by BMP

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The red glow of the cigarette was the only sign that Nico Martinez was there in the shadows, watching. Had Richter seen even that much of the agent he had placed on the roof to keep watch, he would have reacted much differently. Pirelli was glad to see the cigarette. It told him which direction to stumble in across the tarred, gravelly roof, uneven, sticky with the falling rain, and somehow littered with garbage and debris. He reached the corner, where Nico leaned up against a concrete chimneystack, venting the furnace room below. In the gloom, Pirelli could see that Martinez’s coat collar was drawn up around his neck. As he drew closer, Pirelli could tell by the gathering scowl that Martinez was not happy to be stuck on the roof in the rain. He came to a halt where Martinez could see him, although he knew that Martinez had known exactly who was coming toward him the moment he came out of the roof access door.

Martinez looked up from under close-drawn eyebrows. But when he saw the Styrofoam cup of coffee in Pirelli’s outstretched hand his expression relaxed. He stumped out his cigarette on the wet tar and took the coffee with muttered thanks.

Pirelli grimaced. “You can thank me even more,” he said. “I get to take your place.”

Martinez looked up at Pirelli then and grinned. “Bet you’re sorry you ever laid eyes on that guy,” he smirked.

“Who?” Pirelli quipped. “The guy from Denver or Richter?”

Martinez chuckled low in his throat. “Right,” he said. He pushed away from the wall. “Nothing’s happening. No one out of place. Nothing to look at.”

Pirelli slid into Martinez’s place in the meager shelter of the chimneystack at his back.

“Keep a good watch,” Martinez grinned, glad to be going inside at last. It was going to be miserable out here in the cold rain.

“Thanks,” Pirelli said, making a face at Martinez.

Martinez grinned wider and headed for the roof access door.

At 6:00, Richter had a new problem. Following a regular schedule, the clinic would close in a half hour. The patients would all go home, followed an hour later by the doctors and nurses. They would empty out of the building, find their cars and disappear from this neighborhood and let the building belong to the night. Keeping to the façade meant that Richter and Team Four had to send most of their backup home. On the plus side, he had no doubt that Team Four could handle an assassin alone. In addition, they would not have to share credit for the bust with any other team or any other agency. On the minus side, he had now way of knowing how many people or what sort of arms the militia would send. If they simply blew up the clinic, there was not going to be much that Team Four could do.

He saw Nico Martinez coming toward him. Pirelli had taken watch on the roof. That was fine. Pirelli was as sharp as they came when it came to keeping watch. He could hardly miss another rocket launcher coming down the street. He would notice anything else that seemed out of place.

“How’s the prisoner?” Martinez asked. Not that he cared. He just wanted Richter to know that he knew that he’d been banished. And for no good reason.

Richter grinned at him. “Made a deal,” he said.

Martinez looked at his boss curiously. “A deal?”

“Yeah,” Richter said. “He was more than willing to make himself into militia bait once I told him how his team died.”

Martinez looked at Richter even more curiously. Team Seven wasn’t dead. They had boarded a plane back to Denver carrying a medium-sized manila envelope—the only personal effects they had to remember their leader by. He remembered hearing that. Remembered thinking how strange that must have been for them.

Martinez caught the glint in Richter’s eye. Truth was not something Matt Richter let get in his way. If it suited his purpose to have Team Seven dead, then he would just declare Team Seven dead. It was all Martinez could do to keep from shaking his head in wonder. Richter was truly amazing sometimes. As his team leader, he would follow Richter anywhere, and be on board with any plan he put in front of him, but when it came down to it, Martinez didn’t trust Richter any more than he would trust a rattlesnake. Less, in fact, a rattler generally warned a man off before it bit. With Richter you couldn’t count on any such warning.

“What was the deal?” Martinez asked.

Richter grinned even wider. “Denver asked for some clothes.”

It took Martinez a minute to realize that by “Denver”, Richter meant Larabee. Richter was never any good at names. Denver would do in its place. Anyway it was an improvement. Whether Richter knew it or not, it was sort of embarrassing to listen to Richter keep calling the man by the wrong name.

Richter broke Martinez’s thoughts as he shoved the bottoms of a set of scrubs into Martinez’s chest. “Give these to Goldman,” he said. “Tell Goldman to tell him it’s the best we can do.”

Martinez took the scrubs in the hand that didn’t hold his coffee. “You’re not worried he’ll try to get away?”

Richter shrugged. “How far is he gonna get without you spotting him? Even if he did get around you, how far could he go in the shape he’s in without shoes or a shirt?”

Martinez nodded in agreement. “It’s getting cold out there,” he said, sipping his coffee.

“Yup,” Richter said, still grinning that satisfied grin. “He’ll be best off staying in here where it’s nice and warm—and dry. Have Goldman let him know that when he gives him the pants.”

Martinez nodded and turned to leave, but Richter caught his arm. “Doctor’s down there now.”

He turned back to listen.

“Goldman’s finding out what meds the doc is giving the patient in case we need to dose him ourselves. Send the doc up here, when he’s done. I’m sending him home.”

Martinez looked at him curiously.

“Don’t like civilians in the line of fire,” Richter said. “Could get messy,” his eyes got hard. “You know I hate messy.”

Martinez nodded again and moved up the hallway to do as he was told. Once he got out of earshot he began to chuckle softly. He knew as well as anyone, it wasn’t the so-called mess that Richter hated. It was the paperwork he’d have to fill out if a civilian got hurt.

Richter watched Martinez’s back retreating up the corridor. Then with a sigh, he went out into the waiting room to announce to the agents and police officers who had waited through the day that their assistance was no longer required. Appreciated, he reminded himself to say. But no longer necessary.

He thanked them for their time and effort. Reminded them half-jokingly that they had had dinner on the ATF directorship. He restrained himself admirably from herding them out the door although in truth, he couldn’t wait for them to go. In many ways, the less people there were around to interfere, the better this plan would work. As it was, it had been hell all day trying to keep curious cops and federal agents from sneaking down the hallway for a peek at the prisoner.

