Chris Larabee watched from the cover of trees. With binoculars in hand, he surveyed the immediate area around his undercover agent. Standish stood near the Lion habitat. The popularity of the exhibit had forced the architects and those involved with the planning of the zoo to keep the area open. It needed to accommodate the large, curious, masses enough room to view the exotic cats.
Unlike most twilight times...the zoo was empty. Save his team and hopefully their targets. A one Geoffrey Hughes had fallen under the scrutiny of team seven. For the last few months the team had worked tirelessly to reach this spot. A meeting with an exchange of goods. Up until now things had worked out pretty smoothly. Well other than the few minor incidents in the surveillance van a few weeks back. Though the fermenting socks of Buck Wilmington really had nothing to do with the case it did play havoc with the work schedule. Buck and his odoriferous socks were persona non grata with the rest of the team. Still the hard work and small sacrifices had come to fruit.
The meeting between Eric Sullivan and Geoffrey Hughes was to go down tonight.
Chris adjusted his headpiece listening to the movements of his team.
"Gawd Damn it Buck," JD's irritated voice crackled across the headphones. Carried closely by a snort and a snicker.
"Vin the next time you suggest Josiah bring Chili for lunch you sit in the van with him," Nathan uttered in disgust.
There was the soft whine of electric windows followed by a few gasping breaths. There was a moment of silence...followed by further cursing another chuckle and then the sliding open of the side door to the van.
Chris ignored the men. He was silently thankful for his role as team leader. For once it took him out of the hot seat.
"You see anything yet Ezra?" Larabee splayed the glasses left and then right. The zoo was gorgeous this time of year. With no one around he just might take the time to see some of the sights.
"Other than a few marauding beast..."
Larabee watched his undercover agent peer through the fence across the concrete moat into the living habitat of the lions. The ATF leader wondered how much of the fences and moats were for the animals protection as it was for the human audience?
"I don't see a thing." Standish leaned against a black old fashion lamp post with his arms crossed. Static heralded his movements.
"Ez, uncross your arms your screwing up reception," JD's tinny voice rang out over the ear phones.
Larabee laughed as he watched his undercover agent do as directed but not without some sordid comment.
The language was not familiar.
"Now Brother that was not very nice," Josiah's voice boomed over the headsets. Chris chuckled as he watched the Southerner gaze over his shoulder tossing a scathing glare at the hidden van.
"Ez...they're jist tryin' to keep your lazy butt safe," Tanner's chuckling voice rang out.
A sigh was heard and things quieted down somewhat.
The spring sun was lingering in the sky a little longer. The mornings were getting brighter quicker and the evening sunset was being pushed back a few minutes every day. In no time at all summer would be upon them. The surrounding trees were beginning to bud...well at least the deciduous trees. The air still held the bite and threat of snow. The vestigial chill of winter would not for go its grasp so easily.
"Ey Chris when we're done with this can we take a look around at the exhibits...I mean with no one here and stuff it would be kind of cool...." JD's voice broke the small silence.
Chris shut his eyes. The kid could not keep still for half a minute.
There was a short pause and Larabee's response was cut off, "Sure kid...I'm with you..Whatta ya want to see first? The kid in Vin suddenly showed itself.
Larabee raised an eyebrow. Tanner had secluded himself over near the elephants. The area was shaded by large trees and of course the well disguised 'Elephant' housing. Tanner had a view of the lion exhibit and the 180 degrees that surrounded it.
"Really?! I was thinking maybe seein' the Crocodile house first," Dunne piped up excitedly.
"Ahh kid that's just because you watched that stupid Crocodile Hunter show," Buck added. Larabee could picture Wilmington swiping the kid's hat off his head.
"Cut it out Buck...Is not...and leave my hat alone," Dunne complained peevishly.
"Is too...ya can't wrestle no Alligators in the zoo and yer to small too be messing around with them anyhow." Buck added. Chris bit back a chuckle at the authoritative tone in Wilmington's voice. The Ladies' man did it just to bother the kid.
"Shut up Buck...and I ain't to small for nuthin'.." JD knew Buck was just trying to get under his skin but Dunne could not help but react.
"A Crocodile is different from an Alligator, brothers." Josiah's voice softly informed, "an Alligator has a flatter head and its snout is not as tapered. And they have a special pouch in their upper mouths that allow for a spot for their larger lower fourth teeth, and they are usually more sluggish than a croc. Though it would not be something I would want to test."
There was a pregnant pause.
"Well thank you, Mr. Animal Planet," Buck's voice broke the stunned silence.
Chris could almost see Josiah shrug.
