by BMP

DISCLAIMER: These Characters do not belong to the author or me (but if it were our sandbox, we’d let YOU play in it…) That said, this story was written purely for self entertainment (and the possible entertainment of me, thanks BMP!) and no money is being made, has changed hands, or has been paid out for the contents therein. The Author wishes to thank MOG for the ATF AU, she came up with it, and graciously lets other play there. Special thanks to GSister for Beta-ing, encouraging, and all around nagging. Without her patience and insistence, these stories would never have been.

~Constructive Criticism will be passed on to the author
~Flames will be used to toast marshmallows

Two years worth of surveillance data, files, and records reviewed and re-reviewed. Four hundred thirty seven man-hours of planning and practice. Four months working our way in. Three dry runs. Twenty-four hours of pre-bust prep. Ten hours of waiting. And fifteen seconds for it all to go spectacularly wrong.

I could put my fist through one of the windows here in the foreman’s office, except they all shattered when the forklift came through the wall. I could shoot the forklift operator dead. Except he already is.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from driving that machine right through the walls of the office, in a burst of splintering plywood. Giant metal prongs pushed the metal filing cabinet, collapsed cabinets and the foreman’s desk screeching across the concrete floor and into the opposite wall. For a split second the side walls stood, then wavered, and came falling in. Glass rained down onto forklift, man, and office debris. The fluorescent lights popped, falling down in a shower of sparks and a hail of plaster ceiling tiles. Then the forklift and its dead operator rolled up the ramp of shattered cabinetry like a Sherman tank. It hovered, teetered, then half slid, half rolled sideways to come crashing down on its side with an earth-shaking whump. The absolute deafening silence that followed is broken only by the plinking and popping noise of glass, metal and plaster still dribbling down on us from above.

With morbid curiosity I stretch out one arm to touch the hulking yellow pile of parts that lies, still warm, not two feet from me.

Buck looks at me. I look at him. Both of us look at the body of the man hanging out of the topside of the forklift like a broken rag doll. A bullet hole marks the exact center of his forehead.

“Nice shooting, Pard,” he says. He is not talking to me. He’s talking into his headphones to Vin, our sniper, who put that impossible shot right through the man’s brain.

I’m looking at Buck’s white face and the way he’s clutching his wrist against his chest. And he’s looking at me. I don’t even want to know why. I get up out of the glass. It falls out of my hair, from my sleeves, from my shoulders. It’s in my collar and my pockets. I step over broken light bulbs, while hazmat details about fluorescent bulbs scroll through part of my brain. I make a mental note.

I make my team call in. And I don’t say a word until everyone answers. It doesn’t matter that I can already see most of them.

J.D. Dunne is standing almost exactly in the spot where the forklift suddenly loomed into view. He is staring at the wreckage, arms spread out. His face is a picture of astonishment.

Nathan Jackson, our team medic is already sprinting toward me with the medical kit.

“Whoa!” J.D. breathes, or something stupid like that. I walk past him.

“See to Buck,” I tell Nathan. I don’t give him a chance to speak or even open his mouth. I keep going.

Vin Tanner spirals down his safety line. His rifle is already in its case. He grins when he sees me. He knows that shot was one in a million. He knows I’ll put that in my report. But between now and then I’m more likely to tell him that it would have been more helpful to put the shot through that idiot’s head before he got the machine lined up for the kill.

I see Ezra Standish, face against a wall, handcuffs on. Josiah Sanchez, our team profiler, is standing over him looking mean. Standish spent four months undercover getting us in. We arrest him to keep him safe. He says we arrest him because we enjoy it. Josiah sure makes it look like he enjoys it. He has to.

The police and the DA will shoot Ezra out of lockup before anyone can get wise. I know they will. ‘Cause they know that if they don’t, they’ll answer to me. I don’t tell Standish that. Arrogant pain in the ass.

I count them all again. Twice. There are still six. Six of them and me.

I watch Ezra being loaded into a van by local law enforcement. His lips are moving. No doubt he’s pissing off someone.

Five now.

Nathan’s voice is coming through the headset around my neck. Something about an ambulance, Buck’s wrist, bones, lacerations. The words fly by me and somehow I process it all.

The officer in charge of cleaning up the details is at my elbow. His mouth opens and closes while I feel something wet tickling a path past my ear and down my neck. I glare at him as hard as I know how and he starts reporting, staring all the while at a point just past my shoulder. Details of weapons secured. Status of our own equipment. Precinct they’re taking Ezra to. It all flies by.

And still some part of my brain is trying to figure out how, with endless days and even more endless nights of planning, practice, and surveillance, mapping, rehearsing, and dry runs, plus expert advice, specialists, and cutting edge equipment, no one ever noticed or thought of the forklift. Who could have predicted the forklift? I ask myself. Who should have predicted the forklift? How the hell was I supposed to factor in a forklift? And the pointlessness of that question slaps me right in the face. It’s my job to factor in the forklift. No excuses.

I am interrupted by Nathan. He’s standing there with antibacterial something and white gauze. He’s not touching me. And I mean it. I’ll back it up if I have to. I don’t care if half of my face got sheared off by the falling glass. (I’m pretty sure that’s not the case though, ‘cause J.D. or Vin or Nathan or maybe even Buck would’ve mentioned something.) I give Nathan a look that makes him think twice about what he’s planning to do with his first aid kit. And I order him to get on over to the hospital with Buck, so I can finish up here.

