By: Cin and Heidi
The drive seemed interminable between the shooting scene and the hospital. Josiah and JD reached the emergency room, neither speaking, both lost in their own thoughts. When they arrived at the hospital, Josiah finally broke the silence. "Son."
"Yes, sir?" JD swallowed, staring at the man who started to become a mentor of sorts to him in the short time he'd worked for the department.
Sanchez paused, formulating his words, finally saying, "You're getting a baptism by fire."
"Sir, I understand. This," his hand waved at the emergency room entrance, "was part of the deal. In the Academy, they were very clear about the odds of officer injury, but I didn't think I'd see it so quickly."
"We are never prepared for it." Sanchez sighed sadly.
"No, I guess not," JD admitted.
"Son, I know Buck's your trainer, and you two have seemed to have gotten pretty friendly rather quickly."
JD nodded, swallowing hard before he attempted to speak. "I know he and Cpl. Caswell and Sgt. Larabee were close."
Josiah nodded. "They are. They've been friends for most of their lives, through good times and bad. You'll see more of the man and less of the officer. I'm not sure how well he's going to take this."
JD wanted to reassure the older officer he was aware of what he was trying to say, or he thought he was. “I know I’ve always heard law enforcement was a pretty close knit community . . . and they stressed it being a brotherhood in the Academy.” He paused, swallowing hard before continuing. “I can see what they mean. Even when you aren’t friends, when you’ve worked with them so close . . . seeing them go down . . . it messes with a person, you know?"
"Unfortunately, it happens that way sometimes. Buck was right there, son, and he'll need support."
"I'll be there for him, sir . . .if he'll let me," JD spoke up quickly.
"I'm sure he'll appreciate that, son," Josiah smiled. "But what about you? You've only been here a short time. This is affecting you too. How are you doing?"
"It was…fast. One second, I'm directing traffic, and the next I see them on the ground and Buck's yelling. It was so quick. I couldn't do anything."
"Horrible feeling and one we never get used to. We deal with it, but sometimes, we need help. All of us, no matter how young or old we are. It's the nature of the job. Just realize Buck may not be available to you. If you need anything, come to me. I always have an open ear, with some pretty strong shoulders. Even if it's just to talk, or sit, or to pray."
JD stared at the older man. "Thank you." His face showed he was touched by the offer.
Josiah took a deep breath. "Let's go." He put a hand on JD's shoulder, steering him into the hospital, and used the ambulance access instead of the other entrances.
While they walked toward the admissions desk, the nurse looked up. Lisa Reynolds was familiar with most of the officers on the police department, recognized one, but also saw a new face. "Josiah." She stood to introduce herself. "Hello, I'm Lisa, the charge nurse." She held her hand out to the rookie.
"JD Dunne, ma'am." He shook it.
"She's upstairs in surgery, Chris is down here, and Buck's with him. They're getting ready to take Chris back to X-ray." Lisa answered their questions before they could ask, knowing it was the only thing that mattered to them right now.
"You know I'm not an expert, Josiah."
"You know enough."
She sighed. "It's going to be a long wait and a lot of prayers."
Josiah closed his eyes briefly. "Thanks for telling me."
"We're pulling for them, and they're tough." Lisa patted Josiah's arm. "Come on, help me with Buck before I have to kick him out."
“He's being a problem?”
“Not yet, but we can see he wants to be two places at once. That'll make him antsy and surly. If you can head that off, we'll be grateful."
They followed her through the labyrinth called the emergency room. Finally, the pair came to the cubicle Larabee occupied. They found Rain and a nurse doing triage on the unconscious sergeant. Buck was slouched in a dark corner, his hat pulled way low, further covering his face and hiding it in shadows.
"Hello, Rain,” Josiah greeted softly.
The young intern ignored the newcomers, finishing what she was doing. Completing her examination, she straightened, put a pen light in the breast pocket of her white coat, and turned to the new arrivals. "Josiah. You okay?"
Seeing the tension in her face – the worry of someone who cared for police officers, living with the daily fear of never seeing them alive or whole again - Josiah was quick to assure her. "Shaken, but okay. Nathan's fine too. Don't know if you met him, but this is JD Dunne, our newest."
Her dark head bobbed once, relief covering her face. Receiving the news she was concerned about, she quickly became a professional again. Smoothing her features, she looked at JD. "Are you hurt?"
"No, ma'am," he immediately replied.
"Good." She twisted back to the nurse as she was handed a chart. Turning back to the bed, Rain took out a pen to make several notes while she rattled off instructions to the nurse as she went. "Go ahead and bandage those eyes till we get ophthalmology to look at him. Meantime, get him to X-ray, full skull series and schedule a CT. Page Dr. Hamilton when they're done. He'll need to know what's going on in that hard marble Chris calls his head." As the nurse called for transport, she stepped back, allowing an orderly to move in to take the sergeant to X-ray. Rain stripped off her gloves, directing her attention to the silent form in the corner. "Buck, we'll do what we can. He's strong."
"I…I know." The words came out as a whisper.
Josiah went over to the quiet man, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Buck if you want to go upstairs now, I can stay with Chris."
"I'm not abandoning him." Buck looked up, staring at the gurney being wheeled out of the room. He made to try to follow his friend.
Rain stepped in front of him. "You need to sit down before you fall down, Buck," she told him. "I don't want a third friend for a patient."
"I'm fine," he adamantly stated.
Rain snorted. "And pigs have wings."
Josiah spoke up more firmly. "Buck, take JD up to the surgical waiting room. I'll stay with Chris."
"Brother, I know you're torn. We can only do what we can. Go on up and wait for word on Nina, I'll watch Chris and let you know as soon as I hear something. You do the same for me with Nina, okay?"
