Chapter 6 - Charges

The night passed slowly, crawling from hour to hour as Chris tossed and turned and tangled the sheets of his bed. He gave up just before dawn and started the day by watching the sunrise with a fresh cup of coffee on his back deck. From there, he could see the barn slowly emerge from the darkness and felt the teasing rise of the wind. It was fall, but Chris could tell by the feel of the breeze that an Indian summer was stalking. He let the coffee’s steam trail in front of his face as he cradled the ceramic mug between his hands.

This was Vin’s venue, he thought, a tug at his heart making him gasp. Normally a fighter, Chris intended to go down swinging defending Vin even though everything they had still made it look hopeless. Mentally running all the facts and timeline through is head again, the ending remained the same.

Vin was going to be convicted.

Chris’ eyes burned and he stood straighter, chastising himself for losing faith so easily. They still had JD’s electronic diggings, physical evidence at the warehouse and the strengths of the other teammates. With that, Larabee downed a gulp of caffeine and resolutely turned and went back in the house as the morning sun brightened the sky.

Chris fed the horses in record time and was on the road for the office by five-thirty. When he keyed into the empty Federal building, his feet echoed on the marble floor. The guard just waived him through security and Chris entered an empty elevator, unable to enjoy that rare experience because he was so focused on his “to do” list.

Entering the Team 7 offices, Chris slowed, stunned, then pulled up short as five sets of eyes turned his way. Each occupied desk held a red-eyed team member with shoulders hunched in weariness. He regarded them in warm silence for a few moments, grateful for their simply being here.

“Vin’s arraignment is at nine,” he said hoarsely. “I want all we can get our hands on by then. If we can’t prove his innocence now, maybe we can at least instill doubt at a trial. JD, let’s start with you. In my office.”

Chris was proud of the determined nods he received in reply. They would need all of that fortitude to get through this.

Departure time came quickly but the team was ready. The stash of clean court clothing came in very useful, and, after cleaning up, only their red eyes hinted at their bone-deep exhaustion.

They arrived at the court early enough to be first in line to enter the courtroom. Chris nodded to Orin Travis when he showed up a few minutes later and the seven of them wiped their faces clear of emotion when the first of the reporters arrived.

Mary Travis, Orin’s daughter in law, arrived shortly before nine, ducking her head as she approached the group. She quietly acknowledged each of the Team’s greetings with obvious awkwardness. Mary was a reporter for one of the television stations and Chris was grateful that she did not press the advantage of knowing the current newsmaker - her hands were empty and she was alone.

“I left the camera outside,” she said quietly to Chris. “I just . . .” she pressed her lips together and clamped her arm across her stomach. “The idea of Vin . . . of what they want me to say makes me sick.”

Chris reached out and squeezed her elbow. “Vin will be glad you’re here.”

“I hope so.” Her smile was weak as the doors opened.

The group claimed seats in the front, giving Vin a clear view of his friends.

“I hope he looks better than he did yesterday,” Nathan muttered as he looked around. “I spoke with the jail infirmary and updated them on Vin’s care.”

“He okay?” Chris asked sharply, concern shadowing his eyes.

“Yeah. Stress ain’t helpin’ none, though.”

The courtroom filled and after quieted by the bailiffs, there was motion by a side door. Vin appeared, still wearing the orange jumpsuit and cuffed at the wrists, waist and ankles.

“I personally delivered a suit to the holding facility, just as you asked, Mr. Larabee.” Ezra made the statement in response to Chris’ startled hiss. “But it seems Mr. Tanner does not have much faith in today’s outcome.”

Ezra was right. Vin shuffled in the room between two burly bailiffs and looked completely beaten. He studied the floor, sparing his friends a short glance and a tumultuous smile before ducking his head again. The garish suit hung on bony shoulders and did little to enhance Vin’s slight frame.

“He needs to eat more,” Buck mused, obviously shaken. The rest of them were quiet as the crowd behind them chatted softly.

One bailiff pulled out a chair for Vin and he dropped on it, shifting his focus from the floor to the table top in front of him. It was all Chris could do to stay seated - he dug his fingernails into his thighs to keep control of his simmering anger.

A pair of men strode down the galley aisle and slipped through the low gate that separated the audience from the cast of players. A bailiff checked their credentials and motioned for them to Vin’s table. They took seats next to Vin.

“That’s his attorney Liam Nelson,” Ezra whispered. “He’s the best in the state. I was lucky to gain his employ.”

“Where’s the Union representative?” Chris growled.

Ezra shifted uncomfortably and glanced at Buck. “You did not inform Mr. Larabee?”

Chris shifted his glare to Buck, “Um, no. I thought Travis. . .” he started, saved when Orin interrupted, placing a firm hand on Chris’ forearm.

“I wanted to tell you in person, Chris. Vin has been relieved of duty.”

Chris blinked. “You fired him?” His voice dropped to dangerous levels.

“I didn’t. The Director did after he read the preliminary investigation notes. I’m sorry, Chris. I tried to get them to wait . . .”

