Second Nature

by Armaita

Main Character(s): Mostly Chris, the rest of the Seven, and villains
Type of story: Gen Fic, answer to Chris Fic Challenge # 16, second angle.
Universe: ATF
Author´s note: For most of this fic, Chris thinks of himself as Constantine Larowski, who is another character in the story. Hopefully, it doesn´t get too confusing, but feel free to email me with any questions or comments.

“Here,” one tall, swarthy man said, as he shouldered his way past the older man blocking the door. Cold air blew in behind him as the taller man dropped his blond-haired burden onto the nearest cot. “My boss don´t want anything to do with him, one way or another. You know the drill, Lifer. If he recovers, you don´t know us. If he doesn´t…” the taller man shrugged, “Call Colbert, and he´ll take care of the body.”
The older man sighed as he glanced from the unexpected patient to the man who had brought the blond one there. “A pleasure, as always, Jasper. I´ll take care of him.” The older man closed the door behind the visitor, and then turned to face his new patient, who was bleeding heavily from a wound on the side of his head. When ‘Lifer´ checked the man for identification, he realized that Jasper or one of his cronies must have stolen it. ‘Lifer´ cursed. How was he supposed to treat a man without knowing what he was allergic to, or if he had a preexisting medical condition? ‘Lifer´ resigned himself to doing as much as he could, cleaning and stitching the wound, thinking for the thousandth time that when he had gone to medical school thirty years ago, this was not an operating theatre he had ever pictured using. He bandaged the wound and checked in on the patient a few times every hour.
Therefore, by the time one of the city´s more ruthless gangs pounded on his door early the next morning; ‘Lifer´ was a bit slow to answer it. When he did, Bruce Fields—the gang´s leader—barged through, with his second-in-command, Jack Graham, barely still standing. The bullet in Jack Graham´s side was quite obviously causing pain and too much blood loss. ‘Lifer´ pursed his lips, but did not ask the circumstances of Jack´s injury.
He was called ‘Lifer´ for two reasons. The first was that this job was for keeps; if he tried to turn in anyone he treated, it would mean his death. The second was that ignoring the ignoble ways his patients received their wounds allowed him to eek out a living. Working for everyone and anyone, with no loyalty except to the patient, ‘Lifer´ was at best respected, at worst tolerated, sometimes threatened, but most times ignored, and largely allowed to go about his life.
“Bring him into the back room,” ‘Lifer´ ordered, and Bruce Fields, known as a man who took orders from no one, followed Lifer´s decree without question. Many horrible things could be said of Bruce Fields, but he was loyal to those who were loyal to him, and Jack Graham was as loyal as they came.
Laying the injured redhead down on the crude operating table in the back room of the cramped, three-room apartment, finally, Bruce Fields inquired worriedly, “Is it that serous? You never use the back room unless you think the wound might be fatal.” Bruce Fields chuckled nervously, “I guess this room is easier to mop up than the one with carpet and cots.”
Lifer applied a local anesthetic to the injured area and began searching for the bullet, which had not exited Jack Graham´s body. “There´s another man already in the front room,” Lifer explained as he snagged the bullet and pulled it out despite Jack Graham´s quiet protests and the fact that the man´s face had just gone white as a sheet. “Head wound.”
Bruce Fields´s eyebrows drew together in concern. “Anyone we know?”
Lifer smiled tightly, dropped the bullet in a metallic pan, and began suturing the worst of the wound. “You know the rules, Mr. Fields. Ask me no questions, I´ll tell you no lies, and you won´t have to worry about being outed to your enemies the next time you´re injured.”
“All the same,” Bruce protested. “I think I´ll go check. I don´t want one of Genghis´ men to get the drop on us.”
Lifer stifled a chuckle. “Suit yourself, but I doubt he´d be accepted onto Genghis´ payroll,” the one-time doctor commented wryly.
Rather than asking questions he knew would not be answered, Bruce Fields went to the front room, and immediately realized what ‘Lifer´ had meant. The other patient was a blond-haired man, his green eyes darting suspiciously around the room as he crouched in a defensive stance next to the farthest cot.
Genghis´ gang was composed exclusively of misfit Asians, mostly teens who felt that Colorado natives didn´t understand or appreciate them. This man, Caucasian and probably in his late thirties or early forties, would have never been accepted.
When the blond noticed Bruce Fields approaching, he nearly snarled. “Who are you?” the blond took a closer look at his shabby surroundings. “Where am I?” He glanced back at the tall, dark-haired man, trying to detect signs of a lie.
Bruce Fields smiled disarmingly, or at least, he tried to. “My name is Bruce. My friend Jack is in the other room having his wound looked at by the doctor.”
The blond nodded, and then clutched his head as an apparent spasm of pain raced through it. “Do you know you were followed? They have guns. I can hear them coming.”
Bruce Fields shook his head in disbelief. “This is neutral ground. No one attacks the other gangs while they´re here. It´s the one bit of courtesy we extend each other.”
Bruce´s words were punctuated by a bullet flying through the window over the blond man´s head.
The blond grinned predatorily. “I think the rules just changed. Do you have a gun I can use?” When Bruce hesitated, the blond gave an exasperated glare. “You don´t have much choice. I heard at least six men, and unless you brought backup…”
Without further indecision, Bruce took one gun from his shoulder holster and another from the small of his back. Passing the second to the mysterious blond, they both took up positions looking out over the street through small, grimy windows.
The windows were not dirty enough to hide their movements, apparently, as a hail of bullets pockmarked the front of the apartment. The blond opened the window and fired outward quickly.
Bruce sighed, thinking that the man, despite carrying himself like a soldier, had panicked and fired off his entire clip without aiming. That estimate changed when he saw most of the attackers—members of Genghis´ gang—fall back sporting wounds, some more fatal than others. Bruce added a few to the tally, and the opposing gang gave up, evidently deciding that their enemies were not as helpless as the rumors claimed.
“Wow,” Bruce said breathlessly, as he surveyed the carnage. “Remind me not to piss you off.” Extending his hand, Bruce approached the stranger and offered, “My name´s Bruce Fields, leader of the Larimer Street Gang. Who are you? Which one are you with?”
The blond had automatically accepted the handshake and returned the man´s weapon before he realized that he did not know the answers to those simple questions. His head throbbed with pain, and though the display of violence seemed like second nature to him, something was terribly wrong. Letting his hand fall limply to his side and sitting down on the nearest cot, the blond pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration, refusing to admit or show how terrified he was of the realization he had just reached. In a quiet voice, the blond admitted, “I don´t know.”
Nervously, Bruce called for the former doctor. “Hey, Lifer, your other patient is awake.” Walking into the other room, Bruce said, “Is Jack stable yet? ‘Cause I think this guy needs your help. He can´t remember who he is or what his loyalties are, and honestly, I can´t place him. I mean, the guy´s wearing all black, which doesn´t fit with any of the gangs that would accept someone like him. He´s too old to be a soldier for one of the outfits, but he fights like the devil. It´s clear he´s had some training, probably military, but I didn´t notice any tats, prison or otherwise. Just what have you found, Lifer?”
The former doctor finished giving Jack Graham an injection before he replied, “I don´t know, Mr. Fields. He didn´t have any ID on him, no wallet, and no money. I figured he was a victim that no one wanted to take responsibility for or an initiation gone wrong.”
Bruce Fields stared at the one-time doctor in disbelief. “Initiation, doc? Come on, the guy´s capable, but he´s too old for this.”
Lifer shrugged. “Your friend will be fine. Have him take these in progressively closer dosages. Every twelve hours for the first two days, then every eight, six, and four hours until they run out.” Lifer tossed a half-empty pill bottle to Bruce. “It isn´t the full regimen of antibiotics, and it might not work, but…”
“I appreciate it,” Bruce assured the healer. “About this other guy, though…”
Lifer nodded and moved past Bruce to check on the other patient. He nearly groaned when he saw the bullet holes in the front wall of his apartment. Instead, he grabbed a pen-light and a stethoscope from a nearby table and warily approached the clearly skittish blond.
“It´s good to have you back among the living, Mister,” ‘Lifer´ said neutrally, his voice calm as he moved slowly closer to the easily startled man. “Do I have you to thank for those holes?”
The blond did not glance away from the one-time doctor, clearly viewing the man as a threat. “Nah, I opened the window before I returned fire. What is this place?”
Lifer was relieved when the confused blond allowed him to shine the light in his eyes and check the man´s vitals. “It is my office and apartment. Do you remember anything at all?”
The blond stared at both men, his eyes going distant as he tried to recall some memory. What he found were evidently less than complimentary, as he ducked his head in embarrassment. “Let´s just say that this,” he jerked his head, indicating the gunfight they had recently won, “is only the beginning of what I´m capable of.”
Lifer fought the urge to shudder. The blonde´s eyes were both sad and cold, simultaneously ashamed of his abilities and yet unremorseful of the acts committed. “What is your name?”
The blonde´s face became taut with concentration. Finally, he answered, “Somebody called me ‘cowboy´ once. I can´t remember who.”
Bruce grinned. “I can see why. You´re a great shot. How come we haven´t heard of you out here? Are you new in town?”
Lifer shot a glare in Bruce´s direction, because he believed that peppering this man with questions was not the way to bring his memory back, but Bruce ignored the look, and the blond sank into thought again.
“Hey, Lifer,” Bruce suggested, pulling the former doctor aside and speaking in lower tones. “Do you mind if we take this guy off your hands? I mean, it´s pretty clear to me that no one else wants him. Whoever he is, he could be helpful to me while Jack recovers.” Lifer was plainly uncomfortable with the prospect of turning an amnesiac over to a criminal, but a few bills changed his mind.
