Chapter 5 - Seeking Clues
The weeks that followed were a rolling nightmare. As soon as Vin healed enough to move without pain, he returned to his apartment in Purgatorio. Chris felt the move was motivated more by embarrassment than necessity; with the injuries and suspension, Travis ordered Vin to stay home. Any time he was in the Federal building, he needed an escort and that was enough to keep Vin out of the building. It seemed as if the team sniper was purposefully distancing himself, which worried Chris more than anything else did.
The rest of the team gathered in the office as usual, but there was a disjointed feeling that lent to an awkward atmosphere. Although forbidden access to any of the investigation, they cashed in on various “favors owed” by other teams which proved rich in information - too rich in some aspects.
“A deposit where?” Chris roared from within the compounds of his private office. Ezra winced at the volume sitting across his boss’ cluttered desk.
“It seems that I.A. traced a five hundred thousand dollar deposit into a local account in Mr. Tanner’s name about three months before the operation. It did not linger before being transferred to an account in the Cayman Islands.” Ezra extended a placating arm as Chris shot to his feet. “Please, Mr. Larabee, we both know how easy it is to arrange such appearances. Our problem is to prove exactly that.”
Rage at the helplessness they all felt burned hottest in Chris, forcing him to pace off the effects of boiling adrenalin. His stomach constantly churned and stung, and he figured at least one ulcer brewed there. His heart raced and the fight-or-flight feeling was getting impossible to manage. He stopped at the window, his back to Ezra, and looked down at all the citizens of Denver milling on the streets unaware that his world slowly crumbled around him.
Ezra cleared his throat and Chris heard the squeak of the couch as his undercover specialist rose. “This is hurting all of us, Mr. Larabee. We are not at our optimum functioning level. We are wounded and I plan to do all I can to save our offbeat family.”
Chris nodded without comment, not trusting how his voice would sound if pushed past the lump in his throat. A knock at the office door was a welcome respite. He turned enough to meet eyes with Buck as he half-stepped into the office.
“Come and look at this, Chris. We may have something.”
Chris followed silently, hearing Ezra at his heels. In the main office, Josiah and Nathan stood behind JD sitting in the chair, the trio focused on JD’s computer. The standing pair shifted as Chris approached, allowing their boss a clear sight picture of the screen.
“Look here, Chris,” JD said excitedly, his hand expertly driving the wireless mouse on his desk top. “It took awhile to get the photos I needed but I finally got a good 3-D model of the warehouse.” The wire-frame lines on his monitor twirled and spun, the aspect zooming out until Chris finally recognized the image of the building. They all had studied the photos of the interior prior to the disastrous operation so the digital representations of the stacks of crates and building features were very familiar.
Even though the people-shaped renderings did not have enough detail to identify the individuals, each of them knew their names because the actual scene had been branded in their minds.
“Here’s what Vin saw.” JD spun the picture so quickly Chris had to catch his balance by gripping the back of JD’s chair. His stomach flipped. In moments, they saw the line of men from the sniper nest. Although not needed, JD rendered Ezra and Nathan in blue and Munos’ party in red. The point of view did nothing to settle Chris’ stomach.
“We know he had a line on Munos,” Chris snapped. “Those were his orders!”
“Wait, wait,” JD continued excitedly, oblivious to his boss’ dangerous tone. “Look at it this way.”
The lines swept a 180 degree arc and stopped at Munos’ point of view. Chris saw the blocky stacks and blue outlines of their two teammates. JD brightened the colors so the subtle outline of Vin’s head, shoulders and rifle popped on screen. The sight was damning.
“That doesn’t help, JD,” Chris snarled lowly, shifting his feet.
“No, look, Chris. Look at Vin’s position.”
Chris stiffened, unable move his focus from the roundish shape that represented Vin’s head. The last of his patience drained away. “He’s got a clean shot! We know that! How the hell is this supposed to help?” Only the firm pressure of Buck’s hand on his shoulder kept Chris from spinning apart.
“Behind him, Chris! Look!” JD pointed a finger to a rectangle over Vin’s shoulder. “This window!”
Narrowing his eyes, Chris focused on JD’s offering. Behind Vin, on the end of the building opposite of Munos, a line of narrow rectangles indicates a single row of small windows probably intended for light and venting. The line of windows hovered over the slope of Vin’s right shoulder.