In addition to guarding the hall, Richter had threatened the doctor with investigation and censure if he breathed a word about the prisoner’s condition. He knew he could rely on his own men not to let it slip that the prisoner was really an ATF agent. He had convinced the directorship to keep that on a need-to-know basis. And Rivers had convinced them that Team Four was all that needed to know. Now and then, he realized, Rivers did prove herself handy, but he could surely do just as well without her when he became an AD

After he sent all the law enforcement home, Richter’s next problem would be the doctor. He anticipated no real difficulties, so long as the man didn’t try to grow a backbone now. He just wanted a nice succinct report on Denver’s condition and an idea of what medicines to administer and when.

After this was all over, they could return Denver to the last hospital and let that little doctor take care of him. All Richter needed was for the man to stay alive long enough to attract an assassin. To do that, he didn’t have to move, didn’t have to think, didn’t have to do anything but lie there and look sick. In truth, the man was doing a damn fine job of that so far.

Sounding curious, ignorant, and more than a little admiring, Goldman had carefully gleaned from the doctor exactly what medications he was giving the patient, and how much, and when, and what each was for. And when the doctor’s back was turned, he wrote it carefully down.

Richter just wanted the guy alive, breathing, heart beating. That was good enough. Goldman thought a little differently. He didn’t care about conscious, but he didn’t want it on his conscience if the man kicked because Team Four gave him the wrong meds in the wrong dose or the wrong order. The trick was getting the information without the doctor considering the reason why Goldman wanted to know. But Goldman was good at disarming, charming, and ignorant. It got him lots of information. Got him access to places that an ATF agent should have trouble getting access to. Got him out again, too. Saved his butt more than once.

He watched the patient blanch when the doctor suggested food again. The doctor reminded the patient that he hadn’t eaten anything remotely solid in quite some time. All he had had was some water and a little juice. The patient grunted out his refusal again, glaring at the doctor, and Goldman could tell from the way the corners of the man’s eyes pinched that the mere thought of clear liquids made him want to heave the water and juice back up all over everything again, just as he had done the first time the doctor had given him something not quite an hour ago. By then, the nurse had been sent home, so Goldman had had to clean it up, silently chewing out Richter the whole time.

The doctor sighed in resignation and hooked up another IV. He turned to Goldman. “He’s going to have to eat something if he’s going to start getting well.”

Goldman nodded. But in the back of his mind he was thinking about the way the man had kicked Pirelli in the face during his first few hours of consciousness early this morning and how this afternoon he himself had been chased from the room with a storm of flying objects, just so the guy could make enough of a distraction to smash the glass vase into a shiv. Goldman didn’t think now was a convenient time for the patient to start to heal. Live, yes. Start getting better? Not yet, thank you very much.

Martinez materialized in the doorway. Like a shadow. Man had an unnatural habit of suddenly appearing where he was not supposed to be without a warning, without a sound—without his feet touching the earth Goldman would have sworn. He materialized there with a crumpled pair of scrubs in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Ah, so Pirelli’s coffee run had included the roof, too. And here I thought I was special, Goldman thought sardonically. He took the scrubs.

“Just pants?” he asked.

Nico grinned crookedly, wide enough to show his broken tooth. “Thought that might convince him to stay put. Mighty cold and wet outside.”

Goldman looked Nico over. There were rain spots on his jacket, but they were drying already. He snickered. “How’s Jimmy like the roof?”

Martinez snickered back. Scrubs delivered, he yanked a cigarette from the inside pocket of his jacket where he kept them dry. He stuck it in his mouth.

At that moment the doctor stepped in front of them, waving his arms. “You can’t smoke that in here!” he snapped.

Martinez grinned at the doctor in a way that made his blood run cold. “Okay, doc,” he said. He looked him over slowly and moved toward the fire exit, tossing back over his shoulder. “Richter asked to see ya.”

He saw the doctor’s eyes get wide.

“Best run,” Nico said, putting just a little growl in his voice. “Richter ain’t a patient man.”

The doctor scowled but both agents noticed the hurry in his step as he headed up the hallway to the reception area.

Goldman chuckled. Martinez winked at his teammate. Then each man went through his separate door. Goldman to make sure the prisoner didn’t leave his bed—with or without his pants. Nico out to the fire stairs for another smoke.

Kelly waited on the phone. Waited for Kirk Gustin to come back. He was running down a lead. Didn’t promise anything, mind you. It was just one more of a half dozen or so and he didn’t hold out much hope. Still, it was a lead and as evening was ticking on in Texas time, he could see the Assistant Director’s face in his mind, getting grayer and grayer.

Doug Stone was on the line. He kept his voice low. Travis was pacing back and forth in front of his desk. Had been for the better part of an hour. Was likely to drive him crazy.

There was no hope of distraction or rescue, as the rest of Team Eight was scurrying around the office, shouting at each other, pulling files, scanning e-mails, and making phone calls as if someone had pressed an invisible fast forward button and turned them loose. Papers that would have to be carefully refiled later littered the desks in their bullpen. Maps lay open across the filing cabinets and covered bare spots on the floor.

They had dropped everything, every case, every pending bust, every bit of research to look for Larabee. Turning up the speed and the intensity another notch as the hours got later. Tempers were fraying. Doug watched two of his teammates jabbing their fingers down against a map. Arguing, heatedly, reddening faces inches apart. He found himself wondering which would happen first: would someone break a finger pounding it down on the desk like that or would the two come to blows?

Kirk came skidding suddenly back, his face animated. He was waving a tattered piece of paper in his hand. He grabbed the phone from Doug without so much as an excuse me, pressed it up against his ear and without preamble blurted an address out to Kelly.

Kelly swore. Scrambled for a pencil and paper at the nurse’s station.

“You got it?” Kirk panted.

“Repeat it,” Kelly ordered, noticing with annoyance that his fingers were clenched so tight on the pencil that it was actually shaking in his hand. He willed his hand to relax and his brain to think. “Got it,” he said after a minute. “You’re sure this is it.”

There was a pause. “Can’t really be sure, boss,” Gustin’s voice said, losing some of its animation.

There was a pause on Kelly’s end, too.

He heard the background noise switch and realized Doug had put him on speaker phone. If he closed his eyes, he could picture his team’s faces, knew from experience where each man was probably standing and what each one was probably doing. Knew them like he knew himself. Couldn’t picture his team without any one of them. Like he couldn’t picture Team Seven without Chris. They had dropped everything to find him. This was the best lead Kirk had given them yet.

“Tell me one more time,” Kelly said, closing his eyes and concentrating.

