The rest of the week saw the seven separated again. Action on the border had the healthy five on duty twelve hours a day, split shifting. They weren't near Tucson, so they relinquished the care of their wounded brothers to the hospital staff. Chris was livid at the orders and carried on, his fury evident. Buck reminded him that Carlino needed to be stopped. Chris reluctantly agreed. They all noticed the difference in their leader. He was like a machine, cold and cutting. He spat out orders, tuning all of them out and refusing any offers of help. Buck's black eye was testament to how serious his intent was. He'd made the mistake of gripping Chris's shoulder and telling him just what he thought of the leader's demeanor. Buck understood Chris's pain, he'd been there. After Sara and Adam died, Chris cut him off that same way Vin did. Chris's heart was shattered and none of them knew how to reach him.
The injured man had cut them all off, requesting no visitors. Truth be told, he wasn't up to company. He slept most of the time, his recovering body desperate for rest. His fever was only slightly elevated and the lung congestion left him with a nagging cough. The bruises changed colors daily and left him sore and stiff. Generally speaking, he felt like shit. His appetite was good and he was eating well.
Ezra was improving also, and by Friday was ready to be released. Vin's doctor would have okayed his release as well. But Chris was worried that Vin would bolt, and not rest as the Doctor had ordered. Ezra didn't want to return to Denver, he needed the satisfaction of seeing Carlino and the she-devil get their just rewards. Chris wasn't happy with his decision and they'd argued about it. He reluctantly agreed to a compromise. Ezra would rest at a hotel all weekend and work at the Operation Base Station on the computer or other light duty.
Ezra was dressed and ready to leave. Nathan was picking him up in an hour. He decided to visit Vin. Despite the fact that he was sleeping alot, the Southerner thought the Texan looked weary. He was eating, sleeping, taking his medicine and obeying every order the doctor's gave him, so the head nurse reported. That had them all worried. Vin hated hospitals, medicine, anybody fussing over him and taking orders. He sat next to Vin and frowned at the slight flush on his face. The nurse said Vin's temperature was still above normal. The stubborn infections refused to die without a fight. He watched the body curl up as a cough racked him. Vin's hand reached out for the tissue box, which skittered down the sheet. Ezra handed him a tissue and Vin expelled into it.
"Thanks..." He managed, his voice obscured by the congestion. His eyes never opened.
"My pleasure Mr. Tanner."
The blue eyes opened and Vin sat upright. He blinked at Ezra, and eyed the blue sling painfully. As if Ezra read his mind, he distracted the guilty look. "There is no cause for you to bear that burden, Vin. I have come to apologize for my reckless actions in Denver. I..." He took a deep breath. "...said some cruel remarks in the heat of the moment that were totally uncalled for. Despite my hostile intentions, you...nearly...died...because of ...me." He sighed, "I've spent the last few days making mental notes on what to say today. Nothing seems fitting. I can offer only this."
Vin's face hadn't changed and he stared in stunned silence at the open hand extended to him. He swallowed hard and shook it. At the touch of his skin, Vin's memory burst open and he recalled too well in vivid color what this man had done for him. Ezra's comforting voice and arms in that hell hole, when he thought he'd died. Ezra taking care of him, getting him through the desert.
"....and damn near gettin' killed on account of me..." He rasped outloud, eyes fixed and unblinking.
"Vin...Vin are you with me?" Ezra frowned at the near catatonic look. He waved his hand in front of the blank face and the younger man blinked. "Huh..." Vin scowled, "It ain't yer fault and I didn't do it fer y'all. Tanner's the only name I got and it means somethin' to me, so does the woman that give it to me. That's why I done it. I wanted my name back. Y'all just got in the way." He took a hard look at Ezra. "Just now, when ya shook my hand...it come back to me." He swallowed hard as he felt an emotional wave rising. "Damn, this is hard...I ain't never gonna ferget what ya done, Ez. Thank you don't seem to cover what I want to say. Ya got no idea what it felt like...seein' y'all in that hell hole. I thought I died, Ez...for real." Vin dropped his head and balled up his fists. He felt the shame return, and the anger.
