by BMP

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 | Page 6 | Page 7 | Page 8 | Page 9
Page 10 | Page 11 | Page 12 | Page 13 | Page 14 | Page 15 | Page 16 | Page 17 | Page 18
Page 19 | Page 20 | Page 21 | Page 22 | Page 23 | Page 24 | Page 25 | Page 26 | Page 27

It was late. And J.D. knew he should be sleeping. But Buck was keeping him awake. That wasn’t exactly correct. The man was a floor away, sawing wood to beat the band. Dead asleep. Probably dreaming about women and smiling in his sleep, damn him, while J.D. lay downstairs in his own room with Buck’s words keeping him awake. Rolling around in his head. If you let yourself believe the myth, you might miss out on the man.

He realized now what Buck was trying to tell him.

It was the myth that had ordered them out of the Texas warehouse to face down a hundred blazing guns on his own. The myth that hauled himself out of a hospital bed to help Richter capture the militia assassins and then, dazed and bleeding, took down Team Four’s Jimmy Pirelli. The myth that burst into a directorial board of inquiry uninvited and stood between them and the directors. It was the myth that planned to go down for his team. The myth, in the office all week. Curt, angry, strategizing, hell-bent, playing them all. Impervious to pain, hunger, and lack of sleep. The myth that made him give up Buck as the supervisor of an unauthorized surveillance mission.

J.D. had been so focused on what was happening to him, to the team, first on his belief that everything would go back to normal and then on his anger at what he was being forced to do. Betrayed. And so angry, that he couldn’t see what was right in front of his nose. But tonight he did. Tonight he finally got it.

It was the man who came to get him at the Saloon. Who drove him home. The man who had realized how this was all going to fall and was willing to give everything he had to prevent it. And it was the man, who succumbing finally to his fatigue, his injuries, and his fear, reached out, asking for their help. And, in the end, it was the man who stood resolutely before them and told them he could accept the coming consequences. The same lousy possibilities as before. So did that make the man and the myth the same?

He stared at the clock. He could feel the growing furrow between his brows.

No, he decided. There was just a place where the man and the myth crossed. Like Josiah said. Places where people who didn’t have enough information just filled in the blanks. For good or bad. The brass might fire the myth. But Nathan and Vin and Josiah and even Ezra had promised to follow the man. It was the myth that Buck Wilmington told stories about in the Saloon. But it was the man that Buck, the best man that J.D. had ever known, protected, stood beside, and would lay down his life and career for.

And worried about, J.D. thought suddenly. God, Buck had been worried. He just didn’t know that J.D. had known.

J.D. rolled over. Feeling suddenly cold. Had he been the last to see it? The real Chris Larabee. The human being. Imperfect as the rest of them. Or did the others sometimes lose sight of it, too? Even Buck had said he half believed parts of the myth. And if anyone would know better, it was Buck.

J.D.’s eye fell on his backpack. And half-shoved under the bed, a plastic bag where he had put all those condolence cards. Still unable to throw them away.

He had hid them from Buck. Remembering his reaction in the Texas hotel. His anger because he didn’t think those people had any business sending them. Because they didn’t really know Chris Larabee. J.D. understood the anger now.

But inside, J.D. also knew he had been right. Some of these cards were from people who had had a chance to see Chris Larabee for the man he was. Maybe only in the compassionate gesture of helping a co-worker wade through a pile of confusing insurance paperwork. Maybe just in caring enough to see that security escorted a late worker to her car. Maybe only in a traded jibe, a long-standing joke. Or a photo that innocently revealed something that Chris Larabee might have thought he had hidden. Those people had known some fragment of the man. And had realized that something important had been taken from Team Seven’s world.

J.D. sat up and threw off the covers. On his knees, he reached for the bag. Setting it on the quilt beside him.

The evening’s meeting playing again in his mind. Josiah’s words, It’s happening again, and we still couldn’t see it. He felt the chill again at the comparison. And again realized how accurate it was. Chris was forcing them out of harm’s way.

But this time, they had refused to go. And it seemed to him in a moment at the end there, when Chris went dead white. When Buck and Nathan both thought that he might pass out. In that moment, J.D. had seen something different in Chris’s face. An understanding. Perhaps a realization. J.D. didn’t know what. But he had a hope. He hoped Chris understood now, after all this, that he was too important to just let him go.

J.D.’s mind’s eye turned lazily to a funeral he had once attended. A friend of the family. Someone he hardly knew. But afterwards, his mother had gone to make a donation to the woman’s designated charity, her local library. And as they walked in and inquired how to go about making the donation, the clerk had glanced up at the wall clock. She told them how their friend had come in just about that time every day. And how at just that time every day, they felt her absence.

J.D. had never forgotten that. How many lives one touches—and changes—just in living every day.

That’s what the cards are about, he thought fingering the bag. People telling Team Seven that Chris had been important. That he would be missed. Something people never remembered to say except at funerals. No wonder Josiah kept his memorial remarks. Too bad Chris would never see them. He might be surprised.

The thought drove J.D. bolt upright in the bed. An idea flashed into his head. Clear now, that thought that had been rolling indistinctly around in his head. Here was the answer.

The hell with sleep, he thought suddenly, snapping on the bedside lamp. I’ve got work to do. He slid off the bed and headed for his closet, rummaging around in the back until he found what he was looking for. Then he cleared a work space on his desk beside his computer, turned on the overhead light and set to work.

Buck entered the kitchen at his usual time, just a hair’s breadth under the wire, just in time to pour coffee and scoot out the door if he were to have any hope of getting to work on time, to find J.D. finished with breakfast and pulling on his jacket and helmet. Driving his motorcycle today.

Buck looked at him curiously.

“Gotta run some errands after work,” J.D. said.

Buck nodded. The kid still looked tired. But not the same tired. Not beat down. A little frayed at the edges to be sure, but juiced. Hyperfocused. The way you look after an all-night bachelor party, when it becomes a point of pride to arrive at work the next day as if nothing had happened.

“Sleep okay?” Buck asked dryly.

J.D. grinned. “Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Had some work to do.”

He fastened his helmet and went out the door without further explanation.

Buck shook his head and poured his coffee. He let it slide. Sooner or later he would know what it was. J.D. always told him everything—sooner or later.

He met Chris coming up in the elevator. They rode up two flights together, just the two of them.

Buck studied his friend’s profile, the ramrod straight posture. And when Chris turned to him as the elevator announced their floor, the cool, calm almost smirk that sent a gleam up into the green eyes. Buck grinned back.

“You ready?” Chris asked the second before the door opened.

“I was born ready,” Buck said, cockily, preceding him into the hall. “Like you needed to ask,” he scoffed.

He didn’t return the question. He could see it. Chris was ready. Hell, high water, mortar rounds. Whatever. The time had arrived. And Chris was ready. Like always.

Vin was at his desk, when they entered the bullpen. Old leather cowboy boots propped up on the edge of his desk, his coffee mug in his hand. He glanced up and met Chris’s eye.

Chris inclined his head toward his office and Vin sent back a smart-ass smirk. He took his feet down slowly, raised his coffee mug to Buck in silent greeting, and lazily rose to his feet. In no particular hurry he glided into Chris’s office and slouched into a chair. Buck shook his head. Ornery Texan.

“Want some coffee ‘fore you get started?” Buck asked.

“Nope,” Chris smirked. He hung his jacket on the back of his office door and shut it with a click.

Vin came out again in less than 45 minutes. Smirking and glowering at the same time. He went back to his desk.

Chris appeared in the doorway. He surveyed the bullpen. Then disappeared into the kitchenette. He came out again with his coffee and his arrogant, lazy, long-legged stride.

“My office, Tanner,” he said curtly, passing the desk without even a pause. “Now.”

Vin glared at him darkly. But went back in.

