Chapter 13 - Contact
The cold hours passed one stride at a time. Vin’s throat, raw from the steady inhalations of his pace, felt dry and tender but he pressed onward while he still had the benefit of darkness. He didn’t allow his mind to wander; he needed miles and he pressed to get them.
He did, however, allow three pauses in push: One, to obtain clean bandage material in the form of a stolen t-shirt neglected on a clothesline. Two, to bind his wound securely - the deep gouge in the meaty part of his bicep was messy and ragged. And finally, to take in any water he could find. He could not ignore the effects of blood loss. Hydration meant staying conscious.
If he wanted to stop because of sore, blistered feet or cramps in his calf or burning, over-taxed muscles, Vin could; he had all those things, but his desire to beat this audacious set up, to stop this unbelievable tampering with his life, was all there was. No one else determined Vin Tanner’s destiny. Fury’s embers kept him moving with purpose.
Vin used the setting sun, and later, the swing of the stars to estimate the time when he finally slowed his brutal pace to a wobbly walk. Figuring it to be around ten o’clock, he cleared his mind and turned south. If it was risky for him to be in the States before, now, after this fiasco, it was downright life threatening. He knew he had to get back over the border but wasn’t entirely sure how far it was from where he stood. There were no buildings to mark the line in the dark.
He pressed his injured left arm across his abdomen without thought. His right hand trembled uncontrollably as he searched his pockets for anything to trigger an idea. Deep in a front jean pocket he found loose change and immediately thought “pay phone” before the harsh reality hit him that there weren’t many of those anymore - except in Mexico. Vin swallowed a harsh sigh knowing he only had himself to rely on right now, so he started walking and hoped his legs wouldn’t betray him.
Again, crossing south would work to his advantage. Vin stumbled through the dark terrain and tried to remember what he knew about the area. He recalled the road from Tecate to Tijuana, the rough terrain east from where he stood, and that he had a much better chance of finding a pay phone somewhere along that lonesome highway. With that in mind, he pushed on through the brush with the moon’s glow his only company.
Vin finally spotted the borderline he sought and glanced at the sky. It was well past midnight. Puffing and shivering, he crouched within a cluster of sagebrush and watched a U. S. Border Patrol unit speeding west on a dirt road below. The unit scanned to the south with spotlights. When the dust plume dissipated in the icy-pale moonlight and the vehicle disappeared in the darkness, Vin crossed the road and slipped into Mexico.
He followed road signs to the town of Tecate, staying off the road itself, and stopped at a crossroad that obviously catered to the through traffic. He headed to an abandoned building, shuddering where he sat pressed up against the cold, plaster wall of a closed convenience store. As far as he could see, Tecate existed only as a pit stop for eastward traffic on their way Mexicali, or westward to Tijuana. Even now, in the middle of the night, traffic flew by in both directions along the one major roadway that made up downtown Tecate.
Across the street, cars waited in line at one of several gas stations that dotted the strip of road. One place with a small, all-night mini-mart seemed busier than the rest probably because it was the only clean, well-lit establishment within Vin’s line of sight. He could see a pay phone on one side of the sole building but was reluctant of the exposure he would have to endure.
His arm throbbed. Vin drew his knees to his chest, supporting his arm against his torso with his thighs. He wrapped his other arm around his knees and tucked in tightly, watching the mini-mart as his weary mind weighed his options. He fought the pull of sleep. Or unconsciousness - he couldn’t tell the difference at this point.
“I’ll rest just a bit,” he told himself with a shudder. Sitting still invited in the cold. He was glad to have his rifle case to sit on because the crumbling asphalt would leech his body heat.
Vin shifted to get as comfortable as he could, twitching awake as he fought sleep, when he saw a shiny Mercedes-Benz sedan pull up to the gas pumps. It was a far cry from the usual fare of dusty work trucks and beat up cars. This was unusual, and he managed to focus his wandering mind on that fact, fight off flagging lids and pay attention.
As he slowly blinked, he saw the sedan’s front passenger door open and after a moment, a man stepped out and stretched. It took that moment for Vin’s muddled brain to work, but when it kicked into gear and he realized whom the man was, his eyes snapped open and his heart leaped into double time.
Oscar, Alberto Zamora’s weasely assistant from Mexicali, stood by the open driver door as he lit a cigarette. Vin heard the click when Oscar flipped his lighter shut, and watched as he walked around the rear of the car and headed to the building. Then the passenger door opened and to Vin’s utter shock and surprise, Robby McMillan unfolded from the inside.