Kirk read from the notes in his hand, more slowly this time. “A pregnant woman went to the Melendez clinic this afternoon for a scheduled appointment. She was turned away at the door. Said a large man told her the clinic was closed. She said she had an appointment. The man was firm. He said the clinic was closed this afternoon and she needed to reschedule. She pointed out the people in the waiting room and the doctor standing at the reception desk. The man reached for her arm to escort her back outside and she caught a glimpse of his gun. She got scared, hailed a cab and then called the police when she got home.”

There was complete silence in the Team Eight bullpen.

“The local precinct started to assign a pair of officers to check it out, but the sergeant was told to cancel the dispatch call. He was told it was a ‘non-issue.’ And to drop it.”

“Just like that?” Kelly asked. “To drop it.”

“Yup,” Kirk replied. He looked around at his team. Still, as if frozen, staring. AD Travis, too. He waited for Kelly to reply.

“Just curious,” Kelly’s voice came back, sounding tinny over the speaker. “Did anyone check it out anyway?”

“No,” Kirk said. “But I got hold of a late morning briefing note asking patrols to stay out of the vicinity for an unspecified time.”

Kelly swore. It slipped out before he remembered that Travis was standing there in the bullpen on the other side of the speaker. “Sorry, sir” he said quickly.

“No offense taken,” Travis responded. Truth to tell, he was thinking some choice words himself.

“You’re sure your info is accurate?” Kelly asked. He needed to be sure. If he dragged Team Seven down to the south side and they were in the wrong place… He cut the thought short. Now was not the time to second-guess his instincts or to run disaster scenarios. Now was the time to think and think clearly.

The members of Team Eight could almost hear the wheels turning in Kelly’s head. Could see his face in their minds. Knew he was weighing the options. Knew they were running out of time.

Kelly spoke again. “You boys got anything else that looks as promising?”

There was silence, as they all looked at each other. Their expressions were identical. This was the best lead they had.

“Nope,” Doug Stone replied. “This is our best.”

“Thanks, guys,” Kelly said quietly, honestly. He believed in being honest with them. They deserved that much. “However this turns out,” he said, “you did a hell of a job today.”

He heard the sound of their embarrassed shuffle. Heard Doug clear his throat. “You just be sure to tell Larabee which team will be drinking on his bar tab next week.”

Team Eight chuckled. He heard the sound of a high five.

Ryan grinned.

“Go get him, Boss,” Kirk said into the phone.

He was echoed by Travis’s quiet. “Bring them all back home.”

He clicked the phone off and demanded to know where Dr. Kahar would hold a meeting with a group of six grown men. A second later he remembered the blessings of technology and buzzed Wilmington on his cell phone.

He sounded surprised when he answered.

“I think Kirk found Chris. Get your team and let’s roll,” Ryan said. They were there even before he had fished out his car keys.

“I’ll fill you in on the way,” he said, waving his phone as they raced for the parking lot.

“Wait,” J.D. Dunne said breathlessly as they climbed back into the cars. They stopped, every one of them. He ordered Josiah to pop the trunk. A second later he held up the wireless head sets they had worn this morning when they invaded Bautiste’s house. He began passing them out.

“Always carry extra,” he said, handing one to Kelly with an embarrassed grin.

Kelly grinned back.

“Now let’s roll,” Buck said. Kelly saw him reach over and muss Dunne’s hair proudly, as if the agent were a kid. Then they slid into their cars and moved out onto the highway.

Beside Kelly in the front seat, Nathan Jackson read through a folder holding medical charts. He held on with one hand, oblivious to the abrupt lane changes, as he followed the fingers of his left hand along the chart a line at a time, his lips moving as he read.

Kelly knew the upshot of what was in the chart but not the specifics. He tried to read Jackson’s face. But he found he couldn’t do that and drive at the same time. He didn’t miss the grumbling swear words that came from the normally self-possessed agent. He had heard once that Jackson had a formidable temper. He hoped he wasn’t about to see it set loose. Someone on Team Seven needed to stay calm. And much as he respected the men of this team, he wouldn’t lay odds on Wilmington, Tanner, Sanchez, or Dunne if all hell broke loose. That left Jackson and Standish. He was pretty sure Standish would stay calm, but he was not sure how much influence he would have if he had to talk the others down.

He glanced back in the rearview mirror at Wilmington, speeding behind him. Hope you show the stuff Chris saw when he made you second in command, Kelly thought. Team’s gonna need you now.

Josiah drove the rear car, same as before. This time his passenger seat was empty. Vin was still in the back, but he was not alone. Across the length of the seat, he was spreading out an array of weapons that he had pulled out from the trunk through the folding rear seat. He began preparing them one by one, loading each one carefully, and portioning out extra magazines. He said nothing. Gone quiet. He was all business now.

Josiah did not comment as he looked into the rear view mirror. Vin would make sure the team was armed properly. He just had to drive them there. He floored the accelerator again, pulling up nice and tight with Buck’s rental car. Together they pulled up tight to Kelly, weaving through the traffic like some segmented metal snake, blue lights flashing.

In the seat beside Buck, rolling with the lane changes, refusing to let them break his concentration, J.D. Dunne sat with the city map spread open across his knees and his laptop open between his sneaker-clad feet. Bent over, alternating between consulting the map and his computer, listening with one ear to Buck and the others argue and explain, until he finally crowed out that he had located the clinic on the city map.

Buck glanced over, his gaze skipping across the surface of the map without seeing anything specific before he returned his concentration to the highway and the cars before him.

“How long till we get there?” Buck asked.

J.D. consulted both the map and the laptop. “Forty-five minutes,” he said. “Maybe less.”

“Can we cut that time?” Kelly’s voice broke in.

J.D. squinted at the map. “Sure,” he said. “Break some laws. Violate one ways. Run red lights. Take us down to 35 minutes maybe.”

He looked questioningly over at Buck.

“We’ve got the blue lights on,” J.D. added.

Buck looked through the rearview mirror back at his teammates in the other cars and then again at the traffic surrounding them. It was still rush hour. The traffic was still heavy with people on their way home from work. Home to their families.

Chris would say it was too dangerous. Not worth it for less than ten minutes gain.

Buck swore silently. Chris would be right.

He shook his head. “Too dangerous,” he said tightly.

J.D. looked disappointed, but no one voiced an argument.