“Gonna leave a scar, Cowboy,” Vin says with annoying cheer.

I mumble several unkind words at him but only in my head. Best way to get these boys moving is not to start talking.

And sure enough, they get going. They start packing gear. They start finishing their checks. They start getting ready to leave.

Across the warehouse floor, I see two things. One is the owner of the facility, and I wonder how he got here so fast. He is shouting at Josiah, who is evidently blocking him and trying to do it without actually touching him. The man is round as an apple and only comes up to Josiah’s chest. From the red color of his face, I wonder whether the ambulance crew might not want to stick around in case he has a stroke, or a heart attack, or some kind of seizure right here.

The other thing I see is Buck, being loaded into an ambulance. On his own two feet. Behind him is J.D.—talking. Buck retorts back, of course, and J.D., no doubt, is firing his own smart mouth comeback.

And this is where it starts.

You wouldn’t even know Buck is actually hurt from the way those two are sniping at each other. Like that inflatable immobilizer thing on Buck’s arm is just decoration and that pissed off looking EMT is just there for conversation. Maybe J.D.’s just ignoring it. He’s like a terrier. Gets feistier when he’s scared. Pretends he ain’t. Either so we won’t notice or he won’t notice.

Course he doesn’t really know what he’s scared of. Not like me. I know. I know what Buck doesn’t know and J.D. doesn’t know and none of the others know: Buck is dead.

I know, I know. Now you’re wondering about that damp spot on my collar and whether it isn’t really me strapped to a backboard in that ambulance and sucking up too much happy gas. No such luck there. That’d be better, in a lot of ways

I’m not talking about some trip into the Twilight Zone where we’re all stuck in some weird purgatory for dead law enforcement officers. I can see with my own eyes that Buck ain’t dead. It’s when my eyes are closed that’ll be the problem.

Buck likes to say that my problem is that I have no imagination. Lack of imagination is not my problem. Tonight I guarantee one of those big splinters of glass will fall from the ceiling and slice off his head. Or maybe the forklift will roll over the other way and mash him flat. Or maybe one of those giant prongs will impale him. Or Vin will shoot Buck instead of the bad guy. Then again, maybe Vin’s safety line will snap. Or better yet, he’ll leap off the rafter like a bungee jumper and I’ll remember the second he grabs air that I never made him report back that his lines were secure. Maybe this time the “arresting officer” will skip protocol and snap Ezra’s neck. Maybe he’ll blow his cover and get blown away in that space between the inner door and the outer door where we couldn’t get a camera angle. Maybe the forklift will change direction and run over J.D. Or maybe it’ll be Nathan. Maybe Josiah.

I’ve seen ‘em all meet their end in an outstanding variety of colorfully bloody ways. Every one of them. I’d think they’d run out of ways to die, ways to get killed, but no, the moviemakers in the back of my head sure are inventive. Yes, sir, that freaky little kid from that creepy movie’s got nothing on me. I see dead people, too. Adding more showings all the time, and sometimes I even get a double feature. And hell, I’ve just seen the trailer for the coming attractions.

This morbid thought has been interrupted by that first thing I saw again.

Josiah has been issued a warning about his propensity to get ‘Old Testament’. I know. I issued the warning. Josiah’s still pissed about it, too, so he let’s the guy through. He waddles right up to me like a man on a mission.

Less than two feet away he lets loose with a full volume tirade, screaming at the side of my head since I don’t turn to look at him. “Property damage…office destroyed… Who’s going to pay for it? Jackbooted…fascist…jarhead…crew of thugs… Willful destruction of private property…lawyer…my rights.”

I turn to look at him. He stops suddenly.

“Then don’t rent out to organized crime,” I say.

He absolutely chokes. I think that now I’ve done it. I’ve actually killed a civilian.

But he gets the words out. Garbled, but I can recognize “I want the name and number of your supervisor. And I want it now.”

“Regional Assistant Director, Orin Travis,” I reply. Helpful civil servant that I am, I add, “He’s on vacation. You’ll want to call Regional Director Ramirez. He’ll be most interested in hearing your complaint.” Ain’t that the truth?

I pull a pen out of his shirt pocket and scribble the number and the extension onto his hand and put the pen back. If I had a complaint form, I’d hand it to him. Hell, I’d help him fill it out.

“Sorry about the shirt,” I say. There are red and black fingerprints on his pinstriped shirt now. No doubt that’ll be a problem. I could suggest he keep it as evidence. They can pull my DNA to corroborate his testimony. But, hell, everyone watches those TV shows now. I’m sure he’ll think of it himself.

He stands there and stares at me. And I can’t see myself explaining that there’s paperwork for me to do at the hospital and messages to leave for undercover agents to find when they’re finally kicked loose from custody.

So I walk away.

Ramirez will love that, too.

I bum a ride to the hospital in a squad car. The officer doesn’t seem inclined to argue with me. He even puts on the lights. I get to the hospital only minutes behind the ambulance. J.D. is sitting in a corner of the waiting room squinting at a clipboard, like he either needs glasses or it’s in a foreign language. Nathan is in the chair kitty corner to him, leaning over and telling him what to write in the little blanks.

