Little Boys and Heroes
ATF Alternate Universe
NOTES/COMMENTS: Thanks to Kerry M. for her suggestions and a great beta job!
It was a simple brick building. There was nothing pretentious about it. As seven men entered the lobby, they observed children doing chores and schoolwork. Some were playing. Chris smiled. The kids were well behaved. Leave it to Charlie to have a well-run outfit.
Charlie Maxwell was a good man. Chris had known Charlie since he was eight years old. Charlie had been his dad's partner on the Denver Police force for years. He had been at the Larabee's family gatherings too many times to count. Charlie had been there when Chris's dad died, and he was instrumental in getting Chris into the Police Academy. Charlie Maxwell had even been Chris's partner and mentor for the first sixth months of his rookie year, before retiring and starting working with the Denver Children's Center.
Chris left his team standing in the large lobby area as he went down the hallway to look for Charlie's office.
JD looked around the large room. It wasn't quite what he had expected. He was excited about throwing a party for these kids and getting presents for them, but he had expected a warmer place. The lobby was cold and lifeless, white walls, tile floor, and no decorations of any kind.
"Wow. They must not have very much money," he commented halfway under his breath.
"Indeed, Mr. Dunne," replied Ezra. "Or if they have, they haven't wasted any of it on ornamentation. I presume that is why we are here to render aid."
Nathan and Josiah wandered into the next room, which was presumably the recreation room. It, too, was sparsely supplied. There were simple tables and chairs, an old sofa, and a 19" color TV with poor reception. Three girls sat on the couch, with another half-dozen kids sprawled on the rug on the floor. Neither man missed the wariness in the children's eyes.
Vin and Buck had been the last ones through the large front doors. Up until the moment he set foot inside, Vin had been excited about the idea of helping the kids. As he walked in and saw the starkness of the place something disturbing stirred inside him. A shudder ran through him stopping him in his tracks. Buck ran into him from behind.
"Whoa, Junior." He grabbed Vin's shoulders to steady him. Vin flinched at the touch and pulled away from his friend.
"Sorry, Buck," he mumbled.
Buck frowned as he watched his teammate. Vin had been excited outside. In fact, he had been so excited, the normally quiet man had actually been jabbering with JD. The smile and the twinkle in the bright blue eyes had disappeared.
Two boys hurried through the lobby colliding with the sharpshooter. Vin reached out and grabbed one of the boys by the forearm to keep the child from falling. The boy winced and pulled his arm free. The bruises on the child's forearm chilled the Texan. He shuddered as pictures of another child with the same markings flooded his mind. "No," he gasped softly. Vin quickly stepped back from the boy, and the child, seeing his opportunity, fled the room.
Buck was surprised when Vin jerked away from the boy as if he had been burned. The Texan's reactions concerned him. Something weird was going on. "Junior," he started, but was interrupted when Chris returned with Charlie. Buck had to grin at the old coot. He hadn't seen him in three years. Not since Sarah and Adam's funerals. He looked good. As Chris began to introduce Charlie to the team, Buck's attention was drawn back to Vin as he heard the Texan's sharp intake of breath.
Vin took a couple of steps backward. Not him. Not him. His heart was pounding, his ears, ringing. It seemed impossible to take a breath, his chest felt so tight. A fear he hadn't felt in many years surged through his tense frame. His eyes dropped to the floor, unable to continue to look at the man before him. With his legs trembling, his 'fight or flight' mechanism was in high gear. It was now or never. Vin did the only thing he could at that moment. He bolted from the room.
"What the hell? Vin!" called Chris as the team's sharpshooter backed away from Charlie and literally ran out the door. He looked at Buck and nodded towards the door. Buck gave a nod and headed after Vin.
"I'm sorry, Charlie. I don't know what got into him," said Chris, perplexed. He had never seen Vin react so strangely. Usually the Texan was the picture of calm, cool and collected.
"No need, Chris. I'm sure he had to be somewhere else," soothed Charlie.
"Yeah, that must be it," muttered Chris. He stared after the departing Wilmington. Catch him before he does something stupid.
Buck walked out the front door to find Vin already seated on his Harley. Damn! Vin revved the motor ready to take off as Buck stepped toward him. "Vin! Wait!" He was sure Vin could hear him. The kid had even looked at him before hitting the gas and roaring off leaving Buck standing in the middle of the road.
