Chris Larabee reached the diner in exactly eight and a half minutes to find Vin leaning against the hood of his rusty jeep in the grass and gravel parking lot, arms crossed and gazing thoughtfully into the distance. Chris brought the Ram to a halt beside him and got out. Vin gestured with his chin in the direction of the diner entrance.
"He's there. I called in to find out if anyone had seen him and just seen him sittin' there."
Chris turned. Sure enough, he could see Josiah's broad back and shoulders through the window, curly head bent as though he was reading something.
"Stay here. I'll go in and see what the hell's going on with him. You get hold of the others and get 'em here as soon as you can. Tell Nathan to bring his kit with him, just in case."
Vin nodded, but touched Chris' arm as the agent turned to go into the diner.
"Go easy, Chris. He's not up to bein' hoorawed."
Larabee scowled but had to agree. Sometimes well, more often than not, he had to say, his worry for his team, his friends, brought the worst out in him. But not this time. Now he had to tread carefully, had to be gentle and calm and understanding, because Josiah's state of mind was at stake.
Leaving Vin to 'phone the others he headed into the diner, the heavy hydraulic door swooshing shut behind him.
It was pleasantly warm in the diner, and a row of worn tables and bench seats stretched along the length of the big windows looking out onto the highway. For a Saturday morning it was pretty quiet, and there were only a couple of truck drivers sitting on stools tucking into coffee and the delights of a fried breakfast.
A waitress, all bottle-blonde hair and too-red lips looked up from pouring coffee for one of the truckers. She saw Chris' gaze settle on the big man sitting at the far end of the diner.
"You a cop?"
Larabee was surprised, and the waitress pursed her lips. She was well into her forties but obviously hoped she could pass for twenty-five. But her mud-brown eyes were kind.
"How did - "
The waitress interrupted him, nodding at Josiah.
"He tol' me you'd be comin' lookin' for him. He's been sittin' there for hours. I asked him, I said I'd take him home, or to a doctor, but he said he was waitin' for someone. Then I said I'd call the cops an' he said he was a cop - so I just let him be." She smiled. "He's been no trouble though. But he's hurtin', mister. I gotta go soon, end of my shift. I'd like to know he's okay before I go, you understand?"
Chris nodded. He understood that the waitress was concerned for the big man.
"Yeah. He'll be okay, I promise." He smiled, trying to reassure her.
The waitress chewed the inside of her cheek for a moment, then smiled back.
"All right. You go see to him an' I'll be there in a minute for your order. Oh, and he ain't eaten anythin' - he just turned up about two in the mornin' lookin' like a drowned rat. Took me an hour to get some coffee in him. But he's lookin' better now, anyway."
"Thanks." Chris watched as she turned back to her coffee pot, and he headed down the aisle to where Josiah Sanchez sat, turning a coffee cup in long fingers. The team leader eased his whip-lean frame into the seat opposite and leaned his elbows on the formica table.
"Chris." Josiah Sanchez looked up from his cold coffee.
Larabee winced in sympathy.
Josiah's tired face carried a wicked bruise on one cheekbone and he had a badly-split lip. Chris noticed his left hand was wrapped in a bloody handkerchief, and the knuckles on his other hand were swollen and cut. He looked cold, exhausted and bedraggled.
"Well, you're still upright, so I guess you won, huh?" Chris said, looking up as the waitress brought him a cup and poured him a freshly-brewed coffee. She hovered for a moment waiting to see if Josiah wanted a refill, but the profiler shook his head. When she left, Chris continued. "I take it you had a run-in with the Biggles boys?"
Josiah snorted in amusement.
"So that's what they were called. Yeah, we had a little discussion. One of 'em tried to bust my head with a baseball bat and put a dent in the Suburban, but I talked him out of it. After a little while they went away."