One of my sisters has this worthless excuse for a dog but it’s pedigreed, so she had the vet plant a chip inside it when it was a puppy. And this chip contains all the information they need to identify the damn dog in case someone ever leaves the back fence open and it decides to head for the hills. As soon as the technology becomes available, I’m having one of those chips implanted in every single member of my team, so Four Corners General can just scan the info they need. “Hi my name is _______________ (omitted for undercover agents). This is my ___th trip to the emergency room in the current fiscal year. I’m allergic to the following medications: _________________________________________ (leaving extra blanks for Tanner). I’m not allergic to, but I have serious paranoid objections to the following medications and procedures: ____________________________ (leaving extra blanks for Tanner—again). Our group insurance number is _________________. If found, please contact Senior Agent Chris Larabee, so he can personally kick my ass.”

J.D. and Nathan both look up when I get into spitting distance, and the kid automatically holds the clipboard up for me to take. I do. I finish filling out everything that he missed. He no longer finds this surprising. The fact that I can do and have done this for every member of the team ought to be listed as a major job skill. And ought to be required training at ATF Senior Agent School.

Now, unburdened by necessary forms, J.D. is free to pace. This is usually accompanied by talking. If he starts talking about the really cool way that forklift took out the foreman’s office, I might just lose it and take his head off myself.

Now an orderly is standing over me. My mind searches for a name. Tyrone.

It’s an even more incredible job skill that I know the names of most of the nurses and most of the orderlies in the trauma, emergency, ICU, and SICU units at this hospital.

I look up at him. He is blocking my view of the doors.

He has noticed that I finished filling out the form on the clipboard. He takes it out of my hand, flips it over and takes a look. “This isn’t yours,” he says.

I stare at him a little longer.

He calls to Anita to get him another clipboard, which he hands to me and says, “Fill this out.”

“Why?” I ask, remembering that sticky spot on my collar that has long since dried and gone stiff.

“You’re bleeding,” Tyrone says evenly. I refuse to look at Nathan. I know he’s smirking.

“Not anymore,” I reply, giving him my best threatening grin.

Tyrone looks at Nathan now.

“You should at least let them clean it out while you’re here,” Nathan says reasonably. “And wash the blood off your face, so you don’t scare the children.”

I notice a boy on the other side of the room, sitting in his mother’s lap, sucking his thumb. Her eyes are glued to the soundless television playing above our heads. His eyes are glued to me.

Next thing I know, Nathan has the clipboard and I’m going through the doors.

“How’d you cut yourself?” asks the youngest doctor I’ve had here yet.

“Glass,” I answer.

She grunts and pokes at the furrow in the side of my head under a light so bright it’s giving me a headache. A moment later she says noncommittally, “There don’t appear to be any glass fragments in here.” She looks at me expectantly.

Well, I know that. But I’m not going to help her out any.

“It’s a bit wider than I’d expect,” she adds. “And there’s quite a bit of bruising.”

She’s still waiting, and I’m still not going to help her out.

“Still sticking with the glass story?” she says finally.

Hell yes. Like I’m going to tell her that it was actually the corner of the filing cabinet that I was looking in when it suddenly combined with the office wall and a heap of furniture to come charging toward me. That would only lead to MRIs and other tests. And I’m not going there.

“Glass,” I confirm.

She sighs and tells me that since it seems to have pretty much stopped bleeding, she could have someone stitch it up, so it won’t leave a scar. I couldn’t care less. I ask her how long that will take.

Now she starts talking MRI.

I give her a glare that makes her stutter and come to a halt.

“No,” I say. I pick up my shirt. I ignore the tube of antibiotic gel I’m supposed to put on my other cuts. I ignore the little shards of glass that glint on the exam table.

She stares at me, takes a deep breath, and gets ready to tell me all the good sound medical reasons why I should get the MRI.

I don’t tell her to go to hell. I tell her to just get me the form that says I’m choosing to be a stubborn idiot and ignore her good medical advice.

She puts her hands on her hips. I glare her down and she goes out for the form.

When she comes back she runs down a list of cautions, things to look out for, effects of head injuries, blah blah blah. She gives me two prescriptions. Presumably one is for pain pills. Presumably the other is for an antibiotic. Presumably both of them will make me sicker ‘n hell--that is if past experience is anything to go by. I toss them into the first wastebasket I see and make my escape to the waiting room.

Nathan is less than pleased to see me. I check my voice mail, while he berates the side of my head.

I just missed Buck. They went back to the office. J.D.’ll take him home. I finish listening to the messages.

It’s Friday. I tell Nathan to go on home. If there’s anyone left at the office, I’m sending them home.

Surprised, he forgets exactly what he was planning to say, which works out fine for me. And I go out the door.

It is eleven blocks from here to the Federal Building. And walking them will give me time to call our bullpen. Buck will, of course, have let the team (and any impressionable others standing nearby) know that a few namby pamby broken bones can’t keep a good federal agent down, or some such crap, by which they will all know that he is perfectly fine, so all that’s left for me to do is send the guys home.