Wilmington didn't wait for an invitation. Vin was upset about something and it didn't look like he was handling it too well. Buck jumped into his truck, praying it would start the on the first try, just this once. The old truck roared to life and Buck raced after his teammate.
Buck was glad that Vin was a cautious driver. He was going a couple miles an hour over the speed limit, but it was easy for Buck to keep up. Buck was pretty sure Vin knew he was being followed, but he didn't seem to be trying to shake his tail. Buck stayed with him for several miles before he was finally separated by traffic and lost sight of Vin. Well, Junior, I'm going to take a shot at this. Looks like you might be headed for Inez's. Buck turned the truck and headed towards Team 7's favorite hangout.
Vin could not have beaten him to Inez's place by much, but he had a head start in the drinking by the time Buck walked in the front door. An empty bottle sat in front of him, and he was nursing his second Cuervo Gold. Buck nodded his thanks to the beautiful bar-owner when Inez handed Buck a beer as he passed the bar on his way to the table.
"This seat taken?" the tall dark-haired man asked Vin.
Vin grinned at the absurd question in spite of himself. The bar was empty. Only Buck could make him smile when he wanted to cry.
Buck took the brief lopsided grin as an invitation. He sat down and took a swallow of his beer before he spoke. "Ya wanna talk about it?"
Vin shook his head slightly. He was a private person and didn't talk much about himself. He sure couldn't talk about this. It was too confusing. He didn't really know what was happening. The Children's Center had shaken him up. Sure he had lived there for a while as a kid. That's why he wanted to help the kids who lived there now. But that little boy's bruises. Vin shuddered as the picture of another little boy with the same bruises came back again. He knew it was a picture of him, but he couldn't remember what had happened. It had to do with Charlie Maxwell, he knew that much. The color drained from Vin's face as a memory of Maxwell grabbing him by the forearms and viciously shaking him filled his mind.
The tall dark haired man stared as his younger teammate went pale. "Vin? C'mon, Junior, talk to me. You look like you just saw a ghost," he prodded gently.
"I wish I did." Vin closed his eyes. It was getting hard to breathe again.
"What are you talkin' about, Junior?" Buck asked laying his hand on Vin's forearm in concern.
"It's just I can't Aw hell!" Vin turned his face away in frustration, pulling his arm out of reach. He didn't have a clue what to say to Buck. Chris had been raving all day about meeting the legendary Charlie. It just had not clicked that he was talking about the guy who was the director of the orphanage when he had been there. The guy had practically been a second dad to Larabee, and Wilmington had known him as well. How could he tell them that the man they painted as a saint was really a demon from hell?
Buck watched the confusion in Vin's body language. It seemed that Vin wanted to talk, but then his self-preservation would kick in and he would physically lean away from Buck. His hands were fidgeting. Normally Vin was so still you'd wonder if he was awake. When the sharpshooter turned back toward him, he could see fear and anger dance across his face. The blue eyes were haunted by old memories. Buck's heart was seized by the lostness in his eyes.
"Vin, what is it?"
"Anybody ever check into Maxwell's dealings at the Children's Center?" Vin asked quietly.
"He's a retired cop, Junior."
"That don't make him a saint."
Buck stiffened slightly at the implication that Charlie was doing something wrong. "If you're gonna accuse a man like Charlie Maxwell of something, you'd better have the evidence to back it up."
"I got an eye-witness, but I reckon the memories of a ten-year-old kid ain't gonna stand up against the glowing report of two of his long-time friends." Vin looked at the bottle before him, fingering the label.
Buck ducked his head and looked into Vin's eyes trying to pick up the story that the quiet man didn't want to tell. "You were in that orphanage?"
Vin nodded slowly. One brief, single nod.
"With Charlie as a director?"
Again Vin nodded.
"Let's just say it wasn't the happiest time of my life, and maybe ya ought ta do a little checkin' on Saint Charlie." Vin glanced up to see Chris enter the bar with the rest of the team close behind. Aw, hell. He gulped down another large swallow of Cuervo as his team leader, dressed completely in black, approached the table, looking very upset.
"What the hell is going on, Vin?" He sat down at the table.
"I'm sorry, Chris. I didn't mean to make you look bad," Vin mumbled.
"You didn't. What happened?"
