The following story is a work of fan fiction. It is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. The Magnificent Seven belong to John Watson/Trilogy Entertainment, MGM, and probably others; only the story is my own. Please do not copy, post, or redistribute without permission from the author.

PERSONA NON GRATA
by the Desperado's Daughter

PART ONE: Mail Call

He hadn't noticed it. In fact, if Josiah hadn't come in to help him with the mundane tasks at hand, he might not have seen it for a day or two. Ezra and Nathan were manning the phones. Chris Larabee was pacing his office like a caged cat. Mail was the last thing on his mind.

He was glad Vin was staying at the apartment with Buck. Chris had had about enough of Buck Wilmington. His oldest friend could be downright unreasonable when he was anxious.

And they were all anxious.

Chris had just gotten off the phone with an old friend of his--yet another ATF official. And the result was the same. Chris slammed the phone in the cradle.

"He doesn't give a shit about the kid," Chris barked. "As far as he's concerned, it never happened."

Chris was getting tired of this.

The first time he got the runaround, Chris had thought there was some kind of . . . incompetence in the ATF office. For two days, he had been unable to reach anyone in authority. And when he finally did, no one would help him. Not only that, but the more he talked to them, the more he sensed they were keeping him in the dark about something.

And he didn't like that a bit--not when one of his men was missing.

That had all started over a week ago. Nine days, actually.

JD Dunne had disappeared without a trace nine days ago.

Chris had been on the horn with the ATF brass ever since. He'd tried other federal agencies. He'd tried the police. He'd tried the military. Hell, he'd thought about calling the President. But as long as his own agency was stonewalling him, there was nothing he could do. His hands were tied.

He'd put his energy in hooking up with his old friend David Grimes. Of all times for Grimes to be out of the country . .

Finally, just this morning, he'd gotten in touch with him. Surely David would help.

No such luck.

First thing in the morning, and Chris already had a headache.

What the hell was going on?

Chris' chest grew tight.

And where was JD?

Josiah sat on the edge of the desk, his brows furrowed. "Maybe we start calling in other favors."

"We shouldn't have to," Chris yelled. Suddenly, he slammed his hands on the desktop. "G**d****t! What do they want from me?!"

Josiah spoke evenly. "Royal wants us to take all the risks. Then he wants to deny any knowledge of it."

Josiah was right.

"The question is," Josiah continued. "What can they possibly hope to gain? What possible leverage can they get by leaving us out to dry?

Chris listened, not looking at his friend, but still Chrislistened. It occurred to him vaguely that his hands hurt . . . Josiah paused a moment. "The cancer must be way up in the system.

Chris studied his friend's eyes. "So there's nobody we can trust." Chris' voice sounded weak even to himself. .

"That's where you're wrong." Josiah spoke steadily. "We can trust each other. We can trust the Judge.

"That's not enough."

"It's more than enough."

"Maybe if we knew where to start." .

Chris looked at the floor and waited for Josiah to impart more wisdom, but instead there was silence.

Chris turned to look at him and found Josiah fingering the mail that had been delivered. Frowning, Josiah picked up a brown package and handed it to him slowly.

The lettering was crude . . . black magic marker. It said simply . . . "To Chris Larabee."

Josiah reached for the phone. "I'll call HazMat and the bomb squad," he said.

But Chris wasn't about to wait. He tore into the paper, and Josiah grabbed his arm fiercely.

"Don't." Josiah's command was short.

"Get your hands off me, Preacher," Chris said menacingly, but Josiah held on.

"If we blow ourselves up, JD doesn't have a chance. Just hang on a minute."

Chris glared at him, then nodded slowly. His eyes drifted to something out of place. His gaze trailed downward and he noticed the photograph lying face-down on the floor.

Feeling like he was moving in slow motion, Chris leaned over and picked up the picture, and he turned it over in his hand as he straightened up. His mouth formed the words, "oh God . . ." but no sound came.

Chris couldn't believe what he was seeing. The image was unbearable.

Josiah moved closer so that he could see as well.

Chris heard Josiah groan, then felt the strong hand on his shoulder and he welcomed the support. Chris was going to have to pull himself together if he was going to be able to lead his men. But right now, he could only stare at the picture.

And for an instant, the mighty Chris Larabee felt like he was going to come unglued. When he tried to speak to Josiah, his voice felt . . . strangely scratchy.

"What are we gonna do?" Chris asked--more to himself than to Josiah.

But his friend answered. "We're gonna get the bomb squad up here to check out that package, and then we'll do whatever we have to to get JD back."

Chris squeezed his eyes closed and nodded. Then he turned to Josiah. "Let's go to work."


Buck Wilmington had slept in his jeans. He hadn't even meant to sleep. He wanted to stay awake. He wanted to be alert. He'd kept the police band radio on all night in case there was any word.

There wasn't.

Buck stood up slowly and stretched. His muscles ached. He hated that first moment every morning when he remembered that his partner was missing. He rubbed his face with his hand and became aware of the terrible weight in his chest. Buck thought for a moment that it would be easier just to stay awake so he wouldn't have to go through remembering every day.

Where are you, kid?

Buck sat on the side of his bed . .

And prayed.

"Buck!" Vin came running in. "They got something. We gotta go.

Buck glanced up. "Thanks . . ." he murmured and he grabbed a shirt and pulled it over his head. He followed Vin to the door.

"What?" Buck grabbed the keys from beside the door.

"Nathan didn't say what. He just said to get there.

"Gimme your phone," Buck ordered as they ran to the car.

"Gimme the keys." Vin pulled the cell phone from his pocket, but held out his other hand.

"Damn it Vin, come on!"

Vin stood stock still and waited. "Shit!!" Buck cried and he thrust the keys in his friend's hand. Vin gave him the phone . . . then drove them to the office like a bat out of hell.


Once the bomb squad had checked the package and found a video tape instead of a bomb, Chris felt his jaw tighten. He was relieved that it wasn't a bomb, but he didn't want to see whatever was on that tape. He'd have to get over it, though.

It was likely to be the very thing that could help them find JD.


Ezra Standish was drinking coffee. He'd already finished the vanilla nut coffee he'd brewed at home, and now was drinking the last of the crappy office coffee. He was even making more. Any other day, Nathan would rib him about "slumming" at the coffee pot. But today, he wouldn't tease his friend. Ezra had to get through this any way he could, and aside from the caffeine high, crappy coffee wouldn't kill him.

Nathan hated this. Chris and Josiah knew something, but they weren't talking. That couldn't be good. But if JD were dead, they wouldn't make everybody wait, and they surely wouldn't be setting up the conference room with a VCR.

If they'd found him, they would be moving more quickly. As it was, they were short-tempered and nipping at everyone's heels. If anything, they seemed more frustrated.

Nathan wandered over to Ezra and together they watched Mr. Coffee sputter and spit. "Since when did you become a coffee drinker, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra asked.

"Who said I was becoming a coffee drinker?

"Then am I to assume that you are merely a coffee voyeur?"


Chris closed the door to the conference room.

"We got a package this morning. There was a picture and a video." Chris sighed then spoke again in as unemotional a voice as he could. "Guys, we're going to be on our own on this one. Locals won't get involved because it's in the feds' jurisdiction and the feds are denying that JD or any of us for that matter is an agent."

"Did you reach your friend?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded. "It's locked up tighter than a drum. He won't help us because the orders to shut us down have come from the higher ups.

Buck was about to fly apart. "They can't . . ."

Chris cut him off. "It's done, Buck. It's up to us." Chris' face darkened more as he spoke. "We're gonna have to get past the emotions if we're gonna get JD out of this. I'm sending the photograph around. It'll piss you off, and we haven't seen the video yet. If it's anything like the picture, it's intended to be incindiary. But anger could get him killed. We have to work smarter, ok?"

Chris handed the photo to Buck, knowing what kind of volatile reaction he would get But Buck just drew his lips tight and studied the image.

He saw the bomb before anything else--the plastique strapped to the kid's torso, his dirty, bloody T-shirt being held up by someone's hand. Not JD's.

The room in the picture was dark. It was concrete--high, narrow windows. A warehouse maybe? JD was on his knees on the ground. Someone had a handfull of his hair and was pulling his head back roughly. a long black scarf covered his eyes, and some kind of wooden stick was in his mouth, gagging him. It was secured by string or something that held the ends in place and wound around behind his head . . .was that twine? The corner of his mouth was bleeding and he'd been beaten. His face was bruised and there was a gash across his forehead. . If that weren't horrible enough, one of his hands was tied to the wall way above his head and it clearly was twisted. His hand was mottled and his wrist bleeding. Buck squinted at the image of JD's arm and thought he could see track marks. The kid appeared to be unconscious. Buck couldn't let his rage take over. He had to find JD before that bomb went off, before his kidnappers shot him up with something that would kill him. No, Buck wasn't about to lose it. JD needed him. He needed all of them. Revenge would have to wait.


PART TWO: Rewind

It would have been easier for Chris if Buck had yelled or made threats or something, but his silence was disturbing. When Buck was silent, he was calculating, and when he was thinking up his own plan, he was dangerous.

Vin had had to take the photograph away from Buck. When he did, Buck never looked up. It was as though he were still studying it as he stared at the old floor of the ATF conference room.

For a moment, Vin looked like he would be sick. Chris watched him closely. He needed to know how each of his men would handle this. Vin cussed and passed the picture to Ezra.

Ezra immediately began to assess the room in the picture. "These windows are the kind that are in the warehouse district - circa 1960 or so." Chris was intrigued as the gambler studied the details of the picture. ". . . and there's twine . .. " Ezra tapped the picture absently and looked up at Chris. "Could be the old newspaper building -- the distribution warehouse. That twine would be all over the place."

Chris took the picture and studied it again. "You could be right."

"Let's go," Buck breathed.

Josiah touched his shoulder. Tense as it was, Buck jumped. "Let's see the tape first," Josiah suggested. Buck jerked away and paced across the back of the room.

Chris handed the picture to Nathan. He wasn't prepared for the look of . . . defeat that crossed Nathan's face.

"What?" Chris asked softly.

Nathan sounded apologetic. "Looks like . . . he could lose that hand. . . " The room was hushed again. Nathan studied the picture carefully, then stood up and put his hand on Chris' neck, leading him out of the room. But before he could say what he had to say next, Buck's voice exploded.

"HEY!" he yelled, taking long strides and jerking Nathan by the arm. "No, there ain't nothing you got to say to him that we can't all hear. You got something to say, you say it to all of us."

Chris had insinuated himself between Buck and Nathan, holding his old friend back. Nathan didn't respond in anger. No, Nathan just waited, his eyes sad, so sad. Chrisnodded to him. Nathan stepped away from Chris and Buck and addressed all of them.

"I was going to say . . ." his voice quivered. "I think . . . I think he's already dead."

"NO!!!" Buck screamed at him. Chris still held Buck back, and Josiah caught him from behind, twisting one of Buck's arms behind him and hooking his own arm around Buck's neck.

"Pipe down, Buck!" Josiah yelled.

"F*** you!"

Josiah didn't answer, but kept Buck restrained. He held him as long as Buck kept fighting. Finally he felt his friend's weight sag back against him, and Josiah released his arm. His own arm that was hooked around Buck's neck became very gentle. The restraint became an embrace. Josiah stayed there while Chris hit the play button on the VCR.


The screen was black. A bare bulb flickered on, creating a dim light, and for a moment, nothinghappened. Then a distorted voice spoke. It had been electronically alteredand was hard to understand.

" . . . you are no longer . . . seven . . . " The electronic laugh was eerie. ". . . can't quite . . . the last time . . . "

"Shit," Chris muttered, trying to crank the volume. Ezra jumped up and hit the pause button. "It's a voice activated distortion. Whoever is speaking isn't loud enough for the signal to remain intact." He hit the pause button again, and the strange voice returned.

". . . wouldn't have had to hurt . . . given . . . the slightest coopera . .."

The camera scanned the room. It was not the room that was in the photograph. This room was much smaller. It looked like an abandoned bathroom. There were connections for plumbing, but no sink or toilet. There was some tile. Awkwardly the camera jumped down to show a drain in the floor. Whoever was holding the camera must have sat down on the floor. The view shifted from the drain to the boy lying facedown on the floor. Streaks of pink extended from the boy's torso to the drain.

Blood.

"God . . ." Vin said.

JD's hands were handcuffed behind him and his face wasn't visible. He was still wearing the jeans and overshirt he'd been wearing the last time they saw him. He was shivering. Everyone could hear his soft gasps.

"Tell . . . friends . . . -lo," the electronic voice said.

JD's answer was absolutely clear.

"F*** you . . . "

From out of nowhere, someone kicked him and, groaning, the kid rolled in on himself. He was trying desperately to get his breath.

Buck muttered something. Chris glanced over at the sound and saw that his dear friend was shaking with anger. Josiah continued to support Buck.

Chris' attention was immediately drawn back to the video.

"That's not polite!" The electronic voice mocked the kid. In the next instant, someone grabbed JD by the hair, jerking his head back. He was blindfolded, but he hadn't been gagged. His face was horrible: cut, bruised, swollen.

Vin Tanner jumped up out of his chair and started pacing.

"Talk . . . friends," the voice commanded, but JD remained defiant.

"Uncuff . . ." the voice continued.

JD's friends watched helplessly as his arm was pulled out. There were track marks.

"Good God," Nathan said, leaning closer to the screen.

"No, don't . . ." JD said, as the hypodermic appeared. He was suddenly terrified. "Please . . . no . .."

The kid struggled as much as he could, until a blade was pressed against his throat. JD bit his lower lip, and a tear from under the blindfold rolled down his face.

". . . oh . . . baby . . . cry . . ."

Chris felt a white-hot rage as he watched.

Someone jerked the blindfold off and trained a bright light in the boy's eyes. JD tried to turn away from it, but he couldn't move. If he did, the blade would cut him.

Everyone in the conference room could see the effects the drugs had had on the kid by looking in his eyes. JD's eyelashes fluttered strangely.

"Ezra . .. " he gasped.

Chris and Ezra both watched even more closely.

". . . Standish. . . nothing to help . . ."

The needle plunged into JD's arm, and he shivered more violently. He tried to fight. Clearly he knew what was coming. And as the drug surged through his body, he screamed.

The screen went black. Then it went to static. For a moment, no one spoke. No one moved, then . . .

"Rewind it!" Ezra ordered, and the room erupted.

Chris looked at the gambler like he had lost his mind. Ezra was pulling a notebook and pen from his pocket and making his way to the VCR.

In the back of the room, Vin Tanner suddenly threw a glass against the far wall, screaming in anger as he did. Everyone jumped and Chris stormed over to him.

Chris grabbed his friend by his collar and threw him against the wall.

"Get your hands off me!" Vin yelled.

Chris yelled back. "You go after them half-cocked, you're gonna get JD killed."

Vin's eyes filled quickly. "You heard Nathan," the sharpshooter said, his voice breaking. "He's already f***ing dead."

Chris kept a tight grip on Vin's shoulders. "We don't know that," Chris yelled. He wanted all of his men to hear this. "We owe it to JD to use everything we have to get him out of there." He scanned the room and looked at each of them. "We've gotta keep our heads. We're all he's got."

Nathan sat silently, his head in his hands. Josiah had released Buck, and was leaning heavily against the wall, his big arms crossed tightly in front of him. Buck was quiet--too quiet.

Chris turned back to Vin, whose fury was giving way to anquish. Chris held on to his friend's shoulders, then he reached up and squeezed Vin's neck. Vin's chin dropped to his chest.

"We'll get him," Chris said softly. Vin looked up at him and nodded.

Chris was letting go when Vin looked past him, a look of incredulity on his face. Chris heard Buck and Josiah roar in protest. He turned quickly and saw Ezra running the hideous display backwards on the TV screen.

"We've seen enough," Buck cried, taking long strides toward Ezra.

Ezra ignored him as he backed the tape up until just before JD's face was jerked up.

Chris intercepted Buck before he could reach the gambler.

"Ezra?" Chris asked, but Ezra hushed him with a raised hand. The gambler hit play and and he started writing furiously when JD's blindfold was removed.

When the screen went black, Ezra rewound it again.

He played it from the beginning, and wrote more then checked what he'd written. Occasionally he would mutter.

When the screen went black for a third time, Ezra stood up, breathless.

"Gentlemen, I know where he is." The gambler smiled and tapped his notebook.

"He told me himself."


PART THREE: Fears

Chris Larabee didn't even spare a glance at Buck. He didn't have to. Buck would play this by the book right down the line. He wasn't about to jeopardize anything. Chris understood the rage Buck felt. He shared it. There were lots of head cases out there. Each one of his men had his own list of enemies, and at any moment, any of of the agents could become the target of a vigilante. But usually they would have had a lead by now. They still hadn't had a clue about who was behind the kidnapping. According to Ezra, JD had only been able to communicate scant information.

Planes . . . musty . . . five men . .

Lolita . . . ?

His last word puzzled everyone . . . except Buck. Buck Wilmington knew exactly where the kid was. JD was at an old abandoned theater. It was by the airport and Buck had told JD about his first "experience" in the back row of the balcony. Buck had never disclosed the girl's real name, but referred to her only as "Lolita". That information was consistent with the high windows they'd seen in the photograph and the theater had been converted, not to a newspaper warehouse, but a warehouse for magazine distribution.

Buck and Vin got in the car with Chris, and they took off. Josiah rode with Nathan. Ezra stayed at the office to receive any further communication from the kidnappers.

Chris wondered if it was as quiet in the other car. He used this silence to work out a plan and to curse the lack of back-up. They shouldn't be trying to neutralize a situation like this without the swat team. They should have access to every resource the ATF had. Instead they got only tight-lipped beaurocratic bullsh*t. JD was but a "regrettable casualty" in an ongoing war against international druglords. Well, as soon as they had their boy back, Chris Larabee would hand in his resignation. He wouldn't work for a group of people who had this much disregard for human life. The most infuriating part of all of this was the fact that the powers that be in the ATF didn't trust his men. They certainly didn't trust JD. They had told Chris that the boy would be a liability--that JD would turn at the first sight of the mega-money that flowed freely in these drug deals. The kid didn't have a clean history. He'd had a tough life and had risen above his very difficult circumstances. In some ways, Chris admired JD more for having had to make his own way. JD had been in some trouble when he was in middle school and had subsequently chosen the high road. He had helped a lot of his high school friends get out of gang life and turn their lives around as well. JD Dunne been difficult to check out, and was only marginally accepted as an agent. Had Judge Travis not vouched for the kid, he wouldn't have made it.

Stop light.

"GO!" Chris yelled at the light and when it didn't change fast enough, he slammed his hand on the steering wheel. "G**d****t!"


Vin Tanner rarely felt hopeless. He stayed on an even keel most of the time. In fact he really worked at it. He tried to hear both sides of an argument before making a judgement. He didn't have a hair-trigger temper. That was probably why he was such a superb shot. He was working to maintain his cool, even though what he felt was utter rage. He had to keep it together for JD.

And for Buck.

He watched Chris closely. He knew Chris' temper. Chris was holding it together--but barely.

Suddenly, before the light changed, Chris gunned the accelerator and sped into the intersection dodging the traffic.

"Damnit, Chris!" Buck was yelling at their leader. "What the hell are you doing, man?"

Chris didn't answer. He just gripped the steering wheel tighter. Horns blared, and one car swerved out of his path and hit another in the opposite lane.

"Pull over," Vin commanded.

"What?" Chris hissed.

"Pull over. I'm driving."

"Like hell you are."

"NOW!!"

Without giving a signal, Chris screeched to a halt at the side of the road. Again, horns blared, and those afflicted with road rage flipped him off, but Chris didn't see them. All of his rage now had a target. He jumped out of the car and caught Vin Tanner by the collar, slamming him against the back fender.

