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.

Go back to parts 1-10.

PERSONA NON GRATA
by the Desperado's Daughter


PART ELEVEN: Judge Orrin Travis

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

Travis walked determinedly to a little knot of ATF agents.

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

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

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

He opened the door.

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

"Have this man arrested!" Mallard said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Millard," Millard corrected him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Watch your back," Larabee called after him.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nothing new, I'm afraid."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


PART TWELVE: Under the Influence

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

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

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

"EZRA!!!" Vin yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Oh, God . . .

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

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

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

Please, God . . .

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

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

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

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

What have they done to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it didn't.

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

Buck frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What do you mean?" Chris snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the preacher landed heavily on the floor.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was the funniest laugh Vin had ever heard.

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

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

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


Part Thirteen: The Morning After

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

So what was he wearing?

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

A safe house.

He squeezed his eyes closed again. Now he remembered.

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


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

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

"Mr. Jackson."

Why was this voice interrupting him?

"Mr. Jackson!" Louder this time.

"What?" He meant to sound harsh.

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

"Wake up, Mr. Jackson."

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

Something . . .

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

To JD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you . . ." Nathan began.

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

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

Vin. Was he all right?

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

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

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

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

"Can you check on my friend first?"

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

"Nathan?"

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

"How's JD?" Nathan asked quickly.

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

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

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

"That's great."

Chris came closer. "How are you?"

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

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

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

"You got shot . . ." Chris said.

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

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

"When was I shot?"

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Damn . . .

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

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

Hell, all of them were.

It was time to fight back.


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

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

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

"Double Agent?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"F*** that!" Vin cried.

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

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


"Are you seeing this??"

Josiah could hear Buck yelling from down the hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The hell we can't!"

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

This stopped Buck in his tracks.

For a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who's guarding him, though?"

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

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

"Millard . . ." Josiah interjected.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

"Larabee," he stated.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Second floor, ICU," Buck answered briskly.

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

"Family," they both answered.

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

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

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

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

But right now he had to get to JD.

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

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

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

"So are we," the officer answered.

"What? What do you mean?"

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

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

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


PART FOURTEEN: Who Do You Trust?

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I know," the judge called back.

God, this was crazy.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Pay dirt. The motherlode.

Heineken.


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

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

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

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

"Damn," Nathan muttered, and the two sat in silence for a moment. Then Nathan spoke again. "What do you know about this doctor that'll be taking care of JD?"

Chris shook his head. "Nothing, except that Travis trusts him."

"But JD is gonna need special help. He's gonna need a . . . a state of the art facility."

Chris sighed. He knew that the safe house was no place for someone in JD's condition, but what was there to do? There was no one he could trust.

Nathan sat up slightly. "Take him out of the country," the medic said.

"What?!" Chris almost chuckled in his surprise.

"I mean it, Chris. I know a place in British Columbia--a place where internationals go, internationals who are friends of this country, but who need to keep a low profile. It's a small place, but the medical care there is the best in the world."

"Hell, Nathan, how're we supposed . . ."

"I know a pilot--a renegade, not above working both sides of the law if you know what I mean, but he's loyal to me. If I can let him know we suspect the 'establishment', he'd be all the more willing to help. You help me find him. He'll come get JD."

This was an overwhelming prospect to Chris. The whole situation was, for that matter. How could things have gotten this out of hand anyway?

"Can he survive the flight?" Chris asked.

Nathan shrugged. "I don't know. I suppose he's got as much chance on a plane as he does in a safe house. We'll have to get the doctor to go with him."

"I don't like it."

"I don't like any of it, but I don't see as how we have much choice." Nathan lay back on the pillow and closed his eyes. "This whole thing is crazy."

Suddenly Chris felt very tired. He sighed heavily. "Does this place have a name?"

Nathan opened his eyes and smiled. "Get my wallet."


Buck Wilmington's nostrils flared as he stood with his face inches away from an agent "Frye". Josiah's stronghold pinning his arms to his side was the only thing keeping him from trying to take the FBI agent's head off.

"Lemme go, Josiah!" Buck hissed.

"Not 'til you settle down and listen to me." Josiah jerked Buck away and damn near dragged him to the chapel.

"Josiah, this ain't . . ."

"Shut up, Buck," Josiah said, shoving Buck into a pew. Then he whispered very close to Buck's ear. "We can't trust anybody here--not nurses, not doctors, not cops, not feds. Don't you get it? Nobody. We can only trust each other."

Buck ran his fingers through his hair and his foot tapped nervously.

"Trying to strong arm the FBI isn't going to get us anywhere."

"We're wasting time," Buck protested.

"We have no choice," Josiah said. Buck tried to protest, but Josiah continued. "Let's find Chris. We'll get Travis and Vin and then we'll figure out what to do from there."

Again Buck tried to protest, but he stopped in mid-sentence. "I'm scared." Buck's voice was suddenly very weak.

"I am too, my friend. But we have to use that to our advantage."

"We'd best move Nathan out of here." Buck suggested. "If they can get JD in ICU, getting Nathan out of a regular room should be a breeze."

Josiah nodded, then an idea dawned on him.

Maybe JD hadn't been kidnapped after all.


Chris Larabee was surprised to see Josiah and Buck appear in Nathan's room.

"We have a problem," Josiah said.

"JD . . ." Buck started.

"Travis and Vin and that safe house doctor got him out of here this morning."

Buck visibly slumped with relief. "Oh, thank God."

Chris walked over to his old friend and slapped his shoulder. "I know."

Chris pulled a chair over behind Buck and helped him to sit.

"We gotta talk," Chris said. "And we can't talk here."

Josiah nodded. "I don't know about you, but I could go for some Szechuan."

