four corners pd

By: Cin and Heidi

day one: Thursday  (cont)

Part Eight

Vin Tanner a.k.a. Keith Taylor met up with his friends at the `Top Hat Grill', a greasy spoon restaurant also open twenty-four hours.  He disliked this place, preferring the cleaner atmosphere of Haney House, but going there was not an option.  Especially considering he probably knew half the clientele at Nettie's as Vin Tanner.  More
importantly, he did not want the older woman exposed to this aspect of his job.

He hated undercover work but knew it was necessary and required sometimes.  Basically, it paralleled the work he did as a bounty hunter and private investigator.  He excelled at it because he blended in so well with the low life he was after, having spent his own time among them during his younger and dumber days.  It did not mean he had to like the job or them; he didn't.  Vin especially hated his current running buddies – losers one and all.  They reminded him too much of what he would have become without the interference of Nettie Wells.  Maybe he did not welcome her interference at the time, but she grew on him just as he grew on her and they eventually came
to an understanding, caring deeply for each other now.  The unlikely pair forged a relationship that spanned years as they rode out the highs and lows of life together, a support and anchor for each other.  That is until now, separated and unable to speak except on rare occasions because of his cover.  Even when he went into the
service he kept in touch through letters and telephone calls.  He'd never gone this long without having at least one heart-to-heart talk with her.  He never realized how much he missed those talks until now.  An annoying voice belonging to an aforementioned running buddy broke him from his reverie. 

"Hey, Taylor, you got something goin' on with that cop chick?" called Roy Preston, twenty-five years old and boasting more arrests as an adult and juvenile than his age.  He leaned against the side of his black, low-rider pickup in the parking lot waiting for Vin and winking.  Roy Preston worked as a courier for the drug trade, taking packages from one place to another.  Employed by Mark Bellows, the head of this particular crew, along with Mike Smith and Keith Taylor a.k.a. Vin Tanner, he enjoyed his life and picking on his friends.  "Setting up for a little something-something on the side?  Gonna play cowboy with her?  What's her name again?  Oh yeah, Nina Caswell."   

Vin climbed out of his own car and smirked at the man.  "Yeah, she wants me and doesn't know how ta ask," he shot back. He crudely pantomimed sex with his fingers, wagging his eyebrows suggestively as he continued, "Maybe I'll give in one of these days.  Girl knows a good man when she sees one and I'll make her happy."

"Bullshit!" yelled Mike Smith, twenty-eight with ten years behind bars already and currently out on parole.  Mike joined this foursome because he hated the dead end jobs with low pay.  He especially liked the bonuses he started receiving since Bellows ordered him to secretly follow and report Taylor's whereabouts whenever Mike saw him around.  He exited the passenger side of Preston's truck.  "You want her and she won't give you the time of day.  Who doesn't want her with that hair and those eyes?  I could show her some moves."  He thrust his hips suggestively back and forth a few times and bragged, "One ride with Master Mike and she wouldn't look your way, Taylor.  I got the moves, baby."

The undercover officer's blood boiled hearing Nina trashed this way by a group of people he detested but could do nothing about it except play along.   "Hell, Smith, you only wish she felt you up the way she did me tonight."  He snorted in derision then grew smug.  "Y'all got the cowboy and I got the babe.  You notice the way her hands
lingered," he grabbed a spot right above his knee, "on my big package?"

"Bullshit, Taylor.  If you were that big, you'd be in movies," sniped Preston.

Mike Smith grunted and walked inside the restaurant.  He picked out a table and pointed saying, "We're sitting there."  The startled waitress only nodded figuring letting them go where they wanted was easier than fighting with these hoodlums.  This hole in the wall did not pay her enough to let her car get mysteriously vandalized. 

The booth Mike chose usually held more than three people, designed for eight people with four on each side, but the three men spread out.  Preston and Smith took one side while Vin sat across the table from them.

Mark Bellows saw his three-man crew settle in as he parked on the diner lot near Taylor's Mustang.  The leader considered them for a second; Smith and Preston were all right; he could tell them what to do and they did it, no questions asked.  Taylor, well, he was a different story.  The guy came to Bellows asking for a job.  This scruffy man with the Texas drawl said he'd work hard and wanted to make some money to finish fixing up his car.  Bellows wondered how Taylor found him but when the thug checked Taylor's background, he told Taylor he would think about it.  Taylor's name was passed to Bellows' boss, Roland Jennings.  Like many legitimate businesses this organization had its own corporate ladder.  While individual crews ran under the leadership of their own person in charge, each leader then answered to a higher manager.  None of those in the lower status
knew how high the organization ran.  The gophers in Bellows' crew might know members of the other gangs and their leaders, maybe even their managers, but their knowledge went no further.  Bellows only knew Jennings, he did not know Jennings' boss nor did he know how to reach him.  Satisfied with the position he held, the blond leader only concerned himself with running his group and following orders.  Jennings told Bellows to bring Taylor on and then once things started running smooth, further ordered Bellows to give the harder drops to Taylor in the worse sections of town. 

When Taylor proved he would not take any crap from the people trying to rip the organization off, he garnered closer attention from Jennings after Bellows reported Taylor's accomplishment.  Shortly after that Bellows received orders to make sure Taylor did not quit the crew and do whatever Bellows felt necessary to keep him.  He never questioned the orders or wondered about their purposes, but the feelings of jealousy began to surface in his fertile, suspicious mind.

Bellows entered the diner and saw Taylor's eyes note his arrival while the others remained oblivious.  He joined them in the booth, Taylor standing up and letting him slide in beside him against the wall.  For some reason, the Texan insisted on always sitting on the outside.  The leader quickly approached thirty and tried hiding it with his appearance and attitude.  His ragged blond hair and black leather jacket gave him a thug-like look that encouraged people not to look too close.

After ordering his coffee, Bellows sneered, "Nice to see you joined us, Taylor.  Thought you might be stopping for pork.  Or was that pork the pig?"  The rest of them found this hysterical, laughing like the pack of hyenas Vin knew them to be.  It grated on his nerves and made Tanner want to walk out.  Bellows continued his taunting, "What's up with that?  Is it one of those sleeping with the enemy deals?  Let me tell you right now that woman, no matter how good she looks, ain't worth the sweet set up we got going here.  Answer me, boy! Tell me you ain't thinking of whispering the deal into her ears during a little pillow talk?" 

Bellows may be in the unenviable position of leader of this gang, but he was just like the others.  Glorified gophers, they ran errands for those men higher in the food chain of the organization and could easily be replaced if trouble happened.  Vin knew none of them would ever advance past their current position and if caught, the higher ups would immediately turn their back on them then find a replacement.  Puffed with his own importance and concerns for the continuation of his good deal, Bellows held suspicions about the bantering between Taylor and that woman corporal so now he questioned the man's loyalty. He would derive personal satisfaction in finding a chink in Taylor's hard ass shell, one he never seemed to break.

The Texan decided to give an honest answer, one prepared in advance in case the question ever came up about the attention the corporal focused on him.  In order to pass the tapes, someone needed to get close enough to Vin to take them without arousing suspicion.  Usually Nina arranged to perform the pat down to take the tapes because of the hectic pace of the South sector.  Even so, Vin's constant frisking by the police set them up for a harassment charge.

Each time the police frisked him, or `jacked him up', they usually made sure they had probable cause, or a legitimate reason to do so.  The more this occurred, the more flimsy the reasoning became, and the more the PD opened themselves up for a lawsuit. 

Travis, Tanner, Larabee, and Caswell worked out a contingency plan to explain Nina's continued interest in Taylor.  They invented a back-story involving rumors of a relationship between the two.  There was also a story that Nina was attempting to overcompensate for her `lapse in judgement' from previously dating a suspected drug trafficker against police regulations. 

The more attention she focused on him, the more suspicious her own conduct became. This set up a valid explanation for Vin to give his so-called friends whenever the issue finally came up and they called him into account for it. 

"She's been here longest of all those cops and she's been hasslin' me since day one."  Vin gave them a smart-ass grin before saying, "But she keeps comin'up empty so she has ta quit or I'll nail her fer harassment."

Mike Smith snorted.  "Like they'd believe you, Taylor."

Preston added, "You wish you could nail her with something because you ain't got nothing below the belt."

"I got something, Preston, and it's bigger than the bunch of y'all combined.  I just don't think with it like y'all do.  I use my brain ta take care of myself; she keeps jackin' me like she's been doin' with no cause, I'll put her butt in a sling.  And I ain't talking about anything sick y'all can think up."