"YOU WILL NOT EVER GIVE ME AN ORDER AGAIN!" Chris screamed.

"What? You want to hit me?" Vin's voice was calm, but inside he felt churning.

Chris brought his fist back to level the man in front of him, but in the next second his expression changed utterly. He reached up like he was going to touch Vin on the shoulder, but instead, he didn't touch him at all. He backed up, and looked away, as if bewildered by his own actions.

"Go ahead . . ." His voice was low and raspy. Vin put his hand on Chris' shoulder and walked up to the driver's seat, but not before Buck jumped out from the passenger's side.

"We ain't got time for this!" he yelled.

He was right.


"What the hell are they doing?" Nathan yelled.

"Fighting?" Josiah was infuriatingly sarcastic.

Nathan whipped his car off the side of the road, pulling around behind theother agents' car. He would have jumped out, but Josiah laid a strong restraining hand on his arm.

"Lemme go. . ." Nathan began, but Josiah nodded to the scene ahead.

"It's over."

"It's like tailing a bunch of high school kids," Nathan said under his breath.

"Better it happens now." Josiah sounded so cool. He took the mic from its cradle. "Y'all ok up there?" he asked as the cars both pulled back onto the freeway.

Vin answered with a decidedly even cadence. "We're a little . . . anxious, but everything's ok."

Chris' voice crackled over the radio. "Josiah, you and Nathan check for trip wires. We don't want to . . ."

"Right." Josiah's answer cut him off. "We will, Boss."

Nathan cut his eyes over to his friend. Josiah almost smiled. "Someone should remind him every now and then."


Footsteps echoed across the warehouse. JD tried to find his voice but coughed instead. No . . . don't cough! It hurt too much to cough. It hurt to breathe. He couldn't breathe . . . he wheezed.

Ezra? Was it Ezra? The young agent tried to raise his head, but he couldn't. "Ezra . . . " Why didn't his voice work? He couldn't even hear himself. Oh, they had to find him. No, God, don't let them leave. Don't let them leave him.

"Help . . . " he couldn't say it. He kept trying, but the dry cough gagged him, and it changed to a throaty sob. No tears, though. They wouldn't flow. His eyes burned. But there were no tears. Didn't anyone know he was cold? They'd help him if they knew he was cold.

A hand . . . A hand touched his hair gently. Oh, God. Thank you, thank you, thank . . .

But the hand suddenly grabbed his hair and jerked his head back. The pain in his shoulder shot through his body and he groaned. "You're just too stupid to die, kid." It was the voice he had learned to hate. Then the voice was right beside his ear. He could feel the hot breath on his neck and he shivered. "Thirsty?"

JD tried to nod. The hand in his hair pulled harder and another hand pulled his jaw down.


The two ATF cars pulled up to the deserted street and parked in an abandoned scrap yard. Buck was the first to jump out of the car. He had to get reacquainted with the lay of the buildings. It had been a while since he'd brought JD here. JD was probably the only person in the world who'd ride this far out of town with him just to hear him brag about a girl.

Oh, kid, be all right . .

Buck worked his way from the back of one building to the back of the next, until he saw it across the street.

The theater.

There it was--the faint letters that had once spelled "The Rivoli" barely visible on the weathered sign. An aluminum sign had been tacked on the front door. It read "Scanlon Periodicals." He pulled out his binoculars and studied the old place. He sensed the presence of another person.

"That it?" Vin's voice was cautiously soft.

"Yeah," Buck answered tightly, handing the glasses to the tracker. "I don't know if the layout of the old building has changed, but there's an enormous g**d**n addition on the back. I don't even know how to tell you where to start."

Vin's hand gripped Buck's shoulder. "I'll find him."

Buck didn't voice his concerns that the video could have been made a week ago--that the kidnappers could have left days ago and taken JD out of state.

And Buck certainly didn't utter his fear that JD was already dead, although Nathan's words hung heavily over his head.

No, Vin knew.

The rest of the guys caught up with them, and Chris spat orders. Vin would scout the area. Chris and Buck would cover the old building and Nathan and Josiah would take the new addition. Vin would report to them and call for the first move. If JD had been right--if there were five men, Chris' team could take them. The agents had the element of surprise on their side.

And they had the highest mission of all.

Saving a friend--saving a brother.

Buck took a deep breath, and watched closely as Vin moved stealthily to the old theater . .

And prayed as Vin disappeared a side window.


The boy's scream was drowned by the thick caustic liquid fire. He coughed, but there was no escape. He tried to spit it out and must have had a bit of success because the hated voice screamed back at him.

Then someone hit him-- hard. And he felt a needle jab into his arm.

"That'll finish him," still another said. They were the last words he heard before the darkness washed over him.


PART FOUR: Deny the Innocent

Ezra Standish paced and drank coffee. He couldn't sit for any length of time. He had to keep moving. He kept replaying the horrible scene in his head--JD trying desperately to communicate with him-- and the photograph of him, evidently taken later, if the added injuries were an accurate indication. It was arresting, seeing the familiar jeans, sneakers, and shirt and enough plastique to take out a city block.

Damn bitter coffee. Ezra frowned as he studied the sludge in the bottom of the institutional white coffee mug that the ATF had provided. His jaw tightened. What good was it for the seven to be the finest and most covert squadron of the ATF if it meant that there was no protection against rogue avengers. It didn't matter to Ezra that the ATF deny its association with the seven, but for God's sake, give them some back-up.

He slammed the cup down on the god-awful linoleum counter. Who decorated this place? Who would've picked that flecked green surface? New, it would've been ugly. Now it was positively atrocious. And why didn't it bother anybody else? Ezra's eye studied the ancient counter with its discolored chrome trim, and stains that had set from years of institutional abuse, and new stains from six bachelors who could care less about it. Ezra cared about it only in that it represented the lack of concern afforded them by the powers that be. It was testament to his aesthetic suffering--a speckled green emblem of a community that had no taste and didn't care that it had no taste. And yet, hadn't he just defended the offensive counter when JD spilled a chocolate Yoo-Hoo all over it last week? There he had stood--the computer whiz agent whose apartment was decorated in "Early Poster" -- with a Yoo Hoo moustache. He had grinned, trying to suppress the laughter. "Gee, Ezra, where do you keep the furniture polish?" Then he had erupted, doubled over in laughter. He finally pulled off enough paper towels to wash the floor and wiped up the mess. Ezra smiled as he remembered, until the gut-wrenching vision returned.

Oh, JD . . .

He squeezed his eyes closed. He hated knowing that the young man had been suffering, and he hated not knowing what was going on right then.

When the phone rang, he nearly jumped out of his skin. He engaged the recorder and the computer before he picked up the receiver.

"Standish," he barked.

"Did you like our home movie?" The electronically-altered voice was still insipid.

"The cinematography was less than I expected, but the video communicated what you wanted it to."

"And the artwork?"

"I would have preferred to see more of the subject's face."

"In time . . . "

Ezra kept his voice casual. "How much time?"

"That depends . . . "

"Sir, the photograph you included has led us to believe that the young man is dead. If he is, then you have lost your bargaining power."

"Maybe we don't want to bargain."

Ezra felt a chill. Maybe killing JD was enough to satisfy these bastards.

"What do you want, then?"

"Not yet." .

The phone went dead.

"JUST TELL ME!!" Ezra yelled, but there was only a dial tone. "G**d****t!" .

He read the information on the computer . . . ironically, JD's computer. But the signal had been bounced and forwarded before reaching the office.

There was no trace of the caller, and once again Ezra Standish could only wait and pray.


Vin moved like a cat burglar and was inside the warehouse three minutes after arriving. He would scout the premises, locate JD, God willing, and assess the situation. Ezra had rigged a tracking and communications device on a dedicated frequency so Vin could stay in constant communication with the others without being intercepted by JD's captors. Vin and the team had precious little time to study blueprints of the warehouse. They would get no help from the ATF, having actually been cut off from the agency's massive archives. There was no time to get a requisition. So Vin would have to risk himself if they were going to rescue JD.

Buck squatted beside Chris tracking the blip on the tiny monitor. Unconsciously he kept a strong hand on Chris' shoulder. They needed each other; he knew that. They would have to face . . . whatever . . . together. And they trusted each other. They had to. God knew they couldn't trust the ATF. They couldn't trust the police. They each had six men that would stand beside them--that would die for them. Sometimes they didn't even like each other. But they were bound to each other with a bond forged in tribulation and common cause--a bond some would call friendship, but they knew viscerally to be that of family.

"He's stopped." Buck stated the obvious and adjusted his headset to pick up any sound. He cut his eyes over to Nathan who was poised and ready to follow Vin's trail. Buck couldn't see Josiah, but he saw Nathan signal to both of them.

Wait.

For a moment everything was suspended, and strangely silent.

Then they all heard the audio crackle to life and heard Vin's whispered oath.

"Oh God no . . ." For an instant, it sounded as if his breath caught in his throat. Then he spat instructions.

"Life flight," he hissed. "Three moving west, Nathan, heavily armed. You call the ball. Two coming to you, Chris. In 30, they'll reach alpha. I'll neutralize one, you get one, on my signal."

Chris and Buck moved to position and waited. They could hear Vin count down by fives, and at zero, the silent assault began.

As soon as he was confident that Chris and Buck had their two men under control, Vin bolted back to where he had seen JD. He couldn't tell about the other kidnappers. He could only trust that Josiah and Nathan had neutralized the situation on their side of the warehouse. There was no time to lose.

He ran across the hard concrete, skidding to a halt next JD. JD sat, his chin on his chest, bound to a plain wooden chair. There was blood splattered on the floor beside him, evidence of the blows to the kid's jaw. Vin lifted the young agent's shirt, his heart in his throat. The plastique with the wires extending from it was there, belted to JD's waist. Vin tried to study it without touching it. He had to force himself to focus on the bomb and not the bruised body.

"Get the bomb squad here," he said, softly. No sense in alerting anyone else in the building to their presence. "If the cops give you any grief, tell them there's enough explosive here to take out the entire warehouse district." He let the shirt fall and reached up to find the place on JD's throat where his pulse should be. "Come on. . ." Vin whispered.

Nothing . .

Gently, gently he placed his hands on either side of his friend's face, and turned it up slightly so he could see. Oh God. The boy's skin was tinged blue and the cuts and bruises on his face were further indication that he'd been beaten. The blindfold was familiar -- JD's Diamondback T-shirt, torn and tied tightly around his eyes. Holding the boy's head up with one hand, Vin felt for a pulse again with the other. He waited a long moment until he detected a very slow weak throb under his fingers. "OK, stay with me, JD, we're gonna get you out of here." Vin worked quickly, but gently, easing the blindfold off of his friend's eyes.

Vin's breath caught in his throat. JD stared blankly with blood red eyes that didn't see. His pupils were not even, and he couldn't focus.

"Hey,JD," Vin whispered, leaning close to the young man's ear. "It's me, it's ok." For a moment JD's lashes fluttered, then his eyes closed. "It's ok, kid. We're taking you home."

JD's lips and chin were blistered and Vin remembered seeing the tallest of the kidnappers pouring something into his mouth. JD's body had reacted immediately, jolting him violently. He'd gasped and choked and fought for air. Vin could do nothing but watch. He'd seen the boy fight with what little strength he had--saw him grimace as the hypodermic was plunged into his arm. He'd heard the kidnappers talk in hushed tones and saw one of them suddenly backhand the kid. Vin had drawn his weapon, but forced himself to wait. If he had tried to stop them, JD would have been killed immediately.

Now as Vin assessed his friend's condition he realized JD was dying anyway. He eased his hand away from the boy's face so he could work on the bonds that cut into his wrists.

Suddenly, the warehouse thundered with the sound of rapid gunfire. Vin turned the chair with JD in it over onto its side and shielded JD with his own body. He could hear Chris yelling, but couldn't hear what he was saying. Furiously, he clipped the wires that bound JD's hands together, then he cut the tape binding his ankles. In a leap of faith, he sliced through the belt that secured the bomb to JD's waist and left it on the floor. He gathered JD in his arms and screamed to Chris, or anybody that could hear.

"COVER ME!!"

He had no idea where the enemy's shots were coming from. But he knew his friends were there. So hoisting JD in a fireman's carry, Vin ran like the devil was after him.


Ezra's foot tapped nervously as he pored over the confusing data on the computer. Surely there was something . . .

The phone again. Ezra jumped up, and engaged the the tracking and voice analysis devices before picking up the receiver, only to find a dial tone.

Another ring, and Ezra realized it was his cell phone.

"What?" His clipped word reflected his frustration. He reached over to shut off the computer and stopped cold.

"I don't care what you have to do," Buck was saying to him, "just get them over here."

"It's done." Ezra would see to it. He flipped his cell phone closed and, grabbing his keys, set off to find a demolitions expert who would save a section of the city, even if he wouldn't do it to save a young ATF agent. Sometime, after this was all over, Ezra would have time to figure out exactly what enraged him most--kidnappers who would hurt the most innocent of them, or his own superiors who would deny the innocent existed.

There would indeed be a score to settle.


PART FIVE: Blast

Amid the wild hail of gunfire, Chris and Buck broke cover so they could get Vin and JD to safety. Across the great warehouse, Chris could see Josiah emerge, firing on a hidden enemy. The enemy still managed to squeeze off a shot, but thank god, the sniper's aim was skewed and the bullet whistled just beside the Vin's ear. The sharpshooter dropped to his knees and lay JD on the concrete floor, doing his best to shield him. He looked to Chris.

Chris motioned frantically for Vin to keep running, and he took a couple of steps toward them. He watched as Vin lifted JD in his arms and stood up awkwardly. Vin ran the last few feet, finally reaching cover behind him. Buck was still shooting, giving Chris a chance to get back.

There was too much happening all at once. Vaguely, Chris heard Nathan call out for Josiah. Chris' eyes darted to the other side of the warehouse, and saw that Nathan was in trouble.

"Cover me!" Chris called to Buck, then he took off.

"G**d****t, Chris!!" Buck screamed at his back, but Chris knew his old friend would get him across.

Or die trying.


Vin lay JD down behind some broken down boxes, then he scurried out to see if he could help.

"Where the hell's Chris?" he called to Buck.

"Nathan's in trouble," Buck called back. He was still firing, but Vin realized after a moment that no one was firing in their direction anymore.

"Buck!" Vin said sharply, but the tall agent didn't seem to hear him. Vin reached out and touched his arm. Buck spun around and glared at him. Vin spoke more gently. "JD needs help."

Buck nodded and holstered his weapon. Vin took his arm and led him to where he'd left the kid. He could only hope they'd find him alive.


Ezra Standish could hear gunfire as the van approached the warehouse. He looked around at the unusual assortment of gunmen he had assembled to help. One was dressed to the nines, and carried two automatic weapons under his Gucci custom cut suit jacket. The man sitting next to him wore a suit as well, and black sunglasses. Ezra refrained from commenting about the prudence of entering into a gun battle with impaired vision. Better to leave it alone. There were two men in black turtlenecks who were telling jokes that would have made a longshoreman blush. Sitting next to Ezra was a nervous man with a comb-over that wouldn't stay "over"--a man who laughed for no reason and stayed huddled next to Ezra. Ezra himself was dressed in black. It might be important for him to be able to move through the warehouse without being detected. He decided that he looked like a jewel thief. Well, he had at one time broken into a diamond brokerage, but he had been on the right side of the law. He wondered for a moment if this current mission crossed that line. He was disobeying direct orders by tracking JD. He was about to break and enter. That was certainly illegal, as was trespassing, which he would surely do as well. He was teaming with men who were not police, nor were they federal agents. Even Chris Larabee would no doubt disapprove of the rescue team he had assembled. But right now, they had to get JD out of there. They could deal with the rest later.

Ezra Standish didn't pray--not in earnest anyway. Oh, he uttered an occasional "Dear Lord" when he was overwhelmed with an observation, but he certainlywas not invoking the assistance of a higher power. He spoke that oath when he was struck with the fact that his mother's five-piece luggage ensemble was laden, not with designer clothes or precious gems, but with rocks. And when he was angry that another gambler could come to town and beat him without cheating (although he had discovered later that the other man was in fact a conman of the greatest skill). He had uttered the phrase when he witnessed the blatant mistreatment of a young Asian girl in Chinatown.

But this time Ezra prayed for real as he heard the fierce gun battle raging inside the warehouse. God, they couldn't be too late. Please.

Once the van was within a few yards of the destination, the driver pulled it to a stop and Ezra issued a few "suggestions" to the men who had come to his aide. He dared not command them, and once he had described the layout, he turned to the man with the Gucci suit and waited for him to make the call.


Nathan was pinned down in a corner of the warehouse. He was out of ammunition and out of options. At least he'd been able to distract some of the men who would have mowed down Vin and JD. That was something anyway. He watched as Josiah worked to reach him. All he could do at that point was watch. Where had all these people come from? There had only been three or four when he'd first approached. Now there were . . . ten? Twelve? It would only take one with a good aim and it would be over for him. There was no place to hide anymore.


Buck ran ahead of Vin to the boxes which had been stacked close to the wall. He could see the familiar sneakers, and he slid to the ground almost before he reached his partner.

His breath caught in his throat when he saw JD. The young man already looked like a corpse--blue-tinge to his skin, no breathing, no . . . nothing. Frantically, Buck pressed his fingers into the boy's neck. No pulse either.

"No," he muttered. He tilted JD's head back and pinched his partner's nose closed as he pressed his mouth over JD's. He tried to breathe life into the kid. He watched the boy's chest fall. Vin pressed the heel of his hand into JD's sternum . . . one, two, three, four, five. Again Buck breathed into the boy, and they repeated the cycle. Sweet Jesus--Buck realized that his lips felt as though they were on fire.

Suddenly the boy wheezed--a strangled breath.

"Come on, kid!" Buck yelled. "Come on!"

For a moment JD's eyes opened, but they rolled back and he gagged.

"Life Flight?" Vin asked.

"Not until the shooting is over." Buck started pulling off his own flannel shirt. "We gotta take him now." Buck nodded to the door as he wrapped JD in his shirt. He dug into his pocket for the keys. He tossed them to Vin. "Crank it up. I'm right behind you."


Josiah couldn't let them get to Nathan. He had managed to make his way to the top of a stack of old crates. The wood creaked beneath him and he knew that any minute, he could fall through the rickety pile.

But he had to try. He had to figure out a way to get his partner out of there.

From his vantage point, he could see the men advancing from the back of the warehouse. But he knew Nathan couldn't. Josiah raised his rifle and tried to gauge the distance from the would-be attackers. He didn't want to tip off the men who had been holding JD.

He glanced to his left and saw Chris running toward him.

Shit.

He was glad for the help, but he couldn't afford to take his attention off of Nathan. Still, he lay cover for Chris and signaled to their leader to hide just beneath him. Chris would be able to intercept the men coming from the back, affording Josiah the opportunity to make his way over to Nathan.

OK, this would work. There was a slight lull in the volley of gunfire. Josiah dared not move during the lull, as he would no doubt be spotted. But he realized that Nathan was out of immediate danger and Chris had gotten safely into position.

Josiah breathed a word of thanks.

He was about to take a step down when one of the men he was covering pointed to the belt that had been wrapped around JD's waist. Josiah followed his gaze.

"IT'S GONNA BLOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"


The room erupted again. This time it was not bullets. It was a dozen men yelling and thundering out of the old warehouse. Those men who had come into the back of the room, turned and retreated the way they had come. Chris ran toward Nathan.

"Josiah, back door!" he cried, and covered Josiah's move down from the stack of crates. He heard the wood groan as the big man descended.

"Get Nathan!" Josiah yelled back.

"Yeah, just go." Chris pulled out his back-up revolver and, when he reached Nathan, he thrust it in his friend's hand. "Come on!" Chris ran toward the door, yelling at him. "Chris, help me!" Nathan called, as he struggled to pull himself up. Chris spun on his heel and ran back. Suddenly, Nathan pointed the pistol in Chris' direction and pulled the trigger.