“There’s nothing listed in any of the reports about that window. One photo of the scene shows that window,” he indicated the one directly behind Vin, “was gone. Completely removed.” JD stopped and gave Chris a nervous glance over his shoulder, realizing he’d just let slip how much information he had. “Uh, well, I got into . . .”
Chris threw up his hand in a stop motion. “I do not want to know where you got the information to make this report.” JD gulped and nodded. “Tell me more.”
“Um, yeah, well, I didn’t have a complete building schematic from the photos, diagrams and reports so I went down there myself and took them.” He opened another window on his monitor and quickly scrolled through a collection of photos, stopping on one in particular. He zoomed in on the line of windows and Chris noticed that the rectangle in question appeared clear and clean compared to the rest. JD then brought up the wire frame scene again.
“That part of the building was ignored, probably because it was so distant from the, ah, scene.” JD spun the picture 90 degrees sideways and backed the point of view off until the entire outline of the building fit on the monitor. JD pointed at a raised part of the roofline where the windows would be and punched a button. A yellow line appeared. “The angle of this line follows the path of the bullet that killed Munos. It passes right over Vin’s shoulder and rifle barrel, and out that one missing window.”
Silence hung between them as the implication sunk in. “Another shooter?” Nathan finally said aloud.
“You’re saying this is a grassy knoll situation? Vin didn’t do it?” Buck asked.
“Of course Vin didn’t do it!” Chris barked.
Buck immediately backtracked, “I know, I know, Chris, that’s not what I meant. The investigators . . .”
“Gentlemen,” Josiah intervened, his calm baritone asking for focus. “It’s clear we need to put our energies into getting more information.” He pointed at the monitor. “What other buildings are around that one?”
“I don’t have that, but here’s a good start.” JD clicked on a link and the Google Earth globe dominated the screen. Dancing fingers on the keyboard made the picture change, the view zooming to North America, the United States and then deep into Colorado. The specific block appeared on screen, each building clear in a bird’s eye view. “Here’s the warehouse. There’s the line of windows.” JD’s fingertip stroked the monitor. “So, beyond that . . .” His finger stopped on the closest neighboring building.
Someone whistled. “How far away is that?” Nathan asked.
“I would estimate 600 yards. But does that roof have the appropriate elevation?” Ezra questioned. He pointed to the suspect windows. “To acquire the needed angle to strike the target, the shootist would have to be high.”
“How about this one?” Nathan indicated the second building over. “It’s hard to tell from a top view.”
JD’s fingers flew over the keys and street view of the block popped up. “Here’s our building,” he said as a building passed across the screen as if they were in a car driving by. “Here’s the one next door.”
“It’s too low,” Chris noted. “So is the next one.”
“Bingo.” JD froze the screen at Josiah’s utterance. “That seems high enough.”
“That would be an exceptional shot,” Ezra murmured.
“Vin’s an exceptional shooter,” Josiah added. “There has to be more like him for hire.”
“And would know the when and where of the operation?” Buck said darkly. “Another agent?”
They all turned to their leader, whose laser gaze locked on the screen. “We need evidence,” he said. “Nathan and JD, get to those windows. Broken in or out? Removed with skill? When? Josiah and Buck, check the surrounding buildings. Get photos, lots of them, and get them to JD. I want a pinpointed location of that second shooter.”
“You gonna tell Travis?” JD‘s voice had an optimistic edge rarely heard these past weeks.
“Not yet,” Chris said. “We need more. Ezra, before you go, tell JD what you told me about that deposit. Maybe he can trace the origins.” He looked to their youngest member and felt a spark of hope when he saw the excitement in JD dark eyes. “Don’t get caught.”
“Psh,” JD uttered with a grin and a flip of his wrist. “Not a problem, Chris.”
“I’ll go fill in Vin. He needs this.”
“He still doesn’t remember anything, does he?” Josiah asked.
Chris shook his head. “No.”
“Internal Affairs must see that as a bit too convenient for our dear sniper.” Ezra said as he donned his jacket.
“I’d think that, too, if this wasn’t Vin.” Nathan tipped his head toward the door and spoke to JD, who was gathering up his laptop. “Let’s go.”
