by BMP

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A steady stream of sins had been coming at Ezra through the wooden door. Some of them were minor and some shocking enough to give even a jaded old priest pause. He had some trouble not yawning during the confessions about not sticking to a strict diet and exercise regimen and about arguing with a brother who lived in Palm Beach. And he managed not to sound either impressed or shocked or, heaven forbid, satisfied as he got some of the better ones on tape. Oh yes, there was insurance material here. Ezra smiled grimly at his tape recorder, even as he said solemnly to the door. “Go on, my son.”

Bautiste continued in a quiet steady voice. Then it stopped suddenly, mid-sentence. Ezra snapped his Bible shut. “Are you all right?” he called through the door.

“Who’s in there?” a gruff, cold voice demanded.

If Ezra hadn’t recognized the tone, he might really have been afraid.

“No one,” Bautiste answered hurriedly. His voice was strained.

“No one, huh?” the voice said, softly, coldly. “We’ll just see about that.”

“No!” Bautiste nearly shouted, then lowered his voice. Ezra could hear the quaver in it right through the door. “It’s a priest,” he said hurriedly. “Just a priest.”

There was silence for a second. “Well, well, well,” said the soft voice in icy bemusement. Then louder it called. “Come one out then, priest. Slowly, and with your hands in the air.”

“For God’s sake…” Bautiste’s voice grated. There was a thump and the rest of what he said vanished in a garble.

“For God’s sake...,” repeated the voice with cold amusement. “That was a good one.” The voice raised a notch in volume as it repeated its orders. “I said come out with your hands up, or I’ll send you to your maker right through the door.”

Good Lord, Buck. We said tough, not thug-like, Ezra thought icily. But, hey, Buck had his part to play, too.

Hands in the air, face white and glistening with sweat, the priest emerged slowly from behind the door. His eyes were wide with terror as he beheld the black-clad man with the black mask over his head and flicked his eyes to the large automatic weapon he held in his hand. He stood over Bautiste, who lay prone on the floor, hands already bound behind his back, his fat neck resting uncomfortably under the arch of his attacker’s boot.

“On the floor,” the man ordered, pointing toward the floor with his gun.

“You’ll never get out of here alive,” Bautiste muttered, one fat cheek pressed hard against the beautiful pine floorboards.

“Wanna bet?” the gunman asked. “On the floor!” he roared at the priest.

The priest got down to his knees, actually shaking with fear and slid forward onto his belly, arms covering his head.

Damn, Ez, Buck thought admiringly as he watched the performance and remembered why Chris had always said that Ezra was the best undercover man in the business.

“Keep your head down, Priest,” the gunman said gleefully. “And you’ll get to keep it on your shoulders.”

It wasn’t easy, but the priest managed to nod his head against the floor without looking up from under the shelter of his arms.

“As for you,” the gunman said to Bautiste, his voice dripping self-satisfaction. “Your bodyguards aren’t coming up. And no one else has any idea that anything is wrong. If you want to get out of this alive, you’ll keep it quiet, and you’ll answer my questions.”

Bautiste made to protest, but his assailant cut him off. “You make it tough on me then I’ll shoot both of you. Now get up.”

“I’m sorry, Father,” Bautiste whispered.

“Get up,” the gunman snapped again, reaching down and yanking Bautiste’s wrists painfully up behind him, pulling him up onto his knees. He half-dragged the older man to kneel sideways in front of a window.

Under his folded arms, Ezra sneaked his first in-person look at the notorious arms dealer. He was less impressive than he had been in his prime. Fatter, doughier, slower, tired. They were counting on that.

The lights in the room suddenly went out.

Bautiste flinched forward.

“That should occupy the rest of your staff,” the gunman whispered in Bautiste’s ear. He turned Bautiste’s head to the left, to force him to look out the window.
“See that sparkle of light in the willow tree?” he asked.

Bautiste looked at the willow a mere eighty feet from the window and nodded.

“Know what that is?”

Bautiste nodded again. He knew a rifle scope when he saw one. How could he not know? He had dealt in hundreds of high-powered weapons and scopes. In the old days he had done it personally. It had been several years since he had done more than set up new markets. He let his lieutenants take care of the dirty and dangerous parts.

The gunman was satisfied with his answer. “Good,” he purred icily. “So you know that my buddy out there will put a bullet right through your brain if you make too much noise, don’t answer my questions correctly, or otherwise piss me off.”

He spoke into a tiny hands-free microphone that protruded through the mouth of his mask. “Wave to Mr. Bautiste, Johnny,” he said.

A camouflaged arm raised itself from behind the sun-caught sparkle of the scope. It gave a short wave and then vanished back into the foliage.

Bautiste scowled.

“You been reading the newspaper, Mr. Bautiste?” the gunman asked. He moved around to stand in front of Bautiste, careful never to block the window Bautiste noticed.

Bautiste glared at the gunman but did not answer.

“Of course you have,” the gunman said with a good cheer that sent a chill up Bautiste’s spine. “I want to know where the militia got their hands on a rocket launcher.”

Bautiste looked at him, his face pale. “How should I know?” he snapped.