Chris dove to the floor just as the shot rang out. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the gunman that had nearly shot him in the back.

Chris jumped to his feet again and caught Nathan staggering toward him. "Thanks," Chris said breathlessly. Nathan tried to respond, but could only nod. Chris leaned over and lifted the agent in a fireman's carry. He wanted to know how badly Nathan had been hurt, but there was no time. He ran as fast as he could to a side door and, glancing once to be sure he wasn't about to be ambushed, he bolted.

For a split second, he'd seen Ezra peer around a black van waiting some distance away. Slowed considerably by Nathan's weight, Chris ran hard toward the vehicle.

Chris had almost reached the van when the blast behind him drove him to the ground. He landed heavily and lay there dazed. Nathan rolled several feet ahead of him.


"IT'S GONNA BLOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Ezra Standish saw a surge of men thundering from the warehouse. Chris was running toward him, Nathan hoisted over his shoulder. Ezra and the man in the black turtleneck covered their run to safety, but when the bomb detonated, all Ezra could do was dive behind the van, his hands covering his ears.

The blast shook the ground beneath him and for a moment, he thought he was going to be sick. JD had been wearing that plastique and Ezra knew for a fact that there had been no bomb squad there to get it off of the young agent. Ezra had brought an explosives expert and he'd gotten him there too late. Too late . .

Ezra forced himself to get up. //Get up! This isn't over.// He dragged himself around the side of the van.

"Cover me!" he called to the turtleneck man and he ran shakily to get Chris and Nathan. Their leader was already propping himself up on an elbow when Ezra reached them. The gambler knelt beside Chris and helped him lift Nathan to his own shoulder. "I've got him, Chris!" Ezra awkwardly hooked his hand under Chris' arm and tried to help him up, but Nathan's weight made that nearly impossible.

"Chris!" Ezra yelled, more harshly this time.

"Huh?" Chris appeared confused--still dazed.

"Come on!"

"Nathan . . ." Chris mumbled.

"I got him. Come on!"

Not waiting for Chris, Ezra ran back to the van and lay Nathan on the ground behind it. Then he backtracked so he could help their leader. Chris was running sluggishly toward him. When Ezra reached him, he pulled Chris' arm over his shoulder, holding on to his wrist. Then he slid his arm around Chris' waist and ran with him to the van.

Ezra eased him to the ground beside Nathan. Nathan lay unconscious.

"How is he?" Chris asked, seemingly more alert now.

"He's got a slug in the thigh. We need to get him to the hospital. Looks like he's already lost a lot of blood."

Chris frowned and he nodded his understanding.

"Are you hurt?" Ezra asked their leader, although he never looked away from Nathan. He was rigging a tourniquet above the wound.

"Shook up's all." Chris still seemed like he was talking in slow motion. "You?" he asked Ezra.

Ezra ignored that question and asked another. "JD?"

"He wasn't wearing the bomb."

Ezra looked up suddenly. "He wasn't?"

Chris shook his head, then tried to stand up. Too quickly, evidently. He weaved on his feet. "I don't know if Vin and Buck were able to get him out in time."

Ezra was exasperated. "Sit down, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said sharply, catching Chris before he could fall. "We'll check it all out, but you can't help anybody right now. And I can't help Nathan if I have to waste time . . . restraining you."

"Gotta get Josiah . . . " Chris said, remembering that Josiah had been in there with them too.

"I'll send someone after him."

Ezra called one of the men he'd recruited and gave more . . . suggestions. The man took off and Ezra finished dressing Nathan's leg, then he opened the back door of the van. They were gonna need more ammunition. While he gathered a few weapons (most of them illegal), he could hear a volley of gunfire a little ways away.

The Southerner got what he needed then slammed the door to the van. Ezra rounded the corner again and knelt beside Chris Larabee. He handed him a couple of automatic weapons. "Where the hell did you get this stuff?" Chris asked.

"Believe me, you don't want to know." For a split second, Ezra thought he could detect the hint of a grin playing on Chris' lips.

"Now, I'm going after Josiah. You stay here and take care of Nathan. Shoot anything that moves."

Ezra stood up then halted abruptly. "Unless it's me. . . or anyone in black or in a suit." Ezra slapped the side of the van. "Well, you better look before you shoot."

"Get outa here!" Chris called. "I've got it covered."

Ezra took off to investigate the battle taking place on the other side of the flaming warehouse. The smoke almost overcame him, but he pressed on. He had to do what he could to make this right.


PART SIX: Is It Over Yet?

Buck hardly noticed Vin glancing at them in the rearview mirror. He was sitting in the back seat, holding JD from the back, willing him to live. But the kid looked dead already. His skin was tinged blue, his lips blistered and swollen. His breathing was so slow, so shallow, and his pulse weak and erratic. The boy was so cold. Buck pulled him closer. He reached down to lift the young agent's arm. He looked at the track marks on the inside of his arm and the wire that was embedded in his swollen wrist. Buck didn't dare touch his friend's hand. It was strangely discolored and misshapen. Had they broken his fingers?

"God, what did they do to you, kid?" Buck's voice cracked. He cleared his throat and hollered at Vin. "How close are we?"

"Five minutes," Vin answered, and he stole an anxious glance over his shoulder. "How's he doing?"

"Not . . . it's not good." Buck squeezed his eyes closed. "It's not good."

He leaned down to JD's ear. "Hold on, son. You gotta hold on, ok? We're getting you some help, but you gotta fight. You hear me?" He choked slightly. "You gotta fight, JD."

It was hard to see the kid lying so still--hard to know someone would do this to him. Bastards. Buck put his broad hand on his partner's forehead, holding the back of the boy's head to his own chest. He wrapped his other arm around JD's upper body. He felt fiercely protective of him. He hadn't been able to protect him before. None of them had.

And now it might be too late.

It was bad enough that JD had had to go through this--bad enough that his closest friends couldn't prevent his abduction. But the ATF had written him off as a "necessary loss"

A necessary loss.

Damn them!

Suddenly the car swerved wildly, the centrifugal force causing Buck to lurch forward. "VIN!" he yelled sharply.

"Sorry . . ." Vin hissed, righting the car.

It was a confusing moment, and suddenly, Buck noticed that JD was wheezing, struggling. He pulled JD up, supporting him to help his breathing. "Easy, son . . ."

"What happened?" Vin asked over his shoulder.

"I don't . . ." Buck's answer was interrupted by JD's heaving . . . dry heaving. "Oh, God." Buck helped JD roll to the side. He was starting to shake violently. "JD?" Buck yelled. "Vin, he's having convulsions."

"You gotta keep him from swallowing his tongue," Vin said.

"How am I supposed to do that?"

"Grab hold of his tongue."

Buck maneuvered his tall frame around so JD could lay directly on the seat. Buck had to balance himself with one knee on the floorboard and the other on the seat next to JD. He was reaching up to help the kid when JD's eyes shot open and he started to heave again. A white foam bubbled from his swollen lips and Buck turned the boy's head to the side. Maybe he could keep him from choking.

"We're here!" Vin yelled, and Buck braced himself so he could keep JD from rolling when they stopped.

"He needs help now!" Buck said as the car came to a full stop. He put his hands on either side of the boy's face. It seemed for a split second like JD actually saw him. Buck stayed in control of his emotions long enough to reassure his partner. "It's gonna be ok, kid."

The car door opened suddenly. "Get back!" an ER doctor commanded. "Let us help him." Buck awkwardly backed out of the car and moved out of the way. He watched as the medical personnel lifted the young agent out of the car and laid him on the stretcher. The crowd closed in around the boy and Buck couldn't see exactly what they were doing.

"What the hell is that?" A voice cried. "He swallowed something."

Buck heard Vin relate what he'd seen. "They poured something down his throat and his body . . . jerked almost immediately."

"Oh God . . . " one of the voices said, and they started running the stretcher into the hospital. Buck followed, only able to catch a phrase every now and then.

". . . f***ing Drano . . ." " . . . can't save him . . ." ". . . flush it out." "But if it's in his bloodstream . . . " ". . . transfusion . . . "

"We got track marks!" the ER doctor said. "Find out what kind of drugs he was doing."

"He wasn't doing any drugs!" Buck yelled. "They drugged him."

"What's in his mouth?" Another voice. "Drain cleaner . . ."

"Who would do something like that?"

Who would do this? Buck would find out. He would find them. God, Drano . . .

". . . his heart's stopped . . ."

Buck tried to follow them through the big double doors to the examination rooms, but an orderly stopped him.

"I'm sorry Sir, you'll have to stay here."

"The hell I will. Get outa my way!!"

"Buck!!" Vin's voice halted him. The sharpshooter came up and put his hand on Buck's arm. "Come on. Let them do their job." Vin's voice became suddenly tender. "Come on . . . "

"His heart . . ." Buck could hardly speak.

Vin drew close to his friend. "I know . . . "

Buck turned suddenly and hugged his friend. All they could do now was hold on to each other, and pray.


"JOSIAH?!"

The big man hiding behind a dumpster could make out Ezra's voice amid the noise of the battle. God, my friend, don't try to save the day here. He wished he could hazard a glance to see where the gambler was, but there was no way. Besides, his head hurt and he couldn't seem to focus his eyes very well.

This situation just kept getting worse and worse, and there was less and less Josiah could do about it. The kidnapping, the video, the gun battle . . . as if all of that weren't enough, the building behind him had just exploded, rattling his body, his brain, his nerves. His heart hammered mercilessly.

"JOSIAH??!!"

"GET DOWN, EZRA--DAMN IT!"

A short moment later, Josiah felt a familiar presence as Ezra knelt beside him.

"Where'd you come from?" Josiah asked.

Ezra was trying to load his weapon and apparently trying to be witty at the same time, and he wound up stuttering.

Josiah saw the glint of metal from an abandoned car. He pushed Ezra's head down out of the way. The shot pinged off of the metal lid of the dumpster.

"Thanks," Ezra said breathlessly.

"The others?"

"Chris got out, Nathan has a shot in the leg . . ."

"JD?"

Ezra waited. "I don't know, my friend."

Josiah felt the beginnings of a raging anger, but it would have to wait. "Got any idea how to get out of this?" the preacher asked.

The gambler didn't answer, but Josiah felt Ezra's hand grip his arm. Suddenly, amid the sound of squealing tires, Ezra stood straight up and began firing. Josiah stood up, more tentatively than his friend, and saw retreating tail lights.

Who the hell were those guys in black? Just as Josiah started to level his weapon at one of them, Ezra pushed his arm down. "Hold on there. They're the good guys!" Ezra grinned. "At least for today." Ezra waved at them and pulled on Josiah's arm.

"Come on," Ezra said. "The others need our help."

But Josiah was rooted to the spot, staring at the road where he'd seen the cars disappear. He suddenly felt immobile, and for a moment, nothing could penetrate the strange wall around him. He could hear Ezra . . . but what was he saying? Why couldn't he understand him? Why couldn't he respond? He was utterly immobile.

SLAP!!!

He felt a remote sting on his face.

SLAP!!!

Now he felt that, and just as suddenly as he zoned out, he zoned back in, and reared back with all his might to hit the gambler who had hit him.

"Josiah, wait!!!" Ezra yelled at him, and the big preacher felt restraint all around him.

The guys in black.

At first, Josiah fought them, but then Ezra's hands were on either side of Josiah's face--infinitely gentle hands coaxing Josiah to look at Ezra.

"Josiah," the southerner demanded his attention. "Are you hurt?"

"Huh?" Why had he asked that? He's heard Ezra. Maybe he just needed another moment to think about it.

"Are you hurt?" Ezra repeated.

Josiah tried to assess his own condition. "I don't think so."

Ezra nodded at the men holding Josiah and they released him. Evidently, the gambler didn't trust his friend's answer. He checked Josiah for injuries.

"Well, you're not hit," Ezra said. "But I think the blast may have shaken you up a bit. Let me get you some help."

Josiah nodded and let his friend lead him back to the other side of the gutted warehouse.


Chris crawled closer to Nathan. His friend was unconscious, and losing blood. Damn it. He needed a tourniquet of some kind.

"Come on Nathan . . . stay with me." Chris kept talking to him as he searched frantically. He checked in the van. Ah, a heavy canvas strap. Chris paused for a moment and shook his head at the arsenal he found in the vehicle. Well, Ezra had connections. He had to give him that.

Chris made his way back around to the medic who needed a medic himself."I got you now, Nathan." Chris ripped the slacks away from the wound. God, it was bad. He eased the canvas strap around Nathan's thigh and pulled it as tightly as he could.

Nathan groaned, and his hand went almost instinctively to block Chris'.

"Stop it, Nathan. I gotta do this."

Chris admired how the healer, even in pain, tried to keep from fighting him. He hated to hurt Nathan more, but he had to stop the bleeding. He took a narrow length of pipe, wrapped the ends of the strap around it, and twisted the tourniquet tighter and tighter until he could stop the flow.

The weary leader sighed heavily. Now to dress the wound. .

"They're gone!" It was Ezra's voice.

Chris could hear the gambler yell into the radio. "Clear for EMT--move!!"

As he watched for Josiah and Ezra, Chris felt a shaky hand brush his. He looked down at Nathan and grasped the offered hand in his strong one.

"It's ok, Nathan. It's over."


PART SEVEN: Waiting Rooms

Ezra guided Chris to the waiting room. He hadn't been able to talk his friend into getting himself checked out, even though he was still clearly dazed from the explosion.

Once inside, they found Buck sitting on one of the sofas staring at the floor. Vin was sitting in a chair across from him. Ezra kept the guiding hand on Chris' shoulder as they approached their friends.

Chris in turn rested a hand on Buck's shoulder. Buck turned . . . lost eyes to his old friend, and for a moment, Ezra felt like he was intruding. He withdrew his own hand and crossed his arms across his chest.

Ezra was not prepared for what he heard next.

"Drano . . ."

Did Ezra hear Buck right?

"They poured drain cleaner down his throat," Buck almost whispered.

Vin cut in, in a voice that was thin, brittle, and damn-near devasted. "I saw it. They shoved a hypodermic in his arm while they poured that shit down his throat."

Vin smiled sadly. "JD thought . . . they were giving him a drink of water. He was . . . straining to drink . . . then they . . ." He stopped, turning his head away. Ezra bit his lip--biting back the utter rage he felt. God, Vin had had to watch those bastards do this. On impulse, the gambler lay a hand on Vin's arm. Vin nodded his thanks and, after taking a couple of deep breaths, he continued. "His whole body jerked. And the f****rs hit him. After all that. . . "

Maybe that was the moment in which Ezra decided to retaliate . . . no matter what it would cost him. Chris stood up and walked to the window, his back to his friends. "How is he now?"

This time it was Buck who answered. "His heart stopped."

Ezra felt a dead weight on his chest. He noticed a decided slump in Chris' shoulders. "Dear God . . ." Chris murmured, and Ezra himself prayed for the second time that day.

"What about Nathan and Josiah?"

Vin's question seemed to shake the picture back into motion, and Buck glanced up.

"Nathan was shot in the leg," Ezra answered. "Josiah . . . the blast shook him up a bit."

Ezra caught Vin's eye and nodded toward Chris, the unspoken suggestion being that Chris had been shaken as well. Vin stood up and went over to their leader.

"Maybe if you let 'em check you out, we can get some inside word on the kid."

Ezra had to smile. Damn, Vin was good. Sometimes Vin was the only one who could make a dent talking to Chris Larabee. Their conversation lowered to shared whispers, and Ezra absently walked over to the window.

The day was so gray. Appropriate, Ezra thought. He watched the cars coming into the parking lot and looked beyond to the strip of fast food places and shops that were busy with midday activity. How could people be going through the drive-thru when JD was fighting for his life? How futile.

Disgusted, Ezra turned away from the view and looked again at the inside of the waiting room--a room someone had attempted to decorate in calming colors. But colors did little to ease the ache. Ezra looked at the big man sitting alone on the sofa.

Buck Wilmington was suffering. Ezra knew how he felt. But what could anybody do to assuage his grief?

Well, he may not know what to say, but he could sit by him for a while.


Vin Tanner had heard of horrific experiences seeming like bad dreams, but this was the first time he'd had such a strong sense of it himself. Seeing Chris so . . . defeated . . . was terribly unsettling.

But what did he expect of Chris? Chris had spent the last week trying to find one of his men . . . one of his men who'd been kidnapped right out from under their noses. Then Chris had taken off to rescue JD without so much as an acknowledgement from the agency. Finally, he'd been in a gun battle and barely escaped a massive explosion. Now three of his men were in the hospital . . . one of whom was most likely dead.

Dead.

Vin felt his throat tighten. Don't be dead, JD. Please . . .

The sharpshooter let his head tilt forward until he almost leaned into the back of Chris' shoulder, then abruptly, Vin took a step back. He'd gotten too close . . . too close. He squeezed his eyes closed, damming the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him. He let the gap widen back to the safe proximity that allowed him to communicate with Chris Larabee without threatening him.

He kept his voice steady. He needed to get Chris to a doctor, although he wished Chris could help him instead. He had to set his own grief aside. "How 'bout it, Cowboy? Go see the doctor?"

He didn't get an opportunity to know Chris' answer. The terrifying report of gunfire interrupted them. Instinctively, Vin pulled Chris to the floor. Even though the screams and the running and the chaos made it difficult to determine what was going on, it became evident that the gunfire was coming from another room.

God--this was impossible.

The gunfire was coming from inside the ER.


PART EIGHT: Cardiac Arrest

She hadn't envisioned this. Nursing school had prepared her for many things--accident victims, stroke patients, even gunshot wounds. She'd drawn blood and emptied bedpans. She'd seen birth and death. But nothing could have prepared her for the young agent lying on the gurney bloodied, bruised, and with foam bubbling from his mouth. The staring, terrified eyes terrified her and she could only stand aside and watch. This patient had rendered her useless and that sense of uselessness frightened her most of all.

The young man's eyes never changed--not even when his heart stopped and Dr. Lansing had placed the paddles on the bruised chest and sent the voltage through the lifeless body.

Live! She willed it. If there were ever a way to communicate subliminally, she was going to find it. Breathe. Come on. Breathe.

Nothing.

"Clear!" Another zap. Live!

Nothing.

"Come on, kid," Dr. Lansing was saying. "Clear!" Another zap.

"Live!!" she yelled at him--although not intending to yell.

Somebody might have noticed her if the two gunmen hadn't come into the treatment room.


At the first sound of gunfire, Josiah Sanchez sprang into action--pushing nurses and doctors to the floor. He tried in vain to find his weapon.

Gunmen--throughout the ER--gunmen some of whom he'd seen just an hour or so before. Josiah managed to come up behind one and overpowered him, disarming him. Then, using the captured man's weapon, he shot one of the other gunmen.

Josiah was poised to snap his captive's neck when he heard Chris Larabee's voice.

"Josiah, we need to question him." No, Josiah thought, we need to take him out.Chris' voice again. "Josiah, don't!" A command. Josiah felt his forearm flex and the the man he was holding gasped. The gunman's Adam's apple quivered under the pressure. Oh, this would be easy.

But, damn it, he couldn't do it. He couldn't disobey Chris Larabee right in front of him. And Chris was right, g**d**n him. They needed information.

"Josiah, stand down!" Chris' eyes flashed, and Josiah loosened his hold on the man. The big preacher noticed Chris' shoulders relax slightly. But Josiah just felt the anger surge in his stomach, bile in his throat. Chris knew. Chris knew that it took all Josiah's strength NOT to kill the gunman. Chris nodded his respect to Josiah and tossed him a pair of cuffs from his pocket.

Josiah didn't catch them, though. Instead, he leveled the gunman's weapon at the man coming up behind Chris.

