by BMP

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In the meantime, Richter called up contacts, pulled strings, greased palms, and worked another patented Matt Richter miracle. In less than three hours, he had this clinic ready to go and a staff of eager law enforcement volunteers chomping at the bit to man it. Spiriting his prisoner out of radiology and into a waiting ambulance turned out to be even easier. He showed his badge. He demanded the prisoner. And left without the MRIs or the x-rays. He wondered what that squirrelly little doctor thought when he found out. He would have paid to see Kelly’s face when he heard that his buddy had disappeared.

The doctor—the real one—approached Richter looking grim. “His fever’s up. We’re increasing the antibiotic. He’s still asleep, which is the best thing for him.” The doctor’s lips formed a grim line. He hesitated a moment before saying, “He ought to be in a real hospital. This facility doesn’t have the capability of handling his injuries if he takes a turn for the worse.”

“He’s not going to be here that long,” Richter said, waving the doctor away impatiently.

He threw Pirelli a dark look. Pirelli had told him that the agent didn’t have a badge, a gun, a vest, or anything else to mark him as a federal agent, when he’d crawled out of his hiding place. If the fool had identified himself, he wouldn’t be in this mess, Richter thought, so it’s his own damn fault—partly anyway.

The rest of it was Pirelli’s fault.

He gave Jimmy a particularly filthy glare to let him know it as he moved down the hallway to check the other positions. Richter would clean up his team’s little messes, but he wouldn’t forget what Pirelli owed him. And he wasn’t about to let Pirelli’s bad luck keep him from making a bust that would get him an Assistant Director spot for certain. Unfortunately, so far, the only solution he had come up with for Jimmy’s problem was to actually let the militia kill the “prisoner” before arresting the assassin. Somehow, Richter didn’t think that would sit well in Denver.

Jimmy watched his boss walk away, happy to be out from under that glare. When he told Richter he had assaulted the prisoner, Richter had been only too quick to make Detective Mitchell’s report disappear. This new turn of events didn’t change his story. He knew he could trust Richter to turn this mess to their advantage because Richter wouldn’t tolerate anything that might stall his master plan for advancement. Jimmy knew he would be paying through the eyeballs later, but at least he had gotten Mikey out of the line of fire. It was what Bobby would have wanted him to do.

With a shake of his head, Jimmy went back up the hall to guard the prisoner. If Richter was right—and he was never wrong—militia assassins would be here this very evening. And Pirelli still didn’t know what they were going to do about Larabee.

It was two hours before anyone claimed to have a high enough clearance—or perhaps just the guts—to return AD Travis’s phone calls. The tension in his office notched steadily higher as the minutes passed. He paced the floor, refusing to move any further from the phone. Every time the phone rang, he pounced, and his assistant had to wave him off, while she found out who it was.

His assistant set about freeing his phone lines and keeping them that way. She turned away all callers and all visitors and canceled all his appointments. As the news began to spread through the ATF offices, agents, directors, and other staff saved her the trouble of telling them he was not available. They simply began to avoid the office altogether.

She had lunch brought in for him. He did not touch it.

She thought the tendons would burst right through his neck when she brought him a fax from General Larabee’s aide, requesting a “status report” on “the release of the remains of Agent Christopher Larabee, ATF RMET Number 7, based in Denver.” It was written as if AD Travis wouldn’t have recognized the name. As if General Larabee’s aide didn’t know the name. Had his secretary not outmaneuvered him, reminding him to keep his line free, he would have got on the phone and jumped down the aide’s throat himself.

Then again, what would he have said? Good news, sir. Your son is alive. Bad news. We have no idea where the hell he is.

Travis made yet another turn at the far end of his office. He kicked the wooden leg of his desk as he passed.

When the light on his intercom finally lit up and his assistant’s infuriatingly calm and professional voice said, “Texas ATF,” he was on the line in an instant.

He did not bother with preamble. “Where the hell is my agent?” he snarled into the phone, as a week’s worth of frustration held at bay uncoiled and threatened to explode out of the top of his head.

The lackey on the other end stuttered, tried to keep his composure, and, in the end, bailed, promising to connect Travis to his Assistant Director.

His teeth grinding together, Travis waited.

At last, a voice on the other end identified herself as AD Rivers. Travis knew Rivers. Hard as nails. Scary as all hell. He didn’t care.

“Where’s my agent?” he demanded, hotly. He had long since overcome the urge to be polite.

“AD Travis,” she said with a sigh and a patronizing note in her voice that made a vein begin to throb in his temple. “There is no need to get upset.”

“Like hell there’s not,” Travis snapped, cutting her off.

She attempted to say something placating, calming, but he steamrolled right over her. “Two hours ago I reported to your office that your militia prisoner is my team leader. And my liaison in Texas tells me that my agent is missing. The man sure as hell didn’t get up and walk, so you tell me where he is.”

At the other end of the line Rivers took a breath and attempted to put on a pleasant voice. She was not good at pleasant. Icy would do. “According to my information, your agent is with Team Four, attempting to snare the militia in a trap.”

There was a long pause. When Travis spoke again, it was not with the contrite tone she had been hoping for. “Repeat that?” he said, his tone as icy as hers.

Rivers felt the warning hairs rise on the back of her neck. She repeated her words slowly and calmly.

