four corners pd
By: Cin and Heidi
Day Three: Saturday (cont)
Saturday, 2000 hours
Vin stood at the edge of the patio that overlooked the well-manicured lawns and down the gentle slope of the hill the estate resided on. From this vantage point, his gaze traveled down toward the small valley into the bordering neighborhood. Although too far away to see in detail, he knew something of importance was going on by the growing number of lights in the area and the occasional red, blue, and amber flashes from the strobes on the emergency vehicles.
He took an agitated sip from the bottle of beer he held in hand. Vin stuffed his other, clinched fist in the pocket of his trousers in frustration at his predicament. It was not like he was treated as a prisoner, if one didn’t count the shadow he knew was never far from his side. McBride was right when he said he spared no expense for the comfort of his guest or loyal employees, as evident in the guestrooms, the grilled buffet for dinner, and the bikini-clad companions now frolicking in the pool behind him.
After being encouraged to 'freshen up' for dinner, he had felt a bit of trepidation when he emerged from the opulent bathroom to find things were not as he left them. His own clothes were still nowhere to be found, but his personal property remained where he left it. It was not totally unexpected; he realized most of this meeting was for checking him out.
The only real concern he had was his car. Checking the window, he didn’t see any one around it. It didn’t mean they hadn’t already checked it out. Maybe found the damning recording device. Early in the assignment, he tested the hidden compartments by having Ace search the car for them, and the canine found nothing. His handler also did not locate the compartment, resulting in a grudging payment of twenty dollars. However, at Ezra's insistence, they put a single marijuana joint in the compartment and Ace went nuts. It took Vin three days to get the compartment clean so that the canine would not alert on it again, but the security of knowing that even a trained professional like Ezra, who came from a drug interdiction team in Atlanta, failed, meant a lot to him and was a source of pride.
Still casually dressed in the khaki Dockers, navy button down shirt and brown leather loafers provided by his host, he was not uncomfortable in the clothing that fit as if he shopped for them himself. He was uncomfortable with being watched so closely and just felt this overall sensation that the case was moving too far out of his control way too fast and that ate away at his usual calm nerves. He knew his shadow would be watching him, but he separated himself from the other party guests to grab a moment to himself, at least as much as possible. The job they wanted him for tomorrow weighed heavily on his mind. Those churning thoughts sent him to snag another beer and grab this quiet moment at the edge of the patio.
"Wanting to join your friends, Taylor?"
Vin scowled fiercely at Roland, who had moved up to join him. "If ya were so suspicious of me or didn't like my work, why'd the hell ya bring me here fer?" He gave the impression of a man who disliked having his time wasted, and disgusted by the entire affair.
Roland snorted, "My say don't mean a hill of beans, Taylor. I'm just a peon like you."
"Didn't appear that way to me," Vin shot back as he downed another sip of his beer.
His hard earned, butt-busting undercover work to infiltrate this organization provided intelligence showing that Roland held a relatively high rank in the larger group as a whole. After months of work, Vin gathered enough information on Roland's dealings with drugs, gambling and prostitution, especially among the students around the college campus, to shut down his operation. Even with that knowledge, it was necessary to do some of the dirty jobs required to gain access to this man, and those jobs still rankled Vin. Then to find out that it was not enough nearly crushed the Texan. As suspected, Roland Jennings was only a minute tip of the iceberg, as it was with many cases. But the Task Force saw the opportunity to get a bigger fish, so they kept Vin under and working toward wiping out the whole operation. This was not a problem at first; Tanner hated leaving a job half-done. Now he knew those were lofty goals.
Just after meeting McBride in this short time, Vin's sixth sense was tingling that it did not end here. There was someone else pulling the master strings, and it was neither McBride nor Roland. Seeing Stewart here earlier confirmed he was probably involved, but he really didn’t think he had the brains to run an outfit as big as this one seemed to be. There was no telling how large this organization really was, yet it was obvious it had been in operation for a very long time. Vin felt without a doubt, without reservation, that McBride was not the highest man on the totem pole. Especially now that they had the information on a shipment on a variety of illegal guns being brought into the county. It seemed someone was preparing for a war. He and a few others had an idea who was behind the entire set up, but it was Vin's thankless job to verify their suspicions, and he hated it. He wanted his own life back. He wanted his friends back. He wanted Keith Taylor buried back in the past where he belonged, not freed from the dark place Vin shoved him years before.
Vin indulged himself in a moment of wistfulness at being able to walk into Haney House without the attitude and greet Nettie the way she deserved. He'd like to be able to drive by the station and not be afraid of being seen too close to it. He hated looking over his shoulder all the time. He wanted to see Chris outside of the pat downs and just be...like he was the other night with Chris and Nina. As Vin Tanner, not Keith Taylor, and have the others there too. Josiah with his quiet understanding, Nathan and his steady, calm presence, Buck's sense of humor and teasing - what he wouldn't give to be called Junior again, Nina's craziness and sibling rivalry, Ezra's long-winded speeches and own brand of torment, and finally having an entire conversation without saying a word with Chris and being comfortable with it. He had just started getting settled with the idea of belonging somewhere when his whole world had been yanked out from under him, just like all the earlier times in his life. He stared down at those flashing lights and hoped he could join them very soon, as their brother and friend. He ran a hand back through his hair, now touching his shoulders. Remembering back to his days on the reservation, he recalled that then it was always this length. He decided he liked it. With a half grin imagining the flak he would take, he decided he was not going to cut his hair when this was over, regulations be damned.
