by BMP

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Before heading into his office, Travis made an unusual, unscheduled stop in the building’s cafeteria, feeling the need for fortification before he faced the task of calling General Larabee. The cafeteria was busy as usual. It was convenient, fairly cheap, and had good food. As a result, many of the agents and other staff in the building usually ended up there at some point during the day.

It was not the breakfast offerings that caught his eye so much as a piece of tasteful linen stationary tacked to a bulletin board filled with employee notices. It was dated Tuesday, and it was easy to read, having been written in 18-point bold face type.

To all concerned:

For reasons that elude me, despite having diligently searched for and, when necessary, actually contrived justifications to forcibly remove me from my present employment, it appears that those same powers are now unwilling to accept my resignation from said position. Since oral declarations have fallen on deaf ears and written declarations have been summarily ignored, I feel I have no recourse but to make public announcement of my intention to step down from my position as an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

I understand that it is customary to make public legal notices in the local newspaper, but, as I doubt the proclivity of those most concerned to read said legal section and because despite slanderous rumors to the contrary, I am not in a financial position to purchase an advertising space large enough to get their attention, I am employing this public notice board as a suitable substitute.

My reasons for this abrupt departure are both personal and professional. As such, I refuse to elucidate them here for the benefit of the curious. Those closest to me are already aware of them. The rest need not concern themselves.

Please note that I consider this resignation to be effective immediately, with or without consent or approval from the appropriate chains of command. Naturally, I also hereby rescind all rights, duties, benefits, obligations, and privileges arising from said position.


Ezra P. Standish

P.S. For those of you who lack dictionaries or a good thesaurus—I QUIT!

Travis’s eyes narrowed. Standish had audacity. That was for sure.

He read the whole thing again twice more. Then he took it off the board. Not because he was angry. Standish’s public thumbing of his nose gave him his first real laugh in over two weeks. He took the letter back to his office. He was going to need a good laugh after he returned the General’s phone call. He could deal with Standish later.

Travis waited while the phone rang through an adjutant and a receptionist before the General’s clipped tone came on. He had never met the man, could count on one hand the number of times Chris had mentioned him, calling him only The General. But in his mind, Travis pictured the same blonde hair and glittering green eyes he had come to equate with Chris.

“General Larabee? This is Orin Travis with the Denver ATF.” He began with the usual polite apologies and formal statements of regret.

“I didn’t call for your condolences,” The General cut him off and Travis nearly smiled. The father was as direct as the son. “I called you because I want my son’s remains released for burial.”

Travis sighed, but was careful not to let the General hear. He had been expecting this.

The General continued. “I think I have been more than patient. Now his family wants him home, to be buried in the family plot in Indiana.”

Travis closed his eyes. Chris would have said his family was here in Denver.

He collected his patience.

“As you know,” he said not unkindly, “they can only release the body on approval of the next of kin. And Chris’s next of kin has refused to accept the body without conclusive evidence of its identity.”

There was a silence, during which Travis imagined he could actually hear the anger crackling through the telephone line. The members of Team Seven had chosen their next of kin from among themselves, believing that it would allow them to make emergency medical decisions more quickly. They had good reason, after a doctor tried to give Vin a treatment that would have killed him. Chris and Nathan couldn’t convince him Vin was allergic, and in the end, Chris had simply taken hold of the doctor’s hand and quietly informed him that if he stuck that needle in Vin, Chris would break his hand in so many pieces that he would never write a prescription again. To his credit, the doctor had the guts to double-check the records and returned to apologize. He was the one who suggested that they could avoid problems like this in the future if they made each other their next of kin and assigned power of attorney.

“Mr. Travis,” came the voice, taking on an edge now. Mr. Travis. Not AD Travis. “I am well aware that Mr. Tanner is formally listed as the next of kin. However, Christopher is my son. And his family wants him home. Agent Tanner is only delaying the inevitable.”

There was a disdainful note on the word “Agent.” The General’s disdain was not just for Vin, but for law enforcement in general.

Travis chose his words carefully, clinically. “Agent Tanner has requested conclusive evidence of the identity of the body.”

“Mr. Travis,” the General stated flatly. “I understand the body was found wearing my son’s bulletproof vest and ATF jacket. His badge and gun were found beneath the body. And it was located within twenty feet of my son’s last reported position. Your men identified the jacket, the vest, the badge, and the gun.”

Travis clenched his teeth. Buck and Vin had not been allowed to view the body. It would not have been identifiable in any case. What little was left of it had to stay in place for evidence and no one was to disturb the crime scene. The jacket, vest, badge, and gun had been brought to them after forensics photographed the scene. That’s when they were told what happened.

