Runners

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com


Part Four

Anger ran through Vin, not hot anger but cold and controlled rage. It throbbed through his veins and gave him energy in place of the food he couldn’t face eating. Okay, people died. Seemed like if you loved them, you didn’t have them for long. But dying from illness like his mom, or old age like granda, that hurt but it was a part of life. It called for grief and holding onto their memories. What had taken Chris was murder, and that called for something else.

He felt Ezra shivering next to him under the boxes and garbage sacks. They’d found that was the easiest was to stay unseen in the alley behind Henderson’s bar. Ezra had thought of it. Vin knew vaguely that he was scaring Ezra, and he was sorry for it, but Ez was with him and backing him up and that was all that mattered.

They’d set their cover up earlier, moving cautiously when the alley was empty. It hadn’t been difficult, shifting full bags of garbage and piled up cardboard boxes from behind other premises. There was enough trash in the alley for no one to notice it was more piled up in a particular place. Smelt a bit, but Vin didn’t care, especially not now when it was working out as they’d planned.

He felt a savage satisfaction as he watched Henderson. They’d been more or less sure—same as most of the lowlife in Henderson’s patch—that this was where Henderson met the people who paid him to look another way. But one of Henderson’s men stood at each end of the alley, and no one would get to stroll out here through the bar while ‘business’ was being done, so he hadn’t been dead certain.

It was certain enough now. And thanks to Buck’s camera, and Ez knowing what to do with it, they were getting the shots that would prove it. Henderson wouldn’t be able to explain these away, especially as there were so many and in at least one case you could see the money changing hands.

The man talking to Henderson now was the fourth who’d drifted up in the last hour, and the second who Vin could recognise as a dealer. He wasn’t sure about the other two, but one of them he thought might have been connected to Mr Garriocci. If so, maybe that’d be another big nail in Henderson’s coffin.

Looked like Henderson was winding down now, and Vin eased back a little. His muscles were stiff with the tension of having been hidden here for hours. The man talking to Henderson turned and went, and Henderson was just gesturing to his men when his cell phone went.

Vin edged forward again, disturbing the sacks a little. He heard an almost silent indrawn breath from Ezra, but Henderson’s attention was on his phone. Vin wanted to hear this. What they’d got tonight might help to do for Henderson, but Vin had no idea where Eli Jo was, or how to get at Varon. Maybe it’d be one of them, and give him some kind of lead.

“What?” Henderson said, sounding startled and alarmed. “That’s impossible… He can’t have been… There was just no way… Look, even if Eli Jo’s right, Yates won’t talk… Yes, I’m sure… I can’t think there’s any way he’d end up in my custody; you’ve just about done for my credibility… There is NO chance anyone could connect him with you… I’ll find out what I can and I’ll meet you tomorrow, like we arranged, but you can pay me off then. I’ve had enough… No, I’ll meet you in the Boulevard, outside that central ‘Coffee n’ Cake’ place… 14.00… Just put the money in a document wallet, we both carry those.”

Vin leaned forward a little too far at the name Varon, and this time the garbage bag shifted further, audibly. Ezra’s hand bit into Vin’s arm, and he slid back further under the boxes, but not before Henderson broke off his conversation to say, “What was that?”

“Probably a rat, but I’ll take a look.”

That was one of Henderson’s men, who’d joined him during the phone call. Vin edged back quickly now, under their carefully arranged cardboard boxes. Always have your exit planned. They’d done their best, but the alley didn’t make it easy.

“Shit, nothing else had better go wrong tonight.” That was Henderson again. The garbage bag at the front of the pile was pulled away.

“Now!” Ezra hissed.

The building next but one to the bar was a cheap café that stayed open until the early hours of the morning. Their tunnel of boxes and garbage led towards its rear door. At Ezra’s word they jumped up scattering trash and bolted through the kitchen—not quite quickly enough for Henderson to fail to recognise them.

“It’s those fucking kids!” he yelled.

Vin knew that once they reached the street, they were going to have to run—fast.


Buck tucked the covers lightly over JD and looked at his watch. Just past half past two. Julie looked up and smiled as he came out.

“You’re good with him,” she said.

“I’m good in all sorts of ways, sweetheart,” Buck said, but the thought that his moustache really might wiggle when he exerted his charms put him off his stride. Before he could elaborate, Julie said, “I suppose as his guardian, you’ll know what the arrangements will be for when he leaves hospital?”

“Leaves?” He hadn’t even thought about it. “Surely it’ll be a while before he’s well enough to consider that.”

“Not that long,” Julie said, but then she had to hurry off to one of her other patients before he could ask just what sort of time scale she had in mind.

No one had talked to him about JD’s future. He thought about it now, and was troubled as he looked at the situation clearly. JD was only a little boy, not nearly old enough for the sort of arrangement Chris had with Vin and Ezra—and Buck knew his own limitations.

It wasn’t just the job he did, though that was an obstacle. It was him, too. He’d love to be a dad—he wanted to be a great dad—but he’d always pictured it with a mom at home. He just couldn’t see himself being able to organise school and shots and meals and clothes. He thought of his apartment and winced. It wasn’t just the mess. A couple of teams of maid service ought to be able to do something. But the area it was in wasn’t somewhere he’d choose for a kid. And then there was the problem of discipline. JD was going to be well enough sometime to need ‘no’ saying to him. Lovely kid as he was, it’d happen. Buck could do it, but he wouldn’t find it easy.

He found that while he was thinking he’d reached the room allocated to Chris without consciously noticing floor numbers or directions. The nurse here was older and more motherly, and unlikely though it seemed, she was warmly protective towards Chris. Buck was tempted to let her send him away, but Chris had given Josiah orders to let him know what happened.

“I won’t keep him talking for long,” he promised.

“He’s being very stoical, but he’s clearly still in quite a lot of pain,” she said. “I don’t think he’s actually asleep, but he was resting.” Her tone was reproachful, but she let him go in.

Buck hesitated in the doorway, looking at the drawn lines of discomfort on Chris’s face and his closed eyes. If he had just dozed off…

“Come on in, Buck,” Chris said without opening his eyes. “Heard you getting past Moira.”

“You up to talking?”

“Yeah. On a scale of one to a hundred this headache’s about ninety nine, maybe ninety eight if I keep my eyes shut, but I’d be grateful for something to take my mind off it. Did you get the truck driver?”

“Sure did.” This was the easy part, dealing with relatively good news. Quickly and concisely he put Chris in the picture.

“Good,” Chris said as he finished. “Who’s with him?”

“Travis is taking care of that. No one’s going to get to him.” He hesitated. “We’ve put the news out now that you’re okay—well, more or less okay—but there’s been a big pile up on the Interstate, so it’s not getting top billing.”

“It’s already an old story,” Chris said. “I’m not sure the boys would see any news, anyway.”

Which brought Buck to somewhere he didn’t want to go. He had to say it, though. He owed it to Chris and to himself. “Chris, about the boys… I am so damn sorry.”

Chris did open his eyes at that, and there was no hostility in them. “Buck, I don’t want you beating yourself up about it. It wasn’t your fault. Wasn’t anyone’s fault but this bastard, Yates… and whoever paid him. Vin and Ezra, they’ve been runners for a long time. They’re good at it. The one thing that might have turned them around was if I’d let the truth go out that I was okay—that was my decision, not yours.”

He closed his eyes again, grimacing, and Buck reached out a hand to his shoulder to steady him against the pain. “They’re good at looking after themselves I guess,” he said, slightly tentatively.

“Yeah. If I thought they were just hiding up somewhere I wouldn’t worry so much. It’s just… in some ways I see myself in Vin, and I’ve been thinking. They’re both sharp, they may have picked up on the fact that what happened to the Ram wasn’t an accident. I was lying here asking myself, if I’d been that age, had the sort of upbringing, or lack of it, Vin’s had, and I thought I’d lost a friend to a hit, what would I have done?”

Buck found it surprisingly easy to picture a feral sixteen year old Chris Larabee. “Hell, stud, you’d’ve been deadly even at that age.”

He realised what he’d just said. “Chris, you don’t seriously think they’d go after… well, who? They wouldn’t know any more than we do.”

“We know where to start looking,” Chris said. “So do they. And I’m not sure they’d have the reservations about the law that we have. We need to find them before they get into more trouble than even we can get them out of. Come the morning, I’m getting out of here.”