"Did you lose interest in my beauties, boys?" The soft brogue announced McBride's arrival to Vin left side. "Ah . . .no, I see there's a bit of excitement about." He glanced at Taylor, trying to read his level of interest in the growing number of lights in the valley below. "Seems our local finest might have a major case working."
"Probably gettin' a cat out of a tree." Vin snorted in response. He took another calming breath and raised his bottle of beer again, maintaining his face of indifference.
The two men beside him chuckled in amusement.
McBride said, "Roland, I see Mr. Taylor shares our assessment of the local constabulary."
"Don't seem like the smartest bunch of rocks.” The soft drawl continued with his jab at the law enforcement community.
"That's true, my boy." McBride clamped an amiable hand down on his shoulder, and Vin hid his wince.
He wanted nothing more than to take a firm grasp of it and throw the man down the hill. The visual alone was very gratifying...maybe he might roll over one of the cactus he landscaped the lawn with. Seeing this man picking needles out of his butt almost created a smile on the somber Tanner.
Until McBride spoke again, "Don't worry; you'll get a chance to speak out against them tomorrow."
"Suppose ya still don't want ta share who?" Vin turned toward the smiling man beside him.
"Why spoil a pleasant evening with business?" He motioned to the lively antics of the group of women playing in the pool behind them. "Tonight's for relaxing and getting to know one another better."
Vin met the smiling countenance with a scowl of his own. "Learned early it pays ta watch out fer my own interests."
"A very wise practice, lad." McBride tapped his forefinger to his head. "Very wise." He again patted Vin on his shoulder, a practice Tanner thoroughly began to detest. "Rest assured, lad, I look after my own."
Tanner nodded politely and still said, "No offense. I'll still keep a watch on my own back."
"None taken." McBride sneered and bowed slightly as Vin moved off toward the pool area. He then turned his attention to the man left at his side. "Has he tried to get to a phone?"
Roland smiled smugly, "Boy's been a model houseguest."
"See he stays that way." McBride issued the subtle warning while glancing back down the hill. "And Roland, send one of the boys down to see what that's about." That much police activity near him required he know what they did just in case it directly affected him in any manner. The last thing he wanted was a houseful of cops, especially since he was technically detaining Taylor against his free will.
Roland nodded once and moved back towards the house. McBride shifted his gaze from the activity down the hill back toward the pool, watching as the young redhead that took such an interest in his houseguest earlier, once again engaged him in conversation. Not for the first time he really wondered if his associates knew what they were getting into by bringing this one in so far into the game. He still did not trust Taylor enough to leave him with access to the cops.
The quiet neighborhood now resembled an organized battleground. An assortment of emergency vehicles blocked the street while the Volunteer Ladies Auxiliary manned card tables in front of the Turner home and passed out coffee, soft drinks and water to the weary searchers. Ready-made sandwiches stayed available. The Auxiliary enlisted the local women in the making of them and refilling the water jugs, all to give them something to do. The Auxiliary also convinced the ladies to distribute sport bottles of water and thermoses so the searchers could stay out longer. As the search parties returned, they refilled them and handed them back out. Fresh searchers got new bottles with the Auxiliary logo. The fire department maneuvered their light truck as much as they could between the houses. They raised a large halogen light on a boom to illuminate the backyard and as much of the woods behind as possible. In addition, long black snake like cables stretched as far as possible to the various smaller portable light stands set up along the tree line, doing all they could to light the area and aid the searchers. A paramedic squad sat idle, standing by in case of immediate need; the members did what they could to aid the search, including keeping watch on the searchers and checking them over for ticks and exhaustion as they returned.
News crews swarmed like locusts around the area, lights from their crews aiding as much as the reporters hampered in their scramble to get the latest details from returning search crews on the so far unsuccessful completion to this incident. Deputies remained assigned to them full time to prevent them from interfering in the search - more or less keep them out, period. The County's Public Information Officer - or mouthpiece - talked with most of them while the Sheriff kibitzed with the local politicians, all mugging for the cameras and saying what a tragedy this was and they were hopeful this would come to a successful conclusion. As of yet, the Sheriff still had not taken over the incident from Malone other than to order the deputies to find the child, ASAP. This sheriff, who promised sweeping change, delivered with a major reorganization, but stopped his efforts two years into his term; he remained content to sit on his laurels, and not finish the job. He currently eyeballed a judgeship coming open next year and had opted against re-election.
Larabee removed his hat, ran a tired hand through his already mussed, sweaty blond hair, put the Stetson back on, and thought back to when he awoke earlier this afternoon. It felt like one of those days he should have stayed in bed. That had proved true beyond his imagination and not much gave him hope that tomorrow will be any better. He grimaced as he took a swig of the bitter cold coffee from the Styrofoam cup he held in his hand, and sat down on the edge of the table that served as their temporary command post. Spread across the surface was a county relief map. Anchored at its corners, the map sported several red x's in a small grid of the neighborhood as search teams thoroughly combed the matching sectors, through the woods and up and down the stream.
He spared a brief glance back towards the modest home. He knew Cally Turner was resting inside, the paramedics finally having to sedate the distraught woman. Several of her neighbors sat with her, offering what feeble support they could. Glancing back to the woods, he knew the father was out there with the search teams doing what he needed to do to find his son. Just as he would have done to find his son, had he been given such a chance. He wasn't though; his loss was almost immediate, but no less painful than what these young parents were going through. At least he hoped they could still pull a happy conclusion out of this. As the hours dragged on, though, he was beginning to doubt the prognosis.