“I want you to realize something, though, Mr. Fields,” the one-time doctor cautioned. “This memory loss might be temporary. If it is, you don´t know who he might become. The man could be a police officer, for all we know!”
Bruce chuckled. “That´s crazy, Lifer. Did you see how readily he fired on those guys? No protocol, no hesitation…no, I don´t care what he is, because right now, he´s acting just like the extra muscle I need. Thanks for the warning, but we´ll be leaving just as soon as you say Jack is ready.”
“So, are you coming with us or not?”
The blond man considered his options even as Bruce Fields waited on an answer. He had been recuperating for the better part of a day, and though he had checked the newspaper and television for any missing persons reports, there was nothing that resembled him. Maybe Bruce was right; maybe he was new in town. The alternative was too depressing to consider…that whoever he was in the life he could not remember, no one cared enough about him to file a report.
“How would you explain my presence?” the blond asked suspiciously, still unable to fathom why a criminal would want to look after an amnesiac.
Bruce shrugged. “I´ll say you´re Constantine Larowski from out East. Nobody in my crew knows what he looks like. All they know is his reputation as a good man to have on your side during a firefight. I´d have to ask you to back me up for a while, though. My other men have to answer for this.”
The scowl on Bruce´s face should have been enough information, but the blond was confused. “Answer for what, exactly?”
The hard expression Bruce gave the blond helped the amnesiac understand why this man was the leader of the Larimer Street Gang. In other sorts of employment, promotions might be decided by an aptitude for leadership or one´s connections, but on the streets a man´s personality was equally as important as his ruthlessness. “After Jack got hit, I told everyone to meet up here,” Bruce replied, indicating the one-time doctor´s apartment. “They didn´t.”
Abruptly, the blond understood. He understood why Bruce was furious, and why the leader was willing to accept the help of a stranger who couldn´t even remember his own name. “You think this is the start of a coup,” the blond man deduced.
Bruce laughed. “I don´t know what line of work you were in before that head injury restarted your brain, but we don´t call them ‘coups´ in gangs. Essentially, you´re right, though. Someone obviously tipped off Genghis´ men that we would be here, and, whether with Genghis´ approval or not, they decided to strike when I would be weakest. If you hadn´t been here…”
The blond man understood something more about Bruce Fields. The criminal viewed this as a matter of honor. If not for the blond, Bruce Fields would be dead. To return the favor, Bruce was attempting to give the blond man a new life. The blond man smiled. “Okay, boss. Where´s our first stop?”
Jack Graham waited in the car while Bruce Fields and the man now called Constantine Larowski entered a small bar to purchase Larowski´s weapon of choice.
“You,” the arms dealer indicated Bruce with a jab of one chubby finger, “I know. Who in the hell is this guy, though? He looks like a cop to me.”
The blond had decided to think of himself as Constantine Larowski, because it was less confusing than filling that void with the meager whispers of the suspected truth that, in fact, he must be one seriously disturbed and violent individual, given the vague yet persistent memories of killing, fire, sorrow and anger that plagued him. Larowski glared at the arms dealer, but it was Bruce who answered.
“This is Larowski, from Baltimore. His luggage got delayed on the flight out here, so he´s out some very nice weapons, in addition to the rest of his clothes.” Bruce grinned and nodded at the blonde´s entirely black ensemble. “As you can see, we stopped here for the necessities first.”
That explanation seemed to satisfy the arms dealer, who turned to Larowski and asked, “What´s your preference?”
“What´s your selection like?” Constantine Larowski was simultaneous impressed and angry at himself. How could he remember to soften his R´s in a decent approximation of an East Coast accent, yet could not remember his own name? The anger gave way to satisfaction as the arms dealer led them to a back storeroom filled with weapons of every kind.
Bruce Fields observed the blond man with professional interest. If the man´s shooting had not been proof enough of his efficacy, then watching him examine, strip, and reassemble various guns assured Bruce that the shooting at Lifer´s had not been a fluke. The blond selected two guns and an army surplus knife, all of which Bruce paid for.
Next, they stopped at an outlet mall to pick up some clothes for the man called Larowski.
Constantine turned to Bruce Fields as Jack Graham dozed in the rental car´s backseat. “Are you planning on paying for this too?” The blonde´s tone strongly suggested that this had better not be the case.
Bruce sighed. “Have you remembered who you are?” he inquired sarcastically. “Found any money or credit cards in your name?” When the man called Larowski could not reply, Bruce concluded, “That´s what I thought. Don´t worry; you´ll earn your keep. Besides, I owe you.”
After they had made the purchases, Constantine frowned at the selection of clothing that Bruce had purchased for him. It was all the right size, and the style wasn´t bad either, but the blond thought there was something wrong with the color.
“What is it?”
Constantine looked up from the small second-hand suitcase the clothing had been rolled up and shoved into. “I was just thinking that there may be a reason I´m wearing black. Color just doesn´t…feel right. Never mind, it´s probably nothing.”
Bruce nodded, but at the same time wondered what sort of man chose to wear all black, every day. Was he mourning something? Had the blonde´s mind taken the opportunity provided by head trauma to forget some great tragedy? “We´re a few blocks from where all my guys meet when we aren´t doing business. Remember, you´re Constantine Larowski, from Boston. If you don´t know an answer, don´t try to make something up. For the most part, they shouldn´t give you too much trouble…that name has quite a reputation behind it. Jack, wake up!” Bruce called to the still-dozing figure in the backseat. “It´s time to see how loyal the troops have been in my absence.”
The man known as Constantine Larowski smiled, and was surprised by the mirth he felt. He was actually looking forward to a confrontation. Wondering what sort of man he must be, Constantine checked that his guns were loaded and ready, and that the knife was loose in its sheath before Bruce Fields parked the car and the three men entered an auto shop with a multitude of oil stains on the floor.
The hairs on the back of Constantine´s neck stood on end as they passed under a raised garage door. Though he could not see anyone, Constantine was somehow aware that others were present, and that they intended to harm him, Bruce or Jack.
“Surprised to see me?” Bruce called out confidently, and three sulking men appeared from different places within the automobile repair shop.
The first to speak had appeared from under a car, holding a wrench in his hand. Whether the bald man maintained his grip on the tool as a weapon or simply because he was too shocked by his leader´s arrival to let go, Constantine could not determine. “Hey, boss,” the man said uncertainly. “We weren´t expecting you…so early.”
Bruce snorted and glared in the bald man´s direction. “Just how late were you hoping I would be, Vern?”
“It ain´t like that,” a second man protested. This one, sporting a neatly trimmed dirty blond beard, had stepped from behind a cabinet, and though he had a wicked-looking knife in a sheath strapped to his left leg, it remained there.
“I´m sure,” Bruce replied, but his tone indicated that he believed otherwise. “Tell me, Ernie, where is Neil? Has he already run off to bargain with Genghis?”
“I´m not that stupid,” the man in question asserted, exiting a small office area that was separated from the rest of the garage by a door and a wall of glass. He was, by far, the most physically imposing of the three, as his biceps and quadriceps bulged in the bland, stained work uniform he wore.”
“No, you aren´t,” Bruce retorted, redirecting his attention to Neil. “You were probably waiting for word that Jack and I had been killed.”
“No way, boss,” Vern insisted, his honesty read easily by Constantine in his open features and body language. “I´m glad you´re back. What happened, anyway? We tried to get through, to go to Lifer´s place, but it looked like the OK Corral.”
Constantine snorted in amusement. The description wasn´t too far off. Unfortunately, the noise drew attention to him.
“And who´s this guy?” Ernie asked suspiciously.
“Yeah,” Neil continued where Ernie had left off, “you accuse us of double-crossing you, and then bring some stranger in here—”
“My name is Constantine Larowski,” the blond man stated calmly, even though the name felt wrong in his mouth. Letting his lips twist into a sadistic smile, the man called Constantine concluded, “Perhaps you´ve heard of me?”
Ernest paled, Neil´s eyes showed moderate interest, and Vern merely looked on in bewilderment. “Who?” Vern asked.
Constantine could tell Bruce was restraining the urge to sigh or shout.
“He´s some new talent I met over at Lifer´s,” Bruce confessed. “Larowski was passing through, on his way to California for a vacation. During his stopover, he was jumped by five guys. They injured him, stole his things, and left him with Lifer to avoid him being found by the authorities.”
Neil laughed. “The great Constantine Larowski let himself be surprised by five common criminals?” He shook his head in disappointment. “That´s not much of a résumé.”
Constantine glared at Neil, and the man abruptly ceased laughing. “I allowed it to happen,” Constantine explained, his patience clearly wearing thin. “Of course, I could have taken them…they were amateurs,” his tone became colored with disdain. “However, I didn´t want to draw the attention of the local authorities by beating up an entire crowd. It was safer to be the victim than the victor, not that I expect you would have a firm grasp on such a complicated subject as strategy.”
Constantine had no idea where that speech had come from. It sounded like someone he knew—or thought he knew—but could not place. He could almost remember someone, a man who loved to use big words to confuse the enemy, but it did not fit with the memories of violence and self-derision that had already surfaced, so he suppressed the impression of a conniving, smirking man with mischievous green eyes.
Neil glared back at Constantine, flexing his muscles as though readying himself for a fight.
“As I was saying,” Bruce Fields interrupted before two of the area´s three alpha males came to blows (himself, of course, being the third), “Larowski has agreed to spend some time here, to help me sort through what happened and why. All of you,” Bruce pinned Neil with an especially potent look, “will extend him every courtesy. Consider him part of the gang.”