The General spoke again. “I also understand that the authorities at the site are dealing with the identification of civilian casualties from the building next door, and have no intention of expediting DNA tests for a body that they already consider to be positively identified.”

According to the phone call from the irritated forensics team on site, what Tanner had actually said in his quiet but threatening way was “I ain’t buryin’ nothin’ that don’t come with DNA proof.” They had informed Agent Tanner and were now informing AD Travis that their first priority was the unidentified bodies, beginning with the civilians next door, who died when part of their building collapsed from the explosion. It would be some time before they could free up lab space to test a body that they already considered to be identified.

At that point Travis had offered to send dental records to speed the process up.

There was an awkward pause, as the forensics team attempted to tactfully explain that as the agent in question had been directly in the path of the rocket, given the condition of the body, dental records would be of absolutely no use.

It took Travis a minute to digest what they meant. He went cold at the thought.

The shred of vest with Chris’s id number and part of his name on it, and a charred piece of what was undeniably a black ATF jacket that was adhered to the vest stayed as evidence. The gun and badge came home with Buck. Vin had refused to touch them.

Travis took a deep breath and steadied himself. “General Larabee, sir, I understand your feelings. I know what it is like to lose a son.”

The General cut him off curtly. “No Mr. Travis, you don’t understand my feelings,” he said.

Funny, that was very nearly what Chris had said to Mary, the widow of Travis’s own murdered son, when she had attempted to interview him for the Clarion newspaper shortly after the team’s first successful mission. Travis kicked himself. Of course. Every father thought his grief was unique.

He tried again. “What I mean to say, sir, is that, as Agent Tanner is officially the next of kin, there is very little I can do to change the situation.”

“Isn’t there another next of kin listed?” The General asked finally.

“Agent Wilmington,” Travis replied.

“Buck,” the General snorted, a note of contempt creeping into his voice. “I might have known.”

Apparently, Buck had made a bad impression as a teenager, back when his friend’s father was a mere Colonel. The years had done nothing to change this impression.

“The legalities of the situation dictate that…” Travis began, but he was cut off—again.

“I am well aware of the legalities,” the General snapped. “I am simply asking you to use your professional influence to bring this to a satisfactory close.”

Satisfactory for whom? “I’ll do what I can, sir. But I can’t make any promises.”

“See that you do your best,” replied the General. He made no formal sign off. He simply hung up.

Travis hung up the phone and leaned his head into his palms. Clearly the General had done a lot of digging. The details he mentioned had been kept out of the press and out of general circulation. He wasn’t surprised. The man was an Air Force General based at the Pentagon. He had many resources at his disposal. And Travis had no doubt that the General was going to deploy whatever resources he needed to get Chris’s body shipped to Indiana.

And Buck Wilmington and the rest of Team Seven would fight to prevent that.

Travis drummed his fingers on his desk, considering how to begin to smooth this over. He knew that Chris and his father had never been close. It had only gotten worse after Chris left home. Buck had privately told Travis that the General had failed to make the trip to Denver for Sarah and Adam’s funeral. Their relationship already strained, Chris shut the General out of his life completely. But the man was still Chris’s father. Chris was still his son. So Travis got up and headed to the bullpen to have a gentle talk with Agent Tanner.

It was nearly 11 AM when Travis entered the bullpen. It was silent, except for the tapping of Henderson’s keyboard. He looked around. The bullpen was empty. The computers were off.

He turned to leave again, but called back in afterthought. “The boys are out?”

That’s obvious, isn’t it? thought Henderson, still typing, a little bit faster now.

At the silence, Travis frowned. “Do you know when they’ll be back?” he called from the hallway.

“Not sure,” Henderson said slowly, thoughtfully.

Travis frowned a bit more. The Team Leader ought to know when to expect his agents back.

“Where were they headed?” Travis asked. Maybe they were milling about the other departments. It would be like Buck to be back in the lab trying to get a date with the receptionist. He hated to admit it, but that would be an improvement.

But that wasn’t the answer.

“They went to lunch,” came the casual reply.

Travis double-checked his watch. It wasn’t even 11 o’clock yet.

His brows knit together and he turned back into the bullpen. “When did they leave?” he asked suspiciously.

Henderson’s tone didn’t betray an iota of change as he replied matter of factly, “Yesterday afternoon.”

Henderson knew he was fired long before AD Travis had appeared in the doorway like an avenging angel. Fortunately, he had just negotiated himself a new position teaching sky diving at a resort near Tahoe.