Buck turned sad eyes toward the older officer, wishing he could pull in some of his strength. He knew Chris would be okay; he had to be. His confidence with Nina, however, wasn’t as high. He was afraid to go check on her . . . afraid of what he might find. Irrationally he believed if he didn't know, it wouldn't be that bad.
Josiah read the unspoken message in those eyes. "We're all scared," he whispered quietly. He nodded toward JD who hadn't moved from the doorway. "We need to be strong for all of them."
Wilmington drew in a deep breath, his head bobbing in reluctant agreement.
"Besides, you can sit up there and give your statement. CID will be on the way here shortly to get it, so you best get your head together before talking to them."
"I don't want to talk to anybody!" Buck yelled, becoming agitated.
Josiah reached over and grabbed Buck's shoulders. "I didn't want to either, brother, but we do what we must. Remember, it's to help them." Josiah stared into Buck's eyes until he was sure he got the younger man to calm down and think about what needed to be done. "Now, let JD take you upstairs. The detectives will probably meet you there. You'll be closer to the news up there than down here with me."
Buck ran a hand down his face. "Sorry.” He paused. “Oh, hell. You'll let me know?"
"Okay." Straightening his shoulders, he nodded, stepping out of the room.
"JD," Josiah whispered.
"Yeah?" The rookie glanced over.
"Don’t discuss what happened until he gives his statement; tell him nothing, but stay with him. He needs someone to lean on a bit, and he won't admit it. Let your partner lean on you."
"Um." JD's eyes widened. "Sure."
"Thanks, son. Now go on. Follow him up. Just being there will be a comfort."
JD nodded, following Buck’s path and disappearing from sight.
"What happened?" Rain asked softly, drying her hands after washing up. She stepped closer to Josiah, squeezing his arm.
He pulled her into a hug.
"Shooter. Didn't see a thing – one minute they're working, next I see them on the ground and Buck's yelling Officers Down." Josiah chose not to mention the suspected ambush, knowing it would only do more to upset Rain than anything else.
"You said Nathan's fine?"
"Right behind you."
She wheeled, and her face filled with relief. Josiah let her go, and she barreled into Nathan's arms. "You're okay."
"I'm fine,” he whispered into her ear. His arms tightened around her. “Wasn't even there yet."
"You're not hurt at all?" she asked again, her arms feeling his for injuries.
"Rain, I'm not hurt." He leaned down and kissed her quickly.
When they broke apart, she held on tight, a few sobs escaping her.
"I love you, baby." He hugged her tight, reassuring her for a moment.
"I love you, too," Rain replied.
A throat cleared at the entrance to the room. "Larabee's at X-ray, and we've got a suture patient waiting in Three."
Rain's head fell forward onto Nathan's broad chest. "It never ends."
"No, it doesn't." He stroked her back.
Twisting slightly, she said, "Be there shortly."
"All right." The nurse paused before she left. "Guys? I'm glad you're okay."
"Thanks," Josiah answered. "Now to get the rest of us back on their feet."
"That's my job," Rain said. She sighed. "I better get back to it."
"You know where to find me," Nathan told her.
"I'll be up when I can," Rain replied.
"I know." Nathan tenderly caressed her face, giving her another kiss before letting her go.
Rain stepped back, and then went to Josiah, surprising him with another hug. "I'm glad you're okay. I couldn't do this earlier."
Josiah squeezed her around the torso. "Thanks for the concern."
"You're special to me too, Josiah. All of you are."
"You're special to us," Nathan replied.
"Now get out of here before they start yelling; I'm only an intern."
"Nate, if you want to go on up, Buck's with JD, but CID should be taking his statement soon."
"Sure. I'll stay with the kid while Buck's busy."
"Buck’s in bad shape," Josiah warned. "Bound to get worse."
Nathan said, "I want to be down here, but Rain will look at me and keep thinking 'what if'. This way, I'm out of her sight, and will give her a break from those thoughts. Until we can deal with them together, relieve them a little, I'd rather not dredge them up every time she sees me."
Josiah nodded. "We'll be up when we can."
Jackson left, and Josiah found his way down to X-Ray, finding the orderly waiting with the gurney holding Chris just outside the room. Another person was inside, so they had to wait their turn. Moving up beside the gurney, Josiah reached down to pick up Chris's lax hand. "Stay with us, brother, because it's going to be a long, hard road. We'll need you to make it through."
Ezra reached his home quicker than he thought, but he didn't remember half the drive. It was a blur, his agile mind in overdrive. All he kept remembering was the helicopter taking off, and seeing Raphael staring after it with a look of naked pain on his face. Raphael didn't spot him, and Ezra believed the man didn't even realize what he revealed on his face. Ezra wasn't about to mention it to him.
Standish knew – heck, everyone knew the history - that Raphael was sweet on Nina when he first arrived, and that they went on two dates. Something happened on the second that resulted in the pair smiling at each other, or laughing if the moment allowed. He’d heard the rumors that they ended up involved in a court case an hour away, and that added to the humor of whatever happened. Neither spoke of it, but they never dated again, preferring to be good friends. Instead, they resorted to tormenting each other good-naturedly whenever they could.
Ezra's thoughts changed direction, trying to pigeonhole the relationship between him and Nina. It couldn't be pigeonholed because things were changing so fast. Catching him by surprise along the way, as it was something he had not been looking for or expecting. First, it was friendship and humor, and then it deepened to trust and confidences, and tonight – was it only tonight? - they were nearly kissing on the park bench. Not counting that extremely close encounter in the pool house. His body could almost feel the way her form molded to his, how the moment was charged with raw emotion, and then…Buck.
A low, mournful howl emanated behind him. Startled out of his thoughts, Ezra realized he had parked in front of his place and still sitting there staring out the window. "Sorry." Climbing out, he let his partner free from the truck, watching the lab run over to his favorite tree and water it.