Josiah spoke into the headsets. “I’m not sure we want to go in there blue lights blazing,” he said, swerving his car suddenly left to stay on Buck’s tail.

He sounded as calm as if he were debating a philosophy in a theory of criminal behavior class instead of weaving dangerously in and out of traffic at a high speed on an unfamiliar highway. Kelly marveled at it.

Standish thought otherwise. “Why ever not?” came the southerner’s incredulous drawl from the seat behind Buck, where he clenched the door handle in a death grip and endeavored not to complain or contemplate the proximity of the cars they passed.

“Surprise, Brother,” Sanchez replied. “We can make it work for us. We don’t want to frighten off our quarry.”

“By quarry, I suppose you refer to the militia,” Standish said with evident contempt.

Buck entered the discussion again. “The militia is Team Four’s problem,” he said. “Chris is our problem. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the militia right now.”

Sanchez was unperturbed as he calmly demurred. “I believe Brother Chris would say differently.”

He was answered by a southern drawl dripping with barely contained sarcasm. “Well, since it is in doubt that Mr. Larabee was awake enough to give consent to his role in Team Four’s little plot, it is unknown exactly what ‘Brother Chris’ would say.”

“Ezra,” J.D.’s voice crackled back across the headphones. “Josiah’s right. If Chris were awake he’d want to catch them.”

That was too much for Buck. “Chris is a damn fool!” he burst out, twisting the wheel hard to the outer lane, passing a car on the shoulder before pulling back into the lane. He continued as if he hadn’t noticed. “He ain’t got the sense God gave a goose when it comes to his own skin.”

In the car ahead, Kelly grimaced. At both the vehemence in Buck’s voice and the crackling sound of the spraying gravel against the guard rail.

He glanced back as Buck continued his tirade. “Screw the militia. Screw Team Four. And screw Chris if he agreed to this. Let’s just get him and get out.”

“Amen to that, Brother Buck,” Ezra said, his clenched teeth the only imperfection in his imitation of the large profiler. “But first we need to arrive. Safely. And in one piece.”

Buck ignored him, changing the subject but only slightly. “Hey Kelly,” he called into the headphones. “Tell me what this Richter guy looks like. I want to make sure I have the right guy when I rip his head off.”

Kelly pursed his lips, not sure how best to reply.

He was saved by the southerner. “No one disagrees that said Agent is well deserving of such a fate. However, let us not forget that according to rumor, it is Agent Pirelli who is at least partly responsible for Mr. Larabee’s current medical condition.”

“Then he’ll be second,” Buck snapped as the car lurched back out onto the shoulder.

Josiah’s car followed right behind him, even as he advised Buck to remain calm.

But Buck was on a roll now. He snapped the steering wheel back to the left and crossed back into the lane, nearly clipping Kelly’s bumper. “Then,” he said without hesitating either in driving or speaking. “Then,” he repeated his voice rising in pitch and volume. “I’m going to wait for Chris to wake up, so I can give him a piece of my mind.”

“Gently, Buck…” Josiah admonished going around the same car and its shouting driver and pulling right onto Buck’s tail.

“I’m not gonna hit him, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Buck snapped back.

“I’m worried about that piece of mind you’re going to give him,” J.D. put in. “You ain’t got such a big piece to spare.”

Hoots and jeers covered Buck’s retort.

Even Kelly couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face.

Then the raspy Texas drawl broke in. “Militia or no. Let’s just get a plan together so we can get Chris and hightail it back home.”

No joke. No insult. The jeers died instantly.

“I agree with Mr. Tanner,” Ezra replied. “Mr. Larabee’s safe retrieval should remain our primary objective.”

“No one’s saying any differently,” Josiah responded testily.

Buck silenced them all before an argument ensued. He called on the one voice that had been absent. “Nathan?”

“I’m listening,” the medic’s voice came back heavily. “But I don’t like the look of these charts. And he never got that last set of x-rays. I think he’ll be going back to the hospital before he goes back to Denver.”

“What are you thinking will be wrong?” Josiah asked. He had heard the briefing from the doctor, but wanted Nathan’s thoughts, too.

Nathan snorted in response. “You name it. Like Doctor Kahar said: ribs, lungs, infection, possible internal damage. Plus he’s been sedated for a long time. Y’all know that stuff makes him sick. And you know that painkillers knock him out. Don’t know…” he trailed off with a sigh that didn’t release the strain from his voice. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Standish, rolling his eyes. “We all excel at ‘wait and see’!”

Buck’s voice cut back in, tight, but steady. Absent the anger of a moment ago. Vented and gone. “He’s alive, boys,” he said. “And that’s more than we had yesterday. In thirty more minutes we’ll be there to make sure nothing else happens to him. After that, whatever needs to be done, we’ll handle it. One problem at a time.”

“Amen,” Josiah seconded. The others murmured their assent.

Kelly remained silent. That settles it, he thought. Team Seven had settled their objective. The ATF’s objectives concerning the militia and hundred dead men and women had been pushed aside. Derailed. He knew he shouldn’t have been surprised. He couldn’t really blame them, but he didn’t know how to remind them of their duty. To the law. To the public. To Travis.

His musing was interrupted by Buck.

“You still there, Kelly?” Buck asked. “Ya been mighty quiet.”

His opening had come. There ahead of him, Buck had handed it to him. He was the senior agent on site. He could alter the plan. He could take charge of the team. He should take charge of the team. Set it back on track. As ATF, they had a mandate to catch the militia. A mandate that overrode personal considerations. What’s more, Chris Larabee would have agreed. This was the moment to say so.

But he let the moment slide.

“I’m here,” Kelly answered, exhaling his ego and his sense of duty out with his next breath. “I’m just waiting to hear the master plan.”

Buck laughed sardonically. “Chris is the master strategist,” he replied. “We just settle for whatever works.”

“What looks like it’s working so far?” Kelly asked with a grim smile.

Somewhere in the back of his head, Kelly wondered how he’d defend the decision he’d just made when Travis asked him why he didn’t take command. All he could think to say was It’s not my command to take. A lame excuse if ever he’d heard one.

J.D.’s voice crackled into his headset.

“I think I have an approach that will work. We go in lights off like Josiah said. And if my guess is right, there’s a rooftop next door for Vin to work down from while the rest of us come up from street level.”

They began to lay out the tactics. Voices interweaving, asking questions, adding experience, making suggestions.