Smith whistled low and long.  "Damn smart, Taylor.  Can you hook me up with her?  I'll take her hands over that Sergeant any day."

"Hell, Smith, don't ya know nothin'?  I ain't her social secretary.  I don't pick when she gets a case of the ass and jacks me up," Vin exclaimed with incredulity.  They believed his act; he saw it in their faces and felt a mixture of relief and amazement at their stupidity. 

"Yeah, but you pissed off that Sergeant too," grumbled Preston.  "Almost like you wanted the attention."

This caused up-to-now relatively silent Bellows to shift in the booth and anticipate the answer with barely disguised interest.

Vin shook his head in disgust.  "Yeah, right, Einstein.  More fer the harassment complaint.  Hey?  Ya got any brains in there?  Think on this, ya morons, if it don't hurt ya too bad.  Haven't y'all figured out that ya yank the chain of one of `em, another comes runnin'?  They don't even take breaks without someone watchin' their
backs.  `Sides, they can't do shit ta ya fer just talking, First Amendment crap and all that, so they jack ya without a reason, they get chewed out iffen ya complain.  I'm fixin' ta complain and when I do, since I'm such a fine, upstanding citizen, she gets a smackdown from the Chief and orders ta stay away from me."

Vin remembered another part of the contingency plan as he sat there.  In the event Vin found himself forced to complain against Nina to protect his cover, she would receive a reprimand and word would be leaked on the streets she was not allowed near him.  The reprimand would not be real or affect her career; Travis planned this for show and for those watching his leadership abilities in dealing with citizen complaints.  At the end of Vin's assignment, all of the false paperwork and concocted evidence would be destroyed and the files sealed. 

The complaint would set up any one of the other squad members to take over getting the tapes, probably Larabee first.  The disadvantage would be that Vin would have to harder to give them a reason or probable cause to frisk him, especially with everyone knowing about the harassment complaint.  Vin planned on holding off in filing the formal paperwork for as long as possible to allow the searches to continue.  Nina had the second best skills in concealing the tapes next to Ezra.  The best at sleight-of-hand, Standish should have the job but other reasons kept him from having too much contact with Vin without threatening his cover.  Tanner knew the others could do the job very well but their hands lingering on him raised questions; hers really did not.  He brought himself back into the conversation when he heard his name.

"Taylor, what if youdda gotten that big, tall one, Wilmington, I think, or the one built like a brick shithouse, what's his name, oh yeah, Sanchez?" pestered Preston.  "Either one could kick your ass without blinking.  Ya ain't that good."

Disgusted with all of them, Vin rapped the table with his fist going, "'Lo?  Anyone home?  Hey, shit for brains, yeah, y'all, ya dumbasses, put those one cells ta work on this.  The brick shithouse, Sanchez, has got a long fuse.  Don't y'all read the paper?  Ya know, it comes out every day.  Somethin' ya read while on the throne?  He's all for the little man and that's me.  Well, I ain't so little in some areas," he grabbed his crotch under the table, ignoring Bellows' eye roll, and continued, "but if yer cool with him, he'll treat ya square."  He ignored their glares.  "The tall one, Wilmington, he's easy to rile –he's sleepin' with her so ya mouth off at him about that, `specially about babes and his lack of skill because he thinks he's God's gift to women.  Get him mad enough and y'all have a brutality charge."  At their looks, Vin explained, "There's an old saying – know yer enemy.  Ya know their habits, ya know how ta yank their chains ta yer benefit."  Vin hated talking this much and his throat started getting dry from saying all this bullcrap.  Usually quiet and reserved, he rarely said more than a couple sentences, nor did he like being this crude.  Yet another reason he will be happy to end this charade and stopping saying things he did not like or mean.

Smith's eyes widened at this information. "The tall one's doing her?"

Vin rolled his own blue eyes and wanted to bang his head against the table.  Of the entire speech, Smith noticed the sex part of it.  How far out of the primordial ooze did these boys crawl?

Preston punched Smith in the arm.  "Ain't you paying attention, Mike?  You saw him squeeze her up after Keith left.  She took his hand and held onto it and she didn't look like she was complainin'.  Sorry, Taylor, but looks like you ain't gonna score there."

Vin smirked and hoped Nina never found out about this conversation.  She'd probably approve of his part because they discussed it in advance but the others commenting, well, she would most definitely blow a fuse and then kick his ass for the principle of it.  "What makes ya think I haven't and I ain't told ya?  How do ya think I know she's doin' the tall one now?"  Thank ya, Bucklin, Vin thought silently to himself, for giving Nina comfort at just the right time.  He owed Buck a round the next time they saw each other and at least one thank you.

Smith stared at him in disbelief.  "You're lying, Taylor."

The Texan shook his head, "Next time ya see her, ask her about her tattoo."

"She's got a tattoo?"

"Right cute thing, right on her…" he cut off and pointed to the body part.

"No way," Preston breathed.

"How would I know about that iffen I didn't see it up close and personal?"  He did not mention all the summers they went swimming together (more like dunking each other) and the fact the tattoo stood out, easily visible, when she wore a bathing suit. 

"Aw, fuck.  Guess that means I can't have any of that, huh?"  Preston shook his head in disappointment.

Smith asked aloud, "Wonder if she only likes it from a man in uniform and loudmouth Texans?"

"Who knows?  Maybe she's easy," commented Preston.  "You know the phrase – screw up, move up.  Maybe she got rank either on her knees or on her back.  That Sergeant sure is protective of her.  Maybe he's
done the horizontal mambo with her.  Wonder how good she is; she's got two stripes, doesn't she?" 

Smith clenched his hand like there was something in it to make an up and down motion saying, "Heard tell she's getting promoted to detective.  Must be really good with her hands."

Vin reached over and punched Smith once before settling back and taking a sip of some water.  "Say that again and I'll reach down yer throat and pull yer nuts outta yer mouth.  I ain't disrespecting a lady and ya scumsuckers ain't either."

Mike leaned back out of fist range and said, "You wanna share your experience?  `Cuz you're doing a hell of a job of defending a pig.  You like hearing her squeal?"  His next comments regarded the size of her assets and requested specifics about other body parts.

Those questions alone nearly sent Vin over the table fist first again but with more force this time.  He shook his head and willed patience.  Defending Nina's honor ranked real low on his list of priorities now but when his assignment finished, he wanted the opportunity to `talk' to these boys about their attitudes toward female law enforcement officers.  Hell, just their whole attitude about women.  They never considered them as being smart, intelligent, witty, sarcastic, or more than a good roll in the hay.  Sadly, he thought his mother would be turning over in her grave at some of the stuff he spouted and allowed to be said when in their disgusting company.  He at least owed her and Nina an apology when this ended or when he had time alone with his thoughts.

Bellows sat back beside Taylor and watched the by play of the three.  He received orders from his boss Jennings to keep a close eye on the Texan and give detailed reports on his behavior and actions.  The thug leader wondered what Jennings and his unnamed, unknown boss thought special about him.  All he saw was another immature punk trying to survive the streets anyway he could just like the rest of them.  Worse than them probably cause he knew Taylor lived on the streets and by his wits for a long time.  Why wasn't he, their
leader, garnering this attention?  He'd had this crew running smooth for six months now before Taylor even got here; that deserved a little consideration.  Instead, this punk ass Taylor caught the eye of the higher ups.  They fed him some b.s. line about not trusting Keith and wanting Bellows to make sure the new guy did not screw
things up.  He nearly snorted; he saw right through that line and realized they were grooming Taylor to move up.    

The leader asked a question that had been nagging him for a while.  "Ya think you're smarter than them cops?" Bellows eyed him suspiciously.  It did seem strange with Keith being hassled so much that he did not seem to do much jail time or get arrested.  In fact, Bellows never saw Taylor tossed into a patrol car.  For some unknown
reason, they never found that knife in his boot either.  Maybe Taylor had slept with her and she cut him a break but not an obvious one. 

Bellows heard cops followed rules about the people they hung out with off duty and guessed Taylor, himself, and his crew did not fall in the acceptable category.  If they got in trouble for just hanging out with the bad element, having sex definitely broke the rules.  The golden girl could not be caught screwing a hoodlum – he'd heard his
boss Jennings talking about `moral turpitude', whatever that meant.  The thug guessed `moral turpitude' was the fancy term they used when a cop did the wrong thing.  He felt like he was being watched and brought himself back to the present.

Blue eyes glared at the stocky leader, "Smart enough ta fool them jackasses and ta know when I'm bein' made inta one."

The blond leaned closer to Taylor, crowding him in the booth, while his own glare turning deadly.  "You mean somethin' by that?"  The other two grew silent seeing the coming battle; a power play was in the works and someone would lose.