"Yes, that's your tree," he said absently. It was a tough old oak, and it had stood a hundred years.
His dog marked his territory, and it made him think the absurd thought of marking his territory on Nina.
Ezra's hands scrubbed down his face, and that was the precise moment he knew things were out of control. He was possessive, yes, but they were nowhere near the point where he could call her 'his'. Every time they tried to kiss, someone or something interrupted. Did she mean what she said at the park? He'd like to think that she did, but was it the lack of sleep talking?
Doubts assailed him.
What about Chris? Chris gave him a second chance, especially when he arrived in Four Corners with a big chip on his shoulder and a larger wall between him and everyone. It took a long time, but that constant confidence in his abilities, and the trust – still given, even though he disappointed them his first week, slowly brought him out of his shell.
When Larabee went to bat for him without question with the canine recommendation, he solidified Ezra's now unswerving loyalty, making it permanent. Then Chris protected him from some of his detractors, giving him and Ace the chance to prove themselves without outside interference. Now, Chris and Nina were down, he didn't know the extent of their injuries, and it worried him immensely. Thinking of his partner, he checked his location, finding the canine trying to dig up the flowerbed just like he wasn't supposed to do, and knew better. Automatically he called Ace over, letting him into the house they shared, and put down a fresh water bowl, along with a few treats.
The lab drank some water, downed the treats, walked over to him, lying down on Ezra's feet. Those soulful eyes looked right up at him, almost communicating the undying love between man and dog. He finally got it, the partnership, the bond, and damn him, Charlie knew what he was talking about.
Moving Ace enough to sit on the floor, the lab crawled into his master's lap, rubbing his head against his chest.
Ezra could feel the support coming from the lab. It was offered without hesitation, without prompting, and was the purest form of love, something that the writers and poets tried to capture, but could not adequately put into words. Here he was, a grown man, sitting on the floor and hugging his dog for dear life. What remaining shreds of control he had left shattered. He sobbed.
His arms wrapped tight around Ace, and he held on while the emotions poured out of him. Sitting on his kitchen floor, the windows open, shaking with grief, Ezra let go, releasing the pain he'd been holding inside since this disaster began.
It took several minutes for the flood of emotion to cease. Ace stayed tight against him the entire time – by choice. Ezra knew the dog could have broken the hold at any time. Though he felt he didn't deserve this kind of love, this kind of support, he was thankful every day for the companionship of this devoted canine soul.
Finally, he let go.
Ace tipped his head up and licked Ezra's face.
A watery laugh escaped Standish – he usually discouraged Ace from licking people in the face, because most people didn't like the idea. If he had to, he’d admit he was one of those people once. Not now; they'd been together too long, and he couldn't consider his life without Ace.
"I love you, too," he said to his dog. His voice broke, thick with emotion.
Ace licked him again.
"That's quite enough." Okay . . . so he would admit that sometimes it was too much for him too.
With almost a canine shrug, Ace backed up and sat down.
Ezra stood, found the tissues, cleaned up, and blew out a breath. His control was slowly coming back, and he now felt a little more confident about going to the hospital. But there was something he needed to do first.
"Come on," Ezra said, stopping by the freezer before heading for the bedroom.
Ace followed him, waited until Ezra pulled down the covers, and then jumped up into the bed.
"Thanks for being such a good friend, partner." He rubbed Ace's head, placing the frozen doggie ice cream in front of his best supporter and confidante. Ezra figured he'd change the sheets later today, but right now, his friend deserved the best.
Ace licked his hand, studied his master's face for a second, and then tackled the ice cream.
"I'll see you soon." Ezra didn't even bother changing; he left his house, driving to the hospital in the truck, and parked it beside Nathan's patrol car. When he entered the emergency room, he inquired and received directions toward the two officers. Deciding to check on Larabee first, he found Josiah in Chris's room. "Josiah."
"Ezra." The older man's face broke into a pitiful smile.
The canine officer moved quietly to the bed and stared down at the still form of Chris Larabee. He closed his eyes, wanting to push this image from his mind. It was so unlike their dynamic leader. He should be up, giving him that infuriating sardonic look and asking him, ‘Didn’t he have work to do?’ Whatever he intended for his life, Ezra never envisioned what he had now in this town and with these people. It felt like after all these years he finally came home, and was wanted. Everything exceeded his meager expectations, and he had finally allowed himself to start believing in fulfilling his dreams. Now, looking down at the still form before him, he felt like his soul was being ripped from him once again. It just wasn’t fair.
Josiah moved up just as quietly to stand beside Standish. He knew he stated the obvious, but he wanted to connect with this lost soul and assure him that things might not be as hopeless as it seemed. "He's still unconscious. The doctor's running several more tests."
"How are you doing?"
The smile broadened, as Josiah realized even foundering, the younger man could still protect himself. He would redirect concern away from himself to protect his own fragile walls. Still, he knew the question was also one of genuine concern, even if Ezra tried to hide it behind his constant mask of indifference, Josiah knew the man had a heart of gold. "Thanks for asking . . . I'm holding on. Praying, but holding on."
"Good. Take care of yourself as well, my friend."
Josiah stood, coming over and pulling Ezra into a hug. "You do the same, son."
Ezra didn't resist. He might not admit it, but he found himself needing this human contact. It was even more comforting coming from this particular man. Like the loyalty he received from Ace, Josiah was a man who staunchly stood by him no matter what happened, and whatever rumors surfaced. "I will," he whispered against the chest.
Josiah let him go, giving him a nod, retaking his position beside Chris. "They're upstairs in the waiting room. I haven't heard anything new."
"Much obliged. You need a break before I go up?"
"No, I'm fine." Sanchez shook his head. "Thanks for the offer."
"Let me know." Ezra left Josiah, heading up to the waiting room.