There were grumbled protests, but nothing voiced so loudly that Bruce felt it important enough to correct. Turning to the clean- shaven blond man, Bruce requested that Constantine help Jack up the stairs to the garage´s second floor. “There are a few beds up there for whenever a couple of us need to stay the night,” Bruce revealed. “Jack will give you hell, but make sure he uses one of them.”
“Come on, Bruce,” Jack protested as Bruce had predicted. “I´ve cut myself worse shaving. I swear, I´m—”
“Fine?” Constantine interrupted, a wry smile on his face. Something was familiar about that statement, too. Briefly, the apparition of a young, pale-faced man with brown hair flashed in his memory, but again, it was too innocent and disjointed from what his recovered recollections has already revealed about what he suspected to be his true nature. He dismissed it, instead steering Jack toward a flight of stairs at the back of the garage. “You look ready to fall over,” Constantine said. “Give yourself time to recover. I promise to watch Bruce´s back until you´re feeling up to the job again.”
Jack glanced at the man called Constantine in confusion as they ascended the second flight of stairs. Panting slightly from the exertion, Jack nonetheless forced himself to ask, “How did you know…?”
Constantine frowned. “Call it intuition. The way Bruce looks after you; I guess I figured the feeling was mutual.”
Constantine has scarcely gotten Jack settled before Bruce was calling, requesting Larowski´s presence. Constantine hurried down the stairs, alert for an ambush by either Ernie or Neil, but none came.
“Come with us,” Bruce instructed, tossing a black ski mask to Constantine, who caught it automatically. “We´re going to pay a visit to Genghis´ territory.”
Constantine was certain he did not like the sound of that, but he felt protective of Bruce, especially since Vern, Ernest and Neil were going along for the ride. It was apparent to Constantine that Vern was stupid enough to get Bruce killed unintentionally, Neil ambitious enough to do the same thing out of malice, and Ernest shrewd enough to go along with Neil´s plotting.
Instead of taking the rental car, they took a van south to Federal Boulevard, near Alameda.
“This is the place,” Bruce said, his satisfaction apparent as they pulled up outside a gun store. “Ready?” He asked of Constantine.
Knowing that he had to play the role for the rest of the gang´s benefit, Constantine gave an animalistic grin and replied, “Are you?” even though he had no idea what they were planning.
Constantine followed the other men´s lead, pulling on his ski mask as he exited the van with them and stormed into the gun store, taking the owner and his female assistant completely by surprise. The elderly manager was placing boxes of shells on the shelves. He paused with his hand partway to the nearest empty shelf, his mouth hanging open.
The female assistant, probably in her late teens or early twenties, was standing at the cash register. She reached behind the counter in such a way that Constantine´s instincts screamed at him that she would not be reaching for a security button. This was a weapon store, and despite her age, Constantine did not doubt that she knew how to use a gun. The older man was most likely her grandfather and she would want to defend him rather than leaving his protection to the police.
So, while Vern blacked out the security cameras with spray paint, Ernie began collecting handguns, Neil went for the rifles along the back wall, and Bruce knocked the old man out with his gun, Larowski vaulted over the counter. He extracted his long, serrated knife from its sheath in the same movement and brought it up to the young woman´s throat just as her fingers brushed the stock of the loaded shotgun kept behind the counter.
“Don´t,” Larowski whispered harshly, the words he spoke coming out in perfectly accented Cantonese, “it isn´t worth your life.”
The young woman eased her hand away from the rifle, and tears began streaming down her face.
Constantine felt a pang of remorse, but also remembered vividly a time when he and another gang had been told to secure a town. They had discounted the women and children, and as a result, a few of his men had been killed.
Constantine´s hand shook as the memory crashed back, disjointed and contrasting with his current situation, yet similar enough to affect his judgment. The girl cried out, and, with a jolt, Constantine realized he had drawn blood; not enough to be fatal, but plenty to remind him that control was necessary…murder was not his objective. Constantine kept the young woman subdued until the others were finished ransacking the gun shop, and then he knocked her out before he left.
Back in the van, as they departed the scene of the crime, Neil commented off-handedly. “I´ve heard of you by reputation, Constantine…I had heard that you were terrified of knives.”
Constantine scowled. “You heard wrong,” he replied curtly. For some reason, his mind saw no reason to speak ten words when three would do, especially when he was addressing a willfully malicious man.
“That was very cleanly done,” Bruce complimented everyone in the van. “It will give Genghis something to think about, at least, and tomorrow we will strike elsewhere with the weapons we stole from his neighborhood.”
Constantine knew he should feel guilty. Technically, what they had just done was a crime, not to mention that the young woman and the manager would probably be emotionally and psychologically scarred by the experience, but he simply could not dredge up any remorse. They had taken weapons from someone under the protection of the same man who had ordered a hit on Bruce while the man´s best friend was injured. That hit had nearly cost Constantine his life. With such thoughts running though his mind, Constantine had no trouble falling asleep in the bed next to Jack´s that night.
JD stared at the tapes from the surveillance van yet again, silently willing them to give him information that had been withheld the first two hundred times. The door to the office opened slowly, and JD glanced up from Chris´s computer, where the four different cameras were playing on a split screen. “Ten more minutes, Buck. I swear, I´ll be down for lunch then.”
Buck smiled sadly, and then the tall man moved to the windows of Chris´s office, pulling up the shades. The sky was dark but cloudy, so no stars were visible. His point clearly made—namely that JD had lost track of the time and was being far to hard on himself even though each of the relatively unscathed members of Team Seven felt this entire snafu was their fault individually—Buck flipped on the light switch and opened the door further.
The remaining members of Team Seven poured into the small office. Nate had his small medical supplies bag in hand, as though threatening JD with a check-up if he did not stop working. The look Josiah fixed on JD conveyed that the threat of a psychological fitness assessment also hung in the air. Ezra entered with a bag of entrées from JD´s favorite restaurant while Vin hung back, clearly torn between blaming JD and blaming himself.
JD swiveled the chair away from the monitor, trying not to see his failure. “They left nothing,” he confessed. “I´ve been through these tapes hundreds of times, and I can´t determine anything new. Please tell me you guys have had more luck.”
The vacant look in Vin´s eyes briefly flared into something like anger. “Would we be here if we did?”
JD ducked his head in embarrassment. Of course they wouldn´t. If any of the members of ATF Team Seven knew where their leader was, JD would have received a call on his cell phone, saying that the others were already driving hell-bent-for-leather to rescue Chris Larabee.
Rescue him from what, precisely, was not clear. In a bust gone horribly wrong, Chris had broken cover to protect Ezra, and been grabbed as a hostage at some point in the mêlée. Normally, that would not be a huge inconvenience to Chris Larabee; his extensive training and years as a law enforcement official had given him skills that most civilians did not possess when forced into the same situation.

However, nothing was ever normal for the men of Team Seven. Before being grabbed and used as a human shield, Chris had been hit with a plank broken off of one of the crates, causing heavy bleeding from the side of his head. Chris was in no condition to fight back, Vin was busy keeping several criminals from killing Buck and Josiah, so no one was able to make an incredible shot and save their stunned, and possibly concussed, leader.
In the two days since, the remaining six men had followed up on every lead, no matter how slim. Fortunately, no one matching Chris´s description had been brought to the morgue. Unfortunately, area hospitals were also devoid of any tall, blond- haired, green-eyed men with head wounds from blunt force trauma, which meant that wherever he was, Chris was suffering alone.
JD´s cell phone rang, breaking the awkward silence. JD moved quickly to answer it, nearly dropping the phone in his haste to open it. “Yes?” JD listened intently for a few minutes and then curtly said, “We´ll be there in ten. Too bad, stall them if you have to…this is Mr. Larabee we´re talking about.” Snapping the phone closed, JD stood up. “Dinner will have to wait,” he informed the others, “the man who took Chris is dead; he was killed in a high-speed chase. Luckily, I know the responding officer—he owes me a favor—and he´s agreed to keep everyone out of the crime scene until we get a look at it.”
The remaining five men expressed their approval in different ways. While they could empathize with the local PD wanting to do its job, every man present knew that crime scene investigators would probably miss any signs that Chris had been there. Of course, in about six months the crime lab would be able to tell them that there had been an unidentified blond, type O positive blood, present in the vehicle, but that was half a year too long for ATF Team Seven´s liking.
As the six men started to leave the office, the phone on Vin´s desk rang. Assuring his friends that he would catch up in his Jeep, Vin answered impatiently. “What?”
“Geez, Raptor, I thought the guys were joking when they said that Larabee guy was a bad influence.”
Vin chuckled and looked at the floor abashedly, grateful that his old friend from the Rangers couldn´t see him now. “Sorry, Condor, I´m jist a mite jumpy, I guess. What did you want to tell me?”
The long sigh on the other end of the line told Vin that, whatever the news might be, it was far from good. “Larowski´s in town.”
Vin glanced at the calendar on his desk and grimaced. At least his friend had called in the month of April. Condor never was too good with keeping dates straight. “Not funny, Condor; you know what he did to our team. Besides, Larowski´s only an East Coast criminal, what would he be doing way out here?”
Vin could almost picture his friend shrugging and leaning back in an office chair. The creak on the other end of the line seemed to verify this. “I don´t know, but someone matching his description boarded a plane in Baltimore a few days ago. Word has it he´s joined forces with one of the local gangs.”