"Ya suppose ta be the big brains o' this bunch, y'all figure it out." Vin growled.  The insult remained clear in that gravelly Texas tone.

Bellows grabbed the undercover officer up by his arm and sneered, "Yeah I think ya mean somethin' by it and I think I don't like your `tude."

Taylor immediately jerked his hand off, "I know I'm tired of being a flunky or bein' a door mat y'all think ya can walk all over.  And iffen ya touch me again, I'll mess ya up so bad yer family won't know ya."  The promise of doing just that read easily in Vin's eyes.

The stocky blond made a move to stand but Preston's hand stayed him from across the table.  "Come on, Mark, you know we can't be gettin' hassled by the cops again tonight."  Both Roy and Mike warily watched the cook and the waitress in case they moved towards the telephone. They hoped the employees were too frightened of the gang to try to get them ousted.

Mark settled back into his seat, his back against the wall, and growled at Taylor, "Think ya better explain yourself."  He still felt Taylor disrespected him and went for his best commanding tone and glare to shut down the brewing rebellion in those blue depths. 

If things were not so serious, Vin would have laughed in his face.  Mark Bellows could not even lick Chris Larabee's boots when it came to glaring.  If Larabee did not scare him, Bellows rated the same consideration as a piece of gum on the bottom of his own boot for his childish attempts.  "Don't talk shit ta me, Bellows," Tanner refused to back down.  He was tired of playing the small time games and it was past time to make them put up or shut up.  "Ya think I don't know that last job ta Creech and his boys was a fuckin set up.  I oughta mess all of y'all up fer tryin' ta screw me over."  The intensity reflected in the tone.   

Creech ran one of the other crews and when someone needed a good lesson for whatever reason, Creech enjoyed administering it.  He often called himself The Enforcer after his favorite wrestler Arn Anderson and used a crowbar to administer discipline.  Taylor mouthed off to Bellows one time too many and Bellows told Jennings.  Jennings arranged for Creech to surprise Taylor at one of his drops because insolence to authority, no matter how low on the pole Bellows sat, was not tolerated in this smoothly run organization. 

The leader warily eyed the bruises on the young man's face and contemplated the vulnerability of his position against the wall, not liking either one bit.  Yeah, Bellows knew it was a set up when he sent the man across town.  It was supposed to be a message to Taylor to straighten out his attitude.  He snorted; from the word he got Taylor delivered his own message and Creech and his buddies saw the worst end of the deal.  Couple of them would take months to heal and Creech might never touch a crowbar again after getting hit with it a couple times when Taylor fought back hard.  The `message' only served to piss Taylor off and probably resulted in the royal pain-in-the-ass sitting with him now.  Mark shrugged, "It was a job, Taylor . . ."

Tanner cut him off, "Don't blow smoke up my ass, Bellows.  Ya don't trust me by now I sure as hell don't need ya."  He made a move to get up and leave.

Bellows grabbed his arm, "Sit down!"  The two sets of blue eyes did a silent battle, neither showing a weakness the other could use to take advantage.  Vin twisted the appendage attached to his own until Bellows winced and let go.  The leader rubbed his now injured arm and his temper rose to match the throbbing pain. 

"I'm sure I can work fer someone that won't make me their damn lap dog," Vin's gaze raked the three he knew would always stay in that position.  "And I just told ya not ta touch me again."

Mike Smith tried playing peacemaker.  "Keith, you know we can't make the money we do legit.  You'd rather be wasting your time flipping burgers?"  The subtle nuances of this conversation eluded Mike, showing exactly why he stayed low on the ladder of success.

Vin snorted, "They's throwin' ya peanuts."  His contempt showed in his voice.

"You lookin' to move up Taylor?" Bellows began to wonder if this punk was actually challenging him for his position.  The thought crossed his mind in the dark hours of the night and he wondered if he was strong enough to stay on top of his crew.  He also wondered if it was just Taylor or if this was what Jennings or his bosses intended all along; he, Mark Bellows, was being squeezed out.  He was not happy with this situation.

"Just tired of the bullshit.  Feel like a goldfish in a bowl and gettin' fed beans besides.  Don't see any of y'all moving up anytime quick."  

"I have a job for ya," Bellows announced with a guarded expression.  Maybe if Taylor left things might settle down. 

Taylor snorted.  "Let me guess, another gopher drop, or another punk ta scare with a pot shot."  That was one job Vin cringed at, even though the Task Force authorized his participation, when he thought about the drive by shooting.  His only solace being that he knew he hit what he aimed at and his shots were not aimed at killing people that night, only scaring them into silence and a more cooperative frame of mind. 

"Got a delivery for ya to make," Bellows confirmed.

"Oh joy!" Vin shot back sarcastically as he rolled his eyes.

"Your `tude is really startin' to suck, Taylor," Bellows growled.

His blue eyes flashed fire back at him, "I tell ya I'm tired of all this juvenile b.s."  Vin knew he needed to stay in Bellows' somewhat good graces but he was sick and tired of listening to this thug and his loser friends.  The investigation crawled forward slower than a slug while Vin rotted away on this crew.  He needed to make something happen and needed to push Bellows into arranging a meeting about Vin's future with the organization, Jennings in particular because he sat right above Bellows on the food chain. 

What intelligence Vin gathered told him that he was under intense scrutiny and he hoped it was about him moving up.  He wanted to learn about the next level of this organization, get the evidence, and shut it down.  Maybe showing he considered Bellows nothing more than a stepping stone might inspire Jennings to talk to him, with or without Bellows around.  If that failed, Vin just might lose his spot in the organization and that shut down the whole investigation.  It was a gamble and a risky one at that.  He wished he could have Ez's advice on how to stack the deck in his favor but knew that was almost impossible.  Vin refocused his attention on Bellows and halfway listened to the man's jaw flapping.  

"We all have to prove our worth," the blond sneered.  "I did it, these boys did it, now you do too." 

Vin scowled and he watched the leader's reaction to his next words, "Yeah, heard a rumor `bout that too.  Been yers and Jennings flunky fer months, and ya still don't trust me.  Don't think I cotton ta that.  Think I oughta do somethin' about it…or will y'all?  Decision time's comin' soon.  Might just have ta go ta Jennings myself ta get somethin' done."

Bellows pursed his lips and stared hard at Taylor.  He chose to ignore the challenge in those last two sentences.  He was not going to lose face in front of the others.  Taylor would get his meeting with Jennings and if Jennings did not straighten him out, Bellows would take care of him when the Texan least expected it.  "Ya gonna do that job or not?"

Vin glanced around the diner catching the disbelieving stares of the other two like they couldn't believe he was challenging Bellows or his boss Roland Jennings.  Neither Roy Preston or Mike Smith ever considered pushing their immediate boss Mark Bellows into admitting he did not trust them and neither rarely saw Roland Jennings.  Short of Mark's pager number, they did not have anyone to contact nor did they know who to contact in case of an emergency.  Mark told them never to mention Roland Jennings' name in public or get their butts kicked immediately.  Preston gave Taylor a small shake of the head while Mike looked worried.

Taylor finally asked, "Do I have a choice?"  He shrugged knowing that even if they did not suspect him of being a plant, you did not go against them and just walk away.  Depending on the level of the organization you were in, you got either a well-tuned message or a going away party.  Vin figured the message backfired and caused
reconsideration of Taylor's future usefulness.

Bellows slid out of the booth and motioned Taylor to follow him.  Once outside the blond led the undercover officer over to his Jeep.  Reaching in the back, he pulled out a large package wrapped like a birthday present.  "The address is on the card."

Vin took the package.  Going over to his Mustang, he placed it securely in the back seat so it did not slide on the smooth vinyl.  As he turned around, Bellows grabbed the front of his shirt and slammed him back up against the car door. 

"Don't you ever fucking challenge me like that again, Taylor."

Vin shoved the hood back, knocking his hands off him.  "Ya know me, Bellows, don't threatin' me unless ya ready ta lose."  He expected this and allowed it to happen.  Vin followed up with a hard kidney punch and a backhand to the face.

Bellows bent over, hands on his knees, and wheezed with all his bravado, "Don't think so."

Vin narrowed his eyes and turned on his best glare.  Using Mark's hair, he pulled the blond's sneering face up to meet his. "Tell Jennings I wanna meet."

"Ya don't make the rules."  Bellows swung once and missed.

The action of swinging and missing caused an immediate reaction.  The Texan planted his fist in Mark's kidneys again and this time slapped him openhanded across the cheek.  The open hand served as a clear insult that Taylor did not even consider him enough of a threat to use a closed fist.  The unspoken message obviously decreed Taylor was only toying with Bellows; he could and would permanently harm the thug if he chose. 