Chris raised an eyebrow in understanding. "Me, too."

Buck looked around the room. He asked Chris a question, while looking at Nathan who was still in bed--not twenty-four hours after having a bullet cut out of his leg. "What say we blow this popsicle stand?"

Before Chris could answer, Nathan chimed in. "Buck, don't talk about 'blowing anything up' today."

Chris would have laughed, but things were too uncertain. He grimaced at Nathan's humor instead.

"I'll call Travis, then I'll get you out of here." Chris said. He walked to the door and paused. "You know we're in way over our heads."

"We've been there before," Buck said. "We'll make it."


Ezra put a can of beer under one arm, while he popped open another. He went back into the den and sat back down on the couch. He set the unopened beer on the coffee table and took a long drink from the open one. He was reaching for the remote when he heard his name on TV again.

Humiliation . . . again.

He took another long drink, but stopped abruptly when he saw the image of his mother on the screen. Reporters were following her, firing questions at her about him . . .

About her . . .

"DAMN YOU!!!!!!!" he cried.

And the humiliation turned to rage.


Maybe it was the look on Vin Tanner's face, or maybe it was because he was so tired, but when Buck Wilmington walked into the safe house, he felt utter and complete dread.

"What?" Buck whispered his question . . . his fear . . .

"Go see him . . ." Vin's voice was husky. He nodded toward the door across from them.

Buck walked to the back bedroom, then tapped lightly on the door. He waited for the doctor's answer.

"Come in," the soft but sure voice called. Buck turned the door knob, annoyed that it rattled in his hand before it caught. Frustrated when he opened the door, he damn near fell into the room. He caught himself with the doorjamb and muttered an oath under his breath.

The harsh glare of the doctor caught his eye first.

Then his eye trailed to the boy in the bed . . .

And he swayed, suddenly lightheaded. He felt strong familiar arms around his torso, only they weren't Josiah's this time. They were Chris' -- holding him up, supporting him. For a moment, Buck allowed himself to lean back against his old friend, then he gathered his strength, pulled himself up and looked back at the bed.

"God . . . JD . . ."


Josiah held the door as two men wearing fatigues rolled a gurney into the living room. Vin jumped up to help. He couldn't tell right away if Nathan were asleep or unconscious.

"How is he?" Vin asked.

"Exhausted," Josiah answered.

Vin helped them guide the gurney to another bedroom -- adjacent to the one where JD was. He reached that door first and held it open. The two strangers rolled Nathan in. Josiah followed, but Vin grabbed the preacher's arm before he could get into the room himself. "Who are they?" Vin breathed, his jaw suddenly tight.

"Friends of Nathan."

"You sure about them?"

Josiah shrugged slightly. "No . . . but Nathan is, and we have to go with that."

Vin didn't like it, but Josiah was right. They had to have help. He bit back an oath and followed his friend in.


Sometimes he wished he didn't have to be strong. This was one of those times. He wished he could take off and drive . . . anywhere . . .

Anywhere but here.

Chris ached for Buck as he watched the big man walk slowly to the bed. He ached for JD and the horrific suffering he'd endured . . . and would endure . . . if he lived.

The doctor stood, put his thin hand on Buck's shoulder and spoke to him softly. Buck nodded and then sat heavily in the chair the doctor had vacated. Chris watched, resisting the doctor's tug on his arm. Chris' gaze lingered on the scene before him . . .

Buck was studying the young man in the bed. It was as though he were trying to memorize everything. But his study ceased for a moment as he reached for JD's hand. Pitifully, Buck let his big hand hover over JD's, realizing he couldn't touch it. He couldn't touch either of the kid's hands. One had been so horribly injured--the other was the only port for the IV.

Buck's hand traced just above JD's heavily bandaged hand and wrist. Very tentatively, and more gently than Chris had ever seen his old friend, Buck lightly rested his hand on JD's upper arm. Was it the only place on the boy's body that wasn't injured? Jesus . . .

"Could I speak with you, Mr. Larabee?" the doctor's voice drew Chris' attention away. Chris nodded and followed him back into the den, grateful for an excuse not to watch his friends' pain.


Artemis Gordon.

While other parents were encouraging other children to emulate great statesmen, or inventors, or even investors, Maude Standish was encouraging her boy to emulate the master-of-disguise, Artemis Gordon. Ezra and his mother would watch reruns of "The Wild, Wild West" while his other little friends watched "The Brady Bunch". Ezra had been fascinated by Artie's ability to assume other identities so convincingly that even Jim West didn't know who he was sometimes.

Well, Artemis Gordon would be proud. No one--not even Maude Standish--would recognize the round, white-haired man that rode the train that night.

The moustache itched. Of all the aspects of disguise, Ezra hated spirit gum the most. Wax had made his own brows disappear, in favor of bushy gray ones he had long ago built on a mesh backing. The beard was no less than a masterpiece, cupping his chin comfortably.

But the damnable moustache . . .

He sighed and wished he could sleep, but he was hot and the extra weight he wore over his torso made him sweat.

He slid on the vinyl seat, hoping for a more comfortable position, but it wouldn't happen. Ezra decided that, in twenty-four hours, he had been exposed to the most vile man-made upholsteries ever made. The only kind he hadn't sat on was the cracked, padded toilet seat that would, of course, pinch his bare bum. Well, there was still time yet.

Which reminded him . . .


Nathan Jackson could hear the commotion--but it seemed far away. He must've been asleep. He opened his eyes slowly.

What a strange ceiling. What a strange light fixture--a square, etched piece of frosted glass with . . . some kind of bird? Herons? He squinted, trying to let the shaft of moonlight that cut through the room help him to discern what the graceful etchings described.