The door shut behind them. A ten-minute argument ensued. Low, growled out. Punctuated by swear words or a hand slammed against a desk. Gravelly voices. Tense. Short. Angry.

Unfortunately, as there was no actual shouting, none of the five men gathered near the door was able to hear exactly what was being said. Therefore no one could tell who had won. They were all back at their desks or searching diligently through the filing cabinets before the last insult—or more likely, the last threat—had died on the office air.

Vin yanked open the door, muttering swear words under his breath. He straightened his shirt front, cracked his neck, rolled his cuffs back down, and stalked over to his desk.

The only discernible word was the “dumb ass,” he mumbled darkly under his breath, dropping into his seat with a scowl. He fell silent.

They pretended not to notice.

“Feel better?” Buck said, without looking up.

“Yup,” the sharpshooter replied.

Buck grinned and craned his neck to see inside the office. Chris was leaning back in his desk chair, Hands crossed behind his head. He met Buck’s eyes with a half-lidded gaze. And a tiny smirk flashed across his face so quickly that Buck almost didn’t see it.

Buck shook his head. And laughed silently into his coffee. One hell of a morning, he thought happily.

They had a long meeting in the conference room. Discussed the progress of the briefings with Team Eight. The intended directions. Some new angles that came to light. Chris made notes and suggestions. Indicated his satisfaction so far. And made no mention of last night. Or of today. Of coming events.

So they kept their silence, too. Despite J.D.’s jiggling. Despite Ezra’s incessant fixing and refixing of his cuffs. Despite Nathan’s third cup of coffee before eleven A.M.

The leader closed the meeting and stood up. Sending them back to their work. Buck remained.

“Let’s do this,” Chris said quietly to his second in command, and J.D., exiting the room, caught a shadow of the trademark cocky grin.

Buck nodded, grinned back suddenly, then assumed his serious face.

Chris followed him into his office. One hand on his shoulder. They closed the door. Buck took his seat. They both took a deep breath, and Chris started the recorder.

When it was over, after he had followed the game plan to the letter, no changes, no detours, Buck left the office door closed behind him. His summons had already come while he was in with Chris. He went straight up to Travis.

Introductions were short. Curt. Not that Buck needed any. He remembered Hofstader from a few events. He remembered Costas from the original inquiry. They remembered him, he was sure, as the agent who took his team AWOL.

The game began. Hardball. And Buck played. Like a master. He only wished Chris could have seen it.

Especially at the end. After two hours, when Costas, frustrated, irritated cracked first. “Tell me, Agent Wilmington, why it is that you acted with impunity in violation of orders, direct and implied, broke bureau rules and regulations with complete disregard, and yet you obeyed the order to walk away and leave your Team Leader to die. Explain that to me. Why was that the order you chose to obey?”

He refused to give in to the sucker punch. Had seen it coming and dodged the blow by refusing to get involved in the question. He could do that because the answer was so obviously easy. It was all he could do to keep the smile off his face as he answered.

He did not entirely succeed. Travis saw it. In the shadow of his mustache. Sitting there. The barest hint of a smirk. And he felt his own nerves rise up in anticipation of the answer. Although he already knew what it would be.

“Because that order came from Chris Larabee,” Buck said.

And even though Travis knew that Buck could not have driven the nail more firmly into the coffin built of directorship paranoia and suspicion, he could not help the echoing smirk he felt twitch up his lips. He hid it quickly, looking stern, as if the smile had never existed. But he knew that Agent Wilmington had seen.

Chris delivered his tapes to IA. He stayed to answer another half hour’s worth of questions from the steely-eyed, suspicious agent handling the case. Someone he didn’t know. Someone without a grudge to settle. He was glad about that. Travis’s doing, he was certain.

He promised that he and his agents would remain available to answer any and all questions.

The investigating agent meant to be intimidating when he added that Agent Larabee should not leave town until the investigation was complete and settled, even if he found himself unemployed in the interim. He got a calm assurance delivered with an icy smile. He was glad to see the man leave.

They had lunch in the bullpen. Around the conference table. Seven of them against fifteen containers of take out Chinese. It was not a fair fight. If Chris noticed that Nathan, Buck, and Vin were all silently watching to see if and what he ate, he did not let on. Instead he listened to the banter, smiling at the familiar sound that had been conspicuous by its absence. And even laughed at a couple of smart remarks from his sharpshooter.

The conference room phone rang. They fell silent. It blinked Chris’s extension. He picked up. And tersely told whoever was calling that he would be right up.

He turned back to his men. Straightened his tie. “Show time,” he said. Then one eyebrow shot up. So much like Ezra, J.D. nearly choked on his lo mein. Buck thumped the young agent hard on the back. And Chris was gone before J.D. could even sputter out “Good luck.”

He took his seat calmly, crossing one ankle over his other knee and folding his hands in his lap. His entire body was still. Quiet. Almost relaxed. Except for the eyes. Only the eyes were alive, sparking, crackling in the pale, hollow face. Already Travis could tell that Larabee was fighting to keep that damn cocky smirk off his face. The one that would send Costas over the edge. It was certain to appear before the interview was over, he knew, but at least it wouldn’t happen before they even got started.

Hofstader looked Larabee over closely. If possible, Larabee actually looked worse than he had when he had dismissed himself from the hospital to show up unexpectedly at the initial inquiry. Black suit, black shirt, even a black tie. Seemed a poor choice. He looked skinny and dead pale in all that black. Circles under his eyes showed plainly in the dim light of the room. The entire picture reminding Hofstader of tattered graveclothes clinging to a skeleton in some nightmarish comic drawing. The senior director shot a frown at Travis.

Travis responded the most appropriate way he knew how. He pretended not to notice. Either the frown or the gaunt frame of the agent before him. He himself was actually relieved. Larabee looked better than he had in days. Today was the first day in more than a week that Travis didn’t feel like going down to Team Seven’s bullpen and having Chris thrown out of the building and into a hospital room. He was surprised it took Wilmington until yesterday to pull Chris out of the game.

He realized suddenly that the interview had begun. And he hid his expression as he heard Costas start easy. Apparently making amends for the nasty tone of this morning’s interview with Agent Wilmington.

Travis wasn’t sure how much Chris knew about the other interviews, but he didn’t seem to be in the mood to have amends made. Or more than likely, he was being his usual diplomatic self. His answers were terse and to the point, bordering on abrupt. Seemingly uninterested in the impression he made, oblivious to the idea that his career might depend on the good opinion of the directors before him. Typical, Travis thought with exasperation.

It didn’t take Costas or Hofstader very long to put aside the soft line of questioning and settle into what they really wanted to know. Travis was not surprised. They had heard the tapes. Done their research. Heard from the rest of the team and read Ryan Kelly’s reports. They had a pretty complete picture of how things had gone. They were just giving Chris enough rope to hang himself or save himself. Whichever he chose. Travis shifted uneasily at the thought.

“Why did you disobey the orders of the mission commander?” Hofstader asked.

“The positions he wanted my team to take gave us insufficient cover,” Larabee replied.

“He turned down your proposal to assume different positions, correct?” Costas asked.

“Correct,” Chris agreed, his tone flat.

“Yet you positioned your team as you had proposed in violation of the commander’s order,” Hofstader prompted.

“Correct again,” Chris said, the first glimmer of the smirk twitching in the corner of his mouth.

Travis winced. Now was not a good time for Larabee to reveal his smart-ass side.

“Why?” Hofstader asked, keeping his voice even. And Travis was grateful.

Larabee looked at him impassively. “Because I could accomplish the mission commander’s objectives with a minimum of exposure to my team.”

Hofstader pursed his lips. “But you didn’t accomplish the objectives,” he countered.

The smirk twitched up a little higher. “No,” Chris replied. “Seems intelligence understated the amount of resistance we would encounter.”

