by BMP

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When the earliest tinges of gray began to lighten the pre-dawn sky, they were all awake and nearly ready to begin.

Of all the nasty tasks in a job that could really dig deep down into the crap, this one had to come in pretty near the bottom of the slime pit, Ryan Kelly thought sourly, as he eyed the directory on the wall in front of him. The antiseptic smell of the place violated his nostrils. He felt tired all the way to his toenails. But “Go,” Travis had ordered. And so he went. Overnight, nonstop. And now here he was, as if this wasn’t the sorriest of all the shit details he had done lately.

He turned his feet slowly in the direction he needed to go, pondering the best way to diplomatically introduce himself and insert himself into this mess. That the others would be hostile, he had no doubt. He would just have to deal with that when he came to it.

A small smile quirked one corner of his mouth as he reflected on what Chris Larabee might have done in his place. It wouldn’t have been pretty, but no doubt it would have been effective.

He sighed.

Larabee. He should have been the one to come down here. Except he went and got himself blown all to hell.

Damn you, Kelly thought. You have no idea what a mess you’ve left behind.

He thought of the AWOL Team Seven and wondered if they knew about the upcoming interrogation. Did they plan to be here? If they did, it would be his job to keep them away. What the hell would he say that would make any sense? Could he really blame them for wanting answers?

He swore again, and forced himself to concentrate on finding where he was supposed to be. First things first.

It took a long time to get where he was going. Clearly, they had hidden the man away in the farthest possible corner from anywhere. Doubtless, the impending assassination from his fellow militia members was the reason for that. God knew the ATF, FBI, and local law enforcement didn’t need any more civilian casualties in this fiasco.

He had learned yesterday afternoon that only nine prisoners had been taken from among the militia members. Somewhere just over 80 bad guys dead, mostly young men, from what forensics could identify. The leaders apparently escaped, although no one knew how or to where. If they were ever on the site, that is.

Add to that, 15 members of the law enforcement community dead or seriously injured. Another 15 to 20 with more minor injuries. Plus six civilians from the building next door dead and seven more injured. It would have been worse had it been a regular weekday. It would have been better if the loading bay door had not been propped open and the explosion from the rocket could have been confined to the warehouse where the weapons were stockpiled.

Of the nine prisoners, three died of their injuries. Two more, who had been injured were murdered at the hospital, with no useful witnesses, just a nurse who had been knocked senseless and locked in a bathroom. He hadn’t seen or heard anything. Immediately after that, the survivor, still unconscious and heavily sedated was spirited out of the original hospital. And through several other hospitals since then. To arrive finally, at this mostly empty, basement service corridor of a minor VA hospital that most people never heard of.

Of the others, one escaped, vanished into thin air. The only one who was conscious refused to talk, refused to say anything at all, and apparently regarded himself as having prisoner of war status under the Geneva Convention. And the last one killed himself yesterday afternoon. Ate a cyanide pill that no one knew how he got.

The ATF wanted answers now. They wanted answers, blood, and convictions, not necessarily in that order. Thus the orders came down. They wanted this prisoner conscious, regardless of his comfort or condition. And they were currently in chambers with a judge trying to get her to empower the ATF to make medical decisions on the man’s behalf. Several very good lawyers charging several hundred dollars for each hour of work, were arguing the ATF’s point. No one was arguing the other side. It would only be a matter of hours before a properly legal interrogation could begin.

That’s where Kelly came in. What little information the ATF had been able to glean so far pointed to connections to a few seemingly unrelated arms-dealing cases that the ATF offices in Denver had been working on. They didn’t look so unrelated now. And the directors wanted someone present at the interrogation, someone with knowledge of the cases. Agencies in both regions promised full cooperation—full sharing of information. Although no one would say, you could tell from the gleam in their eyes that they were aiming to tie the dealers together and bring down the militia network at the same time.

So here Kelly had come, straight through the night, token representative from another jurisdiction, to be present at the interrogation of yet another piece of slime who may or may not have the information they wanted. Would he even be willing to give them information? After all the militia had proven its willingness to destroy her own children to keep her secrets. Would they offer him a deal? Entry into a protection program perhaps?

That would go over really well. He grimaced.

What would happen if they woke the bastard up only to find out he was some low-ranking, know-nothing buck private from some cornfield out in Oklahoma? All this protective custody for nothing. And no information to lead them to the top of the militia chain of command.

He made his way up the corridor toward the voices he heard slowly getting louder. He stopped at the end of the corridor to take stock of the situation.

A young doctor with jet black hair and skin the color of toasted cinnamon stood in front of a closed door and looked to be calmly, patiently, and firmly repeating himself. He was small of stature and slender. The four men who stood around him were each at least six inches taller than he was, and much wider at the shoulders. They loomed over him, their body postures clearly bespeaking their intent to intimidate. But the doctor shoved his fists into the pockets of his white coat and stood his ground. Kelly was impressed and strained to hear what was being said.

