Find Out Who Your Friends Are

by Amber F. Drabble

FEEDBACK: Good reviews are welcome, flames will be used to make s'mores and hot dogs.
RATING: Strong PG-13. A little cussin', violence, insinuations/flashbacks of abuse.
CHARACTERS: All Seven. Crossover with "Walker, Texas Ranger" and "Dallas"
DISCLAIMER: Ain't gonna an' ya cain't make me!
OCs: No, I think I was pretty good with that, this time.
ORIGIN: The 2007 Global Gathering Denver Zine.
DEDICATION: To Shannon, without whose assistance this story wouldn't be half of what it is. She was invaluable for bouncing ideas and ironing out dialogue.
SUMMARY: What if what you'd always believed ... wasn't what really happened? What if you did have a second chance to have your life back?
SIZE: Approx. 250K

"You find out who your friends are.
Somebody's gonna drop everything,
Run out and crank up their car.
Hit the gas, get there fast,
Never stop to think,
'What's in it for me?'
Or, 'It's way too far.'
They just show on up,
With their big ol' heart.
You find out who your friends are."

Find Out Who Your Friends Are
- Tracy Lawrence Feat
Tim McGraw
Kenny Chesney
"For The Love"
Universal Nashville 2007

Denver, Colorado
Friday 13 October 1995

Buck Wilmington stood in the street, cradling a near-hysterical Chris, staring at the scorch mark in the driveway. They'd already been to the impound, seen exactly how little was left of Chris' 1990 Jeep Grand Cherokee Ltd. 4X4. It was still twenty months from being paid for, although a small part of Buck's stunned mind supposed that really didn't matter, now.

But they'd had this crazy idea. Maybe it wasn't really Chris' Jeep, after all. Maybe the whole thing was one bad nightmare, and if they could just get to the house ...

Only it wasn't a nightmare, not the kind a man could wake up from. The evidence was there in front of them: the burn mark in the driveway, the charred remains of the garage, with the twisted wreck of Adam's brand-new two-wheeler sticking out forlornly like the skeleton of some heretofore-undiscovered dinosaur. All of the windows on the driveway side of the house were shattered; most of the rest were cracked if not outright shattered. Diablo was nowhere to be seen, but they hadn't actually gotten inside the house, yet. Buck wasn't entirely sure he wanted to, now.

He cast sick, dull eyes at the house. The emerald green door, the porch posts with their flags, each touting a Denver sports team - the Broncos, the Nuggets, the Rockies and the newly-arrived Avalanche; the flagpole still stood straight and proud in the yard, but flying debris had left its mark on the flags. The Stars & Stripes and the state flag of Colorado were both torn, and the orange-white-green flag of Ireland had caught fire, burning away to all but nothing.

It would be days before Forensics was finished combing through the mangled hulk of the Cherokee. They found what remained of Sarah's left hand still gripping the steering wheel, fused into a gruesome claw, her rings welded to the bones. It took nearly a week for them to dissect Adam's booster seat; to discover bones, fragments of bones. Enough to draw a definite conclusion that there had been a child of six sitting there when the vehicle exploded. To separate the melted remnants of Sarah's green fleece vest and Adam's brand-new Avalanche sweatshirt from what was left of the seats. To realize the clump of something that had been sitting on the passenger seat was Sarah's purse.

He hadn't come to Sarah's high school graduation party; he hadn't come to the wedding. He hadn't come to the hospital when Adam was born; he hadn't come to a birthday or holiday or anniversary or anything after Sarah had left his house in March of 1988. But Hank Connelly made a point of showing up at the memorial service, if only to look at the shattered husk that was Chris Larabee, and blame him for the deaths of his own wife and son.

"It's your fault they're dead! It's all your fault, Chris Larabee! If you'd just left my daughter alone, she'd be alive today!"

Buck had been too busy trying to keep Chris from killing Hank to tell the old fool that it wasn't Chris's fault, it was his. He had been the one who'd wanted to stay in Mexico City that cursed one extra night. That Buck Wilmington was the reason that Chris had been thousands of miles away when Adam and Sarah had needed him. But the words weren't said that day, and Hank wouldn't have believed them, anyway.

It would be after the first of 1996 before someone found Diablo living in the railyards near the newly-built Coors Field. Chris was existing in a crackerbox of an apartment Buck wouldn't have condemned cockroaches to live in, and the landlord didn't allow dogs. Buck's did, so he and the black Lab settled into an uneasy two-years-and-some-odd-months inhabiting the same space, until Chris decided to relocate to the ranch he and Sarah had just closed on before that fateful trip to Mexico, and wanted his dog back. Considering what Diablo's attitude towards the world had deteriorated into by that time, Buck wasn't sorry to see him go. In the high mountains of Summit County, west of the Eisenhower Tunnel and nearly an hour from the city, there weren't so many neighbors around to threaten lawsuits over a vicious dog. No longer chained down in a postage stamp excuse of a backyard in the city, Diablo would vanish into the mountains for days on end. Returning in response to some instinct or summons only he could decipher.

The days turned into weeks, months, three years. Adam and Sarah's files were put in a box and placed on a shelf in a sterile, warehouse-like room where nobody ever went, to molder away into dust with the rest of the cold cases. Chris had long ago left the Denver PD; Buck stayed. It was the first time since September of 1975 that they weren't together like thunder and lightning. Eventually, even the guys at the station house quit asking Buck how Chris was. If someone happened to encounter Chris, it was spoken of as akin to an Elvis sighting. He was never approached or spoken to.

Until the day in October of 1997, two years after The Tragedy, when Chris simply appeared in the doorway of the locker room as Buck was changing, coming off duty. For the first few minutes, Buck honestly hadn't recognized him. Until Dave Jennings - who had been a rookie at the time, and hadn't gotten a whole hell of a lot brighter since - breathed in an awed voice, "Jeez, it's Detective Larabee!" Chris hadn't dignified Jennings with so much as a glance, simply staring at Buck with that green burning-ice glare. Tugging himself into some semblance of decent, Buck had followed Chris out into the hall, returning less than five minutes later to clean out his locker. He'd left his badge and gun on Captain Fletcher's desk on his way out the door.

By March of '98 they were legends. A little over a year later, Chris learned the truth of that one awful day. He made a special trip to Washington DC to swear out a federal warrant against Ella Gaines, on the charge of murder.

And he waited. Waited again; days, weeks, months, years. The boys adopted a philosophy: She done it to Chris, she done it to all of us. As October 1995 had melted into October 1997, January 1998 into June 1999, eventually June 1999 transformed itself into Summer, 2007.

Until one hideously early morning in July 2007, Chris' phone rang, jarring him from sleep ...

Dallas, Texas
July 2007

The man stood in the shadows of the warehouse, surrounded by pallets of stolen weapons. Exhaust from the eighteen-wheelers that had brought the weapons here and the ones that would take them away hazed the air, mixing with the rain that had been falling sullenly since late afternoon. For a region that was usually a slave to drought, it had been raining entirely too much in Texas lately, and there was no visible end in sight. Other men stood or sat, singly or in groups of no more than five, talking quietly amongst themselves. Some read, some played handheld video games or watched portable DVD players. One guy sitting in the open cab of a Peterbilt was frowning over the Sudoku from the previous day's Dallas Morning News. A few, like the man standing in the shadows, were actively keeping watch.

At a glance, he was in his late twenties; three inches over six feet, even without the help of the custom-fit black python Lucchese boots. Upwards from there were midnight blue Levi's; a black snakeskin belt with a gold buckle the size of a cake plate, commemorating the 2006 PBR Bull of the Year, Mossy Oak Mudslinger; a midnight blue button-down shirt, collar open over a navy blue T-shirt. Hair so dark brown it was sometimes mistaken for outright black framed a deadly serious face, the focal point of which was a pair of equally dark eyes, eyes that never stopped moving. His arms were crossed loosely in front of him, right over left and just in front of the belt buckle, a wicked-looking submachine gun held in a loose-but-firm grip in his right hand, ready to swing into play at a second's warning. A hand-tooled black leather shoulder holster kept a matte-black Colt .45 M1911A contained under his left arm, a matching belt holster held a Colt .40 at the small of his back. There was a knife hanging on his right thigh, another strapped to his left ankle beneath boots and jeans. Except for the belt buckle, he was difficult to see in the shadows, unless one looked closely. Most women - and some men - took the time. He was what his cousin had teasingly referred to as, "Teen-soap handsome." He'd let the remark slide; it had been Christopher's last night in the U.S. before shipping out for Afghanistan, and although he'd more than understood Christopher's reasons behind enlisting in the Army, he'd still been gut-twisting scared.