He watched as Lt. Hawthorne from the Sheriff's Department directed a fresh group of volunteers to another area of the woods to search. Hawthorne was not as bad but he was still another hold over from the old administration, and as such, Larabee did not trust him. He admitted that the man had been nothing but professional since his arrival on the scene. Hawthorne immediately did everyone the favor of dispatching McKenzie from the area to cover any county calls that came in while units were tied up in the search. Larabee looked forward to the day when the Sheriff’s house was thoroughly cleaned and the county was finally under the more trustworthy watch of the new breed being brought in. Chris knew Malone would make a good leader, but for now the young professional had to stall his own deserved advance until the final cleaning could take place. Malone's father was part of the Sheriff's Office before the problems, and that was why the younger man chose the Sheriff's Office over FCPD - he wanted to honor his dad who died in the line of duty.
Larabee headed toward the woods himself. He wanted to check on Standish, knowing the Southerner was pushing himself and his partner hard, feeling he had let them down somehow by not being able to find the missing boy right away. Forget the fact that the scene had been compromised. Forget the unwelcome conditions with the dense foliage and the stream, that anyone walking through could lose the scent for a dog. Fear struck Chris for a moment as he thought of that stream. It was not deep, only now slightly larger than a couple feet deep because of the spring thaws just started. However, in his profession and as a parent, he knew it didn't take more than a few inches of water to be trouble for a small child. He guessed how raw aching his feelings were going to be if this turned out badly, and he hated imagining how Standish was going to feel.
He shook his head again in wonder over the canine officer; Ezra was a good man, and his biggest fault being that he could not admit that to himself. Larabee found himself confused at first when the fastidious man insisted on becoming a canine officer. He could not picture him dealing with an animal and all their foibles - pet hair, drool, and clean up details being the most obvious. But Standish had been adamant, and Larabee admitted it had turned into a damn fine partnership. Ezra was a fine officer, and he for one was glad to have him on his squad, no matter how many times the man still tried to push his buttons. Hell, half the time he thought Standish did it now to stay in practice, and the other half to make sure that no matter how angry Chris got, Ezra could stay.
The officer the squad leader was so concerned about now was currently making his way slowly upstream and climbing the hill. He still carried the small blanket the young mother had given when the search first began in his pocket, occasionally pulling out the bag to refresh Ace's nose. He still held a vague hope that Ace might be able to find the boy's scent even if his training made him realize otherwise.
Glancing down at his partner, he could almost sense Ace's defeat, as well as he felt his own. Ace hated losing almost as much as his human. Yet the lab kept going; Ace wanted to find the child and please both himself and his master.
His brain took an unwanted memory trip to another time - another handler and another dog. Charlie had taught him more in the short number of years that he knew him than in all the time Ezra spent growing up among the best and brightest in those dreadful boarding schools, and from the snobbish relatives Maude dumped him on. Charlie had taught him about life and love. The older man cared about everyone, and he was not afraid to show it. Nevertheless, Ezra remembered that the caring also took his toll on the man. Standish wondered briefly, but would not let the self-reflective thought take hold, if that was why he tried to hold people off. In Ezra’s opinion, caring took too much of a toll, but Charlie always insisted it was worth it. He also called Ezra a fool for missing out on one of life's sweet rewards.
Standish was not so sure as he remembered the case his friend had tried so hard on. Another child missing, only this one a little girl, in a situation much like this one. A neighborhood nestled quietly among a retreating wilderness supposedly offering a bit of peace and serenity for those residing there. There was no peace that day; there was no happy ending. After a daylong search into the evening, the searchers were forced to give up as the weather turned foul. There was no obvious excuse for the dog not to pick up her scent at the start of the search, but he had not, and when the weather turned there was no hope. They found her that next day face down is a stream such as this. Ezra had never seen his friend so distraught as during that time, and it often made him wonder why he wanted to follow the same path as Charlie.
Ace began to pull hard at his leash and Standish chastised himself for letting his thoughts stray off his task. "What is it, boy?" He felt his own heart rate increase when Ace frantically yanked him over to the side of the stream bank. The sudden burst of energy from his partner transferred to Ezra, and where Ace led, the Southerner followed. He tried tamping down on his hope, but hope refused to be defeated, creating a small tingle that danced across his skin under the jumpsuit.
They had moved quite a ways from Turner home, following the streambed up the gently slopping hill. He no longer heard the search teams behind him, and the crackle of the radio sounded obscene in this part of nature's playground. Only the noises of nighttime wildlife reached his ears, and he felt he trespassed in its territory. Ezra tried keeping a close watch on where he and Ace stepped in the dark, his flashlight the only thing brightening the darkness.
It was on a path such as this that Standish thought a small boy such as Jason would find more interesting. For one, there was less foliage to pick through; and second, the challenge of finding tadpoles or other wildlife near the stream would tempt any young boy. Several large trees grew close to the stream bank here, and the banks were a little taller than the streambed, because over time, the water carved a little deeper gorge out of the earth on its trek down to the lake. Ezra felt his heart race more as he imagined the stream was a little deeper here also.
As they trotted along, Ezra mentally started preparing himself for the worst. Nothing prepared anyone for seeing a dead body, much less that of a child, but he tamped down on his emotions and tried to be ready. From the rate Ace tugged on the lead, he knew the lab picked up a scent and it was a strong one. He prayed quietly and quashed his own hopeful nature to remain impassive.