Damn!

The light came on, startling him. He threw an arm across his face as light flooded in through the doorway as well.

"Warn a man next time, will ya?" Nathan muttered.

"Sorry." Judge Travis' voice. And others.

"I need to check you out." A voice he didn't recognize.

"Nathan." Chris this time. "This man's a doctor . . . a friend of Travis'. He's been taking care of JD . . ."

"And Ezra . . ." Nathan supplied, and the room became very quiet.

"What about Ezra?" Nathan asked, this time forcing himself to fight the glaring light and take a quick census. Vin was leaning in the doorjamb.

"He took off," Vin said. "He said he was taking a nap and slipped out the bedroom window."

"Why the hell would he do that?" Nathan asked.

"The pressure of it all?" Vin suggested.

Nathan frowned and thought. "No, I don't think so. He wouldn't take off. He wouldn't leave JD to face the music."

"Well, he did," Chris said, tightly.

Nathan looked their leader in the eye. "I bet he's got a plan."


". . . only a matter of time . . . maybe hours . . ."

The doctor's words resonated in his head. But Buck wouldn't believe it.

"Sit with him . . . talk to him . . ."

Buck remembered nodding. Sure he'd sit with JD, he'd talk to him, he'd . . .

What could he really do?

"JD, please . . ." Buck said. "Listen to me, son. You've gotta be strong now. You've gotta hold on." Buck squeezed JD's arm. "Can you feel that? Can you feel my hand? I've got you, boy. I'm holding on to you."

There was nothing else. No safe house. No ATF. No doctor. No one else. No one but JD. Buck slid closer and leaned over near his partner's ear.

"I'm here, JD. I'm here and I'm strong enough for both of us. And I'm not letting go. You hear me, boy? I'm not gonna let you go."

Buck sat up slightly so he could look at his friend more closely. The familiar face, once so full of life was now so still. The marks on his brow, across his cheek, the bruises, the bandages, they were wrong.

They were wrong.

Who could do this to another human being? Buck's lip trembled as he studied the trail of blisters on JD's lips where he'd fought the caustic poison those bastards had tried to pour down his throat.

Dear God, JD, I'm so sorry . . . so . . . sorry.

"They can't hurt you now, son. I won't let them. I won't let anybody hurt you."

He imagined how terrified JD must have been. Day after day, not knowing when they would kill him. If the picture had been any indication, he had been hurt early in his captivity. Nathan had pointed out old bruises, old cuts . . .

And new ones.

They had tried to break his spirit.

But they couldn't do it. In the video--beaten and dying--JD had fought. He hadn't lost hope. He was communicating to his friends the only way he could.

JD wanted to live. He'd tried so hard to survive. He'd come this far.

Buck leaned his head on the mattress, sqeezing his eyes closed as tears rushed him.

"God, please, don't take him. Not like this." Buck prayed . . . and wept. He squeezed JD's arm more firmly now. He would hold on. He would hold on no matter what.


Chris Larabee was livid. He almost took the door down with him as he strode angrily out of the safe house. What the hell was Ezra thinking? Why did he suddenly assume he could just take off on his own?

Vin followed Chris out, and wisely kept his distance. Anybody else, and Chris would have bitten his head off.

But it was different with Vin.

Vin was one of those rare people who understood the art of friendship by presence. He didn't have to say anything. He didn't have to do anything. He was just . . . there. Vin would wait until Chris wanted to talk.

Chris didn't want to talk. He wanted to . . . hit something. He made a tight fist and coiled his arm back to drive that fist into the one tree in the yard.

Vin's easy voice halted him. "We need every hand we can get, cowboy. Don't break one of yours."

"Who the hell asked you?" Chris got some sick satisfaction out of yelling at his friend.

The tracker didn't answer, of course. Chris really was lucky. Vin wouldn't leave him out there just because he was being a jerk. Chris' hand finally relaxed and he hung his head.

"This is crazy. What does Ezra think he's gonna do?"

Vin crossed his arms. "When we got here with JD, he helped out, then went on to bed. Said he wasn't feeling well."

Chris waited while Vin got his thoughts together. "It was weird, because he didn't seem tired, really. It was like . . ."

"Like he was high?" Chris challenged.

Vin's hesitation was enough.

"God, Vin, it can't be true." No, Chris wouldn't accept that.

"He was pissed off." Vin frowned. "I think he may have had some left over effects from being drugged, but this was like something else had happened. He was . . . different somehow."

Chris turned to his friend and walked over. "I don't know what to do."

"I know. And it's ok. You don't have to have all the answers."

Chris met Vin's gaze and they stood there for a moment. Vin understood him.

"Chris, we were hired for our skills, for our special . . . gifts. But we were also hired for our minds. We chose this life, Chris--with its risks and its challenges. We all knew what we were getting into." Vin leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Trust your men, Chris. We've survived this far."

"Ezra . . ."

"Is part of your team," Vin said quickly. "He'll stand by you. He'll stand by all of us."

Chris' throat got tight. "I know."

"So does he, Chris," Vin slapped his friend on the shoulder. "So does he."


At first, Buck didn't realize what was happening. But then he felt it.

JD's arm flexed.

It was surely one of those involuntary movements that happened with comatose patients.

But what if JD were suffering. What if he were hurting? Could he even tell anyone?

Buck raised his head to call the doctor, when he saw terrified hazel eyes looking back at him.


PART FIFTEEN: Communication

Help me!!! Oh, God . . . Somebody help me!! Am I dead? Is this what dead is?

JD Dunne tried to open his mouth to scream but the fire on his lips and in his throat wouldn't let him--a fire that was burning all the way into his belly.

He was in hell. He was burning in hell.

