Roller Coaster Beginnings

by Sami-j

Main characters: Vin, Chris

Warnings: Some bad language.

Notes: This story is set in the ATF universe which I understand was created by an obviously talented individual named MOG. Thank you, MOG! I’ve given the universe a little twist in how Vin meets Chris and the rest of the team, so no one's sure who're the good guys and who're the bad - and a drug lord and stolen weapons only add to the confusion. (By the way, my muse decided there needed to be a sequel, which I am now working on.)

Chris Larabee stared straight ahead but if anyone asked him he wouldn’t have been able to say what he was looking at. Then again, no one with an ounce of self-preservation would have dared approach the tall, blonde, black-clad figure who radiated menace even while sitting at the end of the bar.

Larabee took another swallow but tasted nothing. He glared at his glass, wondering when he’d emptied it. Growling under his breath, he banged it down on the bar top and reached for the bottle at his elbow. What the hell? He peered more closely at the half-empty bottle. He didn’t remember drinking that much. Well, there was plenty more when he finished this one.

Movement on the edge of his vision turned into the bartender. “You need anything else, buddy?”

Chris raised his head slowly and fixed his eyes on the young man who paled. “Yeah, for you to get the hell away from me,” he growled.

“Ye- yes, sir." The bartender hastily backed off.

Larabee poured himself another drink, ignoring the alcohol that missed the glass and splashed across the bar. Wrapping a hand around the glass, he felt the cool wetness against his fingers and the sensation reminded him of another one his body had been trying to get across to him for several minutes.


No, that wasn’t right. More like, piss.

He rose and stood still until the room settled. As he moved away from the bar he turned a cold eye on the bartender.

“Make sure that bottle and glass are still here when I get back.”

The young man’s head bobbed nervously. “Sure, sure.”

Chris moved cautiously toward the back of the room, acutely aware of his balance. Balance. It was all about balance, physical and otherwise. He needed to reach a certain level of drunkenness in order to block out the memories that had been especially persistent lately, without drinking himself into oblivion. That kind of excess wouldn’t help him avoid anything, including a monstrous hangover.

Not that he was excessive. Yeah, right. Bitter amusement occupied his thoughts as he stood over the urinal, sighing in relief as he expelled a good portion of his liquid dinner. Balance, it was all about balance. He could be balanced, regardless of what that bastard Wilmington said.

Finished, he zipped up his jeans and turned to wash his hands. He moved too quickly and had to grab the sink with both hands, catching himself just before he would have fallen on his face. It took several deep breaths before the dizziness receded and he knew it was safe to let go. Watch it, Larabee, he told the man in the mirror. Balance, remember?

He washed and dried his hands in slow motion before making his careful way out of the restroom. As the door swung shut behind him he realized he hadn’t buckled his belt. Damn.

Stopping in the narrow hallway, he tried to concentrate on the belt. Buckle, tongue, tighten tongue until the belt is snug and . . .

Something was wrong. The sudden sense was strong enough to cut through the haze of alcohol. Keeping his head down, his gaze drifted slowly around the room.


The still figure was sitting at the rearmost table, a beer bottle in front of him. The light wasn’t as bright back here so Chris’s first impression wasn’t much, especially considering the guy's head was down and he had on a worn, leather jacket that concealed his upper body.

And yet . . . for an instant, as Larabee walked out of the restroom, the light from the restroom had flooded out. In that split second it had revealed the stranger’s features and Chris’s instincts were shouting a warning.

He had seen that face before, recently. When? Where?

Now Chris cursed the alcohol he’d drunk because his mind was working with painful slowness. The stranger hadn’t been around his ranch, he’d have remembered that. At the office? No . . . but something about the office connected with his glimpse of the stranger.

Shit! Now he remembered. Last Monday he’d had to meet with the Chief of Police to discuss an upcoming joint operation. While he had cooled his heels waiting for the man to get off the phone, he noticed a stack of new wanted notices. With nothing better to occupy his time, he’d skimmed through them. One had contained a picture of the stranger. What the hell was his name? Taine? No, that wasn’t quite right . . . Tanner, that was it.

A chill swept through Chris. Vincent Tanner was wanted on suspicion of murder down in Texas. What in the hell was the man doing in Denver? More importantly, how in the hell was Larabee supposed to take him into custody when he was already three sheets to the wind?

Son of a bitch. Of all the times to get drunk –

Chris turned away with a soft “Screw it,” as if dismissing the unbuckled belt. He was in no shape to tackle Tanner on his own and he had to get out of earshot to use his cell phone. If the perp had any idea who Larabee was he’d take off and as much as Chris hated to admit it, right now he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop him.

He needed to move before Tanner got spooked so he made his way back to his seat. The bar was in the front of the room while the man was sitting in the rear. If Chris was careful, he should be able to –

The faint scrape of wood against wood startled him. He was close enough to the bar now to look into the long mirror behind the counter. Clearly reflected in it, he saw Tanner rising and stretching before turning toward the back of the room.

Was he heading for the john? That might be the perfect place to trap him . . .

Damn, he was walking by the restroom. He was heading for the rear exit.

Adrenaline surged through Larabee. Trying to match the wanted man’s casualness, he walked slowly back the way he had come while reaching surreptitiously for his cell phone. He heard the squeal of hinges as the rear door opened, then another squeal as it closed.

Cursing under his breath, Chris started to press 911, then hesitated. Trying to explain the situation to an operator would take too long. Instead, he punched one on his speed dial. As he put his hand on the back door a familiar voice sounded sleepily in his ear.


“Buck, I’m – ” Despite himself he slurred his words just a bit.

An annoyed grunt cut him off. “I'm undercover, Chris, remember? Call a cab to take your drunken ass home.”

“Shut up and listen. I’m at a bar at Hathaway and North Boulevard and I just ran into a murder suspect.”

“You what!”

Chris winced at the volume. “I said shut up and listen. Get the DPD over here now.”

“Damn it, Chris, don’t go after him on your own!” Despite Wilmington’s yelling, Larabee could hear thuds and thumps in the background that meant Buck was stumbling around, throwing on clothes. “You’ve been drinking, you’re not gonna be sharp enough – ”

“He just went out the back,” Chris interrupted while carefully opening the back door and peering warily outside. The parking lot was almost empty of vehicles this time of night which meant little cover. Worse, only a few of the overhead lights were working.

He muttered another curse as he moved cautiously across the open space. There was no sign of anyone and no telling in what direction Tanner had gone.

“Chris, damn it, say something!”

Wilmington’s bellow in his ear made him curse again. “Quit yelling, Buck, and call DPD. And stay put. I don't want you breaking cover.”

He snapped the phone shut and stuffed it back inside his jacket before pulling out his pistol. The HK USP 45 felt familiar and comfortable in his grip and he moved forward with fresh resolve.

Although the storm that had drenched the city earlier in the day had passed, clouds still obscured the moon and stars. It was dark with even darker shadows spread across the poorly lit parking lot. It was quiet, too. Larabee could heard the late night traffic on the other side of the buildings though the sound was muffled back here.

He moved slowly, looking for anything suspicious, listening for anything that didn’t belong. In the back of his mind, a small voice was telling him not to be stupid, he was in no shape to take on a murder suspect. But he was damned if he was going to wait tamely for the DPD to arrive just because he’d had a few too many drinks. Besides, the odds were that Tanner would be long gone by then.

To his right a row of dumpsters blocked his line of sight and made him suspicious. For all he knew, Tanner could be hiding on the other side. Then again, the suspect might not have noticed anything and just be walking away, in which case Larabee should be able to get the drop on him.

After another wary study of the almost empty parking lot, he moved cautiously around the dumpsters. Hell, now he could see an alley on the far side of the building. Tanner had probably gone that way. The few working overhead lights from the parking lot didn’t reach this far and Chris gripped his weapon more tightly as he moved through the darkness.

The lack of light and the amount of alcohol in his system made moving carefully difficult. He missed a step and staggered against the corner of a dumpster, biting back a curse as pain shot through his shoulder. Stupid, Larabee.

He had almost cleared the dumpsters when, for a split second, he saw a shadow blacker than the surrounding shadows move against the alley wall.

“Freeze!” he snapped as he took a quick step forward. “AT – "

His foot slipped out from under him. He felt his boots lose traction and then he was falling backwards. Pain exploded in his head and he sank into a black abyss.

Chris never heard the slow, cautious footsteps approaching and stop beside his recumbent body, or a stranger’s voice say softly,

“Aw, hell.”


While a lot of alcohol was good at blocking unwanted memories, it was hell on a man the next morning. Or was it the next morning?

Chris regretted waking up; it was a bad idea when he felt as lousy as this. Keeping his eyes closed, he reached cautiously upwards to see if his head was still in one piece.

What was this? Ignoring the pain, his fingers cautiously touched the small square of gauze on the back of his head.

“What the . . .” he muttered.

“How ya feeling, Cowboy?”

The strange voice shocked Larabee out of his stupor. He forced his eyes open and saw an indistinct figure several feet away. Blinking several times finally brought things into focus and the figure turned into the man he had followed out of the bar . . . how long ago?

“You’re under arrest,” he gritted.

Tanner nodded slightly. “So ya say.”

While waiting for his eyes to adjust, Chris realized he was lying on some worn blankets. Two small lanterns provided enough light to see he was in a dump of a room. The floor was concrete, stained by god knows what; the graffiti-covered walls were also concrete. A piece of black tarp was duct-taped on one wall, covering a window. The only light in the room came from the lanterns.

“What happened? Where the hell am I?”

“My little hideaway." Tanner shrugged. “Guess I’m gonna have to find a new one. As for what happened, ya hit the dumpster when ya fell.”

Anger burned through the alcohol but Chris resisted trying any sudden moves. His head was still throbbing and he wasn’t sure what would happen if he tried to move quickly. Besides, Tanner was on the opposite side of the room, leaning against the wall. Even if he had been in reach, Larabee didn’t doubt the man could out-maneuver him right now. The realization ate at him like acid.

He started to sit up and his left arm was jerked back. When he turned his head he saw his wrist cuffed to a pipe that ran up through the floor and disappeared again into the ceiling above him.


Larabee yanked hard but the handcuffs held. Small wonder, they were his own cuffs. Fury flared and took with it any sense of caution.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing!”

“Makin’ sure ya don’t get hurt again. Or hurt anyone else."

Chris thought he heard faint amusement in the words, which only added fuel to his anger. “Where are the damned keys?”

“Relax, Cowboy, it’s all there.”

“Don’t call me that!” Larabee snarled as he took in what was in front of him.

There was his wallet, open to his driver’s license, his ATF I.D. and badge, his keys, including the key to the handcuffs, his cell phone, and his weapon. The items were neatly lined up on the floor in the middle of the room, out of his reach.

Chris glared into the calm blue eyes of his captor. “Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I ain’t doin’ nothin’ 'cept makin’ sure ya keep breathin'." The drawl was thicker now and he had the sudden suspicion the bastard was trying not to laugh.

“If you have any ideas about kidnapping a federal agent,” he fumed.

Tanner sighed. “Ya don’t hear so good, do ya? I was just waitin’ for ya to wake up. Now I’ll be on my way.”

Larabee yanked futilely at the handcuff. “You’re not going to get far.”

“I got this far.”

Here was a chance to get some information. “What are you doing in Colorado?”

Tanner straightened and gazed down at the furious agent. “I didn’t kill nobody, Larabee.”

Chris wanted to roll his eyes. “If I had a dime for every perp I caught who claimed to be innocent, I wouldn’t need to work.”

Another shrug. “It’s the truth.”

“Right,” he snorted. “What does that have to do with you being in Colorado?”

“I’m after the real killer. When I find him I’m gonna haul his ass in so he can clear me.”

That was a twist. Chris didn’t believe a word he was hearing but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to play along.

“What’s the name of the man you’re hunting?”

Tanner studied him. “If I say, ya’ll probably go talk to him and he’ll deny everythin’, but then he’ll be spooked. I don’t want him runnin’ again, not when I’m this close.”

“You’re full of shit, Tanner.” Larabee yanked again at the cuff.

“Maybe so,” there was the faint amusement again, “but not about this." He reached down and picked up the cell phone. “Who’s number one on speed dial?”

“Go to hell.”

“Not just yet, thanks." A smile passed fleetingly across the thin features. Larabee gritted his teeth in impotent fury while Tanner punched a number in his cell phone.

“Chris! Where the hell are you?”

Wilmington’s bellow was loud enough for Larabee to hear and Tanner held the phone a few inches away from his ear.

“Not Larabee,” he drawled, “but I can tell ya where to find him.”

Buck’s voice dropped so that Chris couldn’t hear but he knew the anger and fear that must be driving his old friend.

“Nothin’ to worry about,” Tanner said calmly. “Agent Larabee’s just fine. Now ya want to keep yellin’ or ya want to know where he is?"

Chris listened while his murder suspect provided Buck with directions before turning off the cell phone and laying it on the floor again. He then turned off the lanterns which immediately plunged the room into gloom. Picking up a battered back pack Tanner shoved the lanterns inside before swinging the pack over his shoulders and heading for the door. He pushed it open and paused half-way out. Despite the poor light Larabee could see enough to know the man was looking at him.

“Ya don’t have to worry none. Shouldn’t be long before – ” he stopped and cocked his head. Several seconds later Chris heard the sound of distant sirens and Tanner nodded approvingly. “Take care, Cowboy,” he said and walked out, leaving the door open.

Larabee yanked furiously at the handcuff but it refused to budge. He sent a simmering glare at the empty doorway.

“I’ll see you again, Cowboy,” he promised bitterly.

The sirens drew closer. Outside the shadows merged except for a smaller, slighter shadow that moved swiftly across the roof of the building and paused to peer down at the street. Two trucks came roaring up and screeched to a halt while a dark-colored sports car approached from the opposite direction.

The shadow chuckled softly at the sight of the figures springing out of the trucks and the car, almost simultaneously. As they ran across the sidewalk and rushed into the building they passed under a streetlight. He caught a glimpse of each of the five figures, more of an overall impression than anything else. The last figure briefly illuminated by the overhead light was another matter.

He whistled under his breath. “Now there’s a peacock.”

It was okay to leave now. Larabee’s people were here; the man was safe, though mighty pissed.

Tanner faded back into the shadows as the first patrol car screamed down the street.


Late the next morning, Josiah Sanchez walked through the halls in the Federal building, only half-aware of his surroundings as he flipped through the file he was holding. At the end of the hall he turned automatically into the outer office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ special unit known as Team Seven.

A quick look around the room revealed it to be almost empty. He knew their forensics explosives specialist and team medic, Nathan Jackson, was at Denver General Hospital stocking up on supplies, and that Ezra Standish was staying in a hotel across town, preparing for a meet tonight in his current undercover role as an international arms dealer. JD Dunne, the youngest and undoubtedly most brilliant member of the team, was sitting in front of his computer deeply engrossed in whatever he was doing.

There was no sign of Buck Wilmington, their explosives expert. He should have been with Ezra for he was playing the man’s bodyguard, but he had come in this morning to sign a report the D.A. was waiting on for another case. Larabee had been furious that Buck was forced to step out of his cover to do paperwork but the D.A.’s office was insistent; it was a big case and Travis reluctantly agreed.

Sanchez sighed to himself. Not for the first time he wished their cases didn’t overlap so often but there was nothing anyone could do about it. Standish had promised to stay put until Buck returned, which they all hoped would happen soon.

The shattering of crockery resounded from the break room and was immediately followed by a familiar, “Damn!”

Josiah grinned to himself. Noting that JD hadn’t even looked up, he called, “Everything okay in there, Buck?”

“Yeah, sure,” came the grumbled response.

Still grinning, Sanchez went to his own desk, shoved aside an untidy pile of books and dropped the file folder beside them. A few minutes later, Buck came in brushing futilely at the large wet spot adorning the front of his shirt. JD chose that minute to raise his head and grinned at the sight of the big, mustached man.

“That’s a good look for you, Buck,” he chuckled.

Wilmington glared at the young agent, then ignored him in favor of Sanchez. “Josiah, where’ve you been?”

“Just doing a little research. What are you still doing here?”

Buck made a face. “The D.A.’s office messed up the report I was supposed to sign and it’s being re-typed now. I’m supposed to go back over there in fifteen minutes." He swiped a hand over his face. “Their timing really stinks. On top of everything else, Chris is pissed with me and Ezra for showing up last night. Keeps yelling that we shouldn’t have risked our cover.” He sighed heavily. “I wish I was back at the hotel.”

Josiah smiled. “I don't blame you, brother. What exactly do you mean, ‘on top of everything else’? What else happened while I was gone?”

Wilmington looked at JD who shrugged before turning back to the profiler. “Nothing really, but it would’ve been nice to have another body or two in the office so our butts weren’t the only ones Chris was chewing on.”

Three pairs of eyes turned toward the inner office, the domain of their team leader. The blinds that covered the floor-to-ceiling glass wall were slanted open enough so they could see inside. Larabee was on the phone, his back to them, but Josiah couldn’t miss the tension radiating from the lean figure.

“So he’s still angry?”

Buck sighed again. “Between me having to come into the office, his hangover and plain old temper, well, earlier he was chewing nails, now he’s just chewing butts. So I guess that's an improvement.”

At that moment Larabee’s voice rose and a string of curses made them all flinch.

“If he doesn’t calm down he’s going to – ” Before Buck could finish, Chris slammed the phone down and picked up the entire contraption and threw it against the wall.

Josiah winced and Buck shook his head while JD frankly stared. Buck turned to give their youngest teammate a grin.

“Don’t you have something to run by Chris? Maybe he’s ready for a distraction.”

JD shrank back in his chair. “Uh-uh, no way am I going in there. You’re one of his oldest friends, why don’t you see what you can do?”

Buck snorted. “There’s a time for jokes and a time for keeping my head down. I stay out of range when Chris is this mad. Especially considering a lot of his mad is directed at me. Beside,” he added, looking a little smug, “I need to go sign that damn report for the D.A., then get back to the hotel before Ezra goes and does something stupid.”

Josiah studied Larabee. Putting their current case on hold long enough to bring Buck in for paperwork was reason enough to inflame their volatile superior. Buck and Ezra risking their cover by showing up to help in rescuing Chris was more fuel for his temper. Add to that Chris was obviously still upset by last night's events and almost certainly still suffering from a hangover. They were lucky that a telephone had been the only casualty of the morning.

That reminded him of a question he’d wanted to ask - not of Chris, Josiah wasn’t feeling suicidal - but of someone who had known the man longer than anyone else on the team.



“Do you know what set off Chris yesterday?”

Wilmington’s eyebrows rose. “Hell, you know as well as – ”

“I don’t mean Tanner grabbing him. It’s been awhile since Chris tried to drown himself in alcohol. And I've never heard of it happening while we’re in the middle of a case. I’m assuming his actions were because of something in particular. You have any ideas?”

Buck frowned in thought. “I was pissed he was pouring the stuff down his throat again but I didn’t think about why." He glanced at his desk calendar and after a few seconds his eyes widened.

“Son of a bitch!”

JD leaned forward, looking worried. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m an idiot.” Buck raised guilty eyes to Sanchez. “Next week is Adam’s birthday.”

Josiah blew out a breath. Now it made sense. Team Seven had been working almost around the clock for the last month trying to apprehend a gang smuggling guns into the country across the Canadian border. Three days ago they had wound up their work with a successful bust of all the major players. Since then they had been tying up loose ends and doing massive amounts of paper work that always marked the end of a case.

On top of the usual paper work, the team was now following up on an unexpected lead related to another crime. During Ezra’s undercover stint as Eric Stillman, an international arms dealer, he had stumbled across a possible connection between the recent theft of weapons from a National Guard armory and the Bartolommeo crime family. Now Ezra and the rest of Team Seven were looking into the rumors linking one of the most powerful drug-dealing crime families in the western United States to the theft of the weapons.

Ezra had just managed to obtain an interview, set for tonight, with a high-level member of Bartolommeo’s “family." While he and and Buck handled the actual meeting, the rest of the team would be close by, watching their backs.

With all that Team Seven had been involved with over the past weeks and now this new case, Josiah realized that Chris hadn’t had time to think about anything other than work. Not until the last few days.

“After the bust the other night we could finally relax for the first time in over a month,” he said sadly. “It was probably also the first time that Chris had time to think about what day it was." He left unsaid the obvious conclusion. It was the first time in weeks Chris Larabee had had to think about his lost child and remember a painful anniversary.

“Hell.” Buck ran a rough hand through his hair. “And I call myself his friend.”

“It’s not your fault, brother,” Sanchez soothed.

“Maybe not but it’s sure as hell making things worse.”

All three of them watched their team leader as he yanked open his desk drawers one after another, only to slam each one of them shut with such force it was a wonder the wood held up under the abuse. Josiah couldn’t imagine how their superior could stand the noise when he was already in pain.

He realized that two pairs of eyes were looking expectantly at him. “I take it you two want me to be the sacrificial lamb.”

Buck waggled his eyebrows. “You’re the one with all the psychology training. This is a good time to use it, don’t you think?”