Vin’s breath hitched and every pain washed away in an instant surge of adrenalin. He fought his instinct to rise and attack and instead, froze, knowing he was well-cloaked by darkness. In the seconds that followed as his brain engaged, he realized just how set-up he’d been - Zamora and MacMillan were working together. Zamora maneuvered him to front and center stage as a pawn in . . . what?
He blinked as his awakened mind raced. Obviously, Zamora was making a play to take over the Tijuana hub. He’d arranged for both Munos’ and Adrian’s murders and handed MacMillan a patsy each time. Those two cops in Tijuana must have reported Vin’s every move. Then Vin heart stuttered - was Ronnie part of this sham?
No. He wanted to believe she was manipulated just as easily as he had been but a dark part of him said, “That’s what you get for trusting.” He shook his head to gather his thoughts and stared at the shiny Benz as the two men settled back inside and drove east toward Mexicali.
Vin’s next step was clear. First, he needed a safe place to heal up. Unfortunately, he didn’t know where that would be. Like every other Ranger black operation, he was in hostile territory and on his own. What made this worse was that his enemies knew exactly who he was.
But he wasn’t a Ranger anymore and he wasn’t truly alone. Vin eyed the pay phone across the street. It was time to call the only person he truly trusted but he had to convince his body to obey. He gritted his teeth and pressed back into the crumbling wall, using it to gain his feet. Partway up, his leg muscles seized. “Aw, hell!” he thought as the world first grayed around him then faded to black.
Buck tapped on Chris’ office door and pushed it open without waiting for permission to enter. He could tell by his friend’s posture that something bad had happened. Chris sat in his chair, hunched over the desk top on his elbows, he head held up by his hands. He was staring at a short stack of papers and didn’t twitch at Buck’s intrusion.
“Hey,” Buck called softly after easing the door closed. “We still briefing at eight-thirty?” Chris’ lack of response heightened Buck’s concern. “Chris?” Slowly, his boss and friend raised his head and met Buck’s worried gaze. The sorrow Buck saw in those hazel eyes made his heart clench. “What?” he whispered.
Chris sat up straight and shoved the stack of papers toward Buck with a pained sigh.
Two strides put Buck alongside the desk. With trepidation, he released his gaze from Chris’ and dropped it to the stack of papers. The top paper was a small color poster. Across the top were the words “The FBI’s Ten Most Wanted.” Below that, two rows of five mug shots, neatly aligned. A pair of very familiar blue eyes stared out from the second row, third photo with “Vincent Michael Tanner” printed underneath.
“Shit,” Buck sighed.
“I don’t know what we can do to help, Buck,” Chris said. Sadness and angry frustrations shadowed the words.
“Is there a report there?” Buck fingered the pile under the poster.
“Yeah. It says he tried to kill a judge in San Diego. He did kill some Mexican drug cartel family member. There was a blood trail and a rifle left behind.” Chris’ voice dragged to a stop. “The blood was Vin’s. And the rifle was a kind he’d used before.” He raked his hair with a ragged sigh. “I miss him, Buck. And he needs us. And I hate to say it, but a tiny part of me wonders if he’s really guilty this time. He's been out of touch for so long.”
There was a slight pause before Buck asked. “Prints on the gun?”
“No. Wiped clean.”
“Was there an eyewitness to the shooting?”
“No. All the evidence is circumstantial as far as I can find out.” Buck picked up the papers and sank into the small couch as he flipped through the briefs, oddly quiet to the point where it caught Chris’ attention. “Could be he was set up - again,” Chris said slowly as he watched for a reaction in Buck.
“Yeah.” Wilmington’s lips pressed into a thin line, a dead give-away of him thinking hard. “You said a rifle was recovered?”
“Then why would Vin be carrying a rifle case during his escape?”
Chris stared. “What?”
“Right here. Two witnesses and three cops say he was carrying a rifle case. Didn’t you read this?” By the slight rise in Chris’ shoulders and his brighter eyes, Buck knew he’d rekindled hope. He smirked. “Just as I thought. You just skim our reports and check the evidence, don’t you?”
Chris ignored the poke. “It still doesn’t look good for Vin.”