He entered the elevator, dreading what more he would find. A thousand scenarios – all bad – played through his head, and he almost wished he could remain in ignorance. But he was made of sterner stuff than that; at least he could be grateful to his mother for that part of his upbringing that made him so. Stepping off the elevator, he forced one foot in front of the other until he reached the waiting room.
It was worse than he imagined. The detectives were still around, sitting there and taking Buck's statement, while down the hall Nathan and JD talked quietly. Buck looked like hell. Not only did it appear he aged five years since this morning, but his eyes were dark holes sunken in the middle of his face. His cheeks sagged, and there was no animation in his features whatsoever. During his perusal of the man, Ezra's eyes stopped in two places – the man's knees and wrists, both of which held dark, stiff stains. Blood.
Unconsciously, one hand grabbed the wall for support.
"Ezra," a soft voice said beside him. "Come on down here."
Green eyes left the bloodstains to look at the person holding his elbow. "Nathan."
"That's right, come on down here." Nathan led him to the alcove where he and JD had been standing.
"Hi, Ezra," JD greeted softly, not really knowing what to say.
"Hello." The K-9 officer's response was stiff and automatic.
"How are you?" Nathan asked.
"I don't know," Ezra honestly replied.
"About the same as all of us, then. You hurt anywhere?"
He almost said, "My heart", but refrained at the last moment. "No."
"Any word on Chris?"
"Josiah's still with him, and he's unconscious. The doctor's ordered more tests."
"Guess we're waiting on that front too."
"How's…how's…?" He couldn't finish the sentence.
Nathan gave him a sympathetic look. "Surgery. No exit wound, so the bullet's still there, but they were more concerned about her blood loss and shock. Buck was saying something about her chest rattling and her breathing being labored, asking me what that meant, but I wasn't going to guess."
"You weren't going to tell him," Ezra corrected, seeing the truth in Nathan's eyes.
Nathan only nodded, not ready to admit his fears.
Shaking his head, Nathan said, "Ezra, I really don't know for sure." His eyes pleaded with his friend not to ask for more.
Standish closed his eyes. When he opened them, he said, "It's all right, my friend. I'll wait for the official word."
"Thanks." Relief showed on Nathan's face.
Ezra understood that having a little medical knowledge could be a burden at times like these, because Nathan would know more than the average person, but he wouldn't want to share that bad news, or even take the chance that he was wrong. "I see Buck's giving his statement."
"Took them about ten minutes to get him to stop yelling at them to leave him the hell alone before they could start. I can't imagine what he's thinking right now; those three have been together for so long they're interconnected. He watched them go down, and that won't leave him. I can see it in his eyes." Nathan paused. "To answer your unspoken question. He's not doing well. None of us are."
"I don't believe any of us could be well at this moment. Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful."
"That's an understatement," a new voice said behind them. "I think hell would be more appropriate."
"Sir." JD snapped to attention.
"At ease, Officer."
JD, his nerves and uneasiness showing, reintroduced himself. "JD Dunne, sir. We met at graduation."
Travis nodded, smiling in reassurance at the young officer. "I remember, son.” Chief Travis gave each man a serious look. “How are you boys?"
"Doing the best we can, sir," Nathan replied.
Standish nodded, dropping his eyes to the floor to keep from revealing too much.
JD, already embarrassed, kept silent, but couldn't stop himself from shuffling from foot to foot as he watched the Chief.
"I just talked to Josiah, there's no change on Chris. Have they said anything about Nina yet?"
"No, sir." Nathan shook his head. "She's in surgery. Any news on the shooter?"
"No." Travis shook his head. "They radioed me to tell me they found the site. Insurance building."
"What about the accident?" JD asked.
"They're still working on that. Have to see if there's mechanical failure on the tanker."
They were all silent a moment. None of them were happy with the dark thought that the accident was used to set up the ambush. It was an officer's worst nightmare. Something that was preached continuously during training, anything, even an accident, could be a death trap. There were so many lives changed or destroyed today, all over the motivation to kill a cop, and that didn't sit well with any of them.
"How's Buck?" Travis asked, glancing over to where Wilmington was still ensconced between the two detectives.
"Not good," Nathan replied.
"He's taking this hard," Travis said with a sigh. "We all are, but him more than most of us."
"Looks like the detectives are done if you want to speak to him, sir," Ezra pointed out, changing the subject.
"Thanks, Ezra." Travis turned, walking toward the man still seated in the chair. He motioned the detectives to wait for him, and then spoke quietly for several minutes with Buck. Finally, he patted the taller man on the knee, stepped back, and went with the detectives into the elevator.
"Now we wait," Nathan said, leading them back to the waiting room.
Ezra sat beside Buck. He hesitated a moment, but then slung his arm around the man's shoulder, giving him a reassuring hug. With a large sigh, ending on a heaving catch to his breath, Buck closed his eyes and leaned into him.
Pietro Firello, Pete to his friends, hurried into the Four Corners Hospital. The woman at the front desk behind the glass looked up at him and asked, "How may I help you, sir?"
"I'm here for my niece Nina Caswell. Can you tell me her room number?"
"And you are?" she asked, very cautious because several members of the press attempted to get the police corporal's location so they could find the friends gathered upstairs for interviews and photographs. It always amazed her how low some people would stoop in order to get a story, even now, the press vans were arriving and doing stand-ups in front of the hospital. She understood the had a job to do, but showing the family's suffering was not something she considered rather newsworthy. While she manned the desk, they were not going to get to those already hurting and make a bad situation even worse. Nor did the other patients need to deal with the inevitable commotion on their floors, especially if it could be stopped here.
"Her uncle and emergency contact Pietro Firello."
She pulled up the patient's computer file, verifying the name he gave as the one showing on the screen. "Sir, may I see some photo identification?"