Vin´s eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. “Nah, that don´t sound like him. Maybe if his boss wanted to do business with somebody, but that ain´t Larowski´s style personally. He´s more like—”
“Keeping the body bag people in business?” Condor replied with a dry chuckle. “I know, but surveillance doesn´t lie. We have him on tape robbing a gun shop last night. No fatalities, though the store clerk was pretty shaken up. He moves the same as he did back then, Raptor.”
Vin bit his lip in thought. He and Larowski had a history. Larowski had been a member of the four-man Ranger squad that both Condor and Vin (aka Raptor) had belonged to, along with a black man code-name Harrier and Larowski, whose nickname was Eagle.
For sporting such a patriotic name, Larowski had proven just how worthless he was, when he sold out the rest of his team for money and a trip home under a new identity. Larowski was capable and fearless, but occasional contact with gangsters was more his speed than infiltrating deep into enemy territory with only three other men as backup.
Eagle´s plot had gotten Harrier killed, and would have taken out Condor and Raptor as well, but for Raptor´s quick thinking. So, yes, Vin was glad to hear Larowski was back in town; it gave him a chance to mete out some well-deserved justice. However, the timing couldn´t have been worse.
“If you see him, Condor,” Vin finally spoke, warning his former team member, “call the cops. Things didn´t go so well for us when we tried to handle him on our own last time.”
“If I see him?” Condor asked in disbelief. “You mean, you aren´t going after him, after everything he did to us?”
Vin sighed. “Cond—Carey,” Vin amended, trying to get his point across by using the man´s real name, “Chris Larabee is missing. He was taken during our last bust, and we haven´t seen or heard from him since. If Eagle crosses me during my search, I´ll slap the cuffs on him and throw away the key, but otherwise I have to find Chris.”
“Fine,” Condor replied, clearly angry and hurt but trying to hide it. “Watch your back, Chickadee.”
Vin cringed at the derogatory name. In addition to the code names they´d been given, each member of the four-man squad had quickly been given a less complimentary nickname. Harrier was Crow when he had slipped a harmless snake into Vin´s sleeping bag. Eagle was Raven, Condor became Pigeon and Vin was occasionally called Chickadee, in reference to his slight and seemingly fragile physique.
Vin knew what the nickname meant. In this particular case, Carey (aka Condor) felt betrayed. They had been a close-knit team, and Condor evidently believed that he should have been able to call up Vin—years after the team had been violently torn apart by death and double-cross—and still expect Vin to drop everything and come away hunting.
Shaking his head, Vin left the office, headed for his car. At one time, Carey and he had been like brothers, but now, Team Seven needed him more. After all, Larowski was a capable combat operative—and damn scary to boot—but he was only one man. Between the East Coast police departments, Larowski´s underworld enemies, and the local police departments in and around Denver, how much trouble could Larowski really cause?
The man called Constantine Larowski sat up abruptly in bed, instantly reaching for his knife and rolling into a defensive stance. Still uncertain what had woken him, Constantine let his eyes wander the room. Quickly, they came to rest on the door to the small bedroom he currently shared with Jack Graham, Bruce Fields´ right-hand man.
The door was open a crack, and the area outside the door was slightly brighter than the space inside the room. Constantine crept to stand against the wall, next to the door, and strained his hearing to hone in on the sounds that had drawn him so aggressively from his slumber.
“I don´t like it,” a voice said in a whisper. The emotion of the statement made it loud enough for Constantine to hear clearly. The voice was Vern´s.
“I´m not asking you to like it,” Bruce Fields replied heatedly. “We have to strike back now, to send Genghis a message.”
Constantine heard someone snort. “And you really think that taking out Lee Tran will send that message?” Ernie asked in disbelief. “I´ve heard that Genghis only uses Tran because he´s convenient. They aren´t close.”
“Well, then, this will inconvenience him,” Bruce insisted. “If nothing else, we´ll take out a few of his guys in the process. I know we can do this. Heck, five of us are worth sixty of those fresh-faced kids.”
Constantine found himself silently disagreeing. Even ‘fresh- faced kids´ could get off a lucky shot, and then your twelve to one experience advantage started looking more like the Alamo than like target practice. Constantine Larowski shook his head to clear it. He had no idea where thoughts like that came from. It was obvious that, whatever he was in the life he could not remember, Constantine was a military man of sorts. His knowledge of tactics, shooting ability, and subtle intuition all but confirmed that assumption. The other members of the gang had gone back to speaking.
“Five?” Neil inquired. “I know you won´t risk Jack in a firefight so soon. He isn´t strong enough yet, but this Larowski guy…what do we know about him? He came out of nowhere, was conveniently there when you needed him—the whole thing reeks.”
Constantine heard a loud ‘thump´ from near where the voices were coming. He could only surmise that Bruce had shoved someone—probably Neil—into a wall. “Larowski´s wounds were real. The men who dumped him at Lifer´s had no connection to Genghis… Lifer would have warned me.”
“Ah—I agree with Neil, boss,” Vern stammered tentatively. “I mean, taking him with us to rob that store is one thing, but a full-out firefight…”
There was a long silence, and Constantine had nearly given up on listening when he heard Bruce assert, “Come tomorrow, you´ll be glad he´s there. Trust me.”
Constantine Larowski slipped back to his bed as quietly as possible. None of the men down the hall heard him, but the room´s other occupant spoke up.
“You´ll look out for him, right?”
Constantine´s head snapped around in surprise. He had not realized that Jack Graham was awake. “Sure,” Constantine replied instantly, knowing exactly which criminal Jack meant. “I won´t let anything happen to him.”
Neither man spoke further, but Constantine could not fall asleep for an hour after Jack had fallen silent. Constantine lay awake, cursing himself for forming deep, meaningful friendships when he didn´t even remember his own identity. He could quite easily wake up tomorrow and recall everything. What if he was a man who did not keep his word? Would he disappoint Jack and Bruce? For all he knew, he might be a member of this mysterious Genghis´ crew, or belong to neither. Constantine rolled over to face the wall and tried to make his thoughts as bland and orderly as the thin-striped wallpaper eight inches from his face.
“You gentlemen have most certainly taken leave of your senses,” Ezra protested glibly, “that is, what few you may have still possessed. I could not possibly enable a weapons exchange at this time.”
Vin scowled. “We don´t like it any more´n you do, Ez, but we have ta do this bust tomorrow. It´ll prove ta the brass that we´re fit for duty, that we can keep on looking for Chris, and—” Vin paused, not sure if he was ready to share the information about Larowski with the others.
“What is it, Vin?” JD asked, eagerly. His foot tapped an incessant, uneven rhythm against the nearest desk.
“What else should we know?” Josiah inquired. His voice, though deeper than and not as intimidating as Chris´s currently brooked no argument. If they needed to know about another threat loose on the streets of Denver, then Josiah would not hesitate to use any means available to him to discover what that threat was.
Vin looked at his coworkers, silently begging them not to force him to relive a painful time in his life. The only thing that gave him the strength to continue was the fear that, without knowing the whole story, his teammates would be unprepared to face the threat. Taking a deep breath, Vin explained, “Before I joined Team Seven, I was with the Rangers…” He gave a detailed accounting of Eagle, of the man´s tendencies and shortcomings, and of the man´s possible objectives in Denver.
When Vin had finished, Buck let out a low whistle. “And this bastard is free in the same city as Chris?” Buck stood from where he had sat on the hood of his car while Vin spoke. “Let´s go get him.”
There was no doubt in anyone´s mind as to which ‘him´ Buck meant. Vin put a hand on Buck´s shoulder, stopping the taller man from jumping behind the wheel and burning rubber toward a threat he probably wasn´t qualified to face. It wasn´t that Vin thought his friends were less than capable…he simply knew that Eagle was even a better fighter than himself. “That´s what we need to talk about,” Vin stated with an edge to his voice. “Sit down and listen to me.” Buck obeyed automatically. There was a tone in Vin´s voice that he had never heard before.
“I have reliable intel that claims Larowski may be working with one of the local gangs on a temporary basis,” Vin explained. “He may be trying to set up a smuggling pipeline using assets already in place or he might be here to take out the competition. In any case, we´re best off ta just go through with this bust and hope that Larowski gets caught in the net.”
What Vin did not say was that he was silently hoping Larowski had not chosen Genghis´ gang to infiltrate, because pulling him in with the rest of a catch would be like jumping into the water with the shark after gutting the fish and throwing them back.
“Very well,” Ezra relented. “If we must pursue this charade to its bitter end, then Monsieur Edward Sampson should attain that too-often elusive state which, at a later point when said state is removed, enables the beneficiary of that temporary condition to react with the alacrity and accuracy necessary for the preservation of oneself and one´s associates.”
Nate rolled his eyes at the southerner´s lengthy statement. JD stared, openmouthed, while Buck chuckled and Vin smirked.
“Of course, Edward,” Josiah said, “you should go catch a few hours of sleep.”
The reluctance with which Ezra departed, though, reflected what the others were all feeling. They wanted to stay up all night, trying to find some clues as to their wounded leader´s whereabouts. But Vin had already been up for too many hours, and was fading fast. Nate offered to drive him home. JD hadn´t eaten in too long, so Buck herded him into the car and headed for the Saloon. Josiah supposed he could run down a few more license plates of known associates for this man, but also knew that sooner rather than later he was going to lose his concentration and make a mistake. It was far better to turn in now and take a fresh look in the morning, which is exactly what he did.
“I still don´t like this,” Vern whined, and Bruce no longer even bothered to glare in the sniveling man´s direction.
“And I still don´t care,” Bruce replied, his patience obviously tested to the limit.