Costas consulted his notes and conceded the point. The estimation had been way off.

“Do you still believe that the new positions were more effective?” Costas asked.

A short, sharp snort issued from the agent before him. “Effective?” he asked, with evident disdain. “Not a damn thing we did in there was effective. We all got our asses kicked.”

Travis nearly closed his eyes at that. What the hell was Larabee trying to do?

Costas glared at him. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” he said, struggling to keep his tone professional. “Despite the research, expert advice, intelligence gathering, and time that went into the mission commander’s plan, you deemed your split-second, on-site decision to be the superior option.”

“Yes,” Larabee replied. And Costas noted that he didn’t even have the courtesy to sound smug about it, so they could cite his hubris if they decided to fire him.

“How is that?” Hofstader asked. Sounding almost curious. “What do you believe you possessed that made your own judgment superior to the judgment of the Texas law enforcement experts that worked cooperatively to plan the operation?”

“Combat experience,” Chris shrugged. He leaned slightly forward in his chair. “I understand mission objectives. And I know an open flank when I see one.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’ve lost enough men under fire to learn to look for options that don’t needlessly throw away lives. My men are not cannon fodder.”

Costas frowned. “How can you be so sure that you were right? That the mission might not have gone successfully, without injury to yourself or your team, if you had just obeyed the orders?”

Chris frowned back at him, as if he didn’t even understand how Costas would ask. Perhaps he didn’t, because his tone told the three senior officers in the room that the answer was obvious. “I positioned my men to accomplish the mission commander’s objectives as efficiently as possible with a minimum of risk,” he repeated slowly, deliberately. “I took the remaining position, as originally assigned.” He tilted his head to one side and looked at them. Veiled sarcasm in his added reminder, “My position was the one that got overrun.”

Hofstader pursed his lips and exhaled.

Costas clenched his jaw. Decided against pointing out to a former military officer that when he changed the positions of the team he changed the dynamic inside the warehouse. Larabee knew that, obviously. Costas had no desire to jump into a lengthy discussion of tactics—either theoretical or practical. He had spent the last several days looking at this agent’s records. Even if he hadn’t, the last two answers would have told him that Larabee had tactical combat experience that he did not. He had been a SEAL, for God’s sake. Wilmington had been a SEAL. Tanner had been a Ranger. Jackson and Sanchez had also been soldiers. These men knew something about operations, tactics, infighting, combat. To a man, they had adamantly insisted that it was Larabee’s decision that they trusted. And for the first time it crossed Costas’s mind that it might just be possible that Larabee did know what he was doing when he repositioned his team.

Costas let Hofstader finish his line of questioning and moved on, asking Agent Larabee to describe the events following the order to retreat. Travis marveled at the team leader’s ability to convey so much detail in so few words.

“I stayed down looking for an opening. They started to break ranks and I thought I could run for the exit, assuming their confusion could keep them from preventing my escape. The crates I was using as cover blocked my view to the west. I didn’t see the man approach until he pointed his gun at my head and demanded my badge and gun.”

Costas interrupted. “He took you completely by surprise?”

Larabee looked at him with thinly veiled exasperation. “Between the crates, the mass confusion of the militia, the noise inside the warehouse, and trying not to pass out, I didn’t happen to notice him.”

“Please continue,” Hofstader said smoothly. “What did you do after he asked for your badge and gun?”

Chris sat back, shifting position, and refolding his hands. “I refused,” he replied, eyes glinting under lowered lids. “Impolitely.”

Costas looked at him curiously.

Chris waited.

And Travis shook his head. Knowing his agent was deliberately answering only what was asked of him. Passive aggressive insubordination is what he would call it. And Chris was a master at it. Point of fact, Chris Larabee was the only man Travis had ever known who could remain perfectly professional, and even agreeable in words, tone, and demeanor, yet leave you with the unmistakable impression, well after the conversation was over that somewhere, at some point, he had politely and agreeably told you to fuck off. Travis had seen it happen more than once. He’d been on the receiving end more than once, too. He just hoped he wasn’t about to see it again.

“Then what happened?” Costas asked impatiently. Talking to Larabee was like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

“He hauled me up by the collar, cracked my head against the nearest wall, and slammed me back down onto the concrete. Then he stuck his gun in my ear, and rifled my pockets. He took my badge and gun. Rolled me over, took my vest and jacket. Then he changed into them and left his stuff on the floor.”

“Did you try to stop him?” Costas asked.

“Hell, no,” Chris said scornfully.

Travis closed his eyes and swore silently. Both Costas and Hofstader jerked forward in their chairs.

“First I had to wait for the stars to stop dancing in front of my face and then I just plain couldn’t move. The guy was muttering about a rocket launcher. Everyone was running for the doors. The goddamn gun was out of bullets anyway. I laid there and hoped he’d hurry up, so I could work up enough steam to drag my sorry ass off the floor and get the hell out of there.”

Travis glared daggers at him. By that time, Larabee was likely the only agent left in the entire warehouse. He was bleeding from two bullet wounds, when he was mugged at gunpoint by a desperate militiaman. Lying on the cold concrete and seeing stars while the guy rolled him for his badge, gun, and vest. While a rocket launcher approached and more than a hundred frantic militia soldiers fled for their lives around him. A story like that and he hadn’t even tried. Goddamn hardheaded idiot wouldn’t know how to play the sympathy card if it came to him with instructions.

He didn’t seem to notice the hot glance Travis sent his way. Or perhaps he just didn’t care.

“Nevertheless, you did somehow manage to drag ‘your sorry ass’ up ‘off the floor’, put on the militiaman’s discarded jacket and get yourself to safety,” Hofstader commented. In another set of circumstances it would have been almost comical to see the hard-eyed, old-school ATF director mimic Chris’s choice turn of phrase. But there was nothing funny in his tone.

A minute ago, Chris had their sympathy, perhaps even their respect. It had taken him only one short narrative, the very one that should have made him look like a gold-plated hero, to turn the tide against him. They didn’t like his attitude.

Travis suppressed a groan and reminded himself that they’d never liked his attitude. Perhaps this would not seem at all out of the ordinary. Not only that, maybe it wouldn’t even register after the earful of attitude they got from Agent Tanner yesterday.

He thought a little harder. Sanchez had been slightly contemptuous. Dunne and Jackson angry. Standish more than a little impertinent. And Wilmington almost smug. So why would Larabee’s attitude surprise them? His whole team acted that way. Or perhaps why would they be surprised at the team’s insubordination when the Team Leader apparently provided such a fine example of it?

Travis glared harder. Sent waves of anger at his agent. And waited for the moment he knew now would eventually arrive. The part of the interview when Chris was going to stick his foot in it. And remind them all that he alone had been responsible for the performance of his team. He set the tone. He set the standards. For their work. And their professionalism. And somewhere between the end of this inquiry and the 32 seconds it was going to take the directorship to decide to fire him, Travis was going to put both hands around Chris Larabee’s throat and wring his neck for not having the sense to even try to save himself.

At least in Texas he had made a run for the door. Travis stopped suddenly as it dawned on him. By that time, his men had already been out of danger.

Travis narrowed his eyes and looked beneath the resentment and the smug self-assurance. And realized that Larabee was fighting like hell to save his team. He would in fact stick his foot in it. Right up to the hip. He would do his damnedest to prove that he was, by default, responsible for his team going AWOL. That Buck Wilmington had acted according to standards that Chris had allowed and even fostered through his own long-insinuated insubordination and now documented penchant for breaking rules and violating orders. He would make the directors focus on him. Believe him to be the problem.

Chris knew that the directors didn’t trust him. They were paranoid about his maverick style. They feared it would create a maverick team. And their fears had proven to be at least somewhat justified.