Kelly nodded silently into his headphones, following the exchanges. He glanced at the cars behind him and then over at Jackson, now rifling through the medical kit at his feet, even as he added his ideas into the mix. Working. The six of them. Guided by a leader they trusted. As smoothly as if they were back home.

It was never my command to take, Kelly thought again, realizing suddenly that for the next few hours he was not the team leader. Not the senior agent. He had been sucked into Team Seven. Called on. Called in. Enfolded. He grinned to himself. His team would never let him live this down. The hell with ‘em, he thought, feeling the adrenaline begin to rush up his spine. They didn’t need to know everything about this trip.

He changed lanes again and checked the clock. If Dunne was right, and Kelly was confident that he was, they should arrive at their designated positions in less than twenty minutes. He prayed they had at least that long until the assassins showed up.

Nico leaned back in the fire stairwell, took a long, slow drag on his cigarette and breathed in the silence. Savoring the feeling and the sound of being alone. Not that he disliked his team. They were competent. Hell, if he wanted to admit it, they worked well together. Together they were on their way up, with the best arrest record in Texas. Still, enough of them was enough. They had been together now for nearly three weeks straight and he could live without their yammering for just the few minutes it would take to burn through the cigarette in his hand. Then he’d turn his headphones on and be plugged back into the information pipeline and Richter’s bitching and Goldman’s griping, and Pirelli’s pain-in-the-ass commentary. For now there was the blessing of silence.

Pirelli’s voice crackled softly into Goldman’s earpiece. “They’re here.”

“They?” Goldman asked, moving closer to the exam room door.

“I count six,” Pirelli replied. “Two coming to the main entrance. Two at the rear. And two on the opposite side of the building on our east.

“Roof?” Richter asked, straightening.

“My best guess,” Pirelli replied.

“Good work,” Richter grunted. “Pull back into the roof stairwell. Don’t let them see you. Once they hit the roof, pull back to the connecting corridor. You’ll take the two at the back.”

“Right,” Pirelli said, backing carefully into the roof entrance and carefully propping the door open just enough for him to get a good sweep of the roof.

“Goldman,” Richter snapped.

“Right here,” came the response.

“Stay close to the prisoner. We’ll try to get them before they get to you. Otherwise, you take the assassins when they come in the door.”

Goldman moved away from the bed and dropped his voice. “How close do you want them to get? Do you want me to wait until…?” He felt odd about asking it out loud. Do you want me to wait until they actually threaten him? Get a shot off? What?

“Not with six,” Richter replied, oblivious to Goldman’s discomfort or his relief. He had expected one, two at most. Not six. With six, things were bound to get ugly enough without creating ways to bag more evidence.

“Got it,” Goldman answered. Pirelli and Martinez better not screw up, he thought. He did not care to end up facing six militia assassins on his own.

Goldman glanced back at Larabee, who lay back against the pillows, the head of the bed propped nearly to sitting. He was still pale and had spent most of the last two hours in just that position, head back, eyes closed and his teeth clenched tightly together. The few times the green eyes had opened to glare at Goldman, they had a glassy look to them. A fine sheen of sweat covered his face, reminding Goldman of figures he had seen in wax museums.

Goldman had tried twice to give him the painkillers the doctor had prescribed. The second time, Larabee had gripped Goldman’s wrist with surprising strength and promised to break it if he tried it again. Goldman didn’t care to test the man’s resolve.

“Martinez…” Richter said, moving on to his next instructions. When he heard the swearing, Goldman realized that Nico hadn’t answered.

“Goldman, where’d Martinez go?” Richter demanded.

“Fire stairs,” Goldman replied.

“Go get him,” Richter snapped. “Tell him to pull back and take a position at the middle of your corridor.”

“Right,” Goldman said.

“And,” Richter added, his irritation crackling across the line. “Tell him to put his damn headphones on.”

“Right,” Goldman repeated, moving toward the door. If Richter wasn’t already preoccupied with the six armed militia members coming at the building, he would have come down to help Martinez put on his headphones. Martinez should consider himself lucky that six assassins were approaching.

Goldman had barely stepped through the door when he heard the low growl behind him.

“A gun,” the man had said. When Goldman turned back he was vaguely surprised to see Larabee’s eyes open. He struggled to sit up.

Goldman nearly laughed. “You gotta be kidding!”

“Goldman,” Richter snapped in his ear. “Go get Martinez.”

“I’m on it,” Goldman snapped back.

He turned to the man in the bed. “No,” he said firmly.

To his surprise, Larabee lurched to a sitting position and swung his scrubs-clad legs over the side of the bed. He leveled a glare at Goldman that was equal parts anger and fever.

“What are you doing?” Goldman demanded abandoning the door and returning to the bed.

“What the hell is going on down there?” Richter demanded shortly.

“Larabee wants a gun,” Goldman returned.

“Then give him one and get Martinez out of the stairwell before he blows this.”

Goldman stuttered.

“He’s not gonna shoot you in the back,” Richter said snidely.

Goldman did as he was told, throwing his spare down on the bed. As he left the room, Larabee was checking the magazine, looking far too expert for Goldman’s liking. The thought crossed his mind that maybe Richter was wrong on that last point.

In the stairwell, Goldman leaned over the railing and looked down the stairs that led to the basement. Martinez was stubbing his cigarette out against the concrete steps. Goldman snapped his fingers twice. Nico’s head snapped up. With long practice, Goldman signaled him that two were on their way down from the roof. He waved Nico up until they were in whispering distance.

“You’ve got the exam room midway down,” he said. “Pirelli’ll come down just ahead of the two from the roof. We’ll pull them in and hold them down. Pirelli’ll get the two from the back. And Richter’ll get the two at the front door. Got it?

Martinez nodded and checked his gun.

“And put on your headphones,” Goldman snapped.

Martinez grinned remorselessly as he slipped around Goldman into the hall.

“Idiot,” Goldman hissed.

Martinez tapped his earpiece with his middle finger to show Goldman that his headphones were working just fine. Then he disappeared into an exam room on the left.

It had grown dark outside and the hallway once again descended into shadow. The exit light cast its red glow along the floor and up to the prisoner’s door, where a yellow slice of light flowed into the corridor from under the door.

Goldman stepped back inside.

His swearing impressively in three languages brought Richter’s teeth together with a click that Pirelli could hear and identify over the headphones.