“He´s right, though,” the man called Constantine Larowski replied unexpectedly. The five men were sitting in a diner across the street from the warehouse where the exchange of guns and other armaments was to take place. Bruce´s plan was simple. Sneak in while Genghis´ men were still finalizing the arrangements, remove the merchandise, let buyer and seller shoot it out, and then Bruce´s men would charge in and kill whoever remained.
It would be a devastating blow to Genghis. This shootout would not only rob Genghis of men and arms, but also make other arms dealers wary to do business with him, because he would no longer be able to guarantee their safety. In short, it was the kind of blow Genghis had intended to deliver to Bruce when Jack was hurt and the leader of the Larimer Street Gang was allegedly alone and relatively defenseless.
The other four men looked at the one called Larowski in surprise as Constantine continued. “Who is the seller? What do we know about the warehouse´s floor plan? Has anyone checked to make sure the place isn´t under surveillance?”
Constantine Larowski abruptly stopped talking. He had no idea where the questions had come from, but now that they were out, he had to acknowledge their value.
Bruce glanced around the table at the rest of his gang. “I told you guys. Here is a man who knows not to become overconfident.” Then he looked at Constantine bemusedly. “The seller is some guy named Sampson. The floor plan is simple…rows and columns of crates with an empty space in the middle. As for whether it´s under surveillance—” Bruce tossed his cell phone to Constantine, saying, “I thought you might want to check that out for yourself. You go on ahead, find a good place to wait. In a few minutes we´ll come in. Be ready.”
Constantine grinned humorlessly and left the diner. He was starting to have second thoughts about the life he had fallen into. Though his memory still had not returned, part of him knew that there was more to the ‘him´ that he had forgotten than the one that he was now pretending to be. Whoever Constantine Larowski truly was, the blond doubted he would settle for being a capable gunman in a small- time gang. The blond somehow knew that he ought to be a leader of men, not the trustworthy second-in-command.
Constantine was about to cross the street and enter the warehouse via a little-used side door when the sight of a dimly familiar van caught his eye. Not knowing for sure what he was recognizing, only knowing instinctively that the vehicle was somehow related to a dangerous group of men, the blond gunman snuck up to the back of the van. He tested the door, found it locked, and backed off, holding his gun at the ready.
A moment later, a dark-haired young man opened the door. “Lose your key again, Bu—” he started to say in a teasing tone. Abruptly, his statement changed as he noticed that a gun was pointed in his direction. “Chris?” the man asked uncertainly.
“Get out of the van,” Constantine ordered, his voice uncompromising and icy, “nice and slow.”
The young man obeyed hesitantly, and Constantine shoved him up against the side of the vehicle—face first—checking the man for weapons while keeping his own at the base of the young man´s skull. The shorter, dark-haired man did not try to move. Constantine discovered credentials identifying the man as an ATF agent. “Kind of young for this line of work, aren´t you?” he asked rhetorically.
“I´m older than I look,” the dark-haired man retorted defensively.
Constantine snorted, not voicing his disbelief. He found both of the young man´s weapons, and commented on the larger of the two. “This isn´t the usual piece for agents,” and then he wondered silently how he knew that it had a larger clip than the standard issue weapon used by law enforcement.
“Yeah, well, my boss suggested that model. He said we needed every advantage we could get,” the young agent confessed.
“Sounds like a smart man,” Constantine stated dryly, and then ordered the man to turn around slowly. The other man obeyed, and then Constantine demanded “How many agents do you have for backup? Who were you expecting? Are Genghis´ men in the warehouse already?” Constantine watched as the young agent remained silent. The dark-haired man´s expression alternated between stubborn defiance and a pleading, soulful look.
“You don´t remember us?” The young agent finally inquired despondently.
Constantine stared at the dark-haired man in shock. “Is this some kind of trick?” Almost too quickly to be seen, Constantine´s hand shot out—nearly of its own accord—and pinned the young agent´s neck to the side of the van, cutting off the other man´s air. “Do not play games with me,” Constantine said, his voice a low, guttural growl. “Will you help me? Nod your head.”
Constantine watched in fascination as the young agent refused to yield. All it would have taken to save himself was the faintest movement of his head, but the young agent would not break.
Knowing that killing someone who was trying to kill him was a far cry from murdering in cold blood, Constantine removed the chokehold, and the agent slid to the pavement, clutching his throat and gasping for breath.
He had learned everything he needed to know, anyway. His gang was walking into a trap. Ironically enough, had Bruce Fields delayed his revenge by just one more day, Genghis probably would have been arrested by the ATF. Now, if Constantine did not hurry, Bruce might end up in the same prison as his detested rival.
Constantine took the agent´s handcuffs from him, ushered the still-panting man back into the vehicle, and then cuffed the dark- haired agent and knocked him unconscious. Taking off at a run, Constantine arrived at the diner only to find it empty. That the tip was still on the table told the man called Larowski that he had barely missed them. Digging Bruce´s cell phone out of his own pocket, Constantine searched the phone book application until he saw a name he recognized from the gang. He pressed the connect button and worked his way toward the warehouse. “Neil?”
“Where the hell are you, Larowski?” Neil´s voice chastised him harshly. “We´ve been in here for five minutes already. The place is crawling with Genghis´ men. No sign of him yet, though, or of the seller. I thought you wanted in on this fight. Don´t tell me you´re running out on us.”
Constantine gritted his teeth in frustration. Somewhere in the past he could not remember, Constantine knew that he had worked with professionals, with men who would not clutter the airwaves with recriminations. Banter was rampant, that much he recalled, but not insults and accusations. Neil simply would not shut up and listen to the fact that he was about to be overrun by the ATF. Idiot. “It´s a set-up, Neil. Warn Bruce immediately. I found an ATF agent out here. I think they´re planning to arrest everyone at this sale. If you leave now—”
“Leave? No, we can´t.”
Constantine suspected that the issue was more ‘would not´ than ‘could not´ and he suppressed a sigh. “Just let me talk to Bruce, okay?”
“No,” Neil replied in a quieter tone, “he´s across the warehouse, anyway. We were trying to encircle Genghis´ men. What happened to the Fed?”
Constantine was reasonably certain that if he did not find a way to release some anger soon, his teeth would break against each other from the pressure of his tightly clenched jaw. “He´s been taken care of. Why don´t we just leave this to the feds? There are more of them than the boy I found, and this way, you don´t have to endanger yourself, Neil.” Constantine paused as he heard the line go dead. “Neil?” Constantine irritably shoved the phone back in his breast pocket as soon as he realized the other gang member had hung up on him.
Was Neil still trying to become the leader of the gang? Would Neil take this opportunity to slip out of the warehouse and hope that Bruce was killed in the crossfire or arrested along with the enemy gang´s members?
Cursing himself for getting into this situation, Constantine waited outside the warehouse until the seller arrived. A well-dressed man with reddish-brown hair and sparkling green eyes pulled up to the warehouse in a Jaguar. A dark-haired man of about Constantine´s age followed in a small truck. Both vehicles drove into the loading bay of the warehouse, and Constantine hitched a ride in the undercarriage of the truck, unnoticed by the retailers and customers alike.
The truck rolled to a stop, and Constantine had to tighten his grip to avoid falling. There were a dozen teens of Asian heritage, one tall, imposing blond, and then the two men from whom Constantine had bummed a ride.
The fancily-dressed man exited his Jaguar and approached the leader of the Asian group. “Mr. Tran,” the man said, politely extending a hand, “I am of course delighted that you requested I provide you with these armaments and munitions, however,” the well-dressed man glanced around, particularly noting the unknown Caucasian, “the surroundings are somewhat dreary and not all present company is accounted for. May I inquire why you felt the need for a bodyguard?”
Constantine watched as the imposing blond smirked at the well- dressed man´s vocabulary. Something tugged at Constantine´s memory; he seemed to recall giving that same expression in a similar situation. “I´m not his bodyguard, Mr. Sampson,” the intimidating man replied in an irritated tone, “I am here to make sure the transaction proceeds smoothly.”
“Ah,” the driver of the Jaguar—evidently called Sampson—stated. “I take it, then, that you will be escorting my associate and myself from the premises to ensure that our money is not conveniently misplaced? And how should we address you, my good sir?”
Constantine glanced around, and noticed that the truck driver had at some point moved to stand next to Sampson. The tall dark-haired man made no attempt to hide what his role was in this exchange; he was hired muscle. The gun at his hip, in full view of everyone present, attested to that.
The menacing blond smiled coldly after he spared a disparaging glance for the tall, dark-haired man. Evidently, the blonde believed the extra muscle would not be difficult to overcome. “My interest is the security of Genghis´ shipment; all other objectives are secondary…and you may call me Constantine Larowski.”
The man named Sampson introduced the tall dark-haired man as Brady. Even as the Constantine Larowski clinging to the truck´s undercarriage thought that Brady was not that man´s name,—it simply did not fit him—the rest of his readily accepted identity crumbled.
Sure, he had known—on some level—that he probably was not actually Constantine Larowski, but it had at least provided him with an anchor to this life. Now, with that rope cut, the amnesia victim was left adrift, with only a false name to cling to.
Just as the man who had been Constantine Larowski recovered, he noticed the real Larowski become tense. Conspicuously glancing everywhere but toward the rafters, the real Larowski excused himself from the transaction and moved away, into the canyons of crates and containers.
The confused blond clung to the bottom of the truck as ‘Brady´ and Sampson went to open the back hatch. All of Genghis´ men followed. They might be criminals and killers, but none were wary enough to hang back at the prospect of new guns. The man who had been Constantine Larowski had to stifle a chuckle at how easily he could have booby-trapped this shipment, if he had been so inclined.
