security guard bluntly informed Buck of the kidnapping, and found himself shoved into the nearest wall for his efforts.
"How did they get past you?" Buck shouted at the confused security guard. "They had weapons, and I'm sure they didn't work here. Why didn't you do your job?"
Vin hurried out of Chris' office when he heard Buck's voice, pulling the ladies' man away from the frightened security guard. Putting his considerably bruised body between Buck and the guard, Vin fixed a hard gaze on Buck. "This ain't his fault, Bucklin," Vin insisted in a low, dangerous voice. "Save your anger for the bastards that took JD."
Buck paused, considered the logic of Vin's suggestion, and then nodded almost imperceptibly. "You're right. I'll go get the security tapes from today, see if we can find anything unusual, and I'll send up a sketch artist for you and Ez. I'm assuming you got a better look at them than I did? I wasn't expecting the attack when it came," Buck admitted bashfully. "The son-of-a-bitch got the drop on me."
Vin relaxed his stance, since it was clear that Buck was no longer in danger of attacking the security guard. "The sketch artist sounds like a good idea, but I don't think Ez will be much help. They surprised him too...I'm the only one that got a good look at both of them. You go ahead. I'll call Nate and have him come take a look at Ez."
"What's wrong with him?" Buck asked, his mother hen instinct redirected to the team member he actually could help as opposed to the one they had no lead on.
Vin did not try to stand in the way as Buck brushed past him to find Ezra. At some level, Vin understood that Buck would likely have bowled him over had he tried. With a heavy heart, Vin stumbled to the nearest desk, trying not to realize that it was JD's, and called Nate.
"What? When was this? Do you have any idea where..." Nate paused as the information began to flow, each sentence more horrible than the next. Their office had been attacked. Ezra had a concussion, Buck was distraught, Vin had taken a few hits (which, if Nate knew Vin--and by now he sure as hell did--that meant that Vin was probably in need of a hospital) and, worst of all, JD had been kidnapped. "I'll be right there. Don't let Ez wander around. It's not safe in his condition." Nate knew that keeping Ezra relatively immobile would also minimize Vin's movement, which would be ideal. As he closed the cell phone, Chris sat up straighter in the hospital bed, and Josiah clawed his way out of heavy sedation to hear the news.
"What's going on?" Chris demanded. There was no anger in his voice, but only a fool would have hesitated in replying.
Nate was no fool. He related the entire series of events, concluding with, "Buck's gone to gather the tapes and get a sketch artist, but if Security didn't notice anything..."
Chris cursed under his breath, and his eyes practically glowed with rage at the criminals who dared trespass into his office, rough up his men, and kidnap the team's youngest member. "They must be professionals," Chris concluded. "Vin is more than capable in hand-to-hand, and for them to have surprised Ezra...I want a list of everyone with a military record, anyone who finished their tour recently or was discharged. Also, get me a list of the cleaning service the building uses; see if any of their uniforms or vehicles have gone missing recently. Someone needs to draw up a list of JD's enemies, check it to figure out who has the resources...and the balls...to try something like this. Put out an APB on the van once we get those security tapes--"
"Chris," Nate said, his voice low but insistent, "we know how to handle the investigation. We'll get him back."
Chris gave an impatient sigh and glared at his leg. In the previous bust, he had fallen from a stack of metal containers. The drop had been over twenty feet, and though he had survived, his leg had been badly broken. Despite the immobilizing cast, Chris was not allowed to put any weight on it until the doctors could see how it was healing, which left him incapable of his usual range of movement. Chris hated feeling useless, especially when one of his men was in trouble.
Nate smiled gently. "I'll have Ez loan you his laptop so you can do some of these searches yourself."
Chris glanced out the window, embarrassed that Nate could read him so well. "Thanks." Grimacing, he commented, "I notice you didn't tell me not to worry."
Nate grinned. "If you don't use up energy worrying, you'll start pacing instead, which would be bad for your leg." Nate headed for the door, cell phone in hand. "I'll keep you informed. Get some rest, Josiah. You shouldn't even be awake yet."
In the hospital, the two more severely injured members of Team Seven waited, worrying that the opportunity to recover their friend and coworker was slipping away with every moment that passed.
"No, flatter," Vin corrected, indicating the nose on the first sketch, "like it'd been broken a few times, and maybe they had to remove bone fragments, so there was less to it. The face was wider. Yeah, like that. And his hair was short, a half-inch at most, even all across. He was starting to get a widow's peak--no, less than that. The hair was dusty brown. I'd say he was in his late twenties, probably six-two, six-three. About two- hundred and thirty pounds. The other guy was probably in his forties, between five-ten and six. Maybe two-ten, built like a wrestler, but fought like an animal."
As Vin continued with his report, Nate arrived. He immediately tended to Ezra, staunching the flow of blood and applying a cold pack to the affected area. Buck refused treatment, instead staring forlornly at yet another security tape, and wondering what he had missed that had allowed these monsters to snatch JD.
Finally, Nate crept toward Vin cautiously. At the best of times, Vin was wary of other people touching him, and when wounded, his disposition was far worse.
Sensing Nathan's approach, Vin muttered. "M'fine, Nate. No, the eyes were closer, and they were a darker shade of gray."
Nate chuckled. "Anyone who can describe those criminals this well, can't possibly be fine," Nate insisted. "Don't forget, I've talked with both Buck and Ez. According to them, these were men who enjoyed violence. If I know you, you probably took the brunt of their anger on yourself so that they wouldn't hurt Ezra. Tell me I'm wrong, and I'll leave you alone, but when you topple out of that chair, don't expect me to pick you up."
Vin relented, and Nate was permitted to treat the bruised and cracked--but not broken--ribs.
When the sketch artist was finished and Nate had wrapped Vin's ribs, Nate inquired, "There's more bothering you than a few bruises, Vin. What is it?"
Vin would not make eye contact with Nathan. Instead, he changed the subject. "How's Chris handling this?"
Nate snorted derisively and began packing up his medical supplies.
Vin chuckled. "That well, huh? I'd better go tell him about our progress before he shoots his way out."
Nate would not have put it past their sometimes taciturn leader to do just that despite--or perhaps even due to--his current condition. "I told him I'd bring Ez's laptop to the hospital so he could work the case from there. Would you be alright to drop it off?"
Vin nodded slowly, and then something occurred to him. "Nate, what if this wasn't about JD? What if it's someone out for revenge against one of us instead? Or, if this is about JD, and he won't break, then they'll need leverage..." Vin's mind spun as the nightmarish possibilities piled up, but Nate smiled reassuringly.
"I made those calls on the way over here," Nate replied. "Travis is putting Mary and Billy in a safe house until this is resolved. Inez decided to visit her sister in California for a few days. Casey and Rain went out to stay with Nettie until we tell them otherwise, and you know nothing will get past Nettie's rifle. I also called Kojay. Rather than accepting my offer of federal protection, he suggested we all come out to the reservation." Nate gave a short laugh. "He claimed that they could see an enemy coming from miles away, and that they had bolt holes even you haven't discovered yet. Whatever this threat is, we're prepared for it."
Vin, his back already bent from scoliosis and the earlier beating, slumped even further. "Sure, now we're ready," he mumbled, his face downcast.
"What was that?" Nate asked, having missed what the sniper had said.
"Nothin'," Vin lied. "I'll just take Ez's computer and go over to the hospital. We shouldn't leave Chris 'n 'Siah alone now," he gave a lopsided smirk. "Chris cain't keep these guys at bay just with his glare."