The part that made Travis’s stomach go cold was that it was going to work. The fool was going string himself up on precedent. They had allowed him to set policy and discipline. If they had agreed that he was responsible for the actions of his team before this, then they could hardly change their minds now. Except to try to go around him. And Chris would never stand for that. He’d raise a stink, internally at least. And the directors would balk at the attention. It’d be easier to just throw Larabee out. They could contain the fallout on punishing just one agent.

Or so they think, Travis thought gloomily, reasonably certain that if Chris got fired, the other members of Team Seven would not sit still for it. First there’d be the problem of putting in another team leader, since it obviously couldn’t be Wilmington. They’d already been through that nightmare. And there would likely be some rather public, and embarrassing resignations, including the one that Chris and Travis had just barely managed to prevent. How public? he wondered, thinking suddenly of his daughter-in-law the reporter. He swore silently, repeatedly. If they fired Chris, things were going to get damn ugly.

He realized he had lost track of the inquiry. He refocused, surprised to find Chris looking at him intently. He frowned. Somewhere in the half-lidded, almost disinterested gaze, he saw a challenge. No, he amended. Not a challenge. A question. How do you plan to play this?

Strange, Travis thought. It’s an odd time for Chris to be thinking about that. Except, Travis thought with another chill, this had implications for him, too. Decisions he had not yet made. About his own role. Was he the AD who was ignorant of the internal workings of his own teams? That made him either dangerously oblivious or deliberately obtuse. Which was better? Another option presented itself. Perhaps he was the AD who knew Team Seven was a disaster waiting to happen, but kept the lid on it because the success rate looked good. Like Rivers, he thought, more than a little uncomfortably and reminded himself that Chris Larabee and Matt Richter were not made of the same material any more than he and Rivers.

Chris was still looking at him. Waiting.

Travis thought suddenly about moving up his timetable a bit and just strangling Chris right now. Save the ATF the trouble and paperwork. Not that he hadn’t known he’d have to take his own lumps. It just would have been nice to have known that Chris had a plan. Of course, he noted, he did know Chris had a plan. After all, he was the best damn tactician Travis had ever known. Travis just hadn’t wanted to look for it, lest the inquiry seem tainted.

And he knew now why Chris was sending him the silent question. It was time to take the step. He just wanted to finish getting all the innocent bystanders out of the way before his career imploded.

Travis bristled. He was not among the innocent. And he didn’t need Chris to protect him. Larabee believed that the leader’s job is to serve his team. Protect them. He was right. Team Seven was Travis’s team. Chris Larabee was Travis’s agent.

He stared hard at Chris. The question dissolved under a strange, sad half-smile. Then Larabee turned an impassive face back to Costas and Hofstader. To answer the question that Hofstader had posed. Cool. Deliberate. Wearing the smirk.

“Surprised? Not really. They’re a good team. And a good team runs itself in the leader’s absence, in the same manner as if the leader were there.”

Larabee’s philosophy of leadership. It fell into the room like a hammer falling on an anvil. Travis closed his eyes for a moment. Heard the voice again, as clearly as if the interview were only a day ago, “Lots of things might put the leader out of a job. The team will still finish theirs.” He thought again of Team Seven, willing to risk everything to find justice for Chris’s death. Preserving his memory. Refusing to accept new leaders. Sealing up his office like it was the pharaoh’s tomb, burial treasures still inside.

He remembered suddenly how long it took Mary and Evie, widow and mother to get around to packing up Steven’s clothing after he had been killed in the line of duty. Team Seven wasn’t trying to preserve Chris’s memory. They were just trying to hold onto him. Just a little longer.

Stonefaced, Travis felt his eyes prickle at the thought of his murdered son. Watched the directors wrap up the inquiry. Saw Chris give them each a nod, and then send a longer look tinged with equal parts resolve and regret, in Travis’s direction. The ball was in Travis’s court now. He would do his best to see it carried properly. He rose from his chair, catching Chris’s eye and sending his very best and clearest silent Trust me to the team leader. He thought he saw a tiny flicker of a smile. Then Chris was gone.

The directors exhaled. And suggested postponing a look at their notes and transcripts until Monday. Travis agreed. He could use the time to finally decide which of the strategies he had been mulling over to use.

The six agents looked up when Chris entered the bullpen. The clock had passed quitting time twenty minutes ago. But they were waiting. Silent. Expectant. He had had every intention of walking in here cocksure and telling them that things had gone pretty much as expected. That would have been sufficiently vague. But after last night, and the earful that Tanner had given him this morning, he owed them his honesty.

Truth to tell, his ears were still ringing far more from Tanner’s tirade than from anything the directorship had insinuated so far. And Tanner was right. He had played them. Manipulated them. For their own good, maybe, but that wasn’t reason enough. He was tempted to point out to the sharpshooter that he could have called him on it instead of playing along. But he didn’t. Because Vin was too loyal for that. And he knew they had no better plan. Which was really what bothered the sharpshooter anyway. Instead they had a real good argument and called each other a lot of nasty names. Following which Tanner felt a lot better.

Chris realized suddenly that while he had been musing, Buck and Ezra were both making a show of eyeing him up and down. He glared at the undercover agent. Since glaring at Buck would be useless.

Buck turned to Ezra in puzzlement. “Seems to be in one piece,” he said.

“Yes,” Ezra drawled. He looked back up at Chris. “You would think that falling on one’s sword would leave a mark.”

Chris glared harder.

“How did it go?” J.D. finally asked, nervously.

“As planned,” Chris replied tersely, still glowering at Ezra.

He didn’t miss Tanner’s hot glare. “Gonna take me all damn day to type my resignation,” he muttered.

“Well,” Ezra said with a self-satisfied smile. “I am well ahead of you in that regard. Mine is already signed, sealed, and delivered.”

A smile snaked suddenly across Chris’s face. As if the team leader actually found Ezra’s comment genuinely funny.

He disappeared into his office and came back with a manila file folder.

“Thanks for the reminder,” Chris said. “I meant to give this back to you.” He held the folder out to Standish, and coughed suspiciously into his hand, as he said, “I stamped it declined and initialed in the corner.”

He turned and went back into his office.

Ezra stared after him puzzled. Then he opened the folder. It took him a moment to figure out what he was looking at. Then he shook his head in disbelief.

True to his word, Chris had, in fact, stamped the paper and initialed in the corner. Very neatly, too. Right after he had apparently pinned the fine linen stationery to a target and emptied an entire clip into it for practice.

Ezra noticed his teammates staring, as he pulled the tattered, shredded, holey, powder-burnt paper out from the folder, and held it up between two fingers for general inspection.

“Nice pattern, Mr. Larabee,” he commented dryly, turning back toward the office. “Did you want me to file this, or just use it as a doily?”

Buck held his straight face just long enough to tell Ezra how nice it would look under his coffee cup.

Josiah and Nathan had their heads down, hiding their own laughter.

Vin and J.D. didn’t even try. Seated next to each other, both were soon holding their ribs and leaning helplessly against each other. Especially after Ezra sighed dramatically and slid the paper under his coffee cup as suggested.

They left shortly afterwards. J.D. was first, jumping up suddenly and grabbing his backpack and helmet.

“’Night, Chris,” he said with a grin.

“Good night, J.D.,” Chris said, looking up from the briefing paperwork. A genuine smile sat on the youthful agent’s face. He couldn’t help smiling back.

“Gonna leave soon?” the young agent asked.

Chris’s smile broadened. “Soon, J.D.,” he said.

The young agent nodded. Grinned again and blew out the door like a desert whirlwind. Chris shook his head. Normal. Almost.

Josiah and Nathan left next.

Then Ezra.

They all paused in his doorway. They all said good night. But it was what they didn’t say that Chris heard loud and clear. It was written fiercely in their faces. And he appreciated it.

Vin and Buck arrived in his doorway together as he was powering down his computer.