“I’ll see myself out,” he said calmly, getting up and carrying his bag, the only item he had ever brought to the office. He kept everything in his bag. It arrived with him in the morning and left with him every night.

Travis stared at him, just stood and watched him brush past and move toward the elevators. A strange sort of paralysis taking him, as he realized the implications of Henderson’s words. At the same time, he noticed that nothing about the office had changed an iota. Henderson had never put up a picture. Never set anything on the desk. He hadn’t even asked for the keys to the desk. Probably hadn’t used so much as a pencil. Clearly hadn’t planned on remaining long. Travis cursed, but before he recovered enough of his voice to call Henderson back to answer questions, the man was gone.

Jackson Henderson sagged back against the elevator wall in relief. For a moment he thought the AD was going to recover enough presence of mind to interrogate him. Or hit him. Either way he was screwed. Travis was going to kick him around until he told what he had heard. Then six agents armed to the teeth were going to beat the living hell out of him. Instead, his lucky stars had shone again, and he was in the parking garage, in one piece, and headed for freedom.

Henderson’s getaway elevator had barely begun its descent when Travis realized that he didn’t need Henderson to tell him where Team Seven had headed on their unsanctioned, impromptu mission. He was already halfway to his office when he remembered Standish’s resignation and swore. There would be no point trying to hunt down Ezra Standish because he would be with the rest of them—an unofficial member on an unofficial mission. The next breath brought a realization that made his teeth clamp together hard, as a wave of fury rolled over him followed by a wave of a nameless fear.

Standish’s resignation meant the man was a free agent. The barriers associated with proper law enforcement procedures no longer surrounded him. Granted, Team Seven was famous for pushing those barriers as far as they could go, but at least there had been some boundaries. Now all bets were off for Standish. The rules no longer applied. He had just become a very dangerous player in what could turn out to be a very bad gamble. And Travis was pretty sure no one would come out the winner.

The first thing he needed to do was alert his superiors that Team Seven had gone AWOL, and to check their team gun locker to find out what sort of hardware they had taken. Then they would need to contact Texas authorities to be on the lookout.

His thoughts were interrupted by his own secretary, who met him at the door to his office suite. She was waving a small white message at him. She pressed it into his hand. It was from Director Savage, two levels up the food chain. Another curse formed on the tip of Travis’s tongue. He kept his teeth clamped together.

The angry red flush creeping up Travis’s neck did not go unnoticed. Nor did his effort to control his temper. Nevertheless, Director Savage was adamant that the message was extremely urgent and Orin should call him at once. Not a woman who was easily intimidated by the trappings of power or the men who bore them, the secretary gave AD Travis the message and passed on the urgency of Director Savage’s request. Then she turned briskly back to her own desk. “I’ll hold all your calls,” she said, predicting his needs as only a good professional secretary can.

He was on the phone for a long time. A steady stream of visitors were turned away. A list of messages were taken. Her long experience told her that the urgent phone calls, conferences and unusual bits of temper from Travis meant that something bad had happened. She only hoped it wasn’t as bad this time as two weeks ago, when the Texas ATF had called. That day, Travis did not emerge from his office for several minutes after his phone light had blinked off. When he finally did open his door, his face was strangely pinched—almost stricken. Then he told her the reason.

She gave him a few minutes of privacy. No calls. No visitors.

This time, with the dispassionate wisdom of someone who had been a professional secretary for a very long time, she realized that she would only be allowed to know that which she needed to know to get her job done. And sometimes that was a blessing. So she worked steadily and efficiently to take care of her end of business so AD Travis could take care of his.

AD Travis’s phone light blinked off. A second later he opened the door. She didn’t know what had been said, but she didn’t like the look on his face.

“Get Senior Agent Kelly down here,” he barked out. “Call him. Page him. Whatever you have to do to find him. Get him here on the double.”

Then he closed the door.

She pulled out her list of contact numbers, dialed Team Eight’s bullpen and began methodically tracking Ryan Kelly down.

Buck paced the hotel room impatiently. Occasionally pulling aside a corner of the curtain and checking up and down the parking lot.

From a chipped table in the corner, Josiah looked over the top of his cards and observed the tall mustached agent, all one raw nerve, checking again for the fourth time in fifteen minutes. He lay down a card and raised his eyebrows at Nathan. Nathan picked up the discarded card and threw a glance backward over his shoulder.

J.D. did not look up from his position, seated at the end of one of the two double beds. He did not need to. He could clearly see Buck’s big feet go by him on the threadbare carpet with each pass. Without pausing in the note he was writing, he said, “He’ll be back soon.”