Without another word, Vin slouched out of the office. Nate watched him go, silently hoping that someone at the hospital would notice how gingerly the sniper was moving and insist on either treatment, painkillers, or both...not that Vin would accept any help until JD was returned safe and sound. Even then, it would be a battle won only with the complicity of the other five members of Team Seven.
Nate smiled faintly as he pictured Chris trying to order Vin to accept treatment. Vin would probably reply that one more mark in his file for insubordination wasn't going to make a difference to his career. Ezra would use his vast vocabulary to explain the benefits of treatment, and then Vin would fix Ez with a black stare, and comment that he hadn't had a headache until after Ez started talking. In his current condition--recovering from a bullet wound to the chest--Josiah would be in no shape to force the sniper to do anything, but might spout some philosophy or religious phrase, like 'there's a time to kill and a time to heal, Vin. Now is the latter.' Buck knew better than to try to convince the stubborn sniper of anything, and in the end, it would come down to JD fixing that puppy-dog stare on their obstinate teammate. A few words of pleading from JD, and Vin would buckle.
Heck, they all buckled where JD was concerned. Nate doubted anyone else saw it, but JD could wheedle just about anything out of everyone else on the team. In the beginning, JD's determination and stubbornness had convinced Chris that maybe JD should stay with the team. Josiah showed the patience of a saint when teaching JD the intricacies of chess. Ezra had learned to tolerate--and even enjoy--JD's outbursts of energy and seemingly continuous movement. Nate could never remain angry at the team's youngest member despite his tendency to get hurt twice as often as the rest of them, and Buck...well, most of the employees in the Federal Building knew about JD and Buck. The ladies' man, resident scoundrel, and renowned hothead changed completely around JD. It was almost as if Buck recognized himself in the younger man, and knew that this particular young man needed protection, from the world and from himself. Nate hoped they would find JD quickly, both for the team's sake, and for Buck.
"You look like hell," Chris commented when Vin enter the hospital room the team leader and Josiah were sharing. "What happened?"
Vin smirked. "I went three rounds in the ring. It was tag team, but Ez was already down for the count, so..." he shrugged.
Chris nodded. He understood. Vin had defended Ezra by the only means available to him, namely, by presenting himself as a more satisfying target than Ezra. "What did Nate say about Buck and Ez? Will they be alright?"
"Sure," Vin replied. "They went easy on Bucklin after Ez started bleedin'. But you know Ez...he's got a harder head than we give him credit for." Vin gestured toward the hip-to-ankle-length cast, which had been colored black. "I didn't think those came in colors."
"They don't. I figured that if I'll be chasing after these assholes, then I wanted camouflage." Chris' eyes danced with a dangerous look, though daring Vin to ask just how Chris had gotten a hold of supplies to darken his cast. When Vin did not reply, Chris directed a concerned gaze at the indomitable sniper, finally venturing, "And how are you handling all this?"
Vin snorted. "M'fine, Cowboy. I've had worse."
In response, Chris glared. "That wasn't what I was asking, and you know it."
Vin sank into the chair closer to Chris' hospital bed, only allowing Chris to see the defeat in his eyes. "They wouldn't say what they were after," he confessed. "Hell, I didn't even know they were there for JD 'til they were givin' him an ultimatum." Vin paused, as though admitting the next part was too painful. "I should've done more. I should've done something at least."
Chris shook his head. "Nate explained the situation to me. You would've only gotten yourself, Ezra or Buck killed. Those men were professionals. This way, all six of us can look for JD. Vin--" Chris waited until the sniper met his intense gaze, "this is not your fault. Feeling guilty about it won't help bring JD back."
Vin gave a brief laugh, but stopped abruptly when it hurt his ribs. "I was tellin' Buck the same thing, but that was ta stop him from hurtin' some rookie security guard. Like you said, these guys were professionals; they fooled everybody, not just the rookie. An' before ya ask, yes, Nate looked at my ribs. Here's a copy of the sketches and Nate said ya wanted Ez's computer." He placed both on the bedside table and relaxed in the chair.
To one who did not know him, the stance might appear casual. Chris, however, recognized that Vin was standing guard over the wounded members of Team Seven. Vin was slouching in the chair, but from that position he could with equal ease draw his gun or a few of his several knives.
"He protected us," Vin whispered. "When I was looking around the office after... I noticed that JD gave up all of his weapons."
Chris' lips tightened into a grimace. "Even the knife you suggested he start carrying?"
With a look, Vin affirmed Chris' suspicions. "An' when he was talkin' to the guy guarding Ez and me, I could see how angry JD was, but the kid went along with everything they said instead of reacting, because he was lookin' out for us."
Chris sighed. It was difficult to accept how selfless the team's youngest member could be. They witnessed it every day. In the patience JD showed with Buck's teasing, in earning every man's respect on a case-by-case basis...but rarely did they actually notice JD's giving nature, until something like this came along. It was one thing for JD to back up a friend on a weapons bust, but quite another for the kid to walk unarmed into the lions' den because he knew that to do otherwise would endanger his friends. While Vin would have done the same without thought, Chris could tell it was tearing Vin apart that JD had been forced by the circumstances to do likewise. "We'll get him back," Chris vowed quietly, but with venom in his tone, "and we will make the bastards that took him pay."
Vin did not have to meet Chris' resolute gaze to know what sort of currency the team leader intended to collect in. There would be blood shed before this was over, and if Chris Larabee had any say in it, none would belong to any member of Team Seven.
"Am I interrupting?"
Vin did not move, and so Chris did not jump in surprise, though he had failed to hear Assistant Director Travis approaching. "No, Judge," Chris called Orin Travis by his nickname, earned for the tough yet fair decisions he made regarding the personnel of the Federal Building. "Come in."
"I heard about JD," AD Travis said, standing at the foot of Chris' bed. "I'm sorry, and if there are any resources you need, just let me know. I'll see to it that they're approved and released to you. I know this is horrible timing, but I needed to confirm that you will be able to testify three days from now at the Callabrini trial."
Chris was torn. Paolo Callabrini was a bad case. It was a bust that had been particularly difficult for Team Seven, as the local PD had insisted on being involved. There had been a leak in the department and Ezra had nearly been killed. Only the quick and coordinated efforts of the rest of Team Seven had prevented that. The case against Paolo Callabrini's lieutenants was ironclad. They had approached Ezra, offered to sell automatic weapons to him, set the terms and shaken on the deal just before a dirty cop sold Ezra out. Paolo on the other hand...the only evidence connecting him to the sale was Chris' word and a few cryptic lines in a ledger that might or might not refer to Paolo Callabrini.
"Do you think that's what this is about?" Chris asked. This was not an angle that had occurred to him yet. They handled many cases, some simultaneously, and Callabrini was the sort that he preferred to put out of his mind until absolutely necessary. "Could someone in his organization have grabbed JD, hoping that I will change my testimony?"
'Judge' AD Travis fixed Larabee with a hard stare. "Would you?"
Chris returned the stare with a harsh glare of his own. "If we couldn't find a way to guarantee his safety otherwise, sir? In a heartbeat. We've taken down so many of Callabrini's men that I doubt he can run the cartel effectively anyway. Yes, I'll make the court appearance, but I respectfully request that our other cases either be put on hold or given to other teams, sir. This is too important to let anyone else investigate it."
"You don't think you're too close to the case?" AD Travis asked, his concern apparent.