Buck looked at him. Chris was white where he wasn’t bruised, and his eyes were screwed up against what was obviously the headache from hell. His left wrist was in plaster, and he knew the doctors had done whatever they did these days for cracked ribs.

“They going to let you go?”

Chris’s swollen mouth twisted up in what was probably intended as a grin. “You be here with some clothes first thing in the morning, and we’ll take it from there.”

It was almost certainly a bad idea. Nathan, and the assorted medical staff unlucky enough to be responsible for Chris, would blame Buck as much, if not more, if he backed up his friend’s determination to get out of here. But what the hell. If this was what Chris needed—and if it brought that reckless grin back to Chris’s face—Buck would be right there beside him.

“First thing,” he promised.

Chris’s right hand came up to grip his in a clasp they hadn’t shared in far too long.


Ezra lay on the flat roof, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible and to quieten his fast breathing. Next to him, Vin seemed able to blend into the shadows as if he was less than solid himself—but for how long? The street wasn’t well lit, but the sky was showing ominous signs of dawn coming.

“Can’t stay here,” Vin whispered.

“What else can we do?”

They hadn’t achieved quite a good enough start over Henderson and his men. The police officers had come through the café more quickly than Vin and Ezra, who’d been impeded by having to dodge the irritated staff. Henderson had only to show his badge to get a clear run.

Vin and Ezra had had a couple of near misses of being caught, first by the men immediately behind them, then by a patrol car Henderson must have called in, and they’d been glad to find this temporary refuge. When they first scrambled up to the roof, they’d hoped Henderson might move on, thinking he’d missed them, or might decide they weren’t worth any more effort.

But Henderson seemed to want them enough to make it quite a major operation. There was a man at the end of the street they’d come from, watching several ways, and at least two cars around as well as the other men on foot, watching other junctions. Evidently although Henderson didn’t know exactly where they were, he was certain of the general area they were trapped in. And it was definitely getting lighter in the east.

“We still got th’ advantage,” Vin said softly. “We c’n make th’ far end faster than that guy. It’s getting busier along there now. We go straight across through th’ traffic. Far side of that road, there’s a small mall. Straight through there, through Mario’s, across the print shop yard and we’d be just about clear.”

Ezra pictured the route in his mind. If they were fast enough… if they managed to avoid being crushed by some half awake commuter… if Henderson didn’t have men in the mall…. They had little choice though.

“When?” he whispered.

“Soon’s the car’s been past th’ end again.”

One of the patrol cars had been driving a circular route; they’d seen it pass the end of the street again and again.

Vin slid forward a little to where he could see more clearly. If the car didn’t pass soon, they would have to go anyway, Ezra thought. He could already see Vin’s outline against the sky.

“That’s him!” Vin said abruptly. “Y’ ready?”

“Adequately.”

“On three, then.”

Ezra was just a second behind Vin as they jumped. He saw Vin running, then his own feet hit the ground… but hit unevenly, landing on rubbish as well.

His left foot skidded on something, probably a plastic drink bottle, and his ankle turned sharply under him. The pain was so sudden and so severe that it made him cry out as he went down.

Vin, already way ahead, paused and turned.

The officer from the end of the street was running towards them shouting into his radio.

“Go on!” Ezra yelled at Vin. “Run! You have to!” Vin could achieve nothing if he stayed to help. Free, he might be able to do something for Ezra or to complete their self appointed task. Only it was Ezra who had the camera—and Vin was already too far away to get it to him…

The sound of the patrol car returning made up Vin’s mind. He gave Ezra a last agonised look and bolted through the traffic.

The officer on foot reached Ezra and pushed him roughly flat. The movement sent another jolt of pain through his ankle. He tried to curl up and hold onto it. Seeing he really couldn’t run, the officer let him lie while he continued to speak urgently into his radio. The patrol car had turned in and pulled up alongside them.

Ezra felt one tiny glimmer of hope as the driver stepped out. It was the young man who’d been so upset about driving into JD. He wasn’t part of Henderson’s inner circle, and Ezra didn’t recognise the woman officer with him, so she might well not be, either.

The driver crouched beside him. “Are you hurt?”

“My ankle,” Ezra said. He had to make a very quick judgement, but the ability to assess people rapidly had been one of mother’s more useful lessons for life. He glanced at the other two officers and saw that their view was blocked by the driver squatting in front of him.

He pulled the small camera from his pocket and thrust it into the man’s hands. “Hide it,” he whispered. “Don’t let Henderson know about it. Get it to Josiah Sanchez of the ATF.”

He saw in the driver’s expression that he understood the implications of this. For what seemed a desperately long time, the man hesitated, then he slipped the camera into his own pocket.

“Josiah Sanchez?” he asked softly. “Can’t see the harm in that. Now let me see your ankle.”


Even anger had deserted Vin now. He was cold all through, cold and numb and despairing. Leaving Ezra behind had cut him adrift of his last support, and he felt that he was going under. But if he was, there were still two things he had to do.

The first was for Ezra.

He made it to the mall without much difficulty, and although most of the outlets were still closed a few food places and the washrooms were open. No one seemed to have followed him; Ezra had attracted all the pursuit. He went into the washroom, and took out the thinner lining of his jacket. He could wear that separately. The rest he rolled up so he could carry it. He probably ought to ditch it, but he wasn’t going to. It was a kind of link to the last two weeks. He’d wear it again this afternoon when he crashed Henderson’s meeting with Varon.

But at the moment the cops would be looking out for a long-haired kid in a bomber jacket. He spent most of the handful of coins he’d had in his pocket on a baseball cap with a picture of a Jolly Doughnut on it, and tucked his hair up inside. Short haired kid in a pale blue silky jacket. That should do. Now he’d go and see what had happened to Ez.

He stayed on his own side of the street, but he could see well enough. There weren’t just police there but an ambulance as well. Somebody had gotten medical help for Ez. That wouldn’t be Henderson, and it was good news: Ez would be at the hospital and not under Henderson’s authority.

He watched until the ambulance went, then found a call box. It was still early, and he got Josiah’s voice mail. That was a relief. He’d hoped not to have to speak to him directly.

” Josiah, you got to go to th’ hospital and help Ez,” he said. “I think he bust his ankle. The cops have sent him there, but Henderson’ll want him back. Don’t let them take him once th’ hospital’s done fixin’ him. And, ‘Siah, Ez don’t like hospitals. If they want t’ do much t’ his ankle, he’s goin’ t’ be dead scared. He had some great aunt or such died havin’ an operation, and it’s like a… one a them things like spiders or bein’ up high. Don’t matter whether it makes sense, he’s just scared ‘f it.” He paused, but as an after thought added, “Go get him, and if y’ hear anytime I done something, I done it fer Chris. We were tryin’ another way, but Henderson’ll have th’ camera now. Thanks, Josiah.”

He didn’t know how he’d found so much to say. Didn’t seem like so many words would come from the emptiness he felt.

He couldn’t think about Ezra any more, or Josiah, or anything but the next step in getting the men who’d murdered Chris. He’d got a few hours before the time when Henderson had arranged to meet Varon. Seemed likely they’d keep to that arrangement. Something had gone wrong for them; he’d picked that much up from listening to Henderson on the phone. They’d need to talk—and Henderson wanted his money.

Vin fingered the hardness of the Glock, rolled up in his jacket. No way he could get it unlocked. He needed someone who wouldn’t care where it came from nor mind that it screamed cop, someone who’d trade him another gun for it.

He shivered a little, partly because of the cold inside, mostly because he’d be taking a step into a world he’d always chosen to stay away from. The man he was going to have to do a deal with was a bastard, as bad in his own way as Eli Jo. But if he wanted a gun he could use he didn’t have a choice.

A first hint of doubt clouded his determination, but he pushed it away.

He’d do what he had to do, and when Henderson did meet Varon, he’d be there.


“I don’t care if I walk with a limp,” Ezra said, trying frantically to back against the wall, though the movement of his leg on the bed sent spasms of pain through him. “I don’t give my permission for an operation. I don’t give it for you to do anything at all.”

He knew he sounded as if he was losing it. He didn’t care. All he could think of was Great Aunt Emily. He didn’t want to die without even knowing it was happening. He didn’t want to die at all, but when he had to, he wanted to see it coming.