The rifle butt caught him swiftly in the chin.

“I know you don’t get your hands dirty anymore,” replied the gunman contemptuously. “But I ain’t stupid. I know that not much goes on in the business that you don’t know about.”

Bautiste regarded the man coldly, licking his lip, where he had bit it at the blow to his chin. It was true. There was much more money to be made brokering information.

“What’s in it for me?” Bautiste snapped.

The gunman chortled, and evil sound. “Life, Mr. Bautiste.”

Bautiste glared at him stonily. “Go to hell.”

“That’s the way you want it,” agreed the gunman. “I’ll just send the priest on ahead. To warn the devil we’re coming.”

He pointed his weapon at the priest.

Bautiste had crossed a lot of legal and ethical lines in building his career and reputation. But the sanctity of the church was one rule he never violated, one lesson from his mother that he had never forgotten. And he wasn’t about to abandon it now.

“The priest has no part of this,” he said.

“Too bad for him that he picked a bad day,” the gunman replied.

“If I tell you what you want to know, will you let the father go?”

Hidden in the shelter of his own arms, Ezra rolled his eyes and thought over the confessions he had just listened to. Sure. Now the man grows a conscience.

The gunman appeared to be thinking about Bautiste’s offer. After a moment of mulling it over, he agreed.

Then the door to the room opened and another tall, black-clad, mask-wearing gunman entered.

“Bout damn time,” snarled the first gunman.

“Called in the blackout to the alarm company,” said the new arrival. “We’re clear.”

Bautiste swore inwardly. Now not even the alarm company would be alerted to a breach in security. He swore again. What the hell do I pay the staff and bodyguards for? Useless. Utterly useless.

“Who’s that,” the new man asked, indicating the priest lying on his face on the floor.

“Damn unlucky priest,” the first gunman said with an evil laugh. He turned his full attention back to Bautiste. “You got something to say about that rocket launcher,” the first gunman asked, as the new arrival trained his gun on the priest.

Bautiste thought about whether he should give them the satisfaction. Then again, he DID know who had sold the rocket launcher. Several rocket launchers, in fact. He considered the situation.

First, he didn’t know who these men were. That didn’t disturb him. They could be a new group of buyers who wanted rocket launchers. They could be assassins or mercenaries. They could be representatives from some hostile government hoping to get their hands on serious arms. He didn’t really care. New players entered the game all the time. What impressed him was that these guys were smart enough to realize that a few well-prepared men could often accomplish what a whole army of thugs could not.

Second, he considered the “colleague” who dealt in the rocket launchers. He was an arrogant bastard who deserved to be brought down a peg or two. Bautiste had no intention of sacrificing himself to save that idiot. In fact, he would actually enjoy seeing the man’s business get mucked up by a rival gang—that is, if his suspicions weren’t completely off.

Third, if worst came to worst, and he sold out his “associate,” and had to flee to South America, he could, quite easily live on his money—in opulent comfort—for the next fifty or sixty years.

Live, he mused. For the better part of two years he had been trying to wipe the slate clean, so that when his failing liver finally dragged him into the sweet hereafter, he could go confidently. And his mother wouldn’t smack him around too much when he did meet her again in the Promised Land. And he was pretty sure he needed several more months of penance before God Almighty might consider the scales balanced. To that end, he realized that, after today, he’d have to invest in much better security systems and bodyguards.

All things considered, it wasn’t that hard a decision to make—once one got over the indignity of being captured in one’s own home and forced to give up information. Really, it was just the principle of the thing that stuck in his craw. But Bautiste was a practical man. His ego wasn’t worth dying over.

“Dowd,” he said simply. “He acquired a shipment four months ago. Four launchers and several crates of rockets disappeared off an Israeli ship. Bragged he had a contract waiting.”

He did not see the glance the two gunmen exchanged.

Dowd, Buck thought. They had been trying for more than two years to flush him out. But the best they had managed yet was to nab a lieutenant. That had been good, but not good enough for Chris or the rest of Team Seven. Nailing Dowd, Buck thought. Chris would like that. Make it seem like maybe there was sense in this. He abandoned that thought immediately. There was no sense in it, he reflected, but nailing Dowd would at least be a fitting tribute.

Along with the thought, something came nagging into the back of his brain. He pushed it aside. He had what he came for. Now he had to get all of them out of here.

He flicked a glance at Nathan. Nathan backed out the door, gun still trained on the prone priest.

“Alright, Bautiste,” he growled. “You and the priest both get to keep breathing. As long as you follow instructions.”

Bautiste looked up at him and waited patiently. There was no fear in his face. Indignation and anger still rested there, but there was no fear.

Buck opened the window with its view of the willow.

“For the next ten minutes you will stay here. Don’t move. Don’t speak. At that time the power will come back on, and you can do whatever you want.”

He jerked his head toward the tree outside. “You move or call out or even pray before that time is up, my boy Johnny’s gonna shoot you through the ear. Got it?”

Bautiste smiled thinly. “Oh, yes,” he said, glaring. “I understand.”

“Good,” the gunman said. He prodded the priest with his toe. “How ‘bout you Father. You hear me?”