Oh God, what have I done? What did I do wrong? Please, I'm sorry . . .


Abject terror.

JD's unseeing eyes bespoke abject terror, and the boy began to tremble.

"JD--calm down. It's Buck. You're all right. Just stay calm . . ."

Buck kept talking while he watched JD's lip twitch with the effort to . . . was he trying to talk?

"JD, you can't talk yet. You've got a breathing tube in your throat."

Could JD even hear him? "Don't fight it. You're all right, son." Buck squeezed his friend's arm. "I'll get the doctor."

Buck stood up to go, but when he released the boy, JD began to jerk.

"Easy, kid." Buck returned his hand and JD settled down--well, slightly. "I ain't leaving you, son."

Maybe JD couldn't see him, or even hear him, but clearly he felt him.

Buck reached up with his other hand and tried to find a place on the boy's face that wasn't hurt. The seasoned agent had to swallow a lump in his throat as he again encountered the extent of his partner's trauma. Finally, Buck touched JD's temple above the broken cheekbone and he let his fingers slide slowly back into the boy's hair. He repeated the action very gently, tenderly, until the boy quit trembling. He watched as the boy slowly came back to him--watching as wide terrified eyes searched his. The terror changed to bewilderment, and as it did, Buck knew he was connecting with his partner.

"Hang on, JD. You gotta trust me. I know you want to talk. I know you're . . ." Buck choked on his own words. "I know you're scared." Buck's voice lowered to a whisper. "I know you hurt, boy."

The bewilderment in JD's eyes turned to . . . pain. "I know, JD. I know. I know those bastards hurt you."

JD's expression didn't change again, but tears welled in his eyes and spilled onto his bruised and bandaged cheeks.

"I know, JD." Buck's own eyes stung. "But you'll get through it. I promise you, son."

Black lashes fluttered for a moment and JD squeezed his eyes closed. When he opened them again, his brows knit for a moment, and JD tried to . . . ask something? To communicate something? He started getting agitated again.

"No, son. You need to settle down now."

Buck thought he heard JD try to speak, but it was more of a scraping sound.

"You can't talk yet. Don't try to talk." Buck slid his hand further into JD's hair, until he was nearly cupping his head. It seemed to calm him again. "That's right. Easy now."

For a moment, JD looked defeated. He looked away from Buck, then he closed his eyes again. He seemed to be in pain.

"Let me go get the doctor, JD. He needs to know you're awake."

JD's eyes shot open and, ever so slightly, he shook his head, no.

Buck bit his lip. "You've gotta let me help you. Please."

No, JD shook his head.

"Yes," Buck countered.

More tears. Eyes again diverted.

Finally, Buck leaned closer. "JD . . ." Buck lowered his voice. "Look at me, boy."

JD slowly drew his eyes back to Buck's and Buck asked, "Do you trust me?"

A sob shook JD and Buck wished he could hold him, without hurting him, but words would have to do. JD looked at him for a moment and nodded.

Buck spoke with certainty. "I'm gonna take care of you. Those bastards can't hurt you now."

JD shook his head in frustration.

"What is it?" Buck almost whispered and JD looked at him intently through tear-glazed eyes.

JD finally nodded toward Buck.

Oh, God love the kid. Suddenly Buck knew, and he smiled sadly. "I'm alright, JD."

JD looked toward the door then back at Buck.

Buck answered. "Everybody's gonna be ok. Chris, Vin, Josiah, Nathan--they're all here. Nathan took a hit, but he's all right."

JD's penetrating look begged one more answer.

Buck continued. "Ezra's ok. He took off to follow a lead."

Concern clouded the boy's face and he tried to communicate his . . . disapproval? Fear? Buck understood.

"I know. . . a damn fool stunt, but he must have a great lead."

Buck watched his friend closely. There were still more tears rolling down his face. JD was in physical pain, but the tears were for the ordeal . . . the frustration . . . the fear . . .

"You said you trusted me," Buck said very softly, and again, JD nodded slightly. "Then you've gotta believe me now, son. It's gonna be all right. We're all gonna be all right."

JD's eyes seemed to search Buck's for a moment, then slowly his lids drooped and he drifted off . . . back to sleep.

Buck watched him for another moment, then disentangled his hand from the boy's hair. Sweet kid. He trusted Buck . . . and now, God help them all, Buck would have to make good on his promise. Gradually, Buck released the pressure on his friend's arm and stood up to go get the doctor.


PART SIXTEEN: Limbo

The light of the fires of hell burned his eyes--just like the fire burned his mouth and his throat. The burning light was too bright. He couldn't see.

If he were in hell, why would he be trembling with cold?

If he were dead, would he hurt so much?

If he were alive . . . . that would be the worst of all.

If he were alive, they could come back . . .

And hurt him all over again.


Ezra looked at himself in the squatty mirror of the train's lavatory. In this disguise, he reminded himself of someone--some actor. A dead one. Not that Ezra looked dead. He looked like the actor when the actor was alive.

Damn, his train of thought was chugging down a strange track. What was wrong with him? Maybe whatever he'd been drugged with was still in his system. He was so tired.

He wanted to tell the others what he was doing. And he wanted to check on JD. He wanted to clear his name--JD's, that is. Well, his own also. Maude shouldn't be having to go through this. Not that she was an award-winning mother, but she didn't need this.

More than anything, he wanted to nail those ATF turncoats that had renounced JD. He'd get to the bottom of this and then, God help the bastards, he'd put them away forever.

He sniffed and put a bit more spirit gum under the mesh of his moustache. He paused for one last glance in the mirror.

William Conrad.

That's the actor he resembled. The "fatman". The man who used to read a poem at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade every year.