The Emergency Room nurse looked worried; the doctor, who had probably been told by the police to get Ezra dealt with quickly, was impatient and irritable. They turned away from Ezra, but only to confer, in voices just too low for him to hear. He looked longingly beyond them to the hallway, but he knew that if his foot touched the ground he would collapse in pain. He was trapped.

But surely even if they knew him to be a delinquent, that didn’t put him outside the reach of medical ethics. He could refuse treatment. Whatever they said about it being a minor operation, they would still have to anaesthetize him. He wouldn’t accept that.

Aunt Emily had been so cheerful, telling him that she’d soon be home and that he could come to stay with her, but she’d never woken up from the operation. Mother had said dismissively that she’d been eighty and had a weak heart, but that had taken nothing away from the nightmare of it for Ezra. Mother hadn’t really cared anyway; it had been Ezra who’d wanted to live with Aunt Emily.

“I don’t think…” the nurse said, her voice a little louder as she protested.

“Just do it,” the doctor said. “This is ridiculous. It’s simply a ploy to keep out of custody for a little longer.”

Ezra watched, alarmed, as the nurse went to a trolley and prepared a syringe. He didn’t know what was in it, but he was quite sure he didn’t want it injected into him.

“You have no right to do anything without my permission,” he said, trying to sound confident, his back now pressed against the wall.

The nurse, who he thought would have been kind if she had the chance, looked even more worried. “It says in his notes he has a guardian,” she said hesitantly.

The bitter irony of that was all it needed to make the situation even more unbearable.

“I’ve read his notes,” the doctor said. “Give him the injection.”

Ezra shouted his protests, and struggled to prevent her taking his arm. The doctor went to the door and called in a couple of orderlies to hold him.

“Nurse!” he said sharply as she looked at him in dismay.

“Surely you could try his guardian,” she said. Ezra almost stopped protesting to tell her how futile it would be, but he was too horrified by the sight of the needle. He couldn’t move at all now in the orderlies’ grasp.

“Give him the injection,” the doctor said, in a tone that allowed for no more discussion, and this time she obeyed. Ezra wasn’t sure if he could really feel the chill of whatever substance was invading his arm, but it seemed like it. He stared in horror at the tip of the needle sliding out from his arm.

The doctor was still justifying himself. “His guardian is some ATF agent—Larabee I think the name was—some deal to do with witnesses I expect. If the police want the kid, I imagine Larabee will thank me for getting on…”

“Well you imagined fucking wrong!” an extremely angry exclamation interrupted him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get away from the kid! You two—out of the room, now!”

Ezra froze. He didn’t dare to look up from the small pad of cotton wool the nurse was now pressing on the site of the injection. Was he imagining he knew that voice?

He couldn’t see how this could be real.

He didn’t want to find it wasn’t.

“What do you mean by bursting in here? Who are you?” That was the doctor, sounding outraged, but his angry question ended in a startled yelp.

“Chris Larabee, ATF, the guardian you were just deciding not to consult. Get out of here all of you; you’d better hope this hospital’s got some damn good lawyers.”

Ezra very slowly lifted his head. It sounded like Chris. The way the orderlies had dropped his arms and backed off in a hurry, that said Chris. But it was so impossible, and he was starting to feel so strange and dizzy that he wondered if he was dreaming.

The sight in front of him was… wonderful.

The doctor and both orderlies were backing for the door. Between them and Ezra, was a bruised, battered, half-dressed Chris Larabee, looking as angry as Ezra had ever seen him, and though he might be the stuff of nightmares for the doctor, he was certainly no dream. He had been in the wreck, Ezra thought, that must be why he was hurt. But he was here, and somehow, miraculously, alive.

Chris sat on the edge of Ezra’s bed, with a grunt that suggested he was glad to sit down, and held out the arm that wasn’t encased in plaster. “Okay, Ez. It’s all right now. Come on.”

Ezra blinked. The strange feeling, a sort of giddy drowsiness, was increasing, and he was finding it rather hard to focus, but he edged away from the wall towards Chris and let himself be gathered into a surprisingly strong one-armed hug. His head, suddenly too heavy to hold up, dropped against Chris’s shoulder, and he didn’t try to lift it. He felt safe. His thoughts were slipping and sliding now, but he knew one thing clearly. Mother hadn’t even been able to come back from the next state for him, but Chris Larabee seemed to have come back from the dead to his rescue. You could trust a man who did that.

Ezra stopped fighting the warm sleepiness that was relaxing him. He was so tired, and the relief of being able to let go and let Chris take charge was overwhelming. Chris was saying something, but only a little of it filtered through to him. Something about lying him down, about staying with him, about Vin having told them where he was…

Vin. Did that mean they had Vin here? He wanted to ask, but his voice had gone to sleep. He’d have to wake up in a minute, to tell Chris he didn’t want an operation, and to make sure Vin was okay, but for now he was just too tired…

It was comfortable lying down.

The hand wrapped around his was Chris’s. A long way off, so was the voice.

He listened to it for a while, putting off the moment of waking up, but although he still felt slightly odd and drowsy, the overwhelming sleepiness seemed to be lifting.

“Come on, now, Ezra. You going to open those eyes for me?”

What was it he’d been thinking he must say? “No operation,” he mumbled. “Don’ wan’ it. Where’s Vin?”

“I was hoping you’d tell me about Vin,” Chris said. “And Ez, the operation’s over. It’s all done. You’re fine.”

He did open his eyes at that. “Done?”

“They let me stay with you,” Chris said. “In fact, they’re bending over backward to cooperate now. The operation was only a minor one and it was a complete success. Your ankle’s going to be fine. I think they’ll let you come home tonight.”

Ezra felt a dazed mixture of relief and disbelief. Something wet trickled down the side of his face and he blinked fast. How long had he been asleep? He could see Chris had never left—he was still half-dressed, still staying between Ezra and anyone who might be a threat. Chris leaned forward and lifted Ezra just a little, so that he could see his neat plaster cast, then eased him back and brushed away the wetness for him.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly.

But it wasn’t, Ezra realised, not quite, not yet.

“Vin? He told you I was here?”

“He left a message on Josiah’s cell phone. I was hoping you could tell me where he might be.”

The remaining fuzziness in Ezra’s mind was clearing fast now. “What time is it?”

“Nearly midday.”

“Chris, you have to find him. We heard Henderson arrange to meet Varon at two o’clock. Vin thinks I lost the camera.” He saw that this wasn’t making enough sense, and quickly explained about their plan and how they’d overheard Henderson arranging the meeting. “I gave the camera to that officer who ran over JD, and I asked him to give to Josiah.”

“He may have done,” Chris said. “I know Josiah was coming, but he hadn’t got here when they took you into surgery, and I haven’t been out since. He’ll be waiting to hear how you are.”

Chris had stayed with him all the time…

But Ezra could not allow his thoughts to wander. What mattered now was stopping Vin doing something disastrous. “Vin thinks it was Henderson and Varon who had you killed,” he said to Chris. “I don’t know what he’ll do. We took Buck’s gun as well as the camera. It was locked, but…”

He saw that Chris understood.

“Two o’clock?” Chris asked.

He went to the door, called someone, and a minute or two later, Josiah appeared escorted by a nervous orderly.

“How is it that everyone in this hospital seems to be jumping to obey your slightest request?” he asked Chris. “They wouldn’t let me in before.”

Chris made a face that might have been a grin if his mouth had been the normal size. “They’re hoping I won’t sue them on Ezra’s behalf.” He rested his hand reassuringly on Ezra’s shoulder for a minute, then stood up. He moved rather clumsily and steadied himself against Josiah. “Will you stay with Ez while I get dressed and catch up with a couple of things?”

“My pleasure,” Josiah said, coming to sit down next to Ezra. “You sure you’re okay, Chris?”

“Fine,” Chris said. As he got to the door he glanced back. Ezra, who’d seen him neatly remove Josiah’s car keys from his pocket—mother would have been impressed—understood what he meant as he tapped his watch. Chris was going to be there when Henderson met Varon, and he wasn’t taking anyone else along. He really had understood the dangers of what Vin might be planning.

Ezra settled back on the bed. If anything could be done, Chris would do it.

“You just rest, son,” Josiah said.

Ezra decided not to protest the undue familiarity. There was something undeniably solid and comforting about Josiah’s presence, and he still felt tired. Josiah’s voice rumbled on, talking about the ingenuity Vin and Ezra had shown using the camera, and about the young policeman who’d had the courage to go against his peers and bring it to him.