“Larabee’s gone,” Goldman snapped in disbelief, staring at the empty bed.

“Maybe he’s in the john,” Pirelli offered.

They all heard the slam as Goldman nearly ripped the tiny adjoining bathroom door off its hinges.

“I already checked,” Goldman spat. “I’m not stupid…”

“Enough,” Richter said from between his teeth. “Resume your positions. Forget Larabee. He did his part. He got them here. Now I want as many alive as possible.”

“Hope Larabee knows enough to stay out of the way,” Martinez muttered.

I doubt it, Goldman thought pessimistically. He doesn’t seem the type who would.

“Goldman,” Richter said after a moment. “You’ll have to take his place.”

Marc snorted at that. “Sure,” he said. “The white supremacists will never notice that I’m a Jew from Brooklyn.”

“Not if you don’t open your big mouth,” Pirelli snapped back.

“Just do it,” Richter ordered.

“Yes sir,” Goldman replied and climbed into the bed, tucking his gun hand down along his leg. He just hoped the assassins wouldn’t have Uzi’s, and that his team was on their game today. Otherwise, they’d be sending his leaky remains back to his mother, whose dying comment would be “I told him so.”
It crossed his mind as he waited that since Pirelli was the one who screwed up, it oughta be Pirelli who had to act as bait. But it was too late to switch places now.

By the time he saw Pirelli’s shadow softly backpedaling across the space below his door, he realized that there was another option to sitting like an Alabama duck decoy and waiting to get splattered. He climbed off the bed, cobbled together a man-sized lump out of pillows and whatever else he could find, pulled up the covers and took a position behind the door.

“Here they come,” Pirelli warned softly into the headphones, not a moment before Goldman settled.

“Two at the door,” Richter said almost gleefully.

Richter lived for the rush.

I hate him, Goldman thought to himself and breathed out, willing himself to be steady.

He heard the cracking of machine guns from the front entranced, answered by the pop of Richter’s pistol. He didn’t let it distract him. A distraction would be standard procedure. A distraction would allow the real assassins to slip in unnoticed. They would wait a few minutes to be sure that the gunfire out front would draw off anyone waiting for them. Then they would step out of the stairwell. Then he and Martinez would have them. He slowed his breathing, strained to hear beyond the headphones, to separate the silence here from the gunfire in the lobby, to focus all his senses on the hall outside. And he watched the bottom of the door for the tell-tale shadow to cross the pool of yellow light.

In the reception area, Richter was busy with both hands. Irritated. The waiting room didn’t work as well as planned. Having chosen cover behind the reception desk, Richter now realized that he was trapped there. If he tried to make the hallway straight across, they had a clear shot at him. He might make the hallway behind him, but then where?

On the other hand, he was cheered by the thought that if the assassins tried a run for either hall, he had a clear shot at them.

Neither side seemed to be able to make a clear advantage. They traded bullets ineffectually in an effort to wear the other down. And in Richter’s case to keep them from reinforcing the other assassins down the hall. Since there were two of them, Richter also decided it was time to start conserving ammunition.

Richter crouched down behind the reception desk, which now sported long gashes across its pink laminated surface. He considered the back hall and whether it would provide sufficient cover and allow him to get an angle on the two gunmen hunkered down in the waiting room, one using the entrance lobby beyond what was left of the doors as his shelter. The other took advantage of the fact that if he couldn’t see Richter, Richter couldn’t see him either.

Another part of Richter’s nimble brain monitored the headphones. He had heard nothing from his agents since Pirelli’s soft notification that the militia had arrived.

A quick glance back into the reception area, through what was left of the glass cubicle surrounding the desk showed a glimpse of black. From the lobby entrance, one of the gunman had exposed an arm and was signaling to his partner. Richter took a bead. The bullet slammed into the wall opposite, taking a chunk of the doorframe with it. All traces of both gunmen disappeared. Pulled back. Richter double-checked his ammunition supplies. With one eye on the doorway, he began to take stock of his spare magazine.

The sudden voice in his ear startled him. He jerked his finger, barely keeping from firing. A split second later he realized it had not come over his headphones. He turned his head, slowly, incredulously, realizing he’d be dead now if it were the militia. It wasn’t militia, but nearly as incredible.

Beside him, clad in the thin scrubs, barefoot, and wearing a white doctor’s coat he had found somewhere, the Denver agent crouched beside him. Richter stared at him.

Incredibly, the man smirked back, through two days worth of scruff.

Richter took a full look at the man and barely kept himself from pulling away. Couldn’t help it. Under the soft night lighting, the man’s features looked yellow. Sweat gleamed on his face. Shadows filled the hollows of his cheeks. And his eyes held a feverish, half-crazed look. Richter imagined he could feel the fever heat. Imagined he could smell it. He got himself together, his mind groping for and finding the words the man had spoken a moment before.

“Need help?”

Was that really what he had said? Hell no, I don’t need your help, Richter thought automatically. Instead he snapped. “How did you get here?”

A round of covering fire from the gunman in the doorway made both of them tuck their heads in. The bullets thwacked hard into the now-battered reception desk, halting there.

“Back hall connects,” said the other agent through his teeth. Richter glared at him. If just talking was painful, how the hell did he think he was going to be useful?

“I know the back hall connects,” Richter snapped back, covering his microphone. That’s not what I meant, he thought, but quickly shrugged it off. He didn’t want to go into what he meant because he really didn’t care to know how the man had gotten past all three of his agents and between two and four militia gunmen and a hail of bullets to arrive here just now.

He thought better of his first instinct. He wasn’t sure that Denver could see straight enough to shoot, but hell, more cover fire couldn’t hurt.

“Just try to take them alive,” Richter growled, shoving over.

A smile of pure malice twisted the man’s lips.

The gunman in the door fired another round, shattering anything that was left on the shelves behind their heads. A rain of wood splinters fell down on their heads and necks. Wood ripped from the top of the reception desk. It was the thickest fire yet.

Both agents reacted on instinct. Realizing at the same instant it meant that the other would try to make the hall.

Richter launched himself out low. He rolled out into the hallway almost at the other gunman’s feet, tripping him.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Denver stand, drawing fire.

“Stupid bastard,” Richter thought savagely. But so long as the bullets weren’t directed at him, he took the advantage it gave him. He grabbed his adversary by the shoulders, trying to slam his head against the floor, to stun him. They scrabbled together across the center of the hallway all flailing arms and legs.