Still was, though he tried very hard not to let on whenever Christopher was home on leave, or in their infrequent letters, even less frequent e-mails and the international satellite telephone calls that were more precious than the Holy Grail.

Slinking around the perimeters of the gathering were several women, blindingly beautiful and as scantily dressed as possible. Rain notwithstanding, it was still July in Dallas after all, and even in the single hours was just hot and muggy enough to be uncomfortable. One of them turned on a portable stereo and put on a CD that was barely younger than the watching man himself. A flicker of wry humor skated across his eyes as the lyrics soared over the open warehouse.

"I was born the son,
Of a lawless man.
Always spoke my mind,
With a gun in my hand ...

His own father didn't know where he was this night; an arrangement they'd long ago discovered made things a great deal easier on both sides of what had often been a decidedly strained relationship.

In point of fact, his father didn't know where he'd been for the last six months. They'd spoken, briefly, at Christmas, and then the younger man had simply ... dropped off the radar. Since he hadn't seen his face on FoxNews, he could guess with some degree of hopeful certainty that his family realized what exactly he'd been up to recently. It would be considerably unpleasant to walk into the house tomorrow or the next day - or whenever this was over - and get the riot act for missing his grandparents' seventy-third anniversary without someone knowing he'd had a damn good excuse.

A series of signal whistles had everyone on the alert, and the young man watched as distractions were hastily packed away. Someone hollered in angry Spanish to shut off that damn stereo, you bitch! Christopher Cross was cut off in mid-chorus.

Shielded by the bulk of the subgun, the man moved just his index finger beneath the flashy belt buckle, pressing a button hidden there. In a seemingly abandoned moving van parked three warehouses over, a whipcord-lean black man nodded, and spoke into a lip mic. Three blocks from there, running lights flashed on, and the silence of the night was split by the distinctive rumble-grumble-snort-growl-snarl of a diesel engine. A bull-nosed silver Dodge Ram eased out of the shadows of some long-forgotten industrial building.

Across the wide aisle of the warehouse, another man stepped out from between a pallet of LAW rockets and launchers and one stacked high with Stinger ground-to-air missiles and launchers, blond and blue-eyed where his compatriot was dark, a good five inches shorter, and seven years older. They locked eyes briefly across the room, and the younger man's mouth twitched briefly. 'Message sent.' The blond blinked once, then faded back to his position. They had utmost faith in their friends - the black man in the moving van, the man coming in the silver Dodge every criminal in Texas could identify on sight. The ones who would come simply because that man had said to. When the sludge of Texas wanted their little spawns to clean their slime pits, there were certain names they invoked.

A limousine pulled into the warehouse, long, sleek, black; a predator in search of prey. As he stepped forward to open the door, the watching man found himself unable to shake the image. Though raised to wealth himself, he'd never been comfortable with the vehicles. Letting someone else do the driving took too much control out of his own hands. As a boy, he'd been forced far too often to stand aside as his life was ordered to the satisfaction of others. It was only one among the many things he and his father had mutually decided were best if they weren't talked about.

"Why, Garrison, thank you. So nice to see someone of your generation with decent manners." The woman was barely over five feet, and wore six-inch stiletto heels to over-compensate. She was dark-haired, with unnervingly pale blue eyes, and a Virginia drawl that seemed to almost purr. He found himself having to constantly replay in his head that old Marty Stuart music video, the one with the Forties-style radio preacher, exhorting his congregation about temptation often being a thing of beauty. From the first time he'd met Ella Gaines, he'd been put in mind of Nagaina the Cobra from the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

'Garrison Johnston' offered her a bland smile. "My grandparents were from the old school, ma'am." One of the keys to effective undercover work was knowing just how much truth to weave together with the lies. It was something he hadn't needed to be taught, he'd grown up keeping his true thoughts and emotions hidden from various members of his family. Unbidden, his father's voice sounded in his mind.

"Don't forgive and never forget; Do unto others before they do unto you; and third and most importantly - keep your eye on your friends, because your enemies will take care of themselves."

The old man had never quite expected his sons to turn that advice around on the one who'd given it to them.

For now, 'Garrison' stood aside to let the remaining passengers alight from the limo, a man of undeniably Middle Eastern descent, although he wore a Western-style three-piece-and-tie, four of his closest bodyguards, dressed in Bodyguard Black and armed to the teeth, and finally, Ella's personal companion.

Naturally four inches taller, she was therefore forced to wear flat shoes. Slender as a willow tree, with long, brown hair touched with auburn fire cascading down her back. Wavy enough to avoid being pin-straight, but not quite true curls. Blue eyes as dark as midnight on the Texas prairie, she was dressed in a gold lace floor-length gown that only the slimmest of women could comfortably wear; a dramatically low-cut creation, mostly backless, with precious little more material making up the front and a side slit all-the-way-up-to ... there. She carried no purse, only an excuse for a shawl made of some sheer gold material. As he had since meeting her, 'Garrison' gave her a polite bow, nodding his head respectfully. She'd spoken to him once or twice over the past months, in a shimmering Irish brogue; once he'd charmed a smile out of her. She appeared to be not much more than his own age, and heart-breakingly fragile. Her name was Sarah O'Rourke

Last out of the car was her son, who proved if nothing else that she was actually several years older than she appeared, because the sullen wraith that emerged from the limo was in his late teens at least, if not very early twenties. He'd taken the guise of the vampire - black clothes; black-dyed hair that flowed halfway down his back; stark white make-up relieved only by equally stark black at his eyes and lips. Jewelry was a hodge-podge mix of religious icons and pagan symbolism. He snarled more than spoke, and sneered at the world through eyes that put 'Garrison' in mind of nothing more than two chunks of green ice on fire. More than once, he'd caught whiskey on the kid's breath. Having seen what he'd seen over six months, he had been reminded of something his mother had more than once said to his father - "Joan of Arc would be a drunk, too, if she was married to you!" If he was a mind to, the kid would answer grudgingly to Adam O'Rourke.

Ducking back into the car for a moment, Adam emerged with a distinctively-curved plastic bottle, wrapped in an equally distinctive red label, which he nonchalantly tossed at 'Garrison' in passing.

"Hey, thanks."

"Hot enough to melt your bones out here. Don't you people ever have cool weather?"

"Yeah, from 11 o'clock in the morning to five in the afternoon, every February 20th. We time it."

Adam grunted, almost ready to believe it. It was somewhere between midnight and dawn, and he'd already been forced to lose his oilcloth duster, brocade-embroidered suede vest and silk overshirt - all black. He was down to a plain black T-shirt, and wasn't planning to take that off. The body art he was proud to display. The scars were another matter.

'Garrison' took his place at her side at Ella's call, ready to stand witness to the final phase of the deal. As the terrorist who was going to take delivery of the weapons Ella had arranged to have stolen from American military installations all over the country ordered one of his personal guard to open the trunk of the limo, the blond calling himself 'Harper Thomas' stepped forward to guard his 'boss.' He very carefully didn't look at 'Garrison Johnston.'

In the good old days, it would have been briefcases full of American greenbacks. Now however, it was only one such briefcase as a show of good faith, and a promise that the balance would be electronically transferred to Ella's offshore accounts within three business days. Out of respect for the man's Muslim beliefs, Ella forewent the tradition of shaking hands, smiling her mint-julep smile and purring about what a pleasure it had been to do business with him, they'd just simply have to get together like this again, sometime.

Nothing showed on their faces or in their body language, but 'Garrison' could well imagine that 'Harper' was breathing the same internal sigh of relief he was. It was a done deal, and they'd gotten it all, video and audio both.

And nothing had ever looked so good as that silver Dodge barreling in, with Texas Ranger Captain Cordell Walker swinging down from the driver's seat before the truck had even stopped. Suddenly there were cops all over the place, even rappelling down from the rafters. Ella jerked away in shock, jerking again when 'Garrison' took her by one arm.

"Going somewhere, ma'am?" The carrying sling of the subgun was looped over his right forearm, with that hand holding Ella's arm. With his left hand he reached into his left back pocket ... and pulled out a Dallas Metro Police Department badge.

"Ella Gaines, you're under arrest."

It was after noon before they got it cleaned up to the point that they could return to Texas Ranger HQ and get started on the in-depth interrogations. 'Garrison Johnston' was revealed to be Detective John Ross Ewing III, 'Harper Thomas' was Trent Malloy, PI. Knowing debriefing was going to be the nightmare of nightmares, John Ross stole a minute in the men's can to leave a fast message on his older brother James Beaumont's voicemail. "Case busted, I'm okay. Don't know when I'll be around. See you when I see you. Love y'all." That would keep the pack of vultures he was related to at least pacified until he could put on an actual physical appearance at Southfork. Folding his phone in his pocket, John Ross bent over the sink, splashing cold water on his face. For a scant moment, he stood like that, hands braced on the countertop, head hanging wearily.