Looking from the laughing blue eyes to JD’s imploring hazel gaze, Josiah rubbed his chin. “All right. Maybe it’ll help if I go in bearing gifts.”

“Like what?” JD asked.

Sanchez went over to the storage closet and opened the doors. From a lower shelf he picked up a telephone. When he turned around, JD looked surprised.

“I didn’t know we kept extra telephones in stock.”

Buck and Josiah exchanged gazes and the former chuckled. “It’s a, what d’ya call it, a recent development.”

“Really?" JD’s surprise turned to confusion. “How recent?”

Buck’s agile eyebrows rose again. “I don’t remember exactly. Josiah?”

The profiler’s lips twitched. “Two telephones ago, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“How come I didn’t know about this?" JD sounded a little indignant.

“Dunno, kid, guess you were off doing something at the time.”

The telephone rang and Buck grinned at them. “Gotta go,” he said with a wave. JD shook his head and turned back to his desk to answer the call.

Josiah started for his superior’s office, stopped beside his desk to pick up the file he’d finished earlier and, after a minute of consideration, he also picked up the new file he had just compiled. When he reached Larabee’s office he gave a knock and opened the door.

“Chris? You got a minute?”

Larabee turned an ice-cold green glare on him. “When in the hell are you people going to learn to wait until I say come in?”

He needed to try to soothe his superior’s already inflamed temper so Josiah looked contrite. “I’m sorry." He withdrew and closed the door, then knocked politely. After waiting several seconds and hearing nothing, he opened the door again.

“If I don’t say come in you’re supposed to stay the hell out,” Chris snarled.

Good lord. Josiah sent a prayer heavenwards and came all the way in, closing the door behind him. Chris’s eyes narrowed but he didn’t say anything.

“An offering.” Sanchez smiled as he held up the telephone.

The green eyes sparked and Josiah held his breath, knowing it was a toss-up how his superior would react. When Chris didn’t respond, he tried again.

“And there’s this,” he added while holding up one of the files.

“What is it?”

“The information on Edward Bartolommeo that you wanted.”

Larabee grunted and reached out a demanding hand. Josiah handed it over and gently set the new telephone on the edge of the desk. He considered sitting down but refrained. In Chris’s current temper, the action might set him off again. Instead, he waited patiently while his team leader skimmed through the file. Half-way through the second page, Larabee’s head jerked up.

“How sure are we about this?”

“The initial info came to us through Ezra Monday night after he met with Taylor. This is just confirmation." He smiled. “It’s a good thing Taylor likes to gossip.”

Martin Taylor had been the ringleader of the gang running guns across the Canadian border and after hearing what the man had to say, Standish had made a unilateral decision to break his cover to get this new information to his team. Fortunately, they were able to take down Taylor and his gang two days later without any indication that Ezra had been made.

“And when Eric Stillman was released for lack of evidence . . .” Josiah smiled at the cover story. Chris didn’t so he hurried on. “When he let it be known that he was still in the market for weapons, he was contacted almost immediately by Frank Ingram." He leaned over and pointed lower on the page. “Ingram is a high-level player in Bartolommeo’s organization.”

Larabee glared at the wall. “If Bartolommeo really is the one behind the break-in at the National Guard armory, then the bastard is branching out.”

“And with all his drug connections he won’t have trouble finding buyers for the stolen weapons.”

Chris blew out a breath. “We may have gotten lucky with Ezra being in the right place at the right time. When are you going to see him?”

“Tonight, after he meets with Ingram." Anticipating the next question, Josiah added, “Buck just left. He should be back with Ezra within the hour.”

“They’re meeting Ingram where again?” As he spoke, Chris rubbed his forehead. Josiah knew better than to comment.

“At McColly’s Pub at nine p.m. It’s a bar on the west side that belongs to Bartolommeo through one of his dummy corporations. JD and Nathan will be running surveillance. I’m planning on meeting Ezra and Buck at eleven o’clock, though that may change if the meeting with Ingram runs long.”

Larabee nodded absently and Josiah debated bringing up the subject of the other file he was holding. No, not now. Chris had calmed down; he didn’t want to stir up his team leader again. Later would be better.

“What else have you got there?”

For a startled instant, Josiah wondered if Chris had added reading minds to his repertoire. Then he realized he was clutching the file in a way designed to draw attention. Was his subconscious trying to tell him something? Discarding the idea, Sanchez shook his head.

“It’s nothing. We can talk about it later.”

“What is it?”

The tone was uncompromising. Josiah did want to talk to Chris about what he had found, except he didn’t think this was the time for it. There was no avoiding it now.

“It’s the results of a background check I started last night.”

Larabee’s eyebrows rose. “Last night?”

“I came back to the office late last night after – ” Josiah stopped too late and mentally castigated himself. He didn’t usually flounder so badly but knowing how his superior was going to react had thrown him off his usual stride.

Chris’s lips tightened at the unintentional reminder of his run-in with a murder suspect. “A background check? On who?”

Feeling as if he was about to jump into a tank filled with hungry piranha, Josiah said, “Vincent Tanner.”

“You what!" Larabee jumped to his feet and his chair flew backwards to smash into the wall. “What the hell do you think you were doing?”

“I thought – ”

“The bastard’s wanted for murder and you’re doing a background check?”

“Chris, I – ”

“If you have so much free time you can waste it on this kind of shit I can find plenty of work for you to do!”

Josiah felt his own temper rising. “Are you just going to yell or do you want me to explain? I had a reason for doing this.”

For a moment the green eyes blazed at him. Finally, between gritted teeth Larabee said, “Talk.”

“I’ve been working as a profiler for a lot longer than I’ve worked with Team Seven." Josiah spoke evenly, measuring each word and ignoring his superior’s impatience. “After hearing about your encounter with Tanner, one thing immediately stood out. His behavior is unlike any other criminal I’ve ever run across.”

“Damn it, Josiah – ”

“Hear me out, Chris.” Without giving the man a chance to draw a breath, he hurried on. “Tanner is wanted on suspicion of murder yet he still took the time to get you to a safe location, treat your injury and call for help. Even after he discovered you're in law enforcement. That kind of behavior isn’t – ”

“I don’t – ”


Larabee started and Josiah was pleased to see that astonishment had blunted his superior’s anger. The profiler didn’t yell very often, short of an emergency. Taking advantage of Chris’s surprise, he continued.

“As I was saying, his behavior is inconsistent with the typical profile. I was curious so I ordered a background check last night.” He held up the file. “Here are the results.”

Anger remained in the cold green eyes but Josiah was relieved to see that Larabee had regained control of his temper.


“So,” Josiah repeated, laying the file on Chris’s desk and opening it. “Vincent Michael Tanner is 25 years old, born just outside of Amarillo, Texas. His father died when he was a baby and he lost his mother when he was five years old. There were apparently no other relatives and he spent several years being bounced around from one foster home to another.”

Josiah kept his tone matter-of-fact as he recited the facts. Only someone who knew him well would recognize his emotion at this evidence of how the system had failed yet another child. He knew Chris recognized it but to his relief the man remained silent.

“At the age of eleven he ran away from another foster home and disappeared. He didn’t reappear until shortly before his eighteenth birthday when he joined the Army. He was apparently living in Dallas at the time.”

“He joined the Army?”

Josiah was relieved by Larabee’s curiosity. “Yes.”

“At 17? He’d need parental consent and you said his parents were dead.”

“Someone signed for him." Josiah flipped over a page and ran his finger down the sheet. “Here it is. Jake Riordan, Tanner’s guardian according to a social worker by the name of – ” he squinted. “Henrietta Welles. Tanner didn’t have a high school diploma but he managed to get his GED. That was enough to let him enlist.”

“Who’s Riordan? What’s his connection?”

Josiah was pleased by his superior’s question. He’d suspected that once Chris became aware of the inconsistencies surrounding Vincent Tanner, he’d be intrigued. Which would hopefully allow the profiler to probe deeper. “I don’t know. There’s nothing in the file, unfortunately.”

“What about the social worker?”

“I’m afraid there’s no other information about her either. Long story short, Riordan signed for Tanner and he joined the Army." Josiah knew his next words would be a surprise. “And later became a Ranger.”

Chris’s eyes narrowed. “An Army Ranger? Tanner?”

“That’s right. He graduated number one in Ranger School, ditto Sniper School, and, if that’s not enough, number one in SERE.”

“Hell." Chris’s gaze went unfocused. Josiah knew what he was thinking. It was a striking list of achievements, including the last, SERE, an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape training. All of which went a long way in explaining how Tanner was still running free despite the fact that law enforcement in several states was looking for him.

“He was in six years," Josiah went on. "Most of his military career is classified. What isn’t classified is that Tanner was a highly decorated soldier and reached the rank of Staff Sergeant, quite an accomplishment in so short a time. He looked to have a great career ahead of him but left the Army, quite unexpectedly, a year ago. A few months after that he started working as a bond enforcement officer.”

“A bounty hunter.”

Sanchez winced at the growl. “Yes. Which brings us to the current charges against him. Tanner was in Tascosa, Texas, looking for a robbery suspect who had jumped bail. According to an eyewitness, a bystander got between the two which enabled the suspect to escape, and Tanner supposedly killed the bystander out of anger or frustration or some similar stupid reasoning.” He slapped the file shut in disgust. “Why would he have done that? Tanner was a highly-trained, combat-experienced soldier. For him to act so stupidly, so irrationally, it makes no sense.”

“It’s not our problem. Let the cops deal with him.”

“But Chris – ”

“Drop it.”

As much as Josiah wanted to protest, Chris’s icy tone was one they all knew better than to argue with. Biting back the words he wanted to voice, he nodded, picked up the file and left, closing the door firmly behind him.

Chris glared after him for a minute before grabbing his chair and sitting down. He’d wasted enough time because of Tanner. It was past time to focus on what Bartolommeo was up to.

He rubbed his forehead again in an effort to dispel the remnants of his hangover and swiveled around in his chair, only to find himself looking at the picture sitting on the shelf beside his desk. His throat tightened and he gently ran a finger over the familiar, beloved faces. For a minute pain gripped him so tightly he couldn’t breathe. He dropped his head and waited it out. After some interminable time the pain began to ease and he forced himself to focus on the file before him.


Some eighteen hours after he left an irate ATF agent to be rescued by the police, Vin Tanner found himself sitting in another bar. Last night’s bar had been a dive, this one was several steps above that and the clientele reflected the difference. Last night Tanner had been invisible in his faded jeans and worn leather jacket. Tonight, with most of the patrons looking like they’d just got off work and still wearing suits, he had a much harder time blending in.

Vin hated standing out, not only because it went against his nature but also, and more importantly right now, the more he stood out, the more likely it was that someone would notice him. If that someone happened to be connected to local law enforcement, he would be in deep shit.

Despite his discomfort with his surroundings, Tanner stayed where he was. He had to. After over a month of hard work, he’d finally tracked down his prey. Eli Josephson was a rival bounty hunter who had tangled with Tanner over another bounty several months earlier. Vin had won that round but, as he realized too late, Josephson’s ego and vindictive nature weren’t about to accept such a failure. Instead, he had killed an innocent passer-by and framed Vin for the crime..

Tanner had managed to escape the law in Texas while continuing to chase after Josephson. Now the murdering bastard was less than twenty feet away, sitting at a table with someone Tanner didn’t recognize although he thought he knew who the stranger was.

Vin had chosen his position carefully. Josephson was sitting at the table with his back to him. The last thing he wanted was for the man to spot him and run. Then again, considering the bastard’s current company, it might be Tanner himself who had to make a quick exit.

He glanced casually around the bar as he raised his beer to his lips. It was Friday night and the place was packed with thank-god-it’s-Friday revelers. The crowd, the noise, the cigarette smoke that swirled through the air, rapidly replacing the oxygen, all combined to fill Vin with an almost overwhelming desire to escape but he stayed put. The bigger the crowd, the less noticeable he’d be.

Vin had been following Josephson for almost six weeks, from Texas to Oklahoma, back to Texas, and then to Arizona. At that point, he’d lost him and the only thing Vin could do was backtrack to Texas. Josephson’s ex-girlfriend, who had originally given Vin his best lead, had disappeared. It was a slow, painstaking process to go back to Josephson’s various acquaintances in an effort to find the piece of information that would give Tanner what he needed. It was an even slower process than usual because, thanks to Josephson’s frame, the cops were looking high and low for one Vin Tanner. If not for the secretary of a bail bondsman both Josephson and Vin had worked for in the past, Tanner might still be looking for that elusive information.

Fortunately, the secretary, Marcia Dillman, had always liked Vin. Adding that to her dislike of Josephson was enough of a reason for her to accede to his request to go through her boss’s files. She found a critical nugget for Vin when she discovered a reference to one of Eli Josephson’s contacts, a cousin named Frank Ingram who lived in Denver, Colorado.

When he reached Denver, Vin dug more deeply into Ingram’s background and what he learned made him even more wary, for Frank Ingram was a high-level member of the Bartolommeo crime family and rated a couple of bodyguards.

After tracking down where the mobster lived, Tanner had been careful to keep his distance while he watched and waited. His patience was rewarded the night before when he followed Ingram to a restaurant where he met up with Josephson, who later left with his cousin. Vin followed them back to Ingram's fancy high rise condo. Tonight he had followed Ingram’s sedan again and ended up here.

His gaze drifted around the room while he wondered what the men were doing here. He didn’t know what Ingram liked but this wasn’t Josephson’s kind of place. Too up-scale.

Two men entered and walked by before Vin got a good look at them. He wouldn’t have cared except they went straight over to Ingram’s table. For the first time he regretted his choice of seating. The bigger, dark-haired man sat next to Josephson, which only gave Tanner a side-view while simultaneously blocking any view of his companion. His frustration grew when he saw Ingram smile and extend his hand to the second, hidden stranger.

So that answered one question, though it raised more. Ingram was here to meet these guys. About what? And what was Josephson doing here? Simply as a hanger-on to his cousin? That didn’t feel right and long experience had taught Vin to listen to his instincts. Could it be that Josephson was considering a career change? From an unethical, murderous bounty hunter to a member of the Bartolommeo crime family?

Tanner didn’t know any of the answers and, when it came down to it, he didn’t care. All he wanted was to get his hands on Josephson, beat the bastard unconscious and drag his worthless ass to the nearest police department.

It was a simple plan, nice and straightforward. He liked simple. Fewer complications that way. Hopefully, Josephson would soon go off on his own. Taking him now was too risky in a room filled with innocent strangers. Besides, Ingram and his bodyguards would complicate things and Vin liked to avoid complications when possible.

For now, it looked like he’d just have to watch and wait. He took a sip of his beer while giving the room another furtive sweep. The bodyguards hadn’t moved from their positions and he hadn’t seen anyone else who he thought might be part of Ingram’s group. Both good things.

He wished he was closer to the table so he could hear what they were talking about. It was unlikely whatever was being discussed had anything to do with Vin’s plans for Josephson but he still felt uncomfortable by his lack of intel. Speaking of the bastard, he continued to sit quietly, playing with his glass while the other two talked. Whatever was going on, it seemed that he had nothing to do with it.

There was nothing for Vin to do but wait, something life had taught him to be very good at over the years. Almost an hour passed before anything changed. The newcomer stood up, shook hands with Ingram, then headed for the door with his big, mustached companion at his side.

Vin's heart skipped a beat when he realized he had seen both men before. Just last night he’d watched from the roof of a dilapidated building when the peacock and Mustache jumped out of a sports car and ran into the building looking for Larabee.

Before he could look away, bright green eyes met his and moved on. Vin focused on his drink while acutely aware of the men passing behind him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw them go out the front door; only after the door closed did he breathe a sigh of relief. Which was stupid, there was no way either man could know who he was.

Even so, he felt troubled. The pair had been part of the group who came to Larabee’s aid. They had to be some kind of cops, maybe ATF. If so, what were they doing meeting with Frank Ingram? Tanner idly turned his glass around while he considered the obvious possibilities. Maybe the agents had gone rogue, or maybe they were working undercover. He knew almost nothing about the ATF but he thought they focused on alcohol, tobacco and firearms and, more recently, explosives. When Vin dug into Ingram’s background he had discovered that the Bartolommeo crime family was the largest dealer in heroin, cocaine and meth in the western United States. Drugs didn’t fall under the ATF’s authority, did they? Maybe the agents were part of an inter-agency operation. There was no way to be sure but he hoped they were working undercover. He hated dirty cops.

His thoughts drifted back to the previous night, to his confrontation with Chris Larabee. Even though he’d been drunk as a skunk, Larabee had still struck Vin as a dangerous character to cross. If these two agents had gone bad, Larabee would probably rip their heads off when he found out. Just like he’d looked like he wanted to do to Vin last night.

The memory made him want to smile although he knew it wasn’t funny. It was just more of that old Tanner luck, accidentally pissing off someone who turned out to be a federal agent. If the peacock and Mustache were Larabee’s people, if they were working undercover, then Larabee himself might be nearby. His stomach roiled uneasily at the thought. The tightrope he’d been walking for nearly two months suddenly felt even thinner.

His thoughts snapped back to the present when Ingram and Josephson stood up. Vin kept his head down and watched them from between narrowed lids. As the pair approached the front door the bodyguards got to their feet and moved to flank them.

The group passed him without any flicker of interest. The fact that one of the bodyguards was between Tanner and Josephson helped screen the bounty hunter from the only pair of eyes that would have recognized him, though Vin was careful to keep his head turned away just in case.

After the front door closed behind them, he immediately headed to the bathroom. In his earlier exploration of the premises he’d noted a small window set high in the wall of the john. Now he climbed up on the sink and unlatched the window. Pushing it open as far as it would go, he wiggled through. It was a tight fit but after a bit of struggle, he slid through. Clinging to the window frame, he pulled his legs out and dropped to the ground.

Vin immediately straightened and looked around. He’d ended up in an alley – just like last night. Luckily, this time there was no one around, not even a drunken, nosy ATF agent.

He raced to the street and was in time to see the last of the bodyguards getting into a large, dark, late-model sedan double-parked outside the bar. Immediately he turned and ran the half-block to where he had left his pride and joy, a 1958 Harley-Davidson FL Duo-Glide motorcycle. Seconds later he was following the sedan.

The storm that had soaked him earlier had subsided to a heavy drizzle. His helmet kept it off his head and the worn leather jacket protected his torso but his jeans quickly became soaked. Adding that to the breeze of his passing and it didn’t take long before Vin was thoroughly chilled. He ignored the annoyance and focused on keeping his quarry in sight.

It was closing in on midnight and the traffic should’ve lessened by now. But it was Friday and he was passing through what was clearly a popular part of downtown. Despite the weather and the late night, there were plenty of cars and pedestrians. Umbrellas abounded and marked the paths of people cutting haphazardly through the traffic.

The people, the traffic, the slick streets and poor visibility all made driving treacherous. Vin was forced to split his attention between piloting his motorcycle and the sedan that was currently three cars ahead. Normally he would have stayed further back but not tonight, not under these conditions.

Despite his focus, he couldn’t suppress a stab of discomfort at driving the Harley in such a public neighborhood. He had changed the license plates on the motorcycle three times since he’d become a hunted man, but the last time was almost a week ago and the theft of the plates might have been noticed and reported by now. Compared to the murder charges Vin was facing, stealing another set of license plates was small potatoes. Still it nagged at him, a gnat of guilt that nothing could squash.

He knew he would be safer if he stayed hidden but he would never regain his freedom that way. For now, all he could do was stay alert while he pursued Josephson.

Thunder rumbled, snapping Vin out of his thoughts. Didn’t it ever do anything but rain here? A red light stopped the sedan and the vehicles immediately behind it, including Tanner. He turned up the collar of his jacket and zipped it up the last inch. That was as much as he could do and he hoped the sedan wasn’t going far.

Thirty wet, chilly minutes later the car turned off the highway onto the frontage road. They had left the city behind them fifteen minutes earlier and even the suburbs were a distant set of lights in Tanner’s mirror. The terrain was opening up, fewer buildings and ever widening fields surrounded them. As traffic decreased, Vin had no option but to drop further back and eventually he switched off his lights. It was dangerous but it was that or risk being spotted.

When he saw the car turn down a narrow lane, Vin slowed to a crawl and watched it travel the better part of a mile before stopping in front of a large building, partially hidden by a stand of aspen. So the lane was actually a long driveway. He pulled over and muscled the Harley down into the shallow gully that ran parallel to the driveway. Squelching through the mud as quietly as possible, he pulled the motorcycle along until he could finally hide it in among the aspen.

From there, he moved cautiously toward the building. His night vision had always been excellent so, despite the drizzle and lousy visibility, he was depending on it to avoid any unwanted attention. No one was in sight and he left the safety of the trees and ran across the small, asphalted lot, passing the parked car, to flatten himself against the nearest wall. As it turned out, it was his nose rather than his eyes that provided the first warning.

Vin sniffed cautiously. Cigarette smoke. Gotta love amateurs. They made life so much easier.

A small voice in the back of his mind immediately pointed out the flaw in his thinking - They may not be professional soldiers, Tanner, but they’ll kill ya fast enough.