Ezra sighed and squeezed his considerable girth out of the undersized lavatory. He probably wasn't going to fit on the bed very well. It was going to be a long night.


A voice.

Oh God, please no. No more. JD felt his heart hammering in his chest. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't move.

And still . . . a voice . . .

Please God, help me . . .

Please . . .

That voice . . . somewhere deep down he knew that voice. He knew it. And he wasn't afraid of it. A friend's voice?

Why couldn't he place it? Why couldn't he tell what it was saying? At least it was a voice he could trust.

He felt a gentle--a strong and gentle hand on his arm. Someone was trying to comfort him. Someone was trying to reach him.

JD wanted to talk. He tried but but he couldn't.

The voice again. " . . . breathing tube in your throat . . ."

JD could feel it, and he wanted it out. He needed to talk, but the fire in his throat was scalding and the tube seemed to interfere with his breathing. He began to panic.

"Don't fight it. You're all right, son."

Buck!! It was Buck. Thank God. JD felt the hand on his arm give a squeeze . . . then it released him.

No! Come back. JD wanted to reach for his friend. Maybe he had just dreamed him.

But the hand returned, and the voice did, too. "Easy, kid. I ain't leaving you, son."

Gently, a hand touched his forehead and familiar fingers slid back into his hair.

Like his mama used to.

The easy stroking of his hair helped him focus on something other than his pain. The bright light wasn't so bright and he could see the ceiling.

Not a hospital ceiling . . . not the ceiling in the apartment . . . he didn't know this ceiling. Where was he? He let his eyes wander until they found . . .

Buck.

Buck would help him. Buck would keep those men from getting to him.

Or he'd die trying.

Don't die, Buck.

JD's eyes met his partner's. He wanted to warn him. What if those men came back for the rest of them. Oh, watch your back, Buck.

"Hang on, JD. You gotta trust me. I know you want to talk."

Buck looked so tired.

"I know . . . I know you're scared."

You don't know what they did, Buck.

"I know you hurt, boy."

Mm, he did hurt. Every part hurt. And he was so tired. Did Buck even know what happened?

"I know those bastards hurt you."

Oh, God. What if they'd hurt the others? JD struggled to ask.

"No, son. You need to settle down now."

Damn it. JD had to ask . . . but his throat . . . wouldn't make sound . . . It . . . scraped.

"You can't talk yet. Don't try to talk." Buck's voice was gentle, but he meant business.

It was no use. He couldn't make Buck understand. He closed his eyes. Even that hurt.

"Let me go get the doctor, JD. He needs to know you're awake."

No! How could JD make his friend know what he meant? Ever so slightly, he shook his head.

"You gotta let me help you. Please."

No . . . Even though it hurt, he shook his head again. It was hard to stay awake . . . to stay focussed . . . he felt . . . dizzy . . .

"Yes."

Buck could be damn pig-headed.

And now, JD would die without knowing what happened to his friends. The salty tears burned like fire when they reached his blistered chin. He tried to look away from his friend, but Buck just pulled closer.

"JD, look at me, boy."

For a moment, JD felt like he was slipping away, but he fought to stay conscious, and he looked back at Buck.

"Do you trust me?"

Of course, I trust you. JD wanted to cry out to him, but he sobbed instead.

And nodded.

"I'm gonna take care of you. Those bastards can't hurt you now."

No, JD shook his head. Please, don't you get it?

"What is it?" Buck was almost whispering.

Oh . . . thank God . . . a connection . . .

Deliberately, and with all of the strength he had left, he nodded toward Buck.

And it dawned on his friend. Buck smiled, "I'm alright, JD."

And JD looked at the door . . .

"Everybody's gonna be ok. Chris, Vin, Josiah, Nathan--they're all here. Nathan took a hit, but he's all right."

For a minute JD had to think . . . who was missing? He looked at Buck. Where was Ezra?

Buck knew. "Ezra's ok. He took off to follow a lead."

No, JD needed to warn them. They needed to find Ezra before he got himself killed.

"I know . . . a damn fool stunt, but he must have a great lead."

No . . . didn't they get it? These guys were f***ing crazy. They didn't just hurt him. They tortured him. They were killing him as slowly and painfully as they could. He could still feel what they did to him. He could feel his face breaking, his arm breaking, the fire in his throat, the ribs . . .

"You said you trusted me." Buck's voice cut through his haze. "Then you've gotta believe me now, son. It's gonna be all right. We're all gonna be all right."

There was something in Buck's eyes that spoke the truth. Maybe it was Buck's steady faith that had saved him so far. Maybe it would save them all.


Chris had been sitting with Nathan for a long time. Josiah knew that their leader was bound to be on a short fuse. Chris could always handle catastrophe when he knew what he was fighting, but when things whirled out of his control, he became more volatile and sometimes less rational.

Josiah knew about that. He himself had a threshold beyond which he could become . . . well . . . unpleasant. He knew what it was like to have folks avoid him because of it. With Chris Larabee, it was bound to get worse before it got better.

Josiah stepped in Nathan's room. Chris never looked up.

Nathan was struggling, and Chris had to be wondering if he had just killed Nathan by taking him out of the hospital. Nathan had seemed like he was doing so well this morning. How could he have developed such a bad infection so quickly?

Josiah could offer one perspective. "You know they could've gotten to him in the hospital and he'd be dead already."

"We don't know that."

"We don't know that he wouldn't have developed this infection in the hospital either."

Chris' voice was laced with sarcasm. "We're always blessed with the wisdom of Solomon, aren't we?"

Josiah let that one go. He even preferred Chris drunk to cynical. There was no reasoning with Chris at times like this. Josiah could live with that. He'd just sit there for a while.