Ezra thought about Vin, and about going home.


Nathan wouldn’t have believed he could feel so angry with an injured man as he was beginning to feel with Chris Larabee.

He and Buck had arrived at the hospital at the end of a long and frustrating session with Yates, who was stubbornly sticking to his weak story. A series of calls from Josiah had started with the news that Vin had been in touch and Ezra was in hospital. Buck and Nathan had checked in every time they’d taken a break, but apart from the fact that Ezra had to have a small operation on his ankle, Josiah’s main news seemed to be about some photos of Henderson that looked like proof of his dishonest dealing. They’d wanted to see Chris and Ezra anyway, but now they had an additional reason for going in, to pick the camera up and assess the value of what was on it.

They’d tried to get Josiah again on the way to the hospital, but he’d switched off his phone, and they guessed he’d finally been allowed in to see Ezra. It was slightly surprising that Chris didn’t get in touch if Ezra had been able to tell him where Vin was, but they didn’t think a lot of it until they got to the hospital and couldn’t find him anywhere.

Josiah, sitting beside a dozing Ezra, had told them Chris had left more than an hour earlier. “He just said he wanted to get dressed. Are you sure he hasn’t gone for a coffee or something.”

At that point, Nathan had begun to feel alarmed, but he couldn’t see how Chris would simply have left without a word to anyone. He’d looked at Ezra, but Ezra’s eyes had stayed closed. They could hardly wake him to ask if he had any idea where Chris might have gone.

He started to feel differently when it became obvious Chris just wasn’t in the building. They looked everywhere, likely and unlikely, then Buck described him to the man on the door, who thought a man looking like that might have left. That was when Nathan’s concern began to shade into anger.

“You sure he didn’t say anything else, Josiah?” Buck asked as they returned to Ezra’s room to confer.

Josiah frowned, thinking. “No. He seemed a bit unsteady when he stood up—leaned on me, which isn’t like Chris—but after that he was okay, and he just went off. Like I said, he’d not even finished dressing when he got my call, and he’d been with Ezra ever since.”

“He’s been back to his room,” Buck said. “His shoes and jacket are gone.”

“But why would he go out?” Nathan said. “Especially without calling one of us. He’d have had to get a taxi.”

Josiah looked thoughtfully at Ezra. Nathan, seeing his expression, realised there was something rather determined about the way Ezra was sleeping through their conversation.

“Ezra?” Josiah said, shaking him very gently. “I know you’re awake. Did Chris give you any idea about where he might be going when he left?”

“You were here,” Ezra said without opening his eyes. “You know he didn’t say anything.”

That was a neat evasion, Nathan thought. He could only imagine one reason why Chris might have allowed Ezra and no one else to know his plans.

“Has he gone to get Vin?” he asked.

Ezra was still not quite back to his normal self; a flicker of expression showed.

“Damn it!” Nathan didn’t want to think about Chris taking himself off unaccompanied, with newly treated injuries and a lingering concussion. “What was he thinking of. We’ll have to find out where he took the taxi to…”

He broke off, seeing an extraordinary expression cross Josiah’s face, a strange blend of disbelief, anger and even amusement.

“What is it, Josiah?” Buck asked.

Josiah felt again in his jacket pocket. “He hasn’t taken a taxi. He’s lifted the keys to my car! I thought it wasn’t like him when he had to hold on to me!”

“He’s driving?” Nathan was really alarmed and angry now. “He must be out of his mind! With that wrist and concussion—he’ll be a danger to himself and everyone else. Where has he gone?”

All three of them turned to Ezra, and he flinched, moving hastily back on the bed.

“It’s all right, son,” Josiah said quickly. “We’re just worried about Chris. He shouldn’t be driving. Has he gone to get Vin?”

Ezra hesitated. “What time is it?” he asked.

Nathan was puzzled as to why that mattered, but he answered anyway. “Half past two.”

Apparently this meant something to Ezra. “In that case, I suggest you try the Boulevard,” he said. “That may have been where he was going.”

Nathan was angry with Chris, for not trusting them with whatever it was as well as for doing something so reckless, but he didn’t want to include Ezra in that. Carefully controlling his voice, he said, “Thanks. All we want to do is to bring him and Vin back safely, then get you all home.”

He would never have expected to see the slightly wistful look on Ezra’s face that the word home provoked; it was instantly concealed, but it opened Nathan’s eyes to a hidden side of the kid.

“I’ll stay here,” Josiah said, sitting down next to Ezra again. “If Ezra thinks of any more precise directions, I’ll call you.”

Nathan followed Buck quickly through the hospital.

“Don’t say it,” Buck advised, glancing at him. “Children might be listening.”

“I just can’t believe Chris would do something so stupid,” Nathan said. “I mean—why?”

Buck, his long-legged strides speeding up even more, only shrugged. “Guess the only way we’ll find out is to catch up with him.”


Vin pushed his way along the Boulevard, which was busy with Saturday shoppers. No one was paying any attention to him. He’d kept the stupid baseball cap, because it made him look so different, but he probably needn’t have bothered.

He’d still got at least half an hour before Henderson and Varon were likely to show up. He wished he hadn’t. Seemed like every minute that passed he felt less confident about what he was planning to do.

It had all been clear in his mind after he realised Ezra had been caught and the photos lost. He would get a gun he could use, and he’d be there when Varon paid Henderson off. He wouldn’t shoot to kill; that was a line he couldn’t cross. Instead he’d fire to bring both of them down while the evidence of the payoff was there. It’d be hard for them to cover it up in those circumstances.

It didn’t seem so clear now. It wasn’t the details that bothered him, though he hadn’t expected the Boulevard to be so busy—hadn’t even remembered what day of the week it was come to that. It was the plan itself.

His unease had started when he’d found Jose, to strike a deal over Buck’s gun. Jose had been cooperative enough; he’d always wanted to drag Vin into working for him. Vin knew guns better than a lot of the kids.

But lying, thieving and murder were behind Jose’s money, and it wasn’t just guns he traded in, he had profitable sidelines in drugs and girls. Vin felt kind of dirty from having to deal with him—and he knew Chris would’ve busted Jose soon as look at him.

He didn’t seem to be able to stop thinking of Chris’s reactions to what he was doing now. It had started during the night, and the longer he went without eating or sleeping, the more it seemed to happen, like he could almost imagine Chris walking alongside, warning him, pulling him back from the edge.

“Good doing business with you, boy,” Jose had said as he left. “You get me more guns like this one—there’s opportunities in my business for a bright kid like you.”

Vin shuddered when he thought about it. He’d never willingly become a part of Jose’s world.

It didn’t take him long to find the right place, a broad area outside the coffee bar, which was set back from the street. He didn’t want to wait too obviously, though. He moved a little further along, looking in store windows. Ez would have liked this one, with clothes that cost more than Vin could believe anyone would pay. He wished he knew how Ez was but Josiah would have known what to do. For a moment he thought of the big man’s rumbling voice and undemanding kindness, but it seemed remote and not quite real. It had been part of the world around Chris, and without Chris it was all fading away.

Henderson didn’t come alone. Vin hadn’t expected that. Three of them came, Henderson and his two closest buddies. Vin recognised them though he didn’t know their names. He edged back towards them, and saw with surprise that Henderson was nervous.

Vin fingered the gun in his pocket. Couldn’t be that Henderson guessed about him. Something else must be worrying him. The three cops stood there, waiting for Varon. Vin didn’t really know Varon, though he’d seen a couple of photos of him. He’d be able to tell once the meeting started though. He started to look for a good position.

Vin was quite close to them by the time Varon arrived. There were still people in his way though. The gun he had wasn’t much good, nothing like the quality of the one he’d traded for it. He wasn’t sure how accurate he could rely on being, and he didn’t like the shifting, moving crowds.

A rifle would have been better. He waited and wondered why Varon wasn’t getting on with the payoff, and thought how much easier it would have been if he could have afforded one. Granda had said he was a natural with a rifle and taught him until he was a good enough shot in spite of being a kid. He could have found a place high up.

He glanced up at the office block opposite. Would have been easy enough to get up there.

He was probably the only person in the street looking in that direction. Most of the offices were shut on a Saturday, and there was nothing to see. At least, there shouldn’t have been.

