Chapter 4 - Waiting
Visions swirled, refusing to still. Everything was draped in a shadowy darkness so thick that Vin couldn’t pin any of this thoughts down. Then a cognizant sentence arose - was this a dream? The question fades and the ritual began again. His eyes snap open. As soon as he realized that he was waking between dreams, the headache bloomed and pain spiked when he moved. Each time he awoke, soothing voices chased it all away - “It’s okay, Vin. You’re in the hospital.” “Whoa there, Junior, keep it slow, hey?” “Go back to sleep, Vin. It’s the middle of the night.”
Each voice meant he was safe. Even with that, he was reluctant to close his eyes and again enter the fray of thoughts. Finally, he awoke, fully and slowly, cracking one lid and then the other in defiance of the filtered daylight that set his head throbbing.
“Hey, Pard. Let me help you up.” Vin recognized Chris’ voice, touched by the tenderness. He felt the head of the bed raise with a mechanical hum that tickled his skin, thankful the elevation did not exacerbate the sharp pains throughout his body.
“Yeah, it’s me. How are ya doin’?”
Carefully turning his head, Vin followed his friend’s fuzzy form in jumps and starts, causing a new concern when his stomach flipped. When he saw Chris settle next to the bed and offer something with a spoon, he hesitated, waiting to see what rebellion his body planned.
“Ice chips. It’ll settle your stomach.”
Vin accepted the offering, relieved that sucking on the chips did just that. He laid his head back, staring at the ceiling to minimize visual input and mumbled. “How long I been here?”
“One night,” Chris replied, extending another spoonful.
A significant pause hung in the air before Chris asked, “What do you remember?”
Vin felt his forehead crinkle, each line throbbing to its own beat. He closed his eyes. “Nothin’,” he whispered around the icy chunks. “Um. Throwin’ paper in the office?”
“That was two mornings ago, Vin. Nothing more come to mind?”
Vin searched his elusive, painful thoughts. “No.”
Chris sighed. “That’s okay. Give it some time.” The plastic spoon touched Vin’s lip. “Soon as the Doc checks you out I’m takin’ you home.”
Vin reached up and fumbled at Chris’ arm before latching on to his wrist, refusing the spoon. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing for you to worry about at the moment, Cowboy. Concentrate on getting’ better.”
“Chris . . .” Vin peeled his lids open and twisted his head just enough to focus on the pulsing form of his boss.
“Honestly, Vin, there’s nothing you can do right now. JD will be here in a few minutes to sit with ya until the Doc says you can go. I know you’re in some pain. We’ll talk later.”
“Later, Vin. You’re in no shape now.”
“No shape fer what?”
Chris rose and handed the cup and spoon to another form that somehow managed to join Chris without Vin noticing - that did nothing to help his blossoming concern.
“Hey, Vin. How’re ya doin’?”
JD. Vin now recognized the dark mop and small stature. He released Chris’ wrist and gently rested his forearm over his eyes to combat the sharp and pounding pain in his head. He dared not speak; the fear in his gut was too volatile.
“I’ll be back and get you out of here.”
Vin didn’t bother to acknowledge Chris. Right now, he needed to focus his efforts to make sense of a miasma of thoughts and try not to vomit.
Chris rinsed the soap from his hair. The hard spray of hot water brought him to a better level of awareness and Chris found his brain automatically going over every piece of information from the previous afternoon’s disaster. Glad for the change of clothes in his locker and the locker room showers because jumping from the hospital to the office in the last hours made it difficult to look presentable. This would have to do for now, he thought as he turned off the water and stepped out to the cold, tile floor.
Chris rubbed his hair dry, fished the small, plastic comb from his locker and dragged it over his head. Then he locked up and glanced at his watch - he would be a few minutes early for his meeting with Travis. He walked through the halls of the Federal building deep in thought and oblivious to the sympathetic glances thrown his way. Travis’ secretary greeted him with a slight nod and waved him into the small conference room. Inside, Orin Travis and a man Chris recognized from the legal division sat waiting.
“Chris,” Travis started, indicating that his agent should sit. Chris did so and felt his posture automatically stiffen. “This is Reggie Rockwell from legal.” Chris nodded once. “How’s Agent Tanner?”
Shifting slightly and holding back a rebuke regarding Travis’ lack of presence at the hospital, Chris instead replied, “Sore. He’s being released in a few hours.”
“Good. He needs some down time.”
Chris chewed the inside of his lip to keep his building anger at bay. Then he let out a breath. “Yes, he does. What happens after that?” He locked a hard look on Rockwell.
“Agent Larabee, you know this doesn’t look good at the moment, but we aren’t jumping to any conclusions. There’s still a lot of investigating to be done . . .”
“You mean evidence gathering against my team?”
Rockwell blinked. “What?”
“Since you assume Tanner is dirty, the rest of us must be, too, right?”
“I don’t . . .”