Vin chuckled morosely and answered for Chris. "Yep, we're definitely too close, but who else should handle it? The building's security guards couldn't prevent it, so I doubt they could solve this. The FBI would either turn us down out of spite or bungle the case to screw with Ezra. As for the locals...we still don't know who Callabrini's mole in the department is. If this is connected to Callabrini, we shouldn't put JD at risk by showing our evidence to his spy."
Chris nodded in full agreement with Vin's analysis, and AD Travis decided to let Team Seven have their way.
AD Travis smiled tightly. "As a matter of fact, the FBI has expressed interest in this case. They seem to think that if they finish what your team started, then maybe they can permanently cut off a major supply line." Orin Travis raised a hand to stall the anticipated protests. "No, it isn't the Atlanta field office. It's Portland. They've seen a surge of guns and ammunition coming through their state, and believe that it ends up here. If they shut down the contacts that are purchasing in our state, maybe theirs will become less violent."
"Or more," Vin quipped. "What do they think will happen to those supplies? Sellers won't sit on stockpiles forever. Sooner or later, they'll drop the price and sell to anyone."
'Judge' Travis shrugged his shoulders. "When that happens, the FBI and ATF will finally be able to get someone in undercover." He smiled. "Not everyone has Standish on their side. At any rate, their intentions seem pure. I told them that they could do some investigation, but only if they share everything they discover with you."
Chris' glare began heating up again. "That was not your decision, sir. If they mess this up and something happens to JD, I'm holding you personally responsible."
AD Orin Travis spread his hands in a placating gesture. "I understand, and I expected nothing less, but I don't think you get it. I was receiving phone calls from some pretty significant offices. The FBI was going to take this case come hell or high water. It was all I could manage to not get your team pulled completely off the case. Even then, they only accepted it because I told them you would investigate regardless, and God help anyone who stood in your way."
Chris gave an impatient sigh. "Fine. If we have to deal with the FBI, their liaison officer deals with me, Vin or Josiah. Nate has a full plate right now, and I don't trust whoever they send to be delicate enough in dealing with Buck's emotional state or Ezra's past." AD Travis shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, and Chris caught the movement. "What is it?" he demanded tersely.
"They aren't providing a liaison officer," AD Travis admitted quietly. "From what I could gather, it will be just a few men, working quietly to explore a couple of gun-related angles. If anything seems to lead in JD's direction, they'll call us with the information, but otherwise, we won't see or hear from them."
Chris cursed. "When did the FBI become a wet-works operation?" Since the question was rhetorical--Chris and Vin were both aware of the extended mandate of agencies like the FBI under the auspices of Homeland Security--Chris did not wait for an answer. His expression became one of hardened resolve. "Never mind. If you'll excuse us, sir," Chris gestured to the computer on the nightstand, "I have an investigation to conduct. We're getting JD back before the FBI gets him killed."
When JD awoke, he was shocked about several things. First of all, he had not been harmed. Whatever was in the syringe had obviously only been a sedative of some kind, to prevent him from knowing where he had been taken. Instinctively, JD tried to check his watch, to see how much time had passed, but that had been removed from his wrist. JD tried not to feel the loss. That watch had been a birthday present from Buck, because Buck claimed that JD had not mastered the art of arriving fashionably late. In other words, Buck wanted to show up for work late, but since they carpooled and JD wanted to do a good job for Chris, Buck had been forced into more timely arrivals.
Of course, the removal of his watch might mean that he had not been moved far from his last known location outside the city, or it could mean that his captors wanted him to think that. There was no way of knowing until he could check an independent source.
Controlling his breathing and forcing down the emotions, JD checked the rest of his surroundings. He was still wearing the janitor uniform, the walkie-talkie was in his pocket, and he was in a small bedroom with a window, the blinds open. JD walked over to the window and inspected the glass. It was thick, too thick for a normal window pane. He concluded it was probably both shatter-resistant and bullet- proof, in some ways more secure at keeping him contained than the wall surrounding the window. The window was bolted shut from the outside, and even had it not been, the cement wall visible a scant few inches from the glass would have prevented any escape. The bedroom door, however, opened easily.
JD inspected the space available to him. There was the bedroom he had woken up in, and a closet in the hallway, with cheap wire hangers and a few empty shoe boxes. He found a bathroom, devoid of any cleaning supplies that he might have used to temporarily blind an enemy or to set fire to something. There was also a fully stocked kitchen, if fully stocked included paper cups, paper plates, plastic forks, spoons and knives, and no food harder than tapioca pudding. It was becoming evident that whoever had brought JD here did not want to give him any weapons.
Next to the kitchen was a living room. A door at the room's far end proved to be locked and impenetrable despite his best efforts. He became excited momentarily when he saw that there was furniture he could move or break apart, perhaps to create a club of some kind for himself. Upon closer inspection, though, JD realized that the small side tables and narrow coffee table were all bolted to the floor with the kind of screws used in public bathrooms, the sort which would not come loose except with a special tool, which--of course--had not been provided to him in the janitor's uniform.
On the coffee table, though, there were stacks of papers. Most were blueprints, and after a few minutes of studying them, JD realized what the building in question was. He had certainly been there enough times to give testimony and to see justice delivered. JD groaned and lay back on the couch. Given what he had been allowed to see and the prison he was being kept in, JD had a pretty fair idea what would be asked of him. He knew with even greater certainty that he would refuse to help.
The sound of the lock being turned in the door did not bring movement from JD. He did not know enough about his location to risk attacking the first person who came through that door. As Vin had told him on a recent camping trip, "Don't think that you're the wolf in a forest you've only been in for a few minutes. More'n likely, you're the rabbit." This rabbit intended to discover who he was up against, how many guards there were, where his prison was located, and what his chances of escape were before he made a foolish move that would only cause his captors to restrict his movements even further.
When JD caught sight of the man who strode through the door, though, JD wished he had not resolved to avoid physically attacking his captors. The man who entered carried a briefcase closed the door behind himself, and rapped twice to signal for his men to lock it, was none other than Vincenzo Callabrini.
Vincenzo Callabrini was the son of Paolo Callabrini. Chris was scheduled to testify against Vincenzo's father later this very week. Vincenzo was half his father's age, twice as ambitious, and infinitely more sadistic. Where gunrunning was merely a trade for his father, it was a calling for Vincenzo, and the younger Callabrini reacted explosively against anyone who stood in his way. Rumor had it that he had killed several suspected informants early in his career as a gunrunner, but no one could ever prove anything. Vincenzo was just a shade over six feet tall, had dark hair trimmed neatly in a short cut and eyes so dark that JD had difficulty distinguishing the pupil from the iris.
"Sit up, Jonathan," Vincenzo chastised. "We have much work to do in the next two days if we are to free my father from your friends' custody. You may call me Vin."
Sullenly, JD sat up on the couch. "I'd rather not, Vinny. Why should I help you? I am an ATF agent, being held against my will. I will never help you or your father escape justice."
Vincenzo smiled. It was a pale imitation of Chris Larabee's predatory smile, but it put JD on edge nonetheless, because he was rarely at the receiving end of such an expression, except in jest or as a promise of retribution in prank wars. "You should have examined all the information, Jonathan. You saw the blueprints, but not my battle plan." The gunrunner's son pushed aside the first layer of papers, revealing attack formations, lists of weaponry, and projected casualties.
JD felt the blood drain from his face as he saw the names of his teammates listed among the expected fatalities.
"If I am forced to retrieve my father this way, your friends will have no chance," Vincenzo explained. "They will be outnumbered and outgunned, thanks to courthouse security." Vincenzo smirked at the irony. "My men, entering undetected, will be able to bring many more weapons. Unless you want this to happen," Vincenzo gestured expansively at the papers, "you will help me find a better way."