Ace moved to the base of a large oak. The tree seemed to balance precariously over the creek bed on the edge of a small ledge. Several of its large roots were exposed from years of rushing waters. The lab discovered a small hole among the gnarled exposed limbs and was whining, wagging his tail furiously, and turning his excited panting face to his master. Standish refused to hope, negatively thinking that the dog had found a small animal burrow.
However, Ace refused to be denied. As the lab started getting more impatient with Ezra, his excitement again transferred to his handler.
Still, with a sense of hope and anticipation, he dropped to his knees, uncaring of dirt and mud, and shined his light back through the roots. His whole face lit up in a grin that if the sun were shining, it would have sent a ray of sunshine sparking off his gold crown.
"Jason!" he said softly but insistently as not to startle the boy. He blinked his eyes at the feel of unfamiliar mistiness there. "Jason," he called again to the young child who appeared to be asleep, nestled in the wooden cocoon. Move, Jason, move, he thought to himself. Wake up; show me you're okay.
The blond head slowly rose up and blinked in fright at the unfamiliar snuffling near his feet. After backing further into the cocoon, he rubbed his sleep-matted eyes and then grinned when he recognized the shape. "Doggy."
A huge sigh of relief coursed through Ezra in hearing those words and he chuckled. "Yes, it's a doggy, Jason. Why don't you come out here and play with us? My name's Ezra, and this is Ace."
The small boy slowly made his way to the entrance of his haven, still a bit shy of this stranger, but hungry and tired as well, and wanting to go home. As he emerged in the open, Ace immediately set to greeting him properly with gentle licks all over his face and a furiously wagging tail, earning a round of giggles from the child.
Cute eyes stared at the dark clothed stranger, but saw the light colored outline of the badge on the jumpsuit and the badge dangling from the choke collar. “Mommy says police help people. Are you a police-man?" he asked.
"Yes, I am, Jason." He never felt prouder of his occupation and life choice than at that moment. Charlie was right, that son of a bitch; caring brought a reward.
The boy smiled at him, trust shining in his eyes. Ezra wished everyone could be as trusting as a child. Standish looked the boy over, but could not see any obvious injuries.
Jason turned his wide blue eyes up to his rescuer and in all his innocence said, "You found me." He thought he found the perfect hiding place; Daddy once brought him here to do that thing with the stick and the string, and he thought Daddy would check here first. As time passed and it got dark, Jason thought it better to stay where he knew Daddy would look. Daddy and Mommy always said not to go into the woods after dark.
Ezra smiled at the boy, receiving his own share of kisses from his partner, which made Jason laugh harder. "Yes we did," the handler finally got out between licks. "But your mother is very worried about you."
The boy looked a little sad then, even if he was not quite sure what he should be sad about. "I'm hungry," he finally stated. He stood next to the seated handler and waited for Ezra to take care of him.
Ace shuffled over to the stream and started lapping up water. For once, Ezra did not mind, because the lab pushed hard and deserved a break.
Ezra smiled and brushed the boy's hair back from his face, "I bet you are, son. What do you say we go find your Mommy and get something to eat?"
Jason nodded enthusiastically as he still tried to pet the wiggling canine. "Can I play with doggy?"
Ace was beside himself with happiness. He found what he was supposed to and now had a new, smaller playmate in addition to his human.
"I think that can be arranged." The Southerner readily agreed as he stood and lifted the child into his arms. He sighed in contentment as he felt the small arms wrap around his neck and he returned the small hug.
A stray thought crossed his mind about having children of his own and them giving him this kind of unconditional love. He wondered if it was ever to be and guessed Lady Fate held the cards on that one. Maybe he would draw a wild card and things just might happen for him. Right now, however, he enjoyed the feel of the small child in his arms, and the way he clung to his rescuer.
"I have something for you," Ezra said. From his pocket, he pulled out Jason's blanket and removed it from the plastic covering. "I believe this is yours?"
"Binky!" the child happily called. He snatched the treasured item from Ezra’s hand then remembered his manners. "Tanks."
"You're welcome, Jason," Ezra replied, wrapping the part of the blanket not held tightly within the child’s hands around the rest of the small body.
He began walking back down the streambed carrying his precious burden when he remembered he forgot to call in and alert the teams with the good news.
"K9-16, Command Post." During major incidents, procedure dictated the set up of a central brain, or information-processing center on site, complete with radio capability so all units involved could communicate with each other. Usually they used a mutually compatible frequency between the departments so regular radio traffic would not be hampered or disrupted.
"CP, K9-16, go ahead."
"Child located. Ocean King." He could not keep the pride out of his voice, and again, that unfamiliar mistiness filled his eyes.
Ezra frowned slightly when there was no immediate reply. Thinking his radio might not of gotten through, he tried again.
Jason only turned his head and stared sleepily at the noise box. He did not mind being carried by this nice man; he just wanted something to eat, Mommy, Daddy, sleep, and the doggy too.
The Southerner tried again. "K9-16, CP. Did you copy?"
"Copy, K9-16, child located, Ocean King," came the immediate reply.
Standish smiled as he heard the cheering in the background, understanding the delay as the word quickly passed through the large crowd.
"11-01, K9-16." Ezra easily sensed the relief in Larabee's voice.
"What's your 20?"
Ezra had no idea how far he had traveled the streambed and his mind numbly tried to take in everything. He also realized he had no idea how long he had walked. "Upstream from the Command Post, heading your direction."