“I trust that you find the armaments more than satisfactory?” Sampson asked in cultured tones.
“Yes, these are fine weapons,” the former Constantine Larowski heard a person he assumed to be Genghis´ right hand man, Lee Tran, say. “Where did you get them? Are they surplus, liberated from an army base arsenal?”
“Mr. Tran, let me have my secrets, and I shall leave you to yours,” Sampson continued. “Now, I do not intend to sound crass, but…my remuneration, if you please?”
The amnesiac under the truck heard something change hands and then be opened.
“Thank you, sir,” Sampson started to say, “it has been a pleasure—”
A single shot rang out; it appeared to have come from the rafters. There were several shouts of “Freeze, ATF!” and then all hell broke loose.
As the blond man stared at the scene from under the truck, pieces of his memory started to fall into place, all tantalizingly familiar and yet no individual snippet enough to bring his entire former life to light.
Mr. Sampson struggled with one gang member for control of his gun. When the gang member managed to turn the weapon back on the seller and had begun to pull the trigger, Sampson withdrew a tiny back-up piece, and killed the gang member.
“Ez—Mr. Sampson, are you alright?” ‘Brady´ asked breathlessly, having just incapacitated two more by knocking their heads together.
“I am quite well, thank you, Brady,” Sampson responded easily. “Shall we dispatch a few more of these ruffians for so unkindly terminating our deal?”
Brady chuckled. “Sure, let´s go.”
The blond grasped his head and fell to the floor as a spasm of pain travelled through it. He abruptly stopped thinking of the two men as Sampson and Brady, instead now knowing them as Ezra Standish and Buck Wilmington. Ezra was the best undercover agent he had ever met, although the man did not know how to wake before nine in the morning, and Buck was his oldest friend, a man who had helped him through the hardest days of his life, and still managed to chuckle and joke about the little things.
The blond crawled out from under the truck and began walking through the warehouse as though in a dream. In one row, he saw a broad- shouldered man taking on three men from Genghis´ gang simultaneously. Without thinking about it, the blond drew his sidearm and killed one of them when the younger man had gotten a bead on the broad-shouldered one. Josiah Sanchez, his mind recalled, images of the profiler and genius flashing through his head. This time, he did not fall over from the pain, though he did express it with a slight grunt of discomfort.
At the edge of the warehouse, the blond saw a black man helping the young agent out of handcuffs. The darker-skinned man tried to check the younger one´s head for bleeding, and it was only because the dark-haired agent was in that position that he noticed another of Genghis´ men sneaking up on them. With a fluid movement, the young man pulled, aimed and fired the black man´s weapon, wounding the gang member in the arm. The man with medical training stopped fussing over the young agent, and both went to disarm and arrest the would-be murderer. Nate, the blond realized, and JD. He knew both of them well. Nate might have ceased his attempts to treat JD in the middle of a bust, but JD would undoubtedly be leaving the building in an ambulance, at Nate´s insistence.
The blond finally permitted himself a glance heavenward, and that was when he saw ATF Team Seven´s sniper fighting for his life.
The sniper had been with the team since its inception, and never had he met his match in unarmed sparring. The real Constantine Larowski was toying with the sniper, punching and kicking, lashing out with enough force to hurt the sniper, but not enough to send the long- haired man careening from the rafters. The sniper gave as good as he received…if barely. Vin, the blond thought, and that was the instant when his memory returned completely.
Chris Larabee leaned against a wall of crates to steady himself, and automatically closed his eyes to lessen the impact of the memories flooding his mind. In his moment of vulnerability, Bruce Fields stepped out from behind a tower of crates.
“Larowski, get over here!” Bruce´s concern for Chris´s well-being was apparent. “What are you doing? The plan was to wait until the shooting died down.” Bruce steered Chris to safety. “I admire your courage, but you don´t need to prove it like this…” Finally, the look in Chris´s eyes and the difference in his stance registered with the gang leader. “Constantine,” Bruce asked uneasily as he backed away and spread his arms in surrender, “what are you doing?”
Chris felt the hand that held his gun shake slightly, but he pushed on regardless. “I´ve remembered,” he confessed. “My name is Chris Larabee, and I´m the leader of ATF Team Seven. The sellers are my men, and you´re under arrest for the robbery of that gun shop.” Chris wondered if he should apologize—after all, this man had taken him in when he was endangered by memory loss—but in the end, Chris said nothing more, because it was Bruce´s decisions—not Chris´s injury—that had led to this result.
There was movement from behind Bruce, and Chris was already shifting his weight, almost before he recognized the threat. Neil had decided to make his move for power. He must have decided that, with so many guns being used in the close confines of the warehouse, one more fatality would be written off as the price of a bust, leaving him as the gang´s leader without fear of reprisal from the law. Neil aimed at Bruce´s back and fired, even as Chris slid to one side and tried to push Bruce out of the way.
Before he could reach Bruce, Chris felt pain explode in his chest. As he and Bruce fell in tandem, Chris saw Neil back up and run away.
Vin sighted his rifle on a teenager who had drawn his weapon, and was aiming it at Ezra. Someone must have decided that two dead arms dealers was the price they were willing to pay for this shipment.
Maybe the gun wasn´t loaded; maybe the kid did not intend to shoot; maybe the teen would have horrible aim and miss completely…but Vin did not deal in “maybe´s”. He dropped the armed teenager with a shot to his center mass. Though the teen was either dead or gravely injured, the only remorse Vin felt was for revealing his position.
Even that emotion was fleeting. Protecting any member of Team Seven was worth the risk. When, a couple of minutes later, Vin heard stealthy footsteps and the sound of a gun cocking, he knew his luck had run out. The voice he heard next confirmed it.
“So…this is where you ended up.”
Vin put down his rifle and stood to face the owner of that silky, despised voice. “Eagle,” he acknowledged, having to fight hard to keep his anger in check. Any misstep at this height would undoubtedly be fatal.
Constantine Larowski lowered the hammer on his sidearm and returned it to the holster. “I assume those other guys are yours?”
Vin felt his jaw clench of its own accord, a habit he had not allowed himself until joining Team Seven. “Leave them out ‘a this, Larowski. We both know I´m the one you want to kill.”
Eagle laughed and launched a kick at the sniper. Vin deflected the blow, and both men regained their balance on the narrow beam. “Kill you? I had hoped we wouldn´t ever meet again,” Eagle confessed. “You had to have noticed, Raptor, that I´m strictly an East Coast operator. You´re out here in Denver and Condor works in Yuma…I thought I´d be safe.”
Vin gave a smirk that was closer to a sneer. “‘Operator?´” he inquired skeptically. “At best, you´re a criminal. You gave up the honor of being called an operator the first time you so much as thought about betraying the team.” Vin delivered a few blows of his own, which Eagle caught good-naturedly, even complimenting Vin on a particularly powerful roundhouse kick.
“You expect too much of people, Raptor,” Eagle commented, backing up until he reached a landing that led down to the lower levels. “Everyone has a price.” Eagle shrugged before throwing a punch that Vin dodged. “I just found mine during our tour of duty.”
“That ain´t true,” Vin protested as he followed Eagle onto the platform. “This team would go into hell to take back one of ours…we´ve come near enough ta doin´ jist about that more times than I can count, an´ none of us would ever sell out the others.”
Larowski chuckled. “I doubt that. But then, you always did like to see the better side of people. Even after I´d set you guys up, you didn´t want to believe it. What was it you said to Condor?”
Vin tried to ignore the malevolent grin on his one-time friend´s face, and failed to remain in the present. The memory was not a particularly horrible one, at least not physically. Vin had seen far worse, and inflicted most of it from hundreds of yards away. Emotionally, though…Condor and Raptor had made it back to the secondary rendezvous point safely, but both men knew that Harrier was dead. They assumed Eagle was too—there was no way a member of their team could have left another to die alone. When Eagle had stepped, untouched, from the brush, Condor had lunged at the man, suspecting betrayal. Only Vin´s strong grip on Condor´s shoulders had kept the distraught Ranger from physically attacking Eagle. “Calm down, Condor;” Vin had stated, “I´m sure he´s got an explanation.”
Before Eagle could reply, all three men heard the whirring sound of an approaching helicopter. Condor and Raptor started to dive for cover, but Eagle assured them that he´d called for reinforcements, and that they were coming by chopper. Vin had glanced to the radio strapped to Condor´s pack. Though each Ranger carried short-range communication devices, the long-range radio that Condor was lugging around was the only device within miles capable of calling in reinforcements. Acting more on instinct than due to conscious thought, Vin had grabbed Condor and thrown both the other man and himself deeper into the scant cover provided by the nearby tree line.
“What´s going on?” Condor had demanded of Raptor, but he quickly fell silent as they watched the helicopter land and pour out soldiers in a uniform different from his and Vin´s. Eagle had boarded the helicopter and been flown to an unknown location. It took Raptor and Condor six days of travelling on foot, evading the mercenaries Eagle had teamed up with, to reach a zone secure for extraction, and they had never seen Eagle again.
Vin recovered from the flashback just in time to lessen the impact of a blow by turning slightly. It still left him winded, though. The sound of gunfire was quickly fading, replaced by the griping of captured criminals and metallic clicking of cuffs. Vin was about to retort with some venomous comment when he heard one more shot ring out, coming from an area not yet cleared by Team Seven. Instead of trading barbed insults with his former friend, Vin went on the offensive.