JD opened his mouth to immediately agree; he could not put his friends in the same position they had faced when he was kidnapped. He couldn't let them be gunned down in cold blood...but then JD wondered about the request. "Why should you care?" he asked Vincenzo. "Killing the best ATF team in the country would make your father's business much more profitable because you could operate on a wider scale. Why kidnap me? Why ask me to engineer an escape with a lower body count?"
Vincenzo laughed, but it was a dark humor. "I did not believe my sources, when they told me you were as brave and reckless as your fellow agents. None of them mentioned your ego, either. 'The best AFT team in the country'? How would that make the rest of the teams feel, I wonder?" Changing the subject, Vincenzo answered JD's other question. "Dead agents are not always better for a cartel. Sometimes, if an agent can be...persuaded...to act in my interests, then he is much more useful. When multiplied by six, I could rule the city."
JD's blood ran cold as the implications set in. "You want to use me? The others would turn in their badges before they would ever work for you. They will find me before your father's court date, and you'll be brought up on charges. Maybe you will get to share a cell with your father." It was mostly false bravado, but JD had been with ATF Team Seven long enough to know that what he said was accurate. The men he worked with were true to their principles, and had pulled off more miracles than he could count. Whether it was Chris' fast draw, Vin's accurate aim, Buck's heroics, Ezra's ease with undercover work, Nate's medical skills, or Josiah's strength and wisdom, the men of Team Seven were amazing. JD had every confidence they would come through for him, but Vincenzo's confidence was also a force to be reckoned with.
"If turning in their badges meant that I would kill you, I think even Christopher Larabee would reconsider," Vincenzo asserted. "Now, how would you plan my father's escape?"
JD did not ask the other question that Vincenzo's statements had raised. When speaking of dirty agents, Vincenzo had bragged about them being twisted to serve his interests, not his father's. JD suspected a double-cross was in the making, but filed that information away for when it would be useful to him. Reluctantly, JD set about creating an intricate plan that should make the security around Paolo Callabrini confused enough for Vincenzo Callabrini's men to affect the older man's escape without bloodshed.
ATF Team Seven was coming apart at the seams.
Josiah had recovered enough to leave the hospital, but tested his newfound health by following up on every dead-end lead the team could find. Ezra had posted a substantial reward for information about JD's whereabouts, but no one in the law enforcement, civilian or criminal communities had taken the bait. Either no one knew, or whoever had taken JD was intimidating enough that any possible informants did not consider the price high enough. Buck and Vin had taken the case to the streets, interrogating everyone who had so much as given JD a dirty look during a bust, but turned up no new information. Chris, confined for the moment to crutches, and Nate, determined to keep Chris from further injuring himself, sat in the office, waiting for a ransom call that never came and following up what leads they could by phone, fax and e-mail.
One of the men who had attacked Team Seven's office and kidnapped JD was found. He had died in a bar brawl after trying to hustle a game of pool. The other had disappeared. Vin and Chris both suspected that the one who disappeared either knew Chris' reputation or was simply wise enough to lay low after committing several felonies in one afternoon. Ezra tracked down the blue van to a roadside hours away from Denver. There were signs of a struggle, and an empty syringe had been left behind. Analysis of residue in the syringe revealed it to be a strong sedative, which meant that even if JD found some way to contact them, he would not be able tell them where he was being held.
By the day of Paolo Callabrini's trial, the remaining members of Team Seven were irritable, short-tempered, depressed, and had very nearly given up hope of finding their youngest member.
When Chris gave his testimony, it took all his effort not to hobble out of the witness stand and throttle Paolo Callabrini's defense lawyer. The man, a short, balding rat in a suit, was extraordinarily capable of making the prosecution believe it was the subject on trial.
"So, what you are testifying to, Agent Larabee, is that, in fact, there is no evidence of my client's connection to this horrific and criminal arms-dealing syndicate, except for your word?"
Chris stifled a growl, barely. In his opinion, his word ought to be enough. "Paolo Callabrini's verbal admission to being leader of this cartel," Chris stated, his voice low and dangerous, "was confirmed by video and audio recordings, with hard copy transcripts and computer files of each medium. However, while the evidence was in the local police department's custody, there was a fire in the warehouse where the hard copies and recordings were kept, and a computer virus swept through the department, targeting only the terminals that had the files germane to this case. It was very...convenient." Chris sent a glare in Paolo Callabrini's direction, convinced that the fifty-eight- year-old criminal had paid someone to purge those files from the police department computers.
"Are you insinuating that a member of the Denver Police Department was paid by someone to remove these records? Do you have any proof of these allegations?"
Chris grinned, and watched the color drain from the lawyer's face. Despite defending various criminals over his career, the lawyer had never seen such a look of animalistic rage, all the more frightening because it was supported by the unshakeable belief that this anger was justified. "If I had proof," Chris replied coolly, "the scumbag hiding behind a badge while helping him," Chris pointed at Paolo Callabrini, "would be rotting in a cell."
"Objection!" The defense lawyer cried out in an apparent display of concern. "The police department is not on trial here, and if they were, any connection to my client would be thoroughly disproven."
The prosecution's lead lawyer added an objection of his own. "Defense counsel is testifying!"
The lawyers were ordered to approach the bench, and Chris pinched the bridge of his nose with the fingers of his right hand, trying unsuccessfully to ward off a headache.
In one instant, the drama of the courtroom became utter and complete chaos. Twenty people swarmed into the courtroom, carrying large signs and chanting anti-ATF slogans. The protesters walked past the seats for observers and clambered over the barrier dividing those seats from the prosecution and defense tables, approaching the bench without hesitation.
Team Seven, on the other hand, could do nothing. The protesters were not armed, and were doing no harm. Besides which, with the exception of Vin, none of them had any weapons. It was still a mystery, even to Chris, as to how the unassuming man managed to slip so many metal objects past metal detectors. For his part, Chris would have been tempted to shoot the defense lawyer had he been packing.
The judge told the bailiff to call for back-up and remove the protesters from his courtroom. Back-up appeared quickly, and separated the protestors from the officers of the court. In the midst of this action, a klaxon sounded, and suddenly the bailiff's priorities were divided. The sprinklers went off despite a noteworthy lack of smoke, and that crystallized the bailiff's decision.
"Agent, can you help me direct everyone out of here?" the bailiff inquired, and Chris agreed, having the men of Team Seven show the observers of the trial to the door. Hobbled as he was by the crutches and press of people, Chris was only able to wait in a corner and observe the proceedings.
Since he was separated from the random crush of bodies, Chris noticed that a few of the officers who had come as back-up were attempting to take custody of Paolo Callabrini, and that the bailiff, too busy worrying about evacuating the observers, could not see what was happening.
The guards who had come as back-up slipped out a side door with Paolo Callabrini, and with the panicking crowds, it was five minutes before Chris could contact anyone else from Team Seven. By then, Callabrini was long gone.
The bailiff later admitted that he had never seen those guards before. Upon further investigation, Team Seven discovered that the call for back-up had not reached the security desk in the courthouse's lobby. The signal had been intercepted, and the fake guards had shown up. Chris had a sinking feeling in his stomach. One of the arrested protestors admitted he had been sent by Vincenzo Callabrini, Paolo's son, as a diversionary tactic.
"Does anyone else think this is too much of a coincidence?" Vin asked.
The Seven had appropriated use of the jury deliberation room to collect their thoughts.