Behind him, the bullets stopped suddenly. Richter didn’t glance back to find out why. He had him now, flipped him onto his stomach and pinned him down. Only when he had the man cuffed and unmasked did he wonder why he didn’t have a bullet in his back. He looked back to the door. The other gunman was on the floor, clutching his leg, rocking and cursing. Blood was already pooling on the floor. Denver stood over him crookedly, listing to one side, but pointing his gun unerringly at the militia man’s head.

Richter shoved his gun into the back of his quarry’s neck and told him not to move, not even to twitch, or he’d blow his head off. The tremble that ran through the body beneath him told him he’d get his way. He got off the man and crossed the room, never taking his eyes from his own prisoner. All the while he marveled at how steady Denver was keeping that gun, in marked contrast to the difficulty the man was having standing up straight.

As he got close, Richter could hear that Denver was breathing hard. Sweat running in rivulets down the side of his face.

“Face down,” Richter commanded the would-be assassin, drawing up beside him and still covering the cuffed prisoner on the floor.

The assassin didn’t comply. He stayed wrapped around his own bleeding leg. Without hesitation, Richter kicked out, connecting solidly with the wounded leg. The man howled in fury.

“I said, get face down. Now.”
The man let go of the leg and sprawled out onto the floor. Denver passed Richter the man’s machine gun. A quick check. Empty. Richter eyed the other agent.

Stupid, lucky bastard, he thought.

Richter looked around the room for something to cuff this one with. He spotted a shattered lamp and yanked out the cord. He bound the prisoner’s wrists and then tied them to his ankles. He ripped the side of the coat he wore and bound up the prisoner’s leg.

Kneeling down, he chucked his gun under the assassin’s chin to lift his face into the light as he pulled off the mask.

“Don’t bleed to death now,” he chided the man with a ferocious grin. “We’ll be wanting to ask you some questions later.”

He turned to Denver. “You hit?”

He turned a cold eye to Richter and shrugged, indifferently. Richter looked him over. Didn’t see any new blood but Denver didn’t stand still long enough for Richter to get a good look.

Stupid. Lucky. Crazy.

Still, he did have the presence of mind to get across the room before the man reloaded. Maybe not lucky. Just crazy. And stupid.

“Alright,” Richter said, handing the agent an extra magazine. “You stay here and watch these two. Make sure they don’t try anything.”

Denver took the bullets but turned cold dead eyes on Richter. Without a word he walked the five steps to the man on the floor, looked down at him for a moment. He was young, a boy really. In his early twenties. And when he looked up at the agent standing over him, Richter saw fear dawn in his eyes. A second later, Denver raised the butt end of his pistol and bashed the youth across the temple. The kid slumped to the floor, his head bouncing once on the carpet.

Denver turned the eyes back on Richter. They were cold. Hard. Not dead. Richter saw his mistake.

“You watch them,” the agent said in a voice so low Richter almost didn’t hear it.

And as Richter watched, he stepped over the unconscious youth and headed into the back hall. One hand against the wall to steady himself.

Richter swore. He raised his gun at Denver’s retreating back. And ordered him to halt. Denver either didn’t hear or didn’t care. He kept right on. A split second later, the point was moot. Gunfire from the end of the cross hallway announced the entrance of the assassins by the fire stair.

The gunfire was followed immediately by Pirelli’s quiet whoop. “Here come my two.” He bayed like a hound scenting blood. Gunfire erupted somewhere in the back of the floor, at the other end of the connecting hall.

Richter resisted the urge to bolt toward his team. He kept his gun on the two prisoners and tried to interpret what was happening through the chatter and the flashes of light and the shadows moving in the corridor amid the smoke and dust. He was unaware that he was swearing steadily the entire time.

Seven men in three cars swore simultaneously—one in excruciatingly vivid French—as the clinic and then the street came rapidly into view from the highway exit ramp.

Vin Tanner kicked the back of the passenger seat in front of him, violently, snapping the hinge and rocketing it forward to slam against the dashboard. The driver did not comment. They gunned their engines down the ramp and came roaring onto the empty street.

The street was barricaded. Cordoned off at both ends. By police cruisers and an ominous black van that sat at the nearest corner, shining wetly under the street lamp.

Seven pairs of trained eyes caught the flashes of gunfire just inside the lobby doors.

“Screw the plan,” Buck said tightly. “Ryan, Josiah, park as close as you can to that barricade. Vin, get the weapons passed out. I want everyone in flak jackets.”

“That’ll take time,” J.D. protested, face white, not tearing his eyes from the building.

“Everyone,” Buck snapped back. The fierce glance he shot at J.D. left no room for argument.

They were out of the door and spilling onto the sidewalk before the cars had rolled to a stop. Parked where they were, haphazardly in the street. Police officers blinking confusedly at them. Trunks popped. Six of the men shrugged into flak jackets.

Kelly met Buck’s eye.
“No jacket,” he shrugged with a smile.

No spare this time. Wilmington nodded. “You stay behind us then,” he ordered.

Secretly, Kelly was relieved. He had thought for a moment he was about to be ejected. But Wilmington couldn’t do that to him. He had led the fight to find Chris. He wouldn’t quit now. Kelly couldn’t help but smile as Buck turned to give orders to the rest of the team.

A police officer from the barricade approached them tentatively from one side. The special tactics team leader climbed from the black van and approached them from the other side. Team Seven, Kelly in their midst, brushed past both as if they didn’t see either one. At the barricade, seven ATF badges flashed into the lamplight.

The officer at the roadblock looked confused. He looked over to an older officer, a sergeant. The seven badges angled themselves in the sergeant’s direction.

Gunfire crackled from the building, the pop of pistols and the more ominous chug of machine gun fire.

“No one called for backup,” the first officer said to his sergeant.

Buck answered for him. “I did.” The tone was quiet, deadly.

The sergeant hesitated only until Buck turned his full gaze on him. There he saw something he didn’t care to tangle with. “Let ‘em go,” he said to the officer, standing aside. “It’s a federal problem. Let the Feds take care of it.”

The last agent, the tall one at the back of the group, gave both police officers a knowing grin as he passed under the lamplight. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he quoted. “And unto God what is God’s.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” the special tactics leader snarled, his hands on his hips.