"Don't go there, Vin." Ezra warned, recognizing the signs. "You betrayed no one, if there's any guilt to be borne, it's on my shoulders. Well on one anyway," He patted his cast. "The two of us sitting her wallowing in guilt is not getting Carlino behind bars."
Vin sat back and his mind started to spin. Ezra was right, Carlino needed to be caught. He began coughing again and silently cursed his weak body. With each passing the day the walls were closing in. He envied Ezra his freedom.
Ezra watched the blue eyes darting and recalled the nurses words. That Vin had been a near perfect patient. He suddenly saw someone else in the bed. Ezra watched as the predator emerged. He got an idea and excused himself to use the bathroom. He ran the water and dialed Buck.
"I worried about Vin." Ezra said, mincing his words.
"Hell, Ezra tell me somthing I don't know." Buck commented, "We're all worried about him."
"Then you know why he's behaving so oddly. Eating right, taking all his med's, sleeping nearly the whole day. He's off the IV and the catheter."
"He still not talking?"
"No, we made amends just now, albeit awkward, I think we're okay."
"You keep an eye out, Pard. I'll stake a twenty he's fixin' on busting out."
"That is one bet I'd have to pass on, old friend. You're correct, I do believe Mr. Tanner is on the hunt. Mr. Larabee said the doctor was willing to release Vin to recover at home. Wouldn't it be more prudent for him to come to the hotel with me? At least I could keep an eye on him. With you all working and me gone, he'll slip right out of here. I dare say, when he doesn't want to be found, he won't be."
"I like it Ez, you convince that doctor. I'll update the others. Check in later."
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, emerging from the bathroom, "If you agree to behave and continue your medication and follow the good doctor's orders, he might be persuaded to release you. You can stay with me at the hotel."
"Reckon it's better than bein' cooped up in here. Ya ain't gonna talk alot, are ya?" Vin looked up, "Them big words of yers make m'head hurt and it's hurtin' a mess already."
"I shall try my best to restrain myself. I'll seek out the doctor."
An hour later, the two were in the deluxe suite at the nearest five star hotel. Nathan managed pick up a pair of khaki's, a cotton shirt and sneakers for Vin at the local discount store. Vin had taken his morning med's and needed Nathan to get him into bed. He was asleep almost immediately, which delighted the healer. He read Ezra the riot act and threatened him with bodily harm if he also didn't get some rest. Ezra did take an extended nap and panicked slightly when he woke up to see Vin's bed empty. The digital read out said five o'clock. It was then he smelled food. He got up and went into the living quarters of the suite and saw Vin sprawled on the couch, with a pizza box on his chest. Several containers of Chinese food, and a six pack of soda were on the table.
"Hey Ez," Vin looked up "wasn't sure what you wanted so I ordered both."
"Where did get the necessary funds?"
"Ain't none of my funds involved." Vin stated, "Charged it to your room. Dig in theres plenty."
"Thank you for being so generous with my money."
"Don't mention it." He yawned. By the time Ezra warmed up the soup and shrimp and cashews, Vin was asleep again. Ezra moved the pizza box off his chest and returned to eat his meal. Vin slept sound for two hours and then woke with a coughing fit. He stumbled into the bathroom and threw up. He could feel Ezra behind him.
"Shut up, Ezra."
"You knew your system wasn't ready for peppers and pepperoni, Vin. When will you learn?"
"Leave me be...I'm fixin' on taking a shower."
Vin let the hot shower cascade over his sore body. The rivulets of water felt good, and he was glad for once he'd listened to the advice of the medical personnel. It was late on Saturday night and had every intention on leaving on Monday morning. He heard Ezra and Nathan in the car, while he was dozing. He knew the gambler would be gone all morning on Monday. He looked like shit, had more colors on his body than a damn paint chart. He was stiff and sore, but stronger each day. Except for the cough and fatigue that plagued him, which made him cranky. Falling asleep in the middle of the day like some old crone in a home...damn it.
He'd always trusted his instincts and had an unnatural ability to feel or sense something happening. He knew Carlino was near and he intended on finding him. This was one mission he needed to do alone. He'd been the one who ruined the big bust. Millions of dollars and man-hours down the drain, not to mention nearly getting Ezra killed. He thought Ezra was dead, lying out in the desert. It was one of the factors that caused him to blow up at Chris. The delirious first days in the hospital left his mind fuzzy. It wasn't until later that afternoon when the phone rang and Ezra was on the other end, he realized his friend wasn't dead.