Chris took a sip of the hot coffee and relaxed back into the bench seat. He was desperate to find out what was going on in Sanchez's head, but he knew better that to rush the man. And so they both sat quietly, comfortable in each other's company, and Larabee let Josiah gather himself a little while the waitress returned and took Chris' order for eggs - easy over - ham and fried potatoes. He also ordered a plateful for Josiah, despite the big agent's frown of denial that he wasn't hungry. The waitress raised an eyebrow at Larabee as though to say that he'd better get on with sorting out the battered ATF agent, as she was expecting him to be patched up and taken care of before she went back to her tiny little apartment in Greely.
After she left Josiah shoved his coffee cup aside and rested big hands on the table, staring at the long, big-knuckled fingers.
"My father " Josiah swallowed and took a deep breath. "My father would have said it was God's will."
Chris was confused for a moment.
"Your father? I'm sorry Josiah, I don't - "
"He'd have said that all the pain and horror and abuse those young girls went through didn't matter in the end. They're safe in God's hands now, he would have said. All of that pain, all that " Josiah ran out of words, unable, or unwilling, to continue. His hands trembled.
Larabee placed his coffee cup on the table and leaned forward, his voice low.
"But you don't believe that, Josiah. You did everything you could to stop Weller and you did. You stopped him doing those godawful things to any more innocent kids, and that's what matters."
Josiah wiped a big hand over his face, smoothing down his moustache, and he took a shaky breath.
"But I couldn't save young Estelle Kolocek, could I? I was there when they took Weller, Chris, did you know that?" Seeing Chris shake his head he continued. "When they went into that hellhole when they found her dear God Almighty, I never thought " Josiah Sanchez was a man normally well-armed with words, but now he was struggling as he went on, the soft baritone rich with pain as he tried to make Larabee understand what he had witnessed. "I've seen some shit in my time Chris. I've seen five-year-old kids blown up by bouncing Bettys in 'Nam, I've been in firefights where my buddies were cut in two by machine-gun fire. I've seen racial violence, hatred and spite in all of its forms, but I've never never seen anything like this." He looked up from his study of his left hand. "Do you know how long Estelle Kolocek had been dead when we got Weller? Three hours. Three goddamn hours. If I'd been just a little quicker, if I'd figured it out just a little faster, she would still be alive. And do you know what made it worse?"
Chris, numb, shook his head. Josiah licked his lips as he fought to hold back the tears.
"I saw her mother at police headquarters after I'd given my report. A nice lady, Chris. Hard-workin', salt-of-the-earth type. And do you know what she did? She thanked me. She thanked me. Held my hand and jabbered on about how I'd stopped Weller killin' any more kids like her baby her beautiful Estelle." Josiah's voice hitched.
They were interrupted for a moment as the waitress brought plates heaving with food, and her world-worn features creased in concern as she saw the look on Josiah Sanchez' face. She touched his shoulder.
"You eat that, y'hear? It'll warm you."
And then she was gone before Josiah could say a word, back down the aisle to her world of coffee and french fries and hungry truckers.
Chris lifted his fork and took a mouthful of fried potatoes. They were good, hot and crispy, just they way he liked 'em. Just the way Sarah used to make them he shook off the thought.
"You heard the lady," Chris said, "Eat. Del will have my hide if you catch pneumonia, you know that don't you?"
Josiah smiled ruefully, flinching as the action hurt his cut lip. The small mouthful of egg and ham obviously stung his bruised mouth, but he chewed and swallowed, the heat of the food warming his chest.
"Did Del tell you about Rosie?" he asked finally.
Chris shook his head as he chewed another forkful of tasty potatoes.
"Nope. What about her?"
"I thought I was doin' okay until Del got a call from Rosie's kindergarten teacher on Thursday. Seems Rosie belted Ernie Stivens in the nose."
Ernie Stivens was a boy in Rosie's class - big, brawny for his age, and a bully. Chris grinned despite himself.
"What the hell for?"
Josiah swallowed another mouthful of ham.