Buck turned restlessly away from the window again. “How long does it take?”

Josiah snorted. “Can take a long time. If you want to get it right.”

“You better be right about this,” Buck said, pointing a glare at Josiah. “He’s going to need to be real convincing.”

“You’re talking about a man who could sell sand to the Bedouins, brother,” Josiah said calmly. “Besides, I’ll tell him everything he’ll need to know.”

Buck sighed again and turned back to the window.

From the other bed, Vin turned his head to look at J.D., curiously. “What’re ya workin’ on?” the Texan rasped.

J.D. jumped. Vin had lain so still for so long that he had long ago decided the sharpshooter was asleep. He slammed the notebook shut and turned sheepishly to look at his teammate.

Buck turned to look at him then. He rolled his eyes at J.D. and turned back to watching the parking lot through a corner of the drapes.

Vin had lifted himself to a sitting position and came noiselessly down to the foot of the bed to face J.D.

J.D. blushed, but did not move as Vin reached out and pulled the note he had been working on out from between the pages of J.D.’s notebook. He looked at it curiously. Then his eyes turned back to J.D.

“I thought someone should answer them,” he said slowly. “To say thanks. That we appreciate it.”

A funny expression swam through Vin’s blue eyes.

J.D. paused before continuing, almost embarrassed. “It makes me feel better, too,” he said awkwardly.

J.D. pulled one of the condolence cards he had retrieved from Chris’s office out of his backpack and offered it and a pen to Vin. “Do you… I mean, you could… If you wanted to…”

Vin balked, pulling back away from the card like it had bit him. He went back to laying on his back and staring up at the ceiling.

J.D. looked over to Josiah, concerned, confused. It was written all over the youth’s face that he hadn’t intended to offend.

“A real nice gesture,” Josiah rumbled and gave J.D. a nod.

Then the big profiler frowned in exasperation as Buck muttered not quietly enough, “People should mind their own damn business.”

J.D.’s gaze snapped over to his best friend. All their nerves were frayed, but he couldn’t let the comment slide. “Have you even read any of them?”

Buck turned his head slowly to look at his young friend. He didn’t say anything, but his glare was hot.

J.D. was not intimidated. “Maybe it is their business,” he said holding up the card he was answering. “Maybe they miss him, too.”

Buck’s gaze hardened.

J.D. felt anger rise up in him. Anger he had been keeping down for days on end, while he tip-toed around everyone else’s feelings. Yeah, okay, Buck and Chris had been close. Hell, more than close. They had weathered storms together that neither of them cared to share. They had earned the right to keep their shared history to themselves. But that didn’t give Buck the right to piss on other people’s grief. Or the right to decide who deserved to be allowed to honor a fallen friend and co-worker.

J.D. felt his face grow hot. The heat rose up into his eyes. With an angry glare, he held the card out to Buck—or anyone else who wanted to see it. “This one’s from Laura who does our expense reports,” he snapped. “Did you know that when her husband died, Chris helped her go through the insurance paperwork? Did you know he helped her find an attorney?” His anger carried him to his feet as he continued, “She goes out of her way to say how much it meant to her. When she tells all of us how sorry she is that he’s gone.”

Both Vin and Buck jerked at the words. Josiah and Nathan had put down their cards. They exchanged a glance. Someone finally said it, Nathan thought, knowing Josiah had caught it, too. Spoke the words out loud. Admitted it. He hoped it was a first step to healing. He hoped it didn’t cause broken heads first. He and the big profiler watched their teammates closely—not sure when it was time to intervene.

J.D. didn’t notice the silence that fell onto the room. Couldn’t hear it over the blood starting to pound in his ears. Any indication that he should stop, was rolled over by the rush of the anger suddenly let loose. His hand still trembling, he grabbed another card from the short pile beside him and rose to his feet, thrusting the pastel painted card in front of him. “How about Jean-Ann in the secretarial pool?” he asked, his voice rising, not waiting for a response. “She said that when she had to work late, he walked her down to her car, or called up security to do it. She says she’ll miss him.”

The trembling began to spread through him. His voice was strident, threatening to crack, growing steadily louder.

“How about this photo from Team 8? How about the Travises? Are they allowed to have any memories? Or do you get to decide who’s worthy?” He stopped suddenly. Breathing hard, the tendons on his neck standing out as he defied Buck to answer.