“I hear you,” came the muffled reply from beneath the arms.

The gunman made a satisfied grunt. Then spoke into his microphone. “All yours Johnny. Keep ‘em still for me.”

The line crackled back a nearly inaudible affirmative.

The gunman turned Bautiste to face the window and slipped out the door behind him.

Ten minutes passed slowly. During that time, Bautiste watched the sight reflecting in the willow tree. He watched for the sniper to come down from the tree. He plotted how to catch this one remaining member of the gang. To regain a little pride and dignity.

But there was no sign of movement from the tree, and it dawned on him that he had been tricked. The sniper had somehow gotten away.

After an eternity, the lights flickered back into life. Bautiste moved gingerly and rose slowly to his feet.

The priest cautiously peeked out from beneath his arms.

“They’re gone, Father,” said Bautiste, his face showing genuine distress. Especially as he saw how shaken the new priest was.

The priest tried to stammer out something appropriately reassuring.

Bautiste looked at him closely. “I’ll have the driver take you back now,” he said kindly. “Thank you for coming out here on short notice.”

The priest said nothing but seemed to sag with relief.

Bautiste rang the driver. The man came bounding into the room in mere minutes, prattling about the transformer problem that had caused the blackout. Bautiste felt like smacking him, but he didn’t. He had other things to do. Like go find his bodyguards. He hoped they were merely tied up somewhere and not actually dead because he planned to fire both of them immediately.

Later he sent the errand boy out to climb the willow. He came back with a small mirror, the kind that rest in the top of a woman’s compact. It had been fastened to a branch halfway up the tree. Bautiste scowled, but one part of his brain couldn’t help but admire the savvy with which he had been tricked. Not that such admiration would prevent his putting his revenge in motion. As soon as he figured out the identities of his unknown assailants.

Josiah’s cell phone rang. With apologies to Father Eli, he checked the caller id. Travis. He sighed. There was a reason they had turned their phones off. But now he was waiting for Buck’s call. He let it ring until the voice mail picked up.

He apologized again.

“I’m sorry, Father,” he said.

Father Eli smiled slightly. He had heard precious little of the man’s story. So far, it was clear that the agent before him was well read and well traveled. He had studied many of the world’s major religions, several obscure cultures, and a wide variety of philosophies. On a scholarly level, it was one of the most challenging and enjoyable conversations Father Eli had had in a long time.

On an emotional level, he found the tall ATF agent a tough nut to crack. It was easy enough to see that the man was wrestling with a great deal of anger. Bitterness sparked in his eyes. The man would give no details and all that Father Eli could gather was that whatever had happened had occurred fairly recently.

“No apologies necessary,” replied the priest. “You were about to say?”

“You believe that it all goes back to free will?” Josiah said.

The priest smiled sadly. “I do. God gave us free will, and He has never seen fit to rescind that decision. In a small way, you can probably see it in your own life,” the priest said. “Sometimes a man makes a decision that wreaks havoc all around him. But he hangs tough because he knows that he has made the right decision for the right reasons and that in the long term his decision will turn out to be for the best.”

Josiah thought suddenly of Chris. The urgency of his voice, when he ordered the team to retreat. To leave him behind. He thought of Buck. Still not sleeping. Still hardly eating. Josiah could hardly breathe around the sudden tightness in his throat, so he just nodded.

Father Eli read the sorrow that flashed through the man’s eyes and dragged down the corners of his mouth. He softened his voice. “Do you think you could look long term for a moment? Can you see good that might come from whatever it is that has brought you here?”

The agent lifted his eyes to Father Eli’s. He gave a bitter snort. “I don’t think I can see that far, yet, Father.”

Unbidden, a vision of Chris’s face rose before him. He was wearing that grin, the one that drove Travis crazy, the one that dared the bad guys to take a crack at him, the one born of pure adrenaline and pure audacity. He wondered if Chris was wearing that grin when they brought him to face St. Peter at the gates.

He felt his eyes cloud over. No one would be more surprised than Chris when those gates opened for him. The man had never been one to dwell on his own good points. He hardly seemed aware that he had any.

People who didn’t know Chris Larabee said he was arrogant. Chris was stubborn. That was sure. Driven, definitely. No one could argue that he had nerve. But arrogance required a sizable ego, Josiah reflected. Chris didn’t think enough of himself to be arrogant.

From his breast pocket, Josiah suddenly reached for a pen and the paper, where he had begun to prepare some notes for the inevitable memorial service. He scribbled a thought down on the paper. Then he folded it carefully and returned it to his pocket.

“One day you will be able to see it,” Father Eli said, after the agent had finished writing. “In the meantime, I like to take comfort in St. Paul’s assurance that God will not test us beyond our endurance.”

A flicker of a smile crossed the agent’s face. “He seems to have a mighty high opinion of us,” the agent said dryly.

Father Eli laughed. He was curious who the “us” might be, but he did not ask.

Sanchez’s phone rang again. He looked at the small screen and rose abruptly to his feet. “Thank you Father for your time. It has been most enlightening.” He offered his big hand, which Father Eli shook warmly.

“I know you are only in the area temporarily,” he said. “But if you want to talk about this some more, you know where to find me.”