Pete sighed as he realized that Nina's shooting as a police officer on duty probably inspired the security checks he now endured. He'd seen the press too and fortunately they didn't know who he was or why he was there. At least this woman was trying to protect his girl from them. His eye caught sight of an officer waiting by the elevator with an unreadable look on his face but the burly man's eyes never strayed too far from the older, shorter man. Nina's uncle presented his identification before having it returned immediately.
With a sympathetic look and a murmured apology for the delay, she gave him directions. "Sir, I am showing she is currently still in surgery," the woman replied. "Fourth floor, but you will need to wear this pass to enter, the police have closed off access to that area. Officer Dexter will accompany you."
"Thank you," he said, placing his license back in his wallet, then the billfold in his pocket, he accepted the pass from the woman. He turned away.
Ever polite, he faced her again, "Yes?"
"I hope everything turns out for the best. I. . .I. . .I know your niece, sir, and she's a wonderful person." The woman's sentiments showed in her eyes, and it struck him again how his Nina affected the people around her.
He managed a small smile for her benefit. "Thank you."
Officer Dexter silently took him to the fourth floor and handed him off to the three-man officer checkpoint watching the stairs and all elevators. The checkpoint officer said he would pray for her, and then returned downstairs. Continuing down the surgical floor, one of the officers standing guard escorted him to the surgical waiting room. Once he was delivered to the appropriate location, the officer returned to his post and co-workers.
Uncle Pete looked in the room at the eyes of the assembled people who heard his arrival. Buck stood first and walked over to greet him. He wore a scrub shirt and pants, causing Pete to wonder briefly why, then stop that train of thought. Seeing the younger man's stricken face, reading the blue tortured eyes, he realized Buck had been at Nina's side when she was shot. He knew then where Buck's shirt went - they would not let him sit there wearing a bloody shirt and pants; they would also be taken for evidence.
Buck reached out his hand to the uncle that was more her father than the man that helped create her, and the uncle that treated the rogue like a son. As soon as their skin touched, something passed between them. Buck drew Pete into a bear hug whispering, "I'm sorry," in his ear, all through a heavily congested voice.
Pete returned the embrace fully when Buck's physical trembling became obvious. Right now, the self-sufficient rogue his niece loved for so long, and probably a part of her still loved, needed comfort. He gave it gladly. Pete also admitted to himself that they might have had differing opinions yesterday on the telephone, a normal occurrence for them. Circumstances dictated Pete was the uncle, not the father, but since Nina moved in with him when she was eighteen to get away from her parents, she was for all intents and purposes his daughter now.
He'd watched the scared, insecure girl on the brink of womanhood blossom, grow more independent, and go out to do what she wanted with her life. When she'd brought Buck to meet him, Pete saw the womanizer. Before Buck even opened his mouth the first time, he had one strike against him. Nina was too young, too impressionable for a man so far out of her limited experience, at least her uncle had believed. Pete wasn't ashamed to say that he didn't approve with his girl's choice of man, and he didn't mince words to either of them.
That female free spirit he'd nurtured challenged him to get to know the man before passing judgment. Compared him to her mother, said he was a snob, and that he wasn't giving Buck a fair chance. Insulted by the comparison, mortified to realize she was right, he did let go of his preconceived ideas. Buck had proved him wrong, and shown him considerable respect. In fact, Buck had come to see him one day without Nina's knowledge and asked him what he could do to make it right between them, because he planned to be part of Nina's life for a very long time. He said that either they settled things, or they accepted blame for hurting Nina by feuding. Buck wasn't leaving, and he didn't want to be the wedge between her and Pete, but the two of them needed to reach an agreement. He went on to tell Pete that he loved Nina whole-heartedly, which was damn scary feeling and totally new to him. Buck said he respected the hell of the job Pete did in straightening out the mess Nina's parents left behind.
Faced with this brutal honesty, courage and
determination, Pete realized he was acting like an
overprotective father, one where no man would be
good enough for his girl, and offered Buck a
drink. They'd proceeded to talk, and by the
time Nina found them hours later, they were
stinking drunk and on very good terms. Along
with Chris Larabee and Nina's grandfather, who had
joined them for an impromptu poker game.
He'd never forget the delight on Nina's face when
she realized what had happened, and he swore then
no matter what happened between her and Buck, be
it good or bad, he'd never be the one to interfere
or cause her pain because of their relationship.
Even when Buck was stubborn and bull-headed about
her family, not realizing the damage he caused
during those arguments when Pete wanted to wring
his neck. Since Bethany had just visited, he
knew things were probably pretty ugly in his
girl's life right now.
Sometimes, Buck didn't understand Pete's little girl or the tangled relationship with her mother, nor did he have all the history, so Pete wasn't going to go into Bethany's latest behavior over the telephone when his sister called him in Las Vegas, dumping the marriage news. Snapping back to the present, Pete stared at the man who had become more like a son, and probably would have been a son-in-law if circumstances hadn't intervened. "Hello, son."
Buck retained his composure for a second, and then sobbed against his shoulder, holding on tight. "I'm sorry, Pete. I forgot to tell her you called. I can't believe I didn't tell her, and she could have talked to you. It might have helped her."
"That's okay, son." Pet wasn't surprised the message wasn't passed on immediately, from the amount of emotion in Buck's voice yesterday during their brief talk, the fact Nina was working, he knew Nina would call him regardless at the end of shift. Bethany's pronouncement she had disowned her daughter rocked Pete to the core, and he couldn't imagine how much pain his girl was in. Nina would have waited until she was alone to deal with it - and him. Pete had to admit to himself he had a fearsome temper concerning his sister, and it often got the better of him.