Damn Richter! She thought. If his grandstanding’s made another mess for me to clean up, I’m going to shove that arrogant bastard’s head so far down his throat, he’ll have to close his eyes to sit down…

There was another silence before Travis grated out, “And just what role is my agent supposed to play in your little sting?”

She grimaced, but wouldn’t give Travis the satisfaction of hearing it in her voice. “He has agreed to continue to act as a militia prisoner for the purpose of luring in the real militia.”

“As bait for an assassin you mean,” Travis’s voice said way too calmly.

Her hackles were up now. “That’s not exactly how we’d term it,” she said.

“And my agent agreed to participate in this sting?” Travis asked.

“Yes,” Rivers said. Travis was not a stupid man. And she could tell by the tone of his voice that he knew something more than she did. She began to envision Richter’s painful death, as she wondered what exactly he had not told her.

“He said this to you?” Travis said, enunciating each word.

“No,” she said, making a lot less effort to be civil now. “To my Senior Agent on the case.”

“Your agent’s delusional then,” Travis snapped. “According to his last doctor, my agent hasn’t been conscious for more than a few minutes at any time in the past three weeks.”

Rivers’s jaw snapped shut with an audible click. She was going to have Richter’s head on a platter for this.

Then suddenly she had a better idea. Her eyes glinted evilly. As his boss, she might have covered Richter’s ass—had he told her the truth. But no. He had left her hung out to dry, along with those idiots they called her directors. All bets were off now. Let’s see how you like it, she thought savagely.

Recovering quickly, she asked very slowly, “Are you saying that you think my agent is mistaken?”

There was a short, sharp snort. “No, AD Rivers. I’m saying your agent is a liar.”

“That’s a serious charge,” she said gravely.

“Yes. It is.”

She tapped her pen on her desk and laid out her trap lines carefully. “If that were the case,” she said. “Then surely your liaison agent would have intervened. Agent Kelly, wasn’t it?”

“I’m sure he would have,” Travis said icily. “If your Team Four had bothered to inform him of their intentions or their destination when they kidnapped my team leader.”

Rivers almost laughed at that. It served Denver right to be left standing flat-footed in the wake of Hurricane Richter’s relentless drive for promotion. But, realizing that she needed to get herself out of the path of destruction first, she contained her mirth quickly.

“Kidnapping now,” she said, in a voice that oozed grim seriousness—and a veiled threat. “Those are two very serious charges. Are you prepared to pursue them?”

Travis grimaced. He read her loud and clear. Was he prepared to take on Rivers and the four pet thugs she called the best team in Texas? He felt his blood boil.

“Listen carefully,” he said through his clenched teeth. “The state in which my agent is returned to me will dictate what charges I am willing to pursue. Now tell me where he is, or I will give the remaining members of Team Seven your office address, and they’ll come ask you themselves.”

She started. Team Seven was in Texas? She hadn’t been informed of that. No one else had mentioned it either. Were they here officially, or were they off duty? Or worse yet, were they on a mission of their own making? She wouldn’t put it past any team with a reputation like Team Seven’s. That gave her a thought. Perhaps Travis could give her some leverage after all.

“I’ll have to give you to one of the directors,” she said pleasantly. “I can’t give out that information.”

Without a sign-off, she put him on hold.

Who the hell does Richter think he’s playing with? She thought, savagely. He wasn’t an AD yet, and hell if he was going to put a black mark on her record for the sake of his own promotion. If Richter wanted to play games, she could play games, too.

The first one would be letting the directorship know that he had deliberately deceived all of them. Then she would tell them she had no knowledge of the “prisoner’s” current medical condition. Oh the brass was going to have a fit over this! Let Richter cover his own ass, she smiled to herself.

She put on her apologetic voice as she spoke to Director LeBron. “Sam,” she said. “I’ve got AD Travis on the line from Denver. He’s quite upset and charging that Team 4 didn’t have the Denver agent’s approval to go undercover.”

She paused and listened to LeBron’s pained response. LeBron was a born bureaucrat. A genius at paperwork and theories of law enforcement. Not so good at making real-world decisions in real time, which was precisely why she chose him.

“Well,” she said, putting just enough wince in her voice to let the Director know that she had been taken in, too, by her renegade team. “According to AD Travis, his agent’s condition is somewhat worse than Senior Agent Richter let on. Seems he may not have been in a condition to consent to his participation… Yes, I know…,” she said. “I agree,” she said. “That is a serious charge. No, I haven’t seen the medical report. We have been relying on Senior Agent Richter for status reports on the prisoner.”

She took an artful breath and stumbled convincingly over her words. “I’d hate to lose this opportunity to catch someone in the militia. But I suppose we should pull that Denver agent out of there. It’s just that the sting is already underway. I’m afraid the commotion will alert the militia to our trap.”

LeBron paused. Hesitated. Asked her to have Travis leave a message, while he called a conference with the other directors. That’s right, she thought. Let’s take this through the proper channels. With any luck, by the time you knuckleheads make a decision, we’ll be celebrating the successful capture and interrogation of a militia assassin by the spectacular Team Four.

After that, if everything went according to her plans, the brass would remember how Richter embarrassed them and call him on the carpet for his duplicity. Privately, of course, not to tarnish the victory. In the end, Rivers would get the credit for her team’s action, and Richter would get a black eye that the brass was bound to hold against him when the next AD slot came open.

