Chapter 7 - Parting

Chris parked his truck in front of Vin’s building still hating what he saw in the courtroom. He’d never seen his friend give up on anything before and he wondered if that was what he saw at the hearing.

Even though Travis’ obvious ploy of piling the remains of his team with administrative type jobs did, in fact, keep the group busy, the team still managed to gather a formidable amount of information for Vin’s case. Although locked out of the formal investigation, Buck and Ezra wheedled a lot of information from in-house contacts regarding the physical evidence. JD and Josiah pieced together an accurate 3-D model of the physical site and the Nathan helped nail down the numerous bullet trails on the computer program by somehow gaining access to the autopsy reports.

Chris was proud of what they’d accomplished but they lacked one vital thing and Vin was their best source. Tonight, Chris planned to obtain a list of snipers of Vin’s caliber and better because that was the only kind of person capable of making the shot that JD’s computer model suggested.

Determination surged from within and Chris climbed the flight of stairs to Vin’s floor two at a time. Once at the top, he saw a woman with two small children in front of the apartment next to Vin’s. Her eyes were wide in surprise and her free hand instinctively tucked her children behind her.

“I’m sorry,” Chris said, forcing himself to slow down. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“You are Senor Vin’s friend, yes?” Esmeralda pushed away her mother’s hand and stepped out from behind her. “Where is he? I miss him.”

“Is he coming home?” Maria asked. The fright in her eyes changed to worry. “So many people coming and going. So many questions!”

Chris forced a smile. “Vin will be back soon. He’s staying with me for awhile.” He glanced to Vin’s door and saw that the yellow “crime scene” seal on the door was now gone. “I’ve come to get some of his things. He’s still not quite up to being on his own.”

“I have some things for him,” Maria said excitedly. “I’ve frozen some food. I will bring it down when you are ready to go.”

“He’d like that, I’m sure,” Chris said. “He’s told us about your tamales.” His smile softened and was glad to see that Maria returned her own smile. “So there have been people in and out of his place? I hope it didn’t disturb you too much.”

“Well, not so much since the first day. Lots of questions the first day, but after that they ignored us.”

“They were noisy,” Esmeralda said wrinkling her nose. “They woke me up in the middle of the night!”

“Really?” He looked to Maria.

She nodded. “Si. Lots of banging and bumping. Only one night. Esmeralda came in with me that night.”

“I’m sorry. That must have been when they removed the gun safe, I guess. It’s heavy.” Chris wondered aloud as he turned to go.

“No, it wasn’t.” The speed of the woman’s statement made Chris pause and give her his full attention. “They did not remove the big safe until the next afternoon. And why would they be in there at 2 in the morning?”

Chris, surprised, couldn’t answer that one. “I don’t know.” He smiled down to the children. “It’s over now, though. It should be quiet from now on.”

“We miss him.” Maria sighed and turned back to her door. “I will get the food ready, si?”

“Okay. I’ll let you know when I’m leaving.” The small family entered their apartment and Chris stepped up to Vin’s door. A sticky residue from the evidence seal fouled the edge of the door and frame, adding to Chris’ disquiet. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, taking in the scene with a snort of disgust. Whoever searched the premises did their job without any finesse. The place was trashed - bookcases pulled away from walls, furniture over turned, cabinets standing open and shelves emptied onto the counters. Food containers dumped, searched and poorly cleaned. The complete violation of Vin’s space angered Chris.

Chris picked his way through the living room and headed to the bedroom, snagging a gym bag from the hallway floor. “Assholes,” he swore under his breath when he saw that the destruction was no better in Vin’s bedroom.

What he saw in the closet brought him up short. Chris dropped the bag and stepped closer, hoping a play of shadows teased him. Eyes locked on a dark spot at the back of the closet, Chris shoved the door aside and confirmed that it wasn’t a shadow. Looking down, he verified the previous location of the gun safe by the flattened carpet. He returned his gaze to the large hole in the wall, realizing it was just tall and wide enough for the safe to cover it completely.