Waiting was the worst, even though Vin had to admit that this waiting wasn't as bad as last week when they were waiting to find out where JD was--or even if he was alive.

He glanced over at Travis, who was asleep in the barcalounger. Vin envied him that sleep.

The doctor was sitting at the kitchen table, poring over notes, and pausing at times to pull his glasses off and knead the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He sure had his hands full, Vin thought. JD needed to be in ICU--well, so did Nathan for that matter. Surely they needed heart monitors and crash carts and that kind of thing. What if JD's heart stopped again? What if they couldn't get Nathan's fever down?

Vin's foot tapped nervously. He hated this. He felt so useless.

Who could be doing this? Why? Who would stand to gain by smearing JD's name? No. Correct that. Who in the ATF would stand to gain?

Well, Vin wasn't just gonna sit there and wait while his friends suffered. It was time to get ahead of the game. It was time to get inside these guys' heads and find out what the hell was going on.


The door creaked and Vin looked up. Buck was standing in the doorway, tears in his eyes, yet looking . . . so haggard.

"He woke up," Buck said softly. Vin and the doctor jumped up and went over to him. The doctor brushed by him and went in to check on JD. Vin put his hand on his friend's back and guided him to the sofa.

"You all right?" Vin asked. Buck started to answer, but no words came. He shook his head, no.

"Can I get you something?"

Again, Buck shook his head, no.

Vin waited.

Buck rubbed his face in his hands. "He hurts so much."

"I know."

"But he wanted to be sure that everyone else was all right."

Vin smiled. "Sounds like him."

"God, Vin, there's no telling what they did to him."

"We might not ever know," Vin said simply. "We'll just have to help him through it any way we can."

They both heard the car door slam, and by the time they were on their feet, Josiah and Chris came into the living room with guns drawn.

"What the hell was that?" Chris asked.

"Let's hope it's Ezra," Vin commented, but Buck was peering out the window.

"No such luck," he hissed. "Boys, looks like the ATF is here."


PART SEVENTEEN: Outside the Confines of the Law

Judge Orrin Travis squinted awake and frowned at the sight of Chris Larabee and crew with guns drawn.

"What's going on?" he asked, his voice gruff with sleep.

"We have company," Larabee said.

The judge made his way to the window and peered out from behind the drapes. "That's impossible," he said. "No one knows where this place is."

"They do now," Wilmington said, hotly.

"Aw hell," Travis muttered as he slipped his feet into his loafers. "Let me talk to them."

How the hell could anyone find this place? No one even knew it existed. It hadn't been used in years. In fact, the last of the crew that had utilized the safe house had died a couple of years ago. The judge was the only one left.

He was stove up from having slept in the chair, so he made his way slowly to the door.

Two men in uniforms were waiting at the door. The judge looked out of the peekhole and his face broke into a broad grin. He opened the door.

And kissed one of the men on the cheek.


Maude Standish was not easily shaken. She had seen a lot in her life and had learned to stay steady in the face of bad news. But she had been shaken to her core when, in the middle of Circuit City, she had seen her son's face on forty TV screens. She could only stand and watch, transfixed, as the caption appeared, "ATF Agent Turned Drug Trafficker."

She hadn't felt the kind hands on her arm supporting her as she heard the voiceover "bloodbath in the ER" and "agents implicated" and "twelve dead."

She hadn't remembered fainting--only waking up on a naugahyde couch in the break room at Circuit City. Her first thought upon waking was "how could anyone have ever thought green linoleum was chic?" and her second thought . . .

Oh God, my baby . . .


"What the hell . . ." Vin Tanner muttered, seeing the affection between the judge and the officer . . .

But when the visitor removed the hat and long blonde hair billowed down, Vin holstered his weapon and smiled.

"Hiya, Mary," he said.

The judge's daughter-in-law dispensed with the pleasantries and introduced her colleague. "This is Jack. He's got a plane we can use."

"Thank God," Chris said. "Where?"

"I won't tell you that," Jack responded. "In fact, nobody goes without blindfolds."

"Mary," Chris snapped. "What is this shit?"

"A way out of the country," Mary snapped back. She squared off with Chris. "You think you're gonna just charter a plane out of here? With a federal prisoner?"

"Federal prisoner?" Vin interrupted.

"JD is wanted for drug trafficking. Every agent in the country is looking for you guys. How were you planning to get to Canada?"

"You've got a point," Josiah said.

Judge Travis crossed his arms. "What do we do?"

Jack looked around the room as if assessing the people there--maybe deciding who to trust or whether to trust. Mary touched his arm and he glanced back at her. She nodded for him to go on.

"You get your wounded men ready to travel," he said. "We'll have to transport them to the hangar in a horse trailer."

"Horse trailer?" Buck looked incredulous.

"It's the only thing that won't attract attention."

"There aren't any agents looking around here. Why not take the van?" Vin asked.

Jack turned to Mary. "Are they gonna let me do this or are they gonna keep asking questions?"

Mary pursed her lips and answered. "The men on the air field won't let a van or an ambulance near the place." She looked around. "They have to be careful about . . . being discovered as well."

"An illegal air field," the judge commented.

Chris frowned. "You're talking about a drug trafficker taking ATF officers to an illegal field to get on a drug transport plane and leave the country illegally with a fugitive."

"That's right," Jack said, defiance in his tone.

Chris paused a moment, then nodded. "Sounds like a plan to me."


Nathan was so sick. Mary sat with him, her eyes full, her heart full. Gently she lay a cold wet rag on his forehead.

"Mama?"

Oh, she wasn't expecting that. She took his hand in both of hers. "Nathan, it's Mary . . . Mary Travis."

"Mary . . . " he repeated.