She thought she heard Travis hit something when she told him apologetically that the directors would call him back. She grinned at that, as she hung up.

Then she drummed her fingers on her desk. She had some digging to do if she were going to be prepared for any fallout from Hurricane Richter’s current idiotic power play.

Travis was about to send the entire phone set hurtling against the far wall of his office, when his arm stopped in mid-arc. A memory popped into his head. Larabee, the man who had single-handedly increased Travis’s departmental office equipment budget until the AD finally told Chris in no uncertain terms that he would pay for the next phone he destroyed out of his own pocket. The very next morning, Larabee had shown up at his office wearing that smart-ass grin. He slapped a crisp new one hundred dollar bill down on Travis’s desk. An advance payment, he said with a smirk. Then he turned on his heel and left, unrepentant, without another word. Sure enough, he destroyed another phone later that week.

But it wasn’t the fate of the phone in his hand that stopped Travis dead in mid-throw. It was something else about the memory. Something about Chris. And the way he sometimes, without warning, simply sidestepped the expected. Found an unanticipated exit. Disregarded rules and intended outcomes. Violated both social custom and professional guidelines with utter indifference, seeing what others held inviolate as merely optional. It had come back to bite Larabee more than once in his many careers. Several official reprimands already graced his ATF file. Yet reprimands failed to teach Larabee to toe the line. And Travis was not too proud to learn from a subordinate’s example—especially a subordinate who tended to get results.

Travis put the phone back down on his desk, and clarity of thought returned in a rush. If Texas thought he was going to sit around and wait for their directors to call him, they thought wrong. If Rivers’ team was using Chris to bait an assassin, they had to let the assassin know where Chris was. And if they had put out the word where Chris was, Travis was certain they could find it out just as fast as the militia could.

He dialed up Team Eight. He spoke to the second in command. They promised that their undercover agent and their communications man would be on it immediately. If there was a rumor, they would catch it. Now that they knew what to look for.

Travis hung up the phone and dialed Kelly, determination replacing the strain across his face. He told Kelly Team Four’s plan and that Team Eight was searching the rumor mill already. He listened to Kelly’s tight response that he had gotten hold of Buck Wilmington at last and that Team Seven was on its way to the hospital and would be there within the hour. Travis assured Kelly he would get whatever information they could dig up just as soon as some came to light. Then he hung up. Kept his line free.

He drummed his fingers on the table. They were getting somewhere now. Still the questions raced through his mind. How far ahead of them were the assassins? How fast could Kelly and Team Seven get to the place once they found it? How much could they rely on Texas Team Four to protect Chris? And was Chris in any shape to help himself if the assassins got there before Team Seven? He fought down the hard fist that was squeezing his insides. One thing he knew: Team Seven would never get over arriving too late.

He rose from his chair and headed for the door, telling his assistant on his way out that he would be in Team Eight’s bullpen. Send his calls over there.

It was Team Eight that called Ryan Kelly next. He snapped the phone open immediately, but it wasn’t the information he was hoping for.

“Whaddya want first?” Team Eight’s Doug Stone quipped. “The bad news or the bad news?”

Kelly closed his eyes and pushed his knuckles against his forehead. Now was not a good time for Doug’s off-kilter sense of humor.

“Just spill it,” Kelly grated through his teeth.

“Right. It’s taking us a while to get through to any possible informants or snitches on the street who might connect up with this militia group. Kirk and I have got some lines out through some friends in low places. And we have a couple of back up lines through some acquaintances of Team Twelve—don’t ask, don’t tell, know what I mean?” Doug said.

Kelly sighed. Frankly, at the moment, he didn’t care who knew who on what team knew someone else who might just be a little on the shady side of the law. He just wanted the information.

He shut his eyes. “You said there was bad news?” he asked, knowing he’d regret it.

He could almost hear Doug’s sardonic grin across the telephone wire. “I may not have too many contacts in the world of crime, but I can get some information out of the bureaucracy we lovingly call Mama ATF.”

Kelly opened one eye slightly. That was true. If anyone alive could nose his way through a nest of red tape and come out with the answers dangling off his fishing line, it was Doug.

“You know where they’ve got Larabee?” Ryan asked hopefully. Too hopefully, he knew.

“I said bad news, Boss,” Doug said.

Kelly shut the eye again and exhaled slowly as he waited.

“My sources dug up a police report that got squelched. And there’s a rumor attached.” He sounded pleased with himself. Like a boy about to tell on his big brother.

“Just spit it out, dammit,” Kelly snapped. Stone was a damn good agent, but he sure knew how to get on his boss’s nerves.

This time, he was sure he really could hear Doug grin. But his tone was serious when he replied. “Seems our mysterious militia man, A.K.A. Chris Larabee stumbled out of some sort of shelter he found when the whole place went up in a fireball only to be beaten nearly to death by a police officer named Walsh with the possible assistance of ATF Agent James Pirelli.”

Kelly’s eyes popped open as his head snapped back. “Did you say Pirelli?”

“Pirelli,” Doug confirmed. “Texas ATF Team Four.”

A long string of expletives poured from Kelly’s lips. He had underestimated Richter—again. Thought he was just being a pompous idiot. Too high and mighty to fill in the details. He kicked himself. He should have known that Richter was covering something or someone.