“Chris!” Travis snapped. “You’re out of line!”
“Am I? Then why is my team stonewalled from the investigation? Are you looking into all of us?”
“That’s enough, Agent Larabee!” Travis chastised. “You know the rules. Your team is too close to this. You can’t be involved.”
Inside, Chris knew it was true and made an honest effort to wrangle in his emotions. He was so tired; he raked his hair and shifted in the hard seat.
“Look, you need to take care of Vin and get some real rest. Get Tanner and go home until I call you.”
With a weary nod, Chris rose to his feet knowing it would do no good to argue. “So, how telling is the angle of the kill shot on Munos?”
Rockwell glanced to Travis and tapped a finger on the table. Orin’s dark eyes softened when he returned Chris’ direct gaze, holding it for a moment before speaking. “It’s not good, Chris. Now go home.”
The trip back to the hospital just happened. When Chris pulled into the parking lot, the realization hit him that he did not recall any of the drive. Even as tired as he was, his brain refused to slow down; the events replayed many times in his mind. He wondered how much of it was true and real. Chris had many experiences with enhanced memories; it was the reason why witnesses were separated as soon as possible. It didn’t take much to adopt another’s perception as your own and unintentionally alter memory. Still, everything he heard, saw and remembered pointed directly at Vin shooting Munos without provocation.
He shook his head. That couldn’t be true. The evidence, though, said otherwise, each and every time he summed it all up.
Letting out an explosive breath as he threw the truck into park, Chris fought to keep the endless loop from replaying in his head and kicked the truck door open. When it cracked into the car next to him, Larabee jerked back into the here and now. “Shit.” He slipped out and shut the truck door with less vigor.
Chris looked at the neighboring car and couldn’t pick out any fresh damage from the numerous dents already gracing the wounded car’s side panel. He smirked and ran a finger over the area. “Fuck it,” he thought, squaring his shoulders and settling his jacket. Then he walked rapidly to the building.
JD glanced up when Chris arrived, his entry more abrupt than subtle and very typical of Chris’ no-nonsense persona. JD startled a little as he leaned heavily on the handles of a wheelchair while a nurse flipped through some papers with Vin. Chris paused just inside the door, nodded at JD’s wide eyes and noted immediately that Vin was in no mood to deal with the woman.
Vin sat on the edge of the bed, legs dangling and stiff. His face, normally open and easy, looked pinched and pale. The angle of his shoulder warned that he was ready to blow, as did his grip on the edge of the mattress.
“Take it easy,” Chris said lowly to both of his men. “It’s almost over.”
A slight, telltale curve to Vin’s spine told Chris he heard. JD sidled in closer to Chris when he positioned the wheelchair and whispered, “How’s it look?”
Chris knew he wasn’t talking about Vin’s release papers. He bent his head in close to his Agent’s ear. “Not good. The angle of the shot looks irrefutable.”
JD chewed his lip, nodding slightly. He flicked his eyes toward Vin, then back to Chris. “I’ve been looking at that. Can I get photos of the warehouse interior?”
Chris frowned, narrowing his eyes for a moment as he gave Vin a sidelong glance.
JD elaborated, managing to maintain a whisper. “I’d like to play around with some computer modeling. We know Vin’s innocent - maybe I can find something to help him.”
The youth shrugged. “I don’t know. I’d like to look, though.”
Chris pressed his lips together, running a list of favors owed to him within the Agency. “I’ll see what I can do. We’re pretty much locked out of this investigation. You can start with the video you copied at the scene.” A look crossed JD’s face that gave Chris pause. He narrowed his eyes again. When JD opened his mouth to speak, Chris held up his hand, stopping him. “Don’t say anything, JD, if it’s better I do not know.”
JD’s mouth snapped shut and he nodded, and then their attention turned to Vin when the nurse stepped back and assisted him with getting his feet on the floor. Chris saw that the woman’s touch was potentially the last straw.
“I got him,” Chris interjected. He stepped forward and nudged the woman aside, taking her place without explanation. JD, right on his heels, expertly placed the wheelchair to Vin’s best advantage.
Vin divided his glare between the three of them and the clench of his jaw kept the air clear of any regrettable utterances. He grunted when he settled in the chair. When Chris moved in and set the foot rests, he saw Vin’s angry eyes and his lips part to speak.
Chris jumped in. “Thank you, ma'm. We got him. He got a copy of those orders? Yes? Then we’ll get out of your hair. Thanks again.” JD had Vin out the door before Chris finished speaking and they made it inside the elevator before Vin finally spoke.
“Damn it, Chris, where ya been? I shoulda been out of here hours ago!”
“We both know I have no control over your release, Tanner, so get a grip. I know you got a lot on your mind . . .”
“’A lot on my mind’? Really? Hell, Chris, the problem is I don’t got enough on my mind! I can’t remember a fuckin’ thing!” Vin kneaded his temple with a trembling hand. Chris noted the IV tape marks on the back of his hand and the general pasty tone of his friend’s skin. Obviously, Vin was still in pain.