While the others migrated to the exit, Chris detoured to his office to grab his jacket. How he would explain the team’s ignored workload was still an issue, but not enough to give pause. As he slipped the jacket on, he turned and raised his gaze to the brilliant white clouds billowing behind the distant Rockies. Vin would appreciate the sight. Smiling for the first time in weeks, he spun on his heel and left the nearly empty office.
Crossing over the invisible line that demarked the area known as Purgatorio from the rest of Denver, Chris wondered again about the affection Vin had for this part of town. When he first came to the city as a bounty hunter, Purgatorio filled Vin’s needs for low key, cheap, temporary housing. He hadn’t planned to stay beyond the conclusion of his quest.
During the hunt, Vin unexpectedly crossed paths with Chris Larabee in a dark alley, both of them following trails of different wanted men. Chris grinned, recalling the encounter. As soon as their eyes met across that stinking alley, they struck an immediate understanding and without one word, fell into instant sync as they stalked the length of the alley. At the dead end, they found Nathan on his knees, bruised and panting, with two guns to his head.
Two dirty, sweaty wanted men stood behind the captured agent, chests heaving from the relentless pursuit. Chris acted as soon as soon as the flash of a plan entered his head, and both he and Vin fired simultaneously. Nathan, saved, was first story of their non-verbal communication in action. The phenomenon and the story became fodder for many jokes, comments and statements. Whatever it was he and Vin shared, Chris accepted it without question and knew that Vin did too, even though they never discussed it. They didn’t have to. The circular thinking caused Chris’ lips to purse in amusement.
Chris turned the corner to Vin’s street and a tingle of alarm chased away all humor. The three cars parked at the curb in front of Vin’s apartment building were too new and too clean and the sole, black-suited man standing guard at the building’s entry was clearly law enforcement. Chris’ stomach dropped and he jerked his truck to the curb, angling into an impossibly small space between cars. The front wheels climbed onto the sidewalk to make the fit.
Chris jumped out and jogged to the entrance, gaining the attention of the suited guard. He noticed a badge clipped to the man’s waist and the automatic reach for a holstered weapon.
“Larabee, ATF,” Chris snapped without slowing. He pulled his badge from his belt and flashed it, slowing when the guard didn’t move.
“Stop right there.” Although he didn’t draw the gun, his hand rested on its butt. “I know who you are, Agent Larabee. You’re not allowed inside.” He stepped in front of Chris, stopping his charge.
The man was as tall as Chris but much wider, with bulky muscle straining the collar and shoulders of his clothes. Chris drew up, placed his feet and threatened the edge of the guard’s personal space before leveling a hard glare. “Let. Me. By.”
“Take one more step and you’re up on charges, Larabee. The F.B.I. has jurisdiction now.”
Enraged, Chris bristled for another volley but motion from within the building caught his attention. A group of suits headed his way from the lobby stairs, clustered together. Over the shoulder of the lead man, Chris saw a familiar face and his heart sank.
Surrounded by grim-faced men, Vin’s slight form look small, pale and defeated. Downcast eyes accented his hunched posture. He stumbled, but his escort’s firm grip on his upper arm kept him upright. Chris groaned when he saw that his friend’s cuffed hands.
“Be careful!” Chris snapped, unable to breach the wall of bodies as they passed. “He’s injured!” The door guard held him back and Chris tried to shrug him off. “Vin!”
Ignored, Chris could only watch as they loaded Vin in one of the vehicles and drove off. Jerking free of the guard, Chris stood in the middle of the sidewalk until the vehicle was out of sight. Then he spun on his heel and saw three men carrying boxes exit the building. They loaded boxes into the other vehicles. Vin didn’t have a lot, but whatever he did have was precious to him and would easily fit into those boxes. Enraged, Chris turned on the guard who stepped up to the challenge.
“You know the procedure, Larabee.”
“Who’s locking up the apartment?”
“There are men stationed inside Tanner’s place until arrangements are made for the removal of the gun safe.”
Vin’s gun safe. Chris pictured it in his mind, tucked away in a corner of Vin’s bedroom and holding his friend’s collection. Again, there wasn’t much in there, but the various handguns and rifles meant a lot to Vin. The violation of his friend’s privacy sickened him.
“Are they taking him downtown?” Chris finally asked as his suddenly tilted world settled down to a to-do list.