'God, please, the next time Walker tags me for an undercover assignment, let me remember how hellish this one was, so I will have the common horse sense to tell him "Not just no, but HELL NO!"' But he knew he'd say "Yes!" in a heartbeat. Walker led by example and from the front, never asking of his 'posse' what he wasn't willing to demand of himself, and therefore ensuring said posse would follow him to Satan's front door if he only asked.

Texas Ranger - and former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver - Jimmy Trivette pounced him the second he stepped out of the men's room. "The Coke truck," his eyes were wide in his dark face.

"What about it?" One of the transport vehicles had been a hijacked Coca-Cola van, a big Ford E-Series. John Ross hadn't been privy to its contents - besides being reasonably sure it wasn't soda - but Ella had insisted that the van be guarded to the last man. Five guys had taken her at her word.

"You heard about the hard drives that went missing from the Pentagon, back in April." It wasn't a question; Trivette knew John Ross had a cousin in Afghanistan.

John Ross had been about to turn, to go down the hall and find Walker, the ramrod behind this entire operation. Mildly surprised Walker hadn't come looking for him personally, he was going to be either debriefed or participate in the interrogations. He was betting on debriefing first. But Trivette's words stopped him in his tracks, dead cold. "Excuse me?" In mid-April, several computer hard drives containing a wealth of information about the War on Terror had suddenly come up missing from one of the highest-security buildings in the world. John Ross had spent several sleepless nights over the last three months, thinking about those hard drives, about them getting into the wrong hands. About Christopher.

"The hard drives, we found them. They were in that Coke truck."

For a fast minute, John Ross thought he was honestly going to pass out. He was suddenly light-headed, as if he'd overdosed on antihistamines, and the hallway spun sickeningly for several seconds. Over the loud buzzing in his ears, he was dimly aware of Trivette calling his name, of strong hands helping him to sit on one of the long wooden benches that lined the halls. He was urged to sit with his head between his knees. Voices faded in and out around him.

"What happened?"

"I told him about finding the hard drives. He folded up like a fiberglass car."

"Get him some water."

Ranger Sydney Cooke walked into the middle of this, clutching some papers that were still warm from the printer, and looking for Walker. Seeing what was happening, the petite woman held back. Her partner, Gage, caught her eye, and she mouthed 'Walker,' Gage nodded. After a few minutes, John Ross was helped carefully to his feet, and with the help of Gage and Trent's friend and business partner Carlos Sandoval went to Dallas County District Attorney Alex Cahill-Walker's office to lie down for a time. As they passed Walker, Gage nodded behind them.

"Sydney's looking for you."

Walker turned, accepting the papers Sydney held out, and arching one reddish-blond eyebrow at her comment of, "Walker, we've got a situation."

"Sydney, we've had a 'situation' for the last six months." He turned his head slightly as someone touched his shoulder. He didn't need to see her to know who it was - the Chanel No. 5 gave her away.

For not the first time since they'd met, Sydney ruthlessly stepped on the impulse for envy. If God had wanted her to be tall, blonde and graceful, she'd've been born tall, blonde and graceful. There was no use being jealous of Alex Cahill-Walker for what couldn't be changed.

For the better part of the last fifteen or so years, the joke around the Metroplex had been that Walker and Alex "worked for each other." Walker found the bad guys, Alex provided warrants; Walker caught the bad guys, Alex fried them in court. When asked if there was anyone in the state pen at Huntsville he hadn't put there, Walker would reply dryly, "The warden."

Now Alex glanced at the papers Walker held. "What's going on?" Walker turned his attention to the papers, quiet until he'd read them over. Then he looked up at Sydney. "I'd have to say that Sarah O'Rourke looks pretty good for a woman who died in a car bombing eleven years ago."

Alex let out a breath. "I'll say." Then she stopped as a thought flashed through the best law library in the state of Texas - the one logged in between her ears. "Walker, Sarah O'Rourke's husband would be Chris Larabee. He's the SAC for Team 7, one of the RMETF teams the ATFE put together after Waco. And Vin Tanner is their sniper."

Vin Tanner was one among the many who had passed under Walker's personal tutelage; one of the few who had become not only a student and protégé but a true friend as well. It had taken years before Vin was able to view Walker through that lens, however, holding on to a personal image of Walker as an idol and mentor as opposed to an equal. Tanner leaving the U.S. Marshals to take the job in Denver had a great deal to do with that, Walker believed. Vin was also someone Walker believed he saw far too little of. Aside from a disastrous Colorado skiing trip in 2004 - he and Alex simply could not take a vacation without something going haywire - they hadn't seen Vin personally since he'd left Texas after Christmas 1997.

"Chris Larabee is more than Vin's boss," Walker had more information between his ears than a Pentagon super-computer. Even after fifteen years of working together, it still amazed Jimmy Trivette, the stuff Walker could come up with seemingly out of thin air. When Carlos was still with Dallas Metro and had been 'tagged' by Walker for an undercover role - one that had been achingly personal for Carlos - he had commented to Trent that it was great working with Walker, but a little intimidating as well. "The guy knows everything." Trent's response had been a laughing, "Tell me about it." "When we went up there in '04, I mentioned to Vin how close he and Chris were. He told me that Chris is also his older brother."

Malloy residence
118 Providence Way
Dallas, Texas

"Olivia! Come on, we gotta go! All the good stuff will be gone by the time we get there!" Seventeen-year-old Tandy Malloy moved through life at one speed - All Ahead Full. Trent had laughingly nicknamed her 'Blurr,' after a character on the old Transformers cartoon. Todd - who was only three years older and had been her alternate accomplice and worst enemy during their childhood years - told his friends, "Tandy doesn't sleep. She plugs herself in and recharges."

"O-LI-VI-AAAAAA!" There was a sidewalk sale at the mall, and Tandy's idea of 'getting there early' was to be sitting in the parking lot a half-hour before the mall opened.

"All right, all right! Dang, can I brush my teeth first?" Fourteen-year-old Olivia 'Greer' had been living with the Malloys for three years, ever since she had used Jimmy Trivette to rescue herself from the streets, and the downward spiral she would have inevitably found herself on had he not been where he was at that one moment in time ...

Dallas, Texas
November 2005

It was a dark, cold, rainy, generally miserably lousy day, and one that suited Jimmy Trivette's mood perfectly. John Ross and Trent were in the hospital, John Ross's so-called 'family' wanted Walker's head on a pike, and he was on the serious outs with Walker for the first time he could remember, after having called the older Ranger's judgment into question. Rhett Harper had told Walker about the vengeful father he suspected of framing him for murder, how could Walker have not followed up on that theory, leaving things until the man had managed to smuggle a gun into the Tarrant County Courthouse and try to shoot Harper, putting Alex in the crossfire and therefore John Ross and Trent in their current situation? It just wasn't like Walker to ignore something like that.

'Okay, okay,' Jimmy conceded to the conscience that had been savaging him since his last go-round with Walker, in the office not half an hour ago, which had led to Jimmy stalking out, slamming doors on his way. 'So saying so straight to his face wasn't exactly the brightest idea I've ever had.' The hurt and disappointment that had been layered under Walker's anger had etched themselves into Jimmy's soul like acid. Not to mention the treatment he was getting from Alex - which was to say, no treatment at all. As far as she was concerned, Jimmy Trivette had died, just nobody had gotten around to burying him yet. The end result was that he was in the perfect mood to undertake a self-appointed task he hated doing.

4100 S. Buckner Blvd. loomed overhead; a towering building of some unknown industrial intention, long ago abandoned to rust into oblivion. Eight years ago, it had been the site of a confrontation between Walker, Trent Malloy and Carlos Sandoval against an insane ex-Dallas-Metro-cop-turned-cop-killer named Rod Barkley. Jimmy himself had missed the fight, having been in the hospital recovering from the bullets Barkley had pumped into him. Walker had ended up with a bullet in his own shoulder, and Carlos had been rendered nearly helpless by his fear of heights and the structure's open-air stairways and catwalks. The final fight had been between Barkley and Trent, ending in Barkley's death when he and Trent had tumbled over one of those catwalks. Had it not been for Walker and Carlos, Trent would have shared Barkley's fate.

One of the end results was that Barkley's malevolent ghost had taken up residence in the place, and he was an active haunter. This in itself wouldn't have been a problem, except that it had also become a target for Dallas' ever-increasing population of castoff children. A building sitting in the middle of a large open space with surprisingly good sight lines for an industrial area, ostensibly abandoned, and seemingly unclaimed by both the criminal predators and the older elements of the Metroplex's shadow population. The homeless teens and children who descended upon the place to make it theirs must have thought they'd stumbled on a gold mine.