"A professionally executed escape, only minor injuries as a result of the necessary stampede of the peanut gallery, and use of deceitfully attired intruders," Ezra theorized, "this attack bears similarities to the one in which Mr. Dunne was taken, but it is more..."
"Elegant?" Josiah suggested. "You're right. I just returned from checking outside. Every building on the square is blaring with alarms. The green space and streets are clogged with confused and frightened people."
"That would be an ideal way for Callabrini and the fake guards to escape," Nate guessed. "If they changed into street clothes and split up, no one would notice a few more panicked people."
Chris grimaced. "I hate to say it, but if he had to escape, at least this way, no one got hurt."
"Yeah, until his next shipment of guns hits the streets," Buck griped. "Whoever thought up this plan was shortsighted. I mean, sure, the bailiff's fine, we're okay, there wasn't a shootout in the middle of the courthouse, but now that Paolo Callabrini's free again--"
"That's it!" Vin realized, his lopsided smirk making a reappearance. "Who else do we know that could pull this off? Computers control those alarms remotely; it must be JD!"
Every other man's first instinct was to immediately deny Vin's guess.
"He's an officer of the law," Buck protested. "There's no way JD could be behind this."
Vin shrugged. "You said it yourself, Bucklin. We're okay. If anyone but JD had planned this attack, we wouldn't be. The average criminal knows that we're more dangerous to their operation alive than dead. Whoever took JD must have wanted a way to free Paolo Callabrini, and keeping us alive suited him better than killing us."
"I doubt Paolo is behind this, then," Nate commented. "He hates us for bringing down most of the people in his organization. He wouldn't have minded us dying in a shoot- out."
"Who benefits?" Ezra mused. "Certainly not Paolo Callabrini. At best, he will have to leave the country, try to reach a place that does not extradite. At worst, someone will see that this is his moment of weakness and will take his place."
Buck sighed. "His son would benefit the most. Vincenzo Callabrini is a cold, calculating bastard. I wouldn't put it past him to use this to take control of the remnants of his father's cartel."
"I thought you and Vin already checked him out," Chris protested. "You said that he was friendly; even let you into his house without a warrant."
"He was," Vin replied, "but the family owns several small pieces of property throughout the state. If they're holding JD, it may not be at that house."
A timid knock on the door had six men whirling and yelling for the person outside to enter. Nervously, Greg Meyer opened the door and stepped carefully inside, as though entering a minefield. The analogy wasn't too far off. Lately, the famous ATF team had been even more intimidating than usual. A thought about wounded predators flashed through Greg's mind before he stammered out, "Y- you wanted to hear about any unusual technological activity, Agent Sanchez?"
Josiah nodded serenely. Explaining to the others, he said, "If JD is allowed any access to technology, I knew he would try to contact us. What is it, Agent Meyer?"
Meyer shrugged. "Probably nothing, but definitely unusual. There is a faint signal from a location a few hours outside the city; near where you found the abandoned van...the signal is sending out a two-word message. SOS...Voodoo. Does that mean anything?"
Meyer didn't know whether to be alarmed or relived when the team's ladies' man leaped from his chair and enfolded the tech expert in a brief, tight hug.
When Buck released Agent Meyer, the ladies' man explained to the others, "It's the last thing I said to him before the taller one got the drop on me. He was claiming that using technology to find criminals was a science. I said it sounded more like voodoo--"
"Where is the signal coming from, specifically?" Chris demanded, and five minutes later, six determined men had commandeered a helicopter from a nearby hospital, and were flying out to retrieve their seventh.
'This kind of thing never works,' JD thought dispiritedly as he checked for the umpteenth time on his improvised radio. His first night in this prison, the lights had gone out at a time his captors had evidently deemed correct. For JD, who was still trying to decide between rice pudding and couscous for dinner, it had been disconcerting. However, he had made good use of that time, tearing apart the miniature walkie-talkie and scavenging for parts around the suite.
A few key parts were missing, but JD fixed that by demanding use of a computer.
"Look," he recalled telling Vincenzo Callabrini, "if you want this to work, I need access to a computer. The timing on the alarms has to be precise. This isn't something just anyone can hack into. You know that, and that's why you brought me here."
Vincenzo had caved, and JD managed to harvest the remaining pieces he needed from that computer without anyone noticing. Then, using the empty shoe boxes and wire hangers, JD had programmed his transmitter, placed it high in the closet, and hoped that the improvised antenna was allowing the transmission to broadcast past however much stood between him and open air.
JD heard voices outside the prison/suite, and quickly closed the closet door. Thus far, he had been fortunate. His captors knew there was nothing of consequence in the closet, and therefore never checked it. However, if they found JD standing in the short hallway for no good reason, they might suspect something.
Hurrying out into the living room, JD prepared to meet Vincenzo yet again. The time for Paolo Callabrini's escape had come and gone, and JD assumed that the younger Callabrini was visiting to gloat. After all, JD was Vincenzo's ace in the hole, his key to manipulating the rest of Team Seven. JD clenched his fists. Whenever he thought of that aspect of his kidnapping, the reaction was the same. JD hated being used, and he intended to do something to change the status quo, since it appeared no one had noticed his strange SOS.
His assumption was only partially correct.
The door was unlocked and a few people entered, rather than just Vincenzo, as had become the routine. JD recognized Paolo and Vincenzo Callabrini, and the other three men, though he had never met them, were clearly muscle for Vincenzo.
"You want to know how?" Vincenzo was saying. "He's how I managed this. Isn't it ingenious? Now Team Seven will be forced to help us. Think of the possibilities!"
Paolo's complexion became ashen upon recognizing JD. "You captured one of them? This is the most idiotic thing you have ever done. Don't you understand? Larabee is not like other men. If he thinks you have one of his men, he will not rest until he has answers. He is dangerous."
JD smiled. "I tried to tell him, Mr. Callabrini, but Vinny didn't want to hear it. He probably thought I was exaggerating, trying to save myself."
The elder Callabrini frowned. "Of course you were concerned for your own safety," Paolo spoke as though nothing was more natural than lying to achieve one's goals, "but that does not change the situation. I saw Larabee give testimony this morning. He would have gladly killed our source in the police department personally. Do you think I lasted so long in this business without knowing who not to make my enemy?"
Vincenzo snorted, his derision apparent. "You lasted so long in this business because no one else thinks you are a threat. If it weren't for that talkative southerner, you would still be making small deals, being careful. I have the vision to run the cartel, not you."
Paolo Callabrini glanced toward JD, a question in his features.
JD shrugged as he confirmed Paolo's fears of intended patricide. "I bet you're wishing you stayed in the courtroom. At least there, you weren't facing the death penalty. I would've warned you, but," JD gestured at their surroundings, "I didn't exactly have a lot to work with."
Vincenzo laughed, his disbelief showing clearly on his face. "Why would you try to warn him? We are criminals. You are an ATF agent."
Grimacing, JD replied, "You're the one who said our interests sometimes overlapped. I'm not looking for vengeance...only justice. This," JD nodded toward the three man-team flanking Vincenzo, the bulges under their sports jackets indicating guns, "isn't my idea of justice. Where are you getting these guys, anyway? My friends and I put most of your regulars behind bars."
Paolo scowled. "He has gone outside the community," the elder Callabrini responded disgustedly.
"Desperate times, Father," Vincenzo answered, his voice surprisingly mild. "Besides, these are men I know I can trust, unlike anyone who used to work for you."