Buck felt his eyebrows draw down. His jaw clenched. His hands balled into fists. A thousand conflicting feelings rose up into his throat and threatened to block his breathing. But uppermost was the urge to strangle someone. Yeah, he knew that some of those cards were from people who cared, but he’d been here before, and he knew—absolutely, certainly—that most of those cards, cards with trite expressions of sympathy, those pre-made flower arrangements, and their generic sentences of insincere condolences, came from people who hadn’t given a damn about Chris when he was alive, when his grief over Sarah and Adam had threatened to destroy him, who thought he was a pain in their brass-bound backsides, who considered him a bad element, a dangerous blot on the law enforcement profession. Cards and flowers were just an easy way to assuage their guilt. To say “no hard feelings”. Well, Buck didn’t give a damn about their guilty consciences and he could hold onto his hard feelings as long as he damn well pleased.

There was utter silence in the hotel room, as the two friends glared at each other. But it was Buck who broke the deadlock. He went out the door and slammed it shut behind him. The door stayed closed only for the instant it took Vin to get to it. He opened it. Slid out wordlessly like a shadow and moved off in the opposite direction.

J.D. was left standing in the center of the room. Then the silence was broken. He swore. And swore again. He picked up his notebook and hurled it against the wall.

“Easy, J.D.,” Josiah said softly.

“Shut up,” J.D. snapped back.

Josiah watched the anger flood out from the young agent with those last two syllables. He dropped back down onto the edge of the bed like an unstrung marionette. For a second, his young face hardened and closed down—the same way he had seen the others do. Then shame and grief filled in the space and he couldn’t hold the expression.

J.D. hid his head and the face that showed every emotion he was feeling—whether he wanted them read or not. But a single gasp of air and a slight movement of his shoulder betrayed him. He ground his teeth together, as frustration and embarrassment spun into the whirlwind that churned up from his stomach. He thought the effort to be silent might choke him.

Nathan and Josiah looked at each other, reading the grim lines in each other’s faces.

“It’s best to get it out, son,” Josiah said at last. “We’re here if you need us.”

They turned back to their cards, and picked up where the game had left off. The gesture was not lost on J.D., but he could not voice his gratitude over the ache in his throat. He went into the small bathroom, closed the door, and sank down onto the cold tile floor between the toilet and the tub—relieved to have been given the privacy and the time to pull himself back together.

Nathan and Josiah each drew and discarded in silence.

“You alright?” Nathan asked finally, his eyes traveling across the scraped knuckles that held Josiah’s cards and up to the familiar face that seemed to have grown a few more lines recently.

Josiah’s lips twisted into an almost smile. An inverted reflection of the sadness in his eyes. He gave no other answer.

Nathan nodded at the profiler’s raw, scabbed knuckles. “Hope that’s the heavy bag you’ve been punching,” he said, an attempt at humor.

He was grateful to Josiah for replying in kind. “My living room’s been through enough, don’t you think?” the profiler asked with a wry smile.

Nathan let loose a soft chuckle. Surprised at how good it felt. He had nearly forgotten.

He had last seen Josiah’s living room on Tuesday. Sanchez’s ancient Suburban had failed him again and Nathan had given him a ride. The medic had not been surprised to see that the living room was still a shambles. Josiah had not righted the upended furniture. The splintered wooden legs of the coffee table still stuck sideways out toward the overturned TV like jagged outstretched fingers. Between the legs lay the shards of half a ceramic lamp. The rest of the lamp lay like an emptied eggshell on the other side, between the tabletop and the couch. The cushions on the sofa lay strewn about the room, where Josiah had flung them right before lifting the heavy sofa bed over onto its back, like a modern day Samson destroying the temple instead of saving it. Every scrap, every shard, every splinter, and every stick of furniture still lay right where it had fallen that first day back or in the days since. As he waited for Josiah, Nathan had counted two large holes in the plaster wall between the living room and the kitchen. Neither had been there on Saturday. He had said nothing, but Josiah knew he had noticed.

“You?” The voice, the question stole into his consciousness. He realized that Josiah was waiting for his reply. He shrugged. What to say? He had said it all and more to Raine. Talked about what happened. Talked about his feelings. Talked and talked and talked. Only to find out that just when he thought he had gotten a handle on it, could handle it, there it was again. Looming over him. Stealing up on him each morning as he awakened, like it was the first time all over again, reminding him that he couldn’t forget. Talk, talk, talk, he thought angrily. Words don’t change one damn thing. They didn’t tell him how to help his teammates. And they didn’t make the hole inside his chest one bit smaller.

He thought of a hundred truths he could reply to Josiah’s question, but instead said simply, “I’m coping.”

The profiler gazed at him steadily, as if weighing the truth of his friend’s words.