Vin dropped his gaze back to the beer bottle. "Don't matter none."
Damn, thought Chris, I hate it when he shuts me out with those words. He tried to read Vin but he couldn't tell what the younger man was thinking.
JD climbed over Buck assuming his regular position at the table. Josiah and Nathan settled into their chairs as Ezra came over to the table with a tray of drinks. "Gentlemen," he said as he started passing around the drinks.
Chris looked again at Vin and got nothing from him. Normally he and Vin could carry on a conversation without saying a word. Now he was receiving nothing but stoic silence from the younger man. He sighed. He would wait until they were alone to get to the bottom of the sharpshooter's problem. "We've got some planning to do. So what are we going to do for this party? It sure is gonna be great working with Charlie again."
"He seems like a really nice guy, Chris," said JD excitedly. Charlie seemed like a genuine guy who was helping some needy kids.
"He's the greatest, JD. There was this one time, when I was about ten "
Vin tuned the words out as his best friend raved about the wonderful Charlie Maxwell. He sounded like the guy was his hero or something. It just don't fit. How could the same guy be so great with Chris and so rotten with me?
"And then there was the time "
Hell, won't he ever stop? Again Chris's voice faded into the background as Vin's long concealed memories revealed themselves. It was as if the little boy's bruises ruptured the dam allowing the memories to flood the Texan. The water was over his head and he couldn't swim.
"So what do you think, Vin?"
Vin popped his head up at the sound of his name. "What?" he asked Chris, feeling a little buzzed from the alcohol he'd consumed.
"We're going to decorate Saturday morning and have a party in the afternoon."
"Not me," the sharpshooter spoke firmly.
Chris looked him direct in the eye. "This is a team effort. Everyone participates, Vin."
"Nope. I ain't ever settin' foot in that place again." Vin broke eye contact with Chris. The team leader bristled. This was not what he expected from the sharpshooter.
"This isn't an option. It's an order," said Chris firmly. "Every ATF team is participating in community service."
"No. I won't do it." Vin stood and began to move away from the table. He had had enough of Chris mooning over Saint Charlie. Vin was upset at what was happening to him, frightened by the strange memories, and angry that he was reacting like a helpless little kid. And, he'd had a little too much to drink. Vin edged his way around the table behind Buck and JD, squeezing his lithe frame between their chairs and the wall.
"You'll do it just like every other ATF agent will do it," Chris hissed at the retreating form.
Vin stopped and turned back toward Chris. This time Chris had no problem reading the anger exuding from the sharpshooter. He watched in shock as Tanner reached in his pocket and pulled out his badge. He flung it at Larabee, hitting his chest, then stormed out of the bar.
Chris picked up the badge from the table top, totally stunned. Why didn't Vin just say what was bothering him? What made him want to turn in his badge rather than do a kids' party? Damn! thought Chris as it dawned on him Vin had been drinking and that he had his motorcycle. He quickly got up and headed for the door, but it was too late. He heard the roar of the Harley leaving the parking lot.
Vin had no idea where he was going. He just knew he had to get away. He rode faster, trying to outrun the memories that were chasing him but it didn't work. The memories were right there with him anyway.
He had been riding for nearly an hour when he brought the Harley to a stop and shook his head. How'd I end up here? Taking off his helmet, he stuffed his gloves inside and set it on the rear of the bike. Without hesitation, he strode through the gate of the tiny rural cemetery.
He didn't have to think twice. His feet knew the way, leading him toward the old pine tree by the big boulder. Reaching the rock, he slid down to the ground, kneeling before the smooth stone of the marker. Vin reverently traced the letters with his index finger. It was his name, Vincent Tanner. Conqueror. Victor. Vin snorted. That's what his name meant, but he hardly felt like a conqueror. He felt like a frightened little child. He traced the dates that gave indication of a much older man, 1924 - 1984. "Miss ya, Grandpa. I don't know what to do with this stuff."
He remembered leaving Fort Bliss, Texas when his grandfather retired from the Army. As his only living relative, Vin's grandfather had willing taken on the responsibility of raising his grandson. He wanted little Vin to have a fresh start, so he had moved them back to his roots in rural Colorado. Vin had loved his first year in Colorado, but a little more than a year after the move his grandpa had died suddenly, leaving the lonely eight-year-old to the mercy of social services.