JD's amazed voice rang out, "Geez Josiah how'd ya know that?"
"Yes...Please Mr.Sanchez don't leave us on the proverbial edge of our seats with your vast worldly knowledge of swimming reptiles."
"Shut up Ezra," Nathan's voice shot out.
"Used to work on an Alligator farm when I was a kid," Josiah shifted his position next to a utility pole. He had himself secured near an abandoned popcorn booth just outside the van. "Ya don't want to mess with 'em when they're hungry that's for sure. Certainly would take quite an effort to subdue one."
Chris hoped this put an end to the discussion...until he heard a soft Texan, "I could do it."
Everyone else heard it as well.
"No way Vin, a Crocodile would eat you whole," Wilmington crooned out building the embers of a challenge.
"Well technically Buck a Croc. would probably drown him and leave him under water to soften him up and then eat him later...their jaws aren't strong enough to rip and tear fresh meat." Sanchez's schooling voice echoed back.
"Whatever...Still don't think Vin could do it." Wilmington replied.
Chris shut his eyes. The gauntlet had been thrown. Before he could put an end to it an indignant Texan voice hissed out, "Could too."
"Cannot," Buck shot back. Larabee wanted nothing more than to wipe the smirk off of Buck's face. The man was an instigator.
"I bet Vin could do it," JD said.
Chris shut his eyes, oh no. He opened them in time to see the undercover agent push himself off the post he was leaning against, his interest sparked.
"Bet?" the Southerner's voice echoed across the headsets. "Are we going to wager Mr. Tanner's skill against that of a prehistoric reptile?"
Chris tried to utter a determined, No.
"Whatya say Vin?" Buck stirred the waters of temptation.
"I would wager Mr. Wilmington fifty dollars that says Mr. Tanner successfully completes the task."
"Thanks Ez," Tanner responded quietly. He could always count on Ezra to back him....and make a profit doing it.
"You're on," Buck replied.
Chris sat back and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger and pinched the ridge of his nose.
"Mr. Wilmington you might as well hand over your wallet now." Greed oozed from the voice.
"Ezra another word out of you and I'll shoot you myself and toss you in the crocodile pit," Larabee's words shot across headphones.
Chris heard the others chuckling. "Buck you'll be going in after him...so shut yer traps...all of you!" Larabee sat back against a tree and peered over the two boulders that obscured him from sight.
He watched Standish. The man had scuffed his shoe toes in disgust, like a little kid not allowed to play at his favorite game.
Chris sat up when Standish's dejected posture suddenly stiffened and became alert.
"Get ready Gentlemen the party is about to begin," The southern tones had become soft and thickened. The start of an adrenaline rush. Larabee had to admit they were all adrenaline junkies....why else would they do this day in and day out.
"Still say I could do it," Vin muttered as he readied himself for the work ahead.
Chris nodded in silent agreement. Tanner stood a good chance of making Standish a wealthy man. Larabee was not going to sanction it. No way in hell.
"Ok Boys and Girls....game time." Chris's voice whispered across wireless mics into headphones. The game was about to begin.
Ezra waited for Geoffrey Hughes to exit the onyx Lincoln that had pulled up in front of the agent.
A large man unfolded himself from the passenger seat.
Standish backed up a step. Something was off. This was not Hughes.
Vin pulled his eye from his scope furrowed his brow and settled back down to mark his target.
Trouble was brewing.
Chris squinted his eyes and tightened his grip on the Sig. Things felt foul.
Buck, JD and Nathan exchanged glances at the sudden rustling of clothing as their teammates shifted positions. A dark feeling of foreboding suddenly draped itself heavily over the van.
Standish retreated a step. The urge to take cover almost tangible. The agent held his ground until he heard one of the most frightening things he had ever had the displeasure of ever hearing.
"Ohhh Shit." Larabee's voice rang out in a soft whisper.
Standish paused for a moment. Eyes widened, muscles and joints flexed and a sudden surge of Fight or Flight roared through his veins.
Suddenly Larabee was screaming. "Moooovveee Ezrrraaa!"
Standish was already pivoting away from the car.
The rapid report of gunfire split the night.
A jumble of voices were shouting and screaming orders. Chaos ruled the moment.
The large bald man emptied cartridges in the spot Standish had once stood.
Vin softly squeezed the trigger of his rifle.
The target's automatic weapon fired in jerky uncontrolled bursts as the dead fingers tightened around the trigger. The muzzle flashed toward the sky, then over his shoulder before finally falling from a slack grip. The shootist fell into the car as another high powered round caught him mid mass. His over sized feet still dangled out the door as the driver threw the car into reverse.