Chris grabbed his phone and called JD. “You still in the office?”

“Yes I am. What’s up?”

“Can you access the list of what they took from Vin’s apartment?”

“You mean the one Ezra got from his source?”

“No, there has to be more. Check again.”

“Um, sure. Hang on. I’m getting into the Evidence computer - Uh, says here two rifles, four hand guns, gun safe, ammo - HOLY CRAP!”

Chris’ stomach flipped.

“Chris, it says here they found nearly half a million in cash!”

His sixth sense for trouble was right again and he was sure the middle of the night visitor that awakened Esmeralda was the one that planted the money. An incoming call beeped and he glanced at the number. “Gotta go, JD.” He cut off a sputtering JD and accepted the call. “Ezra?”

“Mr. Tanner reports that the deed is at your establishment. It is in a folder, in the desk, in the spare room fittingly regaled as ‘Vin’s Room’. He says that you should not have any difficulties using it for his release.” Ezra paused. “Mr. Larabee, Vin’s demeanor when he told this me was - unsettling.”

“What do you mean?” Chris rubbed his forehead as a headache bloomed.

“I believe our intrepid sniper has given up any hope of acquittal.”

I know how he feels. The thought ambushed Chris’ mind and he mentally squashed it, wishing there was something he could hit. Hard. He exhaled sharply. “But we aren’t.” He snapped the phone closed.

He almost forgot Maria’s frozen enchiladas. Esmeralda’s standing in the middle of the hallway didn’t let him forget.

Chris had plenty of time to air his discontent during his drive to the ranch. Free to unleash, he did exactly that until his throat hurt. By then he was on the edge of the city and crossed into a zone of open road where his outrage settled to a steady simmer. He glared at the road and began ticking off the evidence against his friend in his mind once again. After that, he imagined a blank sheet titled “Evidence For Vin” - and drew a breath.

Other than “Teammate’s Personal Knowledge About Vin Tanner”, there was nothing. He reached his driveway and pulled up to the house with a larger than necessary rooster tail of dust in his wake. Chris threw the truck into Park and forced his cell phone to submit and call Buck.

“Hey, Chris,” Buck barked.

“Get Josiah and check out that building where a second sniper could have staged.”

“Good afternoon to you too, boss.” Albeit the choice of words suggested disgust, Buck’s tone sounded simply tired. “Josiah and I can do that. We’re nearly done with all this busy-work bullshit - JD and Nathan can finish up.”

“Let me know what you find. See you later.” Chris snapped the cell closed and somewhere in the back of his mind, he acknowledged that Buck would forgive the encounter. Through the years, his friend had been on the receiving end of much worse and Chris trusted that he would forgive and forget.

He pushed into the house and strode directly to the guest room desk, vigorously yanking open the desk drawer. There, on top of all the loose items that clutter-danced in response, floated a thin manila file. Chris lifted the folder, flipped it open and found a surprise that turned him cold: The property deed that Vin was so proud of had been replaced with a Quitclaim deed in Chris’ name.

It took Chris a few stunned moments to understand what he held in his hand. This meant that Vin expected the seizure of all his property and that all his assets would be frozen; he anticipated the eventuality the moment he left the hospital - hope never existed in his friend’s mind because this whole thing was a familiar game to Vin. Chris felt sick that the horrible event involving Vin and the U.S. Marshal’s Office taught his friend such a lesson.

Worse than that, it was happening again. Chris ranted anew on the drive back to Denver, his voice hoarse and raw by the time he arrived at the bail bondsman’s office where he turned the Deed in as collateral for Vin’s release.

They released Vin remarkably fast and Chris was there to greet him when Tanner stepped through the sliding, barred doors looking beyond disheveled. Ignoring the pointed glances from the jail staff that screamed “Traitor!” Chris focused on Vin and took his arm in their familiar forearm grip, setting his jaw at the weakness of Vin’s grasp. Thin, pale and alarmingly frail looking, Chris wasted no time or words and directed his friend to the parking lot.