"He'd seen a lot of the TV reports about how we got Weller, and how we hadn't managed to save Estelle Kolocek. He faced up with Rosie and told her that her ol' man was a no-good goddamn cop and couldn't save his own ass if he tried. His words, not mine." He twitched a grin at Chris. "Rosie didn't say a word - she just bopped the little sonofabitch right in the nose. Apparently he bled like a stuck hog for a while."
"Good for Rosie. I bet Del was ready to have the little shit's hide for a duster."
"Yep. She sure was. Thing is, Rosie won't apologise to him. She told us she was sorry, but she couldn't apologise to a boy who said those things about her daddy, bless her." Josiah straightened painfully and Chris realised the big agent probably had a couple of cracked ribs. Del was going to kick Josiah's ass for sure after she had got him fed, rested and cleaned up. Josiah winced and shifted. "She'll come around I guess. I just have to make her understand that bopping Ernie Stivens in the nose doesn't make it right." He paused for a moment then continued. "Chris what do I tell her? I mean, about the case? She's been asking and and I just don't know what the hell to say."
Larabee thought for a moment. It felt strange to have Josiah Sanchez, the man who had the soft, comforting words that helped heal his often battered and bruised team after a bust went to shit, asking him for advice. Him, Chris Larabee, the moody, mean, bad-assed sonofabitch that shot first and asked questions later.
"You tell her the truth, Josiah. Just sit down and tell her. You can't hide it no matter how hard you try so just tell her. Tell her about how bad people exist, and we do our best to catch 'em, and how sometimes we don't catch them in time. Shit happens, Josiah, you know that better than anybody I know. Tell her that and she'll understand. She's her daddy's girl, and I know she'll figure it out."
Josiah fiddled with his eggs for a moment, then laid down his fork. He knew Chris was right he'd known that all along. He just didn't want to face the truth of it he didn't want to face his own failure. But there was one more thing bothering him.
"Weller do you know much about him?"
Chris wiped his plate clean with a hunk of bread and shook his head.
"Nope. Not much. Why?"
"What makes it so tough Chris, is that Weller and I are so much alike."
Larabee almost choked on his bread at that one.
"Christ, Josiah! Are you nuts?? You and Weller are nothing -"
Josiah raised his battered hand to silence the angry tirade threatening to spill from his friend.
"More alike than you would think, Chris. Weller's father was a Lutheran minister, did you know that? No? A heavy-handed disciplinarian who beat the hell out of Weller and his kid sister, especially after their Momma died of cancer. Sound familiar? Then the sister began stayin' out late, goin' around in bad company. The father beat the shit out of her every time, but she kept doin' it, kept defying him every chance she had. When she fell pregnant at fifteen he nearly killed her. When the baby came it was brain-damaged a little girl, and she died three hours later. Weller's sister killed herself ten days after her baby died. Weller's father refused to go to the funeral, sayin' she was a whore, a harlot of Babylon. It twisted somethin' in Weller, turned him into somethin' strange. Something terrible something evil. When he took his first victim he well, he just kept repeating what had happened to his sister. Except he killed them after " Josiah blinked back tears. "I was stronger than Weller. And thank God I had Hannah when my life went to shit. But every moment I was on that case Chris, I knew what he was thinking, what he wanted to do. I could hear him in my head, whispering, cajoling I knew where he was coming from and it frightened the crap out of me."
Astounded, Chris Larabee struggled to comprehend what Josiah was saying to him, that he felt almost a kinship with the monster that was Jonathan Becks Weller. He looked Josiah straight in the eye, calmly and forcefully.
"You're not him, Josiah. Never will be, never could be. Ever. D'you hear me? Never in a thousand years. You triumphed, my friend. You overcame. Weller failed. He failed because he didn't have the character, or heart, or or soul that you have. He was warped and broken before it even began, there's something in him that is fatally flawed and he's just one bad piece of shit and has been since the moment he was born. That's all."