The gun fire did not cease however. The metallic ping of automatic rounds invading sheet metal filled the area.
"Git down....git down....Where's JD!" Buck's panicked voice boomed over the shrill of bullets.
Hurried voices and gunfire sailed over headsets. The rush of moving bodies, the quick gasps of breaths and racing heart beats filled the head sets.
"He's safe...I've got'im....I got 'im!," Josiah's voice hollered out. The large man had reached in and pulled the younger agent out of the van by the collar of his shirt. Thank The Lord they had left the sliding door open. The chili might have been a blessing after all.
Chris pressed a hand to the head set trying to distinguish the rapid fire prattle of noise that assaulted his ears.
"Vin you see Ezra?"
There was a pause...
Larabee was running full out for the van. He stretched his long legs, leaning his torso forward as he hurdled a small cropping of boulders. Without missing a stride he tore across a patch of pavement to a small island of woodchips flowers and a Ponderosa pine. The leader of team seven dove for cover behind the pine as a gunman took him in his sites.
Bark and splinters filled the air. The soft thud of bullets settling in the thick trunk kept Larabee pinned down. "Shit..shit...shit.." He whispered as dull thunks ate at the tree.
Chris waited for a catch in the rhythm of the spray. It came. With reflexes that came naturally and enhanced with constant use, Larabee rolled out from behind the tree firing.
The gunman jilted and spun in a macabre dance before crumbling to the ground.
Larabee lay on his belly a moment catching his breath. The chamber of his revolver was open and spiraling wisps of smoke stretched upward. Reflexes ejected the spent magazine and slapped in a full replacement. The sliding mechanism was hauled back and snapped forward. Chris quickly scrambled to his feet.
"Nice shooting pard'" Vin's voice whispered over the earphones.
Larabee merely nodded in response and headed for the van.
Tanner had probably already dismantled his sniper weapon stashing the parts in various places. He had no view of the van from the elephant shelter. If he could see Chris now then Vin was already on the move. The others sounded like they needed help, Tanner would be on there to back them up.
Chris paused. The Chocolate Brown Ford Van looked like a colander. Where bullets had ripped through the thin shell brown paint had peeled away revealing the grey primer underneath. There was no more than three inches between perforations. The van was a dot to dot of riddling bullet holes.
"Buck?!, Nathan?!...Josiah?!" Chris hollered. He ran toward the van with his gun still drawn.
"We're ok Brother," Josiah's strained voice crackled over the ear phones. Chris swung around at the sound of the voice so close to his shoulder and dropped to one knee bringing his Sig. up.
"Whoa pard' we're fine," Buck soothed raising his hands in surrender. There was no playing around with the adrenaline rush. It was fight or flight...and they were all geared to fight. It was easier to pull the trigger in an instance like this than not too pull it....especially for Chris.
"We're ok Chris," JD wrestled himself out from under Josiah's protective weight.
There were times when JD really hated when those guys were over protective of him and there were times when he was extremely thankful....This was one of those times.
"Nathan?" Chris waited as the medic climbed to his feet picking glass out of his hair.
"Yeah just fine," The disgust in his voice was directed at no one in particular.
"Vin?" Larabee called out over the mic.
"Yeah, fine....you guys ok?"
"Yeah," Chris paused caught his breath and tried to soothe raw still firing nerve endings.
Chris searched the faces of the four men before him. They all froze.
"Ezra?" The tone took an authoritative twist...demanding a response.
"Gawd Damnit Ezra...Answer me!" Larabee started walking in the direction of the Lion Habitat.
"Vin you see him?" Buck asked trotting to catch up to his old time friend.
"Last I saw him he was doing a Swan Dive over the fence."
Chris and Buck started into a slow jog. In a few short strides it became a flat out run. Nathan, JD and Josiah caught them as the five men ran toward the Lion Moat.
"Ezra?!" Chris shouted again as they closed on the concrete barrier.
The five men reached the chain link fence and peered through it.
Down fifteen feet in what served as a barrier between man and beast...and water drainage, stood their undercover agent.
"You alright?" Larabee noted the torn jacket and shirt and surmised the wire was broken.
"Right as rain," The annoyed sarcasm was a better indicator than the actually spoken words.
"Good come on out of there," Chris directed.
Ezra raised an eyebrow, "Do I resemble the reclusive Spider man?" There was pause as the undercover agent stared up at his fellow agent with unmasked ire.
"Looks more like Shoe Shine Boy," JD muttered. Underdog was still aired on the Cartoon Network. Vin chuckled, Hong Kong Phooey was his favorite.
The adrenaline that coursed through the southerner's veins...flooded his good sense, "How the hell would you like me to get out of here?"