An irritating little voice in the back of my head advises me that I should use this walking time to figure out what I’m gonna say to Director Ramirez, who has personally left a message for me, with a personal invitation to bring my personal self up to his personal office and personally explain just why a local businessman is howling about property damage when I promised that with so much practice and preparation the bust would go down smooth and easy.

I decide it best not to stew over that until I get up there. Every answer I can think of right now would not go down smooth and easy. Starting with why on earth would anyone with an ounce of field experience make a bonehead promise like that? If I promised anything, which I didn’t--because I don’t make promises if I can’t keep them--but if I did promise anything, it would have been to do our best to minimize the damage. Which we did. Which is all anyone can really do anyway. No one, but no one could possibly account for all the factors involved in an operation.

I am suddenly aware that my feet have stopped.

I’m supposed to account for all the factors in an operation. I have to. I need to. The stakes for missing one—like an idle forklift—are way, way, way too high.

Ezra and I have one character trait in common. We both abhor gambling. I don’t mean that literally, but in principle. We hate loose ends. We don’t like taking chances. It isn’t gambling if you leave nothing to chance. But somehow, somehow I can’t manage to get there, to that point where nothing is left to chance, where the odds of losing become tiny, inconsequential. Four hundred thirty-seven man-hours and it’s still god damn gambling.

Any good gambler will tell you—and Ezra is the best—that you should never bet anything you can’t afford to lose. It’s like a sick joke. Every time we go out there, I throw those six lives into the pot. Lives I’m responsible for. My planning. My prep work. My training runs. And still, one wild card, one bad draw, and the bad guys win. And I’ve lost a pot I can’t afford.

Like some Ingmar Bergman film. I keep on playing chess with the devil. And if he wins he gets my soul.

Two pedestrians swerve around me, throwing me angry looks. I start moving again. I have a job to do. I have to send those boys home. So I call.

Vin answers. “Where are you?” he asks. Not hey. Not hello. But “Where are you?”

“I’m on my way,” I say impatiently. “Buck and J.D. get there?”

“Here and gone,” Vin says.

“Good,” I say. “Josiah there, too?”

“Yep. How’s your head?”

“Put Josiah on.”

He is not deterred. “They give you drugs?”

“Nope,” I answer. It’s not exactly a lie. It’s shorthand for “Yes, but I’m not going to take them,” which would require far too much explanation. But Tanner knows exactly what I mean—and why I mean it. The dry chuckle on the other end of the phone confirms it.

“Gimme Josiah and go home,” I say. “Your weekend starts now.”

I know Tanner ain’t gonna argue with that.

“I’m outta here,” Tanner says, and hands me right over.

“How’s your head?” Josiah asks, first thing. These boys have a one-track mind. I don’t have time for it.

“Attached,” I say. “Did Ezra stop by?”

“Still here in fact,” Josiah responds.

“Put him on. You and Vin go home.”

Josiah takes a breath as if he wants to say something else. I exhale slowly. “You did good work today,” I remember to say. It’s important to remember to say things like that.

“Mr. Pavlakis give you trouble?” Josiah asks.

I don’t know any Pavlakis. I think.

“He owns the warehouse,” Josiah says impatiently, as if I should know. And well, he’s right, I should. I was there when the bureau strong-armed him into being Mr. Good Citizen and giving us the info we needed to bust his customers. Therein lies the problem. They let him think he was making a sacrifice for his community, instead of reminding him that it was greed that put him in this position and that we could stick any number of charges to him if he failed to comply.

“Earth to Chris,” Josiah says, even more impatiently.

I don’t know if he means the phone call to Ramirez or when he decided to let the little mutt take a piece out of my ear. I assume it’s the latter.

“No, Josiah,” I say. “He didn’t give me any trouble.”

“Ramirez has been calling here looking for you,” he replies.

Oh, so it was the former.

“Put Ezra on and get started on your weekend,” I say. “I’m taking off, too,” I add, heading any argument off at the pass.

Josiah says something stern and threatening about taking care of that big nasty gouge on my head. So now I know Nathan ratted me out. Should’ve known. But I didn’t think he’d get ahead of me quite so fast.

Then the phone is in Ezra’s hands. He sounds indignant. I can only guess what he’s going to complain to me about. Police spill coffee on your Armani again, Ezra? Bloodstains won’t come out? Holding cell décor not up to your aesthetic standards? Or was it perhaps not as clean as you’d prefer?

I don’t even bother to listen as he threatens some outrageous claim of his expenses for the last four months.

I wait until he pauses for breath. Standish can talk the ears off an elephant. “Why are you still there?” I ask, cutting to the chase.

“What?” he asks. There is the barest moment of silence, and if I didn’t know Standish, I wouldn’t have caught it at all. And if I didn’t know Standish, I wouldn’t realize he is regrouping his plan to aggravate me.

I interrupt. “You did good. And you earned a week off,” I remind him.

“Yes, well,” he says with a cough. Compliments always throw him. ‘Cause I only give ‘em when I mean ‘em. But he pulls it back together fast. “Despite my solid weeks of twenty four hour work days,” he says, acid dripping off that southern tongue, “bureau policy dictates that I have to turn in my complete reports for my sadistic slave driver boss before I am allowed any personal time. Therefore I can only assume you are taunting me.”

Sadistic slave driver boss. That would be me. “You can e-mail them from the Riviera,” I reply, almost absently.