"Freeze!" Josiah barked, and Chris spun around. Josiah could see the muscles in Chris' neck tighten, and he figured that Chris was feeling a similar inclination toward killing the man with his bare hands.

But the gunman was surrendering. Josiah watched as Chris yanked the automatic weapon from the man who would have killed him. Then he brought his foot around in a roundhouse kick and caught the gunman's jaw. The gunman crashed into a cart of meds. Chris went over to him and jerked him up by the collar. Together, Josiah and Chris bound the gunmen and dragged them out of the line of fire.

More shots, and Josiah saw Buck and Ezra working their way down the hall.

"Watch the nurses' station!" the preacher called just in time for Buck to dive out of the way. Chris was pulling Josiah into one of the cubicles while Josiah was trying to cover Ezra.

"Sweet Jesus!" Chris said as he reloaded. "It's f***ing armageddon." He looked up at Josiah. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Josiah answered. Chris was slamming the clip into his weapon when Josiah saw Vin slip in the back door.

"Cover me," Josiah said, and as he crossed the hall, he heard Chris mutter "Shit. . . "


Nathan could hear the gunfire. Was he dreaming? If he opened his eyes, would the fighting stop? Maybe it was in his head. Didn't he remember being brought to the hospital? But, the battle was still going on. Either he'd dreamed about the hospital trip, or he was hallucinating now. He forced his eyes open.

He was alone--hooked up to machines, an IV in his hand, and not a soul in the room.

He heard voices in the hallway. Josiah was yelling. There were voices he didn't know.

His friends were in trouble and he wasn't helping. He had to help. He had to do something. He pulled the IV out of his hand and ripped the oxygen tube off of his face. He was just sitting up when Vin slipped into the room.

"Oh, no Nathan," Vin said, making his way over to him. The sharpshooter pushed him back down to the bed. "Don't try to move."

"Wha's go . ." Nathan was trying to ask what was going on, but his mouth wouldn't work.

"Those guys followed us," Vin told him. "Maybe we'll have some help this time."

What did Vin mean? VIn was looking the room over. Nathan closed his eyes. If Vin was here, he could close his eyes for a minute. That would be ok.


Where the hell was Josiah going?

Chris sprang up to cover his friend and saw Buck sprawled on the floor in the middle of the melee. God, was he hit? Chris' breath stopped in his throat for a moment, until Buck rolled toward the nurses' station and scrambled to his feet.

This was some kind of all-out terrorist assault. What had started as a kidnapping had morphed into a well-orchestrated war. And with two men down and no back-up in sight, he didn't know how to end this.

He needed to protect his men. He needed to get Nathan and JD out of danger. He needed to get everyone the hell out of there.

He needed perspective. He needed to go up.

Chris looked around. He wished there was some kind of . . . perch--a place on top of some cabinets or something. A sniper's vantage point.

But he realized he wouldn't need to.

A megaphone. A voice.

A SWAT team.

Thank God.


This was a f***ing nightmare. What kind of crazies shot up an emergency room? Buck bumped into the nurses' station desk and jumped up. He had to find his friends. He stepped into a cubicle and found Vin easing Nathan onto a lower shelf of a gurney--where the corpses were loaded when a patient had to be taken from a regular room to the morgue. Buck rushed over to help Vin get Nathan situated. They draped a sheet over the top of the bed, and the sides hung down, hiding their friend.

"Just wait here," Vin was telling the medic. "I'll come back for you. I swear I will."

Buck eased up to the door and looked out. The gunfire was slowing. A ploy?

No . .

A SWAT team. Buck looked back at the sharpshooter and motioned for him to be silent. The gunmen were laying their weapons down and the situation seemed to be neutralized. Buck could feel the quaking relief begin to settle in.

Until a hard voice carried over the panic.

"If you don't let me try to start this boy's heart, you'll be dragging a corpse out of here!"


In the strange, tension-laden silence, Ezra reloaded. He'd seen one of the gunmen slip into a cubicle across the hall, but he'd also seen Josiah follow him. He scoped the place and saw Chris near the door that led out to the waiting room. Vin had made his way to one of the side rooms, and now Buck was peering out from behind a partitian. All accounted for except the wounded. Ezra had a sick feeling that it wasn't over yet.


"If you don't let me try to start this boy's heart, you'll be dragging a corpse out of here!"

Dr. Lansing was trying to revive the young agent who had been brutalized at the hands of these gunmen. Now they wouldn't let the doctor work. And the doctor was pissed. He was pissed more than he was scared--or that's the way it looked to her.

This couldn't be happening, the young nurse thought.

And then the words flew out of her mouth before she could stop them.

"Take me . . ."

Why had she said that? Hadn't she just been paralyzed with fear?

But the sight of a man holding an Uzi on a young man whose heart had stopped spurred her into action.

"He's dead already," she continued. "He won't be a bargaining chip for you."

Oh, God! She felt the cold metal of the barrel of a gun at her throat. How was she keeping her voice so steady?

"You can just. . . take me, and we can leave."

The man holding a gun on her reached up and grabbed a handful of her hair. She didn't see what happened in the next moment because the man with the gun pressed his lips on hers in a bruising kiss.

"Clear!!" she heard Dr. Lansing yell.

And when the gunman who was holding her released her, she saw Dr. Lansing . .

Holding the cardiac paddles against the other gunman's body, sending enough voltage through him to start a heart, but for a span of time that would stop it.


PART NINE: It shouldn't be this way.

It shouldn't be this way. For one thing, there shouldn't be SWAT guys in an emergency room, but then again there shouldn't have been gunmen in the ER to start with.

And JD shouldn't be lying there hurt, cardiac paddles shooting volts through his young body.

JD's friends were all crowded in a huddle in the corner watching the doctor trying to revive the kid. A nest of support--of family. Chris felt their closeness. . . Josiah standing behind him, Vin next to him, holding Nathan up. Aw, Nathan, you don't need to be in here right now. On Chris' other side was Buck.

And Buck didn't need to be seeing this. But where else would he be? Chris recognized the look on his oldest friend's face. He'd seen it before. Buck was hanging on by a thread. Every time the doctor shocked JD, Buck's own body jerked in response. Chris found himself talking steadily to Buck, in low tones.

Finally . .

A heartbeat.

And another. Another.

"Thank God," Chris said.

Dr. Lansing turned to look at him and nodded. "Indeed."

Chris felt Buck slump against him slightly, and instinctively, he reached over to support his friend. Buck recovered quickly, standing up straighter again. Chris slapped him on the back and caught his old friend's eye, noting the glistening tears there, that never spilled. They conveyed comfort to each other in the way they had learned over the last thirteen years. Suddenly, Chris felt profoundly grateful that Buck was there--alive and safe, and he felt grateful, too, that Buck Wilmington was a constant in Chris' life.

Vin's gentle voice was trying to coax Nathan back to his room.

"No," Nathan said. "I need . . . to help."

"You're sick, Nathan," Vin said. Chris was about to intervene when Dr. Lansing took care of it himself.

"All of you need to go on," the doctor said. "We need to work here so please, clear the room."

"C'mon," Chris echoed, and he started herding his men out. Reluctantly, they left the room.

All except Buck. Chris took the big man's elbow and guided him away. And Buck went with him, reluctantly.

Once outside, Buck stopped, stopping Chris as well. "I want to get those bastards," he said. He didn't sound enraged, as Chris would have expected. He sounded . . . overwhelmed. "They shouldn't get away with this."

"They won't," Chris answered. "We won't let 'em."

"We can't let 'em," Buck insisted--as though he were trying to convince Chris.

Chris nodded, then spoke his own mind. "I want the agency bastards. What the hell are they thinking anyway?"

It was Ezra who answered. "I believe they are exercising the option to declare JD 'persona non grata'."

"That's no option," Chris said, curtly.

"Evidently, they think . . ."

Chris didn't hear the rest of Ezra's explanation.

"Millard!!!" Chris yelled as he made a B-line for the director of their division of the ATF.

All of his anger now had a target, and he would get answers.

One way or the other.


She was surrounded by chaos and carnage. Some of the people she had been deathly afraid of now lay on stretchers along the walls of the Emergency department. In addition to the injured and dead, there were SWAT officers with automatic weapons, FBI agents and ATF agents. Doctors and other medical personnel were arriving from other hospitals and other towns.

Still, none of that overwhelmed her like the young man whose heart had just started to beat again. She watched her colleagues work on the boy. He must have an incredible will to live. Maybe she would get to talk to him sometime.

"Thea, come sit down. You're white as a sheet."

Thea heard her friend, but the words didn't quite register. What did she want?

"Thea . . . " Colleen was touching her shoulder. Thea looked at her.

"Come sit," Colleen said.

Thea would have. She really would have, but suddenly the room was spinning. Then there was nothing.


"Millard!"

Buck was on Chris's heels, and, taking his own life in his hands, Buck grabbed his old friend's arm, restraining him.

"No, Chris!" Buck cried, just before Chris' fist slammed into his jaw, knocking him to the ground. "G**d****t, Chris! This ain't the way."

But Buck could only watch as his friend pressed on toward the retreating ATF director. Thank God Josiah grabbed Chris, pinning his arms to his sides.

Slowly, Buck pulled himself to his feet. He walked over to them and grabbed Chris' chin, forcing him to listen.

"You don't want to do this," Buck almost whispered. "You don't . . ." Chris tried to pull away, cussing like a sailor. "Damn it, Chris! You're gonna jeopardize everything. If you get yourself arrested . . . or worse, you can't help JD. You can't help anybody."

"Shut the f*** . . ."

Buck grabbed Chris' collar with his other hand, still digging his thumb into Chris' chin. "I know you Chris. You want to do something to make this right. Well, this ain't it, you hear me? You attack Millard surrounded by this much firepower everywhere, you're a dead man."

Chris still tried to jerk away. Buck pressed him. "You hear me? That's f*****g suicide. Is that what you want?"

Chris cut his eyes over to where Millard stood, surrounded by the ATF brass.

"Chris!" Buck said.

Josiah, still holding Chris immobile, spoke. "There are six men who need you right now. You've gotta be sharp here, Chris. JD and Nathan need you, and so do the rest of us. This isn't the time to start a fight."

"He started it when he wrote JD off," Chris hissed.

"We'll finish it, Chris," Buck said. "We're all willing to die on this hill with you. But we gotta find out who's after us first or we can't do anything."

"He's right," Josiah said.

Buck realized Vin had joined them. Chris was now surrounded by the surviving team members.

"We'll get 'em, Chris," Vin's gentle voice said, and Ezra nodded his assent.

"Perhaps we could find a place to go so we can figure out what to do next," Ezra said. "No doubt we're going to be interrogated. We need to think about how to handle this."

Buck watched Chris' eyes, trying to read his friend's thoughts. "Can you wait to take Millard on?"

Chris' eyes narrowed, but he spoke what Buck needed to hear. "Yeah, I'll wait. But this ain't over."

Buck slowly released his hold on Chris. "Not by a long shot," he agreed. "Not by a long shot."


Larabee was a loose cannon. He didn't need to be leading this band of renegades. Hell, this band of renegades didn't need to be bearing the kind of weaponry that Davis had supplied. What the hell had Davis been thinking anyway? This was madness. Everyone knew Larabee had gone over the edge when his wife and son were killed. And Sanchez . . . he was an absolute maniac--a cultist and a terrifyingly violent man. Tanner still had a bounty on his head. How had Davis gotten around that? That ex-POW Jackson and his g****n flashbacks, and Wilmington hadn't held a job consistently before this one.

Now the kid--the druggie--had cost good men their lives, all because he got hooked on the stuff, then crossed the wrong guy. The ATF didn't need this kind of publicity. Not on his watch.

Millard had to smile. How odd that the one he trusted was the gambler Standish. Standish had proven to be the most level-headed of the team.

God, look at Larabee--about to take his head off. Millard almost wished he would. Then he could get rid of this thorn in his side once and for all.


So there actually was a benefit to spending so much time in a doctor's office. Vin's doctor, Dr. Chen, had come over from Mercy General to assist. He arranged for Chris' team to use the doctors' lounge as a private waiting area. It was nice, Ezra noted to himself--nicer than where the agents usually wound up.

Josiah was stretched out on the leather sofa, and Ezra remembered how the big man had been in the ER at the time of the attack. Josiah had been dazed by the blast, but seemed to be doing all right now. Still, Ezra would watch him.

Chris paced part of the time, then would sit at the table, then he'd bolt again.

Buck was sitting at the table, nursing a cup of coffee, staring blankly most of the time.

Vin had plopped crosslegged on the burber carpet--the only institutional looking accoutrement of the lounge.

So why couldn't Ezra "plop" down somewhere?

Odd--Ezra felt like he was on an adrenaline high or something. He was overcome with energy, and not necessarily beneficial energy. His heart raced, he felt nervous, and he realized he'd been talking a mile a minute. It had to be the excitement of two terrifying gun battles and a bomb all in one day. And that was after a week of almost no sleep worrying about JD.

Surely that was all that was wrong with him. Right?

Ezra was on a roll, trying to guide his friends to some kind of game plan. Why would JD kidnappers risk an all out war in an ER? What could they possibly gain? Who were they?

"Speaking of 'who were they?'" Josiah said, his face serious, but his eyes showing signs of amusement. "Where did you recruit your cavalry?"

Ezra chuckled. "The less you know, gentlemen, the better."

"The more I know, the better."

Millard.

Damn it. Who the hell told Millard where they were?

Ezra never dropped a beat. "Ah, sir, the more you know about what?"

"The 'cavalry' Agent Sanchez is referring to."

Millard strode into the lounge with long strides--for such a short man. He rested his hand on Ezra's shoulder as if it belonged there.

"Oh," Ezra said, stepping away. "I'm quite sure he is referring to the quick and sure detachment of the SWAT team. They saved us from certain death and are to be commended."

"Don't b***sh*t me, Standish."

"I'm sure I have no idea what you mean, sir. I would never presume to . . . obfuscate in your presence." Ezra loved this kind of parlez better than any other and Millard was such an easy "obfuscatee"

Millard went over and sat at the table where Chris and Buck were sitting. This could not be a good thing, Ezra thought, and he ambled over and joined them.

"You live with Agent Dunne, isn't that right, Wilmington?"

Buck looked up, but didn't answer. Millard of course knew that Buck and JD were roommates. Ezra didn't like where this was heading at all.

"How much do you know about his . . ." Millard was milking this--looking for a word, knowing all the time it would be incindiary.

"Habit," Millard found his word.

Buck's voice was low and nothing short of venomous. "What 'habit' would that be . . . 'sir'?"

Ezra cringed upon hearing the sarcasm in Buck's use of the moniker.

"Why, his cocaine addiction, of course." Millard said it as matter-of-factly as if he were talking about the weather.

Vin and Josiah were on their feet protesting immediately. This time it was Chris who restrained Buck.

"You son of a bitch!!!" Buck screamed at his superior. Then he spun around to Chris. "Get offa me!" he cried, trying to shake Chris off, only to find Josiah and Vin restraining him as well.

Chris spoke, and his voice was remarkably calm. "If you are going to make an accusation like that about one of my men, you'd best have proof."

Millard pulled a folder from his briefcase. He seemed almost . . . gleeful. He shuffled through for a moment (staged, no doubt, Ezra maintained) then pulled out a document and slid it over to Chris.

Chris and Buck both studied it for a moment, then Chris frowned. "These are the 'fake' records we've created. . ."

"JD created," Vin interjected, trying to see around Buck so he could look at the document as well.

"JD created," Chris corrected, "to support his cover in the case he was working on."

"I have it on good authority that Dunne has been purchasing drugs illegally for the past two years."

"That's crazy!" Vin said, and the others concurred.

Millard turned to Ezra. "Is it?"

What was that supposed to mean, Ezra wondered. "Sir?"

"Will you submit to a drug test?" Millard asked.

Something was up. Ezra began to feel as though the walls were closing in somehow. Even though he had nothing to hide, he knew a set up when he saw one.

"Certainly," Ezra answered. "But why?"

Millard slapped that hand back on Ezra's shoulder. "Because you've been supplying the crack to your colleague."


PART TEN: The Doctors' Lounge

Thea McGee woke up on a stretcher--a doctor she didn't know training a penlight into her eye.

"Did I get shot?" she asked, sounding pitiful to herself.

The doctor chuckled.

Jerk.

"No, you fainted."

Thea decided that he'd taken Condescension 101 in medical school. She'd worked for a couple of his classmates before.

She glanced around. She was in the damn laundry room, no doubt because every other available space was being used to treat the life-threatening injuries. The room had been converting to a sort of holding room. There were three other gurneys in there. Thankfully none were occupied. That was probably a good sign.

Where was Colleen? Probably working again. Colleen wouldn't have time to sit there and hold her hand.

This sucked, but it sure beat having a gunshot wound.


Millard's accusation against Ezra hung heavily in the doctors' lounge--an accusation that implicated JD as well.

This time, Chris did not restrain Buck. They both jumped up to confront Millard, but Ezra had beat them to it. The gambler had grabbed the ATF superior and slammed him into the wall. Ezra was screaming at Millard, their faces only inches apart. Chris thought fleetingly that they looked like a ball player and umpire going at it during a playoff game.

"Stand down, Standish!" Millard commanded, but Ezra continued his tirade. Millard addressed Chris. "Call off your man, Larabee."

Chris kept his lips pressed together and remained silent.

"Sir," Ezra tried to regain his composure. He lowered his voice a bit. "You may accuse me of whatever you like--however implausible it may be. But you will NOT slander JD Dunne. He was tortured and drugged and God knows what else because YOU wouldn't even acknowledge that he was working on a case for you."

"He wasn't," Millard said, mildly. "This had nothing to do with ATF business. We've known about Dunne's troubles for some time now."

"LIAR!" Buck roared.

Millard didn't even acknowledge Buck's presence. "We've been investigating him since last March. And there was no way we were going to let a renegade kid jeopardize the good name of the ATF."

This was absolute bullsh*t. Chris jerked Ezra back out of the way . .

And drove his fist into Millard's face.

Chris didn't know who was pulling him off of Millard. He'd deal with them later. Right now, he had to stop this man.

But a hard voice cut through the din in the room.

"Do you want to know about Agent Dunne or not?"

Chris reluctantly turned away from Millard. Dr. Lansing was standing squarely in the door frame watching the melee.

"How is he?" Buck asked.

Dr. Lansing waited until the men in the room settled down. Chris crossed his arms across his chest and listened.

"We won't know for 48 hours at least," the doctor said. "His heart has stopped three times. We can't know whether or not it'll happen again. We're just now figuring out what kind of poison was in his system."

Poison, Chris noted.

"The caustic agent is inhibiting our progress right now."

"How so?" Ezra asked.

"We need to take care of his internal injuries, but we can't use any anesthesia right now."

Vin echoed. "Internal injuries?"

Dr. Lansing frowned. "Someone beat him severely. He's got some internal bleeding. We know that. We don't know what kind of injuries there may be to his internal organs."

Buck's voice was quaking. "Is there any . . . brain damage?"

Chris wished he could say something to make this easier for Buck, but what could he say?

The doctor shook his head. "We won't know until he regains consciousness."

"And his hand?" Buck asked.

"He'll lose it."

There was absolute silence in the little room. Millard had the good sense to keep his g**d**n mouth shut. Chris had to give him that.

Buck walked away. Chris let him be. No one could do anything.

"What about drugs?" Millard asked.

Bastard.

Vin spoke up. "I saw them shoot him up with a hypodermic."

"They did. Again, we're just about to get another report." Lansing squeezed his eyes closed. "Gentlemen, whoever did this wanted to kill him, but they also wanted to be sure he suffered."

When the doctor opened his eyes, they were red. Tired? Probably not just tired.

Dr. Lansing continued. "I have never seen anyone injured this . . . severely . . . who lived. It doesn't look good."