A tear spilled onto Mary's cheek. "That's right. How do you feel?"

"Mary?"

"Yeah, what can I do, Nathan?"

"I'm . . . cold."

"Let me get you another blanket." Mary stood up and went to the closet. She opened it, only to have years of dust cascade out. Coughing, she closed the door.

"Mama?" Nathan's voice was weaker. "You're sick. I'll help you." He waved a hand vaguely through the air. "Let me help you, Mama."

Mary was crying in earnest now--crying and coughing. "No, baby," she said. "Mama's fine. Rest easy now, and I'll get you a blanket. Just close your eyes."


Ezra was practiced at wearing new aliases. He knew how to develop one, sit with one and ultimately embody one. He'd used many names--most often Carter J. Clifford. He'd never tell what the "J" stood for . . . only that it was an old family name. Ezra often used an initial to remind himself of something characteristic about his new persona or something about his mission.

One time he was F. Samuel Nicholson -- the "F" standing for "fastidious". Another time he was Mitchell S. Davis, the "S" for "suave." But this time, in the tradition of Samuel F. B. Morse, Ezra used two initials.

Thomas S. M. Williams.

"Screw Millard."


Maude sat on her friend Barbara's sofa, her feet up and drinking a hot cup of cocoa. Normally, this would be the epitome of comfort, but she didn't know where her son was or even if he were alive.

As she thought about Circuit City, she wondered. How had the FBI gotten to her so fast? And with the press in tow, no less? She had almost been out the door when she had seen Ezra on tv, and by the time she had awakened in the back room, agents were swarming around her.

How had they found her so quickly?

Good lord! Maude almost spilled her cocoa when the realization hit her. They had to have been tracking her credit card activity because she had already made a purchase when she'd seen the TV bulletin.

If they were tracking her, they must be looking for Ezra. If they were looking for him, they must know he's alive.

Tears filled her eyes as sudden relief came over her. No one had told her anything. She hadn't been able to get in touch with Larabee or Judge Travis or anyone--and the only thing she'd been hearing for the last 36 hours was that her son had been using his ATF position to bring drugs into the country.

Well, she knew her son and this was all bullsh*t.

She sighed--relief again--and took a long sip of her cocoa. Her boy was alive, and that was enough for her

For the moment.


According to Jack, the trailer would arrive in the early morning, just before dawn. The doctor had done what he could do to get the patients ready to travel. He was utterly opposed to the whole prospect, and Chris was getting a little bit tired of it. The doctor talked like they had some choice in the matter--like they could have stayed in the hospital and had just opted to leave on a whim.

Chris didn't like the doctor, but he knew that the doctor was the only thing between his men and certain death. So he would put up with him. It wouldn't be much longer now.

Chris stepped quietly into JD's room. Buck was asleep on an old settee that was half as long as he was. The tall agent's long legs dangled over the arm. He couldn't possibly be comfortable. But Chris was glad Buck could finally sleep, even though Buck was bound to be sore in the morning.

Chris took the chair at JD's bedside and turned it around backwards. He straddled it. Reaching over, he rested his hand on JD's arm like Buck had shown him.

Oh kid . . .

It was hard enough knowing that the ATF had renounced him for all intents and purposes, but the media blitz dragging the poor kid's name through the mud--that was too much. Not only would Chris clear him, he would make sure heads rolled. This was unbelievable.

Chris rested his head on the back of the chair. Its hard, cold surface felt good against his pounding head. How could this have happened? God, the President was issuing statements about them. The Attorney General was taking heat for problems with the ATF. His team was being made to look incompetent. There were whispers of Waco and the administration was distancing itself from the entire situation. The press was making comparisons between the "Bloodbath in the ER" and Oklahoma City. It was not, however, reporting that it was the team of ATF agents that ended the tragedy.

And in the midst of it all, this poor, hurt boy who had been a pawn in an horrific conspiracy.

Chris hated the word--conspiracy. It was tossed around when anyone wanted to avoid taking responsibility for his or her actions. But what else could this be? There was no telling how high up this corruption went, but it went to Millard, at least. There was no way a greenhorn kid like JD Dunne could be the catalyst for a national incident like this.

Maybe if Chris had become suspicious sooner. Maybe if he'd realized that his own colleagues were turning on the kid before he was given an official "persona non grata" status. Maybe he could have gotten JD out of there. Hell, he shouldn't have let him get involved in the first place.

"Don't, cowboy."

Chris spun around to see Vin Tanner in the doorway.

"Don't what?"

Vin walked over and rested an easy hand on his friend's shoulder. "Sit here trying to figure out if you could have done something differently."

"You some kind of mind-reader or what?"

"I know you. I know that look." Vin pulled up another chair. "And I been thinking the same thing." He looked at JD. "How is he?"

Chris shook his head. "I don't know. He seems to be in pain. He hasn't been awake."

As if he were listening, JD groaned and shifted. He started trembling and Chris increased the pressure on his arm. "Easy, son."

"What?" Buck squinted at the others and pulled himself up. "Is he ok?"

"Yeah," Chris answered. "Go back to sleep."

He said it, knowing it wasn't going to happen. Buck stood up, stretching his tall frame. He walked over to the bed and, very gently, stroked JD's hair--again, one of the only places he could touch him without hurting him.

Chris could feel the kid start to relax. No doubt Buck could feel it, too, because he knelt beside the bed and began to whisper a litany of comforts. JD eventually settled back down.

Chris' eyes stung as he watched his oldest friend tend to the boy. He remembered seeing this tenderness when Buck helped with Adam. How strange that the old grief would come flooding back to him now. It would hit him unexpectedly in odd circumstances . . .