His grandpa had done his best. Smiling, he remembered fishing with his grandfather at a nearby stream. They went practically every day. His grandpa had taught him many things about the Army Rangers having been a lifer in the Army. It was likely what had led Vin to become a Ranger as well.
The smiled faded as he recalled going to the barn that day to help muck out the stalls. He had found his grandpa lying in the hay. Vin tried to stop himself. He didn't like where his thoughts were heading, but they seemed to have a will of their own. His grandpa had buried his daughter, Vin's mother in the plot in Texas, next to his wife, where he should have been buried. When they moved to Colorado he had taken Vin to this cemetery and showed him the graves of his great-grandparents and other ancestors. Vin knew this was the place for his grandpa too. He remembered standing next to this very spot when the casket was put in the ground.
Vin sighed. He missed his grandpa terribly. Tears welled in the Texan's eyes as the sense of loss and the confusion of the day's events surrounded him. Vin shifted from his knees and sat down, turning to face the sunset, hoping the colors washing the sky would wash his soul as well.
Chris dialed the number and cursed as the answering machine picked up again. "Damn it, Vin. Pick up. C'mon Pick up! Fine! Call me when you get in." He slammed the phone down. Where the hell is he? Chris wondered. He might have been upset over the events at the orphanage and the bar, but he was more concerned that Vin hadn't turned up in their regular haunts. It was well after midnight. He had not returned to Inez's place, he wasn't at his apartment, or the office. He wasn't answering his cell phone. Chris sighed. Team 7 had only been in operation for a little over six months, but he and Vin had formed an immediate bond. Vin was obviously upset about something, but after the way he had taken off, Chris was worried that he was lying in a ditch somewhere along the road.
The team leader slowly made his way to his bedroom. He had called the hospitals and checked all the places he knew Vin liked to hang out. There was nothing more he could do tonight, short of driving the streets of Denver looking for Vin. Rubbing the back of his neck, he took in a deep breath and blew it out. A good night's sleep was not in the cards as Buck's report of what the sharpshooter had implied about Charlie rang through his mind.
Sleep did not come for the sharpshooter either. The fear that had seized him at the orphanage had come as a complete surprise. Truth be told, up until this afternoon he had not remembered much of his time in the Denver Children's Center. He had vague memories of having a hard time with some of the older kids, but other than the general impression of it being a lonely time in his life, he had not remembered specifics. That had drastically changed when he walked through the doors of the orphanage.
The sterility of the room had sent him back fourteen years when, as a ten-year-old, he had been moved from his third foster family back to Denver Center. He had arrived just after Thanksgiving and he knew none of the other kids.
When he had grabbed the young boy's arm to keep him from falling today, he had seen bruises on the child's forearm. Vin absently rubbed his arm. He knew exactly how the boy had received those bruises. His own bruises had come by Maxwell digging his fingers into his arms and shaking him when he failed to comply with an order quickly enough. It had happened many times.
When he had seen Maxwell face to face, all the fears of a helpless ten-year-old washed over him. Vin swore at himself as he remembered cowering in front of that man, having been trained not to look him in the eye. Well, no more. He was a Tanner and he would do right by his name. He wasn't a kid anymore and he didn't have to kowtow to anyone. Especially Charlie Maxwell. He was a Tanner. He was Vincent, the conqueror, the victor. He was no longer going to avoid looking Charlie Maxwell in his eyes. He was going to stand up to him and show him he was no longer afraid.
Chris arrived at the Federal Building and found himself disappointed that neither Vin's Jeep nor his Harley was in the parking garage. What do you expect? He gave up his badge! He turned at the sound of Buck's pickup pulling in followed closely by Ezra's Jaguar. Chris smiled grimly as he noted that it was only 7:00 a.m. The southerner's abnormally early arrival was indicative that the whole team was worried about the previous day's events. As he pushed the button to call the elevator Josiah and Nathan arrived in Nathan's Explorer. Chris looked at his team. "Conference Room. Five minutes."
Vin woke with a stiff neck. He shivered with the chill that had settled into his bones and his stomach growled, reminding him he had missed supper. Note to self: don't sleep in the cemetery without a sleeping bag. He chuckled to himself. "Strike that. Don't sleep in the cemetery at all." He looked at his watch. 8:00 a.m. He was at least an hour from the office. One more reason for Chris to be angry with him.