Since none of the tirade was directed at him personally, Douglas Stone simply waited patiently for Kelly to stop swearing.

“Can you prove that?” Kelly asked, dropping his voice suddenly and moving off into a corner with his phone. His outburst had drawn disapproving stares from staff and visitors alike.

“No,” Stone said. “I told you the report got squelched, and from the sounds of it, the detective who wrote the report has been ‘requested’ to keep his mouth shut. As for Texas ATF, I was told by my ‘sources’ that it is just a rumor.”

Kelly snorted. He knew as well as Doug did that the ‘source’ was just protecting himself from backlash.

There was a pause. Then Doug asked hesitantly. “Is Pirelli one of the guys who’s supposed to keep the assassins away from Larabee?”

“Yeah,” Kelly answered tightly.

“How bad did they get him?” Stone asked.

“What’d your informant say?” Kelly returned.

Doug snorted, “I told you. Said they beat him near to death.”

“That’s about right,” Kelly said.

There was another silence. “My guy said that if the detective hadn’t interrupted them…” he trailed off. Doug had worked with Larabee and his team before, a fact that never failed to remind him to be grateful that he worked for Ryan Kelly instead. Still, he had to admire Larabee. He was a hardhead in the worst possible way, but he got results—and his team seemed to like him okay. They had sealed up his office so no one could use it. Had gone AWOL for him. Not that anyone was officially admitting that, but Stone was no dummy. He knew when the rumor mill was lying and when it was telling the truth. Team Seven was out there getting revenge. This news would not sit well when they heard.

Kelly felt cold inside. With the clarity of years of law enforcement experience, he began to analyze the situation. Richter’s man had nearly killed Chris once. Richter must have known that when he had let Pirelli “interrogate” him. Then again, Kelly reasoned, at that time, they thought Chris was one of the militia. Not that that was an excuse for cruelty but now they knew the truth. This hopeful thought was drowned immediately by the realization that as soon as Kelly told Richter the identity of his prisoner, Richter had spirited Larabee out of the hospital and now had him hidden away somewhere waiting for an assassin to come finish the job.

That led to the question of Pirelli. Would Chris recognize the agent as one of the men who tried to kill him earlier? Would Pirelli run the risk of letting Chris tell what he knew? The part of his brain that Kelly reserved for thinking like the enemy, anticipating their moves—the very habit that made him so good at his job—told him that Richter and Pirelli’s best option for keeping the truth securely hidden was to let the militia assassin do his job. A heavy lump rolled around in Kelly’s stomach and he willed himself to believe that a fellow ATF agent would not go that far to protect himself—or his men.

The echoes of that thought and that hope were still rolling around in his brain when he saw them. At the end of the hall and coming fast. All six of them. Bearing purposefully down on him, fanned out as wide as the hallway would allow into an inverted “V,” an arrow directed straight at him, Buck Wilmington at a long-legged lead. The others at his back. They filled the hallway with motion, oblivious to the nurses and orderlies that scattered into doorways before them, moving out of their way.

Kelly could feel the tension rolling up the hallway ahead of them, like an invisible vanguard steamrolling over everyone in their path, pushing them to the sides, out of their path as they stalked up the corridor. Kelly gave a sigh. He was not surprised. He had once seen Chris Larabee and his bad attitude alone clear a path through a crowded room in much the same way. And that had been a good day. The six men approaching him were not having a good day. And he alone knew how much worse it might get.

He stepped forward to meet them, and before he had time to figure out what to say, he was surrounded. They stood in almost a perfect circle with Kelly at dead center, each pair of eyes burning with intensity. They looked frayed at the edges. Making an effort to hold themselves back.

For a moment, Kelly imagined spilling the beans on Richter and letting them have him. But he held his tongue. He couldn’t sentence a man to death on a gut feeling and an unofficially squelched report.

“Kelly,” Buck said, his voice low and gravelly. He held out his hand. Kelly shook it, but the shake was too tense to be friendly. There was no banter. The tall mustached agent simply said. “What have you found out?”

Kelly shook his head. “Nothing useful,” he said. It wasn’t a lie. Until they found Chris, what little information he had wasn’t going to do anything but make Team Seven mad. And from the looks of them, it wouldn’t take much to topple them over the edge.

The remaining members of Team Seven continued to stare at him totally silent. Even Standish, a thought that was very nearly unnerving.

“You have no leads?” Sanchez, the big profiler asked, narrowing his eyes. Not exactly in suspicion, but certainly in frustration.

Kelly held his palms out in his own gesture of frustration. He had already kicked himself for not keeping a closer eye on his compatriot. But kicking himself didn’t change the past. “My team and Travis are chasing the rumors and snitches,” he said simply.

Tanner and Dunne exchanged a glance.

“That can take a long time,” the young computer expert said. He was clearly making an effort to keep his voice steady. Still a plaintive note crept in at the end of his sentence.

Tanner leaned around Dunne to eye Standish. Dunne turned his head and followed the Texan sharpshooter’s gaze.

Dunne spoke to the undercover agent, as if he were Tanner’s ventriloquist puppet. “Don’t you have any contacts we could ask?”

Standish looked surprised, perturbed, and thoughtful all in swift succession. Kelly held his breath. But anger and frustration followed right after. Then Standish closed down his face again. “I am afraid I don’t,” he said quietly.