Moving warily, he edged forward until he reached the south corner of the building. The smell of cigarettes was stronger and now he could hear bits and pieces of conversation. Either the guards didn’t know how sound carried at night or they didn’t care. Thanks to their carelessness, he had their position pinpointed. Two guards, posted just around the corner and, by the sounds of things, they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Still, best to be sure.

He dropped belly down and crawled across the wet asphalt until he could peek around the corner of the building. Fifteen feet away two damp figures huddled beneath a small overhang. Tiny pinpoints of light in the darkness showed both of them were smoking while muttering curses and complaining about being stuck outside on such a godforsaken night that not even rats would come out of hiding.

They might be professional thugs but they were still amateurs.

Smiling to himself, Vin retreated. Once safely hidden by the wall again he headed for the opposite end of the building. Only silence greeted him this time and when he snuck a look around there was nothing to see except for a door. Its glass inset showed only darkness within. Nice.

He quickly checked out the door and found no unwelcome surprises. Not that he really expected to find anything but Vin never regretted taking the time to be careful. His fingers were almost numb from the cold and rain and he flexed them several times until feeling returned.

A careful look showed the door was secured by a simple lock. Before he worked on disengaging it Vin tried a more straightforward approach. He carefully wrapped a hand around the door knob and it turned easily with gratifying silence. There was a soft click and the door opened under slight pressure.

Not only amateurs but stupid and careless amateurs. Could it really be this easy?

Holding his breath, Tanner opened the door just wide enough to slip inside and then, with equal care, closed it again. Once inside he froze, listening, smelling, peering through the dim light, searching for danger.

He sensed more than saw he was in a small room, like a foyer. Looking at the doorway opposite, he saw the faint glow of artificial light spilling across the floor and heard distant voices.

Vin eased across the small space to the doorway where he dropped down and cautiously looked out. A wide-open area greeted him. Because of the dim light he couldn’t be sure but it felt like a huge space. He studied it carefully, searching for anything that might prove to be a trap.

Windows ran along the top of walls that he estimated were a good forty feet high, maybe a bit more, and intermittent moonlight came through the windows as the clouds drifted across the sky outside. The light he had noticed was not coming from there.

Something glinted in the distance. There was shape and mass to it and he deliberately relaxed and allowed his eyes to follow the form, picking out the sharp angles until he was able to recognize the outline of a small plane.

It all fell into place. He was in a private hangar.

The artificial light Vin had noticed before came from his right. He would have to move out of the safety of his hiding spot to follow it. When he peeked around the door jamb he saw two rooms, both with corrugated metal walls. Faint light glinted dully off the large padlock on the door of the one room but it was the nearer room that was the source of the artificial light. It was a small room compared to the rest of the vast space, huddled in the corner of the building with no surrounding cover, which made a stealthy approach difficult. Large windows set in the corrugated metal walls allowed the lights inside to shine out on the immediate area.

The windows also revealed two figures inside. Frank Ingram was standing while talking on a cell phone. A few feet away, Eli Josephson was sitting with only his shoulders and head visible.

The sight of his prey made his palms itch. So damn close . . .

Vin stifled the temptation. There were the guards outside and maybe more inside that he hadn’t spotted. Besides, these were bad guys, armed for sure and willing to shoot. He needed to wait for better odds.

Still, he couldn’t resist another temptation. He wanted to hear what Ingram was saying. It would be taking a hell of a chance but . . . Staying low and hugging the wall, Tanner crept closer until the muffled voice became clear.

“. . . checked out and he’s offering a good price, considering." Ingram went silent as he listened to whoever was at the other end. “No, sir, I don’t think so, not now. The heat’s on, every law enforcement agency in the state is looking for the merchandise. The sooner we unload them, the better. . . . We can do this fast if you’re willing to let Stillman come here.

Hearing the note of farewell in Ingram’s voice, Vin stiffened, ready to retreat. When the mobster spoke again, the respectful tone in his voice was replaced by irritation.

“Quite playing with that, Eli.”

“It’s a nice weapon.”

Tanner recognized the voice and his hands tightened into fists.

“It’s a sample. Put it back. We need to get going.”

“Okay, okay.”

Vin retreated swiftly back to the foyer from which he could peek out, trusting the dim light would hide him. The door of the office opened and Eli Josephson walked out. Vin’s eyebrows rose at the sight of what he was holding – an M4 carbine.

Carrying it with a casual negligence that would have had Tanner’s old Ranger instructors screaming in fury, Josephson went to the padlocked door of the room next to the office, unlocked it and disappeared inside. A minute later he returned without the carbine. Pausing only long enough to snap the lock shut again, he met Ingram outside the office.

Vin quietly retreated outside and ran for the aspen. He had barely reached their cover before Ingram and Josephson appeared. He frowned when he saw the guards hurrying toward them. How had they known Ingram was coming out? They must be using some kind of communications. He should've thought of that.

Ingram said something to them that Vin was too far away to hear. The guards nodded and split up, heading for opposite ends of the hangar. The sedan came around the building, stopped for Ingram and Josephson to climb in, then drove off into the night.

Amateurs, Tanner thought again. Apart from the door he had already used, he didn’t know how many entrances there were to the hangar. That it had been left unguarded was another example of stupidity or over-confidence. More and more he was thinking it was a combination of both.

Which was a good thing because he wanted a closer look inside.

Removing from his pocket the small flashlight he hadn’t dared use earlier, Vin moved swiftly back to the door. This time the door had been locked but as he’d noticed the first time, it was a simple pushbutton lock. These guys were relying way too much on the guards.

Less than a minute later he eased back inside and closed the door quietly behind him. He held his breath and listened but heard nothing. Apparently the guards stayed outside. Nonetheless, Vin moved cautiously across the room and out into the hangar.

Stopping periodically to listen, he headed for the office. Another simple pushbutton lock held him up only briefly before he got it unlocked. The room was furnished in standard office, a long, built-in shelf serving as the desk, overhead metal cabinets, a chair with casters that allowed him to easily roll it aside, and another, plain wooden chair by the wall.

Even without turning on the overhead fluorescent lights, it didn’t take Vin long to look around. The desk top was empty, so were the cabinets. He turned in a slow circle but there was nothing to find. So much for that idea.

He locked the door behind him and turned to the other room. The padlock took longer to open than any other locks he had run into tonight, which only increased his curiosity.

Vin froze when he heard the outside doorknob rattle. If one of the guards came in he’d have to slip further into the hangar. Given that he didn’t know what he might find if he went deeper into the building, the idea didn’t appeal to him. But neither did getting caught.

A minute passed, then another, and he relaxed. They had just been checking to make sure the door was still locked. It was piss-poor security but he wasn’t about to complain.

He turned back to the padlock and it snapped open under his determined attack. It was pitch-black inside and he closed the door before turning on the flashlight. Even in the comparatively small light he could see this room was twice the size of the office, though it felt small because it was filled with boxes that looked ominously like old-fashioned, wooden coffins. Except remembering the “sample” that Josephson had been carrying, he figured the boxes held something else.

Vin studied the top-most box and found the lid was nailed on. Josephson hadn’t been in here long enough to get it off and nail it back on so he checked another stack of boxes. The lid of one was ajar and he shook his head. Typical of Josephson, careless. He cautiously raised the lid and pointed the flashlight inside.


The box was packed with M4 carbines, one of his favorite assault weapons during his Ranger days.

Vin turned slowly, allowing the light to play over the room. Four boxes per stack, and how many stacks?

He shook his head at the total and held the flashlight closer to the wooden side. The stenciling had been painted over but it still bled through slightly, enough so that he could read it. He was standing in a room filled with boxes of weapons that belonged to the Colorado National Guard.

It looked like the drug-dealing Bartolommeo was branching out into stolen weapons. That could explain why two ATF agents would be working undercover to get buddy-buddy with one of the crime boss's lieutenants.

Vin thought of the ATF agent he’d run across – hell, had it only been last night? Under different circumstances, the first thing he’d do after leaving the hangar would be to call Larabee about what he’d found.

Different circumstances. Not these circumstances.

He considered what he’d seen earlier tonight, the peacock and his big mustached companion meeting with Ingram. Was all this connected? He wasn’t a strong believer in coincidence. The question still troubling Vin was whether the pair were agents gone bad or good agents working undercover, maybe to find these particular weapons? He preferred the second theory but there was no way to be sure and he had lingered too long.

After padlocking the door behind him, he considered his next step. Probably the smartest thing to do was to leave now before his luck ran out. But there was a chance he might be coming back here. If so, he wanted to know what he would be walking back into, and that meant taking a closer look around.

Vin paced the length of the building while he considered potential scenarios. He passed a long row of utility cabinets that had been hung above a beat-up wooden counter. Checking a few of the cabinets, he discovered ordinary tools, cans of oil and other fluids. Nothing out of the ordinary. At the far end of the hangar a set of massive double metal doors revealed how planes got in and out.

He continued around the perimeter, turned left again at the far wall and started back toward the front of the building.

And here was the plane.

The Piper was a jet prop, four-bladed, red and white in color and, as far as Vin could tell with his flashlight, in excellent condition. He hadn’t noticed it at first because it had been hidden behind the other plane. No, not a plane, something more.

Vin had never had a reason to price a Learjet but he knew anyone who could afford one had a hell of a lot more money than he ever would. The sleek, white craft was probably a private pilot’s wet dream and it was easy to see why.

Come on, Tanner. You’re not here to sightsee.

He passed the planes and kept going until he got back to the front of the hangar. Something was standing between him and the doorway he’d originally come through and the sight slowed his pace. A few steps closer and his flashlight picked up the outline of a steel staircase. He raised the light higher and realized the staircase went up to a second level.

Vin swallowed a chuckle. If he had gone in the opposite direction when he left the office, he would have run into the steel staircase as soon as he crossed the front of the hangar. Way to go, Tanner.

He went lightly up the staircase, pausing to test each step. It was solidly built and as his confidence on the structure grew, so did his speed in ascending. When he reached the top, Vin found himself standing on a small landing. He stood still while playing his flashlight around.

Expecting nothing more than a catwalk, he was surprised to see that the narrow platform had been expanded by several feet of plywood that ran along the two long walls of the hangar. Seeing the stacks of boxes and miscellaneous pieces of equipment he realized that the space was being used for storage. There was even a large coil of rope half hidden behind one stack of boxes; it was covered with dust and looked as if it had been there for years.

A narrow catwalk along the shorter front wall led Tanner to the opposite side of the building where he found a similar set-up. Plywood flooring stretched out from his position. Here too he saw stacks of boxes and other items being stored. A stray thought sent him back to the other side where he knelt to take a closer look at the coil of rope. Despite being dusty and obviously well-used, it was still in good condition. Running a hand over the rough texture, Vin calculated it was over twenty feet long. He had no need for it now but rope was always nice to have.

Rising, he looked around again. Even with the plywood extension, the flooring was only ten feet wide on either wall. The second floor was actually just an enlarged catwalk on two sides. The center of the hangar was wide-open from floor to the exposed ceiling joists thirty-some feet above. An idea tickled the back of his brain and he studied the scene carefully. It was always nice to have options.

Vin went down the stairwell and back to the room filled with stolen weapons. After removing the padlock again he slipped inside and headed directly for the already opened box. He pushed the lid aside and pulled out the carbine Josephson had tossed carelessly on top. Where there were weapons, there should be . . .

He pointed the flashlight around and there, in the far corner, was a stack of smaller boxes. Vin was pleased to see the box on top of the stack had also been opened and peered inside. Bingo. Magazines of ammunition. Lots of magazines. He picked up one, hesitated, then picked up a couple more and pushed the others around so that the missing magazines weren’t immediately obvious. Then he put the lid on and headed out again.

Once more he climbed the steel staircase and after a few minutes of searching, Tanner found what he was looking for. A stack of boxes of machine parts created a wall of sorts, and a tarp had been thrown loosely over it. Carefully he laid the carbine and magazine down between the boxes and shifted the tarp until it covered them. Only if someone came up here and started moving things around would the weapon be discovered. Considering the amount of dust covering everything, that wasn’t likely.

Speaking of dust . . . Vin leaned over and blew gently until the dust was sufficiently scattered to cover his footprints. He took a last look around. Knowing Josephson had already been here at least once increased the odds that Vin would be returning to the hangar. In that event, it was nice knowing he’d have more firepower than his SIG.

And just as important, he needed to deal with this new problem that had unexpectedly dropped into his lap. There was no way in hell he could stand by and let these weapons fall into the wrong hands. Even if Josephson didn’t return, Vin would have to come back in order to somehow secure the stolen carbines.

It would be easier to call Larabee; the ATF would take care of the problem right away. But that would also mean Vin would lose his best chance at Josephson and he wasn’t ready to risk that.

Now he had definitely stayed too long. He went quietly down the stairs and through the small anteroom where he opened the door a crack and listened intently. Hell, it was raining again. There was no sign of the guards; they were probably huddled under the overhang again.

Nonetheless, he moved quietly as well as quickly, back across the now empty clearing and into the shelter of the aspen. The Harley was right where he’d left it and there was no sign that it had been discovered.

It was past time to get out of here. He pushed the motorcycle back along the gully. Thanks to the rain, the mud was getting deeper and it took more muscle. For the first time Vin realized how tired he was.

Not until he’d reached the highway again did he dare turn the ignition, pleased when the Harley roared smoothly to life. Once he was sure he was safely away, he’d head for his new hidey-hole. Maybe tonight he’d be able to manage a little sleep.


On the opposite side of the city, Josiah Sanchez knocked lightly on the hotel door, two quick knocks followed by two more slow knocks. The door opened, he stepped inside and immediately looked around. It was a room that could be found in any one of the thousands of cookie-cutter mid-rate hotels scattered across the country, and just what they needed.

The door closed behind him and a familiar voice spoke. “I fail to understand the reasoning behind this juvenile subterfuge, Mr. Sanchez. A simple knock would have sufficed.”

Josiah turned around to face his teammate, Ezra Standish. “A little extra care never hurts, brother." He smiled at a grinning Buck Wilmington who was lounging on one of the beds, a pistol resting casually beside one hand. He had the TV remote beside him and a quick glance at the frozen scene on the television raised Josiah’s eyebrows.

“Is that – ”

“I figured it was fate.” Buck chuckled richly. “’Sides, I always loved Yul Bryner and Steve McQueen in this movie.”

Ezra sighed. “Did you actually expect Mr. Wilmington to be watching something that would improve his mind?”

Josiah grinned. “I’m not getting between the two of you. How'd tonight's meeting go?”

“Fine by me, but I’ll leave the reporting to Ez,” Buck said, picking up the remote.

“Not yet, Buck,” the profiler stopped him. “I’d like to hear from both of you.”

Wilmington gestured to his partner. “After you, Eric.”

The dapper undercover agent gave him a cold look before moving to the small table in the corner. Josiah followed and set his briefcase down.

“The meeting went satisfactorily,” Ezra said. “While cautious as a man in his position must be, Mr. Ingram is most anxious to do business. He was not pleased when I expressed my apprehension in dealing with underlings.”


“Apart from his displeasure, no. He, or rather his superior, is clearly desirous of moving ahead with the transaction. After we discussed the matter in some detail, he eventually agreed to request that his superior to be present at our next meeting.”

Josiah’s eyebrows rose. That was more than they’d hoped for at this stage. “You think Bartolommeo will show?”

Ezra looked thoughtful. “I have no doubt that Mr. Ingram will relay my concerns. Whether Mr. Bartolommeo will appear is doubtful. At least at this stage of the negotiations." He eyed the big man askance.

“Did any activity take place after our departure?”

“No." Sanchez shook his head. “Nathan called in to say he and JD kept listening until Ingram left but there was nothing worth recording. After Ingram drove off, Nathan went inside to order a drink and remove the bug you left at the table. I take it Ingram didn’t actually admit to having the weapons?”

“Mr. Ingram is far too old a hand in criminal activities to make such a blatant admission. He and I danced around the subject but he did offer enough allusions to indicate that the stolen weapons were in his possession.”

“Nothing we could use against him,” Josiah sighed, already knowing the answer.

From his position on the bed Buck shook his head. So did Ezra. “Regretfully, no. We discussed a possible purchase price but I insisted I would have to view the merchandise before I would be willing to move forward in the matter. He agreed, of course.”

“Good.” The profiler turned to his briefcase. “I brought what we’ve gotten so far on Bartolommeo and his organization for you to look over.”

He unlocked the brief case and opened it. Immediately, files began to cascade out and Sanchez grabbed at them. He missed two but Ezra caught them and laid them aside with a glare at the older man. Buck sat up, laughing, and Josiah smiled apologetically.

“My meeting with Chris and Travis ran long. By the time it was over I barely had time to make it back down to the office before heading over here. I just shoveled everything on my desk into the briefcase. Most of it isn’t relevant to this case.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Standish muttered, not quite softly enough. Josiah’s grin widened and he flipped through the files until he found the right one. “Here you go.”

Buck wandered over to join them and looked over Ezra’s shoulder while the undercover agent went quickly through the information, pausing now and then to check a name with the pictures they had compiled. Finally he raised his eyes to Josiah.

“I see nothing about Mr. Ingram’s companion of this evening.”

“Companion? You mean the bodyguards?”

“No. Mr. Ingram was accompanied by an individual whom he introduced by the name of Josephson.”

“Josephson?” The profiler’s brows drew together in thought. “That sounds familiar but I don't think - " His jaw dropped. “Wait a minute." He flipped hastily through the files in his briefcase. “I know it’s in here somewhere. Now I’m glad I grabbed everything off my desk.”


“Here it is." Josiah pulled out the file that had so infuriated their team leader and skimmed through the copy of the police report he had obtained. His eyebrows rose involuntarily.

“I’ll be,” he murmured.

“Is there a particular reason you are being so cryptic?”

“What? Oh, sorry, brother. Do you remember the murder suspect who grabbed Chris last night?”

Buck snorted. "That's a joke, right?"

“We could hardly forget such an eventful encounter,” Ezra said.

“The eyewitness who identified Vincent Tanner as the murderer is named Eli Josephson.”

“What!” Wilmington exclaimed.

For a minute Ezra’s usual mask slipped and astonishment peaked out. Just as quickly, it disappeared. “That is a remarkable coincidence, if it is indeed a coincidence.”

Sanchez shook his head. “Josephson isn't that uncommon a name but Chris is not going to be happy about this.”

Buck was sitting on the edge of the bed now, his expression troubled. “No shit.”

“At this point, I doubt that our intrepid leader – " Standish stopped and put out his hand. “May I examine that picture more closely?”

Josiah looked at the 8-1/2 by 11 piece of paper on top of the small pile of documents he had gathered off the floor. It was a photocopy of Tanner’s military portrait. “Sure,” he handed it over, suppressing his curiosity. He knew Ezra would explain eventually.

The undercover agent studied the grainy copy for a minute. “Most interesting,” he murmured. He looked up at Buck who was glaring at the picture.

“Damn,” he muttered.

“Interesting because?” Sanchez prodded.

Standish took another look at the picture before saying, “We appear to have fallen into quite a morass.”

“How so?”

“If this picture is indeed that of Mr. Tanner,” Ezra handed it back, “then he, too, attended the meeting with Mr. Ingram earlier this evening.”


“Excuse me, I misspoke. He was not part of our meeting but he was there in person.”

“Are you sure?”

Standish gave the big man an affronted glare. “I passed him at a distance of less than ten feet. Our eyes met briefly before he looked away. I am certain of my identification.”

“I saw him too,” Buck said flatly.

“Good lord." Josiah’s mind scrambled to try to make sense of this new information. “This is getting more complicated by the minute. You two had already left by the time Chris gave his statement last night. According to the original police report, Eli Josephson identified Tanner as the man who murdered a bystander. Which is all well and good but Chris said that Tanner told him he was after the real killer.”

“Did Mr. Larabee believe him?”

Josiah shrugged. “He didn’t say.”

Buck and Ezra exchanged looks again.

“If Mr. Tanner is telling the truth, then Josephson is lying.” Standish was quick to pick up the thread.

“And the most likely reason he lied . . .” The profiler looked at Ezra who finished the thought.

“Is because he is or he knows the actual killer.”

“Who Tanner’s chasing, if he’s telling the truth," Buck put in.

Ezra ignored this lapse in grammar. “Unless this is all part of some elaborate charade.”

Josiah thought about it. “That doesn’t fit Bartolommeo’s character. Besides, it doesn’t make any sense." He sighed in frustration. “Why didn’t Nathan or JD say anything about Josephson being there?”

Beneath the well-cut suit Standish's shoulders lifted and dropped. “I am sure the name is in their report but they would have had no reason to connect it to the murder suspect who briefly detained Mr.Larabee.”

“True,” Josiah admitted. “How'd Ingram introduce him?”

“Merely as an associate.”

The profiler wearily rubbed his face. “I’ve never been a fan of coincidences,” he murmured.

“Nor am I." Standish looked thoughtfully at the big man, then shifted his gaze to his partner. “You two have known Mr. Larabee longer than I. Do you believe he will be disturbed by this information?”