“Yes. He should be booked tonight and arraigned tomorrow morning in Federal court.”
Stumbling, Chris made his way back to his truck and crawled inside. It took a moment for his shaking hand managed to insert the truck key. Twisting it to start with perhaps a bit more muscle than was needed the truck roared to life and Chris concentrated on getting to the holding facility to exhibit some of the Larabee charm. He wanted to be Vin’s first visitor and ensure he had proper representation. Who would help him?
Chris pulled out his phone and called Travis’s direct line. “Orin?”
“Chris? Where are you?”
“On my way to lock up. They arrested Vin.”
The slight pause was telling. “I know.”
“How long have you known? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I only learned about the arrest warrant an hour ago. The team was already en route. I didn’t want you to interfere and make things worse.”
Chris grip on the steering wheel whitened his knuckles. Suddenly, the sound of Travis’ voice made his skin prickle. “It can’t get any worse, sir. I’ll be downtown.”
“You need to come back. Now.”
“I’m not abandoning Vin,” he said with an accusatory tone. “I’ll be back as soon as I know for certain that he is all right and no sooner.” Chris disconnected and then a hit speed dial number. “Come on Ezra, pick up.”
“Mr. Larabee?” Ezra answered.
“Listen, they’ve arrested Vin. I’m almost at Federal lock up. Can you make sure he’s got representation? Someone from the Union?”
“Certainly. It would also behoove Mr. Tanner to have outside council and I know just the person.”
“Good. Good. Keep me informed.”
“Mr. Larabee? Chris?”
The concern in Ezra’s voice eased the grip on Larabee’s steering wheel. “Yes?”
“Inform Vin that we are doing all we can. We - all of us - believe in him.”
Chris knew the extraordinary depth in meaning for Standish to use that term. Ezra’s life experience yielded very few people that ever said that of him and for the longest time, Chris wasn’t sure if Ezra would ever believe in anyone. Again, the indefinable magic of the combined seven men is what made them such an unbeatable unit.
“I’ll tell him. Thanks, Ezra.”
The satisfaction of one detail correctly and confidently handled was the first step of a very long road, Chris realized. When he reached Federal holding and parked the truck, Chris was ready to wait as long as it took to see Vin. This time, though, he would wait as an outsider.
Chris prowled the waiting area for the hours, alternately annoying and scaring the staff to ensure they were aware of his presence. From this side of the glass, everything looked different and Chris felt out of his element. The rest of the team arrived in irregular spurts bearing food and coffee, reinforcing the message that they were there for the duration.
A little past eight o’clock, a pair of beefy uniformed men entered the waiting area and told them that Vin would be allowed one visitor. Chris stalked forward, eyes blazing, making one guard swallow hard. He silently fell in behind the pair and entered a small search area where he surrendered his gun, pocket knife and identification. He waited impatiently, tapping his boot toe on the linoleum floor with arms crossed over his abdomen and leveling his glare at every person that crossed his path. Finally, a door buzzed and guards pulled it open from the other side and he stepped through, immediately met by a pair of stern-faced men.
“Agent Larabee,” the bigger of the two men started. He was lean and older, and Chris pegged him as the intake Commander. “This visit is irregular and only offered because you are a Federal agent. I want to make it clear that you have no access to the investigation or the investigators. You are only here because of my respect for your name and position. I expect the same respect from you regarding your behavior while you are here. Agreed?”
Chris nodded sharply, and was then escorted to a surprisingly clean visitor area. The Commander directed him to window number three and left him alone. It felt odd being on this side of the thick glass, Chris realized. There was a round stool bolted to the floor on the other side along with a phone receiver that looked exactly like the one on his side. Beyond the round seat, there was a door with a square of security glass in the center. He was familiar with the interrogation rooms, holding rooms and intake area on the other side of that glass, but this side was undiscovered country. The alien feeling intensified when he saw movement behind the window and, after a loud click, the door slid open and framed a uniformed woman. She paused, finding Chris with her emotionless gaze, and then stood aside, allowing Vin to pass.
Chris felt sick. Vin wore a typical bright orange prisoner’s jumpsuit that hung loosely from his shoulders, making him look small. His hair was damp and hung in clumpy waves to his shoulders; it was a style unacceptable to the Department, but Travis wasn’t one to bust the chops of a successful team.