"Easy Brother," Josiah chuckled out.
"Easy? Take it easy? If you have not noticed someone tried to fill me full of holes....and now I'm stuck in some gawd forsaken moat in a four figure suit that would make better patching material...what do you want me to take easy?!"
Buck whistled, rolling his eyes. He steered JD away from the impending explosion.
"Ezra shut up you weren't the only one who was shot at," Nathan explained tiredly. He hated these coming down times.
Standish paused in his frantic short pacing. He gazed up at the others, "Is everyone alright?"
"Yeah we're all in one piece....well except for your suit," Vin smiled with raised eyebrows.
"Mr. Tanner....Shut up,"
Gun fire ripped through the night.
One moment Standish was staring up at his six teammates and the next he was face down in the stagnant pool of water.
Small chunks of concrete peppered his body.
Standish using hands as well as feet hastily crab crawled down the moat toward one of the buildings.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and the other peeled from the fence and headed toward the closest building. The rapid report of automatic weapon discharge was hot on their heels. No one wanted to be last but no one wanted to leave someone behind.
In a concerted group effort the six men pushed and pulled themselves toward shelter.
Vin could not help but think they were one big moving target. Strike down one and you struck the whole team.
Chris mirrored Tanner's thought. They were bunched to tightly. Safety maybe in the numbers in most cases...this was not one of them. A single bullet could easily target two or more people.
The sharpshooter ran toward the building's tinted, glass doors. Without hesitation the Texan raised and fired his Sig. The glass exploded out of its frame showering the area in a cascade of glittering glass.
JD could not help but think it was a cool effect.
The sounds of running boots, sliding shoes and the splatter of sneakers echoed off the waxed floors. The six men careened by display cases. They ignored the standing displays of information and interactive sites that captured slight glimpses into the animal world. With no thought to the teaching tools they sprinted past into the bowels of the largest building in the zoo.
Vin pushed open a heavy metal door. The "Authorized Personnel Only" sign indicating to the trespassers that they were heading in the right direction. With hands on rounded, painted, railings the six men skipped, jumped and ran down cement steps. The textured iron lips of the steps helped controlled sliding feet. Large numbers painted on the walls indicated the floors. They left the L floor and headed for B1.
Without preamble Tanner pushed opened the lime green door that lead to sub basement 1. The tracker hesitated checking left and right. His eyes adjusted to the dim lights of the narrow corridor. Small square windows well above head height offered some natural light. A few lockers graced the opposite cinder block heavily painted walls.
The musty smell of the staircase had been replaced by a musty disinfectant smell.
It reminded Tanner of a hospital laundry room.
"Which way?" Tanner asked.
Chris scanned the corridor. "Right." Larabee pushed passed Vin and headed to the right. The floor had changed to textured concrete. The floor was concave with drains placed periodically. Larabee heard the trotting feet of his five teammates behind him. He did not have to peer over his shoulder to know Buck watched their backs. He had no doubt that Josiah and Nathan had somehow nestled JD between them. Two living shields bent on protecting the youngest of their team. Two Tigers protecting a mongoose. Chris could feel Tanner matching his stride checking doorways to their left and right always on the outlook for an ambush.
The corridor soon gave way to a wide spot. A room really. Cages lined three walls.
A raised stainless steel grated table sat in the middle. A hose hung on a coil from the ceiling over the table, next to a pair of clippers. A red thick rubber hose was coiled against a far wall. IV hooks hung from clean shiny chains that again were hung to the ceiling. Bags of LRS with extension sets waited on the hooks. The room was an off white. Thick black mats sat on either side of the grated table. A counter graced the fourth wall. Glass cabinets rested on the green counter top as well as a gram scale, pestle and mortar. A calculator sat neatly on top of a few small hand books.
"A dirty surgery room," Nathan explained as his eyes scanned the area taking in the medicine cabinets, snares, muzzles and the large portable anesthetic machine in the corner.
"A what?" JD asked as he peered into the empty stainless steel cages. There were rubber grates on the floor of the cages to keep the animals up out of any messes should one be made.
"A place where you would clean dirty wounds...debridements...lacerations...no major surgeries would be done in here," Jackson explained. He fingered the pulse oximeter connected the gas inhalation machine. A ventilator sat beside it. Various size tubing hung from hooks the smallest looked as if it belonged in a pediatrics ward while the largest appeared big enough to supply an elephant...Gawd that would be tough. The equipment appeared well used but carefully maintained and cleaned. This was top of the line stuff.
The six men paused taking in the room before Chris caught their attention. They still had to meet up with their seventh.