“You’ll let us in there and you’ll let us in immediately,” the blockiest of the tall men was saying, trying the straight orders approach.

“I told you before,” said the doctor, slowly and calmly but without hesitation, no intimidation evident in his lightly lilting accent. “No one will see the patient until he is stabilized. I will let you know when he can be ‘interviewed’.” There was slight evidence of sarcasm on the word “interviewed.” Kelly’s eyes flicked from the determined doctor to the increasingly frustrated men surrounding him.

“Listen, you little shit,” said one of the men, his lips making an ugly curl under his oft-broken nose.

“That’s Doctor Little Shit to you,” countered the doctor meeting the man’s gaze. “And until you produce someone with power of attorney for the ‘prisoner,’ the medical staff of this hospital will determine what is best for this patient.”

Despite his feelings about what the prisoner represented, Kelly couldn’t help but grin at the little doctor’s sheer brass.

The four men traded glances. The one who had been interrupted started to close the one remaining step between himself and the doctor, but the blond, although neither the tallest nor the largest of the group, suddenly asserted authority and held him back with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“We’ll have that power of attorney, soon, Doc,” said the man. “Then we’ll talk.”

The doctor nodded once. “When you have it, we’ll talk,” said the doctor calmly, still planted in front of the door.

The man nodded his head toward the other end of the corridor, and the other three men backed up. He lowered his voice and spoke to the doctor again and Kelly listened hard. “I apologize for the—er—zealous behavior of my men,” he said.

“Apology accepted, Agent Richter,” said the doctor. Kelly’s ears perked up at the name, but he remained still at the end of the hall.

“We’ll post a new guard,” said the agent.

“They’ll have to be posted outside the door,” the doctor said calmly.

The agent looked at the doctor closely. “You know this man is in protective custody,” he said. “It’s for his own safety.”

The doctor didn’t blink. “So far, your ‘protective custody’ hasn’t been conducive to the patient’s good health,” he said. “At the moment, he seems to need protection from his guards.”

“You have my word it won’t happen again,” said the agent, a threatening edge cracking his cool tone.

The doctor nodded in acknowledgement of the pledge, and then repeated calmly that they would talk once power of attorney had been assigned.

The agent seemed about to say something else, but thought better of it. He turned on his heel and gestured to the other three who were talking quietly together a few feet away. All four walked off together, their dissatisfaction evident in their body language. No guard was left at the door.

Kelly watched the doctor walk to the nearest wall phone, dial up security, and ask for a temporary guard to be posted at the patient’s door. He made up his mind. He would speak to the doctor first. Then he would approach his law enforcement colleagues.

On the other side of town, Father Eli Rafferty was in the sacristy of St. Bernadette’s, reverently, purposefully donning his vestments. He was carefully straightening the purple stole over his white chasuble, when he heard a soft knock at the door. His gaze jerked to the clock on the wall. It was very early. Far too early to begin the regular offices of the day. And he wasn’t expecting anyone. He considered that it might be the sexton. But then again, since St. Bernadette’s was one of the few remaining churches that refused to lock the doors, one never knew who or what one might encounter in the church first thing in the morning. No matter. In his many years of faithful service, Father Eli made it a point never to turn away one of God’s creatures, be they four-footed or two-footed. Who was he to refuse anyone whom God had sent?

“Come in,” he called out, turning to face the door.

A mountain of a man, with salt and pepper hair and an unshaven face sloped almost apologetically in the door. He looked around the sacristy and smiled slightly at the priest.

“How can I help you,” the priest asked.

“I’d like some of your time, Father,” the tall man said simply, closing the sacristy door softly behind him.

Father Eli stared at the man for a moment, trying to comprehend the alarm bell that had begun ringing in the back of his mind.

As if sensing his unease, the stranger put out his hands palm up. “Easy, Father,” he said. “This won’t take up too much of your valuable time.”

With that gesture, the priest caught a glimpse of the gun holstered under the man’s shoulder under his worn jacket.

Father Eli was not a large man, but years of faithfully going where God and the Pope called him and doing the work that was required—whatever the circumstances—made him a hard man to discourage. Or intimidate. He narrowed his eyes. “All are welcome in the house of the Lord, my son,” he said. “But you should know that we don’t keep our poor box money or offerings here at the church.”

A rumbling laugh spilled forth from the man before him. He seemed genuinely amused by that. “Thank you, Father,” he said. Eli wondered what the man was thanking him for. “I really do just want a little of your time.”

Father Eli took a breath. “I would be happy to oblige you, my son, but at this moment, I have a standing appointment to hear confession. Perhaps afterward…”

The man shook his head. “I am afraid you won’t be able to make that appointment.” He sounded genuinely regretful.