"10-4. 11-04's heading your way." Larabee sent the squad's paramedic in addition to the paramedic team; he figured Nathan would check the handler, Ace, and the child to make sure they were okay.
Standish saw the ploy, but honestly did not mind. He kept a tight hold on Jason and made his way slowly through the woods, Ace bouncing at his sides, the flashlight the only thing breaking the quiet darkness. He heard them before he saw them; the multiple flashlights led the way.
"Who's coming?" asked Jason, half asleep and roused by the noise.
"Some nice people to check you over and take you to your Mommy and Daddy."
"Oh." He snuggled closer to Ezra. "Can still play with doggy, right?"
The smile shined through the darkness. "Yes, Jason, you can play with the doggy."
Before they even drew within sight, Ace immediately started growling. He put himself between Ezra and the approaching people, his hackles standing up. It did not matter to him that he recognized one scent; right now, his duty was to Ezra and the precious little human in his human’s arms. Without thinking, the paramedics immediately approached and started to reach for Jason who clung tighter to Ezra. The growling intensified and the lab reminded the paramedics he was not the average family pet through heavy duty growling and barking. “Help me, Ezra,” Jason cried, burying his face against the handler’s neck, not knowing these people and their grabbing hands.
Realizing what he had to do, he snapped a command at Ace that the lab grudgingly obeyed, sitting in the heel position on Ezra’s right side. The Southerner turned his body away from the paramedics, and they immediately backed off not wanting to be the latest chew toy for the protective black lab. It felt strange to Ezra to have someone completely confident in him, not caring about his background, just trusting him to do what was right. He squeezed the boy tighter to his chest while the paramedics realized the problem. Jason did not know them and understandably was scared along with their threatening manner. Hands showed very visibly and everyone stilled.
Nathan tried approaching first. “Hi, Jason.” He introduced himself in a quiet soothing voice. “I’m a friend of Ezra’s, and I’d like to make sure you’re okay.” The black man shifted to the canine handler’s left side and Ace let him. Jason watched the doggy’s reaction and saw Doggy liked this man.
“Doggy likes you,” the boy said, as if this solved everything.
The medic smiled. “Yes, Jason. The doggy likes me and I like him. You know what? He lets me check him over and I want to check you over too. How about if you watch me with Ace, and then I’ll do the same to Ezra, and finally you?”
Jason slowly nodded, not willing to leave the embrace of the nice policeman who held him. Nathan used slow and exaggerated movements to check Ace over, the lab finding the attention fun and licking Nathan in the face.
“Now it’s Ezra’s turn,” said the paramedic. Still holding Jason, Nathan slowly checked the Southerner over for broken bones and ran his fingers through Ezra’s hair checking for ticks. Jason giggled when Ezra shied away from a ticklish spot on his side, and at the condition of the handler’s hair when Nathan finished. The paramedic thought it might amuse Jason if he pulled the hair straight up in spots and left it that way, which amused Nathan anyway. With his arms full, Ezra only glared, which caused Nathan to grin broadly at his friend and wink.
Finally, Jason allowed Ezra to lower him to the ground, but stayed leaning against the handler’s legs, Ace right beside him and licking him in the face while Nathan examined him. The paramedics stayed ready to assist, but did not want to upset the boy. Nathan nodded that he found nothing broken or obviously damaged, no ticks, and stepped back. They let Ezra pick him back up and carry him towards the waiting family, friends, officers, neighbors, and press at the edge of the property.
Nathan watched his friend closely as they walked back down the streambed towards the Turner home. It was not often anyone saw past or through the protective emotional shield the Southerner cloaked around himself, and it showed how far Ezra had come in the time he had been with them. It took the paramedic a long time to give his complete trust to or even like Standish, but that was in the past. Now he saw a piece of the real man, the sensitive caring man Ezra tried to keep hidden from the world, relegating everyone to shoulder’s length and rarely letting anyone inside. It was times like this when a child was involved – the Good Lord knew Standish loved children - or when one of them caught him off guard playing with Ace that they saw the other side. He now knew Ezra did not carry any physical injuries, but the fatigue and the emotional ones were draining him.
Ezra felt the small arms tighten around his neck again as they neared the backyard and the raucous, rambunctious sounds of the crowd anxiously waiting for them reached their ears. Jason looked down at Ace, as if seeking reassurance that his new friends stayed close and would protect him. The young boy did not understand all the people and all the noise.
The small party reached the backyard gate.
“Jason!” The young mother screamed her joy and tore from her husband’s arms to retrieve her son. Pete Turner followed close behind trying to wipe the tears flowing from his eyes as he ran.
“Mommy!” Jason recognized that voice and turned toward his mother.
Ezra felt a small pang of loss as the child went willingly into his mother’s arms.
“They found me, Mommy,” Jason pointed back at the handler and his partner. He signaled Ezra and Ace closer, still not ready to deal with the horde of strangers and sea of faces. All those bright lights hurt his eyes after the darkness of his hideaway and the trek back through the night-lit woods.
“I know, son,” Cally cried freely at the joy of simply holding her baby again. “How can I ever thank you?”
“Meeting young Jason here was thanks enough,” Ezra said sincerely as he rubbed the back of the boy’s head. Hell, he felt that stupid mistiness in his eyes again and hoped he could retain some of his shattered composure. If she kept looking at him like he was an angel, it would not be an easy thing.
Through her tears, the mother smiled brightly at the canine officer. “Thank you so much.” She punctuated her thoughts by moving up and kissing Ezra lightly on the cheek.