Afraid, Kelly thought with a start. He stared round him a moment at the men who surrounded him, fearsome, tough as nails, tight and snarling as a pack of sled dogs, tensed and straining at their traces. They’re afraid, he realized suddenly. Team Seven. Scared. Wilmington needs to take them in hand or this whole mess could turn into a disaster—even if we find Chris in time.

The last of the thought sounded in his head and his own fear gripped him. Chris was a friend—if not a close one, still they had some history together. He was a colleague. And whether Kelly ever admitted it or not—especially to himself—there were things about the man he admired. This was not how Chris Larabee should go down. He should not be remembered as Kelly last saw him. Kelly should not have to live with the memory of how badly he had failed him when Chris needed him most.

He turned back to Team Seven determinedly. “We’ll take the town apart if we have to. But we’ll find him.” He meant it. He just didn’t know how to keep his promise.

Buck nodded once. His teammates’ eyes locked onto his. “Tell us what you know,” he said.

And Kelly began his story at the beginning.

Pirelli was sent on several “punishment” errands. He knew the drill. He was in Richter’s doghouse, so he had to do Richter’s dirty work. Marc Goldman was sitting in the “prisoner’s” room, with his feet up on the end of the bed. Probably whistling to himself because now he was no longer in the doghouse. There was room for only one dog, and Pirelli was it. And probably would be for a long time, he thought to himself grimly as he double-checked the perimeter they had set up and fetched drinks and took meal orders for the agents and cops hanging around waiting for something to happen.

They had been waiting all afternoon. The evening was dropping around them like a gray tattered curtain, as a sprinkle of cold rain put a sheen on the streets. He hustled up and across the street to a row of fast food places and a deli. He hustled because he didn’t want to get wet. He also hustled because with the way his luck was going this week, it was more than likely that the militiamen would arrive and Team Four would make a spectacular capture while he was still waiting in line for a plain turkey, no mayonnaise on a tortilla wrap with a Diet Coke for officer what’s her name from the 84th. His team would never let him live it down if he missed the bust.

Richter checked his watch for the eighteenth time in forty-five minutes. He had received reasonable confirmation that the militia had gotten the message. They knew where the prisoner was. He wished they had an inside contact, so that they could get an idea of the militia’s timetable. At least then he could check his watch and know when to expect them. Now they just had to wait. And waiting made him irritable.

But not as irritable as the loud crash that came ringing up the empty hallway. He swore. What the hell was Goldman doing down there? All he had to do was baby sit an unconscious man. He swore again. What the hell was the matter with his team? They were normally so competent and efficient. This was not a convenient week for them to turn into idiots.

Down at the end of the hall near the fire exit that they expected the assassin to come through, Marc Goldman was using the door to the room as a shield. Another crash sounded and the door jerked as something hard struck it from the other side. The doctor and the nurse came running from a side corridor. They both gave Richter a dirty look as they hustled down toward the room. All three came to a halt outside the door.

“I take it our ‘guest’ is no longer unconscious,” Richter said icily, glaring at the doctor and at Goldman each in turn.

“I thought you said he was sedated,” Goldman griped, fixing the doctor with a dirty look.

The doctor gave both agents a dirty look back. “He was sedated before he left the last facility,” the doctor said icily. “I told you he was sleeping.”

Goldman swore. Richter laughed. He shoved Goldman aside and grabbed hold of the door handle.

“Jesus, Goldman,” he said with a sneer. “The man’s half dead. You couldn’t take him?”

The doctor opened his mouth to protest. Richter gave him a smirk. “You want to go in first, Doc?” he taunted. “Sounds like he’s in a fine mood.”

The doctor backed up a step.

Goldman smirked at him. Richter was an asshole, but he could size up a situation faster than anyone Goldman had ever met, and he was never at a loss for a backup plan. Truth was, sometimes Goldman loved it when one of Richter’s plans went down the toilet. It wasn’t just a desire to see his boss get his comeuppance. It was more that there was something almost magical about the way plan after plan simply occurred to him. Ways to turn a bad situation to his advantage seemed to descend on him from heaven. The speed his mind worked to assess the odds boggled Goldman’s mind.

And he knew he was about to watch it happen again. It was the smirk that gave it away.

Richter knocked on the door, solidly, business like. When no crash sounded, he poked his head tentatively into the nauseatingly pink examination room and planted a sympathetic smile on his face. It was well that he had practiced the smile a few times because he had a hard time suppressing his surprise at seeing the man he had just called half dead, sitting up on the side of his bed. Not very straight, but nevertheless in a posture that was nearly vertical. He was breathing hard. Beneath the strands of blond hair that hung over his eyes and a thick reddish stubble that covered his chin, his face was drained of all color, except for the fading greenish yellow bruises that decorated the side of his face where it had slammed against the brick wall repeatedly two and a half weeks earlier.

He never once looked up at Richter but went on pulling the needles from his arms and removing electrodes and sensors from beneath his gown, as if he were unaware that anyone was watching. Nevertheless Richter knew the man had noted his entrance.

Richter stopped and examined the objects scattered across the floor just inside the door to the room. A metal tray, a plastic pitcher, and some medical instruments. He sized up the prisoner again. He could barely sit up, but had found the strength to pitch those objects across the room hard enough to drive Marc out into the hall.