Father Eli straightened his spine and looked the big man straight in the eye. “Do you plan on holding me here against my will?”

“I hope not,” the man replied.

Father Eli thought about the gun he had glimpsed under the man’s jacket. He knew he should be frightened. But something in the man’s tone was tickling his curiosity.

“What are your plans, then?” he asked.

The big man’s face cracked into a small smile. “I had hoped to start this on a better foot,” he said. “Name’s Josiah Sanchez. I’m an agent with the Denver ATF.”

Father Eli relaxed a bit. No doubt the man before him was dangerous, armed or not. One look in his eyes revealed that clearly. But the priest was reasonably certain that he was dealing with someone who didn’t mean him harm. He waited patiently to hear more.

“My team and I are currently pursuing a case in this area. Unfortunately, our mission makes it necessary that you forego your duties outside of the building this morning.”

Father Eli sighed. “My son,” he said, a slight strain in his voice. “Although I am more than supportive of law enforcement, especially at this time,” he noticed a wince pass across the big man’s face. He continued undeterred. “Nevertheless, I must be allowed to pursue my sacred obligations toward my parishioners, particularly where the necessary sacraments and the salvation of my brethren are concerned.”

He hoped the clerical terms would confuse the man. The man nodded. He lowered his head for a moment, and the priest anticipated an opening. But when he raised his graying head, the agent looked regretful but no less determined.

“Father,” he began thoughtfully. “Do you really think that one confession more or less will make the difference in the salvation of this man’s soul, when he does not truly repent of his sins?”

A cold chill went up Father Eli’s spine. Anonymity in the confessional was a sacred trust. And the parishioner he saw once a month for confession did not want anyone to know about his arrangement with the priest. The priest was picked up at the church and taken to a small room in a very large house. He administered the sacred sacrament of confession without asking the man’s name or seeing his face. Then he was returned to the church. Several days later, like clockwork, a rather large donation marked for the good works of the church would be added to the offering plates on Sunday. He never knew who put it in the plate. Nor did he try to find out. Occasionally, he wondered whether, knowing what he did about what was being confessed, he should continue to accept these donations. Then again, these donations had contributed largely to the new furnace and the new roof for the church as well as supplies to continue their mission of feeding the hungry, ministering to the imprisoned, and clothing the poor. In this way, he hoped the man’s sin could be turned to good works.

“Agent Sanchez,” Father Eli said firmly, the use of his name meant to get the agent’s attention. “I have a standing appointment. I am expected. Your errand here is futile. If I do not arrive as expected, then someone will come looking for me. And soon.”

Sanchez shook his head. “Regrettably, your driver is right now being informed that you have taken ill and will not be able to hear confession today. A suitable substitute is being offered.”

“Who?” demanded the priest. Most of the churches around had more than one priest, but not St. Bernadette’s. At least not at the present time.

“Oh he’s new,” Sanchez returned. “Entered the profession recently. He has no doubt already explained that you asked him to stand in for you, if that is acceptable to your parishioner. No doubt, the car is on its way away.”

Father Eli stared at the man. “What you are doing is reprehensible.”

Sanchez looked impassively back at him. “From one point of view,” he said. “From a more protestant point of view, one’s sins are between oneself and God. Therefore confession made to anyone but God is a pointless exercise in futility as only God has the power to absolve you of your sins, regardless of what is said by any member of the clergy.”

Father Eli continued to stare at the agent, but a small smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “A theological scholar?” he asked. A gentle jibe.

“A mere student of philosophies and human nature,” the man replied.

Years of experience at reading people told Eli that the man was being modest. He couldn’t help the smile that sneaked onto his face. “So you intend to pass this waiting time debating religious points of view?”

Agent Sanchez smiled. “Well, I had thought that would be interesting. And I do have some questions that I would be interested in having your point of view on.”

Father Eli shook his head in disbelief. He almost laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. An agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had taken him captive in his sacristy, prevented him from carrying out his priestly duties, and was now asking for his opinion on questions of faith. His eyes roved upward toward the ceiling. You do have a mysterious sense of humor, he said but only in his head, knowing the One to whom he was speaking would surely hear his thoughts.

He looked at the agent again. “As long as I suddenly have an open spot in my schedule,” he said dryly. “What would you like to ask?”

The agent’s smile sagged, drooping almost imperceptibly at the corners. “How about an old one, Father?” he said. “Like why God lets bad things happen to good people.”

Father Eli’s smile mirrored the sadness in the man’s own. He sighed. “That is a hard one, my son,” he said. He looked around the sacristy. It was orderly but crammed full of chests for altar linens, stacked with offering plates, and other items used during the service. There was only one chair, and a set of vestments was currently draped over it. He looked back up at the agent. “Perhaps we could sit more comfortably in the church office and discuss this.”