“Drink, Cowboy?” Vin asked with a sly grin.

“I’m not allowed,” Chris said, giving them a sour look. Raine had made him promise to take some kind of painkiller. Since he refused to take the ones the doctor prescribed, he chose aspirin. And she had told him quite clearly what would happen to him if he mixed the aspirin with alcohol—most of which had very little to do with actual clinical side effects.

“We’ll buy you a so-dee-pop,” Buck said with a smirk.

“An’ a sandwich,” Vin added.

Chris shrugged. “So long as you’re buying,” he replied with a grin, getting his coat.

He walked out between them. A virtual prisoner, he noted as Buck slung one long arm across his shoulders and herded him toward the elevator. Hovering. Again. And for the first time in a very long time, he really didn’t mind.

Monday was murky and grey to match Assistant Director Travis’s mood. He glowered his way through his morning drive and cursed the decaf coffee that Evie insisted on serving him. Although he knew his present mood had precious little to do with the coffee or with his lack of sleep this weekend. Evie had come downstairs twice last night to turn off the TV and tell him to go to bed. Both times he knew she had expected to find him asleep in his chair. Both times he had been pacing the living room floor. The same way he paced his office. She had gone back upstairs without a word. She knew the general topic occupying his mind and knew that he would share none of the details. Forty years of marriage had taught her when to pry and when to leave him alone. The thunderclouds gathering in his gray brows this morning signaled her to leave him alone. A brief reprieve, he knew. He would be expected to come clean very soon. Flowers would probably also help. The only problem was, he couldn’t see into the future. And he didn’t know what he would have to confess.

Still grumbling to himself, he deserted the parking garage for an extra large coffee from the Starbuck’s around the corner, grateful not to encounter anyone he knew very well. Then he made his way back to the elevator. By his watch he should have just enough time to check his calendar and workload for today and review his game plan before he had to sit down in Hofstader’s conference room along with the two directors and go over the notes and transcripts from last week.

He had sat with the reports this weekend. His stomach turning over and over, as he read the story in order. From end to end. The picture slowly coming into sharper focus. He had gone for the scotch about the time he realized how close Team Seven had really come to losing their leader. And how many times. In one single screwed up mission.

Two bullets and a rocket launcher had not killed his agent. But the parking lot assault at the hands of two law enforcement officers had nearly done the trick. The EMTs who had treated him estimated that he would have been dead inside of a half an hour if the detective had not interrupted the beating and an ambulance had not been nearby. Following that… Travis shuddered.

He wasn’t even sure Team Seven knew how close it had been. They had headed home probably at the same time that an ambulance crew was rushing Chris to the hospital in police custody, believing he was one of the few surviving members of the militia that had destroyed a warehouse and part of the building next door. Along with the lives of hundreds of families. They had not been there for the beating, the intubation, surgery, infection, mishandling, or the first part of the shootout with militia assassins.

Richter’s official reports called for another stiff drink, while Travis felt the steam coming out of his ears. The report was sketchy at best regarding Chris’s involvement in the firefight with the militia assassins that had come to kill the unconscious ATF agent who had been dangled in front of them as bait. The Team Four leader proved himself as adept at walking the fine line as at manipulating the truth to serve his own ends. He had to include Chris’s actions to make his case that Chris had agreed to participate. But too much information might give away details Richter would prefer were left uncovered and uninvestigated. Near as Travis could piece together from various reports, including Chris’s own infuriatingly vague account of what had happened, Richter had somehow convinced Chris to participate in his ambitious plan, and then Chris, true to form, had decided to follow his own agenda. The report became even more vague when it came to Larabee’s involvement in the gunfight. But it appeared that Chris had been instrumental in taking down at least one of the assassins.

More than his sketchy description of events—more due to intention than the confused lack of memory the man claimed, the AD was sure—it burned Travis that Larabee had then tied his hands regarding Richter and Pirelli. At his agent’s request, Travis had agreed not to press charges or dig up the missing police report. And he knew better than to ask Chris why. There was enough trouble on both of their plates right now without borrowing more. He let it lie.

So, Travis summed up bitterly before clapping the file folders closed and going to bed to stare at his ceiling, Larabee had survived bullets, a rocket, a brutal beating, substandard care, and an infection that had no doubt begun to set in as he lay bleeding among the garbage dumpsters in his makeshift bunker, and another gun battle and fistfight to come back to them. And then on Friday, he tied the rope around his own neck and jumped right off the platform of his career. Leaving Travis to try to catch him or at least cut the rope before it broke his neck.

This morning, Travis found himself hoping that whatever guardian angels had been watching over Chris Larabee up until now had not yet headed out for a much needed vacation. He might still need more than just Travis to save his career.

Hofstader was his grim self. Concerned about potential black eyes for the Denver ATF as an organization. But trying to weigh evidence in light of the circumstances. Costas, sympathetic, but as rule bound as ever. Exasperated by the lack of respect shown by the most senior members of Team Seven in general. Irritated by their cavalier attitude toward disobeying orders and regulations in particular. Anxious to keep good agents on the right track.

Despite the fact that the directors had evidently spent part of their weekends reviewing their notes, too, hashing through the evidence again still took most of the day, as they stopped to compare notes and impressions and reread reports. Both Costas and Hofstader asked to review the surveillance videos yet again. They compared the initial tactical plans to the actual surveillance footage. But they had little to go on inside the warehouse. Hofstader wanted to hear and compare the audios from the Texas ATF teams inside the warehouse to Team Seven’s audio.

Dear God, Travis thought, running a hand down his face. Not again. He could still see J.D. Dunne sitting in the interview chair, the hot seat, struggling to keep his emotions at bay. And this time, when the screaming started, he could very nearly pick out each man’s voice. He ran his hands back through his hair again and noticed both directors watching him. He tried not to glare when he looked back up at them.

After lunch, they began to sift through the testimony from each member of Team Seven. Comparing statements. Answers to the same questions. Examining details. Looking for discrepancies. Looking for similarities.

The afternoon wore on.

It was after eight o’clock when Travis finally finished returning phone calls and answering e-mails, so he could head home. Home to look forward to choking down supper with an antacid for dessert. And then spending the rest of the evening pacing in his den and planning out a strategy to defend Chris Larabee. Defend him from the fact that his team had gone AWOL and conducted an unauthorized, illegal surveillance operation on a known arms dealer when he wasn’t even there. When for all the ATF and Team Seven knew, Chris was dead. Travis swore. A man shouldn’t have to defend himself from something that he wasn’t even technically involved in.

He swore again in terms that would have shocked his assistant, had she not already gone home two hours ago. Then he called Chris Larabee a half a dozen of the worst names he could think of off the top of his head. The man had used his own goddamn stubborn, hardheaded insistence that his team’s actions were his responsibility to pander to directorship insecurities and string himself up by his own autonomy. Only Larabee could possibly have twisted this around so badly that he could be held ultimately responsible for an illegal action in which he did not actually participate.

By that logic, the directors might as well hold me responsible, Travis thought bitterly. A second later he carried the idea to its absurd conclusion. “By that logic,” he muttered, “the directors should hold themselves responsible.”

He froze suddenly, fingers poised above his keyboard, as the thought went spinning round his brain. Then he ran it around one more time, slowly, as a smile born of pure audacity began to form on his lips. Scant minutes later, AD Travis had hustled from his office, notes in hand, grabbing a hand held voice recorder from his assistant’s desk on his way and speaking rapidly into the tape all the way down in the elevator.

Tuesday morning, he read through requested status reports from Chris Larabee and Ryan Kelly regarding the briefings with Team Eight. According to Kelly’s comments on an unofficial post it, “Team Seven’s casework has been very thorough and the team has been more than accommodating.” He scowled. He knew all that. Did Kelly think he needed to be reminded that Team Seven was a good team? As if he had forgotten. They were his team. He knew they were a good team—even if they were all a bunch of stubborn, hardheaded, fools and idiots.