What Vin did see turned his planning upside down and made him instantly understand Henderson’s nervousness. It was Varon who Henderson was afraid of, and he was right to be—he was probably the one man who could definitely bring Varon down.

Vin had to make a rapid decision, but it almost made itself. “Rifle on you!” he yelled at Henderson. “It’s Eli Jo Chavez. Second floor opposite, third window along.”

He’d shouted in time for the police to see what he had seen: Eli Jo’s unmistakeable greasy head behind a rifle barrel. It was just too late for Henderson though. Even as he and his men looked up, Eli Jo must have fired, though Vin never heard the shot. Henderson jerked sharply backwards, arms flying out, and fell across the coffee bar entrance.

Hit in the chest, part of Vin’s mind assessed, but he was already moving. One of the men with Henderson was running towards the office block, the other was kneeling beside his boss calling urgently for assistance and back up. Varon had stepped back, looking alarmed.

No one was going to get Eli Jo, Vin thought. The back up wouldn’t be here fast enough, and the cop who’d gone in was alone. Eli Jo was cunning enough to have planned his exit. He’d have some kind of vehicle in the basement parking lot, and have held the elevator ready. It’d all have been planned out.

Unlike the cop, who was somewhere inside the building, Vin ran around to the exit from the basement. There was a lot of shouting and noise on the street now, but none of it seemed directed towards him. He reached the top of the exit ramp, and heard a car engine. All his uncertainty had gone. He knew what needed doing here. The car turned up towards him, he recognised Eli Jo, and fired repeatedly into the car and at the radiator and tires. Eli Jo had ducked but he had to hit something.

He did.

A tire burst and the car slewed towards him. He dived hastily out of the way, losing his gun and cap as he landed and rolled. The car crashed into the concrete barrier, barely two metres from him.

Vin scrambled up, and saw Eli Jo smashing out the crazed glass of the windshield. As if in slow motion he saw that Eli Jo’s hand was coming up and there was a gun in it.

The shot sounded, and he felt nothing—and then he saw Eli Jo slump forward amid fragments of glass, and a trickle of blood from the hole in his head start to spread across the hood and drip towards the ground.

Vin stared numbly for a second, then turned to see who had fired.

The dead man in the car had shocked him, but not nearly so much as the one he saw now, a dead man walking.

“Chris?” he whispered stumbling back a pace. He saw Chris’s battered face, white under the bruises, and the gun in his hand, and old childhood superstitions resurfaced. Chris looked like a ghost come back for vengeance on the men who’d had him killed.

But Chris came to him hastily with a very unghostlike limp, thrust the gun away, and pulled Vin close, and Vin realised that he was flesh and blood, warm and solid and somehow, impossibly, alive.

“It’s okay; it’s over,” Chris said, and somewhere behind them there was a noise of sirens and voices.

Vin started to shudder, tremors juddering violently through him as if someone had gotten him by the shoulders and was shaking him until his teeth rattled together. Without Chris’s arm it felt like he might have shaken apart. But Chris was there, holding him, and drawing his shattered world back together.

“Ezra?” Vin managed to ask between chattering teeth.

“He’s safe in the hospital and Josiah’s with him. He thought you’d have come here. Thought you wouldn’t know he’d got the camera to Josiah.”

Chris sounded kind of shaken too. He and Ezra must’ve guessed at Vin’s plans. Vin suddenly realised how close he’d come to disaster. If he had shot Henderson and Varon, and then found out Chris was alive…

He almost staggered under the thought, and Chris held him tighter; but he gasped a bit as he did it, and Vin remembered he was hurt.

The sirens were next to them now, and someone was shouting.

“Larabee, ATF,” Chris said quickly. “That’s your shooter in the car—Eli Jo Chavez; you’ve been looking for him for the last couple of weeks, you should know his face.”

“Not that much left of it,” someone said.

“Captain Larabee, are you okay, sir?” Young. Full of respect for Chris. Vin had heard that voice somewhere before.

“I’m fine,” Chris said, but even in that brief answer his voice sounded strained. Vin pulled back just a little to look at him properly.

“Y’ain’t,” he said.

“I’m better than I look,” Chris said, but it was close now whether he was hugging Vin or Vin was propping him up.

“Why don’t you sit down in my car?” Vin knew the speaker now. It was the rookie driver who he’d seen around several times before.

The car was close. Chris walked slightly unsteadily to it, and Vin stumbled beside him on legs that were still shaking a bit too much. Chris pushed him gently to get in first, then sat next to him with a sigh of relief at being able to lean back. He slid his arm around Vin again.

“I’ll get my breath back,” he said, though his voice was still tight with discomfort, “then we’ll do something about getting Ezra and going home.”

Vin felt like he was already home.

There was a lot he didn’t understand about what had happened, and a lot he was going to have trouble explaining, but none of it mattered beside the fact that somehow, against all the odds, Chris was here and alive. Okay, Chris was kind of battered and Vin felt like a few miles of bad road, but that’d pass.

He glanced at Chris, and saw he was thinking the same thing. Chris’s mouth tried to make that half smile that Vin hadn’t expected to see ever again and his arm closed warmer around Vin’s shoulders.

Vin loved living on the ranch, but it wasn’t the place that really counted. Where Chris was, that was home.


Chris hadn’t intended to close his eyes. It was the damn emergency vehicle lights. A headache like the one pounding in his skull really didn’t need flashing lights as an accompaniment.

No one seemed to need his input just at the moment. He had a feeling the young driver who’d loaned them the back seat of his car—he really had to find out the guy’s name—might be fending people off. That was okay by Chris. He just wanted to sit still, feel Vin stop shaking under his arm, and let the relief seep in.

He’d driven here somehow, fear of what Vin might be going to do pushing him past the barriers of pain or common sense, and had been hurrying along the Boulevard towards the group in front of the coffee shop when he’d seen Henderson go flying backwards, evidently shot. He could still feel the utter panic that had gripped him then.

It was only as he saw Vin start to run, that he realised the man with Henderson was shouting something into his radio about Eli Jo, and that people were pointing up to the office block windows. He’d paused, just for a second, to confirm that it was Eli Jo who’d done the shooting, then carried on after Vin.

That had been the second moment of panic, seeing Eli Jo standing up in the wrecked car about to fire at Vin. Luckily, despite hands shaking from the exertion and vision still slightly blurred, he’d hit Eli Jo where he’d aimed.

How Vin had managed to keep some sort of control after seeing that and coming so close to being shot, let alone having Chris turn up like the ghost at the feast, he didn’t know. Apart from the tremors still running through him occasionally, Vin was handling it though. He was leaned rather heavily against Chris’s side—luckily the one that wasn’t competing with Chris’s head to torture him—but he was okay. Maybe in a few years, Chris could recruit Vin and Ezra; they’d certainly got what it took…

Chris’s cell phone was out of battery, but he’d used the police radio to get a brief message to the hospital, to Josiah, that he’d picked Vin up and everything was okay unless you were Eli Jo or Henderson. He didn’t know if Henderson had been killed or badly injured, and he hadn’t the energy just now to find out. He thought he’d rest a bit while the police were fully occupied, then he’d get someone to run him and Vin to the hospital. He’d have to make a handsome apology to Josiah, but it had been in a good cause.

“You talked to Ez?” Vin asked. Apart from being rather quiet, his voice sounded almost normal now.

“I was already at the hospital,” Chris said. “Josiah called me, and I got there in time to stop some arrogant bastard of a doctor bullying him. I stayed with him after that, while they fixed his ankle up. He’s fine. They said he could go home today.”

“Good.” Vin was silent a little while. “We thought you were dead.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Vin. I thought you were with Josiah, and we’d told him I was okay—the news story was to fool the guy who’d rammed me. I could ID him, so if he knew I was alive…” He trailed off. How did you apologise for putting someone through that? All he could do was offer wordless regret by drawing Vin a bit closer.

He thought Vin had every right to be angry, but Vin just said, “Guess we shouldn’t’ve run,” and stayed comfortably where Chris held him.

“Doesn’t matter now,” Chris said. “We’re here, we’re okay.”

“Yeah.”

The silence between them was peaceful. That was when Chris closed his eyes, and they must have stayed shut for longer than he intended, as he drifted into a half sleep.

It wasn’t some sixth sense that made him return to alertness, though maybe it should have been.