“Certainly, Father,” the agent said and moved away from the door.

Father Eli smiled as he led the way to the church office. Who am I to refuse whom God has sent me? he thought.

At the gates of a house he could barely glimpse from the driveway, the newly-ordained priest was handing his identification up to the driver of the car, so it could be scrutinized by the gatehouse guard. The guard eyed the young priest in the back seat of the car and flicked his gaze back to the card.

“Just a moment,” the guard said, sliding his window closed and picking up a phone. The driver and passenger both waited. The window slid open again. “What did you say happened to Father Rafferty?”

The driver jiggled his foot impatiently and looked exasperatedly at the young priest before replying. “I told you. Father DeCristofaro said he was ill.”

“Father Angelo, please,” said the priest, laying his hand on the driver’s arm. He leaned over so he could look up through his glasses at the gatehouse guard. “If this is a problem, we can simply go back,” he said congenially. “I know how difficult it can be when one is used to a particular confessor.”

The driver shrugged up at the guard. “I didn’t think it would be such a problem. I mean a priest’s a priest, right?”

The guard rolled his eyes at the driver then slid the window shut again to continue his conversation. After a few more moments, he hung up the phone and the window slid open again. “Begging your pardon, Father Angelo,” he said. “Thank you for waiting. The driver will take you up to the house now.”

“Thank you. And it’s no trouble at all,” said the young priest with a warm smile. The driver rolled up his window, gave the gate guard a long-suffering look, and proceeded up the long drive toward the house.

In a telephone company van two blocks away, which Ezra had somehow procured, J.D. Dunne breathed out a sigh of relief. “Ezra’s in,” he whispered into his headset.

“Good,” came back the whispered reply. “Begin stage two.”

J.D. cracked his knuckles and bent over the keyboard and computer equipment he had borrowed from some acquaintances in the security business. He had not told them what he wanted them for. They had not asked. They believed it would be some top secret ATF police work. He did not bother to explain. It was a lot easier to get things done when you dispensed with probable cause, warrants, reasonable search and seizure, and all sorts of other ethical procedures. The thought made him shiver. He thought instead about the arms dealer who sold a rocket launcher to a militia outfit that used it to slaughter six innocent people, 80 of their own militiamen, and 15 law enforcement officers—including Chris Larabee.

Laying along a tree limb a quarter mile from the house itself and just beyond the boundary wall, Vin Tanner allowed himself one tiny smile for his friend who had just breached the compound’s walls. Ezra had chosen a new alias for this mission. Not one of the names he often used when he went undercover for the team. Vin didn’t know why, but Ezra had gone out of his way to tell Vin what his chosen first name meant, although judging from Josiah’s smile, Tanner suspected the profiler already knew the meaning of the name. He thought about it now as he waited for J.D.’s signal. Ezra had styled himself Father Angelo DeCristofaro. Angelo, from the word angel, meaning messenger, Ezra had said. A tribute. Ezra had called himself the Messenger from Christopher.

With a pair of tiny but powerful binoculars, Vin watched Ezra go inside with a pair of hulking men that could only be bodyguards.

“Ezra’s inside the house,” he whispered into his own headset.

“Copy,” came back the whispered reply. “How many guards you get?”

“So far four: gatehouse, driver, two inside with Ez,” he replied.

“You set?” the voice asked.

“Just waitin’ for the word,” he responded. His left hand clutched a long canvas bag against the limb beside him. It was camouflaged just like the clothes he wore. Two joggers had passed directly beneath him less than an hour before. They did not notice him. He was completely invisible from below. He willed himself to lie still.

“Okay, here we go,” came J.D.’s voice over the head set. “Vin, I can’t take the motion sensors down all at once or the alarm company will know something has been tripped, but I can create a distraction if you need one.”

“Copy,” said Vin, preparing himself.

“Buck,” the young agent continued, his voice admirably steady, “I’ve got the security cameras on my command now. I’ll feed them an overlapping loop in the sequence I gave you before. Stay in sequence. Otherwise, it will be hard for me to knock out the right cameras without attracting their attention.”

“You’re the genius,” Buck said flippantly. A smile crept onto J.D.’s face. For a second it was like old times and he forgot that what they were doing was totally unauthorized and totally illegal. No turning back now, he told himself, putting the thought right out of his mind.

“Dogwalker, heads up,” came Nathan’s whisper from a park a half mile away. From the top of the monument where he was crouching, he could peer through a high-powered telescope right into the backdoor of the house. A damn poor set up if you asked him, but unless the man had personally climbed the county Veteran’s Memorial himself to look through a high-powered telescope aimed at his own backdoor, he probably wasn’t aware of the breach in his security.