“I think he’ll go ballistic,” Buck said immediately.

“I think that's quite likely,” Josiah agreed.

“In that case, I am grateful I will not be participating in that discussion.”

Josiah grinned wryly. “I wish I wasn’t." His mind was racing now. “We need to find out the connection between Ingram and Josephson, and if Josephson is the same man who fingered Tanner. I’m guessing he is; it would be too big of a coincidence otherwise. If so, that's probably why Tanner's here.”

“It is unfortunate that Mr. Tanner is unavailable for questioning.”

“If Tanner’s telling the truth,” Buck said slowly, “if Josephson is the same man who can clear him, then he’s gotta be close by.”

“In which case Mr. Tanner may be in danger,” Ezra noted. “This Josephson has allied himself with Edward Bartolommeo and his people.”

Josiah rubbed his chin while he thought. “If Tanner’s telling the truth, I feel sorry for him. He’s got the police on one side and Bartolommeo’s organization on the other. Talk about walking a tightrope.”

Ezra studied him between narrowed eyes. “Am I correct in assuming that you are inclined to believe Vincent Tanner’s story?”

Buck’s eyebrows rose. “Based on what?”

Sanchez wanted to shake his head. He’d forgotten how sharp their undercover agent was. Standish’s life often depended on how quickly and accurately he was able to sum up someone’s character. It was hard to hide things from the southerner, especially when he wasn’t trying to.

“I did a background check on him,” Josiah admitted.

Wilmington started to chuckle and Ezra’s eyebrows rose. “Mr. Larabee was agreeable to this action?”

“I didn’t ask him.”

Buck laughed harder. “Damn, Josiah, you suddenly got a death wish?”

Standish studied him with raised eyebrows. “I admire your courage, Mr. Sanchez, but I question your timing.”

Josiah managed a smile. “No, Buck, no death wish. I talked to Chris this morning about what I found out about our murder suspect." He sighed gustily. “There may be something going on I haven’t found that might explain things. But based on what I've learned so far, the charges against Tanner don’t fit his character.”

Buck’s amusement faded and was replaced by a thoughtful expression. For his part, Ezra said, “And that is why you believe Mr. Tanner’s claim of innocence?”

It was the first time anyone had said it so plainly. Josiah thought about the possibilities some more before he answered. “I may end up with egg on my face because I don’t have any evidence to support what I’m feeling, at least not yet. But at this moment I'm leaning toward believing him.”

“What does Mr. Larabee think?”

The profiler grinned wryly. “Chris is still too mad to listen to anyone about anything.”

“Ah, yes, not an unfamiliar stance with our fearless if not always reasonable leader.”

Wilmington rolled his eyes and Josiah smiled again. “I dare you to say that at our next meeting.”

“When have I ever indicated to you that I am suicidal?”

Sanchez laughed outright; so did Buck, and even Ezra cracked a smile. The profiler began stacking the files back in his briefcase.

“Is there anything else you want me to pass along to Chris?”

Standish looked at Buck who shook his head. “Nope, Ez covered all the high points.”

“I will advise you when Mr. Ingram sets up another meeting,” Ezra said. “I doubt if Mr. Bartolommeo will be present when we next meet but at the least we should be able to set the parameters for a subsequent meeting which will include his presence.”

“How much time do you think we’re looking at?”

“That depends largely on how quickly Mr. Bartolommeo wishes to dispose of the stolen weapons. If all goes well, perhaps a week. Perhaps longer.”

“At least that gives us an idea." Josiah rubbed tired eyes. “No matter how I frame it, Chris isn’t going to be happy with these new developments.”

“Better you than us,” Buck grinned and Ezra’s lips quirked. “You have my sincere sympathy, Mr. Sanchez.”

“Thanks.” Finished loading up his briefcase, Josiah forced it shut, locked it and stood up. “You take care of yourself, brothers.”

“As always, Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra returned while Buck looked smug. “I trust you will do likewise.”

“I'll do my best.”

Josiah slipped out and pulled the door shut behind him. When he walked out of the hotel he suppressed a sigh at the realization it was raining again. No doubt the good Lord knew what he was doing. The profiler wished he could say the same.


The longest Vin ever spent at one time in a hide, waiting on his target, was eleven days. That delay had been caused by constantly changing intel. In the end, he’d been successful but it wasn’t an experience he ever wanted to repeat.

Four days after an uncharacteristically silent Josephson and his cousin met with two ATF agents who were either working undercover or had gone bad, Vin was ready to chew nails. This despite the fact that it was less than half the time he’d spent in that long-ago hide.

Of course, the objectives had been different back then. There had also been ongoing radio contact with his team and, most important, he hadn’t been alone. His spotter had been with him the entire time and Vin and Andy had whiled away the hours with all kinds of rude take-offs on Hollywood war movies.

Vin winced away from the memory of Andy and focused on the cup of coffee in front of him. He needed to pay attention to here and now, although here and now only added to his feelings of frustration.

He sat in the corner of a small coffee shop across the street from Ingram’s condominium building, drinking what felt like the thousandth cup of bad coffee he’d had since coming to Denver.

It seemed like he hadn't accomplished much of anything the last four days. True, he'd gone back to the hangar twice to make sure the stolen weapons were still there. The last time he’d been surprised to see a lot more guards around the building and there was no way he could get inside again without taking out some of them. It wouldn’t have been that hard except Vin didn’t want to alarm Ingram or his people. Trusting that the increase in security meant the weapons were still stockpiled inside, he slipped away as quietly as he arrived.

He felt uncomfortable every time he thought of those weapons. There they were, hidden in that hangar, just waiting for the right piece of garbage to come along with a big suitcase of money. And then . . . the thought of how those weapons could be used if the bad guys got their hands on them made him a little sick to his stomach. More and more he was thinking about calling Larabee, or at least the cops. They would make sure the weapons didn’t fall into the wrong hands.

The problem with doing that was the same one he had been struggling with since his initial discovery. If he alerted the cops he would also alert Ingram and his people who would probably immediately disappear, along with Josephson. If Josephson disappeared there was no telling how long it would take Tanner to find him again. Meanwhile, Vin would have to stay low to avoid the radar of any law enforcement types. For now, he decided to keep an eye on Ingram in hopes of laying hands on Josephson, while also keeping an eye on the stolen weapons.

So Vin had continued to follow Ingram, for all the good it did him. Any other meetings the man might have had took place inside a number of different buildings, all of which contained security that he couldn’t breach without leaving evidence of his incursion. Since he didn’t want to alert anyone to his presence, he stayed outside and, more often than not, got rained on by yet another storm passing over the city.

Most annoying of all, while he saw Josephson occasionally with Ingram, Vin never saw Josephson out on his own. Whether this was the bastard's choice or Ingram’s was impossible to know. The end result left Tanner feeling even more frustrated.

Patience had been an integral part of his work in the Rangers. It was practically second nature to him. But patience was coming hard these days because he badly wanted this mess cleared up.

Vin couldn’t think of anyone he’d ever despised as much as Eli Josephson. The son of a bitch had killed an innocent man and framed Vin for the murder just because he couldn’t stand being out-smarted. Josephson hadn’t only stolen that man’s life but he’d stolen Vin’s life, too.

Every time Vin thought about the rival bounty hunter he could feel the hate welling up. No matter how much he tried to ignore it, the feeling was still there, close to the surface, waiting for him to drop his guard so that it could erupt. He wasn’t used to the feeling and he wasn’t used to constantly being worried about losing control.

As much as he wanted to, Vin had no intention of killing Josephson. No, once he got his hands on the murdering bastard, they were first going to have a little heart to heart talk so that Josephson knew his only chance to avoid pain and keep breathing was to tell the truth. Then Vin would drag that son of a bitch’s miserable carcass into the first police station he came across where he could make a full confession.

And then . . .

He stopped the direction his thoughts were leading him. Thinking about a future where he would be free of the nightmare of being locked up was distracting and he couldn’t afford to be distracted.

Vin took another gulp of coffee and refrained from making a face at its weakness. It seemed like no one in Denver knew how to make decent coffee. At least it gave him an excuse for hanging around here and –

He stiffened at the sight of Frank Ingram walking out of the building, accompanied by his bodyguards and Eli Josephson. At almost the same time, the Lincoln sedan that Tanner had been following around for the better part of a week drew up beside the curb. It looked like he was going for another ride on his motorcycle.

Vin had made it a habit always to park his Harley a block away from wherever Ingram was. As soon as he turned the corner and was out of sight of the mobster, he hotfooted down the street to his ride. Just as he threw a leg over the seat Vin heard thunder rumble overhead. Hell.

He shoved his helmet on and pulled out into the traffic. It was late afternoon, almost rush hour, and the cars were crowding up and slowing down. Despite the hour the sun hadn’t set and still peeked out periodically from behind the dark clouds, for which he was grateful. He needed all the visibility he could get, especially with the rain increasing.

There was the sedan, half a block ahead. Vin slipped in behind a pick-up truck for cover and kept his eyes on the sedan. After following for several minutes, he knew where they were going. Back to the hangar.

Hunching his shoulders didn’t help against the increasing cold but it couldn’t touch the warmth inside. Maybe this wasn’t important but if it was he was going to be right there, making sure the weapons didn’t go anywhere while making sure the same about Josephson.

Because night hadn’t yet fallen, Vin kept further back than the last time he’d followed Ingram’s car. When the Lincoln turned onto the long driveway leading to the hangar, he kept going straight. Approximately a mile further he saw some fallen trees a few yards back from the highway. After a quick look around to ensure he was unobserved, Vin pulled over and took his motorcycle behind the trees. Once he had it safely hidden from view, he pulled some broken branches over to hide it even further.

Still crouched behind the Harley, Vin studied the surrounding terrain. It was a hell of a lot more open than he liked. From here, the hangar was screened from sight by another stand of aspen mixed with evergreens. He was right on the edge of a broad mostly open field.

When he glanced in the opposite direction two more fields, one of corn and the other lying fallow, stretched between him and a barn a couple miles down the road. To his relief, there was no sign of movement and he turned his attention back to the hangar. When he’d passed the driveway he’d noticed something new – a couple of guards out front keeping an eye on the road while using the dubious cover of the small grove of aspen in front of the hangar. Which meant he wouldn’t be able to use the gully to get in this time.

He hadn’t been able to scope out the terrain around the hangar last time and when he thought about how many guards were around, he knew this wasn’t the time to go exploring. Which left him with just one possible avenue. It was only about three-quarters of a mile to the hangar if he went cross-country, except most of that was open land. The part of the field containing corn would provide some cover, even though a lot of the stalks had been damaged by the recent bad weather. But the rest of the field, broad and empty, still stood in the way of reaching the hangar.

Vin blew out a breath and reached into the Harley’s saddlebag to pull out his small sniper scope. He hoped a little covert observation would reveal another way in because he didn’t like the alternative.

Five minutes later he lowered the scope, swearing. So much for covert observation. All it had done was confirm Tanner’s initial suspicion. The only way to get to that hangar was across those damn fields.

Making up his mind was one thing. Acting on it was something else. As much as he wanted to get across that dangerous expanse of ground as fast as possible, he knew better than to hurry. Several years separated Vin from his Army training but the voices of his instructors still rang in his ears sometimes, especially when he was in a tight spot.

As he surveyed the terrain between where he was and where he needed to be, those voices echoed in his mind. “Remember, soldier, the only time a sniper should be running is when he’s being pursued by the enemy. . . .” “If you want to keep breathing in enemy territory, don’t forget that slow is fast and fast is dead.”

There was no help for it. At least his dark clothes blended in with the terrain and the rain clouds now completely hid the setting sun and, along with the intermittent downpour, decreased the visibility even more. With all the recent rain, the field had to be a mass of mud, which would also help to hide him as soon as he was covered with it. All of which was a good thing. Being wet and cold wasn’t a big deal. Time would fix that. The lousy weather would help ensure he’d have that time.

Carefully stowing his scope inside his jacket, he then zipped it all the way up and took a last look around until he was satisfied that there was no one to see him. Setting aside his soaked condition, the hard rain and the ever increasing chill, Vin dropped belly-down to the ground and began to move with agonizing slowness in the low crawl that had saved his life more than once during his Ranger days.


Chris checked his weapon before sliding it back in its holster. A glance at his watch told him they had plenty of time but he always preferred to get into position early rather than take the chance of an unexpected delay.

“Chris?” Josiah stood in the open doorway. “We’re ready to head downstairs.”

“JD still following Buck and Ezra?”

“Yes, he’ll stay with them until they get back to the hotel. Then he’ll meet us out there." Josiah smiled faintly. “Why Ingram had to wait until this morning to show Ezra/Ernest the ‘sample’ I don’t know but JD said everything went okay.”

Chris nodded absently. “All right." Taking a last look around to make sure he had everything, he strode out of his office.

In the outer office Nathan was stuffing a few more medical supplies into his already bulging pack.

“Expecting trouble?” Chris asked dryly.

“Always,” was the equally dry response.

With Josiah and Nathan on his heels, Chris took the elevator down to the garage and slid behind the steering wheel of the SUV. Josiah sat beside him and Nathan slung his pack in the back seat and got in next to it.

The drive was quiet while they made their way out of the city. At one intersection Larabee had to brake sharply to avoid hitting a car that ran the stop light and he cursed.

“I can just imagine what Ezra would say about this,” the medic said unexpectedly.

Chris ignored him but Josiah half turned in his seat. “What’s that, Nathan?”

“Attempting to ride to the rescue while having to maneuver through rush hour traffic lacks a certain finesse." Nathan even had Standish’s elegant southern drawl down. Josiah chuckled and Chris smiled in spite of himself.

“That does sound like something our loquacious brother would say,” Sanchez agreed.

Larabee shot him a look. “Hell, Josiah, it sounds like Ezra’s rubbing off on you, too.”

That generated a few more chuckles but their amusement faded as tension increased. Once they were beyond the city limits the traffic thinned out and Chris drove faster. Twenty minutes later they got off the freeway and Josiah spoke up.

“Our exit is a half-mile past the next mile marker.”

Chris already knew that but nodded. The best thing about being part of a team was the knowledge that he wasn’t alone. After he lost his wife and son, Chris Larabee wanted nothing more than to be alone to drown in grief and alcohol. It took a long time, and the stubborn persistence of his old friend, Buck Wilmington, to drag him out of his black despair. What time and Buck had started, his team of misfits had continued. His healing wasn’t complete. Larabee didn’t think it ever would be. Nonetheless, thanks to his team, he had managed to regain a large part of his life.

He couldn’t count the times one or more of them drove him crazy, but that wasn’t important in light of their jobs. No matter how dangerous things got, Chris knew that he could count on his teammates to back him up, just like they knew they could count on him.

It was a reassuring thought.

As soon as Ezra got word to them this morning that he would be meeting with Ingram and Bartolommeo later today to purchase the weapons, Chris had been planning feverishly. A check of the records on the hangar where the meeting was to be held indicated that it was owned by Starcrest Corporation, an innocuous enough name. But earlier in the week Josiah had come across the same name while researching Bartolommeo’s background. Patient work through a series of dummy corporations and holding companies led back to Edward Bartolommeo.

Knowing Standish was going to be meeting with the mobster on Bartolommeo’s turf in a few hours was enough to give Chris a case of heartburn. Yes, Buck Wilmington would be along to play bodyguard but that didn’t ease his concern. Larabee wanted to get out there and into position as soon as possible.

They didn’t know for sure that the stolen weapons were being kept at the private hangar, but it seemed likely. “Eric Stillman” would insist on inspecting the weapons before handing over the money, so the guns had to be there or, at worst, close by. Nailing Bartolommeo while he was in possession of the stolen weapons would be a perfect and satisfying resolution, so long as it didn’t cost the team their undercover agents.

Their plans had been set. The team knew what it had to do and how. Team Two would be along to back them up and they had been thoroughly briefed.

There was still one wild card that Chris didn’t know what he was going to do about, not that he had any control over it.

The wild card. Vincent Tanner.

Since Ezra’s identification of Tanner at the bar during his first meeting with Ingram, both Chris and Josiah had been struggling to understand how the murder suspect fit into this. Having worked with the profiler for several months, Chris had come to understand how the older man thought. It wasn’t hard to see that Sanchez believed in Tanner’s innocence.

Chris wasn’t so sure, though he had to admit the connections were intriguing. When Josiah’s research uncovered the fact that Ingram and Josephson were cousins, one connection was confirmed. And when he confirmed that Josephson was also the witness who identified Tanner as the killer of an innocent bystander, a couple more dots were connected. Yet another connection was made by the discovery that the Chief of Police of Tascosa was related to Josephson. Finally, learning that Tanner and Josephson had worked for the same bond agency as rival bounty hunters brought the connections full circle. The elements for a frame were all there.

When he’d regained consciousness to find himself handcuffed to a pipe in an abandoned building, Chris had wanted nothing so much as to rip Tanner limb from limb. As furious as he had been with the murder suspect’s kidnapping/rescue last week, he hadn’t forgotten the man’s words – that he was after the real killer who had set him up for the murder. If he was telling the truth, and if Josephson was the real killer, then it explained what a murder suspect in Texas was doing in Denver, Colorado.

It was enough to give Chris a headache.

If Josiah’s suspicions were correct, then it was likely Tanner was going to show up at the meet between Standish/Stillman and Bartolommeo. If he did show, what could they expect? He was ex-military, a former Army Ranger. And a trained sniper. That last thought gave Chris nightmares.

During their unconventional first encounter, Tanner hadn’t struck him as a loose cannon. The Texan had said that when he found his man he was going to turn him over to the police. That was encouraging. Unless he had been trying to play the ATF agent but Chris didn’t think so.

Thoughts of the damn bounty hunter had been unsettling Larabee all week and he had no idea why. If he had his way he’d –

He suddenly realized that rain was spattering the window and decreasing visibility. He growled as he switched on the windshield wipers

“Damn, it’s done nothing but rain for almost two weeks.”

“It’s amazing, especially considering the time of year,” Nathan agreed.

Josiah glanced out the passenger window. “It looks like the clouds in the distance aren’t as dark. Maybe this won’t last long.”

“Let’s hope not. We don’t need bad weather complicating the bust.”

Spotting the mile marker, Larabee slowed and turned onto the frontage road. He continued east, paralleling the highway but going at a much slower pace. He heard leather creak as Josiah shifted in his seat.

“The hangar should be just ahead.”

A minute later they drove past the driveway that disappeared among a stand of aspen almost a mile away. Chris kept his eyes on the road, knowing both Josiah and Nathan were eyeballing the place.

“There’s definitely a building beyond the trees,” Josiah confirmed as he settled back. “The aspen do a good job of screening but it’s too large to hide.”

“It has to be the hangar,” Nathan said. “It’s in the right place and there’s nothing else around but fields.”

Josiah smiled over his shoulder at his teammate. “And our destination.”

“How much further?”

“Just over a mile, straight ahead.”

Soon they would be in place. Their mission was to locate and retrieve the stolen weapons and arrest the people responsible for stealing them. However, Tanner was a wanted fugitive. If he showed up, Larabee would arrest him too and figure out the rest of the puzzle later. Getting hold of those weapons was his main focus.

As much as he had wanted to shoot the Texan a week ago, he hoped he wouldn’t be forced to do so today.

“There it is,” Josiah noted.

A barn loomed in the distance and seemed to grow in size the closer they got. Chris slowed down and turned into the gravel driveway. An old-fashioned farmhouse that had been hidden on the other side of the barn greeted them.

The barn doors were open and he drove inside before stopping. They piled out and immediately went to the back of the SUV to pull out their gear. Chris heard approaching footsteps and turned quickly, his hand slipping beneath his coat to rest on his pistol. A small, wizened figure in a plaid shirt shuffled around the corner of the garage and peered inside.

“You made it, huh?”

Chris ordered his pulse to slow down. “Yes, sir. Have the other members of my team arrived?”

“Nope, just you.”

“We very much appreciate your assistance, Mr. Davenport,” Josiah said as he strode past Larabee, his hand extended.

Sanchez had investigated the man once they discovered his farm would make a perfect observation post. The old man was the last of his family. Although he occasionally employed local teenagers to work on his farm during the summer, no one else was around this time of the year, which pleased Chris. The fewer civilians he had to worry about, the better.

They shook hands while Davenport chuckled, a surprisingly youthful sound. “Hell, I’m glad to help. ’Sides, this is the most excitement this place has seen since the flood of ’86.” He gestured widely. “You wanna come inside? The coffee’s just about done.”

Chris started to shake his head but Josiah’s deep voice sounded first. “That’s a very kind thought, thank you." He looked at his team leader. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take Mr. Davenport up on his offer and bring us all some fresh coffee.”

“That sounds great." Nathan had come up behind them and was now smiling warmly at the old man.

Chris resisted rolling his eyes but it was a near thing. He knew perfectly well what his teammates were doing. So he wasn’t a people person, he got the job done. He’d leave P.R. to the other members of his team.

“Fine,” he said resignedly. “Nathan?”

“On it.”