"F***!!!" Buck cried from the back of the room, and his fist would have gone through the wall if he hadn't hit a stud. "F***!!!" he repeated. Vin started to go to him, but Josiah shook his head, no. It was Dr. Lansing who walked over to him. The doctor lifted Buck's wrist gently and looked at his hand. Lansing frowned again.

"You broke it," the doctor reported, emotionless. "We have more than enough to handle without this kind of shit." Lansing led him toward the door. When he reached it, he turned back to the rest of the men. "Agent Jackson is going to be all right. He's lost a lot of blood, but the bullet missed the bone. He'll walk. He'll live. I just wish I could say the same for Agent Dunne." He sighed heavily. "I'll tell you something more as soon as I know. Try not to kill each other before I get back."

Millard called after him. "I need for you to do a drug test on Agent Standish."

To his credit, the doctor looked at Millard as though the ATF agent had bugs crawling out of his ears.

"You can't be suggesting that in this bullet-riddled ER, with casualties on all sides, I take up personnel and lab time to run some piddly-assed drug test on an ATF agent."

Lansing let the door slam behind him.


This had to be a nightmare. Bad enough she'd been in a war zone, now she had to be patronized by this jerk doctor. Thea kept her eyes closed as the man patted her hand.

"You'll be all right," the doctor said, then he chuckled yet again. ". . . as soon as you learn to tolerate the sight of blood." The doctor left the makeshift triage room.

"F*** you," Thea muttered as she heard him walk away. She couldn't decide if she was actually glad the man didn't hear her.

"That's what I say."

Another male voice.

Thea's eyes shot open and she looked at the new presence in the room.

A tall, moustached man was lying back on the stretcher across from her. He was cradling one hand against his chest.

She'd seen him before. He had been in the room with the young ATF agent.

"What happened to you?" she asked.

"Drove my fist into a wall stud."

Oh, Thea wished she had been able to stifle the quick chuckle that bubbled from her throat. Looking at the man's face, she regretted it immediately. "Sorry," she said.

The big man didn't smile, but he did talk. "It's all right. I just feel so helpless. My . . . my partner is dying . . . "

Thea sat up on her elbow. "The black-headed agent?"

The man nodded.

"I was in there with him," Thea said, and suddenly it seemed very important to help. "I know it looks bad. . ." she began. " . . . but that young man wants to live. He's fighting to live."

The man's blue eyes filled as he listened.

"He should have died hours ago, but he didn't. It's like . . . " Thea needed to find just the right phrase. "It's like he won't let go. He's holding on. And that could very well be what saves his life."

"God, I hope so."

Thea watched the man. After a quiet moment, she sat up slowly. Her head was clear again. She didn't feel clammy like she had a few minutes before. It took a second for her to trust her legs, but once she felt like she could be steady on her feet, she stood up and walked over to the stretcher where the big man lay.p>Wordlessly, she lifted his injured arm. She examined his wrist, and then his hand. It was surely broken.

"I'm afraid you're gonna be pretty far down the triage totem pole. It could be a couple of hours before a doctor can get to you." Thea looked up into the man's eyes. There was pain there, but she supposed it wasn't because of his hand. In an impulsive move, she reached up and lay her hand against his cheek, and for the first time, she saw him smile.

He was beautiful.

"I'll help you," she decided, and she left the little room.


PART ELEVEN: Judge Orrin Travis

Polite questions had not gotten him anywhere. When Judge Orrin Travis had arrived at the hospital, no one was standing still. Nurses and doctors were running from place to place. Police officers were leading black-clad prisoners to paddywagons. When Travis had asked any of the agents from the FBI or ATF, he got conflicting stories. In fact, all he knew was that an ATF team had brought injured agents to the hospital, and terrorists had opened fire inside the hospital.

Travis walked determinedly to a little knot of ATF agents.

"Where is Chris Larabee?" he asked, but the agents just looked at each other. He'd had enough of this. Travis squared his shoulders. "I am a federal judge, son, and if you don't answer my question, I'll . . ."

"Doctors' lounge," one of the men said.

Travis didn't thank him. He walked down the hall and planted himself in front of the first person he saw in a lab coat. This time he got a quick answer as to the location of the lounge.

He opened the door.

"What the hell is going on?" he asked. Chris Larabee was damn near breathing fire at the area ATF director. What was the man's name? Willard? Mallard?

"Have this man arrested!" Mallard said.

The judge squinted at the director. "I beg your pardon?"

The little director tried to grow taller, or so it seemed, and he blustered back. "This man assaulted me. I want him arrested."

"Larabee?" Travis asked, but Chris remained silent.

Vin Tanner spoke up. "Sir, both Chris and Josiah nearly got blown up this afternoon. They need to be seen by a doctor."

"That's bullsh*t!" Willard said.

Judge Travis addressed Willard. "Do you have any evidence that these men were not in an explosion?"

"Of course I don't. But that's no excuse for him to . . ."

Travis spoke again. "I think Agent Larabee must have been out of his head, if he'd been dazed from the explosion."

Mallard was upset. "Surely you can't . . ."

"I can do anything I damn well please," Travis said. He was tired of this little parlez. He turned to Chris. "How are your men, son?"

Chris shook his head. He explained everything, and when he described Wallard's accusations about Sanchez and Dunne, the judge could feel his own heart rate spike. He could imagine how this must be for Chris. Travis had hand picked each of these men for this team, starting with Chris Larabee, and he wasn't gonna let this little piss ant Wallard jeopardize the team or any individual comprising it. Judge Travis turned on the little director.

"Walton, I don't know what you think you're . . ."

"Millard," Millard corrected him.

"I don't give a sh*t about your name," Travis barked. "But I've known these men for years and if you are going to try to slander them, you'd better have irrefutable evidence." Travis moved to within inches of the man's face. "And if I find out that you, or any of your people impeded Agent Larabee's search for Agent Dunne, you'll be one unhappy ATF director in federal prison with all the sorry sons of b****es you sent there!! Do you understand me . . . Millard?" But before the director could answer, Travis had a memo pad in his hand. "Does Millard have two 'l's'? I'm glad you clarified your name. I'll know who to turn in to Judge Casselman!"

Millard started to respond but thought better of it. Good move. The director left without another word.

"Thank you, sir," Tanner said, once the door was closed again.

Travis looked at the four men remaining. Chris Larabee had his game face on, but the judge had seen that look enough to know that it was the only thing keeping the agent from exploding.

Josiah Sanchez was angry. That was clear. But he was also shaky. The big man's hands trembled and he would sway ever so slightly. Sanchez really should see one of the doctors. Vin Tanner was the panacea. His voice was gentle, although not weak. He was the balm that was keeping the others relatively calm.

And Ezra Standish? Why the hell would Millard ask for a drug test? Judge Travis took a step over to Standish and lifted the gambler's chin with an easy hand. Travis frowned.

"You're high, son," the judge said finally.

Tanner took a step up behind his friend and spoke placatingly. "Sir, Ezra's never done drugs. . ."

Standish turned to his friends with that glazed, trapped look of a deer. "I didn't do . . ." the gambler started to say, but his voice trailed off.

Josiah Sanchez' eyes challenged the judge. "Ezra hasn't done anything," the preacher finished for him. "If you're gonna take that sanctimonious son of a bitch Millard's word over Ezra's, we don't have a shot here, and neither does JD."

Judge Travis studied the gambler's pupils. "Be that as it may, the man is high."

"He doesn't need this from you, too," Chris Larabee hissed.

Travis released Standish's jaw and raised his hand. "Son, you've had a hell of a day so I'm gonna let that go. I'm not saying that pansy-assed Willard is right. I'm saying Standish has been drugged." Travis looked at Larabee. "You boys are being set up."

The judge turned the page over in his memo book and scribbled a name and number on the next sheet. He tore the page out and handed it to Vin. "This doctor is a friend of mine. Call him and tell him I sent you. Take Standish there and let him take care of him. You can stay next door to the doctor's place--it's a safe house and I'll take care of all the arrangements."

Tanner nodded his thanks and put his hand on Standish's back and started to guide him out. Larabee caught the gambler's arm.

"Ezra." Larabee's voice was steady and sure. "We're behind you. We'll stand by you." The team leader paused a moment. "I'll stand by you. You can count on that."

The gambler's voice was paper thin. "I would never do anything to hurt that boy."

Larabee clasped his hand on the Southerner's shoulder. "You saved his life, Ezra. He'd have been dead this afternoon if it hadn't been for you."

Standish almost said something, but he didn't. He seemed overwhelmed. Of course, he was bound to be. He let Tanner move him forward.

"I'll stay in touch," Tanner told his boss.

"Watch your back," Larabee called after him.


Buck Wilmington wasn't thinking much about his broken hand. His mind was overwhelmed with visions of JD: the first moment he saw the kid beaten and dying in the warehouse, the choking boy in the car, and his partner's body arching off the gurney as the paddles shot voltage through him. No, compared to that, Buck's hand didn't hurt him a bit.

The awful thoughts segued back to good memories about life with his roommate. JD made Buck feel like he was back in college. The kid was into all the things a twenty-two year old would be. He liked football and cars and girls and computer games. He was just . . . fun.

The kid was thoughtful, too--maybe to a fault sometimes. JD always seemed very concerned about his friends. He was a worrier by nature. Buck figured maybe that was because everyone who had been associated with the kid--his father, his mother, his one friend in Boston--either left him or died.

Buck had made it a personal mission to NOT die. He didn't want the kid to have that to deal with, too. But this . .

God, kid, I never thought you'd go first.

There was a light knock on the door, and the sweet girl who'd been talking to Buck moments ago appeared in the doorway. She had a splint and some bandages with her.

"I'm sorry it took so long. I had to go to another floor for supplies."

Buck liked her voice. It was soothing--like music--except when she was cussing after some doctor. Buck had to admit that he liked that about her, too. She was spunky.

"Thank you, darlin'," Buck said. "Have you heard anything about JD?"

"Nothing new, I'm afraid."

Buck tried to sit up, but she pushed him back down to the gurney. He grasped her slender arm. "Can you get me in to see him?"

"I have to stablize your hand." That was no answer. Buck decided that the young lady didn't want to answer his question. Why wouldn't she? Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. Oh God . . .

"He's dead, isn't he?" His question was an extension of his thought.

"Oh, no. He's not dead." Again the voice was like music. "I wouldn't lie to you. I just don't know anything else."

Buck was so relieved. He sighed heavily. "I need to talk to him. I need to tell him . . ."

"What?" the girl asked as she ran her fingers over his wounded hand.

"I need to tell him to hold on. He'll hear me. I know he will."

The nurse didn't say anything right away. She started to work on his arm, putting the splint in place. "He is holding on."

"But he doesn't know that we all made it through this. He's gonna worry."

The girl glanced around, as if she feared being overheard. "Tell you what. Let me take care of your hand, then I'll see what I can do. If he's still in the ER, I'll take you to him."

Buck felt the tears rush his eyes and he smiled at her. "Thank you."


Where was everybody? Nathan woke up alone in a sterile room. He was fuzzy. He couldn't quite think straight. They'd been going after JD, but he couldn't remember what had happened after that.

Why had there been shooting in the ER? Where was everyone?

Think. There's something you're not remembering.

Nathan closed his eyes again. Vin. Vin had been with him. They'd been watching JD. Nathan's throat became tight.

JD. I'm so sorry, son. . .


PART TWELVE: Under the Influence

Where the hell was this place? It was hard to see much out here in the country in the dead of night.

Vin felt like he'd been driving forever. It had been the longest day, and he was exhausted. That would have been enough to make him irritable, but, add to that Ezra Standish wired, and you had the makings of the ride from hell.

". . . and then Maude proceeded to separate me from my amassed fortunes by swindling me out of the deed to my holdings in Ft. Smith. Well, it was not a swindle per se. I confess that I had been short of funds at the time I bid on the property, and I included my less-than-sainted mother's name on the deed. She in turn took out a mortgage against the property to offset a lien on her wages for . . . "

"EZRA!!!" Vin yelled.

The gambler sat with wide, truly innocent eyes. "What?"

Vin started to snap at his friend, but restrained himself. "Slow down a bit," he said, keeping his speech deliberately calm.

"Huh?" Ezra asked, and Vin chuckled. He'd never, ever thought he'd hear the well-spoken Southerner say "huh."

"I'm not following your story very well," Vin said quietly. "Tell me slowly."

Ezra paused for a moment. He seemed to be confused. Then he started his story again.

Vin rolled his eyes and smiled. It was going to be a long night.


Thea watched as Buck walked over to JD's bed. He was moving slowly, almost hesitantly. It was as though he couldn't grasp what he was seeing.

He stopped about a foot away from the bed. Thea picked up a chair from beside the door and carried it over to him.

"Sit with him . . ." she said, and he looked back at her. The look in his eyes was heartbreaking. She wished she could do something to ease his suffering. Words seemed so . . . inadequate, but she had to try. "It's all right. You can stay a few minutes."

The tall man nodded and sat down. He reached out to touch the young man's uninjured hand, but then halted. There was an IV needle there. Buck looked back at her. "Will this hurt him more?"

"No," Thea said. She walked over to him and gently lifted the unconscious boy's hand and laid it in Buck's. Buck in turn held it very tenderly.

"I'll be right outside if you need me," Thea said.

Buck nodded. "Thank you," he said, softly.


The door closed behind her, insulating them from the din of activity outside the little room. Buck bit his lip and looked closely at JD for the first time.

Oh, God . . .

The blue-tinged skin was almost ghostly. How could that be JD? His forehead should be smooth, but it was scraped raw and red on his right side and swollen blue-black on his left. Buck resisted the urge to touch JD's face, to brush back his hair. Yet, he wanted so badly to comfort the kid.

"JD . . . " he said softly. Buck's eyes filled, and he blinked quickly. "JD, son, it's Buck . . ."

JD lay so still. Could he hear? Did he know Buck was with him? If only the long lashes would move and the sadly still face would come to life again. But JD's eyes were closed.

Please, God . . .

"JD, you've held on this long. You gotta keep trying. You've gotta hold on."

Buck wished he could keep his voice steadier. He needed to be strong . . . so JD wouldn't be so scared.

Tubes and monitors overwhelmed the little room. It seemed so unnatural seeing the kid in that environment. The smell of alcohol and antiseptic surrounded them and for a moment, Buck thought he might lose his lunch.

Maybe it wasn't the strange hospital smell that overcame him.

What have they done to you?

The browbone over the kid's left eye was misshappen and a long gash cut across his face from his hairline, through the horrible bruise and into his left brow. Someone had hit him with . . . something. Brass knucks? A pistol butt? God . .

Both of his high cheekbones were bruised--one was certainly broken--and his nose was swollen at the bridge. He'd been beaten so badly.

How was it that six trained federal agents hadn't been able to protect him?

Buck squeezed JD's hand ever so gently. How was it that he hadn't been able to protect the kid?

"I'm so sorry . . . " Buck whispered. "I'm just . . . so sorry."

He felt a tightness in his chest as he continued to study his friend's face more closely now.

Tiny blisters covered JD's lips, more on the right side than the left, then they trailed down his chin--a result of the caustic "cocktail."

Damn the bastards!! Buck's own lips trembled, and he stroked JD's hand. He leaned back and stole a glance out the door, as if by looking away, the scene would change when he turned back around.

But it didn't.

One side of JD's mouth was swollen and cut, further evidence of the unthinkable beating he had endured. Thankfully, with the kid's mouth closed, Buck couldn't see where several of his teeth had been knocked out, although the hollow of his cheek was much deeper than it was naturally. Dr. Lansing had said he'd lost two or three teeth. The bleeding from his mouth and from the gash on the same side gave the impression that he'd been bleeding all the way down that side of his face.

Buck frowned.

Why hadn't anyone tended to JD's face? Why hadn't someone cleaned him up? Maybe they thought he wasn't gonna live so why bother?

Damn them all! He looked around for a cloth. There was a little sink behind him. He'd just get up . . .

But then he'd have to let go of JD's hand. And he wasn't ready to. He wasn't ready to let go.

He watched JD sleep and thought about the horrible afternoon--the horrible shootout in the ER. The ER, for God's sake. What kind of people were they dealing with?

Buck studied JD's bloodied face again. Probably with the incredible carnage everywhere, and with the shortage of doctors and nurses, the doctors and nurses had taken care of JD's major injuries and didn't get to clean his face. Thea would take care of it in a minute. Besides, Buck still wanted a few moments alone with his partner.

There was bruising near JD's neck and collarbone that disappeared beneath the institutional hospital gown. Only his arms and hands were visible. They lay above the thin blanket.

The hand that Buck held looked normal. So did that arm, except for the track marks on the inside. But the wrist was cut and bleeding where wire had dug into it for . . . days, it seemed.

The other arm was bandaged, but the hand was not. That bloody wrist seemed to set it off from the rest of his arm. His hand, strangely tinged and too large, looked as though it had been detached from his body. Dr. Lansing had said JD would lose it--the circulation had been cut off from it for too long.

But he'd been wrong. Isn't that what that other doctor said? Hadn't they been able to do something?

It looked bad to Buck. But what did he know?

"JD . . . your hand's gonna be okay. The doctors said it'll be fine." Was Buck just trying to convince himself? "You're gonna be just fine, JD."

The tears finally spilled down Buck's face. "Come on, kid. You gotta hold on, you hear me? Everything's gonna be okay. The guys are all gonna be fine. Everybody made it, kid."

Buck leaned very close to JD's ear. "I need you, boy. You understand? You gotta wake up. Just . . . wake up and I'll take you home." Buck's breath hitched and his voice cracked. "I need you to come home. . ."


Chris Larabee sank into the sofa, sighing heavily. He leaned his head back, closing his eyes. God, what a day.

"Me too, my friend," Josiah said, sitting beside him.

Judge Travis sat in a straight chair at the table across from them.

"Have you boys eaten anything today?" the judge asked.

Oh, not food, Chris thought. He looked up at Travis and shook his head.

New topic. "Can you keep Millard off our backs?" Chris asked. "For a while anyway?"

Judge Travis nodded, but he was frowning. "He's gonna cause a stink. Do you have any idea why?"

Chris looked at the ceiling as though the answer were there. "No . . . "

Josiah's low voice sounded damn near menacing. "He wouldn't do anything to help JD. His office took a position of 'official denial' the whole time JD was missing."

"Millard denied us back-up when we went after him," Chris went on, that familiar anger stirring his stomach.

The judge snorted. "Mr. Standish called me this morning to alert me to the situation." Travis paused before continuing soberly. "I went by your office and picked up the video."

Chris sat up. The video had been a lifetime ago. His eyes met the judge's. "Did you watch it?"

"Yeah." Travis lowered his voice. "I'll help you any way I can," he said. "Whatever it takes."

Josiah sat forward. "We need your help with Millard," he said. "We got the bastards that hurt JD."

The judge shook his head. "No you didn't."

"What do you mean?" Chris snapped.

"Answer me this," Travis said. "Why would that little pissant Millard declare Mr. Dunne 'persona non grata'? Why would he do it right then? What would he possibly gain?"

"If he's been investigating JD and Ezra for a while . . ." Josiah began.

"He hasn't been," Chris said. This whole argument made his head ache. "He'd never find anything against either of them. I investigated every detail about them before we hired them. And if they had gotten involved in something like that since they've been on my team, we'd know."

"How well do we know Ezra?" Josiah asked.

Damn him! Chris stood up, furious. "What the hell is that supposed to mean??" He leaned over the preacher. "You're playing right into their hands, Josiah! This is exactly what Millard wants! He wants to destroy us from the inside. Next thing, you'll be saying you think JD is an addict."

Josiah stood up and squared off with him. "What if he was at one time?"

Chris' fist shot out and connected with the big man's jaw. It was the only answer he could come up with.

Josiah teetered like a redwood which hadn't quite started to fall.

Then the preacher landed heavily on the floor.