He nearly held his breath as the back door slid open and a young man came out with two leashes wrapped around his arm. At the end of the leashes were the two most enormous, fattest basset hounds Nathan had ever seen.

“Outside motion detectors deactivated,” said J.D. His bet and their informant had been right. The dogwalker was too lazy to deactivate a particular set of quadrants in the yard, so he just shut the system down for the ten or so minutes he might be outside. They were basset hounds. They hated exercise. And what could happen in ten minutes, anyway?

The answer to that question had let himself swiftly down out of a nearby tree, and had scaled the outside wall easily. The voice in his ear told him he had approximately eight minutes to get into position. Piece of cake, he thought, crouching low and moving across the manicured lawn, taking a zig-zag course in the cover of occasional landscaping until he shinned up a statuesque willow tree, which offered him a window view on at least three rooms. Trouble was, they had no way of knowing which room their target would be in. Getting him in the right window would be Buck’s problem.

From the opposite side of the house, another camouflaged figure had come up over the back wall, skirted the open space of the terrace and was now crouched below the rear windows of the garage, hidden by the garbage cans and recycling bins.

Both men radioed that they were in position.

Nathan heard it through his headphones. He stashed the telescope in a corner of the statuary and was down from the monument in mere seconds. He sprinted through the park, in sweats and a t-shirt, looking like an ordinary runner out on a beautiful morning. At the east end, he veered suddenly from the path and headed for a drainage culvert, a shortcut to the house in fair, dry weather like this. He just hoped no one started shooting before he picked up his medical kit from the van.

J.D. held his breath. This would be the tricky part. The windows and doors were all alarmed. He had to disarm two entry points. One for Buck and one on the same circuit for a decoy in case anyone noticed. Best to do it without attracting the attention of the company monitoring the alarms at all.

$100 million dollars worth of arms stashed away in warehouses in the western states couldn’t keep Bautiste from worrying about being attacked in his home. How right he is, J.D. thought grimly, his fingers carefully sending through a command sequence his acquaintances had given him.

He had tested the commands on a mockup program he had downloaded from the security company under guise of wanting a demo to consider for his home. It had worked then, but a demo was one thing. The real deal, the security system on the home and headquarters of a major paranoid arms dealer was something else entirely. One couldn’t account for customizing. He held his breath, and watched his screen for the tell tale blip.

“Buck, side garage entry,” he ordered.

“Copy,” Buck said. There was a tense silence before his whisper came back on. “I’m in. All clear.”

J.D. exhaled and nearly jumped out of his skin as the van door opened.

“It’s just me,” Nathan said coming inside and closing the door behind him. He skinned out of his running clothes and into a utility company uniform.

“That was quick,” J.D. said.

Nathan did not reply. His mouth formed a tight line as he rechecked his medical kit disguised in a canvas tool bag and then checked his weapons. He went out again and jogged down to a power company van waiting another two blocks away. Then he put on his hard hat and heavy insulated rubber gloves and climbed the pole beside the van. He waited with the wire cutters for the signal from J.D. Either everything would go as planned and he would cut the power and arrive at the house to check out the situation, thus providing extra backup for Buck and Vin. Or, more than likely, everything would go to hell, and he would cut the power to shut off the alarms, throw everyone in confusion, and give Buck and Vin and Ezra time to escape. He breathed out, wishing Josiah were here instead of on the other side of town keeping the real priest occupied. But someone had to keep the only other person who now knew something was up from blowing the whistle on all of them.

Keeping a priest from blowing the whistle on us, he repeated to himself and rubbed his forehead, remembering when they used to be the good guys. Sometime in the last two weeks, they had crossed a line. All of them. Together. He wondered what Chris would have said if he were here. Would he be proud of them? Or would he be kicking their collective asses all the way back to Denver? He was not sure. And he didn’t want to think about it all that hard right now.

Inside the house, Ezra played his part with serene priestly perfection.

“Begging your pardon, father,” said one of the two hulking men who met him at the door. “Would you mind raising your hands? We need to check for weapons.”

“What?” the priest asked, confused, swallowing the outrage that flickered onto his face.

“It’s a precaution. Mr. Bautiste don’t know you,” said the man with an uncomfortable twitch of his head.

Father Angelo looked at the man, aghast, then raised his hands slowly and awkwardly. The second bodyguard gave an exasperated snort and began patting him down, while the first one, the polite one, waited patiently a few steps away. “Pretend it’s an airport security check, Father. Nothing personal.”

The second bodyguard’s face remained cold and hard, betraying nothing, as he ran his hands down the inside of Ezra’s pantlegs. A red flush made of equal parts embarrassment and indignation crept up the priest’s neck.