Josiah rejoined them during their third and final trip from the SUV up to the hay loft. Climbing the stairs for the third time, Chris set down his last armful and peered out the loft door. From here he had an almost clear view of the hangar a little over a mile away, only slightly hindered by a few trees.

He nodded in satisfaction. “Where are the binoculars?” he asked the empty air.

Nathan’s head appeared at the top of the stairs followed by the rest of him. “Second pack. JD’s bringing the new equipment that we can set up on a tripod.” He set down the box he'd been carrying and disappeared down the stairs.

Chris rummaged through the pack the medic had indicated. The high-powered binoculars had served them well but it was time they stepped up to the next level. He was looking forward to seeing what Buck insisted on calling “JD’s new toy.”

He found the binoculars and studied the terrain, frowning at how the clouds and rain cut down on visibility. Two of the fields between the barn and the hangar still contained remnants of cornstalks, though they had been damaged by the recent storms and there were several bare patches of mud in the field. The field closest to the hangar was a sea of mud, bare of any cover. There was no way to sneak in across these fields.

Larabee swung the binoculars back to the hangar. He didn't see the car he was looking for. Good. They had gotten into position in time.

What wasn’t good was the number of guards around the hangar carrying - hell. He saw AK-47's and several AR-15's. The ATF teams were going to have to be damn careful moving in; everyone needed to know the kind of weapons they would be going up against.

He thought back to the gully that paralleled the long driveway up to the hangar. With the aspen between the building and the road, the gully was well shielded from the guards. Sure as hell it provided more cover than the fields with their large, bare areas. The main problem with using it would be getting in close enough to take out the guards stationed near the aspen; otherwise the bastards would see anyone coming.

He heard the faint crackle of radio transmissions down on the main floor of the barn and Josiah’s voice, though it was too low for him to hear. A minute later the profiler called up to him.

“Chris, that was JD. He should be here in a minute.”

Movement in the distance caught Chris's attention and watched the dark blue van approach through the downpour.

“Here he comes,” Josiah called.

“I see him.”

If JD was here that meant Buck was with Ezra. Chris glanced at his watch. The two agents should be on their way by now.

The van disappeared from view when it turned into the driveway but he heard it drive up and stop, then a minute later the sound of garbled voices. Chris kept his eye on the hangar and was glad to see no unusual activity. The van hadn’t been noticed when it drove by or, if it had, it’d been ignored.

Behind him he heard the stairs creak then a familiar voice said, “This will be a great spot for surveillance!”

Chris sighed to himself. Despite a year with the Boston Police Department and eight months with ATF Team Seven, JD’s wide-eyed enthusiasm remained a constant. An often annoying constant.

Still looking through the binoculars he said, “It took you long enough to get here.”

“I'm sorry,” JD said apologetically. “Buck wanted to check out the new equipment before he went back to Ezra.”

Chris suppressed a growl. "Of course he did. Is that it?"

“Uh, no.” JD looked slightly abashed and dropped the duffel he was holding. “It's still in the van. I’ll get it.”

He went clattering back down the stairs. Chris ignored the chatter from below as he continued to sweep the area between the barn and the hangar with the binoculars. Despite the damage from the storms, a surprising number of corn stalks were still upright and intact. He bet he'd be able to get half-way across the fields before he ran out of cover. And that would be a problem.

Granted, Bartolommeo’s men wouldn’t be expecting an assault from that direction. Unfortunately, any assault from that direction would eventually leave the agents completely exposed to hostile gunfire. With a mental sigh, he discarded for good the idea of crawling across the fields to get to the hangar.

What was that?

He focused the binoculars on a spot smack in the middle of the barren field. Dark clouds hid the sun, the rain was falling hard and it was difficult to make out much, but for a second he was certain he saw something move.


Chris stared, unblinking, until finally he couldn’t hold it anymore. He blinked and continued to stare intently. Seconds passed, turned into a minute, and still there was nothing to see. He lowered the binoculars slowly. Voices rose behind him.

“Hey! Careful with that thing!”

“I'm being careful.”

“If you break it, Nathan, you’re going to have to explain it to – ”

“Knock it off,” Chris called over his shoulder.

Silence fell and he could faintly hear the sounds of intense whispers. He shook his head, not taking his eyes from the scene outside. Sometimes he felt as if he was supervising a bunch of oversized kids

A few minutes later JD reappeared at the top of the stairs carrying a canvas bag in his arms. “You want to see it?” he said eagerly.

Chris took a last look at the hangar in the distance before backing out of the way. “Just get it set up so we can use it.”

“Right away.”

Larabee kept his attention focused on the view outside while thinking through their plan. First things first would be setting up a perimeter. Team Two would be handling that. Taking out the two guards hanging around the trees in front of the hangar was essential but how they were going to do that was a problem. They were going to need a distraction, one that looked innocent enough so that the guards wouldn’t feel the need to call for help. Various ideas floated through his mind but none jumped out at him as the way to go. Jankowski had said he'd be in contact when his team was in place, and the fact Chris hadn't heard of any problems was, he supposed, a good thing.

He glowered at the rain-filled clouds. On the one hand, lack of visibility would protect his people. On the other hand, it would also protect the perps and he didn’t like that idea one bit.

Ignoring JD's mumbling behind him, Chris raised his not-so-fancy but always reliable binoculars back to his eyes. Once again he swept the fields, looking for anything that didn’t belong. Seeing nothing, he started to turn his attention back to the hangar, then he froze.

There it was again. Maybe.

Had he actually seen something or was he imagining it? It was just the briefest flutter of movement, if that. Maybe the wind tossing something in the air. He kept the binoculars as still as he could, holding his breath, watching and waiting, eyes narrowed in an effort to see better. Only when his lungs finally protested the lack of oxygen did he exhale. He must have imagined it because there wasn’t anything moving out there.


Larabee abruptly realized that Josiah had joined them in the hay loft and his tone of voice indicated he’d said his name more than once.

“Yeah,” he said without taking his eyes from the view.

“Do you see something?” Josiah asked as he moved up beside Chris.

“I thought I did but it was just my imagination.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah." Larabee drew in a deep breath, irritated with himself. “JD, how’s it coming?”

“I need to finish modifying the tripod to accept the new equipment,” their youngest said as he worked. “These binoculars aren’t actually designed to work on a tripod but I think I figured out a way . . .”

“Chris?” Josiah called up. “Jankowski just radioed in. Team Two is moving into position.”

"Any problems?"

"He didn't mention any. Ezra and Buck should be showing up any time.”

Larabee nodded while adding these bits of information to what he was already juggling in his thoughts. So far everything was going according to plan. He hoped like hell things stayed that way.


Time disappeared while Vin worked his way across the dangerously open terrain. The pounding rain, the chilling cold, the discomfort of crawling through an ever deepening sea of mud, a discomfort increased by painful encounters with hidden rocks and stones, were all set aside. His complete focus was split between two concerns – the enemy he was approaching and any potential dangers that might pop up unexpectedly around him. However, the same open terrain that increased his exposure also reassured him. There was no way anyone could surprise him out here. He would see anyone approaching long before they saw him.

Finally his crawl across the fields came to an end. Ahead, only a few aspens and evergreens stood between Tanner and his objective. Beyond the trees was more danger.

When Vin reached the slight cover of the aspens he stopped to give the hangar a closer study. Although the far side of the hangar was beyond his view, periodically armed men appeared and disappeared as they walked around the building.

He watched until he had their timing down. Like clockwork, the guards came into view every ten minutes. Such a regular pattern wasn’t very smart but he was glad for it. Their carelessness would make things a little easier for him.

It was the two guards standing between the door he had used last time and the aspen he had originally hidden his motorcycle in that were the most immediate concern. They weren’t moving around but stood still where they were, except for occasionally stamping their feet and shaking themselves to dispel the rain.

Vin studied them. They both looked miserable and although he couldn’t hear clearly from his position, the tone of their voices made him think they were doing a lot of bitching.

Good. They weren’t paying attention to their surroundings which gave Vin an edge. On the other hand, to get to them he would have to get across the driveway to reach them; that was a good twenty feet away. A driveway which offered absolutely no cover. As careless and inattentive as the two guards might be, they could hardly miss him running toward them.

Vin dug around in the mud until he came with a couple of good sized stones. Then he waited until the guards on the far side of the hangar went by. As soon as they passed, Tanner rose to his knees, using the trunk of an aspen for cover. He hefted one of the stones and when the pair resumed their bitching session he heaved the stone into the stand of aspen.

It wasn’t a loud noise and the rainstorm muffled it even more, but the guards were close enough that they should hear it. When both thugs wheeled around and raised their weapons, Vin smiled.

Go on, you bastards, check it out.

As if they heard him, one of the pair took a few steps in that direction, then stopped and turned around to say something. While their attention was momentarily focused on each other, Vin let fly the second stone.

They whirled around again, almost in unison. Vin was pleased to see the second guard join the second as they advanced warily toward the trees.

That’s it. A few more feet . . .

They reached the slope that led down into the gully. It looked like another argument broke out; neither thug appeared anxious to make their way down that slippery, muddy incline, but eventually, reluctantly, they started to pick their way.

The minutes their backs were turned, Vin leaped to his feet and raced across the road, thankful for the storm that muffled his footsteps.

The pair had only gotten a few steps when he was on them. He took down the first one with a smashing blow across the back of his head. The guard crumpled into the thug in front of him, taking him down in the mud.

Vin heard him swear as he struggled to raise his weapon but it was too little, too late.

As soon as both of them were unconscious, he dragged them down into the gully. He swiftly disarmed them, used their belts to tie their hands and their socks to tie their feet and gag them.

After shoving the unconscious thugs beneath some bushes, Vin went swiftly back up the slope. Only a few minutes had passed since the other guards had passed so he should have plenty of time. Then again, the quicker he got inside, the better.

There was no one in sight and he ran across the parking area that now contained several cars and pressed himself against the side of the hangar.

So far so good.


“Son of a bitch!” Chris snarled.

He walked away from JD and the new surveillance equipment before he started destroying it. It didn’t matter that the equipment wasn’t working. He’d seen enough with his binoculars.

How in the hell Tanner had gotten across those open fields without being seen, Larabee couldn’t fathom. Granted, he thought he’d spotted some kind of movement but despite his best efforts he hadn’t seen anything else. Not until the man suddenly leaped out from behind a tree like some kind of damn ninja and taken out the two guards did Chris have any idea Tanner was around. And now the murder suspect was inside the damn hangar!



Vin reached for the door handle and it turned easily in his grip. As he slipped inside, a new sound turned him sharply around.

Coming up the road was a sleek sports car, its smooth hum growing louder as it approached. Following close behind was a small, rental moving van.

Tanner closed the door almost shut and peered out with one eye while also listening for any noise coming from behind him. If the car stopped out there with the others he was going to have to move fast.

It came closer and closer, traveling slowly over the graveled road. Vin watched tensely. It was almost here, almost directly in front of him . . .

Just as he was about to shut the door and retreat, the sports car and van continued past, leaving the graveled road and proceeding even more slowly across the ungraded terrain until they reached the far side of the hangar and turned right, disappearing behind it.

Good enough.

Vin gently closed the door before turning around. His first concern, that he might leave a trail in his soaked condition, was immediately dispelled by the sight of the wide wet path across the concrete floor. Obviously, several people had gone in and out since the rain began.

He quietly crossed the small anteroom and stopped at the doorway to peer out into the hangar. Unlike the last time, all the interior lights were on which meant his ability to sneak around undetected had just decreased. The lights in the office were also on and he could see the backs of a couple of heads in there.

Of greater interest was the fact that the door to the cache of weapons was open and the boxes of M4’s were being carried out and stacked just inside the open hangar doors. And standing nearby were several heavily-armed guards.

The approaching hum of a vehicle caught everyone's attention and Vin watched the sports car that had passed by a minute ago stop just beyond the hangar doors; the moving van stopped behind it.

He crouched instinctively even though no one was looking in his direction. The driver’s side door of the sports car opened and he saw the peacock getting out, a second later the big guy he had dubbed Mustache emerged from the passenger side.

Everyone was focused on the newcomers. Vin looked back at the office but the pair inside hadn’t looked up from whatever they were doing.

Damn. Well, there was no help for it. He doubted the situation would get any better.

The same tactic that had enabled him to creep across an open field undetected would work here. Again he dropped belly down to the floor and, keeping his legs together, moved forward with excruciating slowness, pulling himself along with his fingers while pushing with his toes and the sides of his feet. It was the most covert movement Tanner knew, and also the slowest.

Always before the tactic had included holding a rifle by its sling while the rifle itself rested across the back of his hands. He wished he had one now. Considering all the firepower arrayed against him Vin felt naked, even with his SIG. The weapon he really wanted was upstairs and it was going to take him a good while to get up there undetected.

The crawl up the stairs was agonizingly slow and nerve-wracking, made even more so because the risers were open and offered no cover. Anyone who looked toward the stairs would have to be blind to miss the body sprawled over it.

There was nothing to do but keep going, inch by agonizing inch, ignoring his body's painful protests while listening as hard as he could for the approach of danger.


Despite Tanner's appearance everything else seemed to be going according to schedule, not that it eased Chris's anger. He tried to set the emotion aside. Now that his undercover agents had arrived they were ready to move into the next, dangerous phase.

“Chris." Josiah's voice crackled slightly through the radio.


“Hold on, I’m putting Jankowski through.”

Chris waited impatiently for the leader of Team Two to speak while glaring at JD who was working on the equipment. He wanted another look of the terrain, a better look than his binoculars could provide, and so far the vaunted new equipment hadn’t delivered.

“Well?” he demanded.

“I need to find out what’s wrong before I can fix it,” J.D. said.


Jankowski’s interruption came just in time and Chris turned his back on the irritating scene. “You in position?”

“We are, but something else is going on at that hangar.”

No shit. Chris hadn’t had the chance to update the other team about their wild card. Suspecting what he was going to hear, he snapped, “What?”

“Not sure what it means, but Lucas spotted what he thinks might be a new player suddenly showing up and taking out two of the guards, then going inside.”

That bastard Tanner had just sashayed his way into the hangar while Chris Larabee had been trying to figure out how they were going to get in.

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered.

There was a beat of silence before Jankowski said, “Something you want to share?”

Chris started to answer but stopped, feeling an unfamiliar hesitancy. Jankowski needed to know. Why in hell was he, Larabee, suddenly feeling so . . . what the hell was he feeling?

Screw it. This wasn’t the time for introspection.

“The new player is Vincent Tanner. He’s wanted on suspicion of murder in Texas.”

There was another brief silence. “What the hell is he doing here?”

“We think he's after one of Bartolommeo’s people.”

“Damn. Did you expect him to show up?”

About to offer an angry negative, Chris hesitated again in a rare state of indecision. “No but I’m not surprised.”

“Standish and Wilmington know he’s here?”

“No." It was hard to resist a snarl of frustration. With Tanner’s appearance, all of their careful plans were in danger of going FUBAR. If that happened . . . Larabee didn’t want to think about his two vulnerable teammates in the middle of a firefight. What in the hell was Tanner planning?

Chris clung to the knowledge that the Texan was ex-military. It was unlikely the man would go off half-cocked, at least he hoped to god that was the case.

After a minute of rapid thinking, he came to a decision. “We’re moving ahead with the plan.”

“And Tanner?”

“We’ll take care of him.”

Even after Jankowski had signed off, Larabee continued to hold on to the radio.

We'll take care of him, he'd said.

He meant to do just that, one way or another.


After an interminable, muscle-straining effort, Vin finally reached the top of the stairs and paused to look down to the main floor. Everyone was still standing around the far end of the hangar. While he watched the peacock and his bodyguard got out of the sports car and started toward the group. Two more figures sat unmoving in the cab of the moving van. If this was an ATF undercover operation, they were probably ATF agents, too. Good guys or bad? The fact he didn’t know bothered him.

No one was looking in his direction so Vin carefully moved off the stairs and crawled behind some barrels. Only then did he take his first full breath in what seemed like an hour.

Now behind cover, he dared to get to his knees. There was no telling how quickly all this was going to go down but by the looks of things Vin knew he needed to hurry.

He was relieved to find things as he had left them. The long coil of rope still lay between two columns of boxes. No new footprints disturbed the light overlay of dust, a good sign. An even better sign was finding the M4 carbine where he had hidden it along with the magazines of ammunition.

Keeping an ear cocked Vin quickly got ready. This time when he lowered himself to his stomach he was holding the carbine.

When he made his first reconnaissance of the hangar last week, he had paced out the perimeter inside the building as well as mentally calculated distances from his second-floor hide to certain key points – the planes, the hangar doors, the office. During his years as a sniper in the Army Rangers, he had gotten used to a shooting range of between 300 and 1,000 yards. Rarely had he shot from a shorter distance than 300 yards. Today, he was looking at a maximum of 400 feet.

Looking down from his hide, Vin could see the entire kill zone except for the area directly under him. He shook his head at himself. This wasn’t a kill zone; it was a hangar filled with civilians. But it wasn't like these were good guys, at least a lot of them weren't. His first targets would be the bodyguards; they were the most formidably armed and if he had to start shooting they would immediately try to take him out. His best chance at surviving and succeeding at his mission objective was to do what he had learned to do in the Rangers.

With that in mind, Tanner began to automatically assign distances from the closest to farthest targets. One thing was obvious - if he did have to start shooting, this would quickly turn into a bloodbath. He had the angle, he had the cover; the enemy wouldn’t stand a chance.

Careful, Tanner. This wasn’t war time. But there was no way in hell he was letting those weapons go. As badly as Vin wanted Josephson, if it came down to having to choose between that bastard and protecting the weapons, he’d let the man go for now. If he had to take people down to keep the weapons from being grabbed by the bad guys, he would.

As he surveyed the scene below, Vin relaxed into the familiar routine of his Ranger days. Moving his M4 slowly from one potential target to another, he ran through all the possible scenarios that might occur. Whatever happened, he would not be surprised.

Keeping the bad guys from taking off with the weapons was primary. Of secondary importance was looking out for the good guys. He still wasn’t sure the peacock and his mustached shadow fell into that category but there was no coming back from being dead. If the pair were crooked, better they lived to go to jail. If they were undercover, then they were good guys and Vin would do all he could to protect them.

Best case scenario, the peacock and his bodyguard were part of an ATF sting. He hoped with all his heart Larabee and his people would stop this deal from going down so he could grab Josephson. If the two were good guys, then Larabee and who knew how many other law enforcement types weren’t far away.

Vin watched the peacock and Mustache approach the open hangar doors. Mustache casually slipped his hand inside his jacket in a gesture that fooled no one. Before the guards could react, Frank Ingram came out of the office, followed by Josephson.

“Mr. Stillman – ” he called and everyone looked at him. “I’m glad you made it.”

“Considering we followed the directions you provided,” the peacock said in a languid drawl, “I trust our appearance does not surprise you.”

Ingram's smile looked about as warm and real as a snake’s. “On the contrary,” he said smoothly, “I’m delighted you’re here.”

They shook hands and Stillman looked around the hangar. “It was my understanding that your employer would be present at this meeting.”

“I just spoke with him on the phone. He should be here in about five minutes. Meanwhile,” Ingram gestured at a stack of boxes, “I’m sure you’d like to inspect the merchandise.”

“But of course.”

At Ingram’s gesture, one of the thugs came forward holding a crowbar. He forced open the lid on the top box and Stillman reached in to pick up an M4. Mustache ignored the cache of weapons to keep his eyes on the guards who were watching him.

Wasn’t this all just polite as hell? At least the guards weren’t aiming their weapons at anyone and Mustache was keeping his own underneath his jacket. So long as things stayed calm, there was a good chance they’d all come out of this more or less in one piece.

Movement on the other side of the crate of weapons drew his attention. Josephson moved back a few paces and Vin swore under his breath. Had Ingram gestured him out of the way so Stillman wouldn’t feel pressured? Or was something going to happen?

Stillman had checked most of the weapons in the first box when the sound of an approaching vehicle broke the quiet. Mustache turned so that he had the driveway in view without taking his eyes off the bodyguards. Despite his size the man was quick on his feet and Vin was impressed. He hoped Mustache was one of the good guys because he was beginning to like him.


Larabee climbed down from the hay loft and stopped beside the SUV to take a last look around. He touched his ear piece. “JD, everything still clear?”

From his observation post in the hay loft the young agent had a bird’s-eye view of the entire area with his now working surveillance equipment. “Everything looks good.”

Chris turned to see Josiah adjusting his Kevlar vest and Nathan checking out his weapon. Next he double-clicked his radio and a few seconds later heard a double-click in return. Jankowski wouldn’t be talking now, not so close to the hangar.

“Team Two’s ready,” Larabee said.

Josiah smiled. “Then I'd say it’s time we moved in as well.”

They climbed back into the SUV with Nathan at the steering wheel and Chris and Josiah in the back of the van. They drove along in silence for a few minutes before Nathan said, “Get ready.”

Chris put one hand on the door handle and tensed. The instant he heard the medic call, “Now!” he yanked it open just enough to slip out and drop immediately into the gully that paralleled the road to the hangar. Thanks to Tanner’s interference, it was a safe entry point now.