Josiah Sanchez tilted his head in that quizzical look the Seven knew so well, and smiled through unshed tears.
"Never figured you for a philosopher, Chris. Remind me never to argue politics, religion or sex with you."
Larabee let loose a soft chuckle, his lean face creasing into a relieved grin. He pushed his empty plate to one side and pulled out some crumpled dollars from his jeans pocket, leaving them beside his plate. He included a decent tip for the waitress.
"C'mon, let's get you to the ER at Mercy and get those ribs looked at before Nate throws a coniption." He gestured through the window, and Josiah turned painfully to see the other five members of the Seven gathered in an uneasy clump beside Ezra's Jaguar. Buck noticed Josiah and Chris and waved, a big grin spread over his moustachioed face. The rest of them turned and Chris saw the relief on their concerned features. Nathan had his medical kit in one big hand, and was almost hopping from foot to foot with impatience.
Josiah levered himself out of his seat with Chris' help, and they slowly made their way to the door, passing the waitress on the way. Chris nodded his thanks and she smiled back, happy now that Josiah was being cared for by his friends. As they emerged into the dull sunshine, Chris turned to the big profiler.
"I just got to ask the Biggles boys. Felt good, huh? That, er discussion?"
Josiah's battered face broke into a wolfish grin, the first Chris had seen on his face in a long time.
"Better than you'll ever know, Chris better than you'll ever know "
But as they walked towards the others on that cold, misty November day, Josiah thought about what Jonathan Becks Weller had shouted to him as he was led away from the nightmare of his basement apartment, where the tortured body of Estelle Kolocek was being photographed and prepped ready for removal by C.S.I.
Josiah shuddered. Weller had done his homework, and the fear ran through the big agent like water. He would tell his compadres when he was ready. But not yet. It was all still too raw, too painful. Maybe when he had squared things away with Del and Rosie, and apologised to his friends for all the worry he had caused them maybe then he would tell them.
And straightening his shoulders painfully, he walked back into the warmth and gentle protection of his brothers.
After Josiah had spent a couple of hours getting his ribs x-rayed and his cuts and bruises treated, the team took Josiah home where he was met by a tense but calm Del Sanchez. The tall hound-dogger handed her curious daughter to her six god-fathers and told them to take her for a walk down by the river.
As they wandered down towards the flat rock by the river where they went swimming during the summer they could hear Del tearing Josiah off a strip. She told him he was irresponsible, stupid and thoughtless. Then she told him she loved him, and she needed him, and if he ever, ever did such a dumb thing again she would feed him to her hounds feet first. Slowly.
By the time the rest of Team Seven returned to the tiny ranch house with a puzzled Rosie in tow, Del had thoroughly kissed her errant husband, undressed him and put him to bed where he now slept like a dead man. She took her daughter's hand in hers, thanked each of her menfolk with a soft, loving kiss to their cheek and went back inside and shut the door.
Vin looked at his brothers in arms. They gazed back silently.
"Breakfast. I'm hungry." Tanner heard his stomach rumble.
"I already ate," Chris said.
"Food looked good at that diner. Mighty good if you ask me." Vin looked thoughtful.
Buck rubbed his hands together.
"So, what's stoppin us? Let's go, fellers, my stomach's beginnin' to think my throat's been cut."
"Oh, please, spare us the gruesome analogies! It's bad enough dining in a place called the Stars 'n' Bars All-Nite Diner!"
"Oh, for God's sake Ez - " JD rolled his eyes dramatically.
"Do they do salad?" Nathan was a little miffed at not being given the chance to check Josiah over as he wasn't too sure that the young doctor at the hospital was entirely capable.
"Their fried potatoes were pretty damn good. Just like Sarah's "
"That'll do for me! Let's go "
And piling into their eclectic collection of vehicles
they head off down the dirt road, out onto the highway and turned south
into the promise of a better day.