Rubbing his aching neck with one hand, he brushed his other across the top of his grandfather's grave marker. "'Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor'," whispered Vin, quoting the last line of the Army Ranger Creed. He had a mission to complete, and it would include sucking it up and admitting to Chris he had overreacted in turning in his badge. He would go to the office and apologize, but he would also spell out what kind of man Maxwell was and what he had done. He knew it would be painful and it could cost his friendship with Chris, but there was a bunch of kids in the Denver Children's Center who needed someone to stand up for them.
The conference room atmosphere was tense. Six men were worried about their missing seventh.
"Has anyone heard from him?" asked Chris looking at each of his men. No one responded in the affirmative.
"This isn't like him, Chris," offered Nathan.
"Yeah, I don't remember ever seeing Vin blowing up like that," added JD. "Something must really be bugging him."
"Yes, well, I would ascertain that it has something to do with the Children's Center."
"Brother Ezra's right, Chris. Vin started acting strange as soon as we arrived at the Center," said Josiah.
Chris knew Buck was staring at him. He looked up and met the ladies man's eyes. "Don't go there, Buck," he warned thinking about Vin's accusation.
"Chris, you gotta hear the boy out," insisted Wilmington.
"I don't 'gotta' do anything, Buck. I've known Charlie Maxwell nearly twenty-eight years. I know the type of man he is."
"You ever known Vin to lie? I mean other than when he says he's fine when he's hurt or sick."
Chris looked at the stupid grin on Wilmington's face. He knew the ladies man was trying to lighten things up a little. Buck was always the peacemaker. Chris looked at each member of his team in turn. Each expression pleaded with him to hear Vin out.
"Chris, it's not like Vin to jump to conclusions about anyone," said Buck. "He must have a good reason. You need to hear his side of things and ya need to really listen."
Chris sighed and nodded. They were right. Vin had gotten closer to him in six months than some people he'd known for years. "All right. I'll hear what he has to say when he shows up, if he shows up. In the meantime, we've got a case to finish.
He walked quietly from the elevator directly to Chris's office. Vin briefly acknowledged his teammates' greetings with a nod and a mumbled, "Morning. Sorry 'bout yesterday."
Buck looked at Vin closely. He was wearing the same clothes he worn yesterday. He looked tired, as if he hadn't slept at all. But more than that, he looked like he had lost his best friend. He watched as Vin shuffled slowly towards Chris's office.
Vin knocked on the office door and stiffened as the door was opened, coming face to face with Larabee. He assumed Chris would just say to 'come in', not actually open the door. Both men stared at one another, each unable to read the other. Vin shifted uncomfortably, but he refused to break eye contact. I am a Tanner, he reminded himself. There were several moments of tense silence before both men spoke simultaneously.
"Chris, I'm sorry "
"Are you all right?"
"Good. What the hell happened?"
Vin shifted uncomfortably. "Can we do this as a group? I don't think I can say it more than once."
Chris paused, acknowledging the young man's intensely private nature. Then he nodded his head and called out, "Conference room. Now." Chris saw Vin's eyes close as he sighed. The frown on the sharpshooter's face told him Vin was unhappy with needing to do this at all, but the younger man turned and walked to the conference room.
Five men reluctantly trailed the tension-filled pair into the room. Each man assumed his regular place around the table, with the exception of Vin. He paced nervously before moving to the window and gazing out at the skyline. Not a word was spoken.
Vin knew Chris was waiting for him to start. He swallowed hard. Vin only knew one way to deal with things. He didn't have fancy words like Ezra. He didn't have Josiah's illustrations. He just cut to the chase and said what he thought.
"Ya ain't gonna like what I have ta say, but I'd appreciate ya giving me a chance ta say the whole thing before ya git mad." He turned away from the window, glancing over his shoulder at Chris. Seeing his team leader's nod, he continued.
He looked back out the window and began his story. "I's just eight when my grandpa died. He took care of me after my ma died." Vin took a deep breath fighting the urge to just run out of the room. "I kinda got shuffled through a few foster homes. When I was ten, I was sent to the Denver Children's Center."
Chris's head popped up at the statement and his eyes met the dark haired ladies man's eyes. Buck gave him the 'I told you so' look.