Seconds later Josiah’s large frame dropped down beside him and they crouched low before starting out. The rain and the ankle-deep mud made their progress slower than Larabee liked. They sloshed forward as rapidly as possible while behind them the SUV continued sedately down the road.

It wasn’t until they reached the end of the gully, just yards from the hangar, that Chris received his first surprise. Peeking out from beneath an overgrown bush was a foot, gleaming white against the surrounding darkness. Josiah moved up beside him and Larabee cautiously lifted the branch.

“What the hell?” he muttered.

“I believe we found the guards that Tanner took out." Josiah’s voice was a low rumble of amusement.

Chris hadn’t seen the end of the fight after Tanner and the guards rolled down the slope but seeing the Texan duck into the hangar told him how the fight ended. The guards were still unconscious and trussed up so they weren’t going anywhere. Shoving the foot further under the bush, he keyed his radio again.

“JD, we’ve reached the end of the gully. You see anything?”

“No, Chris, everyone’s inside the other side of the hangar. You’re clear. Wait a minute, there’s a car coming.”

They waited at the bottom of the slope. Larabee hated being blind, not that he was. JD was their eyes and he hadn’t failed them yet. He still wished he could see for himself what was happening.

“Okay,” JD’s voice again. “It’s stopped in front of the hangar doors and some men are getting out. Hey, I think one of them is Bartolommeo.”

It was going down. Larabee threw a glance at Josiah. “Ready to do this?”

The big man smiled grimly. “Ready.”

Chris keyed his radio. “Move in!”


There were too many people milling around for Vin to get a good look at the newcomers. Two of them were big and brawny, obvious bodyguards. The third man wasn’t as big as the others but his narrow features and cold black eyes sent a thrill of unease down Tanner’s spine. He had no idea who he was but he recognized danger when he saw it. This character was no bodyguard; he was a full-on predator dressed in an expensive dark suit. As soon as he took a step away from the car the bodyguards closed around him.

Five would get Vin ten that this man held Ingram’s leash. Bartolommeo.

The peacock had stopped his inspection of the weapons; he and Mustache were quietly watching. Vin’s interest in the pair rose when he saw Mustache take a step toward the peacock who gave a single, faint shake of his head that stopped the big man in his tracks. There was several feet between them so they made two separate targets, and that much harder to take down if everything went to hell. Though still uncertain of the peacock’s ultimate motives, Vin couldn’t help but approve the tactic.

Ingram went up to the fancy-dressed newcomer and gestured. “Mr. Bartolommeo, this is Mr. Stillman.”

The peacock extended his hand. “I am pleased to finally make your acquaintance, Mr. Bartolommeo. Please allow me to introduce my associate, Mr. Wilson.”

Mustache nodded although he didn’t offer his hand. Which was just as well because Bartolommeo ignored him.

“Mr. Stillman, I’m here because you insisted this deal couldn’t go forward unless we met. Are you ready to show me your money?”

Stillman offered a bland smile. “I will be happy to show you my money, Mr. Bartolommeo, as soon as I finish examining the merchandise.”

Tanner adjusted the scope on his carbine a touch so that he could get a good look at Bartolommeo. He didn’t look like a happy camper, but he didn’t say anything when the peacock returned to the boxes of weapons.

Something was different. Even as instinct twinged a warning Vin looked around. There, at the opposite end of the hangar, just peeking around the same doorway that he himself had come through earlier were two more figures. One he recognized immediately. Larabee. The other was vaguely familiar and a second’s thought pinpointed the memory. Vin had briefly glimpsed him under a street light the night he and his companions came to release Larabee from the room Tanner had left him in.

A tingling sensation ran down his spine. Confused, Vin glanced back at the group by the hangar doors. Nothing changed there. He shrugged in an effort to dispel the feeling. This was a bad time to get distracted.

The bodyguards were still watching Stillman and Wilson but there was no one at the other end of the hangar. That was stupid, not watching their rear. They were depending on the guards outside. Even more stupid. But lucky for Larabee and his people.

He watched the two agents enter cautiously, using every bit of cover available to move further in. A quick look at the other end of the hangar reassured Vin; no one was paying attention. Now he had more good guys to keep an eye on. This was going to be interesting.

Gently he caressed the trigger, his gut confirming what he already knew. It was going to happen soon.


Larabee slipped behind an open crate of plane parts, his eyes darting in every direction in an effort to get a good grasp on the situation.

Josiah ducked behind some other crates a few yards away. He was a lot quicker than his size warranted, as more than one short-sighted criminal could attest. Chris was relieved there was enough cover in the hangar to hide behind while they got into position.

A tingle ran through him, making him shiver. What the hell? He looked around but didn't see anything that might have caused it. He spotted Nathan behind them at the doorway, more confirmation that Jankowski and his people were in place and ready. They would hang back until Larabee gave the signal but it was good to know that things were going according to plan. For now, anyway.

His radio was silent which made it easier to hear the voices at the other end of the hangar. One of them, Ingram, was clearly annoyed.

“You've looked through two of the boxes without finding anything wrong. Do you really intend to go through every one of those damn things?”

“I do not believe that an individual of Mr. Bartolommeo’s perspicacity would purchase items without verifying their legitimacy,” Ezra said calmly. “Therefore I assume you would not expect me to do so.”

There was a moment of silence. Despite the situation Larabee almost smiled. It was nice to be reminded that he wasn’t the only one Standish frustrated with his fancy language.

“Excellent,” Ezra went on smoothly. “I am satisfied with the contents of these two containers. If you will be so good as to have your men place them in my van, I will examine the next one.”

“Oh for – ” Ingram started.

Bartolommeo’s cold voice interrupted. “You sure you have the money, Stillman?”

“I do,” Ezra said matter-of-factly. “However, I am not prepared to hand it over until I have examined all the weapons I am purchasing. I do not intend to purchase a pig in a poke, as I believe the saying goes.”

Those were the words Larabee had been waiting to hear. “Move in now!” he hissed in his radio and a second later his shout echoed the length of the hangar.

“ATF! Drop your weapons!”


When the shout echoed through the hangar Vin knew it was time to act.

He was expecting the bodyguards to act first and he was right. The two flanking Bartolommeo yanked out their handguns. Tanner pulled the trigger once, shifted his sight minutely, and fired again. Both thugs fell without a sound.

Vin shifted his aim again in time to take down the gunman by Ingram who ducked and ran in the opposite direction, immediately followed by Bartolommeo and several more thugs. Suddenly figures were running all over the place and he hesitated, searching for targets.

The peacock had dropped to the ground and was shielded by the stack of weapons. Mustache had backed up until he was just outside the hangar door, using it for cover. Against semi-automatic weapons his pistol didn't look like much protection.

Vin fired again, taking down another bad guy who had snuck up behind the stacked boxes the peacock was hiding behind. The peacock started, half-turned, looking up, before more shooting made him duck down again.

A high-powered bullet smashed into a carton somewhere above Vin and he flinched instinctively before taking out the shooter.

He chose his targets as carefully as time allowed. His attention was torn between keeping an eye on the ATF agents and looking for Josephson. The bastard was down there somewhere, hiding. Several of the guards ran outside and there was an immediate fusillade of weapons fire even noisier than inside.

Methodically, one by one, Vin took out each bad guy as they came into his sights. It was harder than it should have been because he was trying to disable rather than kill. His main concern was to protect the ATF agents now scattered around the hangar, and he cursed the damned crates and other garbage the thugs kept taking cover behind.

He was grimly amused by the confusion of the bad guys. It was taking a while for most of them to figure out they had more to worry about than the ATF agents. Only now did some of the thugs think to look up; these were all using hand guns and Vin doubted any of them were skilled enough to take him out.

The distraction of Bartolommeo's group actually helped the agents and gradually they began to assume control of the battle. Time was running out for the bad guys. They had to know it, too. Vin didn't think any of them were the type to fight to the death for their boss and wasn't surprised to see the occasional figure break away from the fighting and dart outside.

He let them go for he was only interested in one man.


Although Larabee had been expecting Team Two’s arrival he knew Bartolommeo and his men hadn’t. Trusting Jankowski’s team would take care of the outside thugs, Chris focused on the hangar.

In the midst of gunfire, he was startled by the unmistakable sound of rifle fire. Shit! Someone must have grabbed one of the carbines from a box –

The carbine fired again and he abruptly realized the sound was coming from above. Simultaneously, he saw one of the perps drop his pistol and collapse and instinct added it all together in seconds.

It had to be Tanner up on the second level. He was providing cover for Larabee’s people.

Before he had time to assimilate this startling fact he saw people running in his direction. No, not in his direction, they were running for the door behind him.

“Freeze!” Chris yelled as he sighted on the foremost figure.

He saw shock on Bartolommeo’s face before he dove aside behind some machinery. The thug behind him fired at Larabee and wood splintered just over his head, sending Chris ducking even as he fired back.

Beside him Josiah was also firing and for an instant they were deafened by the sound of weapons discharging at close range. But they had better cover and in a matter of minutes Bartolommeo’s people were down, including Ingram who clutched his bleeding shoulder. The only one they couldn’t see was Bartolommeo himself, still hidden behind the machinery.

What worried him was that the weapons fire outside was still intense. It sounded like Team Two might be having trouble. They needed to speed things up in here.

Ignoring the sporadic weapons fire still going on at the other end of the hangar, Chris called out. “It’s over, Bartolommeo. Come out with your hands up.”

A bust of gunfire made him swear as he crouched lower.

Without warning a new sound splintered the momentary silence. Someone was in the Learjet and its propellers were turning.


As soon as he heard the jet, Vin reacted, blasting out the tires before it had a chance to begin to move. Then he turned the carbine back to the center of the hangar floor.

Too many bodies, too close, too much activity.

He wanted to take his time in picking his targets but if he did that Larabee’s people were going down.

Vin fired, shifted aim, fired again, then raised the muzzle slightly and flipped to semi-automatic. It was impossible for those below to know what he was aiming at, but the rapid-fire shots sent everyone ducking.


The thug moved even as Vin fired. The shot that would have caught the man in the shoulder struck him square in the chest.

He redirected his aim and fired again. Another bad guy went down.

Some part of his mind had been counting while he fired. Even as he fired the last bullet in the magazine, he yanked it out and shoved in the second one while scanning the floor.

A lot of men were still darting around and he wasn’t sure who belonged to Larabee and who belonged to the bad guys.

Wait – that one was aiming for the back of a tall black man. Had to be a bad guy.

Vin fired as the black man whirled around, just in time to see his would-be assassin go down.

As he shifted to a new target, Tanner saw the man he’d just saved looking up and spotting him.

He hoped he was right that this was a good guy.

Suddenly Eli Josephson appeared; he'd been behind the plane. Before Vin could shift aim he fired a shot at Moustache that made him jump back behind cover, then he ran out of the hangar.

Son of a bitch!

Swearing, Vin dropped the carbine, grabbed the rope and jumped to his feet, all in one motion. Throwing the end of the rope high in the air, he watched it fall all over the rafter beam and dangle in front of him. He grasped it and leaped off the catwalk, hurdling into space.


Bartolommeo suddenly dived out from behind his cover firing repeatedly. Chris ducked down as bullets peppered the wood above his head.

Josiah took three long strides from the other side of his own crate that brought him up behind Bartolommeo. Too late, the drug lord spotted him. He started to swing his pistol at the agent, Sanchez fired, knocking the man on his back.

Chris leaped to his feet but Bartolommeo was holding his arm and groaning, no longer a threat. He kept his weapon trained on the man until Josiah had him handcuffed. A swift look around the hangar reassured him that the worst was over and his people all appeared to be in on piece.

Movement in the rafters made him look up and he stared in disbelief at the sight of a lithe figure swinging down on a rope, flying through space to drop lightly to the ground and, without missing a step, running out of the hangar.

Shock froze Chris for a split second, then he was running. Over his shoulder he yelled, “Secure the prisoners!” before racing after the Texan.


Three running strides took Vin out of the hangar and around the corner into another half-destroyed cornfield. He slowed immediately, listening intently. He’d come after Josephson before the killer had time to pull any tricks. The man had to be somewhere just ahead of him.

The gunfire had all but subsided in the hangar and there was a lot of shouting inside and out. Vin tried to shut out the distracting noise. He couldn’t afford to lose to lose concentration now. If he gave Josephson so much as an inch, the bastard would kill him.

Visibility wasn’t worth shit. Night had fallen and rain-swollen clouds blocked the moon and any stars. The only good thing about all the rain was that it had soaked the cornstalks thoroughly. He didn’t have to worry about them making any noise while he made his careful way through. The flip side of that was neither did Josephson.

Vin froze at the sound of a loud thud and a muttered curse just ahead. Not smart, you son of a bitch.

He knew where Josephson was now but, reminded of the slippery under footing, didn’t dare rush. Instead he went forward cautiously, as rapidly as he dared. Another curse drifted back to him and Vin smiled grimly. Old Eli was getting frustrated and losing his temper.

A faint thump caught his attention and he slowed, turning his head in an effort to identify where it came from.

From behind. Someone was coming up behind him.

The same tingling sensation he’d felt earlier ran through him again. Suddenly, irrationally, Vin knew who was following. Damn, the man’s timing sucked.

Or did it?

The plan bloomed fully formed in Vin’s mind and he picked up speed.

A minute later he emerged from a small forest of erect cornstalks to a large, flattened area. Josephson was hurrying across.

“Hold it, Eli,” Vin rasped.

The killer started to turn and Vin added quickly, “You point your gun at me and I’ll blow your brains out.”

Josephson stopped in mid-motion before turning only his head toward Vin. “Tanner,” he said softly, the name a curse.

“None other,” Vin said softly. Despite excellent eyesight, it was hard to see clearly in the drizzly darkness. Ordinarily he would have aimed at the traditional target, center mass, but he wanted the corrupt bounty hunter alive. Better to shoot him in the hip, if - when - it came down to one of them.

“Drop your weapon,” Vin said.

“Why?” Joseph returned, as if they were having a casual conversation.

“Because I’m bringing ya in.”

That brought a short, ugly laugh. “And then what? You expect me to confess all to the cops so you can go free? I knew you were a gutter rat, Tanner, but I didn’t think you were so stupid.”

“You killed an innocent man,” Vin said steadily. “He never did nothin’ to you. You killed him cuz you were pissed at me and wanted me to take the fall.”

Josephson grinned, his teeth gleaming in the darkness. “Worked like a charm, didn’t it?”

It was hard splitting his attention between the killer in front of him and the almost silent approach behind him but Vin was sure he wasn’t the only one hearing the confession.

“I knew you had a hell of an ego but to murder someone for no reason – ”

“Don’t give me that sanctimonious shit, Tanner!” Josephson cut him off. “It’s all about who wants it the most and I want it, you hear me? I want it and I’ll do whatever it takes to get it. Killing that stupid idiot to frame you made perfect sense. I’d do it again in a minute.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

The new voice just behind Vin sent a rush of relief through him. “You heard him?” he said without taking his eye off the frozen killer.

“I did,” Larabee confirmed as he came up to stand beside Tanner. He held his gun on Josephson, unwavering. “Eli Josephson, you’re under arrest for murder. Drop your weapon. Now.”

The order cracked like a whip in the chill air. Josephson looked from the ATF agent to Vin and back. “And if I don’t?”

“If you don’t I’ll blow out one of your kneecaps. Then the other one if you’re still stubborn. You want to be a cripple, that’s fine with me.” Larabee’s voice was colder then the near-freezing temperature and Vin didn't doubt he meant what he was saying.

“Wait a minute.” There was a note in Josephson’s voice that hadn’t been there before. Uncertainty. Maybe fear. “Tanner will kill me if I don’t have a weapon.”

“He’s not going to do anything,” Larabee snapped. “Tanner, hand it over.”

Vin almost refused but knew better. With just a few words Josephson had backed him into a corner. To stay on the agent’s good side, Vin had to obey.

“Fine,” he growled, “but don’t look away from that slippery bastard.”

“I’m not about to,” Larabee said, extending his free hand, his eyes steady on the killer.

Reluctantly, Vin laid his SIG in the agent’s hand. He still had his back-up piece in one boot and a knife in the other but it would take time to reach either one. He had to trust the ATF agent.

“Toss your weapon over here,” Larabee ordered Eli. “Now, or I drop you.”

Josephson turned fully toward them, scowling. “Screw you,” he snapped and threw the gun off into the cornfield.

“That wasn’t what I told you to do,” Larabee said, “but I guess if you’ve got shit for brains I shouldn’t expect much.”

“You son of a bitch,” Josephson said, his hands clenching into fists.

Vin saw a half-smile on the agent’s face. “It’s about time you figured that out,” he said with surprising mildness. “Tanner, you stay put.”

Larabee walked toward the killer with measured strides. Vin watched closely, trying not to let his relief overwhelm him. The agent had heard Josephson’s unintended confession. Vin Tanner was just about home free –

Josephson threw himself back into the partial cover of the cornstalks while shoving his hand under his jacket.

Larabee dropped to the ground as he fired.

Josephson yanked out a gun and fired at the agent.

Vin grabbed his back-up gun and pulled the trigger once, twice.

The ATF agent stopped moving.

Josephson yelped in pain.

Vin ran forward, passing Larabee and reaching Josephson who was still on the ground, snarling as he tried to pick up his dropped weapon.

Another stride and Tanner caught the killer perfectly with a booted foot to the head. Josephson jerked back and laid still and Vin took the pistol from the killer’s bleeding hand. Pausing just long enough to make sure the man was unconscious, he ran back to the other body.

His heart pounding, Vin dropped to his knees beside the agent. A bloody furrow streaked Larabee’s forehead and disappeared in his hair. Thank God, it was shallow. With any luck . . .

“Damn it, Cowboy,” he muttered, setting aside Josephson's weapon and placing his fingers on the side of Larabee’s neck. Feeling the strong pulse he sighed in relief.

“ATF! Drop your weapon and back away!”

Vin carefully laid his gun down besides Josephson's and rose. He took a few steps away from the unmoving figure, keeping his hands away from his body. Mustache was standing only a few yards away, aiming a pistol at him. The big man with graying hair was at his side, also pointing a weapon at Vin.

“Stop right there,” Mustache snarled. “Back down on your knees, lace your fingers together behind your head and cross your ankles. Josiah, check out Chris. Nathan,” he added into the mike of his radio headset, “we need you outside, the back of the building.”

Tanner obeyed silently. He watched the gray-haired man move forward and Mustache snapped, “And keep your distance. He’s tricky as hell.”

Vin knew Larabee was alive but that bullet had to have rung his bell pretty good. Please, God, don’t let the injury make the man forget Josephson’s confession. For a few glorious seconds Tanner had known the delicious taste of freedom. If Larabee didn’t remember or took a turn for the worse, then Vin Tanner was in even deeper shit than before. He was already branded a murderer. Add to that assault – or worse – on a federal agent . . . his throat dried at the thought.

“How is he, Josiah?” Mustache demanded.

Vin met the furious dark blue eyes, keeping his own expression blank to avoid adding fuel to the agent's temper. He sensed more than concern for a fallen teammate. There was friendship between those two.

Stay still, Tanner. So much as twitch and that’ll be all she wrote.

“I think he'll be all right, Buck,” the agent called Josiah said. He was kneeling beside Larabee and his big hands ran gently over the unconscious form. “The bullet just creased his head, barely broke the skin. He’ll probably wake up before we even get him to the hospital.”

Some of the tension faded from the dark eyes glaring at Vin but not the anger. “For your sake, you better pray he stays that way,” he said, his voice dropping to a dangerous softness.

Vin kept his mouth shut. This wasn’t the time or place to try to defend himself. Come on, Cowboy, he urged silently, you need to wake up and remember everything.

Rapid footsteps and flashlights heralded new arrivals. The black man whose life Vin had saved burst around the corner of the building and took in the scene with a single glance. Immediately he lowered his weapon and pulled off his backpack as he dropped to Larabee’s side. Still kneeling on the other side of the fallen man, Josiah looked up with a reassuring smile.

“It doesn't look serious, Nathan.”

“Good, let me see.”

They knelt over Larabee and Vin’s eyes turned to the figure who had followed . . . Nathan, that was his name. Despite the seriousness of his situation, his first good look at the newcomer made Tanner’s lips twitch. It was the peacock, in all his finery. The last time Vin had seen such fancy duds had been in an old, late-night movie.

Despite his wardrobe, the man held his weapon on Vin with expert calm. “Buck,” said the peacock, “what about that rather unpleasant individual?” He gestured at Josephson who still wasn’t moving.

“There’s enough of us now to keep an eye on this one.” Buck glared at Vin. “Go ahead and check him out, Ezra." He frowned and pressed one hand to his headset. “I didn’t catch that last part, JD. What?" He listened for a minute before saying, “We’ve got everything under control here. Let me know when Jankowski’s team is finished sweeping inside.”