The big agent smiled. “I appreciate that, Father,” he replied. He looked back through the office door, which was partially ajar.

“I’ll see myself out. I already know the way,” he said with a slight grin as he remembered how this encounter had begun.

Father Eli Rafferty returned the grin. He uttered a small prayer as he watched the man go. He still did not know exactly what was bothering the agent, but he prayed that he had been able to help in some small way.

Then he grinned up at the ceiling. The Lord had certainly chosen a most unusual way to start off his day. The Lord’s work is never dull, he thought as he set about the day’s business.

J.D.’s cell phone rang. He glanced at the screen. “Travis again,” he said, sorely tempted to answer it. He let voice mail get it.

“Shut that thing off,” Buck said, irritated at the interruption.

No sooner had the words left his mouth than Vin’s phone rang.

He fixed the sharpshooter with an icy look. Vin turned off the phone without a word. They all knew who it was anyway. Their phones had been ringing in succession for about twenty minutes now.

“He’s trying awful hard to reach us,” J.D. said.

“Yeah, well, whatever he wants can wait,” Buck snapped. He glared at each of his teammates in turn. No ringing phones interrupted the silence that had fallen, and he was satisfied that everyone had turned off their phones.

A knock sounded at the hotel room door. The five men inside tensed until it opened with a key.

“Room service,” said a southern drawl, entering the room with six coffees and a bag of bagels.

“Where the hell have you been?” Buck snapped.

Buck’s fierce glare almost made Ezra grin, until he remembered why it seemed so out of place. “Sorry, I’m late,” he said insincerely, passing out the coffee and placing the bag on the table.

He had divested himself of his robes and removed his contacts and glasses. His hair was slightly rumpled, but he looked more himself in neatly tailored pants and a button down shirt.

Buck did not ask him when or where he had found time to change.

Ezra scanned his teammates who were scattered throughout the room. “Does anyone know why AD Travis has been so persistently ringing my cell phone?” he asked.

J.D. shrugged. “We’ll find out eventually,” he said.

Ezra shrugged back indifferently. It did not surprise him to learn that Travis had been calling the others as well. It just gave him a sinking feeling.

Buck cleared his throat.

The men’s eyes all turned back to him.

“As I was saying,” he continued, briskly. “We have a decision to make about our next move.” He looked at each of the men in turn. “We know that Dowd sold the rocket launchers and the rockets to the militia. We can keep after Dowd. Or we can try to ferret out the militia.”

He paused. There was a third option. One that gnawed at him persistently. He just wasn’t sure how to bring it up after all the Team had already done.

He sighed. “Or,” he said, carefully. “We could just go back home and get back to work.”

The others shifted. They inhaled to speak. Buck held up his hand to stop them. “Hear me out,” he said. “I know why we said we were doing this.” He looked past them all out the window. “But we crossed a lot of lines today.”

He paused again, gathering his thoughts. Not sure how to finish saying what he wanted to say.

But it was Vin’s quiet voice that saved him the trouble. “I spent my mornin’ up a tree pointin’ a gun at an unarmed old man, watchin’ Bucklin and Nate extort information outta him,” the sharpshooter said. He looked at the floor. “Chris woulda kicked our asses good if he was there.” He paused, his voice gravelly as he said softly, “Kinda glad he wasn’t.”

Buck waited, tense, for the protest. But the sound that rippled through the room was an exhalation, a breath that had been held. He felt the tension break. He saw the relief in their faces. They had felt it, too.

He scratched the back of his neck and stared at the floor. “First week as Team Leader,” he said ruefully. “Not one of my prouder moments.”

Josiah wouldn’t let him take it. He had watched Chris blame himself too many times. “We went right with you, brother,” Sanchez said. “We wanted it, too.”

“I believe I gave a fine performance,” Ezra protested. The others looked at him. “Albeit, in the most unethical of ways,” he admitted.

J.D. gave a nervous chuckle. It spread to the others.

Vin swore ruefully. He and Buck caught each other’s eye.

“Travis is gonna kill us,” Nathan groaned, laying back on one of the beds and covering his eyes with his palms.

Buck shook his head. “I’m the team leader,” he said. “I’ll take the blame.”

“Not this time,” Josiah replied firmly. “This time we all stand together.”

A myriad of emotions crossed Buck’s face in quick succession. But he simply said, “Thanks.”

“Should we find out what he wants?” J.D. asked picking up his phone.

Buck smiled. “He can wait,” the mustached agent said. “Until we’ve had breakfast anyway. Then we’ll tell him we’re coming back.”

“Hopefully, we’ll still have jobs,” Nathan said wryly.

“Sure we’ll still have jobs,” J.D. said with his usual youthful optimism. “We’re the best in the business.”

Nathan shook his head. “After what I saw us all pull off today, I’m glad we’re the good guys. I know I’d hate to have to face Team Seven gone bad.”

Josiah smirked. “For that reason alone, they’d almost have to keep us.”

An expressionless mask fell into place over Ezra’s face. He held up the grease spotted brown bag he had brought in with him. “Bagels?” he offered.