"Shit . . . " Chris muttered and he knelt beside his friend. "Josiah . . . hey." The big man didn't answer. Damn. "Josiah, I'm . . ."

"He's out like a light," the judge said, leaning over Chris' shoulder. "I'll get help."

Travis left quickly. Chris cursed himself and he slipped his hand up to Josiah's throat. His friend's pulse was strong. Thank God. Chris patted the big man's chest, then left his hand there, the heart beat beneath his hand a comfort to him.

Hit a man who should have already been admitted to the hospital. Way to go, Larabee. "I'm sorry, man . . . "


". . . and, of course, I had already committed funds to the project, not knowing that Maude had already dipped into the coffer. That was during her wine-tasting phase. She was procuring the finest spirits and hiding them in her own makeshift cellar under the house on Polk Boulevard. . . "

Vin's head pounded. Come on, Ezra, you've gotta be getting tired.

". . . but what she didn't take into account when they foreclosed on her. . ." Ezra tilted his head toward Vin, as though confiding something very precious to him. "She used the mortgage money to invest in a gambling establishment in Reno."

Ezra paused, trying to recall where he'd been in the story.

"They foreclosed . . ." Vin supplied, squinting at street signs as he spoke.

"Ah, yes, they foreclosed on her." Suddenly Ezra chuckled. ". . . and she forgot that she had a half a million dollars worth of vintage wine in the basement."

Ezra laughed--a very "non-Ezra" laugh that stuttered along.

"Poor Maude," Vin said, and Ezra's staccato chuckle kept going. Vin grinned, and Ezra laughed more.

"Poor indeed!" Ezra said, still laughing, though never really raising his voice.

And it was the funniest laugh Vin had ever heard.

Vin spared a glance at his friend, and then found himself laughing--belly laughs. He laughed until tears rolled down his face. He was laughing so hard, he almost drove right past Cable Road.

"Whoa!" Vin yelled, laughing even yet, and he turned the wheel hard. "Hold on!" he told Ezra . . . and the gambler reached over and grabbed Vin's arm.

"Don't hold on to me, you idiot," Vin chuckled. His friend was now alternating between laughing and yawning. By the time they reached the doctor's office, Ezra was sleeping like a baby.


Part Thirteen: The Morning After

Sunlight warmed his face and he slowly opened his eyes. He squinted against the glare and turned his face away from the window. Where was he? He looked around the room. There was a chair, a desk, a lamp that looked like it was from the 60's. His eyes trailed around. His clothes hung in an open closet.

So what was he wearing?

He glanced down. He was wearing a T-shirt and underwear. Boxers? Ezra Standish did not wear boxers. Clearly he hadn't changed his own clothes. He began to feel a vague sense of alarm. Something wasn't right. There were no pictures in the room--no phone--no television.

A safe house.

He squeezed his eyes closed again. Now he remembered.

JD. JD was hurt. Oh God, he remembered . . .


Nathan Jackson woke up in a hospital room. The sun was so bright . . . why hadn't somebody pulled the shades down. It was too bright. Nathan squeezed his eyes closed against the glare and tried to assess his condition.

At first he couldn't decide what hurt. He wasn't sure how he felt. Maybe he'd just go back to sleep. . .

"Mr. Jackson."

Why was this voice interrupting him?

"Mr. Jackson!" Louder this time.

"What?" He meant to sound harsh.

But evidently he didn't "sound" at all, for a hand shook his shoulder.

"Wake up, Mr. Jackson."

Okay, he had to wake up. He didn't want to. Something awful awaited him in the awake world. Something he didn't want to think about. Something had happened . . .

Something . . .

He tried to make his brain work. Something had happened . . .

To JD.

His eyes shot open, and he tried to sit up.

"No, Mr. Jackson. Settle down. You're going to hurt yourself, if you're not careful."

Nathan's eyes focused on a nurse - an older woman. Her mouth drew up tightly, but her eyes were warm and kind. Nathan allowed her to press his shoulder back onto the pillow.

"My friend," Nathan began. "Agent Dunne. How is he?"

"I don't know him," the nurse answered. Nathan read the name on the strip of blue plastic pinned to her uniform.

"Mrs. Harris . . ." Nathan reached for her arm. "Please find out for me. He was hurt so badly. They had to resuscitate him a couple of times yesterday, and I have to know."

She put her hand over his. "Agent Dunne?"

"JD . . . uh, John Dunne, yes. Please find out for me."

"I will, but let me get your vitals first. How do you feel?"

Nathan thought about it. "I don't know yet."

Mrs. Harris smiled. "Well, I'm glad you're not in too much pain." She slipped a thermometer into a plastic sleeve and put it in his mouth. Then, she lifted his hand and felt for his pulse.

"Do you . . ." Nathan began.

The thermometer beeped, but Mrs. Harris didn't take it out. "Wait," she said.

She frowned, released his hand, and pushed a button on the digital thermometer box. Then she took his wrist again, and studied her watch. He resisted the urge to ask another question. Nathan closed his eyes. Yesterday was such a blur. There was a warehouse. JD had been in there--a hostage. . . damn near dead. Vin had gone in first.

Vin. Was he all right?

Nathan tried to think through the experience. There had been gunfire. Gunfire everywhere. He had tried to see JD and Vin, but he had to take care of the men on his side of the warehouse. He hadn't been able to look for them.

Hadn't Vin been with him at the hospital yesterday?

Yeah, he had. So Vin was all right. . .

"Mr. Jackson!" Mrs. Harris' voice cut sharply through his thoughts. "You need to stay awake for a little longer. I need to ask you a few questions."

"Can you check on my friend first?"

There was a light rap on the door, and Chris Larabee appeared in the doorway.

"Nathan?"

Mrs. Harris turned to Chris. "Come in," she said, and Nathan was glad.

"How's JD?" Nathan asked quickly.

Chris frowned. "He's in a coma. The doctor doesn't know if there's any brain damage. He won't know until JD wakes up."

Nathan felt a weight in his chest. He pressed on. "What about his hand?"

Now Chris' look brightened. "They saved it. God knows how, but they did."

"That's great."

Chris came closer. "How are you?"

Nathan glanced up at Mrs. Harris and grinned. "I don't know. How am I?"

Mrs. Harris chuckled. "He'll be fine. Lost a lot of blood, but the surgery went well . . ."

"Surgery?" Nathan hadn't known he'd had surgery.

"You got shot . . ." Chris said.

"Yeah . . ." Nathan knew he'd been hurt, but he hadn't realized he'd been shot.

Chris said, wryly, "Well, they couldn't very well leave the bullet in your leg."

"When was I shot?"

"At the warehouse . . . where we picked up JD."

"Oh." Maybe he remembered. Things were still fuzzy.

Mrs. Harris' voice cut in. "I'll let you boys talk. The doctor will be here in a minute."

Nathan touched her arm, gently. "I want you to meet my friend . . ."


Judge Orrin Travis hadn't slept at all. He hadn't even tried. There was an out-of-control ATF agent going around making wild accusations about his men and Travis wasn't going to stand for it.

And what the hell was that shootout in the Emergency Room about? The story was flooding all the national news broadcasts. It didn't help that the gunmen were foreign drug dealers and such. Newscasters were insinuating that one or two of his ATF agents may have been working both sides of the law.

That little pissant Millard. Millard had never been a fan of Chris Larabee--that was no secret. But why was he attacking Standish? And why on earth would he be dragging Dunne's name through the mud? Travis stared at the newspaper in his hand, not seeing it anymore.

He'd never forget the horrible pictures on the front page anyway--the black-clad bodies on the floor of the ER, wounded agents, blood spattered floor and walls . . .

Damn . . .

Travis closed his eyes and pulled his eyeglasses off. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. Getting his boys out of this one would be tricky.

Who were they fighting anyway? Larabee and his men had taken out two major drug lords yesterday, but who could say if there hadn't been others involved in the kidnapping? If there were, Dunne was still a target.

Hell, all of them were.

It was time to fight back.


Vin Tanner turned on the television, hitting the mute button so he wouldn't wake Ezra. The sharpshooter sat back down and picked up his bowl of cereal. After a moment of watching Captain Kangaroo silently interviewing Mr. Moose, Vin set the cereal bowl on the arm of the sofa and picked up the remote. He changed channels, looking for a news show.

Sweet Jesus! JD's face was looking back at him from the screen. A banner stretched across the top of the screen reading, "Massacre in the ER."

Vin's jaw tightened as a caption appeared under JD's picture.

"Double Agent?"

Vin cursed as he turned the sound on and cranked it up, catching the words of the newscaster.

". . . young agent had been kidnapped and tortured by drug dealers. Rumors have been circulating that this ATF newcomer was using his position in the agency to block action against major international drug traffickers.

"Millard further stated that he suspected that Dunne had raised the financial stakes and the dealers weren't going to comply, choosing to make an example out of Dunne instead. . ."

"DAMN HIM!!!!" Vin cried, his waving arm knocking his cereal bowl to the floor.

"What?" Ezra sounded very sleepy as he came into the room. Vin pointed at the screen.

"Oh, God . . ." Ezra whispered, as JD's picture disappeared and Millard appeared, surrounded by microphones and reporters.

"Believe me," Millard was saying. "I personally will get to the bottom of this travesty. The ATF will not tolerate this kind of activity from its agents. Not only did Agent Dunne jeopardize his own life and the lives of his ATF colleagues, but he put everyone in that emergency room in danger."

"F*** that!" Vin cried.

Ezra didn't say anything. He was clearly dumbfounded.

Millard's voice almost echoed in the little den. "If he survives this ordeal--and he isn't expected to--he will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."


"Are you seeing this??"

Josiah could hear Buck yelling from down the hall.

He heard a female voice yelling in response. Then he heard Buck yell a string of profanities that almost made Josiah blush. Josiah quickened his pace, and burst through the door.

"Pipe down, Buck!!!!!" Josiah commanded.

"Have you seen this shit?" Buck pointed at the television.

"Yes, but you aren't helping anything yelling like a banshee." Josiah turned to the nervous nurse who had had the unfortunate assignment of trying to calm Buck Wilmington down.

"Ma'am, I'll take care of this," Josiah told her, nodding graciously to her.

She harrumphed, and turned on her heel. She left in a huff.

Josiah watched her leave and then grabbed Buck's arm.

"Buck, you've gotta get hold of yourself. If you cause trouble here, you're gonna attract attention to yourself and this place will be swarming with reporters. Do you want that?"

"You bet I do. I want to clear JD's name." Buck waved a hand toward the TV. "This is bullshit."

Josiah nodded. "You're right, it is. But 'we' can't clear him to the media."

"The hell we can't!"

"Buck, this is coming from way up. We can't help JD until we can find out who's framing him."

This stopped Buck in his tracks.

For a moment.

Then he cranked up again. "But they're crucifying him . . ."

Josiah looked up at the screen. "I know. And if we don't find out what's really going on, it's going to be a lot worse on him."

"Have you seen him this morning?" Buck asked. His voice was almost a whisper, as though he were afraid to ask.

Josiah shook his head, no. "He's still in a coma."

"I know. The doctor told me. But they haven't let any of us see him since last night."

"He's in ICU." Josiah anticipated Buck's next question. "Heavily guarded."

"Who's guarding him, though?"

"FBI, I think," Josiah answered. In truth, he hadn't worried about who was protecting JD.

"Wish it was us . . ." Buck said. "I mean, if some ATF guy . . ."

"Millard . . ." Josiah interjected.

"Millard," Buck nodded. "If Millard is involved, then no telling who else could be. No telling how high up this goes. I mean, staging this whole thing? An attack in an ER? This was a brilliantly executed assault, when you think about it. And the SWAT team got here damn fast, don't you think?"

Oh God, Josiah thought. "You're saying someone dispatched them who had . . . some inside knowledge?"

"I don't know what I think, Josiah. But right now, we can't trust anyone but each other."

The preacher slapped a big hand on his friend's shoulder. "Let's go check on JD."


Head pounding, Chris Larabee leaned against the wall outside Nathan's room. The doctor had come in a minute ago and Chris had stepped out. Now he felt the ungodly headache. Maybe he should have seen a doctor last night . . .

His pager beeped at his waist. Chris twisted around and looked at the number.

He didn't recognize it. Maybe it was Vin or Ezra. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed.

"Larabee," he stated.

And he listened, dumbfounded, to the voice on the other end.


Something felt wrong. Josiah pressed the elevator button twice . . . Buck pushed it a third.

"That won't bring it here any faster."

Both agents resisted the urge to say something smartass to the elderly woman waiting with them. She couldn't know what was going on. Still . . .

The doors opened and the preacher extended his arm to let the gray-haired lady go on ahead. He pressed the rubber sensor back so the door wouldn't threaten to close on her.

"Come on board," the woman said cheerfully as she pressed the "door open" button for them. Josiah reached over to hit the button for the second floor.

"Ma'am, you have to let go of the 'door open' button so we can push the buttons for our floors."

"Oh, where are you going?" she asked, still holding the button.

"Second floor, ICU," Buck answered briskly.

"Oh, my . . ." she said. "That's terrible. Friend or family?"

"Family," they both answered.

"I'm so sorry," she said--still holding the f***ing button.

"Ma'am, please let go of the . . ."

"Oh!" she jerked her hand away like she had just realized she was touching a hot stove. Buck quickly pushed the button for the second floor. Finally the door closed.

The woman pushed the button for the second floor two more times. She smiled back at them, and Josiah nodded, understanding her joke. Sometime he'd try to figure out why that little gesture irritated him so completely.

But right now he had to get to JD.

The elevator door opened on the second floor and Buck and Josiah stepped out into the chaos, leaving the gray-haired woman to travel to the first floor alone.

There was a flurry of activity--nurses running around, doctors, and police.

Buck stopped one of the officers. "We're looking for JD Dunne," he said.

"So are we," the officer answered.

"What? What do you mean?"

The officer's eyes narrowed. "Who are you?" he asked.

Josiah whipped out his badge and asked again. "Where is he?"

The officer looked at the badge and his face relaxed. "He's gone. Somebody got him."


PART FOURTEEN: Who Do You Trust?

Why had Travis gotten a van with no shocks? Well, it felt like it had no shocks.

Vin Tanner didn't like this at all. The van was dangerous. The mission was dangerous. They were jeopardizing so much. Yet, they'd be jeopardizing so much more if they didn't make a move--and make it now.

He bit his lip nervously as he watched the doctor work. Then, the van lurched over a bump in the road, and he bit through his lip.

"Shit . . ." the sharpshooter said, wincing. He raised a hand to his mouth and wiped off the trickle of blood with the back of his sleeve. The doctor cut his eyes to Vin at the distraction, then went back to his work.

Vin sniffed. It had been tough enough yesterday, watching those bastards hurting JD--worse watching JD's body arch against the paddles that sent voltage into his chest. It had saved his life . . . for the time being anyway . . . but seeing it had been damn near unbearable.

The van took a curve -- too tightly--and this time it was the doctor who cursed. "Travis, if you can't keep this g**d***n car on the road . . ."

"I know," the judge called back.

God, this was crazy.

"Hold this," the doctor said, curtly, and he handed Vin an IV bag. "Make sure the drip is steady." Then the doctor muttered a string of obscenities as he continued to work. Vin couldn't blame him. This was a hell of a situation, and for a moment, Vin imagined the M*A*S*H* transports during wartime. They'd had to deal with this kind of thing everyday.

Vin was watching closely when suddenly his friend jerked his head.

"G**d**n it!" the doctor said. "Hold him still."

With the doctor's help, Vin eased the patient into his lap and encircled the unconscious man's chest with a strong arm. With his other hand, he held his friend's forehead still.

"Easy," Vin said as gently as he could, and his eyes filled suddenly--unexpectedly. He hadn't anticipated this rush of emotion in the middle of a mission . . .

But then again, it was the second day in a row that Vin held an almost-dead JD in his arms.


Ezra didn't know whether to be furious or humiliated. His face was plastered all over the news as the turncoat ATF agent who had used his position to become a drug dealer. Newscasters who didn't know anything about him were speculating about his life and his childhood.

He got up from the naugahyde couch (to call it a sofa would be too kind) and went into the kitchen. Clearly, the person who decorated the safe house was the same one who was responsible for the decor in their ATF office. How could green linoleum ever have been considered chic?

Furious or humiliated? He'd settle for humiliated. Excuse enough to drink early. If he let himself feel furious, he might have to act on it, and right now, he was too tired.

He opened the refrigerator--a Frigidaire. He hadn't seen one since . . . well, since he and Maude had stayed in a women's shelter in . . . was it Billings? Somewhere like that, anyway. Ezra felt a twinge of emotion. Somehow today he really missed his mother.

Outdated milk, a pizza box he dared not open, mustard, a Tupperware container with something in it that may have been some kind of chicken salad at one time, but he didn't want to check too closely. This was the g**d*** Twilight Zone. He was trapped in 1964 surrounded by linoleum and old chrome and food that had to be as old as the appliances. On a last whim, he leaned over and looked on the bottom shelf of the fridge in the back.

Pay dirt. The motherlode.

Heineken.


"They can't move him," Nathan said, the alarm in his voice alarming Chris. "He won't make it outside the hospital."

"Travis thinks somebody on the inside is behind all this."

"On the inside? What, like one of us?" Nathan's brows furrowed.

"Not one on my team, but maybe ATF." Chris sat in the chair beside Nathan's bed. "Or FBI, or maybe the cops."

"Damn," Nathan muttered, and the two sat in silence for a moment. Then Nathan spoke again. "What do you know about this doctor that'll be taking care of JD?"

Chris shook his head. "Nothing, except that Travis trusts him."

"But JD is gonna need special help. He's gonna need a . . . a state of the art facility."

Chris sighed. He knew that the safe house was no place for someone in JD's condition, but what was there to do? There was no one he could trust.

Nathan sat up slightly. "Take him out of the country," the medic said.

"What?!" Chris almost chuckled in his surprise.

"I mean it, Chris. I know a place in British Columbia--a place where internationals go, internationals who are friends of this country, but who need to keep a low profile. It's a small place, but the medical care there is the best in the world."

"Hell, Nathan, how're we supposed . . ."

"I know a pilot--a renegade, not above working both sides of the law if you know what I mean, but he's loyal to me. If I can let him know we suspect the 'establishment', he'd be all the more willing to help. You help me find him. He'll come get JD."

This was an overwhelming prospect to Chris. The whole situation was, for that matter. How could things have gotten this out of hand anyway?

"Can he survive the flight?" Chris asked.

Nathan shrugged. "I don't know. I suppose he's got as much chance on a plane as he does in a safe house. We'll have to get the doctor to go with him."

"I don't like it."

"I don't like any of it, but I don't see as how we have much choice." Nathan lay back on the pillow and closed his eyes. "This whole thing is crazy."

Suddenly Chris felt very tired. He sighed heavily. "Does this place have a name?"

Nathan opened his eyes and smiled. "Get my wallet."


Buck Wilmington's nostrils flared as he stood with his face inches away from an agent "Frye". Josiah's stronghold pinning his arms to his side was the only thing keeping him from trying to take the FBI agent's head off.

"Lemme go, Josiah!" Buck hissed.

"Not 'til you settle down and listen to me." Josiah jerked Buck away and damn near dragged him to the chapel.

"Josiah, this ain't . . ."

"Shut up, Buck," Josiah said, shoving Buck into a pew. Then he whispered very close to Buck's ear. "We can't trust anybody here--not nurses, not doctors, not cops, not feds. Don't you get it? Nobody. We can only trust each other."

Buck ran his fingers through his hair and his foot tapped nervously.

"Trying to strong arm the FBI isn't going to get us anywhere."

"We're wasting time," Buck protested.

"We have no choice," Josiah said. Buck tried to protest, but Josiah continued. "Let's find Chris. We'll get Travis and Vin and then we'll figure out what to do from there."