As Vincenzo droned on about his plans for the future of the Callabrini family business, JD took a closer look at the three men who would most likely be Paolo's executioners, because they could very well be his as well, if his message had not gotten through or if Vincenzo decided that hope was more important than proof of life.
The one to Vincenzo's right was slight of build, going gray at the temples, and had already begun unbuttoning his jacket in preparation for the younger Callabrini's orders. This was not a man to make any sudden movements around. Here was one who had seen too many firefights to be surprised by anything; his innate wariness was how he had survived to achieve the gray in his hair.
The man to Vincenzo's left was heavier and at least five years younger than JD. This one had nervous, darting eyes, and though his hand was straying continuously toward the poorly concealed holster, the man was too new at his job to realize he ought to already have his coat open. The second man, Vincenzo was right to trust, the young man had not seen enough crime to turn his loyalty against the younger generation of the Callabrini family.
JD guessed, by the dark, hateful look in the younger one's eyes, that crime would only whet his appetite; make him a more eager accomplice to Vincenzo's plans...if his lack of experience did not cost him his life first.
The third man stood guard at the door, mostly shielded from JD's sight because of his position behind Vincenzo Callabrini. Something about the man's stance, though, was not the same as those of the other two thugs. JD could not pinpoint it. He felt as though some strange combination of Chris and Ezra were standing there; ready to back him up against these nearly insurmountable odds. JD knew that was insane, knew that he must be imagining things to comfort himself in what might prove to be his final moments, but the instinct was unshakeable.
"Sir, may I take a look around?" The third man interrupted Vincenzo's rant somewhere between family pride and profit prospects. "I've heard about this Dunne kid. We shouldn't underestimate him. He's been here for three days; he may have had the opportunity to come up with a surprise for us."
Vincenzo looked impatient and slightly angry at being interrupted in his moment of victory, but after a few moments he nodded. "Yes, go ahead. It is better to discover his trickery now rather than later." As the third man slipped past JD and Paolo Callabrini, Vincenzo said offhandedly, "What will he find, Jonathan? Have you set a bowl of hot soup over the bathroom door?"
JD tried to calm his features as he replied negatively, but Vincenzo must have seen something, some sign of duplicity on JD's face or in his eyes.
"Check carefully, Reigert," Vincenzo called out after the third man. "I think your assumption is correct."
JD kept perfectly still as he heard the man called Reigert rooting around in the kitchen. Next, the third man inspected the bathroom and bedroom. When Reigert paused in the hallway and opened the closet door, JD was certain he had been found out...but Reigert shut the closet and returned to the living room.
"Nothing," came the false report from Reigert.
Vincenzo seemed annoyed. He was, by his nature, a paranoid man, and once those suspicions were aroused; only supreme confidence in the safety of his surroundings would put those fears to rest. "Search him," Vincenzo pointed to JD. "He must have found a way to change something in here into a weapon."
Reigert obeyed, patting JD down with the practiced motions of one who had done so hundreds of times before. JD's suspicions were confirmed when he felt a heavy weight drop into his right hip pocket when Reigert's hands searched that region. JD did not bother trying to hide his reaction. Instead, he masked it with something Buck might have said.
"That isn't a weapon, man; it's just part of the anatomy. Hands off."
Vincenzo smirked at JD's smart-aleck response. The younger loyal gunman reacted by rolling his eyes while the more experienced one regarded JD with a flat stare, obviously not amused. Only Paolo Callabrini glanced in JD's direction with anything even close to resembling doubt, but he kept silent, probably hoping for an ally in the imminent violence.
Reigert backed away from JD, saying, "He's clean...except for this." Reigert tossed a plastic knife on the coffee table. "Though what he hoped to accomplish with it..."
"Desperate measures," JD replied, completing Vincenzo's earlier statement and giving a helpless shrug of his shoulders.
Vincenzo smiled vindictively, his confidence returning. "We will return to business, then. Reigert, lock up behind us. There is no need to make Jonathan a witness to more than he is already."
The younger gunman grabbed Paolo Callabrini by the arm and shoved him out of JD's prison. The more experienced one and Vincenzo followed. Reigert brought up the rear. Though Reigert closed the door, JD did not hear it lock.
JD waited for the footsteps to fade away before
he approached the previously impervious door. He opened it slowly and quietly, wondering just who this Reigert was, and how he had come to infiltrate the Callabrini organization so quickly. JD drew the metal object from the pocket Reigert had dropped it in, and found a full clip of bullets in the gun when he checked.
Proceeding down a narrow corridor, JD was shocked when the hallway opened out to reveal the interior of a structure he recognized. This was Paolo Callabrini's vacation home outside of Denver. More specifically, it was the monolithic garage located near the back of that property. JD remembered it because he had been simultaneously grateful and disappointed that they could not get a warrant to bug the place; grateful because the echo would have been nearly impossible to filter out of recordings, yet disappointed, because he suspected this was where many of Paolo's arms deals were discussed. He now recognized that his prison had been located in the corner of the garage. On the blueprints, that area was a spacious utility room, but in reality, JD had discovered differently.
JD ducked behind the nearest car--a Ford GTO--as he noticed that the Callabrini family reunion was continuing not far from where he now crouched. JD was still contemplating how to best confront Vincenzo and his two loyal gunmen when he heard an unlikely sound: a helicopter approaching.
Even from a distance of thirty feet, JD could tell that Vincenzo was scowling.
"As I said," Paolo deduced, "Larabee is not like other men. He does not admit defeat easily."
Vincenzo glared at his father. "Shut up. Carlos, go retrieve the agent. We may need him before this is over."
JD watched as the more experienced gunman turned and headed toward his current location. Moving quietly, JD maneuvered to come up behind the man Vincenzo had called Carlos. When he was in position, JD raised the gun Reigert had given him and prepared to quietly order Carlos to drop his weapons, but Carlos had senses that surpassed JD's best attempts at stealth.
With one fluid movement, Carlos spun and knocked JD's gun out of his hand. The weapon went skittering and spinning across the smooth floor, drawing the attention of the other criminals.
Determined that he would not be so easily subdued this time--after all, now he did not have to worry about the rest of Team Seven's imminent safety--JD did not pause to mourn the loss of his gun. Instead, he lashed out with a powerful kick, engaging the enemy before his opponent could recover his balance.
The fight lasted far too long for JD's liking, especially when he heard his teammates arriving, gunfire erupting, and knew with a sinking feeling that there was nothing he could do except to keep this criminal occupied. For the first ten seconds, JD tried to fight fair, but after being subjected to a particularly painful blow, JD knew he would have to either fight dirty or risk being incapacitated before Carlos was.
If that happened, Carlos would be free to join the attack against the rest of Team Seven, and JD wasn't about to let them face this experienced felon. JD caught Carlos' hand as it flashed toward him in what would have been a crippling hit to the abdomen. He redirected the fist so that the impact was lessened, then twisted the arm and brought Carlos to the ground with a bone-jarring body slam. JD found a pressure point Ezra had taught him, and used it to render Carlos unconscious.
Slow clapping came from the hood of a nearby vehicle. Glancing up, JD realized that the firefight had died down. Ezra was leaning against the bumper of yet another classic car, an impressed smirk on his lips. "Nicely executed, Mr. Dunne, though I think most of the moves were Mr. Tanner's, the nerve pinch was expertly performed." Ezra held out a pair of handcuffs. "Would you like to do the honors?"
JD accepted the restraints. "Gladly," he said in a tone that made Ezra's amused expression morph into one of concern.