“Shoot, Ezra,” Buck said. “Immoral, illegal, unethical, as it was, don’t you think our performance today deserves a better breakfast than a rock hard Texas bagel?”

J.D. grinned at his best friend. “You buyin’, Buck?” he asked.

“Hell no!” Buck retorted. Then he looked around at the men of his team and grinned. “Alright,” he said. “Just this once. But don’t expect it to become a regular thing.”

They all laughed. And for a moment, everything in J.D.’s world seemed normal again.

Mike Walsh stared at Jimmy P. in disbelief.

“Yer lyin’,” he said finally. It was the best he could stutter under the circumstances.

Jimmy looked at the young police officer. “I’m not,” he said, simply. He waited for the explosion.

Mike swore. A string of expletives. “Tell me you’re kidding,” he said. Mike had known Jimmy his whole life, since they were kids. Long before he had followed his big brother Bobby’s example and become a cop. Long before Jimmy had to go them one better and join the ATF. Now he was hoping against all hope that Jimmy would tell him this news was just part of some horrible tasteless joke.

Jimmy shook his head. His face was serious. He wasn’t kidding. He wouldn’t joke about this. What happened to Bobby was no joke.

Mike turned and smashed his fist into the wall. He cocked his arm back to let it fly again, but Jimmy caught his arm.

“Mikey,” Jimmy said softly, turning him back to face him. “It was a mistake.”

Mike gazed at him, sorrow and anger warring with the fear that was dawning in his large hazel eyes. “What mistake?” he exploded suddenly, the fear winning out. “I wanted to kill that bastard. Would’ve, too, if Detective Mitchell hadn’t come by.”

“I was there, Mikey,” Jimmy said.

He had stood right by while Mike Walsh kicked the living shit out of the militiaman. Not ten minutes earlier, Bobby Walsh’s partner had called from the hospital. Bobby was dead. Mikey hadn’t even said goodbye. Before they loaded him in the ambulance, Bobby had told Mikey to stay at the warehouse. Keep working. Said he was all right. And like always, Mikey had believed him. Believed his big brother.

Stupid schmuck, Jimmy thought angrily, about both the brothers he had grown up with. Bobby knew he was dying. He just didn’t want Mikey to have to see it. His eyes had pleaded with Jimmy not to say anything. And like always, Jimmy went along with what Bobby wanted. Seven hours later, Bobby was dead.

Mike had hung up the phone in a daze. He had just changed out of his uniform in Jimmy’s team’s communications van and was about to head to the hospital when the call had come. Mike managed to breathe out the words, the news that Bobby was gone. Then he turned and wandered aimlessly back toward the warehouse. Jimmy fell in beside him as they slowly made a circuit of the blackened concrete and the rubble still to be cleared under the glaring floodlights set up so rescue crews and workers could keep on through the night.

Then suddenly, this militia guy staggered crookedly out from behind the smoke and flame-blackened walls of the concrete enclosure that housed the dumpsters and the refrigeration units for the warehouse’s cold storage area. A machine gun dangled loosely from the fingers of his right hand. Both law enforcement officers stared at him. He was dazed. He was pale under the grime, and blood flecks shone blackly on his face under the garish lights. He pulled up short as he caught sight of the two lawmen, and he looked at them warily.

For a split second, no one and nothing moved, except Jimmy’s trained eyes that instinctively took in everything they could see. The camouflage jacket hung crookedly from the man’s shoulders, and beneath Jimmy could see a dark stain had soaked the man’s black t-shirt and the waist band of his black pants. Bullet hole. A trail of dried blood led down from the cuff at his wrist and wove trails down the back of his left hand between his fingers. A black stain had stiffened the sleeve of his jacket.

Before Jimmy could tell the man to put down his gun and surrender, Mike had sprung forward and grabbed a hold of the bloodstained left shoulder of the man’s camouflage jacket, spinning him around and propelling him face first against the concrete walls he had just come out of. The man tried unsuccessfully to gain his feet. He said something, but Mike was screaming at him, so Jimmy couldn’t hear. Mikey slammed the man back against the wall two more times, until he seemed about to lose consciousness.

But he didn’t. He suddenly remembered the gun in his right hand and swung the butt hard, catching Mikey in the temple. Mikey’s head snapped sideways. His hand flew upward and came back down smeared with the blood that welled up into the cut.

At that, Jimmy pulled his gun. He leveled it at the militia man, but before he could speak the man gave a feral growl and with surprising strength, pushed Mikey back two steps to stumble into Jimmy. He pushed away from the wall unsteadily, his eyes smoldering.

Something in Mikey broke. With a strangled cry, he lunged forward, hurled the man down onto the pavement and drove the heel of his boot into the man’s rib cage. Jimmy heard the crack. The man instantly clutched his abdomen and tried unsuccessfully to curl into a ball, but Mike prevented him, continuing to stomp and kick him mercilessly, all the while shouting almost unintelligibly about Bobby.