Until they had their first encounters with Rod Barkley. It had become clear that the malicious spirit was looking for a portal through which he could regain entrance into the corporeal world. In his own twisted mindset, he'd left unfinished business - Carlos Sandoval still lived, and Barkley held Walker and Trent responsible for his own death. Barkley wanted a body to possess, a spirit to take over. He wanted back in. It became a contest of wills - the street kids may not have had much, but they would fight for what little they did. They weren't about to give the place up, ghost or no ghost, no matter how evil it was. Rules were instituted: no drugs, no alcohol, no one who was obviously mentally ill. A mind that wasn't entirely stable or was clouded by chemicals would be just the entry point Barkley was looking for. No mysticism - and that included séances and Ouija boards. A side effect of this was that the kids who did subscribe to such beliefs had defiantly set up a defensive perimeter in the abandoned warehouses and such that ringed '4100 South.' They claimed to have created a 'protection circle' Barkley couldn't pass through. The residents of 4100 South had responded to that in their own turn by scavenging fencing, and setting it up just inside the 'circle,' therefore keeping the circle's own architects OUT.

In spite of all perceived precautions, Barkley still managed to raise enough chaos that the coroner's van was a common sight at 4100 South, and the religious houses in the neighboring area - a scant handful of churches, two synagogues and one mosque you'd drive right by and not even realize it was one unless you knew it was there - had become used to shaking-scared young people appearing on their doorsteps at all hours, begging for help. Jimmy figured the kids had to have had the place blessed a few hundred times by now. So he'd taken it upon himself to go around periodically and see if he could talk a kid or two or three into giving the world one more chance. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

He pulled up to find a knot of boys and young men standing underneath a lean-to that hadn't been there last week, built out of what looked like old wooden storage pallets. A prodigious amount of smoke was pouring out from underneath it, though the lean-to didn't appear to be on fire itself. Jimmy grinned, getting it immediately. Resourceful by necessity, they'd managed to cobble together an apparently reasonable facsimile of a barbecue grill. The lean-to was to make sure the weather didn't put the fire out. A young man who called himself 'Outlaw' looked up as Jimmy's Mustang cruised to a stop.

"Hey, Starman's here." 'Starman' was the street name they'd stuck Jimmy with after someone had found out he'd once been a Dallas Cowboy. Walker was 'Yessir,' Alex was either 'Class,' 'Grace,' or 'Style,' depending on who was speaking of or to her. Gage was 'Hotshot,' and Sydney was 'Jaguar.' When she'd asked why, Outlaw had replied, "Because you're little, but you're tough." Pound-for-pound, the jaguar was one of the strongest of the big cats, despite being smaller than its more glamorous lion, tiger and leopard cousins. For no other reason than purely to be contrary, the 'Perimeter Covens' had tagged Sydney with a variety of nicknames, all relative to the North American mountain lion.

"Hey, Outlaw," Jimmy unfolded himself from the Mustang and walked over to the lean-to. 'Today's Special' appeared to be hot dogs, most likely scavenged from the 'past due' files of the Winn-Dixie a few blocks away. The grill was of the Southern smoker variety - a fifty-gallon drum cut in half, hinged on one side and a grill grid laid within. Three of the smaller kids sat off to one side, industriously going through bags of hot dog buns - there was a Wonder Bread outlet around the corner from the Winn-Dixie, and the manager would quietly give the about-to-be-tossed stuff to the street denizens. The boys were opening the bags and going over the buns carefully, cutting out any moldy pieces. Past-due hot dogs and moldy buns - this was a regular gourmet feast around here. Jimmy himself had grown up in the Baltimore projects as the baby of eight, and there had been lean times, especially after his father had died. But there had always been a roof, a bed, clothes, decent food and most importantly, love. To be grateful for past-due hot dogs, moldy buns and a malevolent ghost waiting for your slightest misstep was something Jimmy could not imagine. He met Outlaw's liquid brown eyes head on. Twenty-four now, Outlaw had been one of the first kids to homestead 4100 South after Barkley's death in May of 1997, and had over time become the de facto leader of the place. His parents had come from Mexico by way of the Rio Grande when Outlaw was barely six weeks old. His father had found work in construction, expecting his son to follow in his footsteps. But Outlaw wasn't, couldn't, be his father. The body of a construction worker housed the soul of an artist, something the older man couldn't, wouldn't, understand. Add that to the fact that Outlaw struggled under the burden of ADHD/LD, nevermind the language barrier - he hadn't begun speaking English until his early teens. He'd attended school sporadically at best as his family hop-scotched around the Southwest, perennially one step ahead of Immigration. At fifteen he'd finally given up and dropped out. A few months later, he'd been kicked out of the house - catching his only son in his room with a girl, Outlaw's father might have tolerated, certainly understood. Catching him with another boy - Outlaw considered himself lucky to have been alive to get thrown out.

"You want lunch, Starman?"

Jimmy stomach gave a slow, rolling lurch as he wondered how many of these kids had a case of food poisoning to look forward to. "I'll pass, thanks. I'm taking Erika out to dinner tonight." Erika was Jimmy's wife, known around here as 'Saint.' He skated a look around the area - the only visible activity was around the lean-to, the weather had everyone inside what shelter there was available - then met Outlaw head-on again. "So, how are my odds?" They never tried to take anyone out of this place by force; anyone who left - not counting those the kids themselves made leave - did so of their own will.

Outlaw chuckled, while Trance and Slice got in a minor squabble over the distinction between 'done' and 'burnt.' "Not good today, old friend. Things are going pretty good. Laser, he got a job at the Winn-Dixie, he's gonna let us know when there'll be food." Laser - the last person to call him Lysander to his face had been his so-called mother, the night she chose her crack-dealer boyfriend over her twelve-year-old son - was one who had given the world another chance, but like many of his fellows, remembered the place where he'd found sanctuary. He was also Outlaw's 'OA2' - his On-Again-Off-Again. When Jimmy had been their age, there had been other words for it.

The Mustang sat alone, at a little distance from the lean-to, and well out of the fitful circle of light from the nearest 'working' streetlamp. Jimmy had parked it at an angle, so that the passenger door wasn't easily visible from where he was standing. Being a convertible it didn't have a traditional 'dome light,' but a light was built into the rear-view mirror, and would come on if the door was opened far enough. It was well dark - exacerbated by the lack of 'proper' lighting - and the rain was beginning to come down harder, lessening even that visibility. A shadow moved within shadows next to the car. She hadn't heard or seen Jimmy activate the security alarm, indicating that he didn't intend to be out of direct sight of the car. With utmost care she tested the passenger door - unlocked. Jimmy had his back to the car, Outlaw was concentrating on him, and the others were focused on the food. She could only hope that nobody who had a window on this side of the building was looking out. She would have to work harder to get into the car without triggering the light.

After a few minutes more of conversation and shaking his head, Jimmy said his farewells to the ragtag group and headed back for his car. If the situation with Walker improved - and it would be hard for it to get much worse - he'd come out here next weekend with reinforcements.

Settling back into the car, he cranked it over and pulled out, reaching over to flip on the heat. As he pulled out, he slid a CD by Colorado-based smooth jazz group Dotsero into the CD player. That was one of the rare things he didn't like about living in Dallas - there wasn't a dedicated jazz radio station. Texas Christian University and Northern Texas University's campus stations played jazz, but they ran other things, too, and weeding through the rest of it for the good stuff wasn't always worth bothering with. His cell rang, and he flipped on his hands-free.

"Yeah, Trivette."

"Jimmy, it's Alex." For a second, he was honestly struck speechless. She'd actually called him? 'Wow, look how fast I rejoined the land of living humanity.'

"Hey, Alex. What's up?" 'Like the kid said in the book, Who's acting? I'm a natural normal. I guess we're all just going to act like the whole thing never happened, huh? Yeah, riiiiiiight. And I'm getting my football career back tomorrow, too.'

"Can you swing by the H.O.P.E Center real quick? I just realized I still have that file from the Bridgehill Park case in my car and Sydney said you'd told her you needed it."

Bridgehill Park was a new development in Braddock County that made Stepford, CT look like San Francisco. Gage had said it reminded him of the city on the planet Camazotz in the book A Wrinkle in Time - the one in which absolutely everything was exactly the same, and non-conformity was severely punished. In Bridgehill Park, it had been as well. An 'unpopular' student at the local high school had been tricked into attending a house party - where she had been lured into the basement and savagely beaten. Her assailants had then stuffed her into a large laundry sack, drove out into the countryside and dumped her, to die of her injuries. One of the youthful conspirators had made the mistake of bragging about the incident on her blog, using the phrase 'Sic semper FREAKS.' Tandy Malloy had been tipped off by another student at the same school, whom she knew from Bible Retreat, and had in turn provided Jimmy with the link to the blog. Predictably, the so-called 'parents' of Bridgehill Park had lawyered up; covering for their little altar boys and choir girls, and blaming the dead girl's family for 'not keeping her under proper control.' One or two of the kids had sung the 'We Didn't Really Mean To Hurt Her, Just Scare Her A Little Blues,' with the standard chorus of 'It Was Only Supposed To Be A Joke.'