“Better than some, anyway,” Nathan retorted testily at the unspoken question.

The profiler nodded. “Sometimes that’s the best we can do.”

Each man returned his gaze to his cards, but their thoughts had moved elsewhere. A pair of heavy sighs floated into the still air of the rented room, lingering a moment, before leaving the room again in silence.

It was only a few more minutes before a key jiggled in the door lock. Both agents at the table tensed, but recognized the silhouette before the figure entered the room.

His hair was cut neatly but not quite stylishly. He wore a plain black overcoat, simple black pants, and shiny but otherwise undistinguished black shoes. In fact there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the man apart from the deep dimples in his cheeks, as a benign smile rested itself upon his features. But the two agents knew him, and when he stopped in the doorway and looked over at the two agents at the table, they stared in disbelief at the deep brown eyes behind the slightly out-of-style spectacles that perched on the bridge of his nose.

Ezra Standish looked back at them innocently, pretending he didn’t know what they were staring at. The change in his appearance was rather astonishing, if he did say so himself. Particularly the rather pedestrian haircut, and the colored contacts. He looked almost, well, humble. When he first looked in the mirror, he smiled as he thought how much his mother would hate it. But the smile faded as he remembered why he was there.

“Let’s see the rest of it,” Josiah said softly in wonder. Nathan nodded. Speechless.

Ezra obliged. He placed a garment bag on the bed and draped his overcoat beside it, revealing his pressed black shirt and the white collar that marked him a priest.

Josiah got up and walked slowly around him, inspecting every inch of Ezra’s appearance. And Ezra endured the scrutiny. Finally, Josiah stood before him and nodded his head. “Perfect,” he said.

Ezra snorted petulantly. “It had better be. According to your acquaintance, he is the only competent professional in the business in at least five states, and all religious denominations combined. Until now, I was unaware that purveyors of religious vestments could be so terribly competitive.”

Josiah smiled. He had sent Ezra to the best. The man could try the patience of Job and all the saints when it came to listening to him criticize and condemn all others in the business, but he certainly knew his business. Ezra looked every inch a priest.

He had Ezra open and try on each of the robes and vestments he had purchased.

At last he nodded his approval. “We’ve got the outside right. Now let’s have some lessons.”

Ezra eyed the big profiler and didn’t care for the gleam that appeared in his eye. “I am a professional,” he said petulantly. “I will do my job to my utmost. But don’t think for a moment that you have the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of converting me to Catholicism.”

Nathan’s bark of laughter startled Ezra. “Ezra,” he said. “I’m just hopin’ that church don’t burst into flame when you set foot in it.”

Ezra threw him a sour look.

He looked around the room. “Before we begin our condensed divinity school, I feel that I should ask what our Mr. Tanner is doing up on the roof.”

“Getting air,” answered Josiah.

“Oh,” Ezra replied. “And where is our overprotective Mr. Wilmington? I should have thought he’d be wearing a groove in the floor awaiting my reappearance.”

“He was,” Nathan said and halted. The medic and profiler looked at each other.

“Then he needed some air,” Josiah said simply.

“And Mr. Dunne?” Ezra said impatiently. “Also getting some air?”

At hearing his name and Ezra’s voice, J.D. emerged from the bathroom. His face carefully betrayed no expression, but Ezra could read the evidence. He threw Josiah and Nathan a questioning look. They both shook their heads.

Ezra sat down abruptly on the end of the bed. “Well that’s wonderful,” he snapped. “I spend four excruciatingly irritating hours meticulously preparing for my part of this hair-brained, psychotic mission, and my backup can’t even manage to remain in the same room together.” He stuck out his hand. “J.D., your cell phone, please?” he said, holding out his hand.

Surprised, J.D. handed it over. The former undercover agent sent out two terse text messages. “Gentlemen, put on your game faces. We have work to do. EPS”

They did not have to wait long. Buck and Vin came in the door almost at the same time. “’Bout damn time,” Buck growled, as he shoved his way across the threshold. J.D. retreated a few steps, hoping no one would notice the redness of his eyes.

Vin and Buck both stopped short when they saw Standish. He stood so they could properly appreciate the view provided by four straight hours of prodding, pinning, and enduring the endless bragging of the store’s proprietor, chief sales consultant and only tailor. Only time would tell if it was worth it.

Buck gave a low whistle. “Hell, Ez, the devil wouldn’t even recognize ya,” Buck grinned slyly.

Vin seemed to find something remarkably humorous in what he saw before him. The gleam in his eyes nearly reached his lips.