The guy had apparently survived the fireball from the rocket launchers by taking shelter in the concrete enclosure. As good a bunker as one was likely to find. It made Jimmy mad that the cops and the ATF hadn’t thought of it. He may have survived the fireball and the explosion. He may have survived the firefight before the rocket launcher attack. But he had just stumbled into the path of Mikey Walsh and Jimmy Pirelli, stoked up, brawny, and looking for a way to vent their rage that Bobby Walsh, the best of the Michigan Avenue Musketeers, and a damn good cop, had gone to meet his maker because of these asshole separatist, white-supremacist, militant punks.

Jimmy stood stock still, watching, eyes wide. Mikey was going to kill the guy. Then he did what any loyal friend would do. He looked around to make sure there would be no witnesses.

But he was too late.

“What the hell is going on here?” a plainclothes detective demanded. He had come across the parking lot in a full sprint. He was already on the radio calling for an ambulance.

Jimmy pulled out his ATF badge and showed it to the sergeant. “This man tried to attack us. He was armed and aggressive,” Jimmy said quickly, the practiced clipped tones of the federal agent he was. The rifle lying not two feet away added credence to his story, as did the bloody gash on Mikey’s head where the rifle had caught him during the struggle.

The detective’s gaze traveled down to the rifle. “Get that weapon secured,” he snapped at Walsh. He bent over the militiaman, his face white. “I need that ambulance right now,” he barked into the radio.

Jimmy leaned in to follow the detective’s gaze. The man’s breathing was labored. Harsh. Ragged. Exhaling a fine spray of blood onto the pavement beside him.

To Jimmy’s surprise, the eyes snapped open, catching his face, scanning it carefully, as if he were memorizing it before they slid shut again. He shivered involuntarily.

“Where the hell is your uniform, Walsh?” the detective snapped.

Damn, Jimmy thought. This guy’s from Walsh’s precinct.

Subsequently, it took a lot of effort and quite a bit of leaning from Richter to make the official report go away. It helped that this was one of the few surviving militia members and the brass didn’t want any hassles mucking up their opportunity to interrogate him. Pirelli’s little lie helped, too. He told Richter his name was on that police report. Richter didn’t want any hassles mucking up his plans either.

It wasn’t until much later that Jimmy remembered two things. The man’s militia uniform had been incomplete. And there were no matching bullet holes in the jacket. He put both thoughts right out of his mind. They weren’t important enough to open a can of worms over.

Apparently he was wrong on all counts, he reflected. Richter was probably going to hand him his ass when this was all over.

Mikey’s voice brought him back to the present moment. “He’s a fed,” Mike said in despair. “What the hell am I going to do now?”

“I’ll think of something, Mikey,” Jimmy assured him quietly. “I always do.”

“Sure, I’ll call ‘em,” Ryan Kelly muttered staring at his phone. “They won’t pick up for Travis. But he thinks they’ll call me back.” He loaded the phone numbers he had been given into his phone. That way he could dial them one after the other, the way Travis had been doing for almost an hour. He could tell by the exceptionally toneless calm of his boss’s voice that Team Seven had pissed off the AD again, in that way that only they could.

He shook his head again. Of all the times for Team Seven to not to pick up the damn phone.

Travis hadn’t left details in his messages. He didn’t think it was the kind of news you just left in a message. Ryan Kelly thought differently. If there was one message that might get them to call back, this was probably it.

He had just hung up on Buck Wilmington’s voice mail when he realized that the “prisoner” had not come back from getting new x-rays after the incident this morning with Richter’s protective custody. Richter and his team were also nowhere to be seen. Chalking his misgivings up to paranoia, Kelly snapped his phone shut and went to look for the doctor.

One look at the doctor’s stormy expression told him that something was wrong.

“Hey, doc,” he said, approaching cautiously.

The doctor glared at him, then surprise dawned on his face.

“The patient, okay?” Kelly asked.

“No thanks to you all in the ATF,” the doctor snapped, something more than anger clouding his voice.

Kelly grimaced. “Can I see him?” he asked.

The doctor looked at him. Surprise evident on his face. “Didn’t they tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Kelly asked warily.

“They’ve moved him to another hospital,” the doctor retorted, his voice strident. “Barely even stable again, and they’ve hauled him away. How do they expect him to recover if they don’t let doctors do their jobs?”

Kelly felt like someone had dropped a lead weight through his stomach. Why wouldn’t Richter tell him they were moving him? There weren’t very many reasons he could think of, and he didn’t like the conclusions he was coming to.

He felt his stomach tighten. Damn, Richter. What are you boys up to?

In a flash he was back on the phone with Travis.

When he had called Travis two hours ago, after the stunned silence, and the calm question whether Kelly was absolutely certain, Kelly was almost certain he heard the stern AD let out a whoop of joy. He didn’t blame the man. He had almost done the same once his own shock wore off. It was all he could do to keep his calm long enough to call Travis.

He shook his head at the memory. To look on that bed and see the last person he ever expected... Chris Larabee. Alive. And apparently still kicking. He laughed at his own joke. Three weeks the ATF had had Chris in their tender care. Alive. Hurtin’ bad. But alive. Absolutely, inconceivably, incredibly, stubbornly alive.

Now this.

This time, when the swearing was over, Travis told him he’d get a hold of the Texas brass and straighten it out. In the meantime, the AD said with a sigh, Kelly had better call Team Seven again.