In an effort to distract himself from his position, Vin mentally ran through what he had just learned. Watching the smooth interaction between the men, he knew his earlier suspicion had been right. He was looking at a team. Larabee was the leader, Mustache – Buck - appeared to be second in command, Josiah was the heavy-set guy who’d first checked out Larabee, then there was Nathan, he seemed to be some kind of medic. Vin hadn't known the ATF had its own medics. The last two members of the team were the peacock, Ezra, and someone called JD who was apparently handling electronic surveillance and communications.

“Buck?” Nathan looked up, “we need to get Chris to the hospital.”

Worry darkened the big man’s eyes. “JD, is that ambulance here yet? . . . Okay, tell the paramedics to come on back. How is he, Nathan?”

“Josiah’s right, the injury doesn’t appear serious.” Nathan smiled. “I want to get him in the ambulance before he wakes up enough to fight a trip to the hospital.”

Buck smiled in obvious relief and chuckles were heard from the other men. The one called Josiah moved over to kneel down behind Tanner. Vin knew what was coming and couldn’t help tensing.

“Take it easy,” Josiah said softly while big hands closed over Vin’s wrists.

A shudder ran through Vin but he forced himself to relax and allowed the man to cuff his hands behind him. When he heard the faint click of the handcuffs another shiver ran through him and he fought back panic. A hand rested on his shoulder.

“Steady now,” Josiah said in that same quiet, reassuring tone. “You don’t want to fight us.”

As much as Vin’s instinct was to fight for his freedom he knew there was no way he’d win. Struggling to maintain control, he allowed the big hands to run over him, removing his gun and knife before lifting him to his feet.

“I’ll take care of him, Buck,” Josiah said to the mustached man when he approached.

To Vin’s relief, Buck had finally lowered his weapon. He gave the younger man a hard look and nodded.

“I’ll go check in with Jankowski.”

Vin obeyed Josiah’s steady pressure, walking the length of the building out to the front where police cars and law enforcement personnel were swarming, red lights were still flashing and loud voices were coming from every direction. He glimpsed uniformed officers and several people wearing jackets with ATF printed on the back before dropping his head, not wanting to see all the angry, accusing looks he knew were being directed toward him.

“We’ll be out of here in a minute,” Josiah said quietly.

Vin latched onto the calm voice in an effort to lessen his own turmoil. He knew the agent was leading him to a vehicle that would be taking him in – his heart raced even faster at the thought and he fought back fresh panic.

It was going to be okay. He clung to the thought. Larabee’s men weren’t worried about their leader so hopefully the man would wake up soon and Vin Tanner’s nightmare would finally be over.

Come on, Cowboy, he urged. Wake up.


An hour later Vin was sitting in a hard chair in a room that was closing in around him. He wasn't as uncomfortable as he might have been but keeping his hands behind his back for so long was making the muscles in his arms cramp.

Adding to his discomfort was confusion. He had expected to be put in a cell but instead Josiah had brought him directly to this room in the Federal Building and left him. Vin didn’t know if this change in procedure was a good sign or if Mustache – Buck – wanted him in a different setting so he could rip his head off.

He did his best to ignore the room; he had already studied it thoroughly, what little there was to it. The room was empty except for a table and a couple of chairs. It was nothing more than a box with the traditional one-way window.

A box. Every time he allowed himself to think about that, his heart beat faster. Vin knew in his head he wasn’t running out of air but that knowledge didn’t make the feelings go away.

A faint rattle caught his attention and he looked at the door just as it opened. Chris Larabee walked in, pulled the door shut behind him and stood still, his green eyes focused on Tanner. Apart from the bandage on his forehead he was unmarked. Vin met the cold gaze and hoped he gave nothing away. If the knock to Larabee’s head had made him forget . . .

“I guess you were telling the truth all along.”

Relief swelled inside Vin, so strongly that for a few seconds he feared he wouldn’t be able to contain it. “Yeah.”

“Sorry about you being cuffed so long,” Larabee said as he took a step forward. “That shouldn’t have happened. I’m guessing you want them off?”

Vin couldn’t resist. He brought his hands around in front of him, swallowing a sigh of relief, and held up the unlocked handcuffs. “Ya can have ’em back.”

Larabee's eyes narrowed. “How in the hell did you do that?”

“Just a little trick.”

“Tell me." There was no amusement in the green eyes or the stiff posture. Before he could get in any more trouble, Tanner turned sideways in the uncomfortable chair and stuck his legs out.

“Notice anything different about my boots?”

Larabee frowned as he studied them. “No.”

Vin propped his right foot on his knee and tapped the sole of his boot. “See it now?" As he spoke he flexed his ankle and something glinted in the edge of the sole.

“What the hell?”

“It’s just a thin, flexible piece of wire. Had one on my other boot, too." He reached in a pocket and pulled out the small scrunched up mass of wire. "It works real good on handcuffs and other stuff.”

Larabee glared at the relaxed figure. “How’d you get it off with your hands cuffed behind your back?”

Tanner’s lips quirked. “I told your man, Josiah, right? I told him I needed to use the john and he uncuffed me and stood outside the stall. Nice guy,” he couldn’t resist adding even though the ATF agent’s face was already as dark as a thundercloud. Ordinarily Vin wasn't much of a talker but he figured he needed to say a bit more.

“I got it off my boot and stuck it in my pocket. I figured since I’d been searched already no one would bother again; I was right. After he left me here it just took a minute to get the cuffs off.”

“So you thought you were going to be arrested and wrapped that wire around the sole of your boots ahead of time?" Larabee’s voice was rich with disbelief.

“Nope." Vin shook his head. “It’s always wrapped 'round my boots. It’s come in handy lots a times, for lots a reasons. No one’s ever spotted it.”


The disgust in the man’s voice was almost enough to make Vin smile but he resisted. He didn’t believe in waving a red flag at an already angry bull, not without good reason.

Larabee snatched the handcuffs off the table and looked them over suspiciously before turning his glare back on Vin. "We need to go up to my office so you can make a statement."


"There'll be a lot of paperwork and it'll take some time to run it all through the system so you should stay in Denver until we have confirmation that all charges against you have been dropped."

Vin shrugged. He hadn't planned to go far until he knew the same thing.

Larabee studied him for a long minute before saying, “I have one question for you now.”


“Why did Josephson frame you in the first place?”

It was a painful memory but one he'd known he would have to re-visit. Besides, Larabee deserved to know. The story didn't take long. When he finished, the agent’s green eyes were almost black with anger.

“So the son of a bitch killed an innocent man to frame you because his ego couldn’t take being beat?"

Vin looked down at the scarred surface of the table. “It sounds stupid when ya put it like that, but yeah." He felt uncomfortable under that searching gaze. It seemed to see more than he wanted.

“It wasn’t your fault that Josephson murdered someone.”

How in the hell had the agent known what he was thinking? Vin couldn't help a pained grimace. “I know that in my head but . . .”

“You still feel guilty.”

The ATF agent knew, all right. Somehow. Despite his usual preference for keeping folks at a distance, Vin realized he didn’t mind Larabee knowing something about him that no one else knew. Strange.

“By the way,” Chris said casually, shifting his stance and pulling a familiar-looking weapon out from under his jacket. “I ran across this SIG 229 and was wondering who it might belong to. Any ideas?”

Without expression, Vin held out his hand and Larabee smirked slightly before giving it to him. "And these?" he added, handing over Vin's back-up piece and knife that the bounty hunter stuffed inside his jacket.

"Come on," the agent said, still smirking. "You've got a lot of explaining to do."

Vin followed Larabee out of the room, down the hall and into an elevator. It stopped at the next floor and the doors opened to reveal two men in suits. The older, gray-haired man eyed them with a piercing gaze.

"Agent Larabee, what are you - "

"Excuse us, Judge," Chris said before hitting the button to close the door.

The elevator continued upward. Vin shot a sideways look at his companion. "You shut the door on a judge?"

"He's actually a retired federal judge. Now he's the assistant director of the ATF."

The casual tone made Vin's lips twitch. "He's your boss?"


The matter-of-fact drawl and memory of the surprised expression on the judge's face were too much for Vin and he couldn't hold back a chuckle. To his surprise he heard an answering chuckle beside him. Blue eyes met green, equally amused, and the elevator door slid open, quelling incipient laughter.

"This way," Larabee said

The hall dead-ended at a solid wooden door that was opened to reveal a large office within. Several desks took up most of the space and Vin recognized the men inside.

"Mr. Tanner!"

The powerfully-built, gray-haired man named Josiah hurried over, his face twisted in concern. "Are you all right? I'm so sorry I left you in handcuffs so long. I never intended - "

"Why did you?" Larabee cut in, his eyes cold.

"Just after I left Mr. Tanner, we had a situation with a suspect Team 3 was bringing in. Between subduing the suspect, getting medical aid for the injured agents and explaining what happened to Agent Ramsey when he came looking for his teammates, the time got away from me. " The blue-gray eyes came back to Vin.

"I am very sorry, Mr. Tanner. Are you all right?"

"'m fine," Vin said before Larabee cut in.

"We'll talk about this later, Josiah, but you got lucky this time. Tanner was out of those cuffs almost before you left him."

"What? How - "

"Later," Chris snapped. "Tanner, this way."

Vin nodded at Josiah and followed Larabee. He didn't have a chance to speak to the other two agents sitting at their desk but he was acutely aware of their eyes on his back, the green-eyed gaze of Stillman/Ezra and that of a young man with black hair and hazel eyes who looked like he still belonged in high school.

Once inside the office, Chris closed the door and then did the same to the floor-to-ceiling blinds. Vin automatically took the chair in front of the desk, his eyes falling on the photographs on a shelf beside the desk. In one a beautiful, vibrant, red-haired woman held a small, fair-haired boy. They were sitting in the grass, leaning against a tree and laughing at the camera. The other pictures contained more images of the pair, sometimes together and sometimes separately.

Vin was suddenly aware of the other man standing over him and looked up to see Larabee also gazing at the pictures. Shadows darkened the green eyes and he looked away, feeling as if he had intruded on something he had no right to see.

Without a word, the agent walked around the desk and sat down. Their eyes met again and what should have been an awkward moment suddenly wasn't.

"You ready to make a formal statement?" Chris asked.


"Okay, then."


It was no surprise that winding up the details of this latest case took several days. At the end of them, Chris was feeling both satisfaction and apprehension. The satisfaction came from crossing the last 't's and dotting the last 'i's on the case. The apprehension came from the file folder he was keeping on his desk though he had resisted opening it. Now it was time.

Slowly, methodically, he went through it one page at a time. When he finished he sat back in his chair and thought about the last couple of weeks, so deep in his thoughts he didn’t realize he was no longer alone until a knock on his door startled him.

“Good morning, Chris,” Josiah greeted and held up a sheaf of papers. “Here you go.”

“You hear about Ingram?”

The profiler smiled and dropped the stack on the desk. “I did. I doubt if he's going to rat out Bartolommeo but he seems happy to give up his cousin in the hope of some kind of deal.”

“Josephson was stupid to boast about killing that guy to set up Tanner.”

Sanchez’ smile widened. “Stupid criminals make our job easier.”

“And make it easier for Vin Tanner to be cleared of all charges.”

There was no missing the satisfaction in Larabee’s voice and the profiler chuckled. “You sound almost as happy about that as Tanner must be.”

Chris eyed the profiler thoughtfully. “Come in and close the door.”

Sanchez obeyed, dropping the report on the desk as he sat down. “What's on your mind?”

Larabee put a hand on the file. “This is all the background information we have on Vin Tanner, right?”

“It’s everything I’ve gathered, yes.”

“What do you think about bringing him on the team?”

The blue-gray eyes softened. “His skills would certainly come in handy.”

“Yeah. So?”

Josiah rubbed his chin. “I’d love to have him join us but I’m not sure he’d be willing to.”

Chris frowned. That wasn’t what he had been hoping to hear. “Why not?”

The big man gestured at the file. “You’ve read it, too, Chris. For all intents and purposes, the man has been on his own since he was five years old.”

“He spent time in foster homes.”

Josiah’s expression darkened. “Yes, a lot of them. He must have learned very quickly not to allow himself to care for any of his foster families because he never stayed with one very long." His lips tightened. “So he had only himself to depend upon during those years. And after he ran away from the last one – he was what age, then? Eleven? He survived on the streets for several years, years that didn’t encourage him to form attachments.”

“But he joined the Army,” Chris argued. “Hell, he was a Ranger so he had to learn to work with a team.”

Josiah blew out a breath. “Considering his entire military career is pretty much classified, we hardly know anything about that time. For whatever reasons, he chose to end that connection. And after he was discharged, he turned to bounty hunting, a profession that doesn’t lend itself to a traditional family life." He sat back in his chair, taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

“Even if he isn't a loner by nature," he added, "circumstances have forced the young man into a very solitary existence for almost his entire life. I think it would be very difficult for him to be part of a team.”

Chris threw the pen on the desk and glared at it. “Difficult, okay. But not impossible?”

Josiah considered. “It all depends on Vin Tanner being willing to step outside his comfort zone.”

Chris was silent for a long time. When he finally spoke, his voice was so soft Josiah could barely hear him.

“I’ve got a feeling about Tanner. I want him on the team, I’m just not sure how to go about convincing him.”

“Are you sure this is only about the team?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Unfazed by the glare, the profiler said, “It’s clear you’ve formed some kind of connection with the young man. Use it.”

“Use it?”

It wasn’t easy to confuse their team leader and Josiah swallowed a smile. “Tell him what you want and let him see how much you want him to be part of the team.”

“Of course I want him – ”

Josiah shook his head in reproof. The man was being deliberately thick and they both knew it. “We’re not talking about the team here but the two of you." He paused. When Chris didn’t respond he said, “State your case then let him be. Don’t push. If you do, you’ll lose him. It has to be his choice. And make sure he knows if he says yes to your offer and doesn’t like the job, he can always leave.”

“I wouldn't want him to leave.”

“Chris, you have to give him room to decide for himself." The pale blue eyes were unwavering.

Chris's gaze shifted to the wall. After a minute of silence he said, “I’ll think about what you said.”

Sanchez rose. As he reached the door he heard behind him a muttered, “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Josiah said without turning around.


Two days later Chris sat down on a bench and looked around. Parks were popular in and around Denver. After another conversation with Josiah, he had deliberately chosen one with lots of wide-open spaces in which to meet with his elusive quarry.

The memory of his brief telephone conversation with Tanner last night made him feel uneasy. The surprise in the bounty hunter’s voice when he realized Chris was calling him didn’t bode well for the talk he wanted to have with Vin.

Soon they would have Tanner’s legal situation cleared up and then there would be no reason for the man to stay in Colorado. The thought of the kid – and he really was a kid, only a couple of years older than JD, though he’d had a much harder life – going back to Texas disturbed him in ways he didn’t want to analyze. It wasn’t as if Tanner was going back to family. He would simply be returning to the place where he had grown up to continue a dangerous profession, without support or back-up.

Chris shook his head at the thought. He had to figure out some way to persuade that contrary Texan that he belonged here.

“Deep thoughts, Cowboy?”

Larabee looked up to meet amused blue eyes. “Hell, Tanner, do you always move so quietly?”

The bounty hunter sat down on the bench and looked around. “Nice place.”

Now that Tanner wasn’t standing with the sun behind him Chris could see the younger man clearly and his mild annoyance turned to consternation.

“What the hell happened to you?”

Vin’s right cheek and jaw were both swollen and he had the beginnings of a black eyes. He gave the ATF agent a lopsided smile.

“I brung in a guy that didn’t wanna be brung in.”

Several thoughts came to Chris at the same time, creating a momentary logjam. "You . . . what .

That won him a shrug. "Gotta eat. It's no big deal, I've stuck around here."

Anger warred with worry and Chris glared at the younger man. “Let me guess, you tackled the perp on your own." Vin shrugged again and he resisted the desire to blacken his other eye. “Who was this guy?”

“Name’s Lenny Longstreet, wanted on three counts of murder and two attempted.”

“Shit, Tanner, you went after that bastard without back up? You have a death wish or what?”

“I brung him in,” Vin repeated calmly. “And I got $25,000 for the bounty." A glint of humor made the blue eyes sparkle. “How much money ya reckon ya made today?”

Chris closed his eyes while fighting back the desire to start yelling. That was no way to encourage someone to become part of his team, but never before had he encountered anyone like this aggravating Texan.

After wrestling down his anger he said, “Vin, you need back up out there.”

“I’m used to workin' alone” Tanner's voice was matter-of-fact and Larabee swallowed a curse.

“Well, I’m offering you back up,” he snapped.

Vin looked at him with raised eyebrows and Chris said flatly, “I want you to join my team.”

It was the first time he’d seen the bounty hunter shaken out of his calm. Blue eyes widened and a moment passed before he responded.

“Your team?”

“ATF Special Operations Team Seven.”

“The ATF?”

Larabee almost smiled at the younger man’s astonishment. “Your background check tells me you’re what we need.”

Vin’s mouth opened and closed and this time Chris had to grin. That won a faint smile from the bounty hunter.

“Ya make a habit outta doin’ background checks on murder suspects?”

“Blame it on Josiah Sanchez, our profiler. He figured the way you acted that first night didn’t fit the usual behavior of a murderer so he decided to dig.”

“On his own?" The blue eyes shone with amusement.

“Yeah,” Chris growled.

“That happen a lot?”

“I handpicked every man on my team,” Chris said. “They have their quirks but they’re the best at what they do.”

Tanner’s gaze shifted to the sky. “So why do ya need me?”

“Army Ranger School, Sniper School, SERE training. Not to mention what your instructors said about your leadership capabilities or that you served nearly six years as a Ranger. It’s damned impressive.”

Vin’s gaze turned back to Larabee. “So ya seen my military record, too.”

“Yeah." Chris gave the bounty hunter a slight smile. “At least the non-classified parts. Makes a man curious.”

“I could tell ya but then . . .” Vin let his voice trail off as he eyed the man expectantly. Chris chuckled.

“Yeah, yeah, then you’d have to kill me. No thanks." He turned serious. “I want you on my team, Vin. You have the skills and experience we need.”

Tanner nodded noncommittally and Chris forced himself to be quiet. Josiah’s warning was still fresh in his mind and he trusted the profiler’s expertise. Although he hated to admit it even to himself, he knew his teammate was right. Vin Tanner had to make up his own mind and Chris sensed that the man couldn’t be pushed.

Considering what the young man had already endured in his life, and especially considering the kind of man he had turned out to be . . . Chris wasn’t one for wearing his heart on his sleeve but he’d meant what he said earlier. Vin Tanner was one impressive character.

“Ya checked me out.” Vin’s voice broke into his thoughts. “So ya know I only got a GED. Don’t folks need college to get into somethin’ like the ATF?”

“Yes, but that requirement can be waived.” He wasn’t going to bring up his long meeting with Judge Travis yesterday. All that mattered was that in the end, Chris had gotten what he wanted.

“Experience is taken into account,” he continued, “and your six years in the Army count for a lot. There’ll probably be a few classes you need to take but nothing that should be a problem." He eyed the man beside him. “Does this mean you’re thinking about my offer?”

“I’m thinkin’,” was the quiet response.

Chris tried to relax. He could do this, he would be as patient as he needed to be so long as it led to the Texan joining his team.

Almost as if he was reading his mind, Vin said, “I don’t think I could be part of a team.”

“You were an Army Ranger for several years.”

Vin nodded slowly and Chris was disturbed by the thought that the younger man was suddenly a thousand miles away.

“That was a long time ago,” he said softly. “Things were . . . different.”

A long time ago? Tanner had only left the Army last year. Why had things been different? How had they been different? Chris bit back the questions. If the bounty hunter wouldn’t – or couldn’t – explain further, he would have to accept it. He heard Vin’s deep sigh and watched out of the corner of his eye as the younger man leaned against the back of the bench.

“Does it always rain this much here?”

Chris wondered where that had come from. “No, not at all. Usually we’re lucky if we see fifteen inches of rain in a year.”

That won him a slight nod. “It’s nice right now,” Vin murmured and closed his eyes.

Time and space, Tanner needed both to make up his mind. Chris needed to give it to him, regardless of what that might do to his own nervous system. He leaned back, too. Vin was right, this was nice and when was the last time he’d just relaxed? Chris couldn’t remember. It was strange how comfortable he felt sitting beside the bounty hunter, with no need for talking.

He lost track of time and was startled when Tanner spoke. “There a bathroom ’round here?”

Chris pointed across the park. “It’s over there, the gray building by the road.”

“Be back,” the bounty hunter said, standing up.

Smiling, Chris closed his eyes again. What was it about the long-haired Texan that tugged at him? He didn’t know and it should’ve made him uncomfortable, but it didn’t.

Maybe the fact that this was the warmest, driest day in nearly three weeks added to his feeling of well-being. The so-called weather experts said the series of storms that had been plaguing the area were over. He’d believe it when he saw it. Meanwhile, it felt good to be sitting on the bench and soaking up the rays of the sun. Except the sun was going down and the air was beginning to cool. He would have to see if he could interest Vin in some dinner. There were a couple good steakhouses nearby that he thought might appeal to the kid.

He allowed his thoughts to drift, imagining the younger man as part of Team Seven. With Vin’s training and experience, he’d be a perfect fit. And knowing Vin would be watching their back gave him a feeling of security.