Vin turned toward his friends and leaned his back against the window, sitting one hip on the ledge. "Spent a couple'a years there. Didn't 'member much of it until yesterday."
"Then how do you know it's true?" asked Chris defensively. "Lots of times kids remember stuff that never really happened to them."
"That's true. Sometimes folks can have what they call 'false memories'."
Vin looked at Nathan. "I ain't lying."
"I didn't say you were. Folks honestly believe their memories are true, but they never happened."
"So ya think I'm crazy then."
"No, Vin. That's not what Nathan's saying. Charlie seems like a nice guy and Chris has known him for a long time. Maybe your memories didn't really happen the way you remember them," said Josiah.
"I don't know exactly what that means, but I do know what happened to me. It weren't no dream. I wish to hell it was."
"Junior, what happened?" asked Buck gently.
Feeling the lack of belief of his friends, Vin said, "Don't matter none."
Buck closed his eyes at the utter futility in Vin's voice. "It does to me, Junior," he said softly.
Vin shook his head. "Huh-uh. Y'all have already decided. A dumb little orphan kid don't measure up against an old family friend."
"Just what is it, Vin, that you are accusing Charlie of doing?" asked Chris stonily.
"Don't matter "
"Don't give me that crap," interrupted Chris. "I told you I'd listen. I can't do that if you clam up behind that 'it don't matter none' wall of yours."
Vin forced his eyes up and met Chris's gaze, remembering again his promise to himself in the cemetery. He swallowed back the anger towards the older man that was beginning to build. Just spit it out. "He steals from the kids, Chris. Takes the toys and stuff folks donate. I reckon he sells 'em for money. An' he goes a mite overboard with physical discipline," said Vin, rubbing his forearms absently.
Chris bristled at the accusations leveled against his mentor. "He wouldn't do that, Vin."
"He did it to me," Vin answered simply. The sharpshooter closed his eyes as the hurtful memories grabbed at his heart.
The team leader turned away from Vin. Again, Buck stepped in where Chris should have. "What did he do, Vin?" When Chris looked at him, Buck just gave him a glare. Chris grimaced and turned his attention back to Vin.
"People'd come in and bring us stuff. There'd be a party. We'd all get excited about the new toys, even the clothes." A brief smile crossed his face. "Ya ever seen a kid get excited about new socks and underwear?" The smile faded as the memory passed. "Seems like the parties were always a week or more 'fore Christmas. Day after the party, the toys and new clothes was gone. I got more'n one whuppin' fer mouthin' off about it. I's there for two Christmases 'fore he got me sent to another home, but not 'fore he took the one thing I prized most."
Vin paused and breathed deeply. He desperately did not want to be doing this. He didn't want to open up old wounds. But more than that, he didn't want these men to see the cowardly ten-year-old. He watched the glances flying across the table and sighed. They were discounting his memories as those of a confused child, but they were his memories. A deep pain stabbed at his heart. He had expected Chris to struggle with what he had to say but he hadn't expected the rest of the team to side with their leader without hearing him out. The ten-year-old boy whose word had been discounted time after time sprang to the forefront and Vin fell silent. It won't do no good. Vin slid down the wall and buried his head tiredly in his knees as he emotionally slid behind the protective wall around his heart.
The Texan's silence drew all eyes to the young man huddled in the corner. It was obvious from his demeanor that Vin felt it was pointless to continue. Buck felt his heart drawn to the lost little boy that was showing himself. "What did he take, Junior?"
Vin took a deep breath and blew it out trying to control himself. Everyone could see the struggle he was going through. Buck figured he had changed his mind about talking when Vin finally spoke.
"My grandpa gave me an autographed Tony Dorsett rookie card, and a jersey Dorsett wore in the Superbowl his rookie year." Vin smiled briefly. "He always said it was my rookie year too. I's barely big enough to walk that year."
"Did your grandfather know Tony Dorsett?" asked JD in awe. Even though they lived in Denver Broncos' territory, JD had always admired the great Dallas Cowboys' running back. He was the only football player to win a national championship, the Heisman Trophy, a Super Bowl title and be inducted into the collegiate Hall of Fame and the NFL Hall of Fame.
"My Grandpa knew his father. Grandpa was an Army Ranger trainer at Fort Bliss, Texas when I's born there."