It reinforced to the leader how precarious his own situation was and how dangerous Taylor could be if provoked.  The thought struck him that this attitude and physicality might be another reason why the higher ups wanted him watched.  If he hid his obvious fighting skill, what else was he hiding?

"Don't like ta follow them too well either," Vin smirked as he pushed his adversary away from his Mustang.  He did not want to clean the man's fingerprints or blood off the paint job. He already had to get rid of his own from the `gentle loving' treatment Chris and Nina gave him earlier at the bar fight.  "I'll be waiting fer his call."  He
flipped the pager out of his pocket and waved it under the wheezing Bellows' nose.  "Just like any good lap dog, whistle and I'll come running."  Cocking the man a small half grin, he added a dig, "But I don't lick no ass."

Bellows' temper flared to replace the momentary fear.  Vin silently laughed, not giving him the chance to respond.  Opening his car door, he slid in, starting the engine he threw it quickly into reverse.  He backed up then pealed out of the parking lot, leaving the gang leader glaring after him as he gave him a one-finger salute in parting.

Preston and Smith joined their leader as he stood in the parking lot glaring after Taylor.

"What got up his butt?" Preston asked.  He refused to comment on the violence or superior skill Taylor displayed; he liked his place in life right now, thank you very much.  No challenging authority for him.  He happily took orders, made drops, and collected spending money.  He didn't want or need any other hassles.

"He ain't been too happy since that meetin' with Creech," Smith volunteered his theory.

"He won't be any happier next time I see him either," Bellows promised.  "Get your drops made," the gang leader growled out as he climbed into his Jeep leaving the other two wondering if they would be seeing any more of Taylor in their group.  Bellows thought it good that at least those two obeyed him; both scrambled to their cars.  He guessed they probably wanted to get away from him, not that he blamed them.  Taylor put him in a pisser of a mood.

Vin left the diner but did not head directly to the drop site.  Instead, he drove a meandering path through the streets, taking several turns and making sure no one followed him.  Nothing caught his attention and if someone was back there, he or she was pretty impressive at hiding.  Finally, he approached the outer southwest border of the town and headed for the elementary school he knew Standish preferred to stop at to give Ace a break and do reports.  The site also provided solitude and not many people knew this place as one of Standish's hiding spots.  He had no contact with the handler but he was hoping he could get lucky and find them there. 

Tanner did not have long; the assholes might be timing his drops and any delays would make them more suspicious than they already were.  As he approached the school, he tried to get his thoughts under control after that confrontation.  In a small way, he surprised himself at the way he challenged Bellows.  It felt good, though, to finally do something productive and push things forward.  Beating on Bellows was a bonus and good stress relief.  He only wished he could have kicked the shit out of the man for the general principle of it then thought he probably would not because deep down Vin Tanner had to live with all that Keith Taylor did.  Detective Vin Tanner did not dish out beatings to suspects.  Until tonight, he pretty much went along with whatever they wanted, not making any waves or rocking the boat.  Nevertheless, the frustration at the way the investigation
dragged began getting to him, making him irritable as well as impatient. 

Looks like he was lucky, he thought, as he spied the K-9 truck parked in the school's back lot near the playground at the edge of the woods.  Turning in the drive, he blacked out his lights and drove to the back, swinging in on the other side of the police truck so his distinctive Mustang stayed hidden from the road.  He did not see Ezra or Ace anywhere around.  As quietly as he could, he exited his car and headed toward the playground.  The low growl alerted him to the direction and through the darkness he could make out the silhouette of the Southerner laying back on the slide.  A black shape took a few steps in his direction.

In this quiet neighborhood, Ezra heard the faint sounds of a car coming in and waited while watching the stars.  One part of his mind stayed ready, just as his hand moved to the holster at his side, his body tensed to spring off the slide, while another piece of his attention focused on the jewels of the sky.  Jewels, he thought, almost snorting at the memory.  Little Ezra spent hours staring at the twinkling lights, the only constants in his ever-changing world. 

He remembered telling Maude about the colors and shapes and how they reminded him of the pretty jewels she always wore.  Ever practical, Maude gave him a tight smile and said, "Ezra, my boy, the jewels of the sky are unobtainable; your efforts are best spent working for the ones you can obtain.  Now get off the ground and smile, we have work to do."  Two weeks later, he met `Uncle' Hamilton the Fourth for the first time and Maude disappeared.

Unlike Maude, Uncle Hamilton understood Ezra's fascination with the stars.  He also knew the boy needed something constant he could rely on.  He encouraged young Ezra to dream about the stars, drawing comfort from familiarity year after year, place after place, long after he left the older man's care.  His time with Uncle Hamilton, an all-too-brief month, created an interest that lasted a lifetime.

Charlie, Ezra's mentor in Atlanta, discovered Ezra's hidden hobby and bought him his first telescope – a painstakingly cared for antique – which he still had today.  The older man quietly influenced his young
protégé to continue in his pursuit.  Charlie knew from painful experience that everyone needed a hobby, something to keep one's sanity, especially in this business.  One starry night they even renamed a white dwarf "Charlie" so Ezra could always talk to him no matter where he was or what he was doing.

Vin caught him stargazing one night and instead of laughing at him or humoring the southerner, he declared he too loved the night sky.  Further surprising the wary southerner, Vin joined him, lying down next to him and watching the heavens.  The two found constellations together, making it a game of who could name them all, played trivia
games, and enjoyed each other's company.  When major astronomical events happened, they met at the highest, clearest spot in Four Corners, no matter the hour, and watched it together.  Ezra used his antique telescope and Vin brought a treasured brass antique spyglass.  Words never seemed necessary; they just enjoyed the time
together watching the stars.  As far as Ezra knew no one knew of their shared hobby.  For some reason, this secretly pleased him, giving him and Vin something only shared between them, a bond that nourished both halves.  Vin might be Chris' best friend but he and Ezra understood each other.

Sadly, Ezra shook his thoughts of his treasured friend away and focused on the present – his visitor.  "Surely during your association with myself and my partner you have realized you cannot catch me unaware?"  The slow southern drawl held more than a trace of sarcasm in his voice.  He came here to be alone for a little while, not wanting to be interrupted by anything other than the attention of his partner and the night sky.  He still needed to process what happened at that near riot earlier.

Vin nearly laughed at that statement.  Sneaking up on Ezra or Ace ranked as almost impossible and usually required a hefty treat for the canine to get distracted.  A treat only given by a friend because Ace refused all food and drink from strangers unless Ezra gave his permission.  "Hell, iffen I wanted ta, Ez, I could've choked ya out `fore that line made ya breathless."

"Vin?" Ezra shot up off the slide onto his feet.  He expected Nina or Chris to eventually find his hideout but not Vin.  Reluctantly, of all of them, he saw the undercover officer the least, a fact that probably generated his melancholy thoughts about his friend a few moments before.  He could not approach Vin but watched from a
distance as Chris and Nina shook him down.  The handler kept Ace distracted and hid his own yearning to be over there with extreme difficulty until he saw Vin take off.  Only then did he feel it safe enough to join Nina. They discovered early on that the instant rapport that developed between the detective and the canine made it
hazardous for Vin's cover if they were seen in public together.  It was hard, if not impossible, getting Ace to act aggressive to Tanner when he liked him so well.  Even now, he tried climbing up the lean frame by standing on his two back paws to greet his friend properly with eager face licks.

"Easy, boy," Vin squatted and patted Ace with the similar amount of enthusiasm being shown by the dog.  "Need to borrow Ace for a minute," he said between lab tongue slurps on his face.  His smile brightened as he scratched the lab's neck before turning serious and meeting Ezra's gaze.

Standish quirked his eyebrow up in question.

"Got somethin' in the car need ta check."  The tone stayed flat and disgusted.

The request confused Ezra; normally he and Ace were not directly involved in the ongoing operation.  "Why not go to . . ."

Tanner shook his head and cut his friend off before he could even finish.  "Can't; too hot right now."

Ezra looked worriedly at his friend, "Problems?"  Too many possibilities flowed through his mind and he allowed his concern to show.

"Nothin' I can't handle."

The southerner noted the bruises on Vin's face, fading images visible even in the feeble light offered by the parking lot lights.  He snorted at the response.  Even though they had only been friends a short time, there was an instant acceptance between the two.  During the brief time they had before Vin went under, they built on their
friendship.  Standish knew his friend was rarely truthful in matters concerning his health or well-being.  He knew Vin was a loner most of his life and the habit of looking out for himself was too ingrained in him to change now.  Like himself, other than his four-legged partner, he too had a hard time accepting there were friends around
now to help watch his back.  And watch it they did, whether he liked it or not.  Vin received the same treatment but to a lesser degree because of being undercover.  Now the street people watched and told Nina or Josiah.