“I agree.” Buck studied him for a moment; his oldest friend seemed to have aged a decade in the past few months. Larabee looked haggard. These past few months had been a hard ride for everyone but the man before him had taken this hardest of all. Dark hammocks hung under his eyes, stark against pallid cheeks made up of hollowed planes of flesh. Buck couldn’t remember the last time Chris enjoyed anything. With Vin gone, the best of Chris had disappeared, too. He only debated a few seconds before deciding it was time to share.
“Well,” Buck started. “We wanted to give you plausible deniability since we were using’ Federal time and money, but J.D might have something.”
Chris’ eyes flicked to Buck’s and pinned him. He knew exactly what risks Buck took telling him even that much. “What did you find?”
Buck stood, dropping the papers onto Chris’ desk on his way to the office door. He pushed it open. “JD? Bring your stuff in here.”
Quick footsteps made their way to Chris’ doorway and JD’s wide, brown eyes quickly scanned the room as he entered, flash drive in hand. Buck motioned for him to engage Chris’ computer. Chris yielded the space, rolling aside in his desk chair, and the shaggy haired youth plugged in the drive.
“You remember the computer modeling I did? The one that showed the shot that killed Munos was from another building?”
“Well, a shooter like that needs to be good, as good or better than Vin.”Chris’ hard stare told JD this was not anything new. “So, I’ve done a little . . . um . . . research.”
Chris raised a sandy brow at the statement, understanding immediately why Buck said he needed plausible deniability. Hacking employee records was illegal any way you spun it. “And?”
JD’s fingers clacked over the keyboard and a list of names popped up. “If the shooter is an ATF mole or some other kind of double agent, he - or she - has to have a weapons history. I also checked the agencies we usually notify when we’re putting together a bust or whose resources we tapped during research, like the local P.D. and the F.B.I.”
“That’s a lot of names,” Chris stated.
“Which is why it’s taken so long. I looked for backgrounds similar to Vin’s - Rangers, SEALS, etcetera. And range scores. Over the years, the best shooter’s scores will drop without practice. This guy practiced.” JD hit a key and leaned away to give his boss full visual access to the screen as the page count dropped from fifteen-hundred to twenty. “Still, that’s a lot of names.”
“The thing that’s tangling’ my brain is the evidence,” Buck said as he rubbed his eyes. “The bullet that supposedly hit Munos.”
“It was clean,” Chris said.
“Yes, too clean. No blood, no markings, nothing really indicating that it passed through Munos at all.”
The team leader tipped his head aside. “Evidence tampering?”
“If that’s true, it narrows the list a lot.” JD tapped again and twenty pages dropped to five. “But if this guy’s knowledgeable enough to pull this off, that may be a bad assumption. He may have snuck in and out of evidence without being on this list. I’ve been going through the Evidence Room video feeds and have been checking everyone with access, but it’s taking awhile.”
“Keep it simple, stupid,” Chris uttered, his eyes on the monitor but his mind obviously elsewhere.
“What?” JD frowned.
Buck straightened. “What are you thinking, Chris?”
“Right track, wrong time frame. The evidence never made it to the Evidence Room.”
The three of them exchanged looks, JD’s doubtful. “I checked all the names that collected evidence.”
“Did you check financials?” Chris asked. “Did any of the investigators suddenly get an influx of cash?”
JD’s brown eyes flashed like an LED power lamp as his mind spun. “Yeah.” His attention now on the screen, JD placed himself in front of the screen and his fingers danced. Chris rose and shoved his chair under JD’s butt and the agent sat without acknowledgement. Screen images flashed by at a dizzying speed. “Without checking sources, there are six with large deposits. I’ll cross check for out of country sources -“
Chris glanced at Buck. “Since those deposits in Vin’s account came from out of country, we’ll assume the same.” Chris nodded.
“One,” JD announced, sitting up with a grin. “Patrick Watson. Forensics, second floor.”
A feral grin allowed Chris’ teeth to show as if baring fangs. “Let’s go.” He headed for the door with Buck on his heels, but stopped dead when JD breathed an expletive.
Buck stopped Chris by grabbing an elbow. “Why don’t I like the sound of that?” he said in a wary tone.
“He’s dead. Two weeks ago. Car crash.”
Chris deflated right before Buck’s eyes. “Who investigated the crash?”
“Highway Patrol. It was out of the city - “
The phone on Chris’ desk rang, causing the three of them to twitch in unison. JD shot to his feet and shuffled aside when his boss moved wearily in its direction. JD pulled the flash drive and shuffled from the office, muttering something about getting a copy of the accident report. Buck closed the door behind him and slouched against it as Chris dropped on his chair and snatched up the receiver.