He gives me a long-suffering sigh. He is disappointed. I am too tired to play.

“Very well, Mr. Larabee,” he says distantly. “I am off.”

The bullpen is empty when I get there. The silence strikes me and a chill runs right up my spine. I am irritated by my own stupidity, and I remind myself exactly where each of my men are right now. And more importantly, that they are not here.

That accomplished, I have another job to do now. I am tempted to go to that nice big bathroom down the hall and take a look at myself in the big shiny mirror, but I don’t. ‘Cause if I did that, then I would have to face the furrow in the side of my head, and once I see it, it will be a lot harder to ignore that stinging ache. So I keep ignoring it. What you don’t acknowledge can’t hurt you, right? Yeah, well, that don’t always work so hot for me, either. But I keep at it.

I check the time and pick up my phone. Ramirez’s assistant answers. I am surprised she is still here.

“He in?” I ask. I don’t introduce myself. I’ve been on the receiving end of several of his phone calls since Travis started his vacation. She knows my voice.

“You just caught him,” she says, the irony in her voice is evident. “Let me see if he has time to see you.”

“I’ll bet he does,” I say to the silence as she puts me on hold.

“Director Ramirez will see you,” she says. She sounds almost sorry. I imagine she’s getting tired of me.

It takes me less than five minutes to get up to his office. My feet have barely touched the plush carpet in his outer office, when his door swings wide open. He is already red in the face. Clearly he used the interval to warm up.

Barbara, his assistant, is still trying to figure out what to say to me, and I wonder if I shouldn’t have taken a look in that mirror after all. Ramirez wastes no time. He dismisses Barbara throws his office door wide in a gesture that I take to mean “get your ass in here.” He glares bloody blue daggers at me all the while.

To say that I am not Director Ramirez’s favorite Senior Agent is an understatement. To say he doesn’t like me personally or professionally would be politely accurate. To say he believes that under my continued leadership, Team Seven is on their way to becoming a bunch of vigilante mavericks with no regard for law enforcement principles or the safety of the public in general would be frank. He wants me to knuckle under, toe the regs, and let my team get tied up in crossed wires and red taped chains of command. He’d settle for permission to fire me.

His first words come flying out at full volume, like he has been holding it all in until my arrival. “This bureau,” he roars, stabbing his finger through the air, as if to drive his point right through the middle of my chest, “has shelled out thousands and thousands of dollars on equipment, training, surveillance, experts, and practice for what was supposed to be a clean, easy bust. You call this clean? The man volunteered his property and you destroyed it. What the hell did we train you for? What the hell did you think you were doing?”

Technically, there are several inconsistencies in his assessment, but his pause is more to draw breath than in anticipation of my answer. So I wait, watching the tendons bulge out on his neck.

He has turned the volume up a little higher now. And I force myself to pay attention.

“Have you any idea of the irreparable damage you have done to our ability to get warehouse owners and operators to cooperate? How the hell do you expect any warehouse owner with an ounce of sense to consent to support us once they hear how you willfully and thoroughly destroyed Pavlakis’s private property?”

Clearly he has had time to think this over.

“The bureau will be shelling out damages, thanks to you,” he spat. “And you--not me, not this office, not the ATF—you are going to apologize for the damage.”

Over my dead body. My brain must be a little bit slow today because Ramirez’s eyes flash wide open and he jerks toward me. And I realize I must have said it out loud.

“Would you care to repeat that?” he asks, voice gone soft and deadly.

Oh well, long as I’m talking, I might as well give him full benefit of my field experience. By the time that slow part of my brain catches on and starts trying to warn me that that could be a bad idea, I am way too far along in my advice.

I tell him that:
a.) If it were supposed to be a clean, easy bust, we wouldn’t have needed the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars worth of prep work.

b.) Pavlakis generously volunteered only after we threatened charges of obstruction of justice, aiding and abetting known and suspected felons, illegal trafficking in armaments, and several zoning violations and quite frankly, we could have just seized the property and his other assets, conducted the op without his permission and arrested him on all charges.

c.) Responsible businessmen don’t just accidentally find themselves providing a base of operations to illegal arms dealers, and if they do, they come to us for help; they don’t get dragged in kicking and screaming under threat of arrest. Lie down with dogs. Get up with fleas.

d.) The office may have been destroyed thoroughly but not exactly willfully. After all it wasn’t my idea to have one of Pavlakis’s own employees defend his side job by driving the forklift through the office walls in hopes of killing us. But I can ask Buck if that’s what he had in mind.

e.) The bureau can shell out anything they want to. Let him sue for all I care. I’d like to see the part where he tells the judge how much money he’s made tax free, under the table from illegal payments from illegal arms dealers.

f.) I’m not apologizing to anyone for anything. My team did a damn good job today. Shots fired were minimal. The arrests were made in record time. The evidence was clean. And, in the future, I’d appreciate the courtesy of you talking to me first before you take the word of dubious disreputable businessmen over your own teams. Thanks for the benefit of the doubt.

I’m not really sure which parts of that were actually out loud.

“Bring your team up here,” Ramirez says darkly.

“They’re not here,” I reply. We both know he’s been outmaneuvered. I can’t produce them now even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. And I wouldn’t anyway.