After he hung up, Kelly let out a heavy sigh of his own as he contemplated his phone. Just what the hell was he supposed to say now? Team Seven didn’t even know Larabee was alive yet, and now they’d gone and lost him. There wasn’t a single way to word this that wouldn’t bring Buck Wilmington and the rest of Team Seven flying down on his head like the horsemen of the Apocalypse.

When this was all over, he was filing an official report. Then he was going to personally and unprofessionally kick Senior Agent Matthew Richter’s ass. But first, he had to find Chris.

It was well after noon when Buck finally, accompanied by the hoots and jeers of his teammates, decided to check his voice mail. He pushed the empty plate away from him across the worn laminate of the tabletop and grinned at them mockingly. He knew they were all too chicken to check their voice mail before they knew what was on his.

He motioned them to silence as he listened to Travis ask him repeatedly to call back. He could hear the frustration mounting in the AD’s voice. Then another voice came on. He frowned. What on earth could Ryan Kelly need bad enough to call right now?

The Team lowered their voices enough for Buck to hear his messages, but they did not stop ribbing him with sarcastic comments about how many of his voice mail messages were from women and how long it would take him to get through those before he got to Travis’s message.

They all saw him frown. Then he went dead white.

He stared at them for a moment and seemed unsure what to say. “You boys had better meet me in the parking lot,” he said, his voice strangely quiet. He slid out from the booth. They didn’t miss the tremble in his fingers as he dialed the phone and disappeared out the door, the cowbell on the diner door tolling behind him.

They exchanged a silent look; then slid out of the booth in single file and hurried out to the diner parking lot. Buck stood between their two rental cars, one finger against his ear as he listened intently to the person on the other end of the line.

“Are you sure?” They heard him ask, his voice rising. “You’re absolutely sure?”

J.D. watched his friend’s eyes get wide and a grin spread across his face.

He glanced at his teammates. Then they watched the grin freeze. Then evaporate.

“What do you mean?” Buck asked, glancing up at his team. He turned his back on them and spoke more quietly into the phone, even as the urgency in his voice ratcheted up.

“You think? You think?” he demanded icily. “Why the hell don’t you know? How the hell could this happen?”

There was quiet, while he listened. Ezra could see the muscles of Buck’s shoulders bunching up.

He swore into the phone. “We’re on our way. And God help you, Kelly, you’d better have some answers when we get there!”

He hung up. Then with a cry of rage, he hurled the phone down onto the blacktop at his feet. Component pieces scattered and bounced apart from each other.

Then he turned. His eyes were sparkling, and J.D. was startled to realize it was tears. Tears.

Shit, he thought. Now what had happened?

Buck looked at them bewildered, like he didn’t know what to say.

Josiah and Nathan exchanged a glance. “Just say it, brother,” Josiah said soothingly. “The Lord knows we’re getting used to hearing bad news.”

To their surprise a wan smile appeared on Buck’s lips. “Not all bad news,” he said quietly, looking at each of them, as if he were offering an apology. “That was Ryan Kelly,” he said finally. “He’s here in Texas. Came to see a militia prisoner.”

He grinned suddenly, incongruously. “He said the prisoner kicked an ATF interrogator in the face. That’s when Kelly got a good look at him.” The grin widened and he paused, grinning at them inanely.

Ezra felt suddenly that Buck would never finish whatever it was he was intended to say because Ezra would have to strangle him first.

“What?” J.D. finally demanded, exasperated.

Buck stared at each of them before he dropped the bomb. “It was Chris.”

Dead silence fell on the six men before him. Their faces went blank. They did not know what to think. They stared at each other.

It was Vin who asked in a strangled voice, “He’s alive?”

Buck nodded, but his expression darkened and the grin vanished. “He’s alive, but he’s hurt pretty bad. And the ATF has dragged him off somewhere.”

“What? Why?” J.D. demanded.

“’Cause no one knows who he is, kid,” Buck snapped. “They think he’s part of the militia. He’s still a prisoner in protective custody.”

“Protective custody for what?” Nathan asked slowly, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

Buck’s brows drew downward. “The militia killed the other prisoners to keep ‘em quiet.”

J.D. drew in a sharp breath.

Nathan, Josiah, and Vin exchanged a glance.

“Where did they take him?” Ezra said slowly, his plain words and painstaking enunciation telling all of them that he wanted to know and wanted to know now.

“Kelly and Travis are trying to find out,” Buck said hurriedly, fishing out his keys. “I’ve got the address of the hospital where Kelly is waiting. We better roll.”

J.D. was the first to unfreeze his feet and move toward the car. “You heard the man. Let’s roll,” he said, scooping up the pieces of Buck’s phone as he went.

His teammates remained behind him, frozen in confusion.

He’s alive! Josiah thought unable to move. He’s alive! It was more than he had dared to pray for in the past few weeks. And it was more than he dared hope for now. He had been here too many times in his life. Just as he was about to be delivered what he most desperately wanted, he stood on the brink of having it snatched away again. Would this time be any different?