Ezra cultivated his own informants, people too far in the shadows to ever face the light of the law, and they observed and reported to the canine handler.  Many of them held high positions in various organizations and Ezra paid well for information.  Officially, he did not know where they worked or whom they worked for and the informants never told him to keep him out of it.

Whatever else they did, he never asked and they never told but he knew Vin's back received protection as much as possible.  The set up with Creech should have been worse; two of the participants were unavoidably detained with matching flat tires and unable to respond.  Ezra knew nothing of this and probably never would.  Information was all he paid for and cared to know; anything else and he crossed that thin line between right and wrong according to the regulations.  He would not compromise Vin's integrity or his own as officers but he rationalized that information gathering was allowed under their procedures.  He saw very few loopholes in the procedures especially after spending weeks reading them and searching for them.  He found enough leeway to do what he was doing with the right argument and stay on the correct side of the law he swore to protect. 

Finally, with a brief nod in understanding, Ezra started walking Ace over to the Mustang.

"Wait a minute," Tanner held out a hand to them to stop them before they reached the car.  He took another cautious look around the parking lot area then opened the driver's door and leaned in.

At first, it was easy to break into the little gangs and their dirty dealings.  The evidence rolled in hard and fast but the Task Force always demanded more.  Everyone knew there was more, always one higher level to take down, another tier up in the organization.  Recently, though, the tide turned.  Now he really felt he struggled against a giant riptide.  New information grew harder to get and he knew they watched him more closely and frequently.  Several times he caught them following him as he made drops adding to his tension.

Vin hoped the attention meant he was being watched for potential advancement and the loyalty test might be a part of that.  If that was true he could be one step closer to getting to the next level, another step toward finishing the job.  He was so careful in what he did, where he went, who he saw, when he saw them, and how long he
stayed there.  Now the accompanying paranoia was starting to feel normal.  That scared him although he would never admit it to a soul. 

If he concentrated hard enough on the job, the paranoia helped him stay alert and focused, like having that two seconds to prepare for Creech and his boys.  He kept telling himself each action brought more evidence and closer to the end of this nightmare.

The attention made it harder on him to gather the evidence and do his job though.  Before he would take the packages to a safehouse they established where they could open and catalogue the contents of the parcels given to him.  If it was impossible to open them without threat of detection, the equipment sat ready to x-ray the contents.  Along with the material inside, the details of the drop were recorded: who initiated the drop, what address it was delivered to and to whom it finally went.  While they worked, Vin wrote quick supplements with as many details as possible so if he was compromised or suddenly pulled out, the entire operation would not be a waste.  From this combination of information, patterns emerged.  The delivery/distribution schedules were examined to hopefully lead to the discovery of the different transportation methods used to bring the product into Four Corners, leading to larger bust.  At least this was the plan; it did not seem to be working as well as the Texan hoped.

Vin reached into the back and pulled the package up to the passenger seat removing the card with the drop address on it.  He recognized the location because of having made a drop there before near the Yucca apartments; including the drop with Creech and his boys.  Reluctantly, he knew he'd have to be on his guard in case they chose to try to teach him another lesson.

Especially after his actions lately.  He thought he either impressed them or pissed them off sending the thugs packing. He halfway chuckled to himself thinking he did both.  Of course Bellows probably already went crying the blues to his boss Jennings. What Vin just did required immediate reporting because of the microscope they kept him under.  The undercover officer grinned to himself; at least it might get things moving quicker one way or another. 

For the present, Tanner reached down between the seats to the bottom of the console.  He smiled as he thought of the hobby he enjoyed with Chanu of rebuilding cars.  It helped tremendously when they outfitted this car with hidden compartments the drug runners would kill for.  Finding the hidden latch beneath the carpet, he released it allowing the console to lift.  From underneath he pulled the small camera, caliper scale and notebook then shut the compartment for the moment.  Pulling back out of the car, he turned to Standish.

"See if Ace hits on anythin' in the car," he instructed.  "But don't let him tear the package."

Standish frowned again.  He did not like the way Vin was sounding, having to be so cautious.  The handler moved Ace up to the open car door and gave him the single command to search, keeping a firm hand on the leash.  It did not take long; the Labrador immediately alerted on the package.  They may not know exactly what was inside but they could at least be certain it was drug related by Ace's actions.  Ezra pulled him back and turned his attention back to Vin, currently making notes in the small book.

This worried the southerner. Intellectually, he knew Vin needed to mule drugs to prove his worth.  But he hated the thought his friend had anything to do with getting the drugs to the distributors and ultimately to the public. 

"Can you write me a quick supplement?" Vin asked without looking up from his own notes.

"Of course," Standish led his partner over to truck.  He reached in and pulled out his ever-ready clipboard.   A form for canine searches sat waiting on top for his convenience and he quickly filled in all the spaces on the pre-printed form.  Noting the date, time, location, weather conditions and all other pertinent information that could
contribute to the dog hitting or not hitting on any substances, Ezra made sure every line possible received information so that any defense attorney down the road could not use the sloppy police work defense.  He finished by adding a short narrative at the bottom of the page and noting the results.  As he worked, he silently watched his friend jot down his own observations.

Quickly the undercover officer logged all the information he could.  He went around to the passenger side to measure and weigh the package then recorded that data as well.  From the size and weight, they might be able to approximate how much product was within.  He also noted whom he picked it up from and the address he was to deliver it to along with the date and time.  Replacing his equipment, he secured the hidden compartment.  He took a few minutes to make sure it was undetectable again.  The supplement went to Ezra to go into the
continually growing stack of evidence in case something happened to Vin they knew where to start looking. 

"Thanks, Ez," Vin once again traded greetings with the lab, happy to oblige.

Ace really liked this human and did not see enough of him in the canine's humble opinion.  He maximized the time he spent with the scruffy one, one with hair that was getting as long as his human female. 

"Can you take a minute?" Standish asked, not wanting to say goodbye again so fast.

Tanner hesitated for a minute before agreeing.  Hang the time.  If they were timing him, they could kiss his ass and he'd kick theirs for trying. 

The two walked back over to the playground and took seats in the swings.  For a few minutes, they sat in comfortable silence slowly pushing the swings back and forth, just enjoying being together.

Vin remembered the first time he met Standish. He was trying out the newly installed engine in one of the trucks he and Chanu restored between bounties.  He was giving it a good run, pushing it and the speedometer until the needle stuck.  Unfortunately, he blew right past one of what he considered the `town clowns' running radar.   He
pulled over, as soon as he saw the lights, and this officer in a spit-shined perfect variation of a uniform walked up to the driver's door.  Sunglasses hid the eyes beneath the `don't touch it or die' hair and the slow drawl asked, "Care to guess precisely how fast you were going?"

Vin nearly chuckled; if this was what the town brought in as police, he'd stick with bounty hunting.  "Fast `nuff fer ya ta pull me over."

A smile cracked across the emotionless face.  "And smart enough to know when to stop."

"Hell, officer, I ain't runnin', though I'd dust yer ass in this.  That po-lice truck of yers ain't got the stuff."

Ezra found himself both entertained and insulted.  "I do believe, if I were a betting man, that I would give you a run for your money.  Since I am not, and I leave nothing to chance, let me see your license and registration so I know the name of the individual to whom to address the moving violation."

Vin handed over the paperwork and grinned.  "So how fast was I goin'?"

"I clocked you at 97 in a 35."

"Aw, hell.  Thought I could make a hundred in this baby."

Ezra felt the urge to correct him as he read the name:  Tanner, Vin.  For some reason that sounded familiar but he could not place it at this moment.  "I believe I stated I clocked you at 97.  You slowed down after you spotted yours truly but I find myself dreadful with capturing the top speed on a radar unit as antiquated as that one."

Vin grinned at the long-winded speech.  "So what are ya writin' me at?"

"Stay in the truck, Mr. Tanner, and I'll surprise you."  The sarcasm dripped from the tone.  Ezra walked away and sat in the front seat. Still new to this canine thing, he said a quick hello to his excited young dog Ace.   Vin turned up the portable scanner lying on the seat next to him.