Before Ezra could inquire as to the reason for JD's ill humor, Buck came tearing through the rows of cars. "Where is he? Damnit, Ezra, if you're letting him fight that guy all on his own--"
"Please, Mr. Wilmington, threats are completely unnecessary," Ezra protested languidly. "Mr. Dunne was admirably capable of incapacitating and detaining the vile reprobate single-handedly. I was here merely to lend moral support and a helping hand, had Lady Luck not been so kind to our young compatriot."
JD chuckled. "Come on, Ez. One minute you're telling me I beat him by skill and now you're saying that it was all luck? Give me a break--"
His complaints were cut short as Buck pulled JD to his feet and held him at arm's length, looking for injuries. "You--you're okay?"
JD smiled. "Yes, Buck I'm fine. Vinny wanted me for my hacking abilities, and evidently pain would've interfered with that."
Buck's joy at being reunited with his young protégé was instantly dampened the moment he realized JD was not in immediate danger of dying. "What was the first thing I taught you when you joined this team, huh? Never drop your weapons, no matter what!"
JD's smile changed to an angry frown. "You were being threatened, Buck. I didn't have a choice." Then he smirked. "Besides, you're wrong. The first thing you taught me was that if I wanted to sneak up on somebody, I shouldn't wear such a ridiculous hat."
Buck's anger melted as he pulled the hat in question out of his back pocket and snatched the blue jean material one off JD's head. "Well, it sure beats this one."
What neither man acknowledged was that JD's old hat--despite the fact that it supported a team with an impressive losing streak--was better than the clothing that had been used to aid his unwilling disappearance.
"Vinny?" Ezra interrupted as he realized that JD had not only called Vincenzo Callabrini by his first name, but also by a diminutive, thereby suggesting familiarity.
Replacing the blue jean hat with his usual one and then shrugging, JD replied, "He wanted me to call him 'Vin'." The identical looks on both Buck and Ezra's faces confirmed that JD was right to change Vincenzo's name.
Ezra scowled. "That miserable creature, who so eagerly wished to commit the first of the Oedipal crimes, does not deserve to share the moniker of our own, far more astute resident Hercules."
Buck laughed. "Don't let Vin hear you talk like that. He'd probably die of embarrassment."
The three crossed to the front of the garage to join the rest of the team, dragging their subdued prisoner behind them. Josiah and Chris were guarding the three other prisoners. The young gunman's body was splayed on the floor; his arms spread wide, four bullet holes in his chest and one between his eyes. Vin and Nate both glanced up as they heard JD, Buck and Ezra approaching. Nate's expression immediately changed to one of concern, while Vin's was harder to place.
JD held out his hands to prevent Nate from subjecting him to a complete check-up on the spot. "I'm fine. There's nothing wrong with me that a pepperoni and sausage pizza won't fix." As JD told the others of his time as Vincenzo's prisoner--leaving out anything that would give away Reigert's true loyalties to an awake and glaring Vincenzo--the others reacted largely in the way JD had expected. Nate was concerned for JD's health; Ezra was relieved that the incarceration had been free of physical torture; Buck was indignant on JD's behalf; Josiah quietly listened, probably trying to ascertain what would cause JD psychological trauma and deciding how to approach the problem; and Chris glared at the criminals with a fury that belied the pain of walking on a leg that was not entirely healed. Vin was obviously grateful that JD had been returned to them relatively unharmed, but refused to meet JD's gaze or show any appearance of joy. JD made a mental note to talk to Vin later, because clearly something was wrong.
As he concluded the report, two cars tore around the corner of the garage, pulling in front of Team Seven and effectively blocking any escape. Six guns were pointed at the cars even before the front passenger-side door opened--JD had never reacquired the one Reigert had slipped to him--and a man of medium height, with short-cropped hair and a serious expression stepped from the back seat of the car to their right.
Flashing his credentials, the man stated, "Agent Halen, FBI. We're here to take custody of those three."
Chris bristled at the ease with which this newcomer had assumed control of the situation. As three other FBI agents exited the vehicles--one was the driver for Halen while the other two departed the remaining car--Chris gave all the FBI agents a look of dislike, bordering on hatred. "We have to bring Paolo Callabrini back to his trial. As for the other two..." The smile Chris gave the FBI agents had most of them reconsidering the absolute necessity of taking custody of the criminals, "you'll have to go through us first."
Agent Halen fixed a bored stare on Chris. "Agent Larabee, please do not make this more difficult than it has to be. If I wanted, I could have you brought up on charges for commandeering that helicopter--" he indicated the machine that idled on the Callabrini's lawn, "without adhering to proper procedure."
"There's a proper procedure for stealing a helicopter?" Buck joked wonderingly. "Damn, I must have missed that reg in our handbook."
Most of the Seven grinned at or at least reacted to Buck's comment. Chris nodded his agreement, but then addressed Agent Halen. "What else?" Chris knew that the other shoe hadn't dropped yet, but was mystified as to what that shoe might be.
Agent Halen gave a small sigh. "Let us just leave it at this...these detainees are the concern of the FBI now because they have information vital to national security. You can walk away with your men, or I can arrest you for obstructing justice--"
"That charge will never stick," Ezra interjected. "Even I, a fledgling student of the intricacies of court proceedings, comprehend that this entire affair can be chalked up to a misunderstanding and that nothing detrimental to our team could be proven."
"I can arrest you," Agent Halen continued doggedly, purposely ignoring Ezra to focus his attention on Chris, "detain you, and question your men, Larabee." His features softened slightly in an appeal for compromise. "Those three aren't worth the trouble."
Chris snorted. "You seem to think they are." Then he relented, knowing that JD didn't need the hassle of an enclosed space and harsh questions so short a time after being held against his will in a similar environment. "Fine, but if there's anything left of them once you're through, the courts of this state will want a piece of them."
Agent Halen smiled. "Not you, Agent Larabee? From your reputation, I'm honestly surprised you left any of them alive."
Chris' expression was serious when glanced momentarily toward JD and then replied, "We got what we came for."
"Wait a minute, that's why Halen was giving us such a hard time?" staring back at JD over his third beer, Buck protested, "Why not just tell us? We'd understand."
JD shrugged. It felt good to be back among familiar surroundings. Though there were still a few hours to the work day, Chris had declared that they all deserved a little time off, and--after returning the helicopter to the hospital--they had all come to Inez's Saloon in a van left at the courthouse for prisoner transport. It wouldn't be needed until the following morning, and Nate had agreed to be the designated driver. JD was grateful Chris hadn't insisted on returning so soon to the office, because JD was by no means sure of what his reaction would be. Familiar surroundings definitely beat the jail in Callabrini's garage, but at the same time, the memory of what had happened in Team Seven's offices was still so fresh and painful. JD wasn't ready to feel that helplessness anytime soon.
One thing JD had noticed on the ride over to Inez's saloon was the seating arrangements. Chris drove, because they all wanted desperately to get drunk quickly, and no one knew how to maneuver the side streets and back alleys of Denver quite like Chris did. Ezra, who would have normally complained about not residing temporarily in the same seat that Charles Manson had potentially once occupied, said nothing as he climbed into the far back to sit on the hard, uncomfortable metal bench. Vin, who usually preferred shotgun when Chris was driving, took a moment to steel himself and then entered the back area. The others did likewise, leaving JD with only the front passenger seat to choose from. He smiled, but said nothing about the understanding they were quietly giving him. To sit in an enclosed space, trapped by metal on all sides, would have definitely been too much for JD to handle. Considering Ezra's obsession with cleanliness, Josiah's considerable bulk on the narrow benches, and Vin's unease at being boxed in, JD appreciated the sacrifices they had made.