Both men knew an impressive array of moves, but where Eagle fought for himself, Vin fought for the right to check on Chris. Vin could not explain how he knew, but as soon as he head that shot, part of him cried out instinctively that Chris was in trouble. With a speed previously unknown to him, Vin delivered several crippling blows to sensitive areas and left a crumpled, moaning Constantine Larowski—aka Eagle—incapacitated on the landing.
Vin ran down the stairs, taking them three at a time. When he reached the final platform, Vin grabbed the railing in one hand and vaulted over it, landing lithely on the balls of his feet. Vin searched frantically through the seemingly infinite rows of crates, finally finding Chris in the eighth aisle.
Vin´s heart skipped a beat when he saw blood on Chris´s shirt, right over where Chris´s heart would be. When Chris´s chest heaved, as though he had not breathed in a few minutes, Vin also breathed easier.
Rushing over to his friend´s side, Vin crouched down. After confirming that a nearby criminal was dead, Vin concentrated all of his attention on his fallen leader.
Chris´s eyes opened suddenly, and he immediately tried to sit up. Vin restrained him easily with a hand on his already hurt chest. Chris glared, silently accusing Vin of playing dirty. Vin replied with a similar look, which expressed his determination that Chris not overexert himself, especially as they did not yet know the full extent of his injury. Chris sighed in frustration. “I think Bruce´s cell phone stopped it.” Wryly, he concluded, “Well, the phone, and Bruce, anyway.”
Vin´s eyebrows drew together in confusion. Sparing a glance for the fatally wounded criminal, Vin asked, “He was tryin´ to protect you? Why?”
Chris gave a small shake of his head. “I wasn´t the target. He was; a member of the gang thought Bruce wasn´t a good enough leader.” Hesitantly, Chris asked, “Is he…” Vin´s look of sympathy answered Chris´s incomplete question. Chris closed his eyes briefly, the only sign of sorrow that he permitted himself before Nate and Buck came barreling around the corner.
As soon as it became clear that Chris had suffered only minor bruising, (the cell phone would never be the same, as the bullet had travelled almost completely through it) Chris insisted that Nate go check on JD. With an unrepentant grin, he also added that Vin´s ribs might need to be looked at.
Vin glared at Chris and then secured Bruce´s weapon. Buck helped Chris to his feet as Nate relented in his attempts to treat Chris. All four men returned to where the rest of Team Seven was standing guard over the remnants of Genghis´ and Bruce´s gangs. Ernie and Vern were both handcuffed and being held separately from Genghis´ men. Vern was bleeding from a bullet wound in his leg, and Ernie looked dazed—though whether that was a result of the unexpected turn of events or the rapidly rising bump on the back of his head, no one but Nate would venture to guess.
Chris surveyed the gathered prisoners and realized that, no matter how drained and lost he felt, there was one more stop he had to make. Neil and Jack were both missing from the assembled felons—the former undoubtedly on the run and the latter probably still recovering back at the garage.
“Nate, can they be moved without further treatment?” Chris asked quietly, knowing from experience that if he allowed the criminals half a chance, most would begin complaining that their rights were being violated.
“There´s nothing pressing,” Nate returned, just as quietly. “We´ve already called for extra cars to take these back. They should arrive in ten.”
Team Seven waited for the prisoners to be taken away. After the exchange of custody had taken place, Chris informed his men about Neil and Jack. Vin took that opportunity to speak up about Constantine Larowski.
Chris listened with interest, hearing the potent rage that filled Vin´s voice. Vin was angry at himself for being tricked and betrayed the first time, and for not securing Larowski to the landing when he finally had the advantage. The sniper had gone back to check on Larowski while Team Seven waited for backup, only to find the capable former Ranger had disappeared.
“I want pictures of Neil and Larowski delivered to every police station in the city.” Chris almost stumbled over the second name. Having adopted it as his own for a few days, he felt as though he was putting out an alert on himself. Who drove here?” Ezra, Buck, and JD replied that they had, and since the surveillance van was the only vehicle not associated with the wide-ranging crime scene inside the warehouse, Chris opted to ride with him.
Chris offered to drive, but about half of his team protested. JD meekly reminded Chris of the last time the leader had tried to drive the surveillance van—the ATF still had not accepted the cost of buffing out the scratches on the side panels. Josiah insisted that Chris was in no condition to drive, and Nate agreed as he noted the recent bruising of Chris´s chest and the less recent wound on Chris´s head.
In the end, JD drove, Buck, Ezra, Josiah, Nate and Vin piled in the back, and Chris rode shotgun. At first, Chris was glad that the rest of the team had at least allowed him a seat with a view, but then he realized with great unease, that the barrier between the front seat and the bank of monitors in the back left him alone with the very brave young friend that he had nearly throttled to death a scant half- hour before.
Chris faced straight forward, but let his gaze slide to the left. He thought he could see bruises forming on JD´s neck…or maybe that was just his guilt feeding his imagination. “You did well tonight, JD,” Chris stated.
JD rolled his eyes, but did not take his attention from the road. “In the bust, sure, but before…” JD paused, acutely aware that he did not want to embarrass his boss. “Before, I was helpless.”
Chris gave a small nod, acknowledging JD´s assessment. “You kept your head, and that´s what matters. You analyzed the situation, recognized that your enemy had the upper hand, and didn´t pit your reflexes against my experience.” Chris snorted, though he was far from amused. “You would´ve lost.” After a brief pause, Chris concluded, “JD…I—”
“It´s alright,” JD interrupted him. “That wasn´t you. All you knew was loyalty to Bruce, and I was a threat to him. I understand.”
Chris was grateful that JD had so easily forgiven him. The kid, more than anyone else on Team Seven, had a great capacity for kindness and forgiveness. Even Nate, with his knowledge of medicine and the Hippocratic Oath, and Josiah, with his philosophical and theological training, could not compete with JD´s innate goodness. Chris supposed that what the others lacked was innocence. Hopefully, the rest of the Seven would be able to teach JD without dragging him into the miseries that plagued the other six men. The loss of Chris´ family, Vin´s troubled past, Josiah´s anger toward his father, Buck´s near-loss of Chris, and Ezra´s difficulty trusting people because he had been betrayed too often and too deeply…all these events had shaped the men of Team Seven, and not necessarily for the better.
Chris remained silent for the rest of the ride. They stopped by the garage where Bruce´s gang had met. Chris entered the building alone, despite his team´s protests. Waking Jack, he explained how his memory had returned, that Bruce was dead, and that Neil was the one who had pulled the trigger. Chris offered Jack protection in exchange for his testimony against the rest of Bruce´s gang, but Jack was loyal to the end. He slipped out the back door, determined to leave the city before Neil decided that Jack was too much of a liability. Chris let him go, and then walked out the front. When the others asked where Jack was, Chris only replied that the man had not been there when he left. Though the others noticed a gap in Chris´s explanation, no one pushed him on it.
The team returned to the Federal Building to complete some paperwork. Nathan applied for Chris to have a physical, a psychological evaluation and counseling, and then the Seven went to Inez´s Saloon for a celebratory drink.
Chris watched the others laugh and joke. JD teased Buck about the name that had been given him for his undercover work. Nathan and Josiah chatted about ways they could improve their tactics when facing a similar bust in the future. Ezra inquired as to why Mr. Tanner felt it necessary to reveal his location via the premature shot, and Vin replied that he was trying to stop Ez from getting his dang fool head blown off by some kid. Chris observed all this, but felt that something was wrong. He could not, in good conscience, sit here and enjoy the companionship of his friends when Bruce was dead, Neil was free, and Chris was not entirely sure whether his character was untarnished by his experiences as Constantine Larowski.
Vin noticed Chris´s untouched drink and the faraway, pained look in his eyes. Catching his gaze, Vin silently asked if Chris wanted to leave. Chris agreed, and the two men excused themselves, heading for the Jeep that Vin had driven here from the Federal Building.
The drive out to Chris´s ranch was quiet, even by Chris and Vin´s standards. When they arrived, Chris exited the vehicle without a word and was at his locked front door before he recalled that he did not have his keys. Along with his wallet, they had been taken before he was left at Lifer´s. Sighing, Chris took the spare key from under the horseshoe nailed above the front door and let himself in, shutting the door firmly behind him. A few minutes later, Chris heard the Jeep pull away. Evidently, Vin had gotten the message that Chris needed some time alone to come to grips with his actions.
A half-hour later, Chris heard a polite knock on his front door. Thinking that the knock ruled out some of his men—Buck, Vin, or Josiah would have simply entered—Chris moved warily toward the door. When he checked the peephole, Chris was shocked by who he saw.
If anyone from Team Seven would come out here to try and talk (or knock) some sense into him, Chris had expected it to be Buck. Vin could have turned the Jeep around, guessing that Chris needed to talk. Josiah might have taken it upon himself to travel out to the ranch and rid Chris of unnecessary mental demons. Nate could have come, claiming that he wanted to check on that head injury, because head wounds could be tricky things, even after a few days of healing. Even JD might have come, trying to reassure Chris that there were no hard feelings about how Chris had disarmed and incapacitated him.
So, when Chris looked through the peephole and saw Standish, he was surprised, to say the least. The shock, however, came from seeing the figure standing behind Ezra with a pistol digging into the normally unflappable undercover agent´s ribs. Neil must have looked up the name Chris had told Bruce during their final encounter in the warehouse, and found out that the only remaining witness to his brutal crime lived on a conveniently isolated ranch.