I probably shouldn’t be grinning about that.

But to say I don’t think much of Director Ramirez would also be an understatement.

He is glaring at me with an expression that reminds me of Standish eyeing the unfortunate server who spilled red wine on his white silk shirt last week.

“I want you and your team in this office first thing Monday morning,” he says with deadly calm.

“My team is not coming to this office,” I inform him, and I am not kidding.

Travis is going to love hearing that I got into a pissing match with a full-fledged director while he was away.

That little voice in my head has apparently gone to lunch because I hear myself tell Ramirez that he’s got a hell of a lot of nerve talking to me about field ops. “Why don’t you pull a flak jacket over your stuffed shirt and come get shot at before you start telling us where we went wrong.”

Wow, I don’t normally get that personally insulting.

I must have needed a three day weekend—‘cause he gave me one: for insubordination, unprofessional conduct, and poor judgment in the field. If he thinks I’m signing that on Tuesday, he’s got another think coming. I’ll sign off on poor judgment when hell freezes over.

I walk out while he is still talking.

I probably shouldn’t have driven home. I say that now because I have taken my exit off the highway, and I don’t really remember leaving the city. That scratch on my head has started to itch. I don’t scratch it. I’ve already made that mistake once today. Good thing there’s already blood on my shirt, so there was no problem just wiping my fingers off and continuing on.

It’s still a long drive home, and I’ve worked myself up into a good snit about Ramirez.

Buck has called me twice. So I have to call back. If I don’t call back, he’ll call out the cavalry. I ask him what he wants. As I suspected, he doesn’t really want anything. Most likely he’s bored and tired of being mothered by the most junior member of our team. I ignore the obvious detail that the last time he saw me I had blood running down the side of my face and that Nathan probably told him I refused to get stitches or an MRI. Instead I take out my bad humor on Buck. I don’t feel any better, but at least he won’t call back.

I am royally pissed when I get home. I feed the horses and because I am mad, I need something else to do. So I move horses around, clean out stalls, and lay out fresh straw.

I curse out Tanner’s rotten, flea-bitten, bad-tempered, obstinate, mule-headed horse Peso for trying to take a nip out of my shoulder. He jostles my horse backing away from me, though, and Pony bites him on the flank. I have a good laugh. “See how you like it,” I say, and get Peso settled in his stall.

I sweep that aisle until the barn floor is clean enough to eat off of. And by the time I am done, it is damn dark outside and my foul mood is dangerously quelled. I go inside to see about dinner.

I am not surprised that sticking my head into the fridge turns my stomach. I am not hungry. My mouth is dry and my head is throbbing. I pour a glass of water and go hunt down some aspirin.

I flip channels for an hour or more. I am not really watching. I am just avoiding replaying today’s bust or the future consequences of my conversation with Ramirez through my head. At eleven I settle on the news. I almost always watch the news. It’s a professional interest. You’d be amazed what I find out from the news.

And, of course, the bust has made the features. Complete with a picture of the overturned forklift—sans body now. The guy in the tie is a smart little reporter and he sure sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Considering that someone probably handed the story to him less than an hour ago, you have to admire that.

I am about to click off the TV, hoping that I am now exhausted enough to go right to sleep without nightmares, at least not ones I will remember, when something the reporter said sticks in my brain. “…drove this electric forklift through the walls of this office.” I turn that over. Why is that significant, I am wondering, staring at the now blank screen. “Electric forklift.” What else do forklifts run on?

It hits me then. Sometimes forklifts run on propane. The whole scene replays itself through my head and pauses when the forklift crashes to earth under the sparking wires dangling out of the ceiling.

The forklift didn’t run on propane. It was just pure dumb luck that Buck and I didn’t get turned into a raging fireball over the Denver skyline this afternoon.

Shit. My ears start ringing. I can feel my own pulse in my head.

My hands don’t shake. I won’t let them. I gulp down a shot of nine year old single malt anesthetic and then a second one. On the third one, I remember this isn’t cheap rotgut and I actually take time to taste it.

I drag myself up the stairs. I brush my teeth without looking in the mirror. I haul my skinny carcass into a pair of pajama pants. Flat on my back, I stare at the slowly spinning ceiling and wait for the scotch to knock me well past the point of bad dreams. All the while willing myself not to dream about Buck. Not to dream about Vin. Not to dream about Ezra or Josiah or Nathan. And please don’t let me dream about J.D. Dreams about J.D. are the worst.

I should know better than to wish for anything.

It starts out so subtly, I don’t even suspect.

It is sunny. And I am lying lazily in bed. A sweet-smelling morning breeze is billowing out the white curtains on the windows. I am trying to remember whether the curtains are supposed to be white. But I am distracted by the voice.

My heart actually stops to hear it. I hold my breath to listen and can hardly believe it to hear it again, calling from outside the door. “Chris, get up.”

She sounds impatient. I want to laugh. But I’m still holding my breath because if that’s Sarah, then… I don’t dare finish the thought.

But then I hear it, muffled, the sing-song voice of a child prattling to himself. I can’t hear a word. I can’t even breathe over the lump in my throat, but I am already stumbling out of quilts that have tied themselves around my legs. In my mind I can already see her. I reach the door with both hands and throw it open.