He condemned them universally. There was not one of them that had not given him more than their fair share of headaches. There was not one of them that he had not personally wanted to strangle at some point. But he left them to Larabee to handle. And somehow he always did. God alone knew how, but he did. They never blew up in his face. He was turning that thought over blackly in his head when his assistant reminded him that he was due in Hofstader’s office in five minutes.

More notes. More transcripts. More blame, he thought bitterly, as he thanked her for the reminder.

He gathered his briefcase and moved toward his door, swearing as he thought of his troublesome septet. God damn grandstanders, cowboys, adrenaline jockeys…

“If you think this part is tough,” he interrupted himself angrily, as if speaking to the grandstanding cowboys in question. “Just wait until the board of inquiry meets to decide on a ‘course of action’,” he growled.

Two passing file clerks moved hurriedly aside, stepping into an alcove to let him pass. But he didn’t pause or apologize. He just continued with his tense stride. And the angry rant in his head.

He could hear the directors now, asking the same shocked question they always asked about Team Seven. The same question that Grayson Mueller had growled out, before Travis made the decision that he did not have quite the right temperament to deal with Team Seven. And if he went willingly and immediately, there’d be no damage to his reputation and no one would mention that he had actually tried to strangle one of his new agents. The inevitable question that came up again and again and again. “Who the hell do they think they are?”

They ought to know by now, he snorted. And if he weren’t so damn mad at the lot of them, directors, agents, team leaders, all of them, he might have smirked at the answer he would have given: “They are quite likely the best team in the entire Western region.” Because if they weren’t, Travis thought, stabbing at the elevator buttons viciously, the directors would have reined them in, or disbanded them, a long time ago.

Now they would probably try, he thought spitefully. If only in a last ditch attempt to avoid a messy firing. But now it was too late. Larabee had already said once that he would quit if they tampered with his autonomy in discipline. No doubt he would. After all, he seemed more than willing to let them fire him over this. A scowl further darkened the AD’s face as Travis realized, although he would never know exactly how the man did it, that in the end, Larabee usually got his way.

Hofstader’s assistant looked up to greet the entering AD But the cheerful words died on his lips, as he noticed the black, angry expression. “Go right in, please,” was the best the man could muster. The AD gave a curt nod and bit out a “Thank you.” The assistant made sure the conference room door closed completely, and was again relieved that he had chosen to make his living doing administrative work, not as an agent. Even meetings seemed somewhat dangerous around here. Then again, he reasoned, considering the tension of the past weeks, coupled with the amount of firepower these agents carried around, perhaps there were no “safe” jobs in Denver ATF.

In the afternoon, Hofstader and Costas indicated a desire to present a uniform front to the remaining inquiring directors. There was a long argument. Costas and Hofstader versus Orin Travis. Trying to bring him around. To make him see sense. But their strategy broke down on the points on which the two directors could not agree either.

Travis, seething now, fought to control his temper.

“Team Seven is under my command,” he replied. “And as such I will present their side to the board.”

They glared at him exasperated.

He stared back at them, unmoved by their logic.

Costas shook his head. “Might I suggest, again,” he said patiently, “that it would be sensible to consider your own career. You must be well aware that to some degree, your own reputation is also on the line here.” He kept his voice even, but he was clearly trying to bore some sense into the Assistant Director’s head by the sheer intensity of his gaze.

“I am aware of that,” Travis replied tightly.

“Well, good,” Hofstader said shortly. “Because none of your agents seems to be aware of the trouble they are in.” He narrowed his eyes. “Or perhaps they just don’t care.”

“They know. And they care,” Travis answered, trying not to grind his teeth together.

Costas grunted sarcastically. “You couldn’t prove it by their interviews,” he snapped. “We came prepared to give them every chance. The benefit of every doubt. But neither Larabee nor Wilmington seemed particularly interested in putting their own actions in the best possible light. They didn’t even try.”

Travis’s jaw clenched involuntarily. But he did not hold back his words. “Shouldn’t they get some credit for that?” he grated. “For not trying to pull the wool over our eyes. They did what they did. No member of Team Seven has tried to deny what happened. Nor have they made excuses for themselves.”

“We understand that,” Hofstader said evenly.

“No you don’t,” Travis snapped back. “They didn’t even come in here and plead that they exercised poor judgment because they were distraught at losing a member of their team. Their leader, for God’s sake. If it had been another team that might have been taken into consideration.”

“What are you saying?” Costas replied, lowering his tone.

“I’m saying this is a witch hunt,” Travis said, the words flying out as conceived. He did not stop to sugar coat it or be politic. “If you want to punish Larabee for disobeying orders or letting an aggressor have his badge and gun, that’s a viable issue. But you want to punish the whole team for their approach to law enforcement. You want to punish them for a style that you’ve all tacitly agreed to as long as you got the results you wanted.”

Both directors were eyeing him silently, frowning, but he didn’t stop.

”Texas ATF got a black eye because they mishandled their own bust. So they want to spread the blame around. And Denver ATF is perfectly willing to go along with it. What’s Texas doing to punish their intelligence teams for their faulty information? For their part in this fiasco?” He bit his words off before the names Richter and Team Four came off his tongue.

Hofstader narrowed his eyes.

“Be careful, Orin,” Costas warned.

The AD took a breath. Seemed to rein himself in. But his reply signaled that any attempt to come to consensus had now come to an end.

“Team Seven is under my command,” Travis said evenly, resolutely. “And as such, I will present their side to the board.”

Senior Agent Larabee slammed down his phone with undisguised irritation and got up from his chair. Doug Stone scooted his visitor’s chair backward with gratifying speed. Larabee’s gaze cooled slightly as he looked at Stone and the agent beside him, evidently making an effort to put the hot glare back into its holster. Larabee flicked his glance over at Agent Standish and pursed his lips into a smile that looked slightly insane and apologized for cutting the meeting short.

Then he left. With no further explanation. Or further instructions. Leaving Team Eight’s Agent Stone alone with Ezra Standish in the Team Leader’s office.

Stone eyed Standish, who gave him a congenial smile that revealed his gold tooth. “Shall we remove ourselves to the conference room?” he drawled, as if Larabee left him standing flat-footed in the middle of a briefing every day. And this was nothing new. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t.

He followed Standish through Team Seven’s bullpen. He didn’t often come down here. Mainly because he didn’t care to be hit with stray paper wads like the ones that Larabee’s second in command was currently lobbing at Dunne, the computer expert whom Kirk had quietly dubbed “the boy genius.” Dunne was firing back with expert speed but a bit less accuracy. Forced to pass the paperstorm to get to the conference room, Standish simply held the manila folder containing his notes up alongside of his head to deflect any stray projectiles, talking congenially all the while as he led Stone past the melee.

How the hell do these clowns hold the regional record for closed cases? Stone thought to himself. A second later, the giant Josiah Sanchez roared out a warning to both men to stop with the paper wads if they valued their lives. They actually laughed at the gigantic ex-soldier. Stone amended his thought and wondered instead. How the hell do they not kill each other?

Chris Larabee tallied up mentally the number of times he had made this trip to IA in the past two days. Since they insisted on speaking to him in person and not over the phone, whether it was a list of questions or just one question, and regardless of how superficial, inane, ridiculous or just plain stupid the question. But Travis had given him one clear order and one only in this entire debacle. That was to “cooperate with IA, goddammit.” Travis hadn’t added any promises about what would happen if he did not. But Larabee knew when to fight and when to give in. He gave in. He needed Travis to be on his side, now that he had pissed everyone else off.

He realized that the IA agent was talking. Again. Or maybe still. He sighed and pulled his attention back to the question at hand. Bautiste.