The second bodyguard was very efficient and thorough. Ezra was thankful that his team had finally seen the reasons why he could not wear a weapon or a wire. Unfortunately, that meant he also could not know if and when they were in their positions or help them out. All he could do was hope that they would appear at the magic time in the magic place. As they always did. He pushed all questions aside and threw himself into the performance of his career. A career he had just abandoned.

He was shown to a small, dark room, and ushered into a comfortable chair. He looked around at the small room. Besides the overstuffed chair, there was a writing desk and a tall narrow bookcase filled with books. He waited.

“Can I get you anything to drink while you wait, Father?” asked the polite one. The man’s deference would have made him laugh if he weren’t playing a role.

“No, thank you,” he said with just a twinge of gratitude in his voice.

“You new at this?” said the other, the one who had patted him down, without preamble or courtesy. Ezra made a note to watch out for him. He looked like a musclehead, but was clearly a lot shrewder than he looked.

“I came to the priesthood later in life,” Father Angelo replied.

“You don’t look too Eye-talian,” the man baited him with a sneer.

Ezra laughed companionably and pushed his glasses up with a finger. “I hear that a lot,” he said. “My mother was Irish. Looks like her genes won out,” he said.

“Was Irish?” The first bodyguard said curiously.

“She passed on a few years ago,” Father Angelo said, his face clouding over. “It was losing her that brought me to consider the priesthood.”

The first guard nodded seriously. “Losing someone does sometimes give you a whole new perspective.”

The second guard snorted and rolled his eyes. “Cut the sentimental crap,” he said. He turned back to the priest and pointed toward the door. “After we leave, he’ll come and knock on the door three times. Don’t open it. He’ll just sit on the other side and do his confession thing through the wood. Got it?”

“Got it,” Father Angelo said with a smile. He shifted in his chair, held his missal and Bible in his hands and bowed his head in prayer, totally ignoring both men as they left. By the time the knock came on the wooden door, Ezra had activated the tiny recording device in the hollowed out spot in his Bible. One never knew what one might hear in a confession—especially from a cold, ruthless man like Samuel Bautiste. It would be completely inadmissible as evidence, of course, but nobody was fooling themselves into thinking this had anything at all to do with courtroom procedures and proper convictions. This was insurance, in case they needed something to keep Bautiste from coming after them after it was all over. All he had to do now was hear the confession, offer absolution and then look completely terrified and innocent when armed men suddenly appear and try to force information out of Bautiste. He turned his thoughts from his teammates and answered the rap at the door.

“Excuse me, Doctor Kahar?”

The doctor turned from the nurse’s station desk, impatient, beginning to be annoyed. The fact that he saw yet another federal agent standing before him did nothing to relax him.

“Yes, Agent…” he waited.

“Kelly. Ryan Kelly, with the Denver ATF,” the man answered. The doctor looked him over once from head to toe. Kelly cleared his throat. “Um if you’re busy, I can wait a few more minutes.”

“Busy, no,” said the doctor, his eyes narrowing. “Why would I be busy? This is a hospital.” Denver ATF. They were just crawling out of the woodwork now. He supposed this one wanted directions to the interview that was about to be conducted down in the basement. Directions and popcorn, maybe, to go with his front row seat.

The agent looked gratifyingly taken aback. He was obviously looking for the words to say what he had to say. “Actually I was hoping to speak to you for a few moments about one of your patients.”

The doctor sighed. “I can’t release information to you if you are not family.” The words were robotic. Unless the court has signed over power of attorney, that is. He thought for a moment. Technically, the power of attorney had been given to the ATF, not a particular person, a fact that made him madder than hell, since those barbarians who had headed downstairs only minutes before, were each now technically empowered to make medical decisions if the patient were unable. Unfortunately, he would not be allowed to be present. A military doctor with a security clearance had taken his place. Of course, he had not bothered to tell the rest of the agents that it was in the patient’s defense that he had had the chest tubes removed last night and had the man brought to consciousness this morning, in the wee hours. Hopefully he would be awake enough to be lucid. At least then, the patient would have a chance to make his own decisions.

Of course, that also meant he had removed the wrist restraints. He wished he had done it before this morning’s impromptu visit from Agent Richter and company. Nevertheless the thought worried him a bit. But he reminded himself that the patient would be far too weak and groggy to unhook himself from all the tubes and wires, let alone get the bed rail down and make it all five steps to the door of the tiny room.

“Agent Kelly,” Doctor Kahar said slowly and calmly. “Your colleagues have already taken the elevator down to ‘interview’ the patient. If you like I can give you directions.”

“That won’t be necessary,” the agent before him replied. “I wanted some information on the patient’s condition before I head down.”

Doctor Kahar inclined his head at the agent and regarded him with narrowed eyes. “Why?” he asked.

“I have to report back to my superiors, and I want to know whether I can expect anything he says to be said with full mental capacity,” the agent replied. Then he smiled ruefully. “Besides, I heard you rip into some of the local agents earlier this morning and you got my attention.”