“Larabee,” he snarled.
Buck took a step toward the couch but the look on Chris’ face stopped him cold.
“Vin?” Chris slowly rose to his feet, the receiver pressed tightly to his ear. “Vin. Talk English. Where are you?”
Buck moved in until the desk stopped him.
“Talk to me in English, Vin. Are you hurt?” Chris’ gaze met Buck’s, which seemed to kicking both of them into investigator mode. He quickly motioned for Buck to trace the call.
Buck gave him a sharp nod and bolted to the doorway. He yanked it open and snapped his fingers at the first person he saw. Ezra looked up with a disgusted expression.
“Really, Mr. Wilmington . . .”
“Trace the call, Ezra. It’s Vin!”
Without another word, Standish sprang into action. Buck turned back to Chris’s office and punched the speaker button on Chris’ desk phone and then snatched the receiver from his friend’s hand and placed it gently on the cradle.
“Vin?” Chris said again, staring at the speaker.
There was a long moment of near silence. All they heard was static and the faint sound to passing traffic. A stressed sigh then dominated the connection. “Chris?”
“Where are you?” Chris demanded.
“No estoy muy seguro.” The voice cracked, stressed, and then there was a pause accented with a sharp intake of air.
Chris expelled a frustrated sigh. “Vin. English! My Spanish only includes tacos and burritos, you know that.”
A short groan followed a dry chuckle. “South.”
Chris’ hands curled to fists atop his desk. “Just keep talkin’,” he urged. “Stay with me. You’re hurt?”
“Yeah.” A raspy groan. “Was set up again, Cowboy.”
“I know. Where are you?”
“I’s stupid. Didn’t think . . .”
“Vin! It’s okay. We’ll help. How bad are you hurt?”
“Um. Shot. In th’ arm.”
“Where are you?” Chris repeated.
The pause was too long; Vin was thinking too much. Buck glanced up and saw Josiah and Nathan crowding the office door. Chris whispered a swear word and spoke again.
“Vin,” he said in a gentle voice. “You called up because you need us. Let us help you.”
J.D. slipped between the two large agents and inserted himself behind Chris’ desk. He drew the computer keyboard toward him and brought up a map on the screen, pointing at a red dot. “We can only go as far as here on the trace,” he said lowly.
Chris squinted at the screen. J.D.’s finger hovered over a spot on the California/Mexico border. Then, J.D. suddenly frowned and his arm shot out, grabbing Chris’ arm. Chris turned a deadly glare on the young Agent and shook off the grip. Oblivious to the danger zone he’d entered, J.D. frantically shook his head and made a slashing motion across his neck. Chris froze, staring, and suddenly Buck grabbed his other arm. He turned his murderous glare on the offender.
“What?” Chris barked, yanking his arm free.
Buck shook his head and mouthed “NO!” as he pointed at the phone, then to the desktop where J.D. just finished scribbling “Tapped!” on the closest sheet of paper.
Chris glanced at the word and then back to J.D. who whispered, “No descriptions! We’re close enough on the trace!”
Chris slowed his raging thoughts and leaned closer to the phone microphone. “Vin?”
There was a long pause making Chris wonder if his friend passed out. The speaker whooshed with static and car noise, but then two sounds stood out in the background: A steady, intermittent click and then - bells? He glanced up to see Buck frowning at the speaker. Before he could ask what it was, Vin spoke again. His voice so soft, they barely heard his words.
“J.D. tracin’ m’ call?”
“Yes.” Chris wanted to say more, but didn’t dare.
“I’ll call when I cross over.” Then he hung up.
“VIN?” Chris yelled, as he hit the table. “Aw, SHIT!”
“What was that noise?” Buck asked.
“It was a train crossing klaxon,” J.D. replied, his fingers flying over the keys. He lowered his voice to a bare whisper so Chris and Buck had to lean in close to hear. “The trace stopped in Tecate, California. There’s also a Tecate, Mexico, and there’s a railroad crossing that goes between the two cities. It’s a tourist train for the Tecate Brewery in Mexico, it says here. It’s closely monitored for illegal crossings.”
“I bet Vin can get around all that,” Buck said with a wistful, half-smile.
“Maybe when he’s in good shape, but he’s not at the moment.” Chris paced a short track. “He was shot.”
Nathan clucked loudly from the doorway where he stood with Josiah. “I’ll get packed.”