Now, relaxing in Inez's Saloon, JD replied to Buck's question. "I'm not saying Reigert is an FBI agent, Buck; I'm just saying that by his actions, he had to be working for them in some way."
"Perhaps an informant," Ezra added, taking another sip of the beer that had been unceremoniously slammed in front of him, splashing over onto his formerly immaculate slacks. Giving the others a mock glare, Ezra swallowed with a grimace of distaste that was not entirely feigned. "Heathens," he grumbled, "haven't any of you heard of ordering a foreign draft?"
"Nah," Nate corrected as he pushed the glass of ginger ale a few inches back and forth across the table, "he didn't move right. He was probably an agent." When everyone at the table turned to look at Nate disbelievingly, Nate justified himself. "What? I was a medic in the army before I joined this team. When you're treating patients in battlefield conditions, surrounded by enemies and civilians that are all dressed alike, sometimes the way a man moves is the only warning you have."
The men of Team Seven that had combat experience nodded sagely, though, granted, some of those nods were becoming slightly wobbly as the night wore on.
"As for why he didn't tell us," Josiah hypothesized, "I can only assume that they did not want his cover blown."
Only Chris and Vin remained aloof from the conversation. They contributed when necessary, teasing Buck for how quickly he was becoming drunk or complaining that if Ezra didn't like what they were ordering, he could buy the next round himself, but by and large, Vin was concentrating on his drink, and Chris was concentrating on Vin.
A frustrated look was the reward Chris received for raising an eyebrow in concern when Vin finished off his fifth drink while Buck was still nursing his third. Without explanation, Vin pushed himself away from the table, weaving slightly as he walked out of the bar.
Buck and Josiah called after Vin, trying to ask what was wrong, but Chris told them to stay put. "He needs a few minutes, guys. Let him go."
Everyone returned to drinking and joking, trading banter for ribbing as the subject deserved...everyone but JD. He had a guess as to why Vin needed some time alone, and knew that solitude wasn't the answer. Shoving himself to his feet with greater effort than he thought possible, JD claimed he needed to use the bathroom. Most of the team accepted his excuse and returned to asking Nate about his war stories, but Chris' eyes tracked JD's movements, and noted when the younger agent doubled back on his path to follow Vin. Chris gave it a few minutes before he followed, figuring that in their condition, neither could inflict too much damage on the other if the stubborn sniper refused to accept the message JD was trying relay.
The team sniper looked up from where he had been leaning on the alley wall outside of Inez's Saloon, and he groaned. "Go away, kid. I jist need ta settle my stomach."
JD shook his head, and then reached out to touch the wall for support as the alleyway tilted slightly. "I don't think so. If Chris thought you weren't feeling well, he would've sent Nate after you, rather than telling all of us to back off." JD drew in a deep breath, preparing to make a statement he knew would not be popular with the quiet, self-contained man. "Something's been bothering you since you guys found me. What is it?"
Vin turned his back to the wall and slid down until he sat on the asphalt. "Should've done somethin'," he mumbled, so soft that JD almost missed it.
However, the younger agent did not miss the statement, and the impact of what Vin was saying hit JD like a punch in the gut. As he slowly recovered, JD did not know whether to be hysterical or enraged. Completely of its own accord, the anger started to build, but JD needed to confirm his suspicions before he let it loose. "When, Vin? Are you talking about three days ago?"
Vin nodded, finally meeting JD's gaze. The soulful, hurting look Vin gave the younger man tested JD's resolve, but after a moment, JD decided to see it through. Vin had to get past this, to realize that his guilt was misplaced and that as teammates, sacrifice was a two-way street.
"I would've lost it if you hadn't spoken when you did, Vin," JD said, referring to the time in Chris' office. "I mean, Buck was unconscious outside; I didn't know if he'd suffered brain damage, Ez was looking pretty bad--"
"Head wounds always look worse," Vin replied calmly, and JD suppressed a smile. It was the kind of matter-of-fact statement that usually drove the younger agent crazy. If asked whether it would rain that day, Vin would glance up, see clouds, and respond with a curt, but civil, 'Might'.
JD crouched opposite Vin, firm in his resolution to relieve Vin of the guilt he was unjustly carrying. "Just what else could you have done, huh? You aren't bullet-proof. We both knew they would shoot Ez if you tried anything, and there was Buck to think of."
"Ya shouldn't have had to go with those men," Vin protested, and JD laughed.
"Why? Is it because I'm younger? Because you think I need protection? Don't say it's because I didn't deserve to be kidnapped," JD insisted heatedly. "You aren't much older than me. Sure, I wasn't a U.S. Marshal like you or a Seal like Chris and Buck, but I know how to look after myself. No, nobody deserved that, but if it was between a few days of uncertainty or you, Ez and Buck maybe being killed, I would make the same decision again without hesitation." JD paused, trying to see if his words were having an impact. Vin looked unhappy, which probably meant that the message was being received...if reluctantly. Deciding to back off for a moment, JD extended his arm downward as he slowly stood. "Need a hand?"
Vin smirked, and accepted the help, clasping forearms with JD in order to pull himself to his feet.
JD did not miss the significance of Vin sharing the warrior's gesture with him, especially when that act was reserved for Chris alone. The younger agent hoped it meant that Vin now not only trusted his judgment, but was willing to accept him as an equal, rather than treating him like a favorite rookie.
However, JD did not have time to fully appreciate the moment, because a distinctive click sounded from the shadows of the roadside and a raspy voice sneered, "That's real sweet, boys. Now, give me your wallets or I'll shoot the hero first."
As hold-ups went, this was not a particularly smooth or sophisticated one, but it didn't have to be. Too much drink made their movements clumsy and slow, and neither man was willing to take a chance with the other's life.
Before either of them could move, they noticed deeper shadows move slightly and heard another click. JD was about to groan in tired frustration at the prospect of facing two hostile gunmen when he heard Chris say, "You just ran out of luck, mister. Drop it."
Something in Chris' voice must have warned the would-be mugger that this tall blond-haired figure dressed all in black was not a man to disobey if he valued his life. As the gun dropped from trembling hands, Chris took a spare pair of handcuffs from his back pocket and put one ring around the mugger's hand and the other around a nearby traffic sign.
"You couldn't even stay out of trouble for two minutes?" Chris asked in feigned frustration as he guided Vin and JD back into Inez's Saloon. "If you hurry, you might get to see Ez force Buck to try an imported brew," Chris told the two men, and then turned to inform Inez--who had come back from California a few hours prior--that she should have the local PD come around to pick up the trash. With a small smile on his face, Chris limped back to the table and slid into his seat just in time to watch Buck's face clench in disgust. Spitting the liquid out in an empty glass, Buck thrust the bottle back into Ezra's hands, claiming that he could keep his crappy, expensive beer. Glancing around the table, Chris saw laughing, smiling faces. JD was resilient; given a few days off the job--which ATF Team Seven's leader was certain 'Judge' Travis would grant--the youngest agent would be ready to brave the office again. Vin's face was finally free of the gaunt, haunted look that he had never lost in these past three days of hell. Chris didn't know what JD had said to Vin, (he had arrived only after the mugger made his appearance) but he was glad for whatever JD had told the mule-headed sniper.
Sometimes, it was good for a man to acknowledge his limits. It was even better when he realized that he was part of a team whose combined talents made those shortcomings insignificant...so long as they all worked together.