The doctor smiled. “A well-deserved ripping,” he said. He completed his orders to the nurse at the desk then indicated with a nod that Agent Kelly should follow him.

“The patient,” he said, “has been putting up a good fight.” He wasn’t sure how much medical terminology an ATF agent might know, so, as he always tried to do, he made his explanations as simple as possible, but that didn’t mean he had to spare the agent’s feelings.

“He arrived with two bullets wounds,” Kahar said. “One bullet passed through the abdomen on the left side, causing relatively minor tissue damage but sizable blood loss. The other bullet chipped the upper arm bone and remained lodged in his left arm. He also sustained a punctured lung and contusions to the diaphragm, neither of which were inflicted by the bullets.”

He was gratified to see the agent look at him in shock. “What are you saying?”

“I am saying that I have been a doctor a long time, and I recognize the imprints of a boot heel in human flesh when I see them. Someone beat the patient up good before sending him to the hospital.”

The taller agent’s face took on a grim cast. “Go on,” he said to the doctor.

“He’s been intubated since they brought him in and heavily sedated in order to give the lung and diaphragm injuries time to heal. The length of time between when he was shot and when he received medical care allowed infection to set in. Moving him around from hospital to hospital has interfered with his care. Several of the entry sites for needles and tubes have also become infected, which has become a cause for concern, and according to his chart, at least one medication that was given him somewhere along the way caused a bad reaction. Nevertheless, he was awake for a short time this morning after we removed the chest tubes. He was confused but lucid. He asked what happened to his men. When we could give no reply, he refused to answer more questions or give his name.”

His men, Kelly mused to himself. Must be on some level of the chain of command. Not necessarily the jackpot but still better than a buck private from the cornfields.

“What did you throw those other agents out for?” Kelly asked the doctor.

The doctor’s face darkened angrily. “They were attempting to awaken the patient,” he paused. “And throwing peanuts.”

Kelly pursed his lips and tried not to laugh. He was appalled, he really was, but the last part sounded like something Buck Wilmington would do. But only to his friends—and only when they were conscious enough to be irritated by it.

The doctor was glaring at him now. “Agent Kelly…,” he said, his voice taking on a low edge.

“I’m sorry, Doc,” Kelly said, holding up his palms. “I can see your point. You did right. It’s just that the last part sounded like someone I know.”

The doctor regarded him strangely. “You know someone who would attempt to prod a man’s injuries in order to rouse him to consciousness?”

“No,” Kelly said slowly. “I know someone who would throw food at a patient. But only someone he actually liked,” he added hurriedly.

“You have strange acquaintances,” said the doctor.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Kelly replied.

They stopped at the elevator bank.

Kelly shook his hand. “You’ve been most helpful.”

The doctor nodded and watched the elevator numbers fall as the car came down toward them.

“You should probably hurry. They have probably begun by now,” the doctor said, shifting his weight from foot to foot as if trying to make a decision.

When the elevator doors opened, he made up his mind and got inside with Kelly. He looked up at the agent. “I don’t seem to have a high enough clearance to be permitted at the interrogation,” he said, his disdain evident in his voice. “But perhaps I’ll attempt to look in on my patient anyway.”

Kelly grinned. There was no way the brass was going to let the doctor in, but he liked this guy. He was scrappy. And smart.

Rounding the corner together, they could see two agents standing shoulder to shoulder, filling the doorway. And they could hear two voices. One was the voice of the military doctor, who was protesting from outside the door. The other was a cold, furious voice inside the room.

Kelly and Kahar broke into a run.

“Your men are dead, you son of a bitch,” said the voice. “Just like you’re gonna be if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”

They could not hear the reply, but apparently it was unsatisfactory.

Agent Kelly and Doctor Kahar reached the door craning or ducking their heads in time to see the agent doing the interrogating press his palm down hard on the livid bruise where the patient’s ribs had been stove in through a lung a few weeks ago. The patient doubled up in pain. Everyone froze, Kahar’s face registering his surprise that the patient could move even that well. An instant later, the man swung one hospital-stockinged foot up off the bed and drove his heel into his attacker’s face. The blow was weak, but it surprised the agent by the bed enough that he stumbled back several steps toward the door. The two agents in the doorway backpedaled out into the corridor. The patient, furious and groggy attempted to heave himself out of the bed, but was impeded by the side rail and the tubes, poles, and wires surrounding him. He crashed to the floor in a heap, pulling the heavy IV pole and the bed down on top of himself. He remained motionless on the floor, yanked wires splayed around him.

Doctor Kahar and the military doctor threw themselves between and through the large agents blocking their way. Kelly grabbed a hold of the agent who was clutching his nose, fury in his eyes as he recovered his balance and moved toward the patient again.