He paused to consider. The man had driven Marc out of the room, but had made no move to attack Richter. Richter wondered if it was simply because the man had run out of decent projectiles to throw at him. Somehow he doubted it. Then he caught a flash of light. Just a flash. Against the white sheets and hidden behind the “prisoner’s” thigh.

He swore. Looked like the man had found a weapon. And he was in an all-fired hurry to untether himself so he could use it.

Inside the room an alarm went off, as a monitor stopped registering a heartbeat. The doctor leaped instinctively forward and Richter pulled his head back into the corridor.

“Relax, Doc,” Richter said with another irritating smirk. “The only thing dead in there is some of your equipment and those wires that used to connect him to the monitors.”

The doctor looked relieved and tried to brush past Richter. He was not successful.

“Hold up there,” Richter said tauntingly. “Before you go charging in there you ought to consider something. Looks to me like the prisoner’s found a weapon. What did you leave in there that he might be able to use to defend himself?”

The doctor stared at Richter blankly.

“Anything with a blade?” he asked. “A syringe? What?” His tone was not so pleasant now.

The doctor shook his head.

Goldman had peeked into the room behind Richter’s back. “There was a vase,” Goldman said. “On the nightstand next to the bed.”

Richter looked at Goldman.

“I heard it smash,” Goldman said. “Thought he threw it at the door.”

Richter thought back. There was no broken glass before the door. The man had smashed the vase like a bottle to make a blade. “Apparently you thought wrong,” Richter said from between his teeth. He rolled his eyes once at Goldman and the doctor. Then he poked his head back around the door.

“Agent Laramie?” he asked, quietly, fervently hoping that was actually the man’s name. He could not remember. He shrugged inwardly. He had never been much good at other people’s names.

The man’s head jerked upward. The feverish eyes held a hot green glare.

Richter moved slowly into the room, keeping his hands where the man could see them.

“And you are?” the man asked. A twitch curled up the corner of his lip, where the stitches had been removed two days ago. His voice was cracked and gravelly from disuse. But the malevolence behind it was loud and clear.

Richter smiled inwardly. If the odds had been more even, he thought he might have enjoyed going head to head with this guy.

“Senior Agent Matt Richter, Team Leader, Texas ATF Team Four,” Richter said with clipped syllables. Then he softened his tone. “It’s good to see you’re awake.”

The blonde continued to glare at Richter, but he made no move toward the makeshift weapon at his hip. “Where am I?”

“Well,” Richter said, scratching his head disarmingly. “You’re hidden away in a women’s clinic.”

He almost didn’t catch the low reply.

“I gathered that much,” the agent on the bed returned dryly.

Richter looked around the examination room, walls the same vivid pink as Pepto Bismol, a watercolor painting, some specific equipment and several detailed diagrams dealing with women’s medical issues. He started. Observant. Just how long had this guy been biding his time, pretending to be unconscious? What did he know already?

Richter took a breath. Now was as good a time as any to test the waters. Waters that were growing murkier almost by the minute.

“Do you remember what happened to you?” Richter asked in what he hoped was a kind voice.

The man’s expression darkened further. “Yeah,” he said. His voice was dropping in volume. The conversation and the effort to sit up were clearly taking their toll. To tell the truth, Richter was relieved. He needed the man off balance. He was becoming worried at the agent’s self-possession.

Richter waited. But no further information was offered. This guy wasn’t going to make it easy. That was okay. Richter enjoyed a challenge.

He took another step into the room. He could see the broken neck of the vase clearly now. He nodded his head at it. “Planning to use that to bust out of here?” He said it as a joke. He wasn’t joking.

“If I have to,” the other agent replied, the corner of his mouth twisting up into a cold smile. He wasn’t joking either.

Richter chuckled, warmly he hoped. “Agent Laramie. We’re all ATF here. You’re safe now.”

Green eyes flicked up to his with a gaze so penetrating that Richter almost took a step back. Almost. But he didn’t. He held his ground.

The man didn’t reply, but he snorted. Softly. His strength was fading fast and all he’d managed to do was sit up and unhook himself from the equipment around him.

Richter took another step into the room. The man was clearly suspicious. But Richter needed to know why.

“Can you tell me what happened to you?” he asked, pulling a pad of paper from the pocket of his white doctor’s coat.

The green eyes narrowed. “Why?”

Richter was taken aback, but he refused to show it. “Gotta fill in the records. Since we brought you in the militia’s been trying to get at you.”

“What for?” he asked. He was beginning to list slightly to his right. He put his right palm down to support himself and his fingers clenched around the broken vase.

Richter smiled sheepishly.

“Well,” Richter said slowly. “When we first found you we thought you were one of the militia. Seems like they do, too. Only we want to keep you alive. And they want to make sure no witnesses are left on the loose. Unfortunately, it took us a while to figure out your identity.” He chuckled a bit, trying for apologetic. Trying for compassionate. He did neither one very well.

From the doorway Goldman rolled his eyes at Richter’s performance. Was this Richter’s brilliant new plan? Tell the man the truth? What kind of plan was that?

The expression on the battered face did not change. Richter was beginning to think that maybe the man hadn’t heard or was still too shaken up to carry on an entire lucid conversation, as a far off expression came into the green eyes. Then the man took as deep a breath as he could manage with his cracked ribs and bruised lung and faced Richter frankly.

“Where’s my team?” he asked.