Most of the tempter he unleashed was because of the position Nina was in after the death of her father, his brother-in-law. It was probably the one good thing he did, but the consequences were more far-reaching and painful than any of them could have anticipated. His girl probably was still trying to deal with the marriage between her brother and her older brother's widow, along with Bethany's disowning. Now, she was emotionally hurt and getting shot only made things worse. Parts of this the man in his arms probably didn't know, and Pete only gave him comfort.
Wilmington took a shaky breath, and then pulled back. "Have they told you anything?"
"No, son, I just got here."
"Pete," a new voice interrupted.
"Orin." Pete turned to face the Chief of Police. "Thanks for the call."
"I wouldn't let you hear it any other way, except in person." Orin stretched out a hand, finding himself pulled into a quick hug. "Couldn't do that today, and didn't trust the media not to call you before I could get a Vegas officer out to you."
Buck slapped his forehead. "I. . .I didn't call. Stupid. I should have called you."
Pete reached over and grabbed Buck's arm. "From what I understand, you've had plenty on your mind. I'm here, and that's enough. How's Chris?" He cared plenty for the man now sergeant, that did all he could to protect his girl out on the road when they worked together for the Nevada Highway Patrol. Larabee went that extra step to make sure Nina was trained for just about every contingency, and gave her someone to pick on. When Sarah married the hothead, it was a good match, and turned out to be a stabilizing influence on his girl's life. Losing Sarah and Adam had broken Pete's heart; he adored Sarah like a daughter, and Adam a grandchild. With all the other family deaths that came right around the same time, his respect for Chris grew for how the man eventually pulled himself out of the black hole that ate at his soul to make a new life for himself in Four Corners. Chris also made peace with Nina, persisting when needed, giving his girl more strength to draw on in her recovery from what happened before. For that, he owed more than a lot to Chris.
It hurt him so much that they were both injured, and he needed to know what was going on with Chris. He saw Nathan opening his mouth to answer, so he dragged his thoughts away from the man he considered a son.
"Still downstairs," Nathan replied. "Hello, Pete."
"Nathan." He clasped Nathan's outstretched hand with both of his. "How bad?"
"Haven't heard. Josiah's with him."
Pete nodded, and then looked around. He saw another face he recognized, along with the man's reluctance. Even after all this time, Ezra still didn't feel like he belonged around Pete, while the older man saw a kindred spirit. So Pete took the initiative. He strode over, bent down, and hugged the surprised man. "Hello, Ezra."
Tentative arms wrapped back around him giving him a gentle embrace. "Pete."
"How are you holding up?" Pete whispered.
"Fine," Ezra replied.
"I've heard the lie, now the truth, my boy."
"Not good." Standish let go.
Pete met his eyes. There was more at work here than Nina had told him, especially considering the surreptitious glances Ezra kept shooting Buck when he thought no one looked. Oh, damn, Things had started to progress in that department - finally, and with Pete's wholehearted but as yet unspoken approval - and now this. Could things get any worse? "I'm here if you need to talk," he offered.
A slight bob of the head was the reply.
Figuring Ezra was now comforted yet still a little uncomfortable with the obvious affection, Pete turned to the only face he didn't recognize. "Hello, I'm Pietro Firello, Nina's Uncle Pete."
The young man reflexively shot to attention. "JD Dunne, sir."
"You know my girl?" he asked, shaking hands.
"JD's our rookie, Pete. He started Thursday," Nathan explained.
"Sorry I couldn't meet you under better circumstances. Hell of a start, huh, JD?"
"Yes, sir. You seem to be taking this calmly, sir, if I might say."
"My girl's going to pull through. I won't allow anything else," Pete stated. He needed to project and inspire confidence, because a weepy relative would not help the situation. Standing, he looked around the waiting room to find someone missing. "Where's Vin?"
The reactions were immediate. No one would meet his eyes; either they looked at the floor, or glanced at Chief Travis.
Travis met his gaze directly. "I don't know."
"You have an idea, right?"
"I don't know, Pete."
Suddenly angry, Pete grabbed Orin's arm and dragged him off to one side where they could speak privately. "We go back a long ways, Orin. Where's Vin? She'll be looking for him when she wakes up."
Travis stayed silent. H signaled the officers standing guard that he was okay, and they returned to their posts. His voice was strained when he answered. "Don't ask what I can't tell you."
Pete gripped both of his friend's shoulders. "Just tell me if he's back. Is he responsible?"
Orin couldn't say anything. He stared at the man for a minute trying to think of something to deflect his questioning, but nothing came.
"My God," Pete swore softly, seeing the indecision in his old friend's eyes, but knowing how delicate the situation must be. "She's not strong enough for another go-around with him."
"I know." Travis reached up and held onto Pete's hands. "I won't let him near her. I wish I could promise, but he's a slimy bastard. Look what. . . " Travis stopped himself from saying more. "He won't get near her, not if I can help it."
"I'll hold you to that."
"Just realize he might show up if he hears about it," Orin warned.
"He'll hear about it. We both know that. Vin'll need protection too."
"Vin can take care of himself."
"They need each other, Orin, and we both know it. Vin and Nina would not have survived without the other. Damn it, she was at her breaking point when Vin got to her and turned her around. She'll need him again, because being in the hospital will bring back some horrible memories. He'll have some, too."
"You had a lot to do with them coming through okay," Travis reminded him, and then stepped back. "I'll do what I can."
"We're working on it."
"Meaning no." Pete shook his head.
"Meaning I can't discuss an active investigation with you," Travis answered.
"Didn't stop you before when my girl's life was on the line. We're there again."
"Circumstances are different." The Chief's face was tight and drawn.
"Bull, She's hurt, Vin's in it up to his neck, and that bastard is still out there somewhere, just waiting to finish what he started. Where's the difference?"
Travis sighed. "I don't know, Pete. When I know something I can tell you, I'll find you. I can't talk about Vin; that's the best I can give you."