Ezra stood stock still, poker faced, and struggling to remain that way. He felt like he had suddenly contracted a bad fever. Only instead of hot flashes and cold chills chasing each other up and down his spine, it was joy and grief, hope and terror that crashed through him simultaneously, ricocheting off each other until he felt he had no room in his body to contain them.

Chris was alive! It couldn’t be, could it? He was alive. Alive but not all right. With militia assassins on their way to kill him. And only the Texas ATF to offer protection. Whatever Texas ATF considered protective custody, Ezra knew it was not the same kind of protection Team Seven could provide. Chris needed them now. Only no one knew where the ATF, in its infinite wisdom, had taken him. It was too much to think about.

“Let’s go!” Buck called stridently, leaning on the horn and breaking the spell.

They moved suddenly forward, as one and hustled into the two cars. Ezra slid into the front seat next to Buck. They began rolling even before he had closed his door.

Vin slid into the back seat of Nate and Josiah’s car without another word. When understanding had first dawned, the former Army ranger had grown a sudden grin that exactly matched the one that lit up each of their faces. But it had since vanished. As they pulled out of the diner parking lot and into the highway traffic at a speed much faster than was legal or comfortable, Josiah sneaked a glance in the rearview mirror. The sharpshooter was slumped forward in the back seat, bent over and resting his forehead against the back of Nathan’s seat. His eyes were squeezed closed, and he looked like he might be sick.

A lump formed in the back of the profiler’s throat, and he began to pray. The same prayer he had prayed three weeks ago. He believed then that God would hear him. And he believed it now. But in the meantime, he also believed in helping himself. His foot hammered down on the accelerator and the car burst suddenly forward like a horse given its head.

Nathan’s knuckles turned white on the dashboard, but he did not protest. One look at the furrowed concentration on the medic’s brow told Josiah that Nathan was already far away.

He was way ahead of them in fact, his brain racing much faster than their two cars. He couldn’t help it. He was evaluating the possibilities. And the questions…

Damn it, Chris. You are the stubbornest hard-ass I know. And you hate hospitals. It takes the six of us to convince you to sit for an x-ray. What the hell happened to you that you couldn’t tell them who you are? That you let them take you away? Jesus…

He broke off his train of thought abruptly.

Jesus, the word had entered his mind as an expletive, but Southern Baptist roots he thought he had left behind him, reached up to catch him falling. Don’t you give him back to us only to lose him. Nathan prayed. I don’t think we can survive it.

He glanced back at Vin, still bent double in the back seat, eyes still squeezed shut. The sharpshooter’s lips were moving but no words escaped him. Perhaps he was praying, too. No matter. Whatever the words, they were not meant for anyone else’s ears.

“Can’t we go any faster, Josiah?” Nathan ground out between his teeth.

Obligingly, Josiah pulled his sedan up right behind Buck, Ezra, and J.D., nearly nudging them in the process. Buck took the hint and poured on more speed. They could explain it to the cops when the cops flagged them down—if the cops could catch them.

Normally, the women’s health clinic was busy. All day. But not today. Today it was buzzing with activity, but technically empty. There was only one doctor on staff and one nurse. And that was only because they had one patient. The other doctors and nurses milling about and the patients in the waiting room were police and federal agents, every one.

The stage was set. Richter had set the ball in motion as soon as he got the green light this morning. He wasted no time in leaking the information back through sources that the sole surviving militia prisoner was being held at a free clinic on the south side. No one would think to look for him there. Security was impossible to keep up. Feds must be desperate and running out of hiding places. At least that’s what Richter hoped the militia would think once they got the word.

He drummed his fingers on nurse’s desk in the waiting room and adjusted his white coat and stethoscope. He scanned the waiting room with narrowed eyes. Everything needed to look perfectly normal. When the militia arrived, it needed to look nice and easy to them. Let them waltz right in. Let them get close. Hell, if they could hold off until whoever they sent actually tried to do the prisoner in, they would have additional leverage to use in the interrogation.

Pirelli came back with the doctor—the real one. Richter scowled. Hell of a mess Jimmy had gotten himself into. Should’ve known only Jimmy would be unlucky enough to assault another Fed. A visiting guest from Denver, no less. Like Kelly.

He scowled even harder when he thought of Kelly. It had been a pleasure leaving him behind at the hospital. He’d seemed way too happy to announce to Richter and his team that their prisoner was really their dead team leader from Denver. And while Richter was watching his career-making opportunity to bring down the militia evaporate, Kelly was demanding to know who had broken his buddy’s precious ribs. There were several replies Richter wanted to give him, none of them diplomatic. Instead he stalled.

Fortunately it hadn’t taken Richter very long to figure out a way to salvage the situation, to regain his chances to crack open the militia and buy some time to figure out how to solve Jimmy’s little problem. He simply called his superiors. Told them about the royal fuckup, but offered them this plan:

The man was no good for information. He didn’t know any more than Texas ATF did. But he was still good bait—so long as the militia thought he was one of their own. Of course, he told the directors that the Denver guy—what was his name? Laramie?—had agreed to act as bait for the trap.

That had been a bit sticky. But the famous Richter luck had held. They didn’t know—and no one had told them—that the guy was still out cold.