Chapter 1 - Planning
It was early afternoon by the time Vin and JD stepped into the office, minutes before the final brief for the next day's operation with Team 5. When Vin moved toward his desk, he noted the smug look of satisfaction on Ezra's face and grinned at his conspirator’s two-fingered salute sent his way. The sniper was sure the action had nothing to do with being friendly and everything to do with numerous betting pools. Vin acknowledged the salute with a quick nod.
"Glad you two could join us." Buck, leaning lackadaisically back in his chair, lobbed a wad of paper into a trashcan tucked into a corner. "Nothin' but net!" he acclaimed with fists raised high in victory. "That makes ten in a row! Want to concede or shall I continue?" He spun around in his chair and raised his brows at Josiah Sanchez. The profiler, nodding in silent appreciation, packed his own wad of paper.
"Well, you certainly are on a roll, Brother Buck." Josiah tossed the paper ball between his two large hands as he spoke, his lips pursed in thought.
"Yep, and I'm feelin' pretty good. Ten more would be a snap, I tell ya." He gave JD a wink and received an annoyed eye roll in return as the computer genius paused in front of Buck’s desk and hitched a hip on one corner.
"Ten in a row, huh? Pretty good for an old man,” JD quipped.
Buck scowled and slapped the boy's thigh. "Bite your tongue, youngster. You're crampin' my karma."
"I bet I can sink this from here," Josiah's deep voice challenged. Just reaching his desk, Vin glanced up, curious, and stopped next to his chair. The profiler's desk was across the room from the trash can in question so the trajectory would have to clear Buck's desk to sink the shot.
Amused, Vin watched Buck gape at Josiah before spinning around to look at the trash can. When he turned around again, a huge smile shifted his thick moustache higher on his cheeks. JD snorted and Ezra tilted his head, a motion that told Vin that the gambler was calculating returns in his mind.
"I would be willing to place a bill on that bet," Ezra interjected, his fingers steepled on his desktop. His index fingertips tapped together as he spoke.
"What?" Buck sputtered. He glanced between Josiah and the trash can again. "He can't make that on a first shot. I'll bet a fiver."
Ezra nodded acceptance. "Five it is, then."
Drawn in, Vin turned his eyes in the same direction as the other three and crossed his arms over his chest. Josiah closed one eye and gauged the distance to the receptacle as he leaned back. The rhythm of the paper ball never varied as it jumped up and down in the profiler's great paw. He tipped his head in thought for a second and then rolled the wad between the fingers of his pitching hand. He cocked back his arm in typical free throw form.
Everyone paused for a long moment, and then Josiah launched the wad. It made a perfect arc across the room, barely missing the ceiling on its way to the bin where it bounced lightly off one wall and fell squarely into the center of the trash can. Buck's jaw dropped in astonishment.
"YES!" JD barked, applauding. "Great shot, Josiah!"
"I'm just blessed," the big man replied, winking thanks to the ceiling.
Vin heard Buck muttering curses and, laughing softly while shaking his head, sat down.
"Shootin' like that almost rivals Vin's," JD said airily. "Shoulda seen him at the range, Ezra."
Ezra cocked a brow. "Whatever makes you think I did not?" He turned his computer screen in JD’s direction.
JD frowned and a second later, his jaw dropped. "You hacked the video system at the range? Cool!"
"I have paid attention to your skills, Mr. Dunne. I did manage this little feat, but I daresay that you are still the master."
"What'd I miss?" Nathan stepped into the room drying a coffee cup in his hand with a paper towel. "Jeeze, I take one break and I miss something!"
Vin settled into the chair behind his desk and turned on his computer screen. The pleasant camaraderie relaxed his mind and body, grounding him in every way. A satisfied smile quirked a corner of his mouth just as Chris appeared in his office doorway. Vin knew that his boss and friend was quite aware of the antics in the bullpen but needed to wear his "supervisor face" every now and again.
"Final brief, gentlemen. Let's get it done." Like Vin, Chris was a man of few words.
The others gathered notes and noisily headed to the briefing room, Buck elbowing Josiah, JD grinning like a fool, Nathan mumbling to himself and Ezra maintaining a careful distance as he tugged on a sleeve. Vin and Chris waited to bring up the rear.
"1,300 yards, huh?" Chris said lowly. "Slacker. Some sorry ass sniper you are."
"Perfect match for a sorry ass team leader, I'd say," Vin replied without hesitation.
"Watch it, Tanner. Performance reviews are due next week, you know. Three years I've been saddled with this bunch." Chris then gave Vin a playful whack to the back of his head. "See? I can hit my targets, too. Remember that."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Badass," Vin chuckled. Chris snorted and pressed his lips together to keep from joining him.
As they entered the briefing room and took their customary places, Buck loudly stated that it was his turn to pick code names for the upcoming detail. Everyone groaned. Chris slammed his notebook to the table a little harder than necessary to gain control of the briefing before it was too late; he'd learned a few things about his team over the years.
"Okay, let's get to it." Chris turned to the large white board at the head of the conference table. Enlarged mug shots stuck to it, arranged in a short pyramid. Chris pointed to a man in the third level. "As you know, he's who we're after. Marko Munos is suspected to be the top man in illegal arms in the south west United States and an integral part of the Carnicero Cartel. He can lead us directly to the leader of the Cartel, Arturo Carnicero." He pointed to the top man of the pyramid.