Travis’ voice, as well as the voices in the courtroom, faded to a dull roar in the back of Chris’ skull. This was not the time or place to react - even now, he saw the tentative glance Vin gave him. Chris knew he had to cool down but this was a train wreck happening right before his eyes. His inability to help in any way only fed his frustration and anger.

Chris felt Buck haul him to his feet by his elbow and Chris glanced up to see the black robed Judge Curtis enter and take his seat. A ridiculous number of bailiffs surrounded the bench; Vin looked so small to Chris that the whole scene looked like something from Through The Looking Glass.

“Is the defendant ready?”

Counselor Nelson shot to his feet. “Yes, your honor.” He reached over and tugged on Vin’s bicep, dragging him to his feet. Judge Curtis looked at him over the top of his glasses, holding a thick file in front of him.

“Vincent Michael Tanner, you are charged with murder for hire and assault under color of authority. Do you understand your charges?”

“Yes, sir.” The soft Texas accent was barely discernible when the audience broke into furious whispering.

“Quiet in the court!” Curtis bellowed. “This court will not become a circus. Be quiet or be removed.” He paused until silence ruled. “Now, to the charge of murder for hire, how do you plead?”

“He pleads not guilty.” Nelson’s voice was firm. He’d stopped Vin from speaking by squeezing his bicep. Vin glared at him.

“How does the defendant plead to the second charge of assault under color of authority?”

“Not guilty.”

“Both ‘Not Guilty’ pleas are entered in the court. I will set a trial day two months from now, on the 15th, 10 A.M. here, in this courtroom. Now, about bail. Mr. Guandara?”

A man rose at the Prosecutor’s table. “Your honor, the People ask that no bail be set and that the defendant remain in custody. He has out of state contacts and is a flight risk.”

Nathan snorted softly. “What out of state contacts?” he said as the others nodded. “His home’s here.”

Nelson answered immediately. “Your honor, the Defendant’s accounts have been frozen and he has no income at the moment. Mr. Tanner owns property here, has built a life here in the past five years, and has no other family. He has been a reliable worker since becoming an adult. He is not a flight risk and I request that bail be set.”

“Your Honor,” the Prosecution started, silenced by a wave of the Judge’s hand.

“I do not see Mr. Tanner as a flight risk, Counselor. He has ties to the community and no other family. Based on the nature of the charges, bail is set at $1.5 million.”

“Thank you, your honor.”

Vin’s shoulders slumped and he sank into the heavy wooden chair. Nelson copied his motion, leaning in and speaking quietly the whole time. Chris saw that Vin did not acknowledge the man in any way. The Judge dismissed the parties and swept from the room. Chris’ hope to say a few encouraging words to his friend vanished as the giant bailiffs moved in and quickly escorted Vin out of the room. Chris watched his back, unable to speak.

“Well that went better than I thought.” JD’s comment received grumbled replies from the other. “At least he got bail. I expected it to be higher, too.”

Chris gripped the rail that separated him from the court area and found he couldn’t stand yet. Buck moved in closer and whispered. “You okay?”

“No,” Chris choked. “None of this is okay.”

Buck nodded and clapped a big hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I know, I know. We still got some work ahead of us. Don’t give up on him, okay? Chris? Vin needs ya, you know.”

Chris nodded and straightened, his back cracking like brittle rock. “Yeah, I know. He just looks so defeated. It’s hard to watch.” Buck nodded and dipped his gaze. “Well, let’s get him out. Come on.”

Buck frowned. “Are you using your place as collateral?”

Chris shook his head. “I don’t think I have to. Vin has that property next to mine, remember? He paid that off late last year. I just have to get the deed.” He scrubbed his face. “I can’t stand the idea of him being in there, Buck.”

“Yeah, I hear ya. He’s one free spirit. Come on, then, let’s do this.”

By the time Chris turned to leave, the courtroom was empty except for five very determined looking men waiting for their next orders. They left the courtroom, forming a loose V in order to cut through the gathered reporters. Questions bombarded them from all sides and they all went unanswered.

Nearing the glass, Courthouse doors Chris saw Mary on the sidewalk standing in front of a news van, her attention focused on her cameraman as she spoke. Unable to hear her through the tumultuous crowed that surrounded him, Chris watched her lips move and noticed the cold look in her eyes. It was clear to him that she was not happy about any of this; he knew exactly how she felt.

Once outside, they moved together along the sidewalk until they were alone and able to talk.

“I’m taking care of the bail. Ezra, go ask Vin where his land deed is and call me. I’ll head over to his place. The rest of you get to work and make sure our current case load is up to snuff. Buck, you’re in charge. Get some rest if you can. I plan to take Vin to my house this afternoon and skip the office today. I expect you at my place tonight.”

Chris did his best to ignore the weary slump of shoulders and chose to focus on the burning determination in everyone’s eyes as they nodded and moved off. Taking a moment, Chris took a breath and upon exhaling, commanded his body to relax and loosen up. He shook his arms, closed his eyes and allowed his head to shift back as he lifted his chin.

“Where are you, Tanner?” he thought, trying to open his mind. The dark emptiness there deepened his sorrow. “Let me in. Please.”

Nothing echoed and Chris felt the familiar sharp stab of loneliness.

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