"What happened to the card and the jersey?" asked Ezra. Vin looked at the southerner. It was the first thing Ezra had said. He wasn't sure what the undercover agent was thinking.
"They was my pride 'n joy. I took real special care of 'em. They was a way to remember Grandpa." Vin's voice grew softer. Again, Vin began absently to rub his forearm. "Maxwell took 'em from me. Near broke my arm doing it." Vin stood slowly and turned to look out the window again. "I know Maxwell's yer friend, Chris. An' I don't mean to badmouth a friend of yer'n. But I know what I know."
Vin waited for a response but Chris remained silent. He was too busy trying to reconcile what he knew of Charlie Maxwell, his long time friend, and what his new friend was telling him. He didn't like what he was hearing, and worse yet, he didn't like what he was feeling. He may have known Charlie for twenty-eight years, but in the six months he had known Vin, it seemed like he had known him a lifetime. He was inclined to believe Vin, but that meant Charlie had been deceiving him for years. The possibility of betrayal was not something he wanted to consider. He looked at the sharpshooter. He could see a lonely ten-year-old with freckles on his nose and big blue eyes, deprived of his most precious possessions, deprived of gifts he had been given, sitting silently on a window ledge looking out the window longing for freedom.
"I was wrong ta get mad and give up my badge. I'm sorry, Chris. I want to be on this team more 'n anything. But I can't go in there and give them kids hope and let 'em be crushed the next day. It ain't right. I can't be a part of it."
"All right," said Chris in a non-committal way. "Right now we have a case to finish up." He flipped the badge to the sharpshooter who caught it with his left hand.
Vin pocketed the badge. This wasn't finished by far. Chris had listened to him, but he had not accepted Vin's word. While that fact hurt, he could understand why. He would find it hard to make a choice between two friends as well, especially if one was his hero.
Strained relations made life difficult the next two days as they worked on the case. Chris made attempts at talking to the sharpshooter, but it always ended poorly with tense words or looks between the two men. Vin wouldn't budge an inch on his judgment of Charlie, and Chris remained loyal to his mentor. Neither man was happy with the situation, but they couldn't seem to find a resolution. Vin began to keep his distance from the others simply to avoid argument or discussion of the issue.
On the third day, Vin had made an appointment with Assistant Director Orrin Travis. He hadn't let anyone else know his intentions. After his appointment with the Judge, he had gone to the supply room and geared up for the bust. The bust went down with minimal problems. Vin had had to shoot two of the gunrunners, as he protected Ezra and Buck. Ezra had taken a hit to the chest, but he was wearing his kevlar vest and wasn't seriously hurt.
Chris had chewed Vin out for the incident with Ezra. He yelled at Vin saying that he was distracted by the issue with Charlie and that it could have cost Ezra his life. Vin explained that Buck was in his line of fire, but Chris wasn't willing at that point to hear him. The one bright spot was that Ezra didn't hold a grudge. He had no doubt that Vin had done everything possible.
Now it was down to the paperwork stage and each man was working on his report. Vin was more frustrated than usual because the words just weren't coming. And JD? The Kid would not leave him alone. He'd obviously been told by Buck not to press Vin for details about his childhood, but he was pestering him to help with the kids' party. JD wanted Vin's help in planning since he knew from experience what the kids would like.
Finally, to get JD off his back, he had told the kid a few things that he thought were important. Don't do the party more than two days before Christmas so there wasn't time to hock the toys. Find out what each kid really wants and what he or she needs and get those things, not just some generic gift. Bring some Sharpie permanent markers. He wanted the kids' names written on everything so the bigger kids couldn't claim the smaller kids' toys, and they'd be harder to sell. And he told JD that the guys ought to promise to go see the kids once a month so they knew someone cared about them more than one day a year.
With JD out of the way, he finally finished his report and took it to Chris.
Chris looked it over. "Looks fine, Vin. I know you did your job right. Are you coming to Inez's tonight?"
"Nah. I've got some stuff to do." Vin bristled at the questioning look. "Shopping Chris. Gotta do it some time."
"Right," said Chris skeptically, figuring the sharpshooter was upset with him about the bust. "See you tomorrow."
Vin left the office, not acknowledging the comment.
"What the hell is this?" stormed Chris. "Did you know about this?" He shook a piece of paper angrily in front of Buck's face.