JD and Chris shifted uneasily at the unusually foul outburst. It was clear that Vin, normally considerate of his surroundings, was worried and edging toward panic. The closeness of the elevator did not help the situation.
“Vin,” Chris rebuked sharply, leaning in to snare Vin’s glare. Behind the flashing blue eyes, Chris saw fear. “Calm down. This is not the time or place. We got your back, remember?”
A flurry of conversation flew between them, riding on their locked stare; so much said without words. Vin’s eyes were always an open book to Chris and the reverse was just as true for Vin. The rest of the team, very familiar with this pair’s silent talking, held the phenomenon in awe as JD did now. He held his breath, gripping the wheel chair handles tight enough to sting his hands until he saw the tension in both men melt away. JD exhaled and rolled his shoulders while Chris stood straighter. Vin tipped his chin downward and became quiet in both voice and overall appearance, and much closer to his usual nature. When the doors slid open, they moved forward.
JD left them at the hospital pickup area, returning the wheelchair and eager to start on his computer project. The positive energy he exerted helped to steady Vin a bit more before they parted and Chris hoped the effect wouldn’t evaporate too soon. It lasted for the entire ride, making the trip as comfortable as past events allowed.
On arrival at the ranch, Vin grumbled when Chris tried to help him walk to the house, so, instead, Chris dropped back and shadowed his friend right up and through the front door. Once inside, Vin wobbled to the couch and dropped down with an explosive sigh, groaning as he carefully kneaded his skull. “Think I’ll take one of them pain pills. Do y’ mind?”
Chris chuckled as he pulled the pills from his pocket and twisted off the cap. “Do I mind if you take the pills or if I get ‘em for ya?”
“Smartass,” Vin hissed as he lay back. Chris handed over the pills and retrieved some water from the kitchen. Vin eyed the glass with annoyance. “I’d rather down ‘em with beer.”
“And I’d rather avoid Nathan’s wrath. Drink up.”
As Vin tossed back the pills, Chris sat down next to his friend and sank back into the soft cushions, finally allowing his eyelids to slide shut. He felt the pillowy couch back shift as Vin settled in beside him. A long period of silence between them allowed the sounds of birds, a gentle wind and a whinnying horse to drift in the house. It did a lot for Chris’ peace of mind and he hoped it did the same for Vin, because the next weeks were going to be hell on all of them. This small respite might have to take them a long way.
After a welcome period of country quiet, a revving motor and crunching gravel jerked Chris to awareness. He glanced around, shocked to see that he’d been asleep for almost two hours. Then he winced when the soreness of his neck made him a believer. Rubbing his neck as he rose to his feet Chris glanced Vin’s way, pleased to see he was still out. He’d also slumped to one side, utilizing the arm of the couch as a pillow. Chris grabbed a quilt from Sarah’s rocking chair and threw it over his friend before easing the door open and slipping outside.
Buck and Josiah emerged from the profiler’s ancient Suburban. Chris put his finger to his lips in time to keep them from slamming the car doors. Josiah ambled up to Chris, who leaned against the porch rail, and tilted his head to one side. “How’s he doing?”
“Asleep on the couch. Pain pills.”
Josiah’s expression gave nothing away but Buck’s fingers fiddling with his moustache didn’t bode well. Chris pinned him with a stare when his long-time friend stopped at the foot of the stairs. Buck was an easy read for Chris and he didn’t like what he saw.
“Tell me,” Chris ordered.
“Turn your phone on, Chris, ya got a few missed calls. Vin’s suspended. Travis wants to make sure you turn in his badge and gun to his office. He can keep the ID for now.”
“Hell.” Chris rubbed his gritty eyes. The news wasn’t completely unexpected, but the surge of anxiety in his gut did surprise him; he couldn’t shake the heavy shroud of dread the information produced. “It’s only the beginning,” a little voice whispered. “What else?” He knew there was more. Buck ducked his head, avoiding Chris’ eyes, so he turned to Josiah. All he saw in the deeply hooded blue was sorrow. Chris’ gut flipped. “What. Else,” he ground out from clenched jaws.
Josiah delivered the news. “Chris, there’s talk of charges against Vin. Murder under color of authority.”
Unable to speak, Chris looked deeply into Josiah’s eyes and found no shadow of deceit. Nor did he see any light of hope. The shroud of dread squeezed his chest.
Without a word, Chris pushed his way between the two men and headed to the barn. “Keep an eye on him,” he said over his shoulder, his movements stiff and automatic. When he stepped through the big doors into the darker interior, he didn’t notice the earthy smells there that usually comforted him. All he felt was sorrow, knowing how much Vin would miss this. Then he slammed his fist into an upright support beam.
“Stop thinking like that,” he scolded himself. Then he wondered if he would be able to hold it together for Vin’s sake.