"You bet, Alex. From where I am, it'll take me about a half an hour."

Alex said a surprisingly pleasant goodbye, and Jimmy rang off. The heater was finally starting to kick in, obliging Jimmy to in turn flip on the window defogger. The windshield wipers were already set on presto. He hummed along with Dotsero as he navigated the streets, sucking air in through his teeth as he eased the car through a large puddle that was forming under an overpass. He flicked his gaze up to the rear-view mirror after he'd gotten through it, nodding wearily as a high-rider four-by-four blasted through the same puddle. If this rain kept up, by tomorrow the Metroplex would be dotted with those puddles, some of which could morph into respectably-sized ponds if nobody got after them with a pumper truck. It only took six inches of water to float a regular car or truck.

In the time it took him to reach the H.O.P.E Center, the rain had lightened to a misty drizzle, but the sky had darkened. The clouds were lowering, so the glass-and-steel towers of the city were cut off midway up. He was going to have to push it if he wanted to make his dinner reservation with Erika.

The sign outside the white frame house read H.O.P.E. Center - it stood for Help Our People Excel. Looked harmless enough. She managed to slip out of the Mustang the same way she'd slipped in, giving a quiet gasp as the air hit her, feeling colder than ever now that she'd been inside the warm car. The kitchen door was unlocked, the room dark and empty. She passed through it quickly, emerging into the hall. She'd learned long ago that the best way to handle these situations was to act as if you belonged here.

The black Ranger was talking to a tall, classy blonde - presumably the 'Alex' he'd been talking to on the phone. She reminded the girl of a hazy memory from her earliest childhood - another classy blonde. Who had she been, the memory was never clear, she remembered Denver, Colorado but not much more. Hazy faces she couldn't always place names to, a memory of blind fear and the knowledge that she had deeply disappointed somebody she desperately wanted to trust her. She often lay awake at night, all night, trying to make the memories stand clear. She invariably spent several days after such a night with a whanging headache.

There was a purse hanging off a coat tree not five feet away, just at the border where the light from the front hall met the shadows where the young girl stood. It was crafted out of blue denim in the currently fashionable 'hobo' style, tattered and worn and frayed at the edges. It had been slung over the coat tree in such a way that the bulk of it was in the shadows, and the wallet was about to fall out. A wallet that was well-stuffed with cash, she could count it from where she stood. She started edging toward the purse, keeping one eye on the blonde, who was facing the purse and would see what was going on if she only turned her head a little. The black Ranger had his back to the coat tree. She didn't see a dark-haired young woman who had also been keeping an eye on the purse. She'd been caught with her hand in that particular cookie jar, once.

"Hey, Miss Alex, your purse." Melissa Martinez shook her head, long dark hair sifting across her shoulders. It had been four years since she'd tried to lift Alex Cahill-Walker's wallet, and she tried very hard not to think about that Halloween, about how it would have ended if Alex had been anyone other than who and what she was.

Jimmy took two long strides across the room, catching the young intruder by the wrist, with Alex's cash-filled wallet firmly in her hand. Her astonished face quickly turned to anger as she jerked back, hard. "Hey! Lemme go!" But Jimmy had spent several years having to hold on to something others wanted to take away from him, and he wasn't turning loose. He simply brought his other hand around to take the girl by the collar of her ragged blue jean jacket and drag her into the lit area.

She greeted Alex with a look that defined pugnacious. "Should learn not to leave your cash out in plain sight like that." Shooting a suspicious look at Melissa's half-laughing, half-groaning, "I've been trying to tell her that for how long now?" She stepped over to the coat tree to retrieve the purse and hand it to Alex, nipping the wallet from the newcomer's startled grasp on her way back by.

The kid couldn't have been more than twelve, dressed in once-black jeans, a hugely-oversized Denver Broncos sweatshirt that looked new enough to have to have been shoplifted, the jean jacket and a Colorado Avalanche ballcap likely 'picked up' at the same time as the sweatshirt, turned backward over dark honey hair which was yanked back in a coiled-up tail at the base of her skull. In the way of street children she was willow-thin, her wide dark eyes waif-like in her narrow face. Alex shook her head. "Turn her loose, Jimmy. She was only looking for enough money to keep body and soul together for a few more days. And Melissa's right, you'd think I'd learn not to keep leaving my purse hanging around like that."

"Or at least make sure your wallet's not about to fall out all over the place," Josie Martin was one of the directors/house parents Alex had hired when she started the H.O.P.E Center. They'd gone to law school together, until Josie had had to drop out due to a family tragedy. She could see in the girl's eyes the same defiance and anger that had once been in Melissa's; with a side order of hopelessness the girl was desperately trying to hide. Jimmy let her go, and she made a show of rubbing the wrist he'd been holding, and making certain that the collar of her jacket was sitting properly, all the while giving Jimmy the evil eye.

"Y'know, my mother's mother came from Haiti, and there are some who say her grandmother was a voodoo priestess. Certain I saw my mother do things I couldn't explain."

"Then what were you doing at 4100 South? You should know they don't tolerate that stuff there." He shot back.

She huffed. "I never said she taught me anything. It's stuff you have to learn, it doesn't come through blood." She shook her head. "Typical ignorant."

Alex's laughter had a distinct edge to it, despite the seemingly friendly look on her face. "Yeah, we get that with him sometimes. It's an ongoing process."

Melissa groaned dramatically. "Oh no! Not another learning experience!" A scattering of other kids of various ages had left their other activities to see what was going on, and they joined in the laughter.

Alex looked at the girl. "I have a policy - I like to know the names of people who try to pinch my wallet."

"My name is Stray," at Jimmy's disbelieving snort, she gave him the evil eye again. "She never said she wanted my real name. Olivia Greer." She heaved a fatalistic sigh. "I was in care in Minnesota, so I figure I must be in the computer somewhere, but I'm NOT going back there, you can't make me. You send me back to Minnesota, I'll just bail again."

"She says Minnesota, but she's wearing Colorado sports gear." Jimmy shook his head. He had a bad memory of one particularly bitterly cold Monday Night in the old Mile High Stadium, getting his can kicked all over the field, and pelted with snow- and iceballs from the stands. The tunnel from the visitors' locker room had come out underneath the notorious 'South Stands,' and the Broncos Faithful - 'Broncomaniacs' was the perfect name for them - let you know you were The Enemy from the second you set foot on Their Field.

Alex didn't say anything out loud, but the look in her eyes was clear as day - 'Don't push your luck with me today, Jimmy.'

Oookay, so he wasn't off the hook, after all.

Olivia had her arms folded defensively over her middle, standing with her weight tipped back on her right foot, discreetly measuring the distance between her and the door. A kid in a Longhorns shirt shook his head. "You better not, Trivette played wide receiver for the 'Boys. He'd catch you before you got two steps."

"One step," another kid disagreed.

"I'm more interested about how he knew where I came from." Olivia snarled.

"I knew you were in my car before I left." Jimmy scowled at her snort of disbelief.

"What's important right now isn't where she came from, but where she's going," Alex announced, her voice brooking no argument. At that moment the front door opened and in came Walker, his butternut Stetson darkened by the drizzle, and an older man behind him. He took in the scene before him, and quirked one eyebrow at Alex. "Now, what have I told you about leaving your purse hanging around?" Teasingly, like a parent exasperated by a child who's been reminded a thousand times. The older man harrumphed.

"She's always been forgetful like that. If I had a nickel for every time her mother and I had to remind her about her bookbag, I could give up law completely. Hello, punkin." Gordon Cahill came to Alex's side and bussed her temple.

"At least I came by that honestly, Mom and I had to remind you not to forget your briefcase at least as often." And only Jimmy and Walker knew that the reason Gordon had needed to be reminded about his briefcase was that he'd been drunk more often than not back then.

Olivia took one look at Walker and felt all of her sass evaporate. The ghosts of Colorado floated closer, tantalizing her with the knowledge they held just out of reach. She remembered a book she'd read about wolves, and how each pack had only one alpha male. She shifted her hands to her back pockets and dropped her eyes, submissive now. "H'lo, Yessir."