Right before he requested a wants/warrant/driver's license check, he remembered where he heard the name Vin Tanner before – from the lips of Nettie Wells.  Ezra recalled overhearing her telling someone that Vin was coming to town for a visit and she wanted everything just right.  The truck also came from the general direction of the Wells property.  He climbed out of his unit and approached the driver's window.  "By chance, are you familiar with a Nettie Wells?"

The smirk changed to a full grin. A wistfulness that only the most observant could catch entered his eyes.   Then just as quick the blue orbs changed to guarded.  "Yeah, why?"

"Might you be the young Mr. Tanner that she often frets about?"

"You know Nettie?" asked Vin, surprised at the line of questioning.

"I am familiar with the lady in question," drawled Ezra.  "And I do believe I will let you off with a verbal warning about your speed.  I would prefer not scraping your remains off a telephone pole or informing the charming Miss Wells of your demise."

"What's yer name?"

"Ezra Standish."

A hand jutted out of the truck.  "Nice ta meet ya, Ez."  Once Vin heard the name, he remembered Nettie telling him about this southern gentleman who enjoyed verbally sparring with her as much as she enjoyed matching wits with him. 

"Ezra," the canine handler corrected, shaking hands firmly. 

"Appreciate ya lettin' me go with a warnin'."  The warning surprised and gratified him.  He could have lost his license.  That would seriously crimp his bounty hunting and by extension his way of life.  That and Nettie would kill him. 

"Yes, well, it must be the warm desert air," Ezra explained with a look back at his truck.  He did not want to be the one to face the formidable Ms. Wells after he put someone she cared about into a predicament.  Self-preservation and all that jazz.  That and he knew the fearsome Ms. Caswell would cheerfully and painfully rip chunks out of his hide if this was the same Vin Tanner that she occasionally spoke with the older woman about. 

From that day forward, the two men shared a smile each time they saw each other in passing. When Vin came on at the PD, Ezra was one of the first to harass him about his driving.  Vin came out of roll call the first day he had a take home car and found "Student Driver – stay back!" magnets all over the patrol unit.  It started a prank war that ended up strengthening a friendship.  He shook himself from his pleasant memories at the sound of that familiar drawl.

"So how bad is it?" Ezra eyed his friend hoping he could get him to open up a little.

Vin shrugged, "Don't know if they've made me or if I'm getting closer ta somethin'."

"Their scrutiny is that intense?"  

"Hey Ez, bet I can swing higher than you!"

Standish sighed, noting the dodge of the question with the change of subject.  "And why would I debase myself by accepting to participate in your juvenile challenge?"

Vin was glad Ezra his unspoken request not to discuss his invstigation right now.  He was too concerned with it himself to try and reassure anyone else that all went well.  Besides, he got very little down time as it was and he savored any chance he had to spend with his friends as much as he could.  He did not want the job to interfere now, at least for a few more minutes.  Just give him a chance to breathe, a moment or two to decompress, for crying out loud.

"Cause ya love a challenge," Vin tossed back as he started to move the swing into going higher.  "Sissy boy like you can't win though."

"I take umbrage to that remark," the Southerner huffed as he too began to move his swing into a faster rhythm.

"Come on, Ez, ya know ya don't know how ta loosen up and let yer hair down," Vin teased his oh so polished friend.  "So prim and proper, ya never would do anything ya consider immature.  Wouldn't degrade yerself by doing somethin' yer friends dare ya."

The remark stung his pride a bit; he could act just as delinquent as the rest of them; he just chose not to do so.  "I'll let you know, Mr. Tanner, I have been known to as you say, `Let my hair down'."  He smirked as he caught up to the same height Tanner was swinging before adding another shot of his own.  "Just not as long as yours."

"Ha-ha," Vin grinned at his friends' jibe.  "Bet you'd never try this though . . .chicken." As he issued the challenge, he swung the swing to its highest point and leapt from the seat. 

Standish felt his heart drop to his stomach then jump into his throat as he watched Tanner leap to the ground from the moving swing, wondering once again at his friends mental status to pull such a stunt.  Vin hit the ground hard on his two feet then rolled several times from the momentum of the jump.  Ezra thought he'd stopped
breathing when he noticed Vin didn't move as he came to a stop.  Ace ran over to his friend, pawing his shoulder and licking his face, but his playmate still did not move.  Brown eyes shot to his human and he howled mournfully. 

Ezra quickly slowed his swing and jumped off as soon as he dared, getting a running start over to Tanner's side.  Breathless, he tentatively reached out to shake his shoulder, "Vin!"

In the blink of an eye, the dog handler stared into the canopy of trees above his head as he found himself flipped over by one very all right undercover officer.  His equipment speared him the back and added to his general discomfort.  Sonovabitch, he thought.  He opened his mouth to breathe only to get licked full on the chops by his
partner, currently wagging his tail, the traitor.

"Shit Ez, you're getting' soft.  I'd better get done and get back `fore someone kicks yer ass," Tanner leaned over laughing down into his friend's dazed face.

Standish coughed and wiped his mouth as he tried to get his breath back.  Once sufficiently recovered, he said, "Well, I will gladly enjoy seeing your smiling visage back in the fold wreaking havoc on the other unsuspecting members of our squad.  However, I do believe, sir, I owe you one."  Ezra dodged the gleeful face licking his
partner was now trying to bestow on him again.  "You were no help," he groused at his partner.

Vin smiled in anticipation, he knew Ezra to be very creative in his retaliations.  Laughing, the undercover officer helped his friend to his feet, "Hope ta give ya that chance."

Ezra sobered at the somber meaning behind Vin's words.  "Vin . . ."

Tanner stopped him holding out his hand, "I better go, Ez."

The Southerner took the hand in a full arm shake and met Vin's blue eyes in understanding.  "Watch your back," he said, thinking `I'll keep an eye on it from the shadows'.

Vin cocked him a half grin as he reached down to give Ace a final pat farewell, "Hey, Ace, ya watch yer pard here fer me, okay?  Ya lettin' him get too soft."  The lab looked like he smiled with his tongue hanging out of the side of his open mouth.  He winked at Standish and headed for his Mustang.  A final thought crossed his mind so he turned once more and waved, "Thanks, Ez."

Standish returned the wave with a two-finger salute and a sad smile.  The understanding passed between them in the words not spoken.  Vin appreciated the reprieve from the stress of the job and Ezra felt relieved to see that his friend was safe, for now.

Checking the area again and finding nothing out of place Tanner jumped into the Mustang, pulled out of the parking lot and headed back to finish the drop at a really high rate of speed to make up time.  The scanner told him where the shift was…and was not…so he felt safe in trying to get there quicker.  His mind was no less
tormented on the direction this assignment was going but it had felt good, hell, it felt great, to forget it if just for a few moments.   He decided to set up a meet as soon as he could with Haskill, the head of the County Narcotics Task Force, and refused to take no for an answer.  Maybe he could meet with Nina and Chris and get their
feel on it although he doubted they could really help.  He was all alone in this one.  Just like always.

Part Nine

Thursday, 2350 Hrs

Sanchez pulled his patrol car alongside Jackson's in the deserted far corner of the Northern Corners Mall parking lot.  No one could sneak up on them here. The lot lights kept both officers from being targets, and they could see everything around them.  Nothing and no one disturbed them. The earlier fire shut down the mall for overnight ventilation, not even late evening cleaning crews worked tonight.  Their position gave them an excellent view of the charred sections where a potential looter might try to force entry.  The patrol vehicles ran quietly, both shutting off their music to better hear the other.

"Hello, Brother."

"Hey, Josiah."  Nathan stretched as much as he could in the confined area.  "Hold on."  He keyed the mike.  "11-04, FC."


"Show myself and 11-03 business check Northern Corners Mall."


"Interesting night," observed the resident historian and philosopher.

"And we're still not half done."  A few neck rolls relieved some of the tension while his hand massaged the muscles.

"How'd Vin look to you?"  From his position in and around the paddy wagon, Josiah really did not see the younger officer.  He cared for the Texan and hoped this ended soon and well for all their sakes.

"Didn't see him close up but he looked okay tearing out of there."  Nathan's attention had been drawn to the incident when he heard the unmistakable sound of a body impacting with a car.  He wanted to know which hothead squad member tried to encourage a brutality complaint wanting to head that off before it happened.  When he saw Vin, he understood the situation and stayed put.  Unfortunately, he could not stare too long in that direction or bring undue attention to the undercover officer.

"Talked to Nina for a minute; she's not too happy about it."

Nathan grunted.  "Nina's rarely happy anymore, though she did laugh in roll call tonight."  The police officer knew Nina's current unhappiness started when Vin went under, though she tried very hard to hide it. Everyone saw it because they all felt the same.