Again Buck tried to protest, but he stopped in mid-sentence. "I'm scared." Buck's voice was suddenly very weak.

"I am too, my friend. But we have to use that to our advantage."

"We'd best move Nathan out of here." Buck suggested. "If they can get JD in ICU, getting Nathan out of a regular room should be a breeze."

Josiah nodded, then an idea dawned on him.

Maybe JD hadn't been kidnapped after all.


Chris Larabee was surprised to see Josiah and Buck appear in Nathan's room.

"We have a problem," Josiah said.

"JD . . ." Buck started.

"Travis and Vin and that safe house doctor got him out of here this morning."

Buck visibly slumped with relief. "Oh, thank God."

Chris walked over to his old friend and slapped his shoulder. "I know."

Chris pulled a chair over behind Buck and helped him to sit.

"We gotta talk," Chris said. "And we can't talk here."

Josiah nodded. "I don't know about you, but I could go for some Szechuan."

Chris raised an eyebrow in understanding. "Me, too."

Buck looked around the room. He asked Chris a question, while looking at Nathan who was still in bed--not twenty-four hours after having a bullet cut out of his leg. "What say we blow this popsicle stand?"

Before Chris could answer, Nathan chimed in. "Buck, don't talk about 'blowing anything up' today."

Chris would have laughed, but things were too uncertain. He grimaced at Nathan's humor instead.

"I'll call Travis, then I'll get you out of here." Chris said. He walked to the door and paused. "You know we're in way over our heads."

"We've been there before," Buck said. "We'll make it."


Ezra put a can of beer under one arm, while he popped open another. He went back into the den and sat back down on the couch. He set the unopened beer on the coffee table and took a long drink from the open one. He was reaching for the remote when he heard his name on TV again.

Humiliation . . . again.

He took another long drink, but stopped abruptly when he saw the image of his mother on the screen. Reporters were following her, firing questions at her about him . . .

About her . . .

"DAMN YOU!!!!!!!" he cried.

And the humiliation turned to rage.


Maybe it was the look on Vin Tanner's face, or maybe it was because he was so tired, but when Buck Wilmington walked into the safe house, he felt utter and complete dread.

"What?" Buck whispered his question . . . his fear . . .

"Go see him . . ." Vin's voice was husky. He nodded toward the door across from them.

Buck walked to the back bedroom, then tapped lightly on the door. He waited for the doctor's answer.

"Come in," the soft but sure voice called. Buck turned the door knob, annoyed that it rattled in his hand before it caught. Frustrated when he opened the door, he damn near fell into the room. He caught himself with the doorjamb and muttered an oath under his breath.

The harsh glare of the doctor caught his eye first.

Then his eye trailed to the boy in the bed . . .

And he swayed, suddenly lightheaded. He felt strong familiar arms around his torso, only they weren't Josiah's this time. They were Chris' -- holding him up, supporting him. For a moment, Buck allowed himself to lean back against his old friend, then he gathered his strength, pulled himself up and looked back at the bed.

"God . . . JD . . ."


Josiah held the door as two men wearing fatigues rolled a gurney into the living room. Vin jumped up to help. He couldn't tell right away if Nathan were asleep or unconscious.

"How is he?" Vin asked.

"Exhausted," Josiah answered.

Vin helped them guide the gurney to another bedroom -- adjacent to the one where JD was. He reached that door first and held it open. The two strangers rolled Nathan in. Josiah followed, but Vin grabbed the preacher's arm before he could get into the room himself. "Who are they?" Vin breathed, his jaw suddenly tight.

"Friends of Nathan."

"You sure about them?"

Josiah shrugged slightly. "No . . . but Nathan is, and we have to go with that."

Vin didn't like it, but Josiah was right. They had to have help. He bit back an oath and followed his friend in.


Sometimes he wished he didn't have to be strong. This was one of those times. He wished he could take off and drive . . . anywhere . . .

Anywhere but here.

Chris ached for Buck as he watched the big man walk slowly to the bed. He ached for JD and the horrific suffering he'd endured . . . and would endure . . . if he lived.

The doctor stood, put his thin hand on Buck's shoulder and spoke to him softly. Buck nodded and then sat heavily in the chair the doctor had vacated. Chris watched, resisting the doctor's tug on his arm. Chris' gaze lingered on the scene before him . . .

Buck was studying the young man in the bed. It was as though he were trying to memorize everything. But his study ceased for a moment as he reached for JD's hand. Pitifully, Buck let his big hand hover over JD's, realizing he couldn't touch it. He couldn't touch either of the kid's hands. One had been so horribly injured--the other was the only port for the IV.

Buck's hand traced just above JD's heavily bandaged hand and wrist. Very tentatively, and more gently than Chris had ever seen his old friend, Buck lightly rested his hand on JD's upper arm. Was it the only place on the boy's body that wasn't injured? Jesus . . .

"Could I speak with you, Mr. Larabee?" the doctor's voice drew Chris' attention away. Chris nodded and followed him back into the den, grateful for an excuse not to watch his friends' pain.


Artemis Gordon.

While other parents were encouraging other children to emulate great statesmen, or inventors, or even investors, Maude Standish was encouraging her boy to emulate the master-of-disguise, Artemis Gordon. Ezra and his mother would watch reruns of "The Wild, Wild West" while his other little friends watched "The Brady Bunch". Ezra had been fascinated by Artie's ability to assume other identities so convincingly that even Jim West didn't know who he was sometimes.

Well, Artemis Gordon would be proud. No one--not even Maude Standish--would recognize the round, white-haired man that rode the train that night.

The moustache itched. Of all the aspects of disguise, Ezra hated spirit gum the most. Wax had made his own brows disappear, in favor of bushy gray ones he had long ago built on a mesh backing. The beard was no less than a masterpiece, cupping his chin comfortably.

But the damnable moustache . . .

He sighed and wished he could sleep, but he was hot and the extra weight he wore over his torso made him sweat.

He slid on the vinyl seat, hoping for a more comfortable position, but it wouldn't happen. Ezra decided that, in twenty-four hours, he had been exposed to the most vile man-made upholsteries ever made. The only kind he hadn't sat on was the cracked, padded toilet seat that would, of course, pinch his bare bum. Well, there was still time yet.

Which reminded him . . .


Nathan Jackson could hear the commotion--but it seemed far away. He must've been asleep. He opened his eyes slowly.

What a strange ceiling. What a strange light fixture--a square, etched piece of frosted glass with . . . some kind of bird? Herons? He squinted, trying to let the shaft of moonlight that cut through the room help him to discern what the graceful etchings described.

Damn!

The light came on, startling him. He threw an arm across his face as light flooded in through the doorway as well.

"Warn a man next time, will ya?" Nathan muttered.

"Sorry." Judge Travis' voice. And others.

"I need to check you out." A voice he didn't recognize.

"Nathan." Chris this time. "This man's a doctor . . . a friend of Travis'. He's been taking care of JD . . ."

"And Ezra . . ." Nathan supplied, and the room became very quiet.

"What about Ezra?" Nathan asked, this time forcing himself to fight the glaring light and take a quick census. Vin was leaning in the doorjamb.

"He took off," Vin said. "He said he was taking a nap and slipped out the bedroom window."

"Why the hell would he do that?" Nathan asked.

"The pressure of it all?" Vin suggested.

Nathan frowned and thought. "No, I don't think so. He wouldn't take off. He wouldn't leave JD to face the music."

"Well, he did," Chris said, tightly.

Nathan looked their leader in the eye. "I bet he's got a plan."


". . . only a matter of time . . . maybe hours . . ."

The doctor's words resonated in his head. But Buck wouldn't believe it.

"Sit with him . . . talk to him . . ."

Buck remembered nodding. Sure he'd sit with JD, he'd talk to him, he'd . . .

What could he really do?

"JD, please . . ." Buck said. "Listen to me, son. You've gotta be strong now. You've gotta hold on." Buck squeezed JD's arm. "Can you feel that? Can you feel my hand? I've got you, boy. I'm holding on to you."

There was nothing else. No safe house. No ATF. No doctor. No one else. No one but JD. Buck slid closer and leaned over near his partner's ear.

"I'm here, JD. I'm here and I'm strong enough for both of us. And I'm not letting go. You hear me, boy? I'm not gonna let you go."

Buck sat up slightly so he could look at his friend more closely. The familiar face, once so full of life was now so still. The marks on his brow, across his cheek, the bruises, the bandages, they were wrong.

They were wrong.

Who could do this to another human being? Buck's lip trembled as he studied the trail of blisters on JD's lips where he'd fought the caustic poison those bastards had tried to pour down his throat.

Dear God, JD, I'm so sorry . . . so . . . sorry.

"They can't hurt you now, son. I won't let them. I won't let anybody hurt you."

He imagined how terrified JD must have been. Day after day, not knowing when they would kill him. If the picture had been any indication, he had been hurt early in his captivity. Nathan had pointed out old bruises, old cuts . . .

And new ones.

They had tried to break his spirit.

But they couldn't do it. In the video--beaten and dying--JD had fought. He hadn't lost hope. He was communicating to his friends the only way he could.

JD wanted to live. He'd tried so hard to survive. He'd come this far.

Buck leaned his head on the mattress, sqeezing his eyes closed as tears rushed him.

"God, please, don't take him. Not like this." Buck prayed . . . and wept. He squeezed JD's arm more firmly now. He would hold on. He would hold on no matter what.


Chris Larabee was livid. He almost took the door down with him as he strode angrily out of the safe house. What the hell was Ezra thinking? Why did he suddenly assume he could just take off on his own?

Vin followed Chris out, and wisely kept his distance. Anybody else, and Chris would have bitten his head off.

But it was different with Vin.

Vin was one of those rare people who understood the art of friendship by presence. He didn't have to say anything. He didn't have to do anything. He was just . . . there. Vin would wait until Chris wanted to talk.

Chris didn't want to talk. He wanted to . . . hit something. He made a tight fist and coiled his arm back to drive that fist into the one tree in the yard.

Vin's easy voice halted him. "We need every hand we can get, cowboy. Don't break one of yours."

"Who the hell asked you?" Chris got some sick satisfaction out of yelling at his friend.

The tracker didn't answer, of course. Chris really was lucky. Vin wouldn't leave him out there just because he was being a jerk. Chris' hand finally relaxed and he hung his head.

"This is crazy. What does Ezra think he's gonna do?"

Vin crossed his arms. "When we got here with JD, he helped out, then went on to bed. Said he wasn't feeling well."

Chris waited while Vin got his thoughts together. "It was weird, because he didn't seem tired, really. It was like . . ."

"Like he was high?" Chris challenged.

Vin's hesitation was enough.

"God, Vin, it can't be true." No, Chris wouldn't accept that.

"He was pissed off." Vin frowned. "I think he may have had some left over effects from being drugged, but this was like something else had happened. He was . . . different somehow."

Chris turned to his friend and walked over. "I don't know what to do."

"I know. And it's ok. You don't have to have all the answers."

Chris met Vin's gaze and they stood there for a moment. Vin understood him.

"Chris, we were hired for our skills, for our special . . . gifts. But we were also hired for our minds. We chose this life, Chris--with its risks and its challenges. We all knew what we were getting into." Vin leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Trust your men, Chris. We've survived this far."

"Ezra . . ."

"Is part of your team," Vin said quickly. "He'll stand by you. He'll stand by all of us."

Chris' throat got tight. "I know."

"So does he, Chris," Vin slapped his friend on the shoulder. "So does he."


At first, Buck didn't realize what was happening. But then he felt it.

JD's arm flexed.

It was surely one of those involuntary movements that happened with comatose patients.

But what if JD were suffering. What if he were hurting? Could he even tell anyone?

Buck raised his head to call the doctor, when he saw terrified hazel eyes looking back at him.


PART FIFTEEN: Communication

Help me!!! Oh, God . . . Somebody help me!! Am I dead? Is this what dead is?

JD Dunne tried to open his mouth to scream but the fire on his lips and in his throat wouldn't let him--a fire that was burning all the way into his belly.

He was in hell. He was burning in hell.

Oh God, what have I done? What did I do wrong? Please, I'm sorry . . .


Abject terror.

JD's unseeing eyes bespoke abject terror, and the boy began to tremble.

"JD--calm down. It's Buck. You're all right. Just stay calm . . ."

Buck kept talking while he watched JD's lip twitch with the effort to . . . was he trying to talk?

"JD, you can't talk yet. You've got a breathing tube in your throat."

Could JD even hear him? "Don't fight it. You're all right, son." Buck squeezed his friend's arm. "I'll get the doctor."

Buck stood up to go, but when he released the boy, JD began to jerk.

"Easy, kid." Buck returned his hand and JD settled down--well, slightly. "I ain't leaving you, son."

Maybe JD couldn't see him, or even hear him, but clearly he felt him.

Buck reached up with his other hand and tried to find a place on the boy's face that wasn't hurt. The seasoned agent had to swallow a lump in his throat as he again encountered the extent of his partner's trauma. Finally, Buck touched JD's temple above the broken cheekbone and he let his fingers slide slowly back into the boy's hair. He repeated the action very gently, tenderly, until the boy quit trembling. He watched as the boy slowly came back to him--watching as wide terrified eyes searched his. The terror changed to bewilderment, and as it did, Buck knew he was connecting with his partner.

"Hang on, JD. You gotta trust me. I know you want to talk. I know you're . . ." Buck choked on his own words. "I know you're scared." Buck's voice lowered to a whisper. "I know you hurt, boy."

The bewilderment in JD's eyes turned to . . . pain. "I know, JD. I know. I know those bastards hurt you."

JD's expression didn't change again, but tears welled in his eyes and spilled onto his bruised and bandaged cheeks.

"I know, JD." Buck's own eyes stung. "But you'll get through it. I promise you, son."

Black lashes fluttered for a moment and JD squeezed his eyes closed. When he opened them again, his brows knit for a moment, and JD tried to . . . ask something? To communicate something? He started getting agitated again.

"No, son. You need to settle down now."

Buck thought he heard JD try to speak, but it was more of a scraping sound.

"You can't talk yet. Don't try to talk." Buck slid his hand further into JD's hair, until he was nearly cupping his head. It seemed to calm him again. "That's right. Easy now."

For a moment, JD looked defeated. He looked away from Buck, then he closed his eyes again. He seemed to be in pain.

"Let me go get the doctor, JD. He needs to know you're awake."

JD's eyes shot open and, ever so slightly, he shook his head, no.

Buck bit his lip. "You've gotta let me help you. Please."

No, JD shook his head.

"Yes," Buck countered.

More tears. Eyes again diverted.

Finally, Buck leaned closer. "JD . . ." Buck lowered his voice. "Look at me, boy."

JD slowly drew his eyes back to Buck's and Buck asked, "Do you trust me?"

A sob shook JD and Buck wished he could hold him, without hurting him, but words would have to do. JD looked at him for a moment and nodded.

Buck spoke with certainty. "I'm gonna take care of you. Those bastards can't hurt you now."

JD shook his head in frustration.

"What is it?" Buck almost whispered and JD looked at him intently through tear-glazed eyes.

JD finally nodded toward Buck.

Oh, God love the kid. Suddenly Buck knew, and he smiled sadly. "I'm alright, JD."

JD looked toward the door then back at Buck.

Buck answered. "Everybody's gonna be ok. Chris, Vin, Josiah, Nathan--they're all here. Nathan took a hit, but he's all right."

JD's penetrating look begged one more answer.

Buck continued. "Ezra's ok. He took off to follow a lead."

Concern clouded the boy's face and he tried to communicate his . . . disapproval? Fear? Buck understood.

"I know. . . a damn fool stunt, but he must have a great lead."

Buck watched his friend closely. There were still more tears rolling down his face. JD was in physical pain, but the tears were for the ordeal . . . the frustration . . . the fear . . .

"You said you trusted me," Buck said very softly, and again, JD nodded slightly. "Then you've gotta believe me now, son. It's gonna be all right. We're all gonna be all right."

JD's eyes seemed to search Buck's for a moment, then slowly his lids drooped and he drifted off . . . back to sleep.

Buck watched him for another moment, then disentangled his hand from the boy's hair. Sweet kid. He trusted Buck . . . and now, God help them all, Buck would have to make good on his promise. Gradually, Buck released the pressure on his friend's arm and stood up to go get the doctor.


PART SIXTEEN: Limbo

The light of the fires of hell burned his eyes--just like the fire burned his mouth and his throat. The burning light was too bright. He couldn't see.

If he were in hell, why would he be trembling with cold?

If he were dead, would he hurt so much?

If he were alive . . . . that would be the worst of all.

If he were alive, they could come back . . .

And hurt him all over again.


Ezra looked at himself in the squatty mirror of the train's lavatory. In this disguise, he reminded himself of someone--some actor. A dead one. Not that Ezra looked dead. He looked like the actor when the actor was alive.

Damn, his train of thought was chugging down a strange track. What was wrong with him? Maybe whatever he'd been drugged with was still in his system. He was so tired.

He wanted to tell the others what he was doing. And he wanted to check on JD. He wanted to clear his name--JD's, that is. Well, his own also. Maude shouldn't be having to go through this. Not that she was an award-winning mother, but she didn't need this.

More than anything, he wanted to nail those ATF turncoats that had renounced JD. He'd get to the bottom of this and then, God help the bastards, he'd put them away forever.

He sniffed and put a bit more spirit gum under the mesh of his moustache. He paused for one last glance in the mirror.

William Conrad.

That's the actor he resembled. The "fatman". The man who used to read a poem at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade every year.

Ezra sighed and squeezed his considerable girth out of the undersized lavatory. He probably wasn't going to fit on the bed very well. It was going to be a long night.


A voice.

Oh God, please no. No more. JD felt his heart hammering in his chest. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't move.

And still . . . a voice . . .

Please God, help me . . .

Please . . .

That voice . . . somewhere deep down he knew that voice. He knew it. And he wasn't afraid of it. A friend's voice?

Why couldn't he place it? Why couldn't he tell what it was saying? At least it was a voice he could trust.

He felt a gentle--a strong and gentle hand on his arm. Someone was trying to comfort him. Someone was trying to reach him.

JD wanted to talk. He tried but but he couldn't.

The voice again. " . . . breathing tube in your throat . . ."

JD could feel it, and he wanted it out. He needed to talk, but the fire in his throat was scalding and the tube seemed to interfere with his breathing. He began to panic.

"Don't fight it. You're all right, son."

Buck!! It was Buck. Thank God. JD felt the hand on his arm give a squeeze . . . then it released him.

No! Come back. JD wanted to reach for his friend. Maybe he had just dreamed him.

But the hand returned, and the voice did, too. "Easy, kid. I ain't leaving you, son."

Gently, a hand touched his forehead and familiar fingers slid back into his hair.

Like his mama used to.

The easy stroking of his hair helped him focus on something other than his pain. The bright light wasn't so bright and he could see the ceiling.

Not a hospital ceiling . . . not the ceiling in the apartment . . . he didn't know this ceiling. Where was he? He let his eyes wander until they found . . .

Buck.

Buck would help him. Buck would keep those men from getting to him.

Or he'd die trying.

Don't die, Buck.

JD's eyes met his partner's. He wanted to warn him. What if those men came back for the rest of them. Oh, watch your back, Buck.

"Hang on, JD. You gotta trust me. I know you want to talk."

Buck looked so tired.

"I know . . . I know you're scared."

You don't know what they did, Buck.

"I know you hurt, boy."

Mm, he did hurt. Every part hurt. And he was so tired. Did Buck even know what happened?

"I know those bastards hurt you."

Oh, God. What if they'd hurt the others? JD struggled to ask.

"No, son. You need to settle down now."

Damn it. JD had to ask . . . but his throat . . . wouldn't make sound . . . It . . . scraped.

"You can't talk yet. Don't try to talk." Buck's voice was gentle, but he meant business.