"Stray." He sounded amused rather than angry, which prodded Olivia into taking a peek from under her eyelashes. Inwardly, she was cringing. She hadn't ever seen Alex down at 4100 South, and therefore hadn't recognized her here. She certainly wouldn't be going back there now! "Caught with your hand in the cookie jar?"

Olivia's "I guess," was accompanied by a jerky, nervous shrug. At 4100 South, it was common knowledge that the sayings 'Don't Mess With Texas' and 'One Riot, One Ranger' specifically meant Cordell Walker.

A voice spoke from the stairs. "She could stay with us."

Tandy Malloy had been coming down from upstairs, and had held her position until there was an acceptable break in the conversation.

Alex gave her a surprised look. "Your Mom won't mind, Tandy?"

Tandy shook her head. "She was saying this morning how empty the house is starting to feel, with Trent and Becky and Emily in their own place, Tommy over in Afghanistan, and Todd's gonna be gone next May. I guess I don't make enough noise, just me by myself. Maybe I should start slamming doors every chance I get," she ended wistfully.

And that was how it had happened. Before Olivia could gather a breath to protest, Carlos Sandoval was there with his black Dodge Durango, she was taken back to 4100 South to collect her few possessions, and then on to Katie Malloy's house. Her feeble protests that this time of upheaval in the Malloy family wasn't the time to be dropping a new person into the mix went entirely unheard. Since she'd spent a lot of time in libraries, she was able to bluff her way into being placed in seventh grade, where she should have been. By a roundabout route, the ghosts in her mind settled into their proper places, though she managed to keep her big mouth shut, but good.

Now, Katie Malloy looked up as the girls bounced into the kitchen. "You two take something with you to eat, there's muffins." She waved at a wicker basket lined with a red-and-white checked cloth and filled with muffins. Tandy gave the basket a dismissive glance.

"There's no blueberry."

"Take what there is," her mother admonished.

Heaving the sigh of the martyr, Tandy picked out an apple cinnamon, while Olivia grabbed an orange with chocolate mini-chips.

Tandy noticed. "That's the last orange chippy."

Olivia nodded. "I know."

"That's Todd's favorite."

Olivia nodded. "I know."

"He's coming over later."

Olivia nodded. "He also owes me ten bucks." She may have given up stealing pocketwatches, but she was still Olivia Greer.

"Oh. Well, moving right along, then."

Katie was laughing as the girls pelted out the door.

They ended up making a full day of it, hitting not only their intended destination but three other Metroplex-area malls and two farmer's markets, which Katie was glad to see when they came home.

"Good, I can skip that when I go shopping tomorrow. Oh, here's Trent," as a Cowboys-blue Dodge Durango pulled into the driveway behind Tandy's ten-year-old Mustang convertible. With his abrupt marriage to another former 4100 South resident, Becky, Trent had been forced to give up his beloved steel-blue 1972 Corvette. Becky had a three-year-old daughter, and a 'Vette seated only two. As a compromise, Becky hadn't asked him to sell the 1991 Harley-Davidson FLST Springer Softail he'd bought when he joined the Army. Because of Trent's affiliation with Walker, criminals in Texas now saw that bike in their nightmares. Because Trent had sold the 'Vette, Tandy had had her Mustang re-painted in Early 1970's Chevrolet Corvette Steel Blue.

Because the investigation was still ongoing, Trent didn't say very much about the case that had taken him away from home for the last several months. He mostly just listened to his family filling him in on what they'd been up to while he was gone, and moaned in sympathy with Todd about how lousily the Texas Rangers baseball team was doing. As of the All-Star Break, the Rangers were 38-51, playing .472 ball, sixteen games out. They were breaking exactly even at the Ballpark at Arlington, having a 22-22 record at home, but playing an abysmal 16-29 on the road. None of the Malloy brothers were all that enthused with Sammy Sosa being in town - Tommy called him 'Sammy So-So' - and to make the whole mess that much worse, popular first-baseman Mark Teixeira had been on the Disabled List since early June and was now rumored to be on the trading block.

"Even the Colorado Rockies are playing better than the Rangers. They're 45-and-44, playing .506 ball, and they're only four-and-a-half games back. They're playing 26-and-19 at Coors Field, and 19-and-25 on the road." The only light Todd was seeing at the end of the Rangers' tunnel was the headlight of an oncoming freight train. "It's just pitiful."

"Come on, Todd," Olivia cajoled. "There must be someone doing worse than the Rangers."

"Oh, there is," Trent answered for his brother. "Tampa Bay, Washington and Cincinnati. But that's only three teams out of the thirty. Speaking of Colorado, I heard from Vin Tanner today. He'll be in town tomorrow."

Olivia thought she did an admirable job of not choking on her steak fries as Katie asked whether Vin would be bringing his 'friends' with him, and Trent replied in the affirmative. Oh no, oh no, oh no. Now what was she going to do?

Later that night, Tandy slept, oblivious as her roommate packed. Olivia was amazed at how quiet she was being, as fast as she was moving and as nervous as she was. Nervous hell, she was downright terrified. She'd thought 661 miles was enough to protect her; went to show how wrong-headed her thinking still was, no matter how she'd tried to rewire herself.

She knew what was going to happen. Chris Larabee would tell Katie exactly who and what she had living under her roof; Vin would let her know how disappointed he was that she'd tried to steal Alex's wallet; Buck would be furious with her for losing his pocketwatch; and that was all besides her having to explain exactly where said pocketwatch was, which would just get Chris and Buck that much angrier at her. Like the saying went - she didn't have to go home, but she couldn't stay here.

Trent thought he'd put a fairly sophisticated security system in the house, but the old sense of challenge had reared up in Olivia, and she'd made a point of figuring out how to beat it. She'd succeeded, and now she slipped out of the house undetected. She wasn't about to make a bad situation worse by trying to hot-wire either Tandy's Mustang or Katie's Chrysler Town & Country minivan to get away, even though she'd known how to jump a vehicle before she'd started first grade. She simply set out on foot with what she could carry, sometime between midnight and dawn.

Denver International Airport
July 2007

One upshot of Buck discovering he was Jock Ewing's illegitimate son - however wrong it was for the older man to have waited over forty years to ''fess up to the fact' - was that Team 7 now had their own personal jet. The Bombardier Global Express XRS was really bigger than they needed, but Buck had asked specifically for it, after having asked Ezra to do the pursuant research. He'd originally planned on asking for a much smaller aircraft, until Ezra had quite reasonably explained that it could be used not only to transport Team 7 themselves around their Rocky Mountains-Great Plains-Gulf Coast 'theatre of operations,' but also to take wives and family on "horrendously rare and therefore exceedingly precious and likewise desperately needed" vacations. After some grumbling for form's sake - and telling J.R. to shut the hell up - Jock had choked down the plane's $45.5 million price tag, and Team 7 got a way to get from Denver to anywhere and back that didn't involve forking over several hundred dollars for plane tickets, and then having to deal with the ever-increasing migraines involved with transporting 'needed hardware' on commercial airlines. It was their damn plane; they could take whatever they damn well wanted. That the jet had come decorated in the black-and-gold Ewing Oil paint scheme, they wrote off as the cost of doing business. That it burned the heck out of old Blake Carrington to have a Ewing Oil jet permanently stationed in Denver, they considered an unexpected bonus.

And besides, Ezra, Vin and J.D. got such a huge kick out of flying the thing. Technically, the plane should have had a four-man crew, but the job could be handled nicely with three men, and Ezra, Vin and J.D. thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. When it had arrived in Denver, the only description for their reactions had been three kids handed the keys to not just the candy store, but the entire candy factory. They'd given it a better inspection than it had gotten leaving the factory, all the while constantly reminding each other that it wasn't an F-14, F-15, F-16, F-18, F-22, F-35 ... "What comes after an F-35?" For Buck, Nathan and Josiah, it meant never again being six-foot-plus on a commercial airliner.

It had come as a surprise that Vin had a pilot's license, although once he'd had a chance to think about it Chris realized he really shouldn't have been. He'd at first thought that being closed into a cockpit for several hours would have triggered Vin's claustrophobia, until Vin explained that it was closed-in and dark places he disliked so strongly, and even a cockpit during a night flight was a closed-in space that he was in control of. Ezra's pilot's licenses (plural, he was qualified to fly damn near everything that had wings and/or rotors) they simply chalked up to Something New We Learned About Ezra, with Josiah choosing to file it under Things We Should Have Realized Before. That J.D. was interested in learning was no surprise at all, and Ezra had no trouble justifying helping J.D. pay for flying lessons. Buck hadn't been terribly wild about the kid practicing his new skills on 'his' plane, but talked himself through it by reminding himself that Ezra and Vin wouldn't let J.D. fall. For his part, J.D. had that much more reason to be extra careful; if he crunched Buck's plane, he knew he'd better hope he died in the crash, or Buck would kill him!