Nathan smiled as the Southerner blushed and the paramedic almost heard Ezra's voice saying, "Aw, shucks, ma'am, it was nothing".
Lt. Hawthorne came up to the group. “Standish, well done.” With all the people around them, he was unable to extend his hand but offered the verbal appreciation he believed everyone in his department felt. Not one of them wanted to find a child’s body and the longer the search drew out, the more likely that possibility became; the FCPD canine handler brought them all a happy conclusion.
Ezra tipped his hat and reached down and patted Ace’s neck, “Thank you Sir, but Ace did all the work.” Ace sat on Ezra’s right side in the perfect sit position, his tongue lolling from side to side in his mouth as he panted.
“Nice doggy, Mommy,” Jason popped up as he rested his tired head on his mother’s shoulder.
The adults chuckled at the child’s statement. “Yes he is, son.” Pete Turner patted his son’s back as he let the gratitude he was feeling shine through his eyes to the handler and his partner.
Standish noticed Larabee standing behind Hawthorne. Beyond the two supervisors, he could see the other deputies working hard to keep the press back. He cringed thinking of the scare they would cause to the already traumatized boy. Hell, he admitted, he hated the press on a good day, but that was a story for another time.
“Ezra said I can play with the doggy,” Jason explained to them.
Ezra smiled and spoke to the little boy, “That’s right, but didn’t you say your were hungry?”
Remembering his rumbling tummy, the little boy nodded. Nathan picked up on Standish’s unease, and he too noted the surging crowd of reporters. His own thoughts matched the handler’s that he did not want to see the child scared again as he had been in the woods. “Ma’am,” he said with enough authority to catch Mrs. Turner’s attention, “We checked Jason over and he seems fine. Just tired and hungry.”
As he hoped, the young parents took the hint. Cally nodded, “Jason, why don’t I fix you a grilled cheese sandwich?”
The small blond head nodded enthusiastically at the mention of his favorite food. The parents began to move off back to their home, and then pulled up short as they noticed the commotion at the gate. Cally held her son closer, trying to protect him from the noise and the glare of the lights and cameras.
Lt. Hawthorne stepped beside them trying to block view of the cameras as best he could, saying, “Come on, we’ll keep them away from you.” He escorted them to the back door of their residence with three other deputies running interference. Hawthorne knew the Sheriff would want to make an appearance with the couple in front of the media, but perhaps he could spare the child the exposure right now and let them get through the worst of the emotions out of the eye of the press. He would talk with the Sheriff when they got inside the doors and closed them against the rest of the world temporarily.
Larabee turned to Standish as Hawthorne led the family off. He saw the veiled tension on the man’s face and knew every emotion he was feeling as if it was his own, and it had been, at one time or another. He set a hand on the man’s shoulder, and gave him a gentle squeeze. “Good job, Ezra.”
“That’s what this was: a job.” Standish smiled sadly the walls tried to slide back into place. The feeling of let down after an adrenaline high began to depress him. He gave Ace another reassuring pat, knowing he needed to go give him water, food, and his toy for a job well done.
Chris looked the handler in the eyes. “I know that’s not true, Ezra,” he stated firmly. The green eyes of a different hue met those of someone coming down and needing bolstering.
Standish knew Larabee understood . . .everything. What he was feeling, why. He breathed a huge sigh of relief; at least he could feel good this ended well.
“Go take care of Ace,” Chris finally said. “And yourself. You can get the supplement to the County later.” The Sergeant understood the need for some down time after a case as nerve wracking as this one. He, too, silently rejoiced at the happy ending.
Josiah moved up to join Larabee and Jackson as he watched Standish lead Ace away.
“Is he okay?” Josiah inquired.
Larabee shrugged, “Sometimes I think my people spend so much time trying to save lives they don't know how to live anymore.” He heard that quote somewhere and it struck a chord with him; he used it now because it fit the situation.
Sanchez smiled, silently believing the Sergeant should think on that observation for himself sometime. Josiah looked around as he saw the deputies beginning to send people on their way, and the crews rearranging their equipment for the forthcoming statements from the Sheriff and parents.
“And sometimes a single act of compassion can put you in touch with your own humanity,” countered the gentle giant. His smile widened as the sliding glass door off the patio opened, and one of the deputies called Standish over, pulling him and the dog quickly into the home.
Larabee smiled as he saw the Turner family laying out the welcome for Ezra and Ace through the patio door. A large bowl of water landed beside the chair reserved for the Southerner. The lab immediately made himself at home by slurping a considerable amount, but stopping long enough to sneeze all over his handler’s leg and benefactor’s floor. Jason laughed along with his parents as Cally handed him a paper towel. Returning to the stove, she picked something else up and served her son. A plate with sandwiches and potato chips appeared beside a large glass of lemonade in front of Standish. Cally Turner knelt beside the partners and expressed her thanks, with a petting for Ace, and a gentle hug for the surprised Ezra. Pete Turner reached over and shook his hand with enthusiasm, while Jason planted a kiss on his cheek along with a big hug. The four year old also hugged Ace, who slapped his tail against the floor.
“Maybe you’re right, Josiah. Maybe you’re right.” It pleased him the Turner family did not forget in their happiness who was responsible for finding their son, and made the effort to include Ezra in their celebration. He was thankful too because he knew it would help the Southerner stave off the initial bout ‘let down’ that often followed a case like this.