“Stay out of the way,” the veteran sergeant replied with a surly grunt. “And mind our own business.”

“Is that a warning?” the special tactics officer bristled.

“Son,” said the sergeant wearily, laying a calloused hand on his zealous colleague’s black sleeve. “It was advice. Now let’s get back to our stations and do our jobs, so they can do theirs.”

The special tactics officer remained in the street, watching with a professional eye as the new arrivals fanned out around the building. Although he could not hear any words, he knew they were doing a headset check. A vest check. Then they separated into pairs. Three of them taking up station at the lobby entrance.

He watched the man at the right of the doors give a series of hand signals to the two on the other side. A moment later, one of the men on the left pulled open the door. The three slipped inside, high, low, middle. Clean, practiced, precise.

The special tactics team leader returned to his van. And continued his long wait.

The gunfire in the lobby had stopped by the time Buck, J.D., and Ryan Kelly took their positions alongside the clinic doors. Buck struggled to stay detached as he considered what that might mean.

The others checked in.

Josiah and Nathan took opposite routes around the building and arrived at the rear.

Vin found a route to the roof and under Nathan and Buck’s joint admonition to be careful, was using his safety line as a climbing aid to help him scale the wall alongside a network of drainage gutters. Ezra, unable to follow Vin, reported that he was moving on to the lower fire doors at the side. He would attempt to gain entrance there.

From further inside the building, Buck could hear the pop of the fighting resume. He could see nothing of the interior. He signaled J.D. to go in low and for Kelly to bring up the rear. Kelly nodded. He reached around J.D. and pulled open the door. He was right on their heels as Buck and J.D. slipped inside.

Yellow night lights cast an unhealthy glow onto the occupants of the waiting room beyond the shattered glass of the clinic door. A man in a doctor’s coat stood over two black-clad gunmen on the floor. One was bleeding. The other unconscious. The man in the coat pointed his gun straight at Buck, J.D. and Ryan, a cold, hard look in his eye.

Kelly broke forward, hands up, palms out, his gun to the side. “Richter,” he said.

“Kelly,” the man snarled back. The look in his eye didn’t grow any warmer. He felt rather than saw the hard look the other two men were giving him.

“I brought the cavalry,” Kelly snarled.

“What makes you think I need help,” Richter snarled back, giving the conscious prisoner a kick. He did not lower the gun.

The gunfire from farther inside the clinic popped and crackled.

The two agents behind Kelly exchanged a glance and raised their weapons, pointing both of them straight at Richter’s head.

Kelly looked from Richter back to Buck and J.D. The situation was deteriorating rapidly. Behind him, Buck was still glacially calm, but Kelly wasn’t sure how long he would stay that way, now that he had seen Richter face to face.

Richter glanced over at the two agents, seemingly undisturbed. “This your famous Team Eight?” he asked mockingly.

“No,” Kelly said slowly. He heard a click as Buck pressed his trigger part way.

“Team Seven,” Buck answered, quietly, evenly, deadly. “Where’s Chris?”

Richter did an impressive job of masking his surprise, but Buck saw the eyes widen a fraction. Before he could answer, he put his hand up to his headset mic, lowering his gun as he did so. He flicked his gaze down the corridor to his left. “He’s down there,” Richter answered. “In the room by the fire exit.”

Richter suppressed his surprise and his grin when the mustached agent began barking orders into his own headset.

“Vin, Ezra, Chris is in the room by the fire door.” He poked his head into the hallway. “Gunfire’s pretty thick. Hard to see, but it looks like the bad guys are in the stairwell.”

He listened for a second. “Copy,” he responded to the unheard reply. “Be careful.”

He turned to the young agent alongside him. “Ezra’s in the fire stair. He’ll come up from below. Vin’ll come down from the roof and squeeze them into the hall.”

He leveled his gaze at Richter. “How many men you got back there?”

“Two,” Richter said, ordering himself not to smile. It was easier this way. Get the guns where he needed them. There’d be time for truth later. “I can get one more on the way.”

Pirelli had just called in that his two were out of the contest.

“Jimmy,” Richter spoke into his mic. “Are yours secure?”

“They’re dead,” Pirelli replied.

“Damn,” Richter snapped.

“Well, it wasn’t all my fault,” Pirelli griped back.

Richter didn’t ask for an explanation. That could wait. Instead he gave orders. “Leave them. Get yourself down to the connecting hall to back up Martinez. They’ve pinned the militia in the stairwell.” He lowered his voice and turned sideways. “You’ll have some unexpected help.”

Pirelli caught the note of disdain in Richter’s voice. What help? He was up to his eyeballs in unwanted help right now.

Richter raised his voice just a notch as he added, “Martinez says Goldman’s keeping them out of the exam room, but they’re getting sprayed pretty good in there.”

He wondered why Richter was telling him this. He had a headset. He knew what was going on with his teammates, including the steady stream of expletives coming from the waiting room. Perhaps it was for the new ‘help’.

Message delivered. Out of the corner of his eye, Richter saw the youngest agent start forward. The one with the mustache, clearly in charge now, reflexively pushed him back with a hand on his chest.

Richter pressed his lips together hard to keep from smiling. He actually had no idea how Goldman was doing down there. He was so used to the man’s non-stop complaining he had tuned it out almost as soon as the bullets started flying. If there was a real problem, Nico would let him know. But it seemed a likely motivator to get this Team Seven into the hallway where he needed them.

The mustached agent was on his headset again. “Nathan, Josiah, can you make your way up the back hall to the fire exit. There’s a connecting hall in the center.”

Apparently the reply was affirmative because the mustached agent muttered, “good.”

“Is the back hall clear?” he asked Richter impatiently.

“Yes,” Richter answered. “Except for two dead militia men.”

The agent relayed this information to teammates somewhere at the other side of the floor.

He turned then to Kelly and the young one. “You an’ me, Kid,” he said. “Kelly, you stay up here with him.” He jerked his head toward Richter and no one missed the disgust in his tone.

“Let’s go get Chris,” Buck said with a tight grin.

J.D. nodded back with a tight grin of his own. They pressed back against opposite walls and slid into the corridor.

Richter gave a poisonous smile to their retreating backs. “I can guard these two,” he said to Kelly. “Why don’t you make sure the ambulances are ready to go when the bullets stop.”