The off cadence of approaching footsteps turned heads and brought weapons up level.
"'Ey Ez!" JD shouted as he watched the undercover agent jog toward them. He managed a slight limp.
"You ok?" Chris stepped forward to scrutinize their seventh.
"Yes...fine," Standish cocked his head at Larabee's unbelieving glance.
"Well I am curious as to what this might be?" Ezra held out a brown marked 'dart'. A wicked barb rested near the tip of the point.
"Looks like a tranquilizer dart," Nathan remarked taking it from the out stretched hand.
"Where'd you find it?"
Standish rubbed at his thigh absently, "In my leg."
"Shit," Chris mumbled out.
"You feeling alright?" Jackson asked taking a step toward the southerner.
Standish took an involuntary step back. He did not like the looks he was getting from Nathan or Josiah.
"Yes I feel fi...." His words tapered off as his eyes rolled and his knees gave way. The undercover agent melted toward the floor in a boneless heap. Vin grabbed him and eased him down to the ground.
Jackson followed them and quickly felt for a pulse. The medic shook his head and gazed back up at the others, "He's alive...just tranquilized I guess."
"With what?" Chris asked. They did not need this kind of complication now. Buck still watched their back entrance.
"I don't know," Nathan responded curtly.
"Probably something like Telazol or Ketamine, Diazepam, or most likely a combination of stuff," Josiah furrowed his brow and softly added, " Apparently nothing strong enough to knock down a Elephant or Lion. He'd be dead by now most likely. Just hope they didn't use Xylazine." he removed the undercover agent's tie.
"What's Xylazine?" JD asked.
"Sedative for animals...causes pulmonary edema in people," Sanchez responded unbuttoning the top two buttons of Standish's shirt. "Don't know what dose a brown dart carries but the color of the dart determines the dose...there are orange, blue, yellow, brown, red," Sanchez gazed up at the others and shrugged, "least those are the only ones I ever saw...can't recall though which was what....Its been a while." He tried to dredge up more information, "The stuff they used for the larger animals...took only a few cc's. Not much at all...very dangerous stuff. Couldn't even spill it on your skin....or you were down if not dead." Sanchez stood cringing at the popping in his knees.
"How?" Buck furrowed his brow in confusion.
Josiah merely shrugged, "Worked on a game preserve once when my father was a missionary for the surrounding peoples."
Wilmington shook his head in disbelief. He turned his attention back to watching the corridor they had just exited.
Jackson had gotten to his feet and rummaged through some draws. He found a stethoscope.
The medic listened carefully to the southerner's chest... "He sounds ok." Jackson lifted the eyelids and found the pupils unrolled. Nathan furrowed his brow, "He's out cold..."
"Shit," Vin muttered walking down the corridor Standish had just exited. Tanner kept his gun at the ready it seemed their foes were closing in for the kill.
"What the hell is going on?" Buck asked taking quick glances over his shoulder at the others. The corridor he watched remained empty. Wilmington had a suspicion it would not last.
"I don't know but we're getting out of here," Chris declared. "Josiah can you handle Ezra?"
Sanchez merely nodded. With Nathan's help he draped the unconscious man over his shoulders in a classic fireman's carry.
They were about to head back down the corridor they came when Vin came charging up from behind them, "Move....move .....move....they're coming!!"
As if to punctuate his statement the sound of automatic fire split the night. Rounds sunk into the concrete wall spewing the area with small bits of rock.
Buck grabbed JD by the collar and pulled the kid in close behind him. Dunne did not register the protective move, instead he understood Wilmington expected him to watch his back.
Nathan trailed behind Josiah pushing the larger man urging him to speed up. Sanchez did not feel the incessant push but instead trotted the best he could with his burden.
Tanner and Larabee turned each squatting on one knee on either side of the narrow hallway. They fired down at their unseen pursuers trying to give their teammates a better chance at escape.
Vin watched in frustration at the apparent snail's pace his friends moved.
"We're too big a group...to easy a target." Tanner bit out in helplessness. This was not an ideal situation. While actually having unknown number of assailants firing automatic weapons at your friends and yourself would never be ideal it certainly did lend for better situations.
"I know...I know..." Chris snapped back firing a few pops down the corridor. The blond bit his lip and spoke into his mic.
"I want you guys to split up....groups of twos you understand me...I don't wantcha bunching up...head for the nearest exit and call for back up...." Larabee paused shutting his eyes briefly. His team's strength lay in their numbers...Their edge was one another and now he just divided them. God help them. "And watch your backs!" He hissed out vehemently. Angry with himself, angry with his men but more importantly angry with the situation.
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