As the XRS's engines skirled up, Chris and Buck were quiet, pensive even. Of the team, only Buck knew exactly why they were going to Dallas. Even Chris's own younger brother, Vin, didn't know why. Chris had reasoned that he needed Vin's attention on what he was doing, that he'd tell Vin why after they landed, and let Vin be mad about the not knowing later. But he couldn't not tell Buck. The others knew only that they were going to Dallas, that something had come up regarding Ella. For now, that was enough for the rest of them. That he was going to Dallas for any reason was enough for Vin; that it involved a potential break on the bitch who had taken his sister-in-law and nephew from him before he'd ever even met them was icing, sprinkles and ice cream on the side.

Josiah and Nathan noticed, of course. But if Chris wasn't talking and Buck had his back, prodding them would get roughly the same results as teasing a cobra, and was therefore to be similarly avoided at all costs. The men would speak up when they were bloody well ready, and not one second before.

"I packed some pictures. The ones I had to take for the insurance." Chris only heard Buck's voice because they were sitting side-by-side. "The - what was left of the Jeep, the burn mark in the driveway, the damage to the house."

Chris nodded absently. "All right. Any particular reason why?"

Buck shrugged. "Dunno. Just while I was packin' I thought of them, thought I should bring 'em. Maybe Vin's Comanche sixth sense is rubbin' off after all these years."

"Didn't Ray say you-all had some Cherokee blood? Maybe you've got a sixth sense of your own." A few years back, Buck's half-brother Ray Krebbs had gotten on a kick of exploring the Ewing family genealogy - even exploring the history behind the Ewing name itself - and had dug up some very interesting information in the process.

That got a snort out of Buck. "Sayin' I'm part Cherokee because there's one up my family tree nine generations back is like sayin' I got a right to the throne of Scotland because the Ewings come out of there, Pard."

The plane began to roll forward, and Chris stifled the urge to go forward and ask Ezra and Vin what the speed record was for a plane of this size between Denver and Dallas - and then order them to shatter it. Vin guarded his license as zealously as he guarded anything he'd once thought he'd never be allowed to have. And not even for the most important thing in his life would his brother ask him to risk that license. Besides, the XRS's cruising speed was 562 mph; it was 661 miles to Dallas. Counting time lost screwing around with both DIA and DFW airports, it would only be a two-hour trip. It would have actually taken longer to drive from Denver up to Cheyenne, Wyoming, barely one hundred miles away.

They were airborne minutes later, and Chris looked out the window as Colorado faded away behind them. 'Hold on, sweet Sarah. Just hold on for a little longer. I'm coming as fast as I can.'

Somewhere outside Dallas
July 2007

That the situation was degenerating to what C.D. Parker would have described as "Hell in a basket" didn't bear repeating, and Walker was redeploying to the place he best knew how to defend - his own ranch.

With him in the truck were Alex, John Ross and Sarah O'Rourke, who had quite readily and eagerly admitted to being Sarah Larabee. Once she'd been assured that Ella was well and truly caught, that she wasn't going to slither free and exact retribution against anyone who talked, the story had come pouring out. It had been as if she couldn't talk fast enough. The abduction of herself and her young son; the separation from the twins she'd been pregnant with at the time, after they were born; being forced to serve as a Ella's 'deal-maker' - a beautiful American woman dressed up and trotted out as a prize to the dealers of all manner of human misery that Ella associated with.

But there had been Adam. Surly, defiant Adam, who in his black temper had very nearly tried his luck against Gage, if Trent and Carlos hadn't been within batting distance as well. Wary, broken Adam, covering his internal sense of defeat with rage. Knowing only too well where the young man was coming from, John Ross had broken protocol, a little. He'd promised Adam that they'd take him to a safe house before actually clearing the idea past Walker. Such was the trust Walker instilled, that John Ross had done so before consulting the Ranger, knowing he'd be backed up. And he was, Walker approved and signed off on transporting Adam to safety before John Ross was through explaining. Adam had grumbled and growled that there was no such thing when dealing with Ella, but he'd given in once Sarah had promised she'd be joining him as soon as she finished her statement. Such was his anger and sorrow and confusion that he'd given even his mother a look of such sheer distrust that it tore at something in John Ross's soul, but he'd gone along after that.

John Ross had originally intended to ride along to the safe house. Matt Waite, another Dallas Metro cop, had asked to trade so he could log in some overtime. Waite's wife had recently been 'restructured' out of what they'd thought was a secure job, and money was suddenly a concern. John Ross didn't need to worry about next month's rent, so he'd agreed.

He would now be the rest of his life regretting it. The terrorist Ella had been dealing with was someone far outside her normal depth; she'd been in over her head and hadn't understood it. The weapons had been a trifle, what he'd really been after was the hard drives, and having lost them was interested only in cutting his losses and tying up any and all loose ends. He'd ordered several of his men to hold back, and they hadn't been captured. When he was, they had their orders.

Gage and Sydney had drawn the detail to provide security for the van, and when Sydney saw a helicopter paralleling their path down the freeway she'd shouted to her partner, "Oh Hell, not AGAIN!!!!!" and grabbed for the radio to alert the van. As it had been the last three times this had happened on their watch, her warning was too little too late, as the van was rocked by a blast from a shoulder-fired rocket launcher. Gage desperately slammed on the brakes as the van erupted into a fireball behind them.

The driver had apparently had some sort of warning, because he'd attempted to yank the ponderous vehicle off to the side of the road and get away. Momentum carried the van in the new path, off the road just before an overpass and down the embankment. It was dark out, and in the sudden chaos, nobody saw the van's starboard side double doors pop open, or the shadow of a whipcord-lean figure leap out, tucking and rolling as he hit the ground.

Adam scrabbled up the side of the embankment, his heart pounding in his ears, praying the helicopter wouldn't try a flyover. He was pretty sure the only weapons the two Rangers had on them were their service sidearms. He didn't know if those were adequate to bring down a chopper - 'That'd have to be the shot of a lifetime, right?!?' - and he wasn't hanging around to see if the guys in the chopper were bringing their AK-74s to the party as well. He knew what one of those could do to a man who had been 6'6" and way over 200 pounds, and Sydney Cooke was smaller than his Mom! He wasn't sticking around to see her ripped to pieces in a hail of automatic-weapons fire.

There was a chain-link fence at the top of the embankment, and flying debris from the van had sliced a gaping hole in it. One quick glance over his shoulder to make certain nobody was looking in his direction - and to notice that the helicopter hadn't stuck around at all - and Adam was through that hole and vanishing into the back alleys of a rundown industrialized area. To borrow a line from a famous Southern rock song, Adam "too busy moving and hoping he didn't run out of luck."2

But with typical teenage impulsiveness, mixed in a toxic blender with his emotional distress and the sudden shock of the attack, he hadn't stopped to think of what effect his disappearance would have on his mother. When Sydney had called back to Walker and told him what happened - to her and Gage yes, AGAIN - of course the first thing Walker had inquired about was the possibility of survivors. Sydney had quite logically reported that there was no way anyone could have gotten out of that. Walker had then been left with the duty of telling Sarah what had happened to her son. It was times like these that drove home all over again how smart he'd been to let Alex Cahill catch him. Alex had been a rock, as she always was in times of crisis. With a quiet dignity Sydney could only admire, Sarah had simply asked how long it would be, before Forensics was able to examine the wreckage of the van; Jimmy had responded that he'd do whatever was necessary to have the job done tonight, and alert Walker as soon as he had answers. She had also taken the time to tell Gage and Sydney that she didn't blame them at all. They'd thanked her, but she could see on their faces, in their eyes, that they blamed themselves.

Walker had closeted his posse in his office and round-robined. He and Alex would escort Sarah to their ranch, where she would remain until further notice. Nobody further up the chain of command argued with him; Walker had been attacked on his own ground - several times actually - but the rare bad guy who did live to bark about such a feat was doing so from behind bars. And with the way the weather had been lately, the only way anyone was getting to Walker's shortly would be with an ark! John Ross had asked to go along, feeling guilty for having agreed to trade with Matt Waite on the van run. The case had been personal before; now John Ross was personally pissed.

Sydney and Gage stayed at Ranger HQ to finish their report and follow-up on the van attack. Trent and Carlos were sent out to rattle cages and shake trees; if anyone in the Metroplex knew about who'd hired the chopper and/or supplied the weaponry, they were to find out. Jimmy continued with the interrogations of the men they had captured, gathering and collating and cross-referencing every scrap of information, no matter how inconsequential or circumstantial it at first appeared. Cases, Jimmy knew, could rise or fall on the tiniest piece of evidence. They'd busted an environmental sabotage case because the twelve-year-old son of one of the company's secretaries had wondered where in the world one of the janitors - a young African-American from a low-income family - had gotten access to a computer. The defense had tied themselves in knots trying to have the whole case thrown out because of that, but it ended up being the break Alex had needed to fry the company's CEO and his lackeys.