Pete stared hard, blew out a breath, and then sighed. "I know, Orin. There's things you can't tell me, and I have to accept it. Don't like it much, but I don't want to screw things up for anyone. Chris? Is he in any danger?"
"Josiah's sitting with him downstairs. I'll have him protected, no matter what the stubborn cuss does."
"He won't like it." A tiny smile hovered on Pete's lips. "Too headstrong."
"Don't I know it." Orin ran a hand down his face. "She wasn't the target. Chris was."
"Doesn't make it easier to hear. They're like our kids, Orin. I don't like knowing any of our kids are in danger." Reaching over and squeezing his friend's shoulder in understanding of the awesome pressure on the Chief right now, Pete said, "But she's damn fool enough to jump in front of Chris. Now, you told me that before. Have you found out why?
"Nothing concrete. I'll do my best by them, Pete. That's all I can do."
"You always do." He saw the nurse staring curiously at him. "I want an update on her condition." Pete walked over to the nurse's station, stopping at the desk and identifying himself. He didn't see Travis take two steps to follow, stop, run his hand down his face, and then move away.
Or that what Travis heard deepened his frown.
Vin couldn't take it anymore. Just sitting here, nauseous, feeling sorry for himself. Not knowing gnawed at him from the inside out, and each what if was worse than the one before it. The biggest what if was if only he could go back in time and catch the loading of the blasted bullet. Hell, not even have made the shot at all. He should have let them shoot him. At least he wouldn't be going through this torment. The incessant not knowing was defiantly draining his patience and his sanity. A tear escaped, trailing down his face, following the pattern of the previous ones that had trailed before, and he sniffed.
You're a sorry bastard, he thought to himself. Not only did ya lack the guts ta stand up against those assholes, but ya shot yer two best friends. Might have killed them, but here ya are holed up in yer little room like a scared little kid pukin' yer guts out. Ya ain't a little kid, Tanner, it's time ta face the music. Get yer ass up.
It was time to go. Either he left to find out what was going on with his friends, or he stayed hiding and feeling sorry for himself and the whole fucked up mess. He considered his babysitters outside for all of one second.
"Screw 'em," Vin muttered.
Grabbing his jacket, he tossed it on, got his keys, money, that hell forsaken bullet, and his guns. After a moment's thought, he stuffed some tissues into his pockets. He might - hell, make that would - need them. One swig of whiskey gave him a little courage, and if McBride's goons caught and killed him, well those were the breaks. At least he was doing something instead of feeling sorry for himself.
Having planned an escape route when he rented this rathole, he pried the window open, waiting to see if someone yelled at him. When he popped the screen, dropping it into his room, he waited again, but no one appeared.
Huh. Guess the goons were stupider than he thought.
Vin pulled himself through the open window. He climbed up to the roof, crouching down below the thigh-high wall ringing the top of the building. Silence greeted his ears. Out of curiosity, he looked below his window.
"Ya got ta be kiddin' me."
Beneath the window were a plethora of broken glass, tin cans and an assortment of other items that would make a lot of noise if he'd landed in it. Instead of watching the back of the place, they put out a bobby trap of sorts that they thought would alert them if he tried to escape. Shaking his head, he stayed beneath the top of the wall while crossing the roof, keeping out of their sight. That wasn't hard because every time Vin checked, the goons were sitting still in their car. Using the roof tops, he made it down the street and out of sight of the guards, then slipped easily back to the street. Checking the area once more, he slipped into the woods and started the long walk to the hospital.
The voice broke through Vin's ugly thoughts, more self-recriminations about his horrible behavior. Out of habit, he nearly turned to face the speaker. Nearly, because he remembered at the last second he was undercover and Vin Tanner really didn't exist in his life now, hadn't existed for months. Grimly he thought he was someone else entirely, and after this may never be that other person again. He ignored the voice calling a name he wondered if he ever would have claim to again, or carry with pride. Lifting his head, he saw the hospital was in his sights. His bloodshot eyes took in all the police cars in the parking lot, many of them very familiar to him, and it reminded him of what he had done.
Guilt clenched tightly around his heart and refused to let go.
Oh, shit, he thought. Someone knew who he was; his cover was blown, on top of everything else; since the Tanner came first and then the Taylor. It could have been someone from the department, but unfortunately, it sounded suspiciously like Roland Jenning's voice. He ignored the summons behind him, continuing toward the hospital. Three very large men exited a vehicle a couple hundred yards in front of him, and his heart sank lower. Stupid. That's what he was - stupid. He should have planned on someone watching for him here, and should have been paying attention. Instead he walked right into the hands of people he didn't want to see. He was just screwing up all the way around. One hand slid to his gun.
"We don't want to hurt you, Tanner," Roland Jennings said behind him. "McBride doesn't know I'm here."
"Who's Tanner?" Vin bluffed.
"Cut the crap, Officer First Class turned Detective Vin Tanner. We've known who you are since the beginning." Roland Jennings only waited for Vin to react.
A chill ran through Vin's body. "I ain't no cop." He saw the three goons holding position thirty feet away. His body shifted to encompass the threats on all sides, where he had room to move. Jennings would go down easy, but could he outrun the bullets from the goons? Did he want to? Did he really deserve to live?
Jennings snorted at Vin's declaration. "Yeah, right. Let's get something straight. McBride fucked up. He followed orders, but he made a mistake. Caswell got shot and will probably die. That wasn't suppose to happen. Larabee was the target, but even if - or when - he dies, that's not going to save McBride. No matter what rabbit he tries to pull out of his ass, he's toast. Once he realizes he screwed the pooch, you, my boy, will be the sacrificial lamb. He'll turn it all on you, make it your fault, and make you take the fall for it. Truth won't matter, you were there, and that's all he has to say. It's not going to save him, but he'll take you down with him."
