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.


Go to Part Eleven.

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