He kept a hand on the man’s arm until he recovered his composure. He was not hurt by the blow, but it had been hard enough to make his eyes water. The agent turned angry eyes on Kelly. “Those bastards killed my best friend,” he grated out.

Kelly nodded sympathetically. “Those bastards killed a lot of good men,” he said, slowly releasing the man’s arm.

While Kahar collected the patient back into bed and called for nurses, the other doctor advanced furiously toward the door. Kelly glanced around looking for the doctor’s intended target. Guessing it would be the senior agent in charge. The one who should have put a stop to this. He found him. Richter. Leaning in the doorway, his eyes fixed on his agent who was wiping the water from his eyes. The glance he threw the agent told Kelly everything he wanted to know. The man had been given one chance to inflict his revenge. It was over now.

Kelly shivered inside. Richter’s men were loose cannons. On the edge. And Richter liked them that way, liked being the one who held their leashes. In a way, he reminded Kelly of Chris Larabee, albeit a darker Chris Larabee, one with far less regard for right and wrong than the man Kelly had known.

He shivered again, thinking how easy it would have been for Team Seven to go the same path. He was certain that they wouldn’t. And yet they had been AWOL now for nearly 48 hours. They had taken no weapons from their equipment locker. But that didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. Or armed to the teeth for that matter.

Kelly noted the arrival of two nurses, slipping around and between the agents crowding the cold basement corridor. He stood aside. They must have been waiting nearby to have arrived so quickly.

The military doctor was in Richter’s face, and Kelly couldn’t hear what he was saying. But he could hear Richter’s reply. “This man is complicit in the deaths of more than a hundred people. It’s my job to keep his bosses from killing a hundred more. I don’t give a damn about his comfort or his pain.”

Kelly sighed. The lowest job in the bottom of the slime pit. Damn you, Chris. If you could have been ten minutes faster, I wouldn’t have to be here with these idiots now. Or worrying about what YOUR team is out there doing.

The remaining ATF agents had ringed their boss and were waiting, while the doctor reamed him out, apparently to little effect. Doctor Kahar was examining the patient, assisted by the nurses. Kelly decided the military doctor could hold his own, and moved closer to the bed. He felt the blood drain from his face at what he saw.

It took him nearly a full minute to force himself to think what to do. He stared from the patient to Richter and his agents and back to the patient. He took an involuntary step toward the bed. Then he forced his feet to turn toward the door and walk the few steps into the hall.

Richter and the doctor still stood nearly nose to nose. Still arguing. Veins standing out on both of their necks.

Kelly cleared his throat. “Agent Richter,” he said. His voice seemed to have a strange, tinny quality to it.

Richter’s head snapped up in mid-threat. He glared at the man coming toward him. “Who the hell are you?” he snapped.

“Ryan Kelly, Senior Agent, Team Eight, Denver ATF.”

A sour look passed across Richter’s face. “Denver,” he said, icily. “They told us you were coming.”

Clearly, Kelly had been right about his warm reception. “Good,” he snapped back, clenching his jaw reflexively.

Richter continued to glare at him. “Something you wanted to say?” he sneered, ignoring the doctor before him, who turned to look at Kelly, too.

“You know how the patient sustained the broken ribs?” Kelly asked, forcing his jaw open, striving to sound calm and collected.

“It’s in the report,” Richter snapped, eyes narrowing. Denver, he thought angrily. Sends us Mr. High and Mighty.

“I haven’t had time to read the report,” Kelly said calmly. “Perhaps you could just tell me.”

Richter shouldered the doctor out of his way and bent slightly to glare into Kelly’s face. “I could, Agent Kelly,” he said sarcastically. “But if the pretty boys in Denver didn’t have time to clue you in, then I don’t see why I should.”

“The pretty boys?” Kelly asked.

“Lose one damn agent. You go hysterical. We lost a whole team. And then some.” His eyes narrowed dangerously. “Nobody here asked for your help.”

“Correction, Agent Richter,” Kelly said returning the acid tone in kind. “Your brass asked for our help. Whether you like it or not. Now how did the patient in there get those broken ribs?”

“Read the report,” he said at last, his voice dripping contempt. “I’m sure one of your secretaries can find it and send it to you.” Denver could find things out the same way everyone else did. Work for it.

Hospital security had arrived. They were moving the ATF agents away from the door. Away from the patient. Any official interview was over—at least for the moment.

Kelly moved obligingly out into the corridor and pulled out his cell phone. Security immediately intercepted him—showing him a spot up the corridor a ways where he could safely use the device without it interfering with any equipment in the room.

“AD Travis, please... It’s Ryan Kelly.” He waited for Travis’s office to pick up and exhaled a long breath. Then he clenched his jaw to keep a sudden hysterical laugh from escaping between his teeth.