“Let’s get you home,” Chris said lowly. He didn’t expect a reply.

Once out of the building, reporters appeared from nowhere and swarmed, firing questions, shoving mikes and blinding them with spotlights. Vin ducked his head and Chris kept close to his shoulder, pressing a hand against his friend's knobbed back to guide him. The crowed resisted parting, but with their prolonged silence, finally relented and the pair pushed their way to the truck.

With Vin safely inside, Chris made his way to the driver’s side using his glare to part the crowd like an ice cutter’s prow. They escaped without injury - mentally, though, Chris worked through many variations of disembowelment.

Vin’s dry chuckle diverted his mental rampage. “What?” he snapped.

“Thanks, Chris.”

Chris snorted. “Anytime, Vin.”

That was the extent of conversation, and all the pair needed. Vin immediately fell asleep and stayed that way until Chris parked at the ranch.

“You need to eat. Your neighbor supplied enchiladas.”

Vin smiled sadly. “She knows I like ‘em. I’m gonna see Peso first.” Vin pushed the truck door open and headed to the barn. In the adjoining pasture, Chris saw a blaze-striped, black head pop up from the group of horses and left the beast to comfort Vin for the time being.

The quiet of the afternoon turned dusky as evening encroached. Chris tossed the frozen enchiladas in the oven spent his time prepping additional food for the expected arrivals. Vin joined the effort after tending to Peso, showering and changing clothes, still looking like some kind of refugee’s ghost. They worked in silence, anticipating each other’s actions as usual, but Chris missed their mental connection. It was a lonely experience.

Ezra, JD and Nathan arrived together a little after six and after quiet greetings, opened beers and joined in after turning on the television for the hockey game. The announcer’s voice murmured lowly in the background. Finally, crunching gravel announced Buck and Josiah’s arrival.

Chris looked to their faces when they entered without knocking. Josiah came in first, his face unreadable outside a tired smile. Buck’s eyes, though, told Chris a grim story when their gazes connected. With a nearly indiscernible shake of his head, Buck signaled that now was not the time to talk. Instead, he refocused on Vin, his expression coming alive with its usual joviality when they briefly man-hugged.

Meat was grilled, salad served and enchiladas dispersed in their usual, efficient manner, accented by hockey game banter and subdued cheers. Then, dishes were washed and stored, and fresh beers distributed before the matter of Vin's predicament was on the table.

“Well, we all know most of the evidence on hand and it looks pretty damning.” Josiah leveled an apologetic gaze on Vin.

“We know that,” JD interjected. “We need to find a way to present the second-shooter theory.”

Buck tipped his head as if readying to speak, but Chris stopped him with a glance. Instead, the team leader turned to Vin. “We need a list of snipers that could pinpoint a long distance shot that are in this area.”

Vin frowned. “How long are we talkin’, here?” JD pulled a paper from his pocket and unfolded it, then shoved it across the table to him. Vin’s eyes widened as he studied the diagram. “This is your theory? That someone shot from behind me?”

“It’s plausible,” Chris said. “But the list of that kind of shooter has to be short.”

“It is,” Vin agreed, calculating in his head as he fingered the drawing. “Well, there’s me and MacMillan. I heard of a couple guys on the P.D. Shelby Winter in Miami. Zac Sheldon in D.C.” Nathan jotted the names as Vin spoke. “There’s more, but I’ll have to think a bit.” He ran his hand tiredly through his hair.

Next to him, Chris warmed when he saw a spark of life in Vin’s eyes. “Okay, you do that.” He wanted to find out what Buck and Josiah found but from their initial expressions when they arrived, he knew it was not good. Chris debated bringing it up when JD beat him to the punch.

“Hey Buck, what did you and Josiah find at the scene?”

Josiah stiffened slightly and panic fled across Buck’s face. Vin - who never missed anything - sat up and balled his hands on the table.