Vin shuffled to the seat, eyes downcast, finally giving Chris sidelong look that defined exhaustion before lowering himself onto his seat.
Chris forced a tight smile, dropped onto his padded chair and lifted the receiver. Vin followed suit in a much slower, stiffer fashion and Chris noticed a tremor in his hand when he lifted his receiver. Chris leaned forward onto his elbows and Vin mirrored the motion, finally raising his chin to meet Chris’ gaze squarely. The fluorescent lights colored Vin’s face a sickly yellow; a slightly darker patch marking the recent faded injury near his temple.
“Hey,” Chris started.
“Hey,” Vin responded. There was a few seconds’ pause. “Thanks for the back up.” Vin’s voice sounded brittle.
“Ezra’s doin’. They take care of you?”
Vin shifted. A smile twitched and disappeared. “Yeah. They did all the talkin’.”
“Good. Who was the Union rep?”
“A woman named Betsy. She knows Buck.” A tiny grin lingered a bit longer.
Chris forced a chuckle. “I’m sure she does. What about Ezra’s lawyer?”
Vin’s eyes flashed with humor. “Talks fancier ‘n Ez. Got ‘em just as steamed as Ez gets you.”
“That’s good. I think.” Chris hunkered a little closer. “How are you feeling? They check you out?”
“Yeah. I’m in the infirmary for now. They’re keepin’ me separated.”
“That’s the norm for incarcerated law enforcement,” Chris thought. “Good,” was all he said, chastising himself for over his choice of words. There was nothing good about this.
“Look, Vin, you have to hang in there. The boys and I are working every angle we can. Hang tight, okay?”
“’k.” The reflection in Vin’s eyes when he breathed that one word reply nearly ripped Chris’ heart out. The depth of despair stole his breath and clenched his throat.
Vin’s mental force, usually something that rivaled his own, was barely there. Being the one of the seven that valued physical freedom and the open air to the highest degree, this containment affected every level of Vin’s psyche. With Chris’ fears for his friend currently running hot, that one look pushed the line in Chris’ mind toward “terrified.”
“Vin. Try to remember that night. I need to know one thing. . .”
“I’ve tried to remember that night, Chris! It’s not there - gone - It’s just gone!” Even anger looked better than despair in those blue eyes.
“No, listen. Quiet now, and listen. When you were up there watching, were you looking through your scope? Do you remember that?”
“No. But I would be using the scope at that distance.” Any sign of emotion was now under tight control and Vin’s eyes were void of expression. They looked cold.
“Do you remember any noise from behind you?”
Vin frowned. “There was no ‘behind’ me. I’s in the joists.” A few heartbeats passed. “Right?”
“Do you remember anything at all?” Chris could tell by the distant look in his friend’s eyes that something was there. He may not actually remember, but there was an inkling of doubt, a shadow of a feeling through their strange connection. JD’s idea had merit – it was the only explanation - but there wasn’t enough to present to Travis.
Vin rubbed his forehead. “I don’t . . .”
“It’s okay, Vin. I know. We’ll be here for you, Pard, you know that. For now, get some rest and save your strength. Eat. Remember the rules of capture.”
Vin snorted. “Eat whatever they give ya, drink whenever you can and always look for escape?”
“Okay, I think that last part may get you more trouble than you already have. Focus on the first parts. You’re arraignment’s tomorrow?”
“Yeah, nine o’clock.”
“I’ll see you then and get you out of this place.”
That snapped Vin to attention. “Don’t put yourself out on a limb for me, Chris. Don’t take chances on me.”
The comment surprised Chris. “That horse has already left the gate, Cowboy. You haven’t disappointed me yet.”
Vin merely grunted. Chris heard the cackle of a keyed mike just before a voice announced that their time was up. The door behind Vin slid open again and the uniformed guard stood just beyond.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Vin.”
“Sure. Thanks for everything you’ve done.” He offered a weak smile.
“You know it’s not a problem or an issue. We’re here for you. I’m here for you.”
Vin only nodded and hung up, and then turned and shuffled out of sight. It took Chris several seconds to realize he still held the receiver in his hand - something about Vin’s demeanor caused him to watch his friend until he was out of sight and the door secured.
Then it hit him - for once, Chris didn’t feel the natural bond they always shared and its loss was a rip in his soul.