It was no use. He couldn't make Buck understand. He closed his eyes. Even that hurt.

"Let me go get the doctor, JD. He needs to know you're awake."

No! How could JD make his friend know what he meant? Ever so slightly, he shook his head.

"You gotta let me help you. Please."

No . . . Even though it hurt, he shook his head again. It was hard to stay awake . . . to stay focussed . . . he felt . . . dizzy . . .

"Yes."

Buck could be damn pig-headed.

And now, JD would die without knowing what happened to his friends. The salty tears burned like fire when they reached his blistered chin. He tried to look away from his friend, but Buck just pulled closer.

"JD, look at me, boy."

For a moment, JD felt like he was slipping away, but he fought to stay conscious, and he looked back at Buck.

"Do you trust me?"

Of course, I trust you. JD wanted to cry out to him, but he sobbed instead.

And nodded.

"I'm gonna take care of you. Those bastards can't hurt you now."

No, JD shook his head. Please, don't you get it?

"What is it?" Buck was almost whispering.

Oh . . . thank God . . . a connection . . .

Deliberately, and with all of the strength he had left, he nodded toward Buck.

And it dawned on his friend. Buck smiled, "I'm alright, JD."

And JD looked at the door . . .

"Everybody's gonna be ok. Chris, Vin, Josiah, Nathan--they're all here. Nathan took a hit, but he's all right."

For a minute JD had to think . . . who was missing? He looked at Buck. Where was Ezra?

Buck knew. "Ezra's ok. He took off to follow a lead."

No, JD needed to warn them. They needed to find Ezra before he got himself killed.

"I know . . . a damn fool stunt, but he must have a great lead."

No . . . didn't they get it? These guys were f***ing crazy. They didn't just hurt him. They tortured him. They were killing him as slowly and painfully as they could. He could still feel what they did to him. He could feel his face breaking, his arm breaking, the fire in his throat, the ribs . . .

"You said you trusted me." Buck's voice cut through his haze. "Then you've gotta believe me now, son. It's gonna be all right. We're all gonna be all right."

There was something in Buck's eyes that spoke the truth. Maybe it was Buck's steady faith that had saved him so far. Maybe it would save them all.


Chris had been sitting with Nathan for a long time. Josiah knew that their leader was bound to be on a short fuse. Chris could always handle catastrophe when he knew what he was fighting, but when things whirled out of his control, he became more volatile and sometimes less rational.

Josiah knew about that. He himself had a threshold beyond which he could become . . . well . . . unpleasant. He knew what it was like to have folks avoid him because of it. With Chris Larabee, it was bound to get worse before it got better.

Josiah stepped in Nathan's room. Chris never looked up.

Nathan was struggling, and Chris had to be wondering if he had just killed Nathan by taking him out of the hospital. Nathan had seemed like he was doing so well this morning. How could he have developed such a bad infection so quickly?

Josiah could offer one perspective. "You know they could've gotten to him in the hospital and he'd be dead already."

"We don't know that."

"We don't know that he wouldn't have developed this infection in the hospital either."

Chris' voice was laced with sarcasm. "We're always blessed with the wisdom of Solomon, aren't we?"

Josiah let that one go. He even preferred Chris drunk to cynical. There was no reasoning with Chris at times like this. Josiah could live with that. He'd just sit there for a while.


Waiting was the worst, even though Vin had to admit that this waiting wasn't as bad as last week when they were waiting to find out where JD was--or even if he was alive.

He glanced over at Travis, who was asleep in the barcalounger. Vin envied him that sleep.

The doctor was sitting at the kitchen table, poring over notes, and pausing at times to pull his glasses off and knead the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He sure had his hands full, Vin thought. JD needed to be in ICU--well, so did Nathan for that matter. Surely they needed heart monitors and crash carts and that kind of thing. What if JD's heart stopped again? What if they couldn't get Nathan's fever down?

Vin's foot tapped nervously. He hated this. He felt so useless.

Who could be doing this? Why? Who would stand to gain by smearing JD's name? No. Correct that. Who in the ATF would stand to gain?

Well, Vin wasn't just gonna sit there and wait while his friends suffered. It was time to get ahead of the game. It was time to get inside these guys' heads and find out what the hell was going on.


The door creaked and Vin looked up. Buck was standing in the doorway, tears in his eyes, yet looking . . . so haggard.

"He woke up," Buck said softly. Vin and the doctor jumped up and went over to him. The doctor brushed by him and went in to check on JD. Vin put his hand on his friend's back and guided him to the sofa.

"You all right?" Vin asked. Buck started to answer, but no words came. He shook his head, no.

"Can I get you something?"

Again, Buck shook his head, no.

Vin waited.

Buck rubbed his face in his hands. "He hurts so much."

"I know."

"But he wanted to be sure that everyone else was all right."

Vin smiled. "Sounds like him."

"God, Vin, there's no telling what they did to him."

"We might not ever know," Vin said simply. "We'll just have to help him through it any way we can."

They both heard the car door slam, and by the time they were on their feet, Josiah and Chris came into the living room with guns drawn.

"What the hell was that?" Chris asked.

"Let's hope it's Ezra," Vin commented, but Buck was peering out the window.

"No such luck," he hissed. "Boys, looks like the ATF is here."


PART SEVENTEEN: Outside the Confines of the Law

Judge Orrin Travis squinted awake and frowned at the sight of Chris Larabee and crew with guns drawn.

"What's going on?" he asked, his voice gruff with sleep.

"We have company," Larabee said.

The judge made his way to the window and peered out from behind the drapes. "That's impossible," he said. "No one knows where this place is."

"They do now," Wilmington said, hotly.

"Aw hell," Travis muttered as he slipped his feet into his loafers. "Let me talk to them."

How the hell could anyone find this place? No one even knew it existed. It hadn't been used in years. In fact, the last of the crew that had utilized the safe house had died a couple of years ago. The judge was the only one left.

He was stove up from having slept in the chair, so he made his way slowly to the door.

Two men in uniforms were waiting at the door. The judge looked out of the peekhole and his face broke into a broad grin. He opened the door.

And kissed one of the men on the cheek.


Maude Standish was not easily shaken. She had seen a lot in her life and had learned to stay steady in the face of bad news. But she had been shaken to her core when, in the middle of Circuit City, she had seen her son's face on forty TV screens. She could only stand and watch, transfixed, as the caption appeared, "ATF Agent Turned Drug Trafficker."

She hadn't felt the kind hands on her arm supporting her as she heard the voiceover "bloodbath in the ER" and "agents implicated" and "twelve dead."

She hadn't remembered fainting--only waking up on a naugahyde couch in the break room at Circuit City. Her first thought upon waking was "how could anyone have ever thought green linoleum was chic?" and her second thought . . .

Oh God, my baby . . .


"What the hell . . ." Vin Tanner muttered, seeing the affection between the judge and the officer . . .

But when the visitor removed the hat and long blonde hair billowed down, Vin holstered his weapon and smiled.

"Hiya, Mary," he said.

The judge's daughter-in-law dispensed with the pleasantries and introduced her colleague. "This is Jack. He's got a plane we can use."

"Thank God," Chris said. "Where?"

"I won't tell you that," Jack responded. "In fact, nobody goes without blindfolds."

"Mary," Chris snapped. "What is this shit?"

"A way out of the country," Mary snapped back. She squared off with Chris. "You think you're gonna just charter a plane out of here? With a federal prisoner?"

"Federal prisoner?" Vin interrupted.

"JD is wanted for drug trafficking. Every agent in the country is looking for you guys. How were you planning to get to Canada?"

"You've got a point," Josiah said.

Judge Travis crossed his arms. "What do we do?"

Jack looked around the room as if assessing the people there--maybe deciding who to trust or whether to trust. Mary touched his arm and he glanced back at her. She nodded for him to go on.

"You get your wounded men ready to travel," he said. "We'll have to transport them to the hangar in a horse trailer."

"Horse trailer?" Buck looked incredulous.

"It's the only thing that won't attract attention."

"There aren't any agents looking around here. Why not take the van?" Vin asked.

Jack turned to Mary. "Are they gonna let me do this or are they gonna keep asking questions?"

Mary pursed her lips and answered. "The men on the air field won't let a van or an ambulance near the place." She looked around. "They have to be careful about . . . being discovered as well."

"An illegal air field," the judge commented.

Chris frowned. "You're talking about a drug trafficker taking ATF officers to an illegal field to get on a drug transport plane and leave the country illegally with a fugitive."

"That's right," Jack said, defiance in his tone.

Chris paused a moment, then nodded. "Sounds like a plan to me."


Nathan was so sick. Mary sat with him, her eyes full, her heart full. Gently she lay a cold wet rag on his forehead.

"Mama?"

Oh, she wasn't expecting that. She took his hand in both of hers. "Nathan, it's Mary . . . Mary Travis."

"Mary . . . " he repeated.

A tear spilled onto Mary's cheek. "That's right. How do you feel?"

"Mary?"

"Yeah, what can I do, Nathan?"

"I'm . . . cold."

"Let me get you another blanket." Mary stood up and went to the closet. She opened it, only to have years of dust cascade out. Coughing, she closed the door.

"Mama?" Nathan's voice was weaker. "You're sick. I'll help you." He waved a hand vaguely through the air. "Let me help you, Mama."

Mary was crying in earnest now--crying and coughing. "No, baby," she said. "Mama's fine. Rest easy now, and I'll get you a blanket. Just close your eyes."


Ezra was practiced at wearing new aliases. He knew how to develop one, sit with one and ultimately embody one. He'd used many names--most often Carter J. Clifford. He'd never tell what the "J" stood for . . . only that it was an old family name. Ezra often used an initial to remind himself of something characteristic about his new persona or something about his mission.

One time he was F. Samuel Nicholson -- the "F" standing for "fastidious". Another time he was Mitchell S. Davis, the "S" for "suave." But this time, in the tradition of Samuel F. B. Morse, Ezra used two initials.

Thomas S. M. Williams.

"Screw Millard."


Maude sat on her friend Barbara's sofa, her feet up and drinking a hot cup of cocoa. Normally, this would be the epitome of comfort, but she didn't know where her son was or even if he were alive.

As she thought about Circuit City, she wondered. How had the FBI gotten to her so fast? And with the press in tow, no less? She had almost been out the door when she had seen Ezra on tv, and by the time she had awakened in the back room, agents were swarming around her.

How had they found her so quickly?

Good lord! Maude almost spilled her cocoa when the realization hit her. They had to have been tracking her credit card activity because she had already made a purchase when she'd seen the TV bulletin.

If they were tracking her, they must be looking for Ezra. If they were looking for him, they must know he's alive.

Tears filled her eyes as sudden relief came over her. No one had told her anything. She hadn't been able to get in touch with Larabee or Judge Travis or anyone--and the only thing she'd been hearing for the last 36 hours was that her son had been using his ATF position to bring drugs into the country.

Well, she knew her son and this was all bullsh*t.

She sighed--relief again--and took a long sip of her cocoa. Her boy was alive, and that was enough for her

For the moment.


According to Jack, the trailer would arrive in the early morning, just before dawn. The doctor had done what he could do to get the patients ready to travel. He was utterly opposed to the whole prospect, and Chris was getting a little bit tired of it. The doctor talked like they had some choice in the matter--like they could have stayed in the hospital and had just opted to leave on a whim.

Chris didn't like the doctor, but he knew that the doctor was the only thing between his men and certain death. So he would put up with him. It wouldn't be much longer now.

Chris stepped quietly into JD's room. Buck was asleep on an old settee that was half as long as he was. The tall agent's long legs dangled over the arm. He couldn't possibly be comfortable. But Chris was glad Buck could finally sleep, even though Buck was bound to be sore in the morning.

Chris took the chair at JD's bedside and turned it around backwards. He straddled it. Reaching over, he rested his hand on JD's arm like Buck had shown him.

Oh kid . . .

It was hard enough knowing that the ATF had renounced him for all intents and purposes, but the media blitz dragging the poor kid's name through the mud--that was too much. Not only would Chris clear him, he would make sure heads rolled. This was unbelievable.

Chris rested his head on the back of the chair. Its hard, cold surface felt good against his pounding head. How could this have happened? God, the President was issuing statements about them. The Attorney General was taking heat for problems with the ATF. His team was being made to look incompetent. There were whispers of Waco and the administration was distancing itself from the entire situation. The press was making comparisons between the "Bloodbath in the ER" and Oklahoma City. It was not, however, reporting that it was the team of ATF agents that ended the tragedy.

And in the midst of it all, this poor, hurt boy who had been a pawn in an horrific conspiracy.

Chris hated the word--conspiracy. It was tossed around when anyone wanted to avoid taking responsibility for his or her actions. But what else could this be? There was no telling how high up this corruption went, but it went to Millard, at least. There was no way a greenhorn kid like JD Dunne could be the catalyst for a national incident like this.

Maybe if Chris had become suspicious sooner. Maybe if he'd realized that his own colleagues were turning on the kid before he was given an official "persona non grata" status. Maybe he could have gotten JD out of there. Hell, he shouldn't have let him get involved in the first place.

"Don't, cowboy."

Chris spun around to see Vin Tanner in the doorway.

"Don't what?"

Vin walked over and rested an easy hand on his friend's shoulder. "Sit here trying to figure out if you could have done something differently."

"You some kind of mind-reader or what?"

"I know you. I know that look." Vin pulled up another chair. "And I been thinking the same thing." He looked at JD. "How is he?"

Chris shook his head. "I don't know. He seems to be in pain. He hasn't been awake."

As if he were listening, JD groaned and shifted. He started trembling and Chris increased the pressure on his arm. "Easy, son."

"What?" Buck squinted at the others and pulled himself up. "Is he ok?"

"Yeah," Chris answered. "Go back to sleep."

He said it, knowing it wasn't going to happen. Buck stood up, stretching his tall frame. He walked over to the bed and, very gently, stroked JD's hair--again, one of the only places he could touch him without hurting him.

Chris could feel the kid start to relax. No doubt Buck could feel it, too, because he knelt beside the bed and began to whisper a litany of comforts. JD eventually settled back down.

Chris' eyes stung as he watched his oldest friend tend to the boy. He remembered seeing this tenderness when Buck helped with Adam. How strange that the old grief would come flooding back to him now. It would hit him unexpectedly in odd circumstances . . .

Only this was not so odd. Chris realized in that moment how close he felt to JD--how much like a son JD was. As he grieved over JD, he grieved for Adam all over again and he felt a sob clutch his throat. He didn't give in to it, though, clearing his throat gruffly instead.

He needed sleep--well, they all did. Yet here they were. God, Vin hadn't slept for two days. He had to be fading. But the hand on Chris' shoulder was steady and sure.

Chris knew then that they were gonna make it--this circle of friends. They'd just have to hang on to each other. It was clear that Buck was not gonna let JD quit. He'd stay with the kid as long as it took.

And Chris would hang on to Buck. He'd keep Buck from going over the edge--from flying off in a rage when the fury they all felt about the kid threatened to overcome him. Chris would stay strong for Buck.

And in those moments when Chris felt weak, he knew Vin would be there hanging on to him. Vin's spirit was as sure as his aim and at times like this, Vin was their anchor.

As Chris felt that familiar hand on his shoulder, he wondered fleetingly who Vin leaned on. Who was strong for him?

"Chris . . ." the soft voice pulled his attention from those thoughts.

Chris looked up at Vin, who nodded for him to follow. Chris leaned forward to Buck. "You boys be ok for a minute?"

"Huh?" Buck was startled. He turned and glanced back at Chris and Vin, then it seemed like the question made sense to him. "Yeah, we're good."

Chris slapped his friend on the back. "OK, we're right outside if you need us."

Buck nodded and turned back to JD.

It was a sad picture. Chris was glad for a reason to step outside.


Mary paced the living room, a combination of worry, rage and incredulity cluttering her mind. Her feet hurt. New shoes. They had been so interesting to her when she went shopping a couple of days ago.

And important. They were a $200. pair of shoes. She'd wanted to splurge. She deserved it. She'd worked hard and saved up for them. The same color as the pair in the magazine.

She'd worn them all day yesterday and regretted it all day today. Right now her feet hurt like hell.

The oversized military-issue shoes she wore tonight kept getting hung in the nap of the old rug and she'd trip a little.

And cuss a little.

And sometimes she'd cry a little.

She loved these men. She'd known Nathan for years and he was so feverish he didn't know her.

And the doctor wouldn't let her sit with him anymore. Nathan was getting agitated trying to talk. So Josiah stayed with him and Mary was relegated to a "post" in the living room.

She glanced out the window for the hundredth time, looking for signs of dawn or of returning headlights. The Judge had gone with Jack to get the trailer and Mary cringed at the thought of transporting Nathan and JD that way. Jack had indicated to her that the plane would actually be worse. They'd have to carry the wounded in sacks just to get them on board. Once there, they could set up IVs and such.

They hadn't told Chris that part. The Judge knew; the doctor knew; Josiah knew. They had decided that it was best to wait to tell the others once they were en route. Buck would go ballistic, and Josiah had said that if he did, they'd leave him in the States.

Mary hated this--everything about this. But the Judge had said it was the only way. These men needed proper medical treatment and, since no one knew who the enemy was, they had to go underground to get it. The Judge had also figured that they could only find out who the dirty agents were by gaining some distance. So this little trip was necessary all the way around.

No dawn--no headlights . . .

Mary walked to the couch, kicked off those damn shoes, and put her aching feet up. She looked at her watch. 3:30am. It wouldn't be much longer now.


Judge Travis liked this Jack fellow. He was a straight-shooter--for a felon. Well, Mary trusted him, and Mary had good instincts. Jack was the kind of guy who started running drugs to countries where basic medical needs couldn't be met. He wouldn't carry certain drugs certain places. He wouldn't feed the habits of kids. Even as a criminal, he had a code of honor. At first, Travis was afraid Mary had been duped, but once he met Jack, he realized that he was one of those rare birds who was committed to doing good--outside the confines of the law.

Well, he couldn't condone it, but right now it was going to save his men.

The Judge hoped that Thomas S. M. Williams was having success "outside the confines of the law" as well. Ezra was one of the most brilliant con artists Travis had ever met. In any other situation, Travis wouldn't have supported the gambler's venture into such a dangerous ruse--but again, he had no choice. And with his face plastered all over the media, he'd be most effective hiding right under their noses. If ever a man could ferret out a ferret, it was Standish.

Travis wondered if Larabee would ever speak to him after so much deception, but decisions had to be made quickly and the more talk there was, the more danger everyone would be in.

The old pick-up lumbered along the road, the long, cumbersome trailer in tow. Travis could finally see the tiny safe house up ahead. Perfect timing, Travis thought, as the sky began to pink with dawn.


Vin watched Chris in silence as Chris digested what Vin had said. It was radical. Vin knew that. Everyone was suspicious of Millard. That was no surprise. But taking into account that Millard was too much of a coward to spearhead something like this, Vin was implicating the most unthinkable man. Chris had listened as Vin explained that it would take someone with a lot more clout than Millard to have the ATF turn on JD and Ezra like they had. Kidnapping JD right under their noses could only be a first-rate professional job. And mobilizing all of those agents to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time--well, it had to be someone way up.

And why all of this attention on JD and Ezra if not to cover up a crime of mega-proportions. Vin figured a huge deal had gone down and the true culprit had to find scapegoats who would conceivably have access to the motherlode. Who better than two men from the most elite team of ATF agents?

Now they had to figure out what deal had gone down and, if Vin was right, how many agents and brass were involved.

Chris' eyes darted as he thought about it. Vin knew that look. Chris was putting the pieces together and as Chris began to nod slowly, Vin knew they were about to hit the trail and take down a chunk of their own agency.

It would have to wait though. Mary turned to them from the window.

"They're here," she said.

Chris slapped Vin's leg. "Let's go."

To be continued . . .


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