"She walks a rough road, Nathan.  It must be hard being one of two female patrol officers in the department and having her past with the Sheriff's Office.  Add her rank and transfer to CID over others and she's dealing with some resentment.  I heard a couple grumbles about favoritism."  Josiah hated speaking against his brothers in blue but the fact remained they thought she only achieved her rank and transfer because of her sex or her `golden girl' status with Chief Travis, not because of her proven ability.

"I know, Josiah.  I guess I'm just worried about Vin too."  He ran his hand down his face, closing his eyes for a second.  A few other things bothered him but he held back on acknowledging them, much less vocalizing them to his good friend.

Josiah knew anyway.  "Not counting Rain's horrible hours."

Nathan beat his head back against the headrest twice.  "I keep telling myself it will get better once she finishes her residency but I hate seeing her so worn down.  Her hours are worse than ours."

Sanchez countered with, "She loves what she's doing."  He sensed his friend needed some reassurance and support and gave it wholeheartedly.

Jackson smiled.  "Yeah.  You should see her face when she tells me about someone that she helped who thanked her.  It's a joy to watch."  He visualized her magical smile gracing those beautiful lips and enjoyed the image, wishing he could do more than picture her.

"You understand and she appreciates that.  Just as she appreciates you being there for her, holding her, and truly listening to what she says." 

As always, the spiritual man knew all the right words.  "Thanks, Josiah."  Nathan felt a little better about everything, at least for the time being. 

The man's head tilted slightly.  "For what?"

"Reminding me how good I have it.  You do it so well."

"We all should count the small blessings; they make up the larger picture."

"That's the truth." 

Josiah flicked his spotlight over the rubble once then decided to walk the perimeter.  Besides, Nathan needed to move around a bit; it might calm that restless spirit.  Exiting his patrol vehicle, he locked it as Nathan joined him.  It felt good to stretch his legs after sitting so long in the car, a common complaint of police officers everywhere.  He turned his head and posed a question that he wanted to get another opinion on.   "So what do you think of our newest?"

Nathan considered before answering.  "He's excitable, confident; almost cocky.  But he listens and he learns the two most important things needed to make it.  Most rookies wouldn't go chasing an armed suspect before the car stops either.  Thought Buck might stroke out when he recounted it; can't imagine what he felt when it happened."  The ghost of a smile crossed his face.

Josiah chuckled slightly, picturing the taller man after two months of this when JD was officially free and clear of an FTO's supervision.  JD would ride alone in about two or three weeks but Buck would continue to evaluate him until the end of the required time.  "Buck hasn't trained in awhile."  They reached the burned portions of the building and checked the damage.  None of the soot looked disturbed and the boarded entrances remained secure.  They continued along the outside of the charred wing.  Every once in a while one of them would check the lot and their cars, keeping a watchful gaze around them.

"Going to be a rough adjustment."  Nathan's grin belied the seriousness of his words.   "Guarantee the boy will hear an earful before morning." 

"He might welcome riding with someone else tomorrow."

"Yeah, but next to Nina, Buck's the best trainer we have."

"You're just as good if not better."

Nathan smiled.  "Thanks but I'd lose patience after a while.  Lord knows you've got plenty of that and can teach."

"Obliged, but I don't believe that."

"Believe me or not, neither one of is training.  Maybe Vin will get back soon."  He paused for a second then asked, "So what do you think of John `JD' Dunne?"  They learned his first name when they first found out he was coming to their squad. 

"He'll do all right," Josiah finally decided.  "The other one did."

Nathan shook his head, a slow grin covering his features.  "The other one lived years ago.  What makes you think that this one is anything like that one?"  He kicked a piece of burned paper off his patent leather shoe where it clung tenaciously.  Jackson stopped to buff out the smudged section with a handkerchief kept for specifically that purpose and elicited a chuckled from Josiah over his meticulousness.

"Other than the name?"

"Yes, other than the name."  He ignored the chuckle.


"Not the damn crows again," the tall dark man muttered then noticed his friend's slightly wounded expression.  "All right.  I'm sorry.  Your crows led you here and for that I am thankful."  Mentally, he sighed, remembering Josiah's spirituality played an integral part of the man beside him, a good and loyal friend through everything.

Josiah brightened immediately at the memory.  "It was fate, brother, fate and the crows."

"Fate, maybe.  The crows, I don't know.  A lot had to do with that book you showed me - that Jock Steele novel `The Magnificent Seven'.  Not a bad piece of fiction for the times." 

"It wasn't fiction, Nate.  It was real.  I can show you the proof."  He wished the others cherished their shared ancestry the way he did.  Josiah constantly tried showing them some of the exploits but not the fate of their particular ancestor.  He did not want to tempt the spirits too much.    

"I know I'm just saying the book might be fiction, not the people."  Nathan lifted his hands in a placating gesture.  "I'm not going to argue with you.  The book brought you here."

"Yes, Brother, it did."  Josiah remembered that time a few years back when he felt incomplete and disillusioned with the world.  His missionary father already passed on to his reward and his own faith was shaken to the core by events beyond his control.  He wanted nothing more than to find a purpose, a meaning for the rest of his
life other than to just exist.  Until then, he supported himself with odd jobs at youth centers, soup kitchens, and security work. 

On a whim, he entered an antique store and bookshop in Pennsylvania, finding the dusty `Magnificent Seven' novel in the section specializing in the Old West.  It piqued his interest so he bought it, read it, and it intrigued him.  Emotionally he was at a point where he needed a change.  He started West himself searching for some
sign or portent to verify his quest.  The novel never named the town, probably because of the bounty on that Tanner's head, so he haunted every courthouse and Hall of Records on his way.  One morning, a rowdy crow outside his motel window woke him.  He was in this town, Four Corners.  It was then that he met the beginning of his destiny and his life changed.  

Behind the blue-black bird, smoke filled the pale dawn sky.  Following the plumes and the crows who encouraged him, Josiah found an apartment building devastated by fire.  Unable to contain the blaze, firefighters lost more than twenty units to the conflagration before turning the tide of battle their way.  Twenty families found
themselves homeless and Josiah immediately volunteered and helped coordinate the efforts at the besieged churches and impromptu shelters.  There he met Orin Travis organizing the workers as the new Chief of Police.  The two talked for days, finding several common interests, while helping the misplaced families. The recently retired Federal Judge was impressed with the large spiritual man and offered Josiah a job as a police officer.  He figured that someone that would stop their own life to help strangers was someone he wanted on his force as a positive influence to others. 

Travis knew right away that Josiah would be an asset.  He noted with observant eyes the easy acceptance Josiah earned from the victims.  The man's people skills shined through in the town's hour of need.  He helped serve as an impromptu translator for a Chinese family searching for their missing uncle one afternoon, forgoing sleep and
food until the situation resolved.  Moving from group to group he prayed with those who wanted to, taught meditation exercises, told stories of faraway places to those who would listen, and generally kept things calm in the middle of maelstrom.  Travis believed that someone like Josiah would be a calming influence during the volatile growth of the new police department, and in the hostile environment of the disillusioned, mistrustful citizens wanting nothing more than to lick their wounds in private.

After hours of meditation and deep thought concerning the offer, Josiah went to the County library to research the area.  What he found caused him to accept the Judge's offer without hesitancy.  Ten days after his acceptance, he met Nathan Jackson, a new man applying for a job with the department.  They clicked immediately, Nathan also volunteered his various skills at the shelters and Josiah introduced him to Chief Travis.  Travis liked what he saw and fast-tracked Nathan's application, earning them both a position in the newly
formed Four Corners Police Department, pending their successful completion of the Academy.

The Academy gave both a rude awakening into the depths people sank and taught them the proper way to handle almost every situation in controlled scenarios.  As two of the oldest members, they paired off as often as possible.  They studied together, read together, ran together, and spent more time with each other than with anyone else in their new town of Four Corners.  Consequently, they tied for first in the inaugural class. Their friendship deepened on the road as they learned to depend on each other to guard their backs in the real

They saw each other through three years of fights, drunks, Nathan's first date with Rain, and all the hours of tedium in between.  Some said they acted closer than brothers did and both shrugged and accepted it.

"You ever regret any of it?" asked Nathan, an introspective look on his handsome face.

Josiah chewed on his bottom lip in thought.  "Nope.  It's only getting better."  His faith that all was as it was meant to be only solidified as the department grew.  As he saw it, the destiny of seven men started a personal rebirth for a new threat regardless of what his disbelieving friends might think.

The two friends finished their circuit and started back to their cars in companionable silence.

"FC, 11-03, 11-04, copy noise complaint."