He turned the shower off and carefully climbed out and dried himself off. He felt guilty about driving his best friend away, but it was necessary. He couldn't endanger Chris's life. He'd sooner die himself. But Sierra, he'd never meant for that to happen. He didn't recall all that happened, it was like a black hole. He remembered Chris's shocked face and a lot of screaming. A nurse and doctor struggling with him, and her shattered face, standing just inside the door. She left a letter, which he'd read a dozen times. He didn't blame her for leaving. He didn't deserve her.
Erza sensed the change as soon as Vin returned. He almost saw a panther, waiting to spring from a small cage. He eyed the pale face and listened to the coughs emerge. Vin popped his pills in and swallowed the coke Ezra gave him. "Soup?" He asked, but Vin shook his head and stumbled into the bedroom.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was dying. He felt his life force seeping out of him, all over the floor of the dank prison. He heard voices and realized Roberto Carlino was speaking. The dream crystallized and Carlino began kicking him. Vin woke up coughing and sat up in bed, cursing through a croak. He drank down the rest of his flat soda and eyed the clock. It was six a.m. His heart hammered in his chest as Carlino's dialogue replayed in his head. An image appeared before him...a photo he'd uncovered while investigating Carlino. It stuck out like a sore thumb. An old ghost town in the desert. He recalled seeing the mileage from Tucson under it. The two images merged, and Vin jumped out of bed.
"Ezra...Ezra...Get the hell up..." He urged, punctuating the importance with a coughing fit.
"Is the room on fire?" Ezra blinked.
"No, get up and get dressed. We have to move fast iffen we're gonna catch 'em."
"Catch who? Are you delirious?" Ezra felt the flushed face and nodded. "You are...I insist you...'
"Shut up, Ezra and listen to me. " Vin snapped. "I know where the warehouse is. The buy's goin' down in less than two hours. We gotta move."
"Move? Are you insane? Between the two of us, we barely have one functioning compilation of body parts. We have no car or weapons. And you want us to engage in action with some of the world's most notorious criminals?"
"That about covers it." Vin grinned, "Come on, there's a car rental desk in the lobby. We can call for help on the way." He grew serious and let his blue eyes bore a hole in the jade green ones. "I want him Ezra. I need to do this. I think you do too."
"Maybe I'm the delirious one," Ezra moaned, sitting up, "I find myself inclined to agree with you. Let's go."
+ + + + + + +
Six twenty a.m.
Chris was returning from the shower in the barracks when the phone rang. He sat on the bunk and flipped his cell open. "Larabee."
"Mr. Larabee I want your word you will remain calm and not interrupt until I'm finished."
"What happened? Is Vin okay?"
"Mr. Tanner is fine...well certainly no worse than yesterday. We are about to get onto the freeway and make our way to the Carlino's warehouse. Mr. .Tanner recalled the location during a nightmare early this morning."
"Dammit Ezra, What the hell's the matter with you! You and Vin aren't in any shape to be running around in the desert . You're both off duty and have no weapons. You turn that car around now. That's an order; I mean it, Ezra."
Ezra winced and held the phone out, salvaging some of his hearing. "I'm afraid that is not an option. You are not close enough to get there in time. We shall detain them until your arrival."
"Detain them? Yeah, they're gonna die laughing. Don't fuck with me, Standish. Turn that car around."
"If you continue in this hostile line of questioning, I shall be forced to terminate the call and you will be left to wonder where the location is and if Mr. Tanner and myself are still among the living."
"Nice one, Ez..." Vin complimented, from behind the wheel.
"Fuck..." Chris swore, running a hand through his damp hair. "Okay, you win. But you don't go near the action . You find a safe spot and stay put."
Ezra gave the coordinates and time. Chris calculated it would take them about an hour to get there. He paused and Ezra heard his silent plea very clearly. He handed the phone to Vin. Vin stared at the receiver, his actions and words of the previous week, ringing in his ears.
"Hey cowboy..." He wheezed, coughing and cursing his timing.