“Go on, help clean up the mess. I’ll watch out for Brother Standish and make sure he’s not alone for awhile.”
“Thanks, Josiah.” Chris immediately headed for the front of the house to help them set up for the inevitable press conference at the end of the driveway and shooing the spectators away. The Auxiliary pitched in and started their routine of cleanup while the fire crews packed their gear and prepared to leave. Life would soon be returned to normal in this little neighborhood.
Vin leaned against the wall, his head tilted against the pane of the window. His troubled gaze stared out at the night sky. He could not see the house down the hill from here, but he tried to imagine he could. One of McBride’s men brought word earlier that they were searching for a lost child. He caught some of the story on the television news coverage as McBride and Roland made derisive comments of the reporters' interviews with the Sheriff. They kept saying this Sheriff could not find his butt with both hands and a map, and did nothing but play spin doctor. Nothing real ever got accomplished like under the old Sheriff. He nearly snorted at the thought; he knew the old Sheriff and hated him. That hatred was mutual.
Letting his mind go back to the view of the constant, unchanging stars, Tanner wondered how his friends were doing now. A missing child. He knew how rough those cases were, and prayed it turned out okay. He would give anything to be down there helping in the search. Fighting the urge to punch the wall, he heaved a heavy sigh and flopped down on the bed. At any other time he might find the opulent softness of the bed restful, but not tonight.
McBride insisted that they go to bed early, gloating that they needed to get an early start in the morning. Sleep would not come to the undercover officer, though, as hard as he tried. He kept thinking about his friends. Vin’s stomach churned as his mind went over all the possible scenarios he could be facing. He hoped Haskill took his warning to heart. The niggling at the back of his neck told him otherwise. He had a bad feeling about tomorrow. Shooting a cop, damn; what had his life come too? Another feeling of longing swept over him as thoughts of home and hearth filled his mind. Memories of the belonging, trusting, caring, sharing, and the comfort they brought him forced his eyes closed, and his clenched fists gripped the bedcovers.
He berated himself again for not telling Haskill to take this job and shove it. With a wistful shake of his head, he knew he could not have done it. He would not; it was not in him to quit, and it would have ruined to many plans and let too many people down. Besides, he knew what was going down, and at least he would be in a position to make sure of the outcome.
As for the target, he considered the options. It seemed to him that most of the problem came from FCPD, his agency, so he concentrated on who might be the biggest pain in the butt there. A laugh escaped his throat at that thought, because quite of few people matched that description. He ruled out the dayshift people, including Raphael’s squad, because they did not deal with the same type of calls that the nightshift did. Drug runners operated mostly at night, out of the heavier police presence during the day.
Next, he eliminated the CID – Criminal Investigation Division – people, because they kept a low profile like the Special Units of SRT – Special Response Team - and narcotics officers. The Chief was a possibility. Even if he was not solely responsible for the formation of the police department, he was the one at the helm. Early on he had proved he was not like past city leaders and could not be bought. He made a lot of enemies just by his presence, but Vin dismissed him as a target, along with the Administration, because a hit on them would bring too much heat. Understanding that anyone could be a target, he also dismissed anyone in the less visible sections of the department, thinking the organization would consider them a waste of time as well.
That left the two midnight shift patrol units. Knowing his squad, it was one of them because the other midnight shift, while good, did not make as many criminal arrests or as many recoveries; they concentrated on traffic and DWI’s. Between the shifts, they balanced the criminal and traffic arrests, complimenting the other while not letting the citizens suffer from neglect in any area. Plus, his shift was working until seven a.m., and McBride said they were getting up extremely early.
He knew the squad had a new rookie, and he eliminated him first. Unless it was someone already known to the organization, the rookie did not have a chance to tick them off yet. From the little he learned from Nina and Chris, it sounded like he was fresh out of the Academy.
He eliminated Nathan too, because Nathan rarely worked the high crime areas, and most people respected him. The man hated drugs and alcohol abuse, seeing it constantly on the campus and as a paramedic, but he was not a ‘beat-the-bushes-and-chase-them-down’ kind of officer. He methodically built a case and evidence against the person, and then did an application for a warrant through the courts.
Josiah nibbled on the fringes of this cluster, using the information the teenagers and younger kids gave him, the man they called the “Preacher”. He developed that into arrests on the juvenile pushers, arresting one street level juvenile dealer at a time. Josiah hated taking in the juveniles, just to see them quickly replaced by other juvenile pushers on the street. But deep in his heard, Josiah knew that in some cases the arrest gave the kids a wake up call and fresh start, one that would lead them away from a life in and out of juvenile hall and jail, if not an early grave.
Buck, well, Buck knew everyone and held a fearsome reputation for not taking any crap from anybody. On the streets people either loved him or hated him. His arrest record stayed lower than most because he preferred developing informants in the high traffic areas than taking people in, and as a result, getting their families hostile and uncooperative against him. But those same people understood that if one sassed Buck Wilmington past his breaking point, one got a free ride to jail.
If one reached that point, saw it, and then immediately and quietly surrendered, things went a heck of a lot easier. Run, and he’ll hunt you down, even if he has to beat on every door for the whole shift to do it. Don’t piss him off, the sages told the uninitiated, because if you piss him off, they advised . . .it wasn’t pretty. There might have been a few times when ol’ Buck’s temper got the best of him, but usually he tried to keep the legalities in mind. That didn’t mean he didn’t have his enemies.
That left Ezra, Chris, and Nina. Aw, hell. He hoped it would not be one of them, but process of elimination left them as the main nest stirrers for this group.