A scream cut through his thoughts and he was standing before he realized it, looking wildly around. He spotted Vin racing across the park toward the road and ran after him. A woman was hurrying in the same direction but since she didn’t appear armed, he ignored her.

The bounty hunter cut across the road and hurtled over the low concrete barrier on the other side. As the slim figure disappeared before his horrified eyes, Chris yelled, “Vin!”

He charged across the road, ducking around a car just leaving the curb, and stopped at the concrete wall to peer down. Fifteen feet below was one of the storm channels that carried excess water out of the city. During most of the year, it was nearly empty. The recent storms had turned it into a raging river and he was shocked to see Vin Tanner swimming furiously toward a red ball bobbing among the turbulent waves.

Chris’s heart stopped when he realized what he was really seeing. It wasn’t a ball, it was a red jacket, it was a little kid!

The fierce currents swept both Tanner and the child away and Chris’s last view was of Vin nearing the small, bobbing red figure.

He spun around and ran for his truck. Spotting a security guard trotting toward him, he bellowed, “Call 911! There’re people in the storm channel!”

The guard turned and hurried away. Chris didn’t slow down until he reached the parking lot and dived into his truck. The tires shrieked in protest as he backed out and raced for the exit.

He automatically hit the siren and reached blindly for his radio to call in the emergency. Hang on, Vin, he urged. Hang on, I’m coming.

The truck bounced and jounced over the curb and Chris drove it mercilessly across the wide expanse of dirt that bordered the road. He had a vague memory of a service road that paralleled the storm channel, the entrance to it was somewhere down –


A wooden gate blocked the entrance and Chris pushed down harder on the accelerator. The truck smashed through the gate, sending pieces of wood flying that he ignored, concentrating on his driving.

He braked hard for a turn then immediately accelerated. Now he was driving parallel to the storm channel and had to divide his attention between driving and casting desperate looks at the turbulent water rushing past only yards away.

“Where the hell are you, Tanner?” he grated.

It was terrifying enough to think of the bounty hunter in that raging torrent. He didn’t dare allow his thoughts to dwell on the child Tanner was trying to save.

Chris Larabee had given up on the thought of any higher power over two years ago and was shocked to hear the words coming out of his mouth. “Please, God, please, please . . .”

The truck bounced hard enough to lift it up off the ground, then landed with a thud on a road made more perilous by the recent rains. He drove it without mercy as he continued to study the fierce brown waters surging and falling below him. The current was moving so damn fast. He dared not look at his speedometer to see how fast he was having to drive to go more swiftly than the current.


Chris caught his breath and almost drove off the road. He corrected the truck automatically, giving only the briefest glimpse at the road ahead while he searched through the angry waves. Surely that glimpse of red hadn’t been his imagination . . .

More frightening was the thought that another red object had fallen into the torrent and was distracting him from his real objective.


There it was, and now he saw why the red spot was even smaller than before. It was being held by a larger figure whose dark clothing made him almost invisible in the torrent of water.

Vin had reached the child and was holding her in one arm, trying to keep her head out of the water while he swam on his side, using his other arm to continue stroking.

The sight caught Chris by the throat and it took everything he had to resist jumping out of the truck and into the raging waters. That wouldn’t help them and would make him worse than useless.

Without looking at it, he fumbled for the radio to broadcast their position to the rescue crew he knew was on its way.

The next street intersection was over a mile away and Chris figured Search and Rescue would set up there. That was too far. The current was too strong, the water too fierce . . .

There was another possibility.

He pushed still harder on the accelerator and the truck tore over the storm-damaged road. One thought dominated his mind – he had to get to the right spot before Vin was swept past.

Desperate minutes later Chris saw his goal ahead. He stomped hard on the brake, controlling the fishtailing of the truck until it skidded to a stop. He yelled his plan into the radio then threw himself out of the cab and jumped into the back, keys in hand.

He unlocked the padlock to the large chest and heaved it open. Pausing only long enough to grab essential equipment, he leaped to the ground and ran for the foot bridge that crossed over the storm channel at this point.

Chris knew he’d arrived first but the speed of the current meant his quarry would arrive soon. He strapped on the harness and attached the end of the rope while mentally measuring the distance from the bridge down to the torrent of water. Figure nine and a half feet.

He swiftly adjusted the rope before tying it off to the stout railing and then climbing over it to perch perilously on the edge. There would only be seconds to react. He had to get this right the first time because he wasn’t going to get another chance.

One hand gripped the railing while the other raised the binoculars he’d snatched out of the glove compartment to study the turbulent brown waters.

Debris filled his vision but none of it was red. His heart pounding, Chris swung the binoculars back and forth, moving ever further upstream, searching, searching.

He refused to believe that they had gone under.

“Come on, Cowboy,” he muttered, “show yourself.”

Every second felt like an hour and with each passing second it was harder to breathe.


Still bobbing in the torrent he spotted the flash of red and the larger, almost invisible form wrapped around it.

Chris watched them approach until he finally dared to lower the binoculars and search with his own eyes. There they were!

They were moving so fast.

He dropped the binoculars and stood poised on the edge of the foot bridge, watching them approach, trying to determine how close to let them get before he jumped.

Not yet . . . not yet . . . not yet . . .

Chris plunged downward, arms extended. He hit freezing cold water a split second before he was struck by a hard weight.

Despite the shock of cold and impact, he clung to the figure and shouted over the roar of the water.

“Hang on to me, Vin!”

Chris felt a hand fumble against his shoulder, then wrap tightly around his waist. Tanner was still holding his upper arm as high as possible in an effort to keep his precious bundle out of the water. Chris got a glimpse of a small, white face under the red cloth. Her eyes were closed and she wasn’t moving.

Fear turned the blood in his veins to ice.

No, God, not another innocent.

The water pounded against him with fierce force but the rope held. Turning his head in an effort to avoid the freezing spray threatening to choke him, Chris hung grimly onto the slighter figure. Vin had done a hell of a job, now it was up to him to keep them all alive until help arrived.

It was mind-numbingly cold. He could feel the chill spreading through his body and tightened his grasp on Tanner. Vin hadn’t said a word but Chris could still feel the bounty hunter’s arm around his waist and that was good enough.

The siren on his truck continued to wail and he prayed that sound with his last radio instructions would draw the rescuers to him.

The harness dug into his chest and back, thanks to the force of the water trying to drive him downstream. Chris was helpless to do any more. He was too numb and too buffeted by the unrelenting torrent to try to climb up the rope again, even if he hadn’t been burdened by two bodies he had no intention of releasing.

The fierce waves splashed around and over him and he kept his eyes and mouth tightly shut, turning his head repeatedly in an effort to avoid the worst of the impact in his face. It was hard to breathe without inhaling the water and despite himself he broke into a spasm of coughing that allowed more of the icy water down his throat.

Don't let go.

The near freezing temperature was an unrelenting as the current and Chris could feel the deadly apathy beginning to set in, made worse by his inability to breathe. He had no idea how Vin or the child were faring and it was getting harder to think.

Don't let go.

The siren wailed unceasingly and Chris wondered dizzily how long the truck’s battery would last. A trickle of awareness broke through the haze. He was hearing more than one siren. Their rescuers were almost upon them.

Thankfulness rose within him and he clung more tightly to his burden.

Hang on, Vin, he thought dimly, help’s here.


Two hours later Chris angrily paced around the room he was currently incarcerated in at Denver General Hospital. He had already thrown out the members of his team who had shown up with orders to get him the hell out of here.

Unfortunately, he hadn't been able to do the same to Dr. Valenkov. The emergency room physician was new to the hospital and despite the stories he must have heard about Team Seven, he refused to be intimidated by Chris Larabee. During their first confrontation a few weeks earlier when Larabee had been brought in with minor injuries - the result of taking down Martin Taylor's gang - the agent had insisted on being released immediately. In a quiet, accented voice, the physician told Chris that either he would submit to an examination or Valenkov would contact Larabee's superiors to advise them that Chris was not fit to go back to duty.

When Valenkov showed up today, Chris barely avoided erupting. With poor grace he allowed the physician to check him out. Only during the examination did he realize that his body was beginning to ache as if he had been beaten up by experts, not that he would admit it.

"Well," Valenkov said when he finished and reached for the chart, "you have had an interesting day, have you not, Agent Larabee?"

"I'm fine."

The snarl that terrified the toughest of ATF agents made no impact on the physician. "A multitude of bruises and contusions, some nasty scratches, a sprained wrist, mild hypothermia." He wrote busily. "Fine, indeed."

"Then I can leave."

"Not yet. A nurse will be in to wrap your wrist and I am going to write some prescriptions for you, antibiotics, a muscle relaxant, and pain medication." His smile disappeared. "I trust you will take the prescriptions as directed, Agent. If you return here with complications caused by ignoring my instructions, I will not be happy. Nor will you be."

Damned physician. Damned hospital.

Chris held his tongue though it was a near thing. He cooled his heels for nearly a half-hour before the nurse showed up to wrap his wrist. When she left she told him she would return shortly with his discharge papers.

He was still waiting.

The hell with this.

Chris shoved the door open and stomped out of the room. His first sight was of Nathan and Buck approaching and he stormed toward them.

"Hold on, big dog," Buck said quickly. "We're here to spring you."

Nathan extended a hand holding some folded pieces of paper and a small bag. With a growl, Chris grabbed them and stuffed them in his pocket.

"Where's my truck?"

"Josiah's bringing it around. I sent JD and Ezra back to the office." Buck's mustache quivered in amusement. "There's plenty of work to do."

"Yes there is." Larabee fixed a hard eye on his subordinates. "You both can go back and help them with it. I'll send Josiah along."

Nathan frowned. "You sure you feel up to driving?"

"I'm sure. Get going." Chris wasn't about to admit how he really felt and he wanted to avoid Nathan's experienced eye. He also had another reason for sending his teammates away. He didn't want them around when he checked on the little girl. And Tanner.

"She's going to be fine, Chris."

He had forgotten that Buck could occasionally read his mind. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." The big man smiled. "The hospital's keeping her overnight but tomorrow they plan to send her home."

Chris didn't need to ask how Buck had found out his information. It seemed like half the nurses in this hospital had fallen under his spell, though the ladies man would probably insist it was more than half.

"What about Tanner?"

Buck exchanged looks with Nathan who said, "He's supposed to stay at least over night. He's like you, lots of cuts and bruises; he also swallowed a lot of water and must have got hit by a branch or something because he has a concussion."

Worry swelled in Chris. "What room's he in?"

"Uh, 405. But I'm sure he'll be okay - "

"Get back to the office," Chris snapped, brushing by them. A short elevator ride took him to the fourth floor and the room he was looking for. He pushed the door open and stopped short.

Standing on the far side of the bed, Vin Tanner was struggling to pull on his wet jeans. He froze at the sight of the ATF agent, then glared.

"Don't ya know to knock before bargin' in a room?"

"What in the hell do you think you're doing?"

"I'm gettin' dressed, Larabee. You ain't never seen anyone do that?"

Chris took a few steps forward and let the door shut behind him. "You're supposed to be in bed."

"I don't need to - " A deep cough cut him off and was promptly followed by more.

Chris moved swiftly around the bed to catch the swaying figure. He felt the impact of each cough jerking the younger man almost off his feet and held on to him. When the spasms passed, he pushed Vin back on the bed.

"You need to stay here," he said firmly.

Watery blue eyes glared at him. "'m fine. How's the little girl?"

"She's going to be okay." Chris looked him up and down. "And you're not fine."

"I ain't stayin'." Tanner scowled.

About to snap back, something stopped Chris and he took a longer look at the shivering man. Someone had tried to dry his long hair and it hung damply around his face, framing the pale features and making blue eyes seem even bigger. He looked younger, like a kid. And there was something else. He looked . . .



Something twisted in Chris's gut. "I'll stay," he said. "For as long as you're here."


"So I can be sure someone's got your back."

Tanner blinked. For a split second Chris thought he saw emotion but it disappeared too quickly for him to identify.

"Thanks but I'm leavin'."

"Vin - "

Vin got to his feet and shoved him back a step. Chris almost stumbled before catching his balance.

"Damn it, Tanner - "

"Get outta m'way."

The deepening drawl contained no give, no room for argument. Chris saw it again, that flash of emotion. This time he recognized it. Vin Tanner was afraid. Of what? Staying in the hospital? Something else? He didn't know the answer but his anger with the stubborn Texan vanished.

"I'll make you a deal," he said and watched Tanner's eyes narrow.

"What kind 'a deal?"

"If you want to check out of this place AMA, you have to stay with me."

For only the second time in their short acquaintance Chris saw astonishment in the other man.


"I have a ranch outside the city. There's plenty of room and no one lives there but me so you'd have plenty of privacy." He wasn't sure why he added the last but he was glad he did when he saw the lines smooth out on the younger man's forehead.

"That's mighty generous but - "

"That's the deal," Chris cut in. "You stay here or you stay with me." Seeing the storm gathering in Tanner's expression he softened his tone. "Come on, Vin. You don't have to do this on your own. I want to help. Let me."

Vin locked gazes with him and Chris felt the connection again, alive and singing between them. The blue eyes widened and he knew the Texan felt it too.

"Aw right," Vin said almost too softly to hear.

The sudden capitulation surprised Chris. Even more surprising was the feeling of something new stirring deep inside him. He wasn't sure what it was but it felt . . . right.

"Good. Now sit down before you fall down and I'll get your paperwork started."

Vin's lips tightened but just as quickly relaxed and he settled back on the bed. "Are ya always a pain in the butt, Larabee?"

Chris grinned. "Always, and don't you forget it."

It took another half-hour to find the physician who had treated Vin and overcome her arguments on the inadvisability of leaving. Finally Chris prevailed, the paperwork was completed, and a nurse appeared with a wheelchair. Vin, who had reluctantly agreed to change his still-wet clothes for some that Chris kept in the ready bag in his truck, shook his head.

"I don't need no wheelchair."

"Get in the damn chair, Tanner," Chris ordered. He'd had enough with the Texan's stubbornness. He hadn't missed the increasing pallor of Vin's features and knew the man was fast reaching his limit.

Vin opened his mouth, no doubt for further argument. Chris caught him by the shoulders and spun him around, then gave him a little push that landed him neatly in the wheelchair.

"Damn it, Larabee - "

"Shut up, Vin. We're leaving."

"Can you take just a minute before you go?" The gray-haired nurse spoke quickly, looking from one man to the other. "The Hansons want to see you."

"Who're the Hansons?" Chris said.

"They're Lory's parents. The little girl you saved."

Chris met Vin's gaze and saw in it his own ambivalence. He would like to see for himself that the child was all right but he didn't want to deal with the tearful gratitude of the parents.

"And maybe you can talk to the reporters before you leave?" the nurse added


The horror on Vin's face amused Chris but he sympathized. The last thing he wanted to do was waste time with those blood suckers.

"No reporters," he said flatly and Vin looked relieved. Chris asked, "You want to see Lory?"

The Texan hesitated before nodding slowly. Good enough.

"Let's go."

The nurse wheeled her reluctant passenger to the elevators with Chris walking alongside. When the doors opened she pushed the wheelchair down to the last room. As she was about to shove the door open Vin stopped her.

"I don't need no chair for this," he said and stood up.

"Mr. Tanner - "

"It's all right," Chris interrupted and took a step closer. He didn't want to embarrass the younger man by holding on to him but he did want to be close enough to grab him if he started to go down. As if he sensed his restraint, Vin give him a half-smile and reached for the door. Chris got there first and shoved it open, following him inside.

His first view was of the lower half of a hospital bed. The upper half was obscured by two people who were leaning over it.

"Mr. and Mrs. Hanson," said the nurse who had followed them in, "these are the two men who saved your daughter."

The figures turned almost simultaneously and Chris saw a man and a woman in their late twenties. The woman's pale face suddenly flushed with color and tears filled her eyes. Without a word she threw her arms around Vin, making him stagger slightly with the force of her embrace.

"Thank you, thank you, oh, thank you," she repeated, the words muffled by tears.

The man approached Chris, also teary-eyed. Immediately Chris put out a hand to forestall any hugs.

"Vin here did most of the work."

Hanson grasped his hand with both of his, his mouth working. "I . . . thank you seems . . . doesn't seem enough."

Surrounded by intense emotions, Chris's only desire was to flee. "It's enough. I understand Lory's going to be okay."

The woman released Vin and clung to Chris. "Thanks to you two," she choked.

Hanson gestured at the bed. "See for yourself."

"Oh, yes," the woman said, letting him go and wiping her cheeks.

When the parents stood aside, Chris saw her finally. Her eyes were closed in sleep, brown ringlets made a halo around her head, and her lips curved slightly. His throat tightened. She looked so tiny in the big bed.

"Today is Lory's fourth birthday," Mrs. Hanson whispered. "I took her to the park as a treat." More tears spilled down her cheeks. "She was playing with a ball and it bounced away . . . I never expected it to bounce over that wall or for Lory to chase after - " she gulped and her husband put an arm around her.

Chris felt as if an invisible hand was squeezing his heart. For a few chaotic days he had actually forgotten. Lory still got to celebrate her birthday. Adam never would again.

Something brushed his arm and he realized Vin was looking at him. There was no way the Texan could know what he was thinking yet something in those blue eyes reached out to Chris and the pressure in his throat eased. He took a breath, then another.

"She's going to be fine," Hanson said and kissed his wife's hair. "Thanks to these men." He looked over her head at them.

"Mr. Tanner, was it? And Mr. . . ." he flushed. "I'm sorry, I forgot."

"The name's Larabee and you've had more important things to think about." Chris looked at Tanner who seemed to be sagging slightly. Time to move things along. "We're thankful Lory's going to be all right."

"Thank you," Hanson said fervently, the word echoed by his wife.

Chris turned to his companion. "Can you get out of here on your own?" he said in a low voice.

Vin straightened with a little jerk. "'m fine," he insisted quietly.

Chris wanted to roll his eyes. He followed him out of the room, not commenting when he sank back in the wheelchair. There was no more talking while the nurse wheeled Vin through the hospital and finally outside. Another short delay ensued while Chris tracked down his truck and found Josiah waiting patiently inside. A few words sent the big man on his way and Chris drove his truck back to the waiting area to pick up Vin. Despite his increasing pallor, the younger man got to his feet without help and thanked the nurse who took the wheelchair back inside.

Vin studied the black truck. "I heard big trucks 're all about compensation." He glanced sideways at the older man, his lips twitching.

Chris's eyes narrowed. "When you're up to it, I'll show you some compensation. For now, get your ass inside. Or do I have to pick you up?"

He got a narrow-eyed look in return. "Ya better think twice before tryin'."

Despite his words Vin was a little unsteady climbing into the cab and Chris couldn't help hovering. Once the Texas was inside, he slammed the door shut and went around to the driver's side. He was reaching for his seatbelt when Vin spoke again.

"She's gonna be okay."


It felt better than good to know the child was going to be all right, although it would be a long time before Chris got over the terror he felt every time he remembered Tanner being swept down the storm channel with her. That was something he didn't intend to share with Vin or anyone else.

He shoved the key into the ignition but before he could turn it Vin said, “I knew ya’d come after me.”

Chris frowned. “Of course I came after you.” Had Tanner really thought he wouldn't?

Vin shook his head. “No one’s done that for me, not since – ” he stopped abruptly, hesitated, and went on. “Not for a long time." His blue eyes met Larabee’s with unnerving intensity. “I met ya for a couple minutes over a week ago and I’ve known ya, what? A couple hours, total. But I knew ya’d come after me.”

He looked a little surprised at the admission and Chris felt that connection again between them. The realization should have unnerved him but it didn’t. Instead it felt strangely right, as if something that had been missing from his life was no longer missing.

Vin looked away. He sighed. “I ain’t sure this’ll work, but if ya still want me on the team, I’m willin’ to give it a try.”

Their eyes locked. Thanks to the last hectic hours, Chris had almost forgotten his talk with Vin earlier in the day and the Texan's noncommittal response. After fearing his plan wouldn't succeed, suddenly it was happening.

“Good,” he said matter-of-factly.

“No promises,” Vin added quickly. “If it don’t work . . .”

“The door swings both ways,” Chris agreed.

“Okay, then." Vin stuck out a hand. “I reckon ya got another man on the team.”

“Good,” Chris repeated, shaking his hand and sternly tamping down his delight at this abrupt surrender.

He would keep his word. If Vin Tanner changed his mind he could walk away. The Texan just had no idea what lengths Chris Larabee was willing to go to make sure Vin didn’t change his mind.

Meeting that intense blue gaze, Chris figured he might have a battle on his hands from time to time. That was fine with him. What was the old saying? Anything worth having was worth fighting for. He didn’t know if that was quite right, then again, it didn’t matter. Vin belonged on the team; he just didn’t know it yet.

“Let’s get out of here,” Chris said and turned the key in the ignition

Vin sat back in his seat, probably still wondering if he’d made the right decision. Glancing at the quiet figure beside him, Larabee worked hard to suppress a smile.

One thing was for sure. It was going to be a hell of a ride.


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