The stalked around him like schoolyard bullies, eyeing him from head to toe. Satisfied, apparently, they exchanged a glance of approval then moved away from each other.

Ezra barely managed to keep his exasperation from leaking onto his face. He’d feel a hell of a lot more comfortable about pulling off this job, if the six of them could remember what it was like to act as a team for more than just a few minutes at a time.

Back at the beginning, when he had first met the men he had been told would be his teammates, he had marveled at Agent Larabee’s obvious hubris. He was certain that any attempt to form these disparate personalities into a viable team was destined to fail and fail miserably. Yet eventually, seemingly without effort, almost without their even noticing, they had begun to rely on each other, to anticipate each other’s moves and reactions, until somehow seven became almost as one.

Ezra had actually fought against it. Refused to join. He was not a joiner. But insidiously it had surrounded him. Sucked him in. Until he had begun to care for his friends more than he had cared for his own safety. And he still didn’t know how it had happened.

Recently Ezra had begun to consider, for the first time, just how much skill—and cunning—Agent Larabee must have employed to select and then transform this bunch of temperamental, headstrong, obstinate, uncooperative loners into anything remotely resembling a team—let alone a team that worked as well as theirs had. A wry smile twisted up the corner of Ezra’s mouth. Agent Larabee could be a pig-headed, unyielding, vindictive bastard when he wanted to be. Any one of his agents would willingly attest to that. But maybe some of that was just strategy. The troops united against the overbearing tyrant, Ezra thought. Touché, Mr. Larabee. Now, at last do I begin to understand.

The smile twisted into something else, as the thought came unbidden. And now when we need your leadership most, you are not here.

“You okay, Ezra?” J.D.’s voice said suddenly, softly, reaching out to touch his shoulder.

Ezra flinched away, pulling down his practiced mask of indifference. “Of course, I’m okay,” he snapped. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

J.D. pulled his hand back with gratifying speed. And Ezra almost regretted the hurt look that crossed the young agent’s face. Almost. But he couldn’t afford regret right now.

He didn’t see the look that Josiah and Nathan traded as they turned away.

Buck shook his head at the exchange and let Standish’s comment slide. He regarded all of them and his own part in the fiasco he feared was coming.

They needed to be a team now, or this whole plan would go to hell—or worse. Not for the first time he wondered how the hell Chris did it, day after day after goddamn day. But he had. And he hadn’t had time to pass on the gift. Hell, Buck wasn’t even sure it was the kind of thing that could be taught. But it was too late to waste time on speculation. Ezra’s message had been right. They had work to do. And they’d best start focusing on that and remembering how to do what they did best. Without further delay, he began reviewing assignments and issuing orders. The others obeyed, glad to have new focus and outlet for their energies.

Josiah and Ezra took a pair of Bibles, a notepad and some pens to the other room they were renting to begin Josiah Sanchez’s Short Course on Everything You Need to Know to Become a Convincing Catholic Priest in 48 Hours or Less, with special emphasis on Confession and Absolution Without Raising Suspicion.

J.D. checked, tweaked, rechecked, and perfected an end run around an exact duplicate of the security system they were about to circumvent. “Borrowed” from the company that created it. Buck ran a check on the communications equipment. They would have to keep in close, but discreet contact with each other to make this work. Vin inspected the small arsenal they had brought with them, apportioning ammunition and weaponry according to the assigned positions.

Nathan rechecked his medical supplies, considering his potential needs as he ran several different conflicting scenarios in his head, from best to worst. Although he knew no kit would ever be as complete as he wanted it to be, there were a few items he wished he had. Of course they were totally unofficial and totally unauthorized. Then again, so was this entire mission. He considered what connections he could or should pull to get those supplies. Would the risk be worth it? What about the risk of not having them?

Buck ordered them all to make it an early night. They would get started well before dawn. Ezra complained about spending any extra time in the questionable cleanliness of the sheets of this low-rent establishment. But his tone lacked any real fire. Not long afterward, he followed Nathan and Josiah back to the room the three shared. Vin didn’t bother to change clothes. He lay back down on top of the bed, exactly as he had earlier that afternoon. J.D. disappeared into the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face.

Buck sat for a long moment at the end of the other bed, staring off into space, and trying not to wonder whether he was doing the right thing.

In the silence, he heard Chris’s voice, so close it was nearly real. Back at the beginning. “You’re my second in command,” he said. “ It’s not your job anymore to watch my back. It’s your job to take care of the team when I can’t.”

“When you can’t? You goin’ somewhere?”

“Be serious, Buck.”