Only this was not so odd. Chris realized in that moment how close he felt to JD--how much like a son JD was. As he grieved over JD, he grieved for Adam all over again and he felt a sob clutch his throat. He didn't give in to it, though, clearing his throat gruffly instead.

He needed sleep--well, they all did. Yet here they were. God, Vin hadn't slept for two days. He had to be fading. But the hand on Chris' shoulder was steady and sure.

Chris knew then that they were gonna make it--this circle of friends. They'd just have to hang on to each other. It was clear that Buck was not gonna let JD quit. He'd stay with the kid as long as it took.

And Chris would hang on to Buck. He'd keep Buck from going over the edge--from flying off in a rage when the fury they all felt about the kid threatened to overcome him. Chris would stay strong for Buck.

And in those moments when Chris felt weak, he knew Vin would be there hanging on to him. Vin's spirit was as sure as his aim and at times like this, Vin was their anchor.

As Chris felt that familiar hand on his shoulder, he wondered fleetingly who Vin leaned on. Who was strong for him?

"Chris . . ." the soft voice pulled his attention from those thoughts.

Chris looked up at Vin, who nodded for him to follow. Chris leaned forward to Buck. "You boys be ok for a minute?"

"Huh?" Buck was startled. He turned and glanced back at Chris and Vin, then it seemed like the question made sense to him. "Yeah, we're good."

Chris slapped his friend on the back. "OK, we're right outside if you need us."

Buck nodded and turned back to JD.

It was a sad picture. Chris was glad for a reason to step outside.


Mary paced the living room, a combination of worry, rage and incredulity cluttering her mind. Her feet hurt. New shoes. They had been so interesting to her when she went shopping a couple of days ago.

And important. They were a $200. pair of shoes. She'd wanted to splurge. She deserved it. She'd worked hard and saved up for them. The same color as the pair in the magazine.

She'd worn them all day yesterday and regretted it all day today. Right now her feet hurt like hell.

The oversized military-issue shoes she wore tonight kept getting hung in the nap of the old rug and she'd trip a little.

And cuss a little.

And sometimes she'd cry a little.

She loved these men. She'd known Nathan for years and he was so feverish he didn't know her.

And the doctor wouldn't let her sit with him anymore. Nathan was getting agitated trying to talk. So Josiah stayed with him and Mary was relegated to a "post" in the living room.

She glanced out the window for the hundredth time, looking for signs of dawn or of returning headlights. The Judge had gone with Jack to get the trailer and Mary cringed at the thought of transporting Nathan and JD that way. Jack had indicated to her that the plane would actually be worse. They'd have to carry the wounded in sacks just to get them on board. Once there, they could set up IVs and such.

They hadn't told Chris that part. The Judge knew; the doctor knew; Josiah knew. They had decided that it was best to wait to tell the others once they were en route. Buck would go ballistic, and Josiah had said that if he did, they'd leave him in the States.

Mary hated this--everything about this. But the Judge had said it was the only way. These men needed proper medical treatment and, since no one knew who the enemy was, they had to go underground to get it. The Judge had also figured that they could only find out who the dirty agents were by gaining some distance. So this little trip was necessary all the way around.

No dawn--no headlights . . .

Mary walked to the couch, kicked off those damn shoes, and put her aching feet up. She looked at her watch. 3:30am. It wouldn't be much longer now.


Judge Travis liked this Jack fellow. He was a straight-shooter--for a felon. Well, Mary trusted him, and Mary had good instincts. Jack was the kind of guy who started running drugs to countries where basic medical needs couldn't be met. He wouldn't carry certain drugs certain places. He wouldn't feed the habits of kids. Even as a criminal, he had a code of honor. At first, Travis was afraid Mary had been duped, but once he met Jack, he realized that he was one of those rare birds who was committed to doing good--outside the confines of the law.

Well, he couldn't condone it, but right now it was going to save his men.

The Judge hoped that Thomas S. M. Williams was having success "outside the confines of the law" as well. Ezra was one of the most brilliant con artists Travis had ever met. In any other situation, Travis wouldn't have supported the gambler's venture into such a dangerous ruse--but again, he had no choice. And with his face plastered all over the media, he'd be most effective hiding right under their noses. If ever a man could ferret out a ferret, it was Standish.

Travis wondered if Larabee would ever speak to him after so much deception, but decisions had to be made quickly and the more talk there was, the more danger everyone would be in.

The old pick-up lumbered along the road, the long, cumbersome trailer in tow. Travis could finally see the tiny safe house up ahead. Perfect timing, Travis thought, as the sky began to pink with dawn.


Vin watched Chris in silence as Chris digested what Vin had said. It was radical. Vin knew that. Everyone was suspicious of Millard. That was no surprise. But taking into account that Millard was too much of a coward to spearhead something like this, Vin was implicating the most unthinkable man. Chris had listened as Vin explained that it would take someone with a lot more clout than Millard to have the ATF turn on JD and Ezra like they had. Kidnapping JD right under their noses could only be a first-rate professional job. And mobilizing all of those agents to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time--well, it had to be someone way up.

And why all of this attention on JD and Ezra if not to cover up a crime of mega-proportions. Vin figured a huge deal had gone down and the true culprit had to find scapegoats who would conceivably have access to the motherlode. Who better than two men from the most elite team of ATF agents?

Now they had to figure out what deal had gone down and, if Vin was right, how many agents and brass were involved.

Chris' eyes darted as he thought about it. Vin knew that look. Chris was putting the pieces together and as Chris began to nod slowly, Vin knew they were about to hit the trail and take down a chunk of their own agency.

It would have to wait though. Mary turned to them from the window.

"They're here," she said.

Chris slapped Vin's leg. "Let's go."

To be continued . . .


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