Richter looked down at the floor and swallowed. A lot depended on his answer. And his answer depended on what the Denver agent knew already. Was his team out there somewhere and expected to return? Had they fled the scene without him? Or had they been lost in that fire? Richter didn’t know. But if the Denver agent didn’t know either, Richter would get to choose the one that served his purpose best. And it was clear which option that would be.

He said the safest, most non-specific phrase he could think of. He dangled it in front of the man to see which way he’d bite.

“They’re gone,” he said softly.

The man recoiled. The shoulders jerked. But not in surprise. Richter noted the lack of surprise. He hit a nerve. He took a chance.

“You kept asking for them, while you were sick,” he said, managing a compassionate note in his voice. “We tried to tell you, but weren’t sure you had heard.” Would the agent remember? Would he also remember Pirelli’s art of interrogation? The man had been in and out of consciousness since early that morning. And Richter was counting on the recent past still being very confused in the man’s mind.

The eyes flicked up but not at Richter. He directed a burning glare at the wall opposite him. But he did not speak.

Richter pressed on. “Team Seven wasn’t it?” he asked. This time he managed a compassionate note in his voice. “Heard about them. Heard they were good. Hard when something like this happens…“ He paused and looked chagrined. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Even from the side, Richter could see the eyes harden another few degrees. Richter analyzed the way he was taking the bait. The man was angry, that was sure. Angry and something else. Was it grief? Or was he pissed off that they had left him behind? He had heard that Team Seven was tight. Didn’t remember much else about them. Hadn’t really cared at the time they were brought in to help.

The man looked abruptly at the floor. Richter took a few more slow steps toward the bed.

There was a long silence.

“What happened?” the man asked finally. Slowly. Without looking up.

At the pain in the voice, the doctor started forward. Richter reached back, behind the door, placing a hand on the doctor’s chest and shoving him backward. He had taken the bait. Now was not the time for medical interference.

Richter sighed artfully. “Look. You get some rest. We can talk about this when you’ve got a bit more of your strength back.”

The man’s head snapped around surprisingly quickly. So quickly, he nearly lost his balance on the bed. He didn’t seem to notice. There was an ugly expression in the green eyes.

“How did they die?” he growled.

It was all Richter could do to keep the triumph off his face. But he managed. Not only that, he managed to stutter. “I don’t… You shouldn’t…” he stopped, exhaled. “Will knowing make it any easier on you?” he asked, cocking his head over to the side.

Damn he’s good, thought Goldman admiringly from the corridor. Too bad he can’t remember the man’s damn name.

Goldman watched the green eyes get hard and flat. Turn an intense cold that reached across the room and made Goldman flinch. Fingers clenched on the broken vase.

“How did they die?” the blonde asked with more force than Goldman would have thought possible. It cost him. The sentence ended in a hiss of pain. He nearly bent over with it. But held himself erect by force of will.

Set the hook, Richter crowed in his head.

Richter winced. Dropped his voice. “They went back for you,” he said. “Fire must have caught them.”

The agent recoiled as if Richter had punched him. Went even whiter if that were possible. “No,” he said, softly, to himself. So softly, Richter had to read it from the cracked lips. He tore his eyes from Richter’s face and stared at the wall.

Richter licked his lips. “If it’s any consolation,” he said, slowly, beginning to reel him in, “they must have gone quickly. Couldn’t have felt much.”

Suddenly, the blond propelled himself forward off the edge of the bed. He tried to pull himself shakily to his feet.

The doctor started forward and Goldman grabbed him. Held him back. “If Richter wants you, he’ll let you know,” he hissed in his ear. The doctor glared at Goldman, but Goldman was impervious.

Goldman shook his head in wonder as his Team Leader pulled his snare tight around the unsuspecting agent from Denver. Good thing, too, Goldman mused. If this guy’s not on board, this bust is going to go down hard.

By this time, Richter had moved close enough to catch him by the uninjured elbow. The Denver agent swore vehemently. Stiff armed Richter away from him. But he managed to stagger forward only a few steps before his knees buckled. A wave of nausea took him and he heaved violently, crumpling over his aching ribs onto all fours. There was nothing inside him to throw up. Richter put a hand under his shoulder and hauled him half up to his knees, pushing a wastebasket toward him with a foot.

“Easy,” Richter said soothingly, pressing a hand against the injured agent’s back. “You’ve been through the mill yourself. Can’t go charging off like that.” He laughed a bit at his joke.

The spell passed, but the man stayed on his knees. Bent double. Gasping. A sheen of sweat across his face mingled with tears that had been forced through his clenched eyelids.

Richter lifted him under the shoulders and propelled him backward to the bed.

Hell, Richter thought. This guy’s either the toughest or the stubbornest fool I ever met. Didn’t matter, though, because Richter was smart. And brains would beat all the rest any day. It seemed almost unfair. But by the time the Denver agent pieced together enough facts from his disjointed days to figure out what was going on, the bust would be over. All they had to do was keep him off balance. Keep him from asking questions. That shouldn’t be too hard.

He looked down at the Denver team leader. The man was breathing hard. His eyes were still squeezed tightly shut as he lay back again against the pillow that seemed to hold more color than his face. Richter pulled up the blanket.

“Let me call the doctor,” he said quietly. He pressed the call button behind the bed.