“What makes you think I’m not serious?”

Chris had laughed. The first time Buck had heard it in a long time. It lasted only a moment.

“I know I can count on you to follow my orders,” Chris said, his eyes serious. “To keep the team together. To lead them. I know you’ll do what’s best for the team, no matter what…”

J.D.’s return from the bathroom broke his thoughts.

He realized the young agent was speaking to him. “What?”

“I said the bathroom’s all yours,” J.D. said, looking at him oddly.

Buck nodded and got up, carrying his shaving kit.

He stared into the mirror under the too-bright lights. He closed his eyes and tried to bring back the voice. But it was gone.

He leaned his head against the mirror and reluctantly returned to his previous train of thought.

Chris was no fool and neither was he. They had seen action. Both in the military and in the DPD. They had each lost friends, and they each knew how important it was to establish a backup chain of command. I can count on you, Chris had said.

Yeah, Buck thought bitterly. Count on me to follow your orders even if it means turning my back on you. Walking away. Leaving you behind to…

He choked. Couldn’t finish the thought. Silence suddenly pressed in on him from all sides. He needed air.

He emerged from the bathroom. “I’m going out for some air,” he managed. J.D. turned in surprise. He glanced at Vin’s empty bed. Buck was not surprised to learn the sharpshooter had left, was out prowling the night, probably back on the roof, finding somewhere not to think.

“Okay,” J.D. finally stammered out, but Buck was already gone. He stood alone in the center of the room. And swore. Said every swear word he could think of. Then softly, finally, he let it out. Because there was no one there to witness his shame.

It was a long time later that J.D. realized he had dozed off. He didn’t have to look to know he was still alone. He could hear it in the silence. He opened his eyes in the dark, and squinted a little as he checked the time on the softly glowing digital clock. Just after midnight.

With a sigh, he swung his legs out of bed and padded toward the door. He shielded his eyes from the strange orange glow of a nearby neon sign. And nearly tripped over two figures sitting on the walkway just outside the door.

They looked up at him.

He looked down at them and a scowl slowly brought down his brows. “Do you have any idea what time it is?” he asked at last.

The two ATF agents looked up at the young agent who was glaring down at both of them, his hands on his hips. Chastising them. Looking for all the world like someone’s father. Or worse yet—someone’s mother. For the first time in days, the two men looked at each other and laughed. Really laughed. Until they were helpless, hiccupping, and lying on their backs on the cold concrete walk.

J.D. stared at them perplexed. A door opened above them and two familiar faces peered down at them from over the rail.

A voice floated out onto the night air. “Really gentlemen, if I must be in bed at this ridiculous hour, I must insist that you keep down the racket.”

The two faces at the railing shared a sour look and a smile.

That was the end of J.D.’s patience.

“Get in here before you wake everybody up,” he snapped at the two men, reaching down and grabbing Buck’s elbow. He hustled them in the door and waved impatiently at Josiah and Nathan to go back in their room.

“Damn it!” J.D. swore, shutting the door behind them, still glaring. “This is NOT keeping a low profile.”

Buck and Vin looked at each other again. Their smiles were softer now. The hysterical giggles were gone. They wiped their eyes and sighed.

“Sorry, kid,” Vin said.

“What the hell were you doing out there?” J.D. demanded.

Vin shrugged.

J.D. turned to glower at Buck, hands still on his hips. Buck was careful not to look at the young agent for fear of lapsing into another laughing fit. The fact that the picture in his mind was overlaid with his own mother’s fuzzy bathrobe and matching slippers was not helping.

“Just talking, J.D.” Buck said, climbing into his side of one of the beds.

“And waiting for you to let us in,” Vin added from the other bed.

The two shared one short, sharp chuckle.

“Forgot our keys,” Buck said.

J.D. stared at both of them in helpless disbelief. He stomped into the bathroom, thoroughly confused and thoroughly irritated, and shut the door behind him.

“Hey Buck?” Vin’s voice, nearly a whisper, broke the silence. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“It wasn’t yours either, Vin,” Buck answered back softly. “We all did what we had to do. Chris too.”

There was a long silence from the other bed before Vin finally answered. Choking out, “Just wish he…” The words broke off.

“I know,” Buck said, staring up at the dark ceiling. “I didn’t want to leave him either.”

But you trusted me, he thought at the plaster above him, fighting the pricking sensation at the corner of his eyes. God damn you. Why did you have to make it be me?

He rolled over suddenly and closed his eyes.

When J.D. returned from the bathroom a mere minute or two later, both men were sound asleep. Or at least pretending to be.