Vin stayed silent, not out of a desire to listen, but because the only thing that really registered with him at the moment was what was said about his friends. Chris was dying. Aw, fuck. And Nina too. His eyes filled with tears, and his throat closed.
"Yeah, you're hearing me. Now, listen. There's a way out for you, but you have to come with me."
"Straight ta McBride? Hell, no!" Vin shook his head.
Jennings smirked. "This is where you gotta start listening Tanner. McBride's not the only player in this little game. You underestimated in a big way what's been going on. I work for McBride only because my boss needed someone to keep an eye on him. That too hard for you to understand?"
"Not yet." Vin glared, having the feeling he was standing on the edge of the rabbit hole in Wonderland staring down. What the hell was going on, and how could he have underestimated this organization so badly? Basic crooks and thugs weren't this well structured.
As if reading his thoughts, Roland Jennings said, "You all have been so concerned with trying to find out who's the big boss in this county that you forget who might be working for him, and how important they are. He really doesn't care about this territory any more, except for one thing." Jennings smiled at the emotion Tanner showed by clenching his fist at that last statement. "He's been letting my boss and the other one battle it out to see who was going to inherit the territory. McBride got a little full of himself and overstepped his bounds, without orders from the top. He shouldn't have made that move without getting clearance, but that's his own fault. Now my boss is hoping to make an impression of his own. He's going to start with you. We've got to save your sorry ass from today's fuckup. To do that, you need to come with me."
"No." Vin couldn't believe this; things were getting stranger by the second. He felt like he'd been used like a puppet from both sides, and he didn't like it. But none of it made any sense. "Why am I so important?"
Jennings laughed. "Damn, that's what I keep wondering. I'd just as soon shoot you, but I got orders, Tanner, to save your ass. I didn't get this far up without knowing how to follow orders. You come with me, and you'll probably get the answers you want."
"Until I learn too much and ya put a bullet in my head."
"Don't worry; we won't kill you. Hell, like I said, if we wanted to we could have done it a damn long time ago. You're more valuable to us alive, or so we're told. We won't even hurt you. But you need to come with me. If you don't we can't protect you."
"From the cops? I might be better off with them." Tanner shook his head slowly, seeing that things were getting stranger by the second. At least with the cops he knew where he stood; with these guys, well, he was suppose to be kept alive. Alive for now, and there was no telling that his usefulness wouldn't end once they got him where they wanted him.
Jennings snorted. "Whatever you say, cop turned copkiller. Yeah, they'll treat you real gentle. You shot your own, man. You think they'll forgive that? You weren't in crossfire; you weren't under fire. You sniped them. Way it looks you could have arranged that accident just to take them out."
Vin shuddered and died a little inside on hearing that logic. Forget anything about the undercover case; he was on his own. It was something that any good detective or investigator would use, and present to the prosecution. Not to mention taint those, who weren't exactly his friends before, against him. Could he face his family, knowing he killed his best friend and sister? Withstand their accusing stares and bitter hearts?
"If you're not convinced you'll be safer with us, just think about who would really want you to pay for hurting his Nina." Jennings put special emphasis on the word 'his'. "How long would you last against him?"
"He's back?" Vin whispered.
Jennings shrugged. "If he's not, we both know he will be. His woman was shot, whether she agrees that she's his or not. Someone's gonna pay dearly for that."
The former corrupt Sheriff, who had blackmailed Vin into leaving, and caused Nina's suicidal tendencies, would certainly fly into a rage when he heard about what happened. If the cops didn't catch Vin first, that man would kill Tanner slowly. He'd heard through the grapevine when he first went under that there were hands off orders about Nina, and it made him feel a little safer leaving her unprotected like he was while undercover. But now, he was the one that violated that rule. Just when he thought the long nightmare couldn't get any worse, it did. "How do you know so much?"
"My employer - not McBride - has been spreading both the truth and disinformation since approximately fifteen minutes after you left that rooftop. His generosity's the only reason McBride's boys didn't whack you at the motel. McBride gave orders to wait five hours after you were dropped off, allow you time to get drunk and pass out, and then kill you. Make it look like a suicide; put the murder weapon in your room with you. Those muscle heads have been dealt with."
Vin realized then that the lack of movement by his watchdogs was not because they were napping, it was because they were dead. He never heard a thing. Of course, he was too busy drinking, throwing up, and castigating himself for the shooting, but that was no excuse. Son of a bitch; the shit was getting deep around him, and he felt like he didn't have any way to save himself from drowning.
"Just in case you're thinking of making a run for it, we'll plant the murder weapon on you and turn you over to the cops if you don't come with us. That'll make four dead by your hand and assure you the death penalty. Your choice."
"Reckon there ain't much of a choice." He was trapped, forced into a situation that he didn't create, did something he shouldn't have done, and all in the name of duty. He'd gone too far now to back out, and getting caught wouldn't get him the answers that were being dangled like a carrot in front of him. Or, to keep with his Alice in Wonderland analogy, the potion for answers that said 'drink me'. Guess that made Jennings the Cheshire cat for all his smiles and half-answers.
"You in or out, Tanner? A jail cell or a talk?"
Vin spared a second's thought on the consequences and mentally said to hell with it all; he would get answers to make sense of this lunacy. Briefly, he gave a thought that no one would know where he was; there would be no back up. Then tossed that consideration away, there had been no backup for some time. He'd already been left to make his own way, and what he did could be no worse than the shit he was already in. He needed answers. "I'm in."
Jennings nodded and issued an order. "Barlow, get the car. We're going to see the boss."
Within moments, Vin got into the car with Jennings, sitting in the back seat, and he was even allowed to keep his weapons during the drive. Their destination surprised the hell out of him.