Sarah is not there. Neither is Adam. But I can hear them on the stairs.

Loud and clear I hear Adam’s questioning voice. “Mommy, why do….?”

I can’t catch the rest of the question or understand Sarah’s reply.

I can’t figure out why my feet won’t move any faster.

They are in the kitchen by the time I get to the stairs.

I hear car keys rattle.

“Chris,” she calls one more time, exasperated now. “I have to go. It’s late.”

Terror strikes me suddenly. I am slipping, sliding down stairs that my feet don’t seem to touch. I call out. “Sarah! Adam! Wait! Stop! Don’t go outside!”

I am screaming it now but my voice won’t work. Won’t even whisper. Like my vocal chords are glued together.

I throw myself down the rest of the stairs onto my knees in the front hall. I don’t have time to wonder why that didn’t hurt because I hear the squeaky hinge on the walk-out garage door.

“Bye Chris!”

“Bye Daddy!”

They holler it back, laughing, like it’s over their shoulders. Like it’s a secret joke between them.

And they have gone out that door. I know that my warning has come too late. All I can think to say is “I love you.” I holler it out with all the strength I have. Nothing more than a croak comes out of my mouth.

Somewhere in my brain I know I am dreaming. This much pain could not possibly be real. I want to wake up now. But I can’t.

Now my feet are moving toward that door. And I don’t want to go. One step after another. Smooth, unhurried, inexorable. I fight it with everything I have.

The door vanishes, as if I skipped through time and space right out to the driveway.

Buck is standing in front of me. I am trying to see around him. And for a moment I don’t understand why there are police cars and crime scene tape on my driveway. But then he turns.

It is like someone is holding me down, holding my head. Making me look. The forklift is lying in my driveway, on its side. Charred and black.

I start screaming. I keep screaming until I wake myself up.

My sheets are wet. My face is wet. My heart is pounding in my ears, and I am so tangled in the sheets I yank them out of the bottom of the bed so I can get up.

The bedroom light is blinding. The hallway light is blinding. I turn them all on, all the way down the stairs, all the way to the kitchen. Chasing off the shadows. But not the voices. Oh God not the voices. I try so hard to hold onto those voices.

I go straight through the garage and out to the driveway. And I see it again. My driveway and Buck. The crime tape, everything. Everything but the car. I refuse to see that in my memory. I won’t look. Instead, in the pearly gray predawn I peer hard for traces of the enormous black scar that used to be there, marking the place where my car blew up. And took the only part of my life that was worth anything.

I have no idea how long I’ve been standing here. Tears are streaming down my face. It is raining. My pajama pants are soaked. My head hurts. I am dizzy and I can’t breathe. And I think that if I can get away fast enough and far enough maybe I could draw breath.

I take jeans, a shirt, and socks from the laundry room. I don’t know or care if they are clean. I find my boots and I go to the barn.

I expect Pony to look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Instead, he fixes me with those soft, brown eyes. I look away because I can’t bear to see that he trusts me. I just can’t take another living being’s trust, not my team, not Travis, not even my damn horse.

I am brusque and efficient putting my saddle on. I mount up and kick him out of the barn.

I push him into a gallop toward the hills in my south pasture. It is too rainy and too dark for this to be entirely safe. But I rely on his surefootedness and our knowledge of this hill.

Adam’s voice is chanting in my head. But it is fading. Fading like my memory of his face. And it occurs to me that that’s why I couldn’t see them in my dream. I’ve forgotten what they looked like. How could anyone who called himself a husband and a father forget what his wife and child looked like? I failed to protect them. Now I failed to keep their memory alive. How could such a failure be allowed? How could a father fail his child so utterly?

Oxygen pulls into my lungs and it explodes out of me in a howl that I hardly even recognize is coming from me. Pony startles at the sound. He rears up. Working automatically, knees and hands settle him down. I cannot speak. And I slide from his back. I stumble in the wet grass and go down onto my knees.

It takes me a minute to know where I am. I know every inch of this land. Sarah and I covered every part of it together.

I throw my head back at the sky and laugh and sob at the same time, nearly choking with the irony of it.

“I’m on my knees now!” I shout out. “Are you there? Because I’m right where you want me!”

Tears are streaming down my cheeks. I don’t care. There’s no one to see or hear me for another seven or eight miles. No one besides Pony, and he won’t talk.

“Come on,” I shout again, my hands clenched into fists. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

Rain patters down all around me. And no one answers.

That’s supposed to prove my point. I don’t feel any better for winning the debate.

My head bends forward until it touches the wet grass and then the mud. I can’t breathe. I am smothering. I am bent double, arms wrapped around myself, sobbing into the wet grass.

I don’t even know I’m speaking until I hear my own whisper.

“Where were you?” I hear myself ask. Then a little louder, more demanding, “Where were you?”

There is more. So much more I didn’t dare ask out loud. But it’s coming now.

“She believed in you. Is this how you reward that?”

“You’re supposed to love the children best! Did he deserve that?”

I pull my head up out of the grass.

“I’m the one who turned away. I’m the one who broke your rules. I’m the one who needed punished. They never deserved that.”

Oh shit, I think. “Is this it? Are you going to take all of them?”

My gaze travels up the tree trunk in front of me and right up to the sky.