"Dammit Vin..." Chris swore. "I got a mind to shoot you. What the hell are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking about bein' able to sleep without seeing a fuckin' cattle prod." Vin coughed, wincing slightly at the painful silence. He felt Chris flinching and heard the labored breathing. The transmission was fading as they were getting further away. He closed the phone and gave it back to Ezra.
Instantly Buck and Nathan were awake. J.D and Josiah were on Night Patrol and due in at eight a.m. The other two team members hustled over to where Chris was now standing.
"Shit..." Chris rubbed his eyes. He filled in the anxious duo looking at him.
"What are we gonna do?" Buck asked.
"What can we do?" Chris sighed, "We'll send the Calvary down and pray for a miracle."
"We done used up our free passes I'd say," Nathan muttered, "But a prayer or two wouldn't hurt."
Chris was dressed in a flash and phoning Ted. Ten minutes later the trio set out, heading north to pick up the interstate. J.D. and Josiah would meet them at the turnoff, as would the other agents involved.
"You aimin' on shootin' Vin?" Nathan eyed the blond behind the wheel, whose face was locked in tension.
"If he's lucky." Chris growled.
Vin pulled the vehicle over about twenty yards from the all but forgotten ghost town. "I'll be right back." He warned his teammate and slipped out of the car. He crept up the short incline that overlooked the skelatal remains of the old Arizona town. His wary eyes slowly searched the streets and rooftops, making a mental note of the guards stationed. He flattened himself and cocked his head slightly. He shifted his gaze and spotted black pants and expensive shoes about ten feet away. He lifted his head and saw the lone guard's back was facing him. He looked around the perimeter and saw not other guards. No reason for any other guards, there was only one way into town. He crept slowly through the overgrown brush and pounced on his unsuspecting prey.
"You..." He teethed recognizing one of his dungeon masters. The guard was equally caught off guard and Vin took advantage of his surprise. His martial arts training kicked in and he quickly silenced the burly brute. He took a pistol, rifle and a knife from the stilled figure and jogged back to the car. He approached the passenger's open window.
"Where have you been?" Ezra hissed, then eyed the handful of weapons.
"I went shoppin'" Vin grinned, handing Ezra the handgun. Resting one hand on the open door panel, he bent and unleashed a series of violent coughs. He took several gulps of air and wiped his teary eyes. Ezra's blurry face refocused. "Carlino's got a half dozen men prowlin' around town. Three on the rooftops, two on the eastside, one over the saloon. Three more in the street. Looks like the buildin's on the east side of town is all connected. I figure that's were they got the stuff stashed. There's some trucks at the far side of town. I seen two limo's too. Looks like most of the players are here. Best move the car to be on the safe side."
A few minutes later the car was well hidden and the two men retraced the path back towards the town. Vin put his arm up and Ezra halted. Vin crouched next to a group of rocks behind an overgrowth of brush. "Y'all wait here for Chris and them." Vin pointed to the path they entered on. "Shouldn't be long now. I'm gonna get a closer look." Vin punctuated his sentence with a hearty cough.
"I most certainly will not." Ezra growled, "I'm a far better candidate to secure a position within the confines of this pestilence. That lovely cough you're so attached to will give you away long before you can belly up to the bar."
"Sorry, Ez," Vin rasped, suppressing a cough. "That's a chance I'll hafta take. Y'all only got one good wing, can't drop anybody. Y'all can see all the goin's on down there from this here rock. Iffen I get in trouble, ya get back to car and hightail outta here."
"I shall most certainly take that course of action, Mr. Tanner," Ezra spat back, "right after I sprout wings and join those pigs that fly." He winced and rubbed his shoulder. "I concede your point on overcoming the enemy. Please refrain from sustaining any more physical damage to your body. Mr. Larabee is in a most dangerous state of mind and I fear he'll shoot first and ask questions later."
"Aw, hell, Ez," Vin winked as he began his decent, "I didn't know y'all cared. Watch yer back, Pard, could be some scorpions skitterin' about."
"Wonderful..." Ezra muttered, placing himself on the rock. "Can the situation get any better?"
+ + + + + + +
Chris pulled the car in shortly beyond the turnoff and tried Ezra's cellphone.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee."