It was Buck’s voice, saying “Don’t wake them, Nate. They must need the sleep.”

He opened his eyes hastily. They were standing there by the open door, Nathan looking like wrath and judgment, Buck simply relieved.

“Hi, boys,” Chris said, which gave the final ignition to Nathan’s anger.

“What the hell did you think you were doing?” Nathan demanded. “Have you any idea how dangerous it was for you to be driving? You haven’t even been discharged from the hospital yet; you’ve got a broken wrist, your ribs are cracked, if you ever had any sense in your head the bump you got would have knocked it out. Why didn’t you call one of us instead of picking Josiah’s pockets for his car keys?”

“Y’ did that?” Vin asked, impressed.

“I don’t think you should be disturbing Captain Larabee,” their friendly driver said, coming up. “He looks as if he needs the rest.”

Chris wouldn’t have believed you could tell if Nathan turned puce, but you could. “It’s all right,” he said hastily. “They’ve just come to give me a lift to the hospital, if you can wait for my statement.”

“They can wait,” Nathan said grimly. “You should never have been out of the hospital in the first place.”

“Eli Jo’d’ve shot me if Chris hadn’t been here,” Vin said, not prepared to have anyone question Chris’s judgment.

“It was you got him was it?” Buck said. “We only heard he’d shot Henderson and been killed trying to escape.”

“Henderson’s lucky he was wearing a vest,” Nathan said.

“He’s okay then?”

“Cracked rib, hit his head hard as he went down. He’ll be fit to start answering IA’s questions soon enough. Lot of recognisable photos on that camera, Josiah says.”

Chris could see some interesting possibilities here. “Wonder if he’ll try to bargain by giving evidence against Varon; he must know that with Eli Jo as the shooter it’s odds on Varon arranged the hit.”

“Team 3, Internal Affairs and plenty of other people are dealing with that,” Nathan said, not allowing himself to be distracted. “All we need to worry about is getting you back to the hospital.”

Chris gave in gracefully. The thought of being prescribed some effective painkillers had its attractions, and he wanted to give Vin and Ezra a chance to see each other as soon as possible.

“You and Buck come together?” he asked. “Whose car?”

“Mine.”

“Take the suburban back then,” Chris said, tossing Buck the keys. That might mollify Josiah a little.

It would probably take more than that to improve Nathan’s mood, but in spite of everything, Nate’s arm was gentle as he helped Chris over to his car, and he was quiet and reassuring with Vin. Chris had a good team.

“We’d best let Ezra see you’re both okay,” Nathan said as they reached the hospital. “Then you get checked over, Chris. Don’t imagine your doctor is going to be too happy with you.”

Chris didn’t tell him that no one in the hospital was likely to offer anything but absolute cooperation to him; he just enjoyed the look on Nathan’s face when it happened. His doctor was thorough and professional though; he had to admit, they all had been—even Ezra’s had been competent, just obnoxious. Nathan listened to the list of things Chris could and couldn’t do, and collected his prescription; Josiah did the same for Ezra. By the time Buck had returned the suburban and paid a hasty visit to JD they were cleared to go.

The thought of getting back to the ranch gave Chris his second wind. He sent Buck and Josiah to liaise with the other groups over Henderson and Varon; he and the boys would travel with Nathan, borrowing a wheel chair for Ezra to use when they arrived.

“We’ll come out to the ranch later,” Buck said.

Chris knew the feeling. Sometimes, after a run of action like they’d just had, it was good to have everyone under one roof. He wanted to know what was happening on the case, anyway. He had every intention of staying alert until Buck and Josiah arrived, and neither Vin nor Ezra responded well to Nathan’s suggestion that everyone should lie down, but once they’d gained their point and put on the TV in the den while Nathan heated some soup, it was surprising how difficult it was to stay awake.

Chris had Ezra on the couch next to him, his legs carefully propped on a cushioned table, while Vin pulled up a bean bag. It was kind of peaceful, and the movie was an old one. They did keep their eyes open for long enough to drink the soup, though, and even Chris’s stomach welcomed it.

“Why don’t you just go to bed?” Nathan said, taking the empty mugs and doling out painkillers to Chris and Ezra. “You’d be more comfortable.”

“We’ll watch the end of the film,” Chris said.

He was as a matter of fact quite comfortable where he was. Ezra was leaning on his good arm, and Vin was using his knees as a backrest, but he didn’t object to that. It was good to know where they were. Nathan looked at them all and, reluctantly, grinned. “Guess there’s more to recovering than just lying in a bed. You shout if you need me, I’m going to clear up in the kitchen and call Rain.”

“Nate,” Chris said quickly before he could go. “Thanks. Tell Rain I’m sorry she’s had to .”

“She’ll sympathise with me about the hard time my boss gives me,” Nathan said, but he was joking now—at least, Chris was pretty sure he was joking. “You want me to wake you when Buck gets here?”

Chris nearly said that he wasn’t planning on going to sleep, but the painkillers were kicking in and his eyes were heavy. Ezra had already dozed off, and Vin was yawning. Might as well accept it. “Thanks,” he said again, and if Nathan did look in before that, he wasn’t awake to notice it.


Buck squeezed in a hasty visit with JD while Josiah finished up with the PD and Orrin Travis; they’d head out to the ranch separately.

“Mrs Wells came again, with Casey,” JD told him. Buck could see the improvement in him every day now. “Casey’s all right for a girl. We played Connect 4 and a game with hippos and she’s got a Gameboy. She’s not much good at sharing though; she was just going to make me watch, but Mrs Wells said she had to give me a turn. She says I’m so much better now I’ll soon be able to go to her house and play with Casey there.”

Buck was going to have to talk to Nettie, he decided. She knew better than he did what sort of options there would be for JD now. The thought of the boy’s future occupied him most of the way to the ranch; that and the question of what a Gameboy was and where you bought one.

He was nearing the ranch when he saw lights not far behind, and guessed it was Josiah. They pulled in together, and Nathan was at the door before they reached it. “Come in quietly,” he said. “They’re all asleep, and I’d rather they stayed that way for a while. Have you eaten?”

“Burger and a Snickers bar,” Buck said. It was just too easy to push Nathan’s buttons. Worth it, too, because they were instantly hurried into the kitchen for some soup, hot rolls and fruit.

“Chris okay?” he asked as he emptied his bowl.

“Stubborn, got no sense, ought to have gone straight to bed…” Nathan started.

“He’s fine, then,” Josiah said, amused.

“Oh, yeah. They’re all fine, to listen to them. I’ve left them to it. When it comes down to it, Chris does seem to be what those boys need, and they’re not bad for him either. When he and Ezra had their next lot of painkillers they’re going to sleep in a bed though whatever they say about it!”

Josiah patted him on the shoulder. “Never mind, brother, we appreciate you! Anyway, you’ve got back-up now. When you want us to muscle them off to their rooms, you just give the word.”

“They’re not due the painkillers for an hour or so,” Nathan said. “They’ll not come to any harm waiting until then. Chris must have got a killer headache, to say nothing of the other knocks, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping him from doing what he wants, and Ezra should be fine. He’ll be up on crutches tomorrow.”

“Vin wasn’t hurt at all?” Josiah asked.

“Scrapes and bruises is all you can actually see, but I’ve been keeping an eye on him. I’m not sure what went down before Chris got to him—and I’d say the chances of us finding out from either of them are about zero—but it left him real shook up.”

“That a new piece of medical jargon?” Buck murmured, getting a reluctant smile from Nathan.

“Might have been grounds for treating him for shock, really,” Nathan said. “At the least he was nearly run down by Eli Jo, and then saw the man get a bullet through the head. The whole thing of thinking Chris was dead and finding out he’s okay, too—kind of a roller coaster for anyone. Vin’s a bit jumpy and even quieter than usual, and cold—his hands were still like ice when we got here. It’s not that I think he’s in any physical danger from it, just it’s kind of harder to see when something like that’s healing, compared to bruises and cuts.”

“Anything we can do?” Josiah asked quietly.

“I’ve seen that he’s eaten and he’s warm. He hasn’t moved more than about six inches from Chris though; don’t think he can quite believe Chris is really alive.”

“He lost his mom very young, and then his grandfather,” Josiah said.

“Yeah. Well, he hasn’t lost Chris. Just needs time for it to sink in. I’ve called Mary and stopped his lessons for a few days. Chris and Ezra won’t be going anywhere, and he’s better staying quietly here with them.”