They pulled up to Walker's place shortly before ten o'clock and a little over a half an hour before the XRS lifted off from Denver. For the duration, six-year-old Angela Walker and her 13-month-old brother Hayes would be staying with Gordon, in the city. Alex went through her clothes, looking for something Sarah could wear besides that excuse of a dress. She had a full four inches on the other woman and their coloring was worlds apart, but Sarah didn't need fashionable right now, just functional. Walker grumbled about it - not always good-naturedly - but it was times like this that Alex's love of shopping did prove useful. She came back with a whole laundry basket full, and gently led the quietly complacent woman to a guest bedroom.

"You and I aren't exactly the same size, but these should do you for the short-term." She smiled when Sarah went straight for an emerald-green T-shirt and a pair of black jeans that Tandy had accidentally left behind the last time she'd stayed over. Tandy was much closer to Sarah's size. The shirt was oversized on Alex, it would swallow Sarah.

"Chris has always liked me in green. He said - he says," she was quick and sure in emphasizing the correction, "that 'there's just somethin' about an Irish woman wearin' green.'" Her voice deepened slightly as she attempted an imitation of her husband.

Alex laughed. "I've heard that myself, but mostly from my father, and usually only on St. Patrick's. I know it's awful, but it seems like that's the only time we pay attention to being Irish." She glanced over her shoulder; they couldn't hear Walker and John Ross from up here. "Walker and I have had a couple of run-ins with the IRA."

"My Ma's uncle was in the IRA, that's why she was so quick to accept when my father asked her to marry him. She wasn't involved, but she knew the authorities might not be so particular about distinctions when they came calling. Da was an officer in the Air Force, stationed in England. He'd come to Belfast to look up his own ancestors, and met her when he stepped into her aunt and uncle's pub for dinner and a pint. She was after a way out of Ulster, and he offered her one. She didn't give herself any time to stop and think about what sort of man she was marrying. I sometimes wonder, if she hadn't gotten sick, whether she'd have stayed with him."

"How old were you?" Alex had come from a broken home, and lost her mother while she was in college.

"Ten when she was diagnosed, thirteen when she died, eighteen when I met and married Chris. I had to walk myself down the aisle, my father was so wretched he wouldn't even come to his only child's wedding."

That Alex could not fathom. She remembered her father being attacked by an assassin just before her own wedding, the terror that she would lose him when they'd only been reconciled for such a short time, and on the eve of what should have been the happiest day of her life. Inadvertently, however, Gordon's injury had provided Walker and Trivette with a needed clue in the case. Downstairs, Alex could hear Walker's cell phone; Jimmy had downloaded George Strait's 'If It Wasn't For Texas' for a ringtone. His own was 'Down In Mary's Land' by Mary-Chapin Carpenter. A moment later she could just hear Walker's voice, and guessed that he was standing at the base of the stairs. She turned back to Sarah, who had already slipped out of the gold lace and was sitting on the bed to pull on the jeans.

"You'll be alright, then?"

Sarah looked up and nodded. "Oh, yes, I'm fine." She looked at the pale peach 'power suit' Alex was wearing. "That doesn't look terribly comfortable."

Alex made a face. "It's not, I should have paid better attention when I bought it. But it was on sale and it looked great. It's going into the donation pile, for a program I know of that helps low-income women find nice-looking clothes to wear on interviews, so they can get better jobs and start bettering their lives. Hopefully, it's better meant for someone else. It also helps - " she nodded in the direction of downstairs, "with me dumping money on something I may only wear once or twice."

Sarah's grinned impishly. "He's a man, he doesn't understand. But oh, if it's something he's wanting for his truck ... "

"Or the horses," Alex replied. "I've never quite been brave enough to ask who he loves most, me or those horses." They shared a laugh, and Alex found herself glad that this woman was connected to Vin Tanner. It meant Sarah wasn't someone who would simply pass out of Alex's life when the case was over. She might be able to turn a case into a friend.

"Alex?" Walker's voice carried up the stairs, and Alex quickly stepped out into the hall. Sarah busied herself with slipping the T-shirt over her head, grinning ruefully at the size. She gathered up the excess at her left hip and tied it off, which made it a little better. She rummaged around in the basket until she came up with a pair of plain white sneaker socks. Catching sight of herself in the full-length mirror standing in one corner of the room, she rolled her eyes. She thought she looked about nineteen. Alex was in the doorway again.

"Walker just talked to one of your husband's men; he thinks they'll be taking off from Denver within the hour." She tilted her head to one side. "Come on, you can keep me company now."

Sarah followed her down the hall to a room filled with rustic furniture in solid, dark old oak. "You have a lovely home."

"Thank you, although I feel compelled to admit that I can take personal credit for very little of it. The house originally belonged to Walker's grandparents, and then to his Uncle Ray. Walker came here to live with Ray when his parents died in '65, and less the time Walker was in the Marines, they shared it until Ray passed in '96. Walker and I were married in '99, and sometimes I still feel like an extended guest." Alex uncaged herself from the suit, and the blouse that had seemed like such a bargain but had itched from the second she'd slipped into it this morning. The whole mess was tossed with no regrets into the large nylon sack she'd put in one corner for clothes designated for donation. Sighing with relief, she reached for a sunny yellow T-shirt and sky-blue jeans. "Oh, much better." She ducked into the master bath to ruthlessly brush her hair out of the oh-so-sophisticated twist that had taken her fifteen minutes to fashion that morning. "I love my job, but sometimes I could really skip the theatrics." She'd kicked off the five-inch ankle-breakers when she'd first stepped into the room, and finished by gratefully sliding her feet into a well-worn pair of white low-top Reeboks.

Sarah smiled. "I was a teacher ... before. Sometimes I wondered why my students could wear whatever they pleased, while I always had to be 'on.' One day I was out with Chris and Adam, and I was wearing a pair of shorts I'd cut down from an old pair of jeans, and one of Chris's old Navy T-shirts. Later that week I got a scathing letter from a member of the school board about setting a bad example for the children." She grinned a bit wickedly. "A week later, that man was caught in Black Hawk, losing school board money at the casinos. He tried to claim I'd set him up, taken out a personal vendetta against him because he'd lectured me on my morals, and that his arrest was a conspiracy, because Chris was a Denver cop."

Alex shook her head. "Don't people amaze you, sometimes? Walker, Jimmy and I worked a case in '95 that connected a respected Dallas businessman to the adult-film industry and the trafficking and exploitation of underage girls. Even the mayor was stunned. What subject did you teach?"

"Middle-school English. Before Adam and I were taken, my students were helping me plan a yard sale, because we were going to be moving out of the city. I was still going to be at that school, but we'd just bought a place in the mountains, up in Summit County." She shook her head, dark auburn hair sifting across her shoulders. "Sometimes it feels like ... like a - a movie, or a TV show. Like something I read about in a book that happened to someone else. I keep having to remind myself that it was really my life. There had been one murder on our street, and two more a couple of blocks over, and awful gang violence all over the city two years before. I wonder if people still talk about it like we did back then - The Summer of '93, like New Yorkers talk about 1977 being 'The Summer of Sam.' A little boy was shot in City Park, a little thing not even two years old, yet. Chris and Buck made horrid jokes about feeling like they were back in the Teams, and that got Chris and I talking about getting out of the city."

"That's one of the reasons Walker and I live way out here, even though it's a commute and a half, especially when the weather's lousy - " Alex cut herself off when a flash of lightning preceded a growl of thunder, and rain began to patter yet again on the windows. "Like it is now!" This was directed at the ceiling in exasperation, before she looked back at Sarah with a rueful grin. "As long as we don't think about the times work ... follows us home, like now."

Sarah took a deep breath, thinking carefully about what she wanted to say next, how she wanted to say it. A favorite saying of her mother's floated through her mind. 'This way be dragons.' "Alex ... if I told you something ... about Adam ... would you think I'd lost my mind?"

"Does it involve a combination of mother's intuition and what our Irish ancestors would call 'the sight?'" Sarah nodded, and Alex smiled. "Then no, I won't. I'm a mother myself, and I'm married to a half-Cherokee. We've all learned that when Walker's having one of his 'Cherokee hunches,' you don't argue with him, you just roll with it."

Sarah let out a sigh a relief, then looked Alex square in the eye. "Alex, my son did not die in that van. Somehow, he got out. And now he's alone out there."