“Buck?” Vin asked, eyes hard.

“Uh, we did find a couple of pried doors and evidence of someone being at the window in question . . .” he glanced to Josiah for help as his words petered out.

“The place was dusty and dirty. There was a clear imprint of someone sitting in a chair behind a tripod . . .” Josiah paused to take a breath.

“Bullet casings? Please say bullet casings.” JD sounded anxious.

“No, no casings. But there was a pry tool left. It fit the tool’s pry bite in the doors . . .”

“Any chance of fingerprints?” Nathan asked with hope.

“Yeah, there is.” Buck smoothed his mustache, flicked an apologetic look to Chris then rested his gaze on Vin. “Vin’s probably. It was a screwdriver from your Jeep.” Any sprout of possibility started in Vin’s eyes withered and died right in front of Chris. The men blinked in shock. “We can’t bring up the second shooter scenario to anyone without admitting the screwdriver as evidence. Someone has been a step ahead of us this whole time. They set up the second shooter scenario, who knows when.”

“And the Prosecution will say that Vin set it up as his alibi.” Ezra shook his head.

“But Vin wouldn’t be stupid enough to leave a screwdriver behind!” JD shot to his feet. “This is beyond stupid! No one that knows Vin would believe that! He wouldn’t be dumb enough to hide cash in his apartment, either!”

Vin’s eyes snapped to JD. “What?”

JD’s indignation floundered. “Uh, I guess you don’t know about that?”

“About what?” Ezra demanded.

Chris stood and all eyes turned to him. “Half million in cash found in the wall behind the gun safe.”

Astonished silence ruled the air. When Nathan spoke, his words seemed loud. “That’s why they’re charging you so quick. They have everything they need.”

“And we have nothing.” Chris’ voice sounded surprisingly calm in his own ears but there was a rising panic invading every limb. He punched the table with his fist and met Vin’s eyes.

The others exploded into heated debate on the merits of the evidence and any next steps, and didn’t notice Vin push back from the table and head directly to the porch doors. After a moment, Chris followed, snatching a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the way. When he slid the door closed behind him, the loud voices cut reduced to muted thunder.

Vin leaned against the porch rail, his eyes looking in the distance where the moon hovered over the inky silhouette of mountains. He accepted the bottle when Chris offered it and took a swig. Chris didn’t ask him to return it. Minutes passed. Chris heard owl chatter and crickets on the cool breeze. The trees rippled and it washed the heat from Chris’ cheeks. Normally, this quiet existence gave him comfort, but with the absence Vin in his mind, he only felt coldly exposed.

“I had my house all built in my head,” Vin finally said. He took another swallow of Jack and handed it to Chris without taking his eyes off the horizon. “Wasn’t too big. Lots of windows. I didn’t really need much.”

“It can still happen, Vin.” Chris felt his resolve establish once again but did not hear the same in Vin.

“Maybe.” Jack crossed back to Vin’s hand. “I’ve been lucky, I suppose.” He took another swallow.

Chris frowned. “Meeting us? You got it backwards. We’ve been lucky.” He indicated the others with a tip of his head. “This isn’t over. You know that, right?”

Instead of answering, Vin’s eyes slid sideways toward Chris where they paused, holding a strange connection. In that moment, Chris read many things and saw a lot of emotion, but there wasn’t one thing that he could label. Vin’s eyes slipped away, recaptured by something in the distance and Chris suddenly felt cold.

For the rest of the night, the unsettled feeling festered like a wound. When the others left, Vin expressed his thanks and agreed to hang in there. It was past midnight before Vin headed for the spare room - his room.

Chris tossed and turned during that short night. Everything tasked him and weighed heavy on his racing thoughts. No path was clear, and no way out found in the facts. He didn’t even realize he’d dozed off until he jerked awake at the grey-pink of dawn, feeling empty and barren.

Chris wasn’t at all surprised, really, when he rose and found Vin already gone.

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