“Your agents used their surveillance equipment to supplant Bautiste’s own security system?”

“Yes,” Chris replied thinly.

“How did they do that?” the IA agent asked.

Chris glared at him, exasperated. Making an effort to be civil. Or at least not to swear at him. “I don’t know,” he said tersely. “I’m not a technician. And I wasn’t there.”

The IA agent tried to glare back. But he shuffled his feet under the desk.

“Did your agents gain access to the interior of the house?” he asked, his voice clinical, detached.

Larabee’s eyes narrowed. Had he not brought them six tapes that said just that? Had he not written up a summary containing this information?

“According to my agents, they did gain access to the interior of the house.”

The IA agent eyed him. Licked his lips.

“And you believe them?”

Larabee glared at the agent. “Yes,” he said tightly. He narrowed his eyes. His voice dripped sarcasm as he added, “Unless you think they were lying when they said they broke into Bautiste’s house and illegally interrogated him.”

The agent hesitated. He had begun avoiding the green glare.

“Did you investigate their claims?” he asked.

“Isn’t that your job?” Larabee asked.

The agent coughed quietly.

“Agent Larabee, I’d like to see the surveillance tapes they made.”

Chris inhaled. “Agent Dunne did not make any tapes,” he said slowly, and distinctly.

The IA agent scowled. Searched the pale face for signs of deception. Found only obvious signs of irritation.

He hesitated.

The agent shuffled his feet again, reminding the Team Seven Leader of his duty to tell the truth.

Chris gritted his teeth at the reminder and tried very hard not to notice the shuffling.

“When did you reestablish contact with your team? The first instance, please.”

“In the women’s clinic,” he answered. The IA agent tried not to notice the smirk, as the Team Leader added. “I’m a little fuzzy on the details.”

“You had had no contact with them since the rocket attack on the warehouse? None whatsoever.”

The Team Leader’s face broke into a smile that the IA agent found incongruous and just a bit scary. “Have you read my medical file?” Larabee asked, after a long moment.

The IA agent sighed, loudly, exasperatedly. And glanced up, afraid for a moment that the Team Leader in front of him would take offense. But the man sat calmly. Just the eyes were unpleasantly animated.

“How did you find out that Dowd sold the rockets to the militia?”

“Agent Wilmington told me.”

“And he got this information from Bautiste?”

Now the aggravation began to show in the Team Leader’s body language. “Agent Vogel,” he said quietly. “All of this is in my reports or my agents’ testimony. They conducted an illegal surveillance. They entered Bautiste’s house illegally and interrogated him. Bautiste fingered Dowd. I don’t know how they did it. They didn’t make any tapes. As for me, I spent two to three weeks watching the back of my eyelids. Then I apparently got into a gunfight involving Texas Team Four, whose reports you have, and assaulted a fellow ATF agent. So I’m told. I’m a little fuzzy on those details and there’s no report. As for yesterday’s questions, my cell phone was not recovered from the warehouse. I was issued a new one when I returned to Denver. I did give my badge and gun to a militia member at gunpoint. I didn’t catch the names of the people who assaulted me. I don’t remember much about it. And I don’t know how Agent Wilmington got his cracked ribs and black eye. He said he got into a fight. I didn’t investigate that further. You may do so at your convenience. Are we done?”

The IA agent swallowed. He opened his mouth.

“I know,” Larabee snapped, rising up out of his chair like a shadow climbing a wall. “That’s it for now.”

He left the same way he came in, like a storm wind blowing up the hall.

He held his smile until he was back in his team’s bullpen. And had checked that Agent Stone had concluded his visit. Only then did he send Buck a smirk.

Buck raised his eyebrows in silent question.

“They’re fishing,” Chris replied. And went into his office.

Buck exhaled. Softly. Didn’t want anyone else to know how he had been holding his breath for IA. But if IA was fishing now, it meant that the search would likely be called off soon. They just needed to hold on a bit longer.

He threw a surreptitious glance at his boss. Chris might not have changed his mind about how he would handle the inquiry. But something had changed after the team met the other night. It was evident immediately in Chris’s posture. In his walk. He still looked like hell, but the tension that seemed to be pushing him down last week had eased off.

He knew the others had sensed it. The tension had eased off the team, too. Like their decision had freed them all. J.D. had begun to talk like it was all over and behind them already.

The word “acceptance” fluttered into Buck’s brain. But he couldn’t help but compare it to the peace that comes when a person has been granted time to put one’s affairs in order before dying. He saw suddenly that that was what they had been doing all week. Team Seven had stopped fighting against the coming storm and started to put their affairs in order. Filed all the paperwork. Finished their reports. Had even designated Team Eight the beneficiaries of their caseload. Just in case.

Josiah had jokingly gathered seven cardboard boxes in the kitchenette in case they had to clean out their desks. He had even labeled them, lest Buck not get a box big enough to house the collection of sports magazines and the rubber chicken he kept in his desk drawers.

Later in the day, the agents of Team Seven were called to IA to clarify their own testimony. Chris had expected it. Had called them into the conference room earlier and told them to mind their manners. He shot a particular glance at Tanner and Standish as he said so.

Ezra protested this uncalled-for impugning of his character. But he didn’t get all the way through his protest before he was silenced by a full-force glare, so hot that it shut Tanner up, too, as collateral damage. And J.D. Dunne edged his chair away from both of them.

As Ezra’s chagrin faded, he realized, with full consciousness of the irony, how oddly relieved he felt now that he had received his first full-strength Larabee glare in more than a month. He went to see IA still wearing his cocky gold-toothed grin.

On Wednesday, Travis met with Senior Agent Willamette, who had taken charge of the investigation into Team Seven’s unauthorized activities during their unauthorized absence. Travis held back from smiling as he recognized that IA was still very carefully terming the events “unauthorized.” No one yet had brought up the word “illegal.” He met with the Senior Agent behind closed doors. They were not to be interrupted. He wanted this report before he had to face the entire board of inquiry. He wanted to know the full extent of the damages he would need to mitigate.

Willamette’s face was grave. Stern. But his body language showed discomfort, as he shifted his long limbs in Travis’s guest chair. He pursed his lips as he considered possible ways to begin.

“Well,” he said with a sigh. “At best, I can say it’s complicated.”

Travis raised his eyebrows. “And worst?”

Willamette nearly smiled. “At worst, Team Seven did conduct an unauthorized surveillance, which may or may not have included breaking and entering and an illegal interrogation.”

“May or may not?” Travis asked, leaning forward over his desktop.

Willamette was a seasoned field veteran. Hardened by several years of working in the trenches, until a spectacular smashup during a high speed pursuit left his right legged pinned together from ankle to hip and had taken him off his team. For good. He had fought to come back. And had succeeded in becoming an investigator in Internal Affairs. He understood the pressures of field work. He had no axe to grind against men he respected as professionals. He was a realist. But he would hold them to the oath they took to uphold the law.

Travis trusted him.

“Evidence is a little sketchy,” Willamette replied. “There are several angles we could investigate further.”

The dark eyes that turned up to Travis were serious. “If the ATF believes it is worth the time, effort, and money it will take.”

Travis looked long and hard back at the senior agent.

“What do you have?” Travis asked.

Willamette placed the full report on Travis’s desk and began to walk him through the highlights.

“Misappropriation of surveillance equipment,” he began. “A given. Documents were signed. Their own testimony and your records tell us there was no relevant investigation.”

Travis nodded.

“Conducting an unauthorized surveillance.” He paused. “They all admitted to it, but the alarm company reports no unusual activity. Bautiste refuses to authorize the release of any security footage from his premises and the alarm company will not go against his wishes without a subpoena. Team Seven apparently did not make tapes either.”

Willamette’s shrugged. “They’re not stupid,” he said quietly.

Travis almost allowed himself a smile. Almost.