“And you think you’ll be able to keep Chris resting for long?” Buck asked.

“I was thinking I might put it to him that it’s what the boys need.”

“Now that is just devious.”

“Believe me, it’s a choice of devious or a sledgehammer. And don’t you go stirring him up. I suppose he’ll have to hear what you’ve got to report. Will it take long?”

Buck thought about it. “Henderson’s ready to talk. He knows it must have been Varon who arranged the hit, and he’s got more than enough evidence to finish him, but he wants to bargain for more consideration than he’s likely to get. Chris won’t like that. And Varon and half his partners are missing. Looks like Varon realised the game was up when he knew that Henderson had survived and that he and his buddies had seen Eli Jo. As far as we can make out, he just walked away from the Boulevard and disappeared. Must have had a safe way out planned in case something ever went wrong.”

“Chris won’t like that, either,” Nathan said. “Well, I guess we’d better wake him and get it done with. Their next lot of painkillers are due in an hour, and they really need to rest properly, in a bed, after that.”

They walked along to the den, and Buck caught Josiah’s eyes and grinned at the sight that met them. Ezra was sprawled asleep under Chris’s right arm, and Vin leaned against Chris’s knees, somehow managing to doze like that. They looked irresistibly like a couple of pups trying to get shares in their master’s lap. Buck remembered he should have a camera in the Pickup somewhere, but before the thought had done more than cross his mind, Vin’s eyes blinked open and he stiffened, straightening up. Chris’s left hand, dislodged from his shoulder, dropped against the couch and Chris woke with a smothered yelp.

“Serves you right. That’s supposed to be in the sling,” Nathan said, but without force. He tucked the plastered wrist into a more comfortable position.

“Thanks,” Chris said. “Buck… Josiah… how did things go?”

Buck told him what he’d just told Nathan. As they’d expected, Chris wasn’t happy, especially with the fact Varon had just strolled away.

“Martinez won’t’ve gone,” Vin said.

“Why not?”

“He’ll be collectin’ all th’ money they can squeeze outta their gangs. You find him, y’ might find a trail to Varon.”

“The PD have plenty of people on it, as well as those Orrin’s called in.”

“Well, make sure they concentrate some effort on finding Martinez,” Chris said. “I want to see…”

“Not tonight you don’t,” Nathan interrupted hastily. “Buck and Josiah haven’t brought the paperwork out. Tonight you can take your next dose of painkillers and go to bed.”

“Are you going to wake Ezra to take his?” Josiah asked before Chris could react to that. “He looks peaceful at the moment.”

“He’d be better taking them,” Nathan said. “Otherwise he’ll be waking up very uncomfortable in the early hours of the morning. Can you sit him up a bit Chris?”

Buck, who in fact had got quite a lot of the paperwork in the Pickup, kept quiet and admired the smooth way Chris’s attention had been redirected.

The combined efforts of Chris, Vin and Josiah woke Ezra to the point where he managed to swallow the two tablets without opening his eyes. He went straight back to sleep. Chris, mollified by a cup of coffee he hadn’t expected Nathan to approve, swallowed his own dose without complaint.

“I think I might as well take Ezra and get him settled,” Josiah said, sliding one arm under Ezra’s shoulders and the other under his knees. “Spare room, Chris?”

“You’ll see which is his bed,” Chris said. “Be best if you sleep in the other one in there, Josiah; he might wake up and need some help.”

“What about Vin?”

“I’ll sleep on Chris’s floor,” Vin said quickly. “C’n fetch anythin’ he needs.”

“Get yourself a sleeping bag, then,” Chris said. “Buck, Nate, there’s the couch in here and the bed’s made up in… in Adam’s old room. Josiah—mind his head!”

Buck was grateful for the momentary distraction as they watched Josiah gently manoeuvre his sleeping burden through the doorway. He’d frozen, and seen Nathan freeze, at the mention of Adam’s room. They never talked about it, but like Vin had said to him, no one went in there.

“I’ll go with Josiah and make sure Ezra’s leg’s comfortable,” Nathan said. “Vin, do you know where to find a spare pillow?”

Vin had been hesitating between following Josiah and Ezra out of the door or staying by the couch, but he nodded and went with Nathan.

Left alone with Chris, Buck was still tongue tied. Chris looked up, wincing as the movement hurt his head. “Could use a hand here, pard.”

Buck helped him to his feet, and finally found his voice. “Chris… are you sure? It’s been your way of remembering…”

“Only way I could stand to remember,” Chris said, letting Buck take most of his weight. “Couldn’t bear to think about them, couldn’t bear to forget either.”

Buck was silenced again, three years of struggling to help Chris bear this pain weighing him down. He was torn between relief Chris was finally talking about it, and a wretched sense of not having the comfort to give him. Damn it, he couldn’t even hug him properly while those ribs were healing.

“It wasn’t much of a way,” Chris said softly. “Adam, he was never still, always on the go. That room’s not Adam, least of all staying tidy like that…”

“Sarah used to say it looked like a dozen boys had been playing in there.”

“He used to think it was a real treat if we had enough company that you slept in there and he came in our bed.”

Buck remembered, and the recollection made his eyes sting with tears, that and the slight break in Chris’s voice as he said it. They’d been easing their way slowly along towards Chris’s room as they talked, and they were close to Adam’s door now. Chris stopped.

“Open the door,” he said.

It was… empty. That was what Buck had felt in there the other day, and even more now. The things that had been precious to Adam stood neatly arranged, but somehow only emphasised the fact Adam was gone.

Chris pulled back the covers on the bed, switched on the small lamp. “Sarah used to say the point of toys was to have fun with them, that homes were for living in. She wouldn’t have wanted this.”

“She’d have understood,” Buck said. She’d always understood Chris, and loved him for being who he was.

He saw Chris’s face twist, and expected to be pushed away as he stiffly bore the grief alone, but for the first time in three years Chris turned towards him, his head bowed into Buck’s shoulder.

It was only for a minute, but as Buck swiped the wetness from his own face, he felt as if something very painful had healed for both of them.

They didn’t need to talk as he helped Chris into his own bed and propped him up reasonably comfortably, but there was a welcome sense between them that they could, when the time fitted.

Nathan looked in as Chris settled back. “Need anything? Vin’s staying with Ezra for a few minutes while Josiah gets a shower, then he’ll be along. He says he’s used to sleeping on floors. I’m going to crash in the den, but if you need me in the night you can send Vin, and anyway Buck will be in the next room.”

Buck couldn’t help remembering, as he stretched out in the slightly too short bed, that the last time he’d slept in here, he’d been woken at five thirty by a small boy landing energetically on his chest. He swiped his eyes again, but held onto the memory, and was surprised to find that sleep came easily.


Nettie Wells woke up and realised she’d fallen asleep in her armchair. Annoyed with herself, she made a hot drink and checked the kitchen was clean and tidy and that Casey’s clothes were ready for the next day. She’d forgotten what boundless energy a child of Casey’s age had; the weekend was proving tiring—well worth it, but a reminder she wasn’t as young as she usually felt.

The little girl needed friends of her own to tear about with, Nettie thought, and plenty of activities. Casey was already asking if she could learn to ride, and practise her swimming, and even to go camping and try to catch some fish. Nettie’s knee twinged a little as she climbed the stairs, and she preferred not to think how stiff she would be after camping out. A glimmer of a solution was coming to her though. She went to sleep considering it.


Chris’s room was big; Vin could stretch out in the sleeping bag and still have plenty of space around him. He couldn’t sleep properly though. He’d doze, wake up, listen to Chris breathing, doze again and dream. He didn’t feel any pity for Eli Jo, but sometimes in the dreams it was his own gun firing the bullet that killed him, or he was shooting at Henderson, Varon, and other half-recognised faces. He was glad to wake up. Except that awake he had to face the thought of the things he actually had done.

He wondered how much Chris had seen and knew, and how much he just guessed. Ez had told Chris about Buck’s gun, but Buck still seemed not to know about it, or that it had been his camera they’d used, and it was pretty clear none of the team knew why Vin had been on the Boulevard or why Chris had come after him the way he had.

It couldn’t stay like that, though.