Ezra and Ace often brought in large hauls for the police, finding drugs in hidden compartments in vehicles. Ace found the drugs and Ezra found the compartments, a winning combination for law enforcement. Ezra’s drug interdiction team experience in Atlanta often paid off as flunkies realized they could not con the con man. It was accepted Ezra and Ace were good at their jobs and everything was done to avoid their notice. Once one got their attention, they were marked. Ezra watched his marks closely, and always knew when someone was up to no good, or doing something they should not be doing. While Vin often heard loud, vociferous complaints about them, none of the complaints seemed to him to hold a particular malice against the pair. Unless it was just the general fact that the loss of product was costing the organization money.
They saved the majority of their malice for his surrogate older sister and best friend, both names frequently and often taken in vain, accompanied by a wide variety of curses.
Nina stayed very well informed and fiercely protected her sources. She was good at creating questions of doubt as to who told her what, and how much she actually knew. Her effortless way of questioning people without them realizing it often paid off in tidbits they never knew were important in the grand scheme of things. Nina used the tidbits to make profiles and pictures, effectively cutting out large chunks of lower ranking members making the organization constantly rebuild on a monthly basis. Vin often heard it debated that Nina was half-omnipotent from what she always seemed to know. A rumor reached his ears that one of the reasons they demanded this loyalty test was to make sure that he was not one of Caswell’s multitude of informants from all the times she jacked him up in public. He snorted; she jacked more people up in a day than most officers would in a lifetime; half the thugs hit the wall voluntarily the second they saw her. Kicker was she had half of them laughing while she patted them down like she did with him, keeping a sense of humor about the entire incident and giving sisterly advice about staying under her radar. One thing he did know if the rumor was true, she would never know he was in this predicament because of her. He also knew if their suspicions were right she would be considered a target, even without her arrest records.
Where Nina used her charisma to gain information, Chris pissed people off by not cutting any breaks, sticking the maximum he could under the law in every ticket to the group’s identified members. His jack ups usually resulted in aggravated people who left cursing his name under their breath, yet they still held a grudging respect for him. Larabee’s arrest narratives and charges read like a collection of alphabet and offense numbers soup. Vin tried warning Chris to knock it off before, because he was pissing too many in the organization off. He only received that trademark smirk and a grunted, ‘Good’. Vin shook his head as he thought of his best friend; Larabee never backed off.
Aw, hell, he thought again. I can’t shoot either one of them. He hated shooting anybody at all, but it looked like he was being forced to. Like the drive by shootings he participated in as part of his membership dues. The last one he felt that niggling feeling someone watched from a distance, and that probably had something to do with why they picked him.
Vin remembered the scene – Yucca Apartments, drug hell of Four Corners, and a pair of dealers that ripped off the organization in money and product. Half the product went either in their veins or up their noses, and the rest went to their friends at bargain basement prices. The money, what little there was of it, never made it to the lieutenant of that crew, and a lesson in proper business sense came due.
Consequently, Vin and his running buddies received their marching orders from Roland Jennings. He provided them with a stolen junker car, stolen tags, weapons, black hoods, masks, gloves, and directions to shoot the assholes as a lesson to the others. Don’t kill them, Roland warned, because they were not dumb enough to bring the heat down full force, but make sure they suffered.
Stuffed in the tiny car like sardines, the four of them slithered into Yucca on a day when Squad One was off. Vin selected the day and reminded the morons that ‘smart’ people learned the schedules of the people who caused the most harm, and worked around it. Didn’t all of them have scanners in their cars and listen religiously to know where the cops were?
The idiots agreed with Vin’s brilliance and timed it when they knew the East and South cars were handling a well staged disturbance in the bar sector, the North car patrolled Outer North and the West car was backing up County just inside Outer West’s jurisdiction on a traffic stop. Guaranteed no interference, Preston drove while the other three emptied their guns at their targets. Vin was sickened at the job and prayed no stray bullets would find any innocent civilians during their retribution. As they drove past the dealers Vin did what he could to assure only minor wounds were incurred. And risking his own cover enough to bump his cohorts' arms to throw off their aim as they jockeyed for positions inside the car.
By the time they left, holes littered every part of the street sign, the surrounding brick building, and three people lay on the ground writhing in pain. The 911 calls overloaded Dispatch, but the only description from witnesses was an old car with shadowed occupants inside. They could not even tell how many. They used common guns with common ammunition and nothing traced back to them, but the assholes knew who shot them and why. So did the other dealers, and it started a cleaning of conscience – more money was turned in to the organization and pledges of loyalty and fealty suddenly became commonplace. The dealers turned on each other and the lieutenants cleaned out their crews, giving a bonanza to the police as many of them went the police route instead of the organizational route.
He was sure of his shots then and he would be damn sure of them tomorrow. Hit the target to lightly wound, not incapacitate, just as they taught in diversionary tactics in the Rangers. Besides, they already told him the bullets would be fakes; he figured on a nice purple bruise on his target – hell, he did not want to think of his friends that way, as targets – and a warning delivered.
Intellectually, he knew that it would not serve as a warning to his friends; it would piss them off. Vin hated the thought that they would correctly guess who did it because of this damn shit-ass loyalty test, but he reckoned they’d take the bruise out of his hide at a later time. At least they’d be alive.
Sighing again, shoving thoughts of family away reluctantly, and knowing sleep would not come this night, he prayed his friends would be ready too. It was going to be a nightmare of a day.