“What else?” he asked.

“Breaking and entering, and an illegal interrogation,” Willamette said. “Team Seven claims they bypassed the security system, gained access to the house and conducted an illegal interrogation.”

He leaned back in his chair and gave Travis a sudden grin. “You gotta admire their candor,” he said finally. “Cause hell if we can prove it without launching a full-scale investigation.”

Travis raised both eyebrows in question.

Willamette reached for the report and found the paragraphs he was referring to. “As I said, the security company reported no unusual activities. There is no police report. The victim, Bautiste, emphatically denies anything at all happened at his compound. He claims it is a rumor begun by disgruntled former employees to discredit him. And I gotta say,” Willamette added, “we’re not going to be able to crack him on that. The two men propagating the claim are former bodyguards who were in fact sacked that very day. Finally, the telephone company reports a cut line, but has been unsuccessful in finding out who did it. They’ve had a rash of vandalism lately after layoffs, including cut wires in various locations around the city. Also no witnesses have placed any members of Team Seven in the vicinity. And as stated before, Bautiste maintains that no one out of the ordinary was in the house. Add to that that the information allegedly received during this interrogation was available from other sources, as you know.”

“So what do we have?” Travis asked. “Give me the short summary.”

“We have a crime confessed to by the perpetrators and denied by the victim with very little outside corroborating evidence to say that it did happen. Unless the directors want to mount a full-scale fishing expedition.”

He looked up at Travis. “For the record, I’m against it.”
“What do you recommend?” Travis asked.

Willamette straightened as he replied, “I recommend that Team Seven be disciplined for conducting an unauthorized surveillance.” He looked at Travis as if to gauge his reaction. “They could have said nothing happened at all. And we would have been hard pressed to say otherwise. That ought to be taken into consideration. I recommend the most efficient way to handle this would be to take them at their word, as to what happened and how it happened, and discipline them accordingly.”

Travis nodded. Willamette watched the wheels turn in the Assistant Director’s head.

“Read my report,” Willamette replied. “The recommendations are there. See if you agree.”

Travis nodded and thanked the senior IA agent.

AD Travis closed the report some hours later. But he sat thinking for a long time. Turning the question over in his head. Why would Team Seven confess to a crime they could have gotten away with? He came up with a number of reasons. He would have to choose among them for the inquiry. Choose the ones that put the team in the best light. And be able to refute the ones that looked the most suspicious.

Not for the first time since the disaster in Texas, Travis found himself both relieved and furious at his wayward team. Relieved that Team Seven was on the right side of the law. And angry that they should ever have crossed the line.

He sighed deeply and looked at the clock, feeling his stomach churn. The board of inquiry was scheduled to meet tomorrow afternoon. Tonight he had to tell Evie that he planned to put his own reputation on the line beside Team Seven’s. It was a discussion he did not look forward to, and he had put it off too long.

Chris Larabee hung up his telephone, quietly this time, and glanced down at the loudly ticking Timex on his wrist. He unstrapped it and pushed it to the edge of his desk, feeling the headache returning in his temples. He ignored it, forcing it away from himself, and intercommed Buck.

There was a knock on his door almost immediately, as if Buck had been waiting for the call. He let himself in without waiting for an answer and slid into a visitor’s chair, plunking his big booted feet up on the corner of Chris’s desk.

Chris glowered at the boots. Then at the door.

Without a word, Buck reached over and pushed it shut. Noticing that a coat hook had finally been installed on the back. Improvements to the office, he thought sourly, not sure whether that was a good sign or not. Not that he believed in signs and omens. That was sort of Josiah’s job.

He looked at his leader expectantly.

“The board of inquiry is set to begin tomorrow afternoon,” Larabee said, his voice betraying no emotion. But the slight squint in his left eye told Buck that there was plenty going on in Chris’s mind.

Buck pulled his feet off the desk, set them firmly down in front of him and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees.

“So when do you think we’ll know?” he asked.

The team leader snorted. “Don’t know. Could be real short. Could be several days.”

“Which is better?” Buck asked.

Chris shrugged. He’d given up trying to figure that out a long time ago.

Buck exhaled. “Well, I guess we’ll know when we know. Until then we keep our heads up and keep on working, right?”

Chris gave him a long, odd look, but didn’t answer.

“Right?” Buck prompted, frowning back at him.

Chris cocked his head over to the side and smiled tightly. “That,” he said, “Or we could just start drinking at the Saloon right now and not crawl back out again until the results are in.”

Buck stared at him for a long second before he burst out laughing. “My God,” he said. “Stoneface made a joke.”

“Shut up, Buck,” Chris snapped. He tried not to grin as he added, “And it wasn’t a joke.”

They went out into the office space together to inform the team.

“When can we expect the other shoe to drop?” Ezra asked.

“If you’re asking when we’ll have the results,” Buck answered with slight annoyance, “we’ll have them whenever they come to a conclusion. Could take hours. Could take days.”

“Are the IA results in yet?” Josiah asked.

Buck looked to Chris for that answer.

“Yes,” Chris replied. He held up his hand forestalling any questions about it. “Travis has it. And he’ll tell me what they found when he is ready.”

“But you don’t know?” J.D. asked anxiously.

Chris barely managed to keep his own frustration from showing as he looked back at his youngest agent. “I don’t,” he said evenly.

J.D. slumped in his chair. Nathan looked down at his hands clasped together on his desktop. Josiah shrugged indifferently, philosophically. Ezra looked up at the team leader and the second in command, his expression unreadable. And Vin slung one arm over the back of his chair and grinned his best shit-eating grin. As if to dare IA to come right up to the bullpen and get him.

It almost made Chris smile to see it.

Buck looked over at Chris again, and the team leader gave a slight nod.
“Until then, we work on finishing our briefings with Team Eight. And any other casework we have left to finish,” Buck said.

J.D. looked back up at them. But he didn’t say what was so plainly written on his face. If the directors made them lose their jobs, they could deal with the unfinished paperwork themselves.

Ezra caught the look and read it. His smirk showed that he agreed with the sentiment.

Vin’s grin grew a little wider and a little meaner. Disdain all over his face. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about the paperwork.

Chris gave him an exasperated look.

Vin twitched a shoulder almost apologetically. He’d do whatever Chris ordered him to do, but he didn’t have to pretend to like it.

Chris glanced up at the bullpen clock. “Go home,” he said quietly. To be fair, he didn’t see the point of asking them to bust their tails to finish up paperwork. If they got fired—or quit—the paperwork was no longer their problem. If they kept their jobs, then there would be time to bust their tails later.

He watched them move slowly toward the bullpen door. As if the news had weighed them down momentarily. Stolen their cockiness. Their sarcastic humor. They talked quietly, angrily as they left, until, again, only Vin and Buck were left by his side.

Chris turned to both of them and frowned.

Neither spoke but they exchanged a glance.

Chris’s frown turned to a glower. Knowing what they wanted. “I’m old enough to eat dinner on my own,” he snapped.

Vin shrugged. “Reckon y’are,” he said. “We just want to see for ourselves.”

Chris flipped both of them a silent hand signal, of the kind that made Mueller go ballistic all those weeks ago.

Vin and Buck grinned at each other.

“We’re still buyin’,” Buck offered.

“Speak for yourself,” Vin muttered.

“No one asked you to,” Chris’s growled from inside his office.
“Okay,” Buck shrugged. “Then buy your own dinner. But we’re still gonna hang around and make sure you eat it.”

“And take your pills,” Vin added.

Chris reappeared from his office, still glowering. He locked his door.

“What are you gonna do for entertainment when they fire my ass?” he grumbled, but he knew there was no hope of escape.

Vin grinned widely. But did not bother to reply. For right now, he and Buck had the upper hand. And they meant to hang onto it for as long as they needed to.