One of the things keeping him awake was the thought that in the morning he was going to have to tell Chris how and where he’d disposed of Buck’s gun. If Chris hadn’t been just about out on his feet he’d probably have asked; by morning, like Vin, he’d have gotten over events enough to start thinking about the details.

He really didn’t want to tell Chris about the deal he’d done with Jose—not because he didn’t trust Chris, but because Chris’d think less of him. It had to be done though. Now he had nothing to do but lie here and think, he could see the potential trouble if the gun just showed up, maybe used in a crime somewhere. Wouldn’t have mattered, of course, if things had been the way he imagined, but now it mattered a lot. The judge had put him here, and he guessed the judge had the power to take him away. Taking an agent’s gun and selling it, that wouldn’t look too good…

He wished Ez was awake and he could go and talk to him about it. Ez had a way of using words that could almost change reality; maybe he could find a way to make the story sound less damning.

Vin turned over and sighed. He knew he wouldn’t wait for Ezra to wake. It wasn’t Ez’s fault anyway. Vin could remember the horrified look on his face when he saw Vin take the gun. Weren’t fair to drag Ez into this.

He hated feeling the way he did, not quite awake but too restless to sleep. He was tired enough to find it hard not to doze, but he couldn’t drop into a proper sleep. He’d have got up and walked about, but he didn’t want to wake Chris, and he didn’t want to go out of the room in case Chris needed something and he wasn’t there.

Somehow the night passed, and he woke from a final troubled patch of sleep at dawn. They’d not closed the blind, and the room was getting light. He wriggled soundlessly from his sleeping bag and walked to the window. He’d go see Peso later, maybe take him an apple.

“Yosemite won’t come today,” Chris’s voice startled him. “He’ll see the cars and know we’re all here.”

Vin came to sit on the edge of the bed. “Y’ look better,” he said, relieved. Chris still looked battered and bruised, but he wasn’t so white and his voice no longer sounded strained.

Chris grinned, and the swelling around his mouth must have gone down a little because it didn’t look so grotesque. “I’m fine. You’re good at moving quietly, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Think you could manage to make two cups of coffee and open up for us to go over to the barn—and do it without waking Nathan?”

Vin nodded. “Y’ think that’s a good idea?”

“I do. I’ll use the bathroom and see you over there. We need to talk.”

Nathan was asleep in Vin’s usual place on the couch in the den. Vin moved silently past, made the coffee quietly, took both steaming mugs with him and left the door ajar so Chris wouldn’t make a noise opening it. He’d barely gotten into the barn when Chris joined him, not moving easily but not looking like falling on his face either.

Chris took his mug, and sat down on a small stack of hay bales, watching Vin with the horses. Vin snatched gulps of coffee from time to time, but he wasn’t sorry to put off the talking. Chris drank his slowly, outwardly content to be here silently with Vin and the horses, but Vin knew he was waiting.

There was a limit to the chores that needed doing.

Vin lingered next to Peso, who tried to chew his hair.

“Vin,” Chris said, and the ‘come here’ was clear in his tone. Vin gave Peso a final pat. What was the point of putting it off anyway? It wasn’t going to sound any better however long he waited. Chris gestured to a place on the bales beside him, but Vin preferred to stand. Preferred not to look Chris in the eye, either.

“Sold Buck’s gun to Jose Guzman,” he said, getting straight to it. “Got one from him in exchange. I needed one that weren’t locked.”

Chris didn’t say anything, and Vin didn’t want to look at him to see what he was thinking. When the silence got too much, he went on, “Knew it’d be Varon and Henderson behind th’ crash. Knew they’d’ve made sure it wouldn’t come back t’ them. I took Buck’s gun in case we didn’t get what we wanted with th’ camera. Ez didn’t want me to. He didn’t want any part in a shooting. Then they caught Ez and he had the camera on him…”

Yesterday morning had seemed years away until he thought of the moment he’d seen Ezra surrounded; now it suddenly seemed much too close. He swallowed and went on. “Didn’t seem like much choice then. I wanted them t’ answer fer what they done t’ you. Thought maybe if I hit them at the pay off, there’d be enough evidence for Buck or Josiah or someone t’ finish them. I wouldn’t’ve aimed t’kill…” He paused. “Weren’t much of a plan.” He’d known that at the time, and he could see it a lot clearer now. Just hadn’t been thinking straight.

“I never fired at them, though,” he finished. “Saw Eli Jo, he shot Henderson, I shot at his car, hit his tire as he tried to get away. And then you came…”

He looked back at Peso, to blot out the memory of the car spinning towards him and of Eli Jo sprawled bleeding across the hood, and didn’t realise Chris had stood up until he felt the grip on his arm turning him around.

He braced himself to see Chris’s expression, but Chris pulled him close and he didn’t need to. He let his face squash against Chris’s shoulder for a minute, and relief shook him more than the memories had done. Held like that, he didn’t feel so bad when Chris said, “You know what kind of lowlife Guzman is. Don’t you ever go near him or anyone like him again.”

“No, sir,” he said, muffled.

“We’ll have to get the gun back, too,” Chris added, as though it was straightforward. “I’d better send Buck and Josiah this morning.”

“You got to tell Buck what happened?”

“No,” Chris said. “You’re going to.”

Vin pulled back far enough to see Chris’s face and saw he was serious.

“Doesn’t matter whether you trust him or not,” Chris said, reading Vin’s mind with alarming accuracy. “I trust him. You tell him what you told me—and I think you owe him an apology, too.”

He had the look on his face that Vin already knew meant you didn’t need to agree with him, just to obey him. Any last traces of worry Vin had felt about him had definitely disappeared. Chris might not look great, but he was back in charge okay.

“Be better if you told him,” Vin muttered.

“Not going to happen. You’re going to tell him, and you’re going to do it now. I can see him on his way. Nate must have sent him.”

Vin turned around sharply, and saw Buck had nearly reached the barn. He tried to take a step back, but Chris’s arm around his shoulders held him in place.

“Boy, Chris, you really do know how to piss Nate off,” Buck said as he came in. “You’re lucky he’d just promised to wrap Ezra’s leg for the shower, or he’d have come to haul you back indoors himself.”

“I was just coming,” Chris said. “Thought I’d have my coffee with Vin and the horses, and think about a slight problem we’ve got.”

“Problem?”

“Vin, you explain to Buck what you just told me.”

There was no getting out of it. Vin wasn’t going to look down though, not this time. He didn’t care what Buck thought of him, and anyway, in his book, Buck owed him one for ever believing he could’ve hurt JD. He held his head up and repeated what he’d just told Chris.

“And…” Chris said, as he finished.

Vin looked at him and saw Chris meant it. Okay then. Chris wanted him to say sorry to Buck, he’d use Chris’s words for it.

“And I owe you an apology,” he said, just about managing to sound more like Ez than himself.

Chris’s hand tightened on his shoulder in a way that he knew was meant for a warning, not comfort, but he still found a reassurance in it. Buck didn’t say any of the things he had a right to say, just nodded and commented to Chris, “Guzman should still have it.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll go and spoil his Sunday morning.”

“Take Josiah.”

“Can’t imagine anyone better to point out the error of Guzman’s ways,” Buck agreed with a grin.

“And take Josiah’s car—Vin’ll get the Pickup cleaned and polished for you while you’re gone.”

“Now that’s good timing,” Buck said. “I’ve got a date tonight, and I promised to pick her up. Make sure you do the inside well, kid.” He strolled back to the house with Chris. Vin let them go, and went back to Peso. When Peso was in the wrong, he generally bit someone rather than apologising, and he snorted with sympathy now.

“Weren’t that bad,” Vin said, making a fuss of him. “Buck had th’ right t’ be a hell of a lot madder than that. I’ll clean th’ damn Pickup so it looks like it’s come from th’ showroom.”

He did. He spent the morning on it after Buck and Josiah had gone. By then, all the men must have known what he’d done, and it was clear enough they already knew Guzman and what he was, but no one had looked at him different or treated him like he probably deserved. He laboured on the Pickup until it gleamed. Ezra, in a recliner on the porch, called advice from time to time, and Vin was glad of his company. When he’d finished, and even the interior was spotless, he decided he might as well do Nathan’s as well.

“Good job,” Chris said, coming up to look at his work.

“Done Buck’s fer my ‘pology,” Vin said. “This is fer yours.” And because he liked Nathan, and appreciated his quiet kindness, though he wasn’t going to explain that.

“Maybe I should give you