"We just passed the turnoff. Where are you?"
"I am perched on a rock overlooking the town. Mr. Tanner obtained some weapons and went to observe closer." Ezra pulled the phone back as the blond's curses filled the air. "Your concern is duly noted. Mr. Tanner would not be dissuaded. I have him in sight. He disabled two of the rooftop sentry's and is on his way across the street to take out the other. It is our belief that the warehouse is within a large group of connected buildings on the east side of town. Several trucks and a few limousines are parked at the other end of this wasteland."
"Okay, how much further?" Chris was angry and Ezra cut to the chase.
"Ten minutes. I'll signal you when I have you in sight. Are you alone?"
"Buck and Nathan are with me. Josiah, J.D.,Ted and the Calvary are about twenty minutes behind."
Chris filled the rest of the team in and proceeded down the old road. He saw Ezra waving and pulled over to let Buck and Nathan out. He spotted a cluster of rocks to the right and hid his car. Chris jogged to the rock, joining the others scanning the town. Buck saw the same pattern Vin did, with the three sentry's on the street, making precise timed patrols.
"Piece of cake..." He nodded to Chris.
"Not so fast. We wait for Ted." Chris warned, "If Vin was right, we still have close to a half hour." Chris noted of his watch.
"Shit..." Nathan swore. "I don't see Vin..."
The others turned and watched the guards moving around. The solo rooftop sentry, was looking the other way. Two of the street patrol were in place.
"Where'd the other one go?" Buck said, feeling a chill.
"You stay here," Chris commanded, "I'm goin' down and backup Vin."
"Come on Nate," Buck said, ignoring Chris. "We got us some vermin to catch. Ez, you send the Calvary when they get here."
"If I don't die of boredom." Ezra drolled.
"Dammit, Buck..." Chris wheeled.
"Shut up, Chris." Buck snapped. "and quit playin' Batman."
They broke apart at the edge of town. Nathan and Buck went to the east, slipping into the side door of the last building. Chris ducked behind the livery stable and scooted up onto the roof. He took out the lone sentry and flattened himself, peeking over the edge. He saw the two guards conferring in the street. A movement caught his eye and he spotted Vin's head through a window.
He moved silently across the street and entered the building. Vin's assumption was correct. On the outside, it appeared to be a series of dilapidated nineteenth century buildings. On the inside, it was a large warehouse. Chris eyed the north side of the building where several panels were open . Daylight spilled in behind the trucks that were ready for loading. A mountain of crates sat on either side. He eyed the catwalk overhead for Vin, knowing the sniper would feel most comfortable in a loft. He stuck his head up and scanned the room, wondering where Buck and Nate were.
Ezra heard movement and crouched below the rock. He saw a familiar pair of hightop sneakers.
"Ezra? Where are you?"
Ezra stood and greeted Josiah, J.D. and Ted Dempsey. He quickly filled them in and followed them down the trail that led behind the buildings. Dempsey had a dozen men behind him, with several more on guard. He directed them around to critical points in the ghost town. Josiah eyed the old saloon in the town, and watched the batwing doors open. He nudged Dempsey and pointed.
"Looks like it's party time," He commented as the buyers previously identified by Vin and Ezra, walked across the street and entered a former billiard room door. Dempsey gave the order and they moved inside.
Vin watched the action from directly overhead the table where the Carlino's, buyers and Carmen Veguilla sat. Carlino nodded for one of his man to provide samples. Vin convulsed, trying desperately to squelch the cough that fought to escape. He was grateful for the loud splintering of wood as the crate was opened. It allowed a series of coughs to emerge.
"What was that?" Dom Carlino asked, eyeing the cavernous room.
"Shit..." Chris swore silently, hearing Vin's muffled coughing above him.
Silence reigned in the large warehouse. Each brother eyed the area and the terrain above. "You're hearing things." Roberto griped, "Let's get this done." He nodded and a sample bag was brought over for the buyers to test. Several minutes went by, and the deal was agreed upon. The buyer's produced large cases of money and then Ted nodded to this men.
"This is the Federal Government, you're under arrest. Throw down your weapons and surrender, you're surrounded."