"11-03." Sliding a sly glance at his partner, he quipped, "Until now."

His friend chuckled through his acknowledgement.  "11-04."

"1903 Ivy Stone Street, 1-9-0-3 Ivy Stone Street, Cross streets of White Stone and Black Stone, loud music complaint.  Anonymous complainant."

"11-03, 10-4."  Josiah's car door dinged in the background.

"Close your door when you key up.  You know that drives me nuts."

"Aren't you going to answer?"  Josiah left the door open and waited with a smile.

Nathan answered dispatch, "11-04's direct."  He glared.

Slam!  "Happy?"


Josiah laughed and his face broke into an unrepentant grin. 

"Seriously, when will he learn?" asked the paramedic turned police officer, referring to the college student currently occupying his grandparents' house while they traveled Europe.  The student threw parties at every opportunity and invariably the police received a disturbance call from his unappreciative neighbors.

"Never."  Josiah shifted into Drive and pulled out, Nathan turning his car around and following him.  They arrived a few minutes later, hearing the music two blocks before Ivy Stone.   The numerous cars lining the driveway, front yard, and surrounding streets gave them a good indication of the size of the party this time.

"11-03, K9-16."


"Start up here for crowd control."


"FC's direct."

"11-01, 11-03."

"11-03."  Josiah gave Nathan an amused glance over the hood of the patrol car while his friend mouthed the phrase `mother hen' just as their radios squawked. 

"You need additional?"   Nathan flapped his arms by his sides as they exited their vehicles.  Sometimes Sgt. Larabee's hands on style of management smothered his people.  While some might resent it thinking he didn't trust them, his squad realized it was his overprotective nature.  Knowing his history, they understood and saw it as his way of trying to protect those he cared about.  What they worried about was the toll doing that took on him.  New lines cropped up in his face and his mouth stayed in a perpetual frown.  It only worsened with Vin under.

Biting back merriment at Nathan's actions, Josiah managed to answer, "Negative.  We should be all right."


"He means well," Josiah told his friend in Chris' defense. 

"He does but he's over protective, too."

"Uh-huh, look who's talking," Josiah chuckled as he thought of the constant concern his partner displayed for his friends' well being.

Nathan slapped the grinning man playfully on his shoulder as he moved off to work his way around the back of the house.  "I'm not that bad."

The older man was still chuckling as he headed for the front door of the bi-level brick home.  "Depends on perspective, brother."  His grin widened as he heard the mumbled rude response as Nathan disappeared around the side of the house.

Reaching the front door, Josiah used his flashlight to knock briskly on the red painted wood.  The door was opened immediately by a drunken eighteen-year-old boy nearly spilling his plastic cup of beer.  His eyes widened and the greeting yell died on his lips.

"Oh, shit!  Cops!"  The portal slammed closed in Josiah's face.   The unmistakable sounds of bodies and items being thrown around and people yelling carried through the thin wood.

Josiah shook his head, knowing exactly what would happen next.  "11-03, 11-04.  Coming your way."

"10-4."  Nathan knew it too and waited.

The sliding glass door flew open as the police officer leaned against the top of the deck stairs a short distance away.  The deck, fifteen feet off the ground, provided the only exit from the rear of the house but the stampede stopped once they saw him.  "Think you might want to get back inside," Nathan ordered quietly.   His commanding presence gave them two choices – fight the larger man or turn around.  Defeated, the underage members of the crowd turned back around and sullenly filed inside under his watchful gaze.  The yells of "BUSTED" and "We're fucked" reached Nathan's ears.

"11-04, 11-03, I'm inside."  He closed the slider and looked directly at the two tapped half kegs by the deck door.  The tall black man shook his head at the obvious signs of intoxication coming from all the kids staring at him in fear.

"10-4."  While Nathan finished herding his charges back into the house, Josiah tested the front door.  Unlocked, just as he suspected.  He opened it and gave the obligatory call, "Police.  Who's in charge here?"

Peter Deafly wound his way to the front of the crowd and held the door open for Josiah.  "Officer Sanchez, come in.  One of my neighbors complained again, didn't they?"  The sandy-haired twenty-one-year-old gave the older man a resigned look.  All around him, his friends dropped into the sofas, chairs, and onto the floor while
another person turned off the music.  Peter's girlfriend started cleaning up the loose cups all over the well-appointed interior.

"Yes, son, they did.  You know this is an older community; people don't take the music too well."

Peter hung his head.  "Yeah, I know." 

"If you know, son, tell me why we come here every single week."

"Because I'm stupid." 

"Well….I didn't say that, but it would help if you learned something," the older man looked sternly at the youth.  "Control the number of people you have here.  Stop serving the minors.  You know the laws; obey them."

"Yes, sir."

Ezra arrived with Ace at the front door, helping his fellow officers with the orderly evacuation of the premises and the wants/warrants checks.  It took almost an hour before they managed finding (a) sober drivers; (b) second drivers to come get the intoxicated and their vehicles; and (c) parents, guardians, or responsible parties for those under eighteen.  Finally, the Four Corners Officers found themselves able to leave.  Peter received his citations for disorderly conduct and contributing to delinquency of minors, all marked "Must Appear" at a later date in court.

"11-03, FC."  They gathered around the patrol cars and K-9 truck.

"11-03."  Ladonna's voice came through the small box on their shoulders.  The men exchanged glances, not realizing how much time passed during their foray into yet another party.  Ladonna took over the radio at one a.m., the halfway mark for the twelve-hour shift.

"All units 10-8, Code Paul Sam."


Ezra opened the relaxed conversation with, "Gentlemen, allow me to extend the invitation to our ritual gathering for a few games of chance on Saturday afternoon at Ms. Caswell's abode."  

"Nina's hosting poker?"  Jackson looked quizzically at the southerner.  Nina often hosted parties but not usually during the four day work week, choosing instead to sleep as much as possible before she had to come in. 

"Yes.  Quite magnanimous of her to offer, actually."  Ezra checked his sleeves and brushed a clinging piece of dog hair from the material. 

Nathan looked suspiciously at the southerner,  "You have something to do with that?"  He would not put it past Ezra to manipulate her like that.

"Mr. Jackson, do you honestly believe I would coerce our fair Corporal into hosting such a gathering at her own home?  That I, Ezra Standish, hold that much influence over her?"  The wounded expression would make his mother proud.

Josiah chuckled, a sound that involved his entire body, including his eyes.  "So speaks the Pied Piper."  They waited around in the neighborhood for a few minutes to insure no one returned to the party site after all their hard work to break it up.

One hand flew to cover the center of Ezra's heart as he affected a wounded expression.  "Mr. Sanchez, how on earth could you compare me to that legendary character?  Ms. Caswell possesses a fine intellect and would never blindly follow a person into a nefarious situation."

"Uh-huh," harrumphed Nathan.  "Unless you guilt tripped her into it."

"I would do nothing of the sort."

Josiah lowered his head, hiding his smile, and squeezed Ezra's shoulder.  "She pay attention when you yelled at her about not waiting for the rest of us?"

The twitch of his lips gave them the answer.  "I would never yell.  It is not becoming behavior for a gentleman."

Nathan gave Josiah another playful slap on the shoulder, "And you talk about me and Chris?"  The tall medic knew that their sergeant worried about them, maybe too much and he did too.  In fact, they all worried about each other, it was a unique brotherhood they were slowly learning to accept.  This included taking someone to task when needed, like tonight.  He grinned to himself, knowing between Chris and Ezra's little `discussions' with their fearless female partner she might reconsider diving into the middle of a fight without someone right there to watch her back.  Of course, the next time he saw her he would be sure to give her a bit of friendly advice
himself.  Breaking the silence he suggested,  "Let's move South.  The bars will be starting last call soon."  Grabbing his mike, he called in, "11-04, FC."


"Show me low."


"11-03, same traffic."

"10-4, 11-03."

"K9-16's en route South."  With a two fingered salute on his cap, Ezra and Ace departed. 

"K9-16, 10-4."

Somehow, they made it through the bar closings with only four disturbance calls. One handled by Josiah while Nathan assisted campus security.  Ezra, Chris, and Nina broke up the crowds and encouraged the drunk and disorderlies to remove themselves from the bars.  Buck and JD handled a few noise complaints in Yucca.  While the rest of their shift was spent with Buck indoctrinating the rookie to the joys of reports and reviewing the format of the many forms the PD used.  From the excitement of the arrest came the monotony of detailing each
incident in a variety of endless forms.  Criminal arrest records, statement of charges, evidence lockup, all in addition to what better be a detailed report.  In his first night, the rookie certainly saw the ups and downs of police work.


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