A moment later, Richter grumbled impatiently and buzzed again. The doctor, his arm still held firmly in Goldman’s grip, and the nurse, who had remained motionless behind him, a fearful expression on her face both flushed an angry red.

Richter bent low over the Denver agent, conspiratorially. “Look,” he said. “You may not want to hear this, but we can make something good come out of it.”

There was no response. Just the sound of the harsh breathing coming slowly back under the injured agent’s control.

“We could use your help,” Richter said.

For a moment Richter thought the man had fallen unconscious again. Then the eyelids opened slowly. The eyes refocused, devoid of expression. He spoke slowly. His voice raw, but strangely toneless. As flat and expressionless as his face. “What do you want?”

“Help me get them,” Richter said earnestly. “Help me get the bastards who killed a hundred people in my town and your team. Help me put them away.”

The green eyes turned slowly toward him, focusing in, icy, flaming all at the same time. And far off in their depths, Richter saw it again. That ugly expression looming larger, growing nearer.


Hook, line, sinker. Hand me the net, I’m gonna land him, thought Richter.

Senior Agent Matt Richter pulled a chair up next to the bed. “Let me call the doctor. You’re going to need to stay awake for this.”

He left the room. And flashed an arrogant smirk at Goldman, drinking in his agent’s admiring expression.

He turned to the doctor. “Give him something to keep him awake.”

“I can’t just…” the doctor protested. Richter wrapped his large hand in the doctor’s shirt collar.

“Give him something to keep him awake,” he repeated quietly, deadly.

The doctor paled. He stuttered. “I’m sure we can find something that won’t interfere with his medication,” he offered at last.

He shook his arm free of Goldman and his collar free of Richter. With his last shred of dignity, he walked swiftly away down the hallway. The nurse followed. She said not a word, but he could feel her angry glare. He wanted to tell her that she had no right to blame him. She had done nothing to help either. But he bit his tongue and cursed himself for the coward he knew he was.

After the doctor left, Richter turned to Goldman, self-satisfaction writ large across his features. “Well, that’s one problem taken care of,” Richter said. “We now have Laramie’s full cooperation.” Whatever happens to him won’t be our fault. He thought it but did not speak it aloud. Not to Goldman.

Goldman didn’t correct the error. It was nice to have one up on his boss. Even if it was just a little one.

“Keep Pirelli out of the room,” Richter went on. “Now that we’ve got Miracle Boy on our side, I don’t want any inconvenient memories interfering.” He paused. “Should probably keep Martinez out, too. He spent too much time on guard duty last week”

He jerked his head back toward the door. “That makes you Laramie’s primary bodyguard. You need to make sure he looks like good bait when the militia gets here.” He fixed Goldman with a warning look. “Don’t screw up.”

Goldman nodded. At least I know his damn name.

The first question out of Buck Wilmington’s mouth after Kelly ran down the details was “Where’s the doctor who treated him?”

Kelly sighed. He knew that Buck wanted to find out what to expect when they found Chris. But one look at the team’s strained faces and he wasn’t sure Doctor Kahar deserved the wrath that was likely to descend on his head.

The doctor’s own voice saved Kelly from having to make a decision.

“I am Doctor Kahar,” said the lightly accented voice. He spoke quietly but confidently. “I treated Agent Larabee last. I would be glad to tell you whatever you need to know.”

As one, the six agents of Team Seven turned to look at the slight figure in the white jacket. He stood with his hands in his pocket. His face was grim, full of concern, but not nervous or afraid. He simply waited for their answer.

A young man with long hair and a worn leather jacket detached from the circle around Agent Kelly. He stepped around his comrades, laying a hand lightly on the back of the tall mustached one as he passed almost like it was a signal. He came to stand before the doctor, who was only a little shorter than himself. Hard blue eyes looked the doctor over once, and Kahar knew he had been carefully measured in that glance.

“Vin Tanner,” the man said, his manner brusque. His voice was low with a raspy Texas drawl. “I’m Agent Larabee’s next of kin. I have his power of attorney.” He put out his hand and the doctor shook it. The grip was not friendly.

The agent waved a hand back to indicate his friends. “Anything you can tell me about Chris’s condition, you can tell them, too.”

The doctor studied the agent whose hand he had shaken, the next of kin. He certainly didn’t look related to the man he had treated, but who was Kahar to argue? They were ATF. And for now, the wise court had given the power of attorney to the whole ATF. Even the men who had taken the Agent out of Radiology. Without his charts and without the images.

Kahar sighed to himself. He would need to tell the young man, so he could get his rightful power of attorney back. He looked the agent directly in the eye, but bit his words off before they could escape. Something in the hard eyes and tense jaw stopped him. Something the man seemed to be trying very hard to keep buried, out of his expression. Something that did not bode well for someone somewhere. Kahar knew then that court orders and proper procedures were not going to be the man’s first priority today.

All the agents were moving toward him then, including Kelly. It struck Kahar how large most of these ATF agents were. He wondered if that was on purpose. To intimidate. He nodded once at the men in front of him then suggested they come with him to a place where they could all sit and talk.

Ryan Kelly waved them on ahead, saying the doctor had already filled him in and he would be in the waiting room working the phone with Travis and Team Eight. He watched the doctor walk away, Team Seven dogging his heels. The little doctor rose up yet another notch in Kelly’s estimation.