"Well, now, Chris. If you would hold it still and let me read it, maybe I could give ya an answer." Buck snatched the paper and read it. It was a memo from A.D. Travis notifying Chris that Vin was had requested a two-week vacation. It also noted that Michael Davis would be available should Team 7 require the services of a sharpshooter. Buck winced. Junior, what the hell are you thinking going over Chris's head? You think that is going to smooth things out?
"I don't know, Chris. He didn't say anything to me about it. But I figure the way you two have been snapping and snarling at each other, maybe some time apart will help."
"He should have asked me!" Part of Chris was angry with Vin. The Texan should have come to him with the request, not gone behind his back. But, there was also a part of him that was afraid he had pushed the sharpshooter away and they might not be able to heal the rift. Chris was afraid that Vin would not return after his so-called vacation.
The door to his office remained closed, an unspoken sign to the team that Chris did not want to be disturbed.
Buck looked around the room. Vin's absence and Chris's virtual-absence had taken its toll on the team. Everyone had been avoiding each other for the past two days, tiptoeing around each other, so they didn't hurt each other's feelings. The ladies man sighed. Enough. He stood and walked to the middle of the room. "I don't know about you boys, but I'm going to try and do something about this situation."
"What can we do Buck? Vin ain't here and Chris, well, you know," said JD.
"Yeah, I do know. I say we do some checkin' into Vin's story."
"I thought Charlie Maxwell was your friend."
"He is JD, but I ain't seen Charlie but two or three times in the past fourteen or fifteen years. I knew Charlie then. I don't really know him now."
Josiah sat down on the edge of JD's desk. "So Brother Buck, how do we proceed? He smiled reassuringly at Buck. It was time to step in and help the two men resolve the problem.
Ezra dropped his feet off his desk and sat up in his chair. "I'll do some checking around and see if Charlie Maxwell's got any contacts."
"Josiah and I can check with Social Services," volunteered Nathan. "We probably can't get Vin's juvenile file, but I've got some connections. Maybe we can find something."
"What about me?" asked JD.
"You and me are gonna pay another visit to Charlie. You focus on the party for those kids and I'll feel out Charlie a bit more."
Information was very slow in coming. The party for the kids was in a couple hours and they hadn't learned much of anything. The only thing that was odd was the fact that Charlie insisted on the party being no later than five days before Christmas. He told them the kids had other parties and obligations on the other nights. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. There was no way to know.
Chris watched his team. He knew they were up to something and he was not happy with that fact. It wasn't enough that Vin had gone behind his back, but now the rest of the team too? There was nothing he wanted more than to ditch the party tonight. Being around kids made him think of Adam, his son that was killed three years ago. However, he had made a commitment and he would follow through. "So, what's up guys?"
"Uh nothing, Chris." JD fidgeted with his watchband.
Chris smiled inwardly at JD. The kid could hide nothing. Chris decided to give him a break. He would deal with the secretive detective work tomorrow.
"Good. We have a party to attend."
Steam rose from the cup of coffee he was using to warm his hands. Surveillance was nothing new to Vin. He had spent many long nights watching suspects in his bounty hunting days. He took a sip of the steaming coffee and set the cup on the dashboard of the beat up Pinto. He wrapped the blanket a little tighter on his legs wishing he could turn the heater on. He chuckled to himself. He couldn't do surveillance on his Harley, or in the Jeep. Too easily recognizable. So he had gone to the local 'Rent-a-Wreck' and rented the pinto. Nobody would give the car a second glance, and that was what he was counting on as he watched his friends enter the Denver Children's Center laden with gifts for the kids.
"So, what have you got?"
There was silence around the conference room table.
"C'mon guys. I know you've been checking into Charlie. What have you got?"
"I'm reluctant to report " Ezra looked at the others, "I'm reluctant to report that we have nothing."
"Just suspicions. No hard evidence," said Josiah.
Chris turned to Buck. "Was this your idea?"
"Yep. You and Junior didn't seem to be making any progress so I figured it was time we did something."
"I really don't know Charlie anymore, do I?"
Chris sighed. "What have we covered and what's next?"
The team filled Chris in on what they had researched. Since Buck and JD both had plans, Chris wanted Ezra, Josiah and Nathan to go back to the Children's Center after work and see if there was any evidence that the kids' stuff was stolen. He was going to see if he could locate Vin.