A hail of bullets ensued. Bodies on both sides dove for cover and fired weapons. Chris saw Roberto slip out the door. He eyed the battle and the tide quickly turned in their favor. He slid out the door behind him, with one thing on his mind. He saw Carlino slip into the saloon across the street. Chris ran in right behind him and fired. Carlino dove behind the bar and returned fire.
Vin took his time, aiming carefully and bringing down Carmen Veguilla and then Dom Carlino. He eyed the bodies falling and noticed Roberto was missing. He'd seen the Italian dive for cover near the doorway. He saw the bodies falling and Ted's troops taking control. He ran for the door to the ceiling and spotted J.D.'s unprotected back, just as one of the Colombians bodyguards lifted his arm. Vin started to take aim and a violent coughing fit seized him. Both J.D. and the guard turned to look upwards. J.D. wheeled and fired, taking down the man who would have blown him away. He looked up and saw Vin recovering, wheezing and wiping his eyes. He wanted to catch his eye and give a nod of thanks, but had to run for cover.
Vin made sure J.D. was safe and grabbed his rifle. He moved onto the roof and shimmied down the drainpipe. He crossed the street and noticed one of the limo's was missing.
"Shit..." He muttered, taking out the tires of the remaining vehicles. He heard a brief burst of gunfire nearby and ran up the street towards the saloon.
Chris heard the click of Carlino's empty gun and smiled. He kept his gun trained on the drug dealer and stood.
"Toss it," He indicated of the gun, "The one in your boot too."
Chris gathered up the weapons and shoved them near the door. He smiled and holstered his weapon. He saw Carlino appraising him.
"You want a piece of me Pig? He sneered, "You should have taken me down when you had the chance you dumb fuckin' Fed."
"Seems to me you're the dumb Fuck," Chris replied, "You lost your money, the coke and your men. You're not even curious?" He needled, as the two circled each other. He saw Carlino's flicker and he pounced.
Chris drove the other man hard into the wall. They traded punches to head and abdomen. Once he tasted the blood, Chris was insatiable. His mind closed and he saw Vin chained and Carlino laughing. He closed his hands around Carlino's throat, feeling a surge of power coarse through him.
Vin stumbled into the saloon and saw the two bloodied figures. Chris was bent over Carlino, choking the life out of him. He saw the glazed look in his best friend's eyes and knew Chris was losing it.
"Chris, No..." He shouted, but his voice was hoarse from coughing and only a rasp emerged. He dropped his rifle and moved over to stand behind the team leader. He hooked his arms under Chris's from behind and pulled. "Chris don't do this....Chris listen to me...it's murder. That makes ya just like him. Chris?" Another coughing fit left him weak and dizzy and he slumped on Chris back.
The red haze dissolved and Chris blinked as Vin's words cut through. He felt the sharpshooter's ragged breath on his cheek. He released his hold on the drug dealer and straightened up. He turned and eased Vin onto the floor. He felt Vin's flushed face and cursed softly as the fever re-emerged. He tapped the flushed cheeks, and Vin stirred.
+ + + + + + +
"Whooey!" Buck whistled, clapping J.D. on the back. "Kid, we done hit the Mother Lode!"
"I'll say," J.D. eyed the mountain of cases that the DEA officers were sorting through.
Ted Dempsey and Nathan walked over. "Anybody seen Tanner? I'd like to shake his hand. Thanks to the boy, we're looking at close to 5000 Kilos."
Nathan whistled and shook his head, "That's close to 100 million at least. Not a bad's morning's work."
"Where is Vin?" Buck looked around. "For that matter, where's Chris?"
"Vin was up there," J.D. nodded "One of the Colombians had me dead to right and Vin busted up coughing. Thanks to Vin, I dropped him."
"Nobody's here," One of the DEA agent's called down.
"Roberto Carlino's missing too." Nathan said. "We find him, I'll bet we find Chris and Vin."
"Speaking of betting, where's Josiah and Ezra?" Buck wondered.
"They left a few minutes ago. Ezra said they had a plane to catch." Nathan answered.
"A plane?" J.D.'s face screwed up. Nathan just shrugged.
"Okay, let's fan out and find our fearless leader and his stubborn sidekick." Buck advised as the trio set off.
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