“Are you going to take every single one of them until I learn to toe the line?”

And their faces flash before me. Sarah. Adam. Men I ordered into battle and had to carry home. People I cared about. The men on my team.

It knocks the wind right out of me. Nine years of Catholic school should have beaten it out of me. It didn’t. I don’t have the balls to tell God to go to hell. I don’t even have the balls to tell Him what I told Ramirez—to come on down here and see what it’s like before you pass judgment.

Oh God, nine years of Catholic school come charging up on me brandishing the catechism. He did just that, didn’t he? Then they nailed him up onto a piece of wood and killed him. He knows a raw deal when he sees one. He called do-overs, took his son and went home.

My legs cramp up. I pull my knees out from under me, and roll over into the grass. Belly up.

“You win,” I say, half a hiccup causes me to choke on the spit running down my throat. “You win.”

I wait in the silence. I hear my breathing. And the rain drops. And the wind in the trees. I hear Pony chuffing, wondering why we are out here.

There is no sudden almighty magic. No thunder. No lightning. And certainly no voice from the clouds. Miracles don’t come to people like me.

The traitorous thought comes sneaking into my brain.

Except the forklift was electric.

I choke. Because I refuse to laugh out loud.

The forklift was electric and Buck is alive.

J.D. and Vin and Ezra and Nathan and Josiah are alive.

I got one more chance to hear Sarah and Adam’s voices.

I’m a hardheaded idiot but I’m still employed.

I start to wonder what else.

I own my house.

I have horses, one of whom is standing patiently in the rain, even though I’m sure he thinks his master has gone insane.

I peel myself up to a sitting position.

The pasture is green in the early light. Dawn is coming and the light rain is cool on my face.

Generally speaking, I like rain.

Nettie Wells is a damn good neighbor with a streak of kindness in her two miles wide.

Buck and Vin and Ezra and Josiah and Nathan and J.D. are… I just count them. There’s too much else to say. And I don’t have time for that because it’s Saturday.

It’s Saturday, and one by one, all my agents who have not already taken off for the Riviera will be dribbling by to watch a game on TV, to see their horses, to barbecue, to pass the time loafing on my couch.

That’s what they do. They come to the ranch. And they act like it’s home.

I climb to my feet. A little shaky. I try out those crampy legs.

Pony gives me that trusting look and I know he really really wants to go back to the barn now.

I have a really nice barn.

My friends have horses in my barn.

My friends have food in my fridge.

My friends clean up after themselves. Mostly.

It’s funny. I have never in my life indulged in that corny, stupid, fool tradition of counting my blessings. But now suddenly, everywhere I look I find one more.

It’s even funnier. Because I remember now that Sarah used to count her blessings when she was mad--until the blessings outweighed whatever she was mad at.

And suddenly her voice sounds loud and clear in my inner ear. “You better count your blessings, Chris Larabee. And you can start with a wife who counts her blessings instead of just hitting you with this frying pan.”

God, I loved her.

But He knows that.

And maybe, just maybe, He knows what I went through today. And yesterday. And maybe all the days.

And maybe, there’s reason to hope He hasn’t given up on me.

And maybe He won’t.

When I get back to the top of the hill, Pony lets out a snort. I pull back on the reins instinctively, looking ahead to see what’s got his attention. I find it hard to believe what I see.

They are there. It is hardly even sunrise. Tanner’s standing by his jeep. Buck already has his big grey out of the barn. Josiah and Nathan are on my side deck, the house lights still blazing behind them. And J.D. is sitting on the hood of Tanner’s jeep.

But what stops me dead in my tracks is the Jag. Ezra Standish in my driveway at the crack of dawn. I know I didn’t hit my head that hard. But there he is.

Pony shuffles his big feet impatiently, but I hold him back. We stand there, we two, staring down.

Straining my ears, I can hear J.D.’s voice, irritated. He is talking to Buck, who probably shouldn’t be riding with a broken wrist. I crack a smile at that. Like a broken wrist could stop Buck.

Almost on cue, Buck’s big grey lifts up her head and lets out a long whinny to her stablemate. And Pony answers it, clear as a bell.

Buck’s head comes up, and I almost swear he can look me right in the eye from there.

All their heads turn.

J.D. slides off the jeep and looks up at me. Vin and Buck each throw me a cocky wave. Nathan and Josiah turn around and go back into the house. Ezra is too far away for me to read his expression, but he turns to look, then shakes his head and gets back in the Jag. It’s J.D. who jumps over to the window and convinces him to get back out. He does. He brushes J.D. aside, stumps up the porch and goes into the house. In dire need of coffee, no doubt.

I know I won’t ask him why he’s here instead of packing for the Riviera. What’s between us is still too fragile to pick at. But still, if I’d asked God for a miracle…

I can see now from pure body language alone that Buck is impatient. Pony is impatient. Buck’s mare is impatient. Nathan is on the front porch now, and I know he’s impatient. Every one of them is impatient. Like I have to get down there so they can get this day started.

A smile breaks out across my face.

“I get it now,” I say quietly, not to Pony, not to the grass, or the earth, or the trees, or the sky. I get it. I don’t know if I can keep it. But I get it.

And as I ride down that hill, slow, easy, and in no particular hurry, I feel lighter than I have in a long, long time.