Chris opened the door slowly, keeping his hands visible. The glare he fixed on Neil, though, was anything but passive. “If you shoot him, Neil, there will be hell to pay,” Chris stated in a low, intense voice. Neil started to smile, confident that his choice of hostage had been a good one, until Larabee concluded, “I´ve been wanting to shoot Standish for years, and if you rob me of that, I promise it will take you days to die.”
Neil was momentarily confused. “B-but, Standish works for you. You can´t get away with killing a federal agent.”
Chris stepped forward, a manic glint in his eyes and the slightest upturning of his lips the only sign of mirth. Neil retreated as Chris continued, “I can´t? You thought you could escape punishment for murdering Bruce Fields. Besides,” Chris´s barely discernable smirk grew to a full-fledged, blood-thirsty grin, “why do you think I live out here in the middle of nowhere?” Chris lowered his right hand to caress the matte-black grip of the gun Bruce had bought him a few days ago. Chris had refused to relinquish it at the scene, and since it wasn´t evidence of anything, none of his team members had taken the risk of demanding the weapon.
“Even if someone got a search warrant to look for your worthless carcass, I have dozens of acres of land. They would give up long before your remains were discovered.” Frowning contemplatively, Chris asked, “What kind of reputation would you have after that?” Nearly chuckling, the blond stated, “The man who killed his boss, lost his entire crew to prison, and then mysteriously disappeared…not exactly a successful career.”
“This is quite discouraging, my good sir,” Ezra interjected, his tone horror-filled. “You´ve caught him on one of his less gregarious days.”
While Neil looked from the clearly psychotic man dressed all in black to his distraught and useless hostage, Ezra took advantage of the criminal´s momentary indecision. He spun, trapping the hand holding the gun and twisted until Neil´s fingers involuntarily twitched open. The gun tumbled to the porch deck, and Ezra continued his turn, bringing himself out of Neil´s range. Neil lunged for the fallen weapon, but a click promising death resonated through the still night air.
“Your choice, Neil,” Chris Larabee said, his voice full of hate and loss. “There will be paperwork either way. I´d rather just kill you, but the decision should be yours.” Chris sneered. “It´s more of a choice than you deserve, more than you gave Bruce.” Sparing an amused look for Ezra, Chris concluded, his gaze cold and calculating, “I guess I´m just feeling…gregarious.”
Neil surrendered immediately, and Ezra called for the nearest police station to send a cruiser and pick up the detainee. Ezra answered most of the questions when the officers arrived, trying to shield Chris from having to relive the experience.
When the cruiser backed down Chris´s long driveway, Chris finally turned to the undercover agent. “What happened?”
Ezra was grateful that Chris´s voice did not carry the same judgmental tone that had become the norm during his final days working for the FBI´s Atlanta field office. Chris understood that something had gone wrong, but did not automatically assume that Ezra was to blame. “I had just departed our quaint yet delectable dining establishment of choice, when a vehicle pulled up next to me. That irreverent and despicable felon exited the vehicle, and, usin´ his powers of persuasion—enhanced, naturally, by his effective, if crude, arsenal—convinced me to endure the passage from city to country in a most undignified and perilous manner.” Ezra scowled at the memory, but Chris was nearly laughing.
“He made you ride in the trunk?” Chris surmised, and was rewarded with Ezra avoiding eye contact, which he only did when severely embarrassed by something. Though Team Seven´s leader usually gave Ezra a hard time about the southerner´s extensive vocabulary, Chris secretly enjoyed the colorful tales. The only man more capable of weaving such imagery in prose was Buck…but most of those stories could not be repeated in polite company.
“Though the method of my arrival was indecorous,” Ezra continued, neither confirming nor denying Chris´s hypothesis about the trunk, “I am satisfied to be here, as you are undoubtedly in need of my…unique expertise.”
Chris held a skeptical look in check, barely. “I´m not in the mood for card games, Standish. Just what do you think I need help with?”
“Why, coming to terms with your alternate personality, of course,” Ezra said, giving a wry smile. “Who better to discuss your insecurities and doubts with than one such as myself? Mistah Sanchez, though he has more training on the subject, would indubitably miss the finer points of conflict and contention within your clearly troubled mind.”
Chris glared. “The only thing troubling my mind is your yapping,” Chris replied irritably. Restraining a sigh, he relented. “Well, I won´t stand out here and talk about it. Come inside.” Without another word, Chris pivoted and strode briskly for the door. If Standish wanted to keep up, he would have to move quickly.
By the time Ezra caught up to the taller man, Chris had seated himself at the kitchen table with two beers waiting. “Sit,” Chris ordered, indicating the chair opposite his own with a slight nod. “Talk.”
Ezra sighed, but obeyed. “Your instructions, as always, forego verbosity and sophistication in favor of brevity and pithiness.” Catching the glare that was sent his way, Ezra spread his hands in a pacifying gesture. “Merely an observation, I assure you.” He opened the beer and took a long swig, trying to gather courage for what he knew would be a difficult conversation. “What bothers you most about the past few days?”
Chris smirked. Rarely had he witnessed Ezra cut to the chase so efficiently. Then his expression sobered. If Ezra was sacrificing his tendency to blather on, then the undercover agent felt this was an issue of utmost importance. Chris decided to be completely honest. “JD forgave me because he thought I wasn´t myself.”
“Well, you were suffering from amnesia, confusion, and the unfortunate association with persons less than inclined to follow the letter of the law than your customary compatriots,” Ezra tried to justify JD´s belief.
“That´s just it,” Chris said, his voice dropping to barely a whisper. “I was myself.” Meeting Ezra´s uncertain gaze, Chris continued his explanation at a normal volume. “You can ask Buck or Vin. They´ve both seen me when I was out of control. Heck, Josiah´s had to hold me back a time or two from attacking some of the men we arrest. When I did not know who I was…when all I had was muscle memory and anger and loyalty…I don´t like who I became.”
Ezra frowned and nodded. “You mean, the man who was hidden barely beneath the surface all along.” He tried to imagine an uninhibited Larabee. It was difficult, if not impossible. Despite his reputation as a man with a mean temper, Chris Larabee usually restrained himself to merely scaring a criminal half to death with a glare, rather than disemboweling the miserable cretin with his bare hands.
Chris tried to glare at Ezra, but heard the truth in the southerner´s words. In a defeated tone, Chris replied, “Exactly. How do I live with that knowledge?”
Troubled, Ezra struggled to produce an adequate answer. “Perhaps I was mistaken. This does appear to be closer to our profiler´s field than to mine. However, I shall make the attempt.” Taking a deep breath, Ezra told of his own experiences. “There have been times when, while maintaining a cover, I have forgotten who I am completely. Even calling to check in with one of my teammates, I sometimes cannot snap out of the role. It is a blessing and a curse. This talent is beneficial for Team Seven because I lie so well that it becomes my personal truth…for however brief a time. There is, therefore, no lie for the targets of our investigations to detect. It is a curse, because, every single time I go undercover, I fear I may lose myself permanently…and that worse, I may even enjoy it.” Chris started to protest that Ez was too good a person to succumb to such a fate, but Ezra cut him off. “Please, Mistah Larabee, I am not seeking your pity. I hope only to offer my advice and comfort. The one thing that keeps me sane, that continues to bring me back to my own identity no matter how far I´ve gone, is this team.”
Chris stared at Ezra in amazement. Though Ezra did not lie to Team Seven, he was seldom so open.
Before Chris could recover his composure, Ezra pressed onward. “We all know your sinister past, Mistah Larabee, and still we choose to follow you. None of us, with the possible exception of the irrepressible Mistah Dunne, are perfect. Regardless of whether you like your darker side, you will always have six men who will stand by you…” Ezra smirked, but the emotion was genuine, “and pull you back from the edge of the abyss should you need the assistance.”
Chris snorted in amusement. “You´d better start carrying a rope. Sometimes, I fall in.” Musing briefly on what Ezra had told him, Chris finally nodded. It wasn´t complete absolution, but then, Chris hadn´t been looking for forgiveness—he had wanted answers. Though Ezra had not provided any, the revelation that Chris was not alone in his struggle took a great weight off his shoulders. Standing and placing his half-empty beer on the countertop, by the sink, Chris smirked. “Since you don´t have a car, you can stay the night. The sheets are cotton, not silk, and if you´ve got a problem with that, remember that I´m still armed, and this gun ain´t registered.”
Ezra stared at Chris disdainfully. “Cotton shall suffice, I suppose.”
Chris nodded and left the room, not looking back.
Ezra stood and poured out the rest of his beer, placing the bottle quietly into the recycling container beneath the sink. “A miniscule display of courtesy would be beyond the man, I´m sure. I only risked life, limb and sanity in coming here tonight. The least he could do—”
In the hallway, Chris stifled a chuckle as the undercover agent´s complaints continued, growing progressively more colorful and elaborate. The day Ez stopped whining, Chris would know something was wrong. If Vin had been there, he would have told Ezra that Chris had thanked him, but silently. Buck would have replied that not shooting the annoying agent was thanks enough. Josiah would have recited some ancient Chinese proverb about patience. Nate would have told Ezra to quit his griping and let him check Standish for wounds. JD probably would have defended Chris, saying that it was Ezra´s duty to help his boss and friend, and then Chris would have replied with a scathing glare that dared anyone else to refer to him so informally. He could almost hear the laughter of his team, and Buck insisting that, somewhere along the line, Vin had developed an immunity to the Glare.
His men weren´t here, but thanks to Ezra´s talk, Chris knew that he would still be himself—ornery, stubborn, and irritable, yet patient, kind, and overprotective—when he next saw them.

The End