"Arturo Carnicero?" Nathan said. "He's in Colorado?"
"Not yet," Ezra interjected as a nail file magically appeared in his hand. He worked his nails as he spoke, completely at ease with these men. "Currently, he is in Mexico only. From what I ascertained, he is due to arrive early next week. The upcoming sale with Munos has quite captivated his attention. Marko himself told me of the senior Carnicero’s planned visit."
"Arturo has sons, right?" Buck interlaced his fingers behind his head and leaned back. "The three just below his picture, there? Why ain't they handling this for him? I thought Arturo never left Mexico City."
"Normally, that is true." Ezra slipped the nail file in his pocket, clasped his hands together on the table and leaned on his elbows. "There is rumor of skirmishes amongst the sons. Felix has been groomed for years to take over when Daddy steps down, but Adrian and Gustavo seem to be taking exception to that plan."
"So Felix will be there today, right?" Buck asked. "He's the one that contacted Munos."
"No. He is the lead on this exchange but the senior Carnicero has arranged for Munos to close the deal solo."
Ezra smirked and sat back just enough for his hands to drop in his lap. "Rumor has it that Arturo has second thoughts about the eldest son Felix - or any of his sons, for that matter - handling this amount of money."
Everyone sat a little straighter in surprise and interest.
"I didn't realize the trust was that broken," Josiah voiced, his hooded eyes alive as he calculated this fact into his evaluation. "This changes the balance of the family."
"Yes," Ezra affirmed. "It does."
"Tomorrow is a first step," Chris summed up. "This family disruption gives us a way to break the Cartel. When we grab Munos, this will not only give us a great source of information, but we can exert more pressure on the family dynamic if we infer that Felix, the oldest son, is helping us."
"Implode the family," JD mused. "Bring it down from the inside. Think they'll go for it?"
"Guess we'll see," Chris said as he sat down. "Now, let's go over the bones of this operation one last time." He flipped open a folder. "We meet Team 5 at the staging area tomorrow at 10:00 for the final brief. Anyone have anything to add?"
"I have call names all ready to go, boss," Buck said as he leaned forward, smiling smugly.
"Great," Nathan grumbled. "I can hardly wait to hear this part."
"Can you get your nose anymore up in Chris' ass, Buck?" Vin commented with a laugh.
Buck simply raised one brow and ran a finger over one side of his healthy moustache. "Jealous?" he said, eyes sparkling.
The others laughed and then quickly silenced by Larabee's warning glare. Vin smiled hugely at the heated look, entirely unrepentant. "Nah," he said lightly, waving a hand in Chris' direction. "This cowboy don't scare me none."
Larabee focused his razor stare on Vin. "Don't call me cowboy," he growled in a tone that sent lesser men scrambling.
Vin smiled back, unabashed. "Gotcha. Can we git to work now, Cowboy?"
After a moment, Chris' tight lined lips curved and parted, revealing to Vin what looked like a predator teeth. Vin froze.
"Well," Chris started. "I also forgot to mention that today is a special day for one of us." Vin flushed instantly. Chris straightened and surveyed the gathering. "Seems today is the third anniversary of this team being saddled with a certain long-haired, smart-mouthed member." The statement resulted in cat-calls, light applause and congratulations.
"I would think this auspicious occasion requires appropriate celebration," Ezra noted.
"If that means drinks are on Vin tonight, then you're correct." Chris folded his arms across his chest and gave the sniper an 'I got you good' look.
Buck leaned over and whispered as Vin sank lower in his seat. "That's what you get for proddin' the big dog, boy."
Even with that, Vin still thanked the powers that guided him to friends like these. Within a half-hour, the meeting ended and the team shuffled from the conference room. When the hour hand swept to 5, the office was empty and the first round of beers clicked together with a bawdy toast at The Saloon.
Vin and the others held themselves to two beers and headed to their cars just before eight. Their goodbyes were unusually quiet considering their moods. Vin and Chris were the last to reach their cars.
"See you in the morning, then," Chris said as he fished his keys from his coat pocket. Vin nodded and turned to go, but Chris stopped him with a word. "Hey."
Vin turned. "Yeah?"
"Good job at the range today."
Vin grinned. "How much did ya win?"
"What?" Chris sputtered, trying - and failing - to appear offended. "Gambling in the workplace is not allowed. I know this as your supervisor, wiseass."
Vin cocked a brow and chuffed. "You forget that I know how you got your nickname."
Chris narrowed his eyes. "The only nickname I've heard lately is 'bastard'."
Vin laughed and pulled his keys from his jacked. "Well, that's true, but I'm talkin' about the other one. You know - 'Bad Element' because you're a terrible influence on innocent subordinates like moi."
"'Moi'?" Chris chuckled as he unlocked his truck. "Ezra's your 'Bad Element', Pard." Chris slipped behind the wheel and his chuckle grew to a laugh when he started the engine. "'Moi?'"
Vin flipped him a familiar one-finger salutation and Chris only laughed harder as he pulled the door shut and gave Vin a dismissive wave. Vin grinned, crawled into his Jeep and followed his best friend from the parking garage, taking the time to reflect on his good fortune and finally comfortable with the idea of being happy with his life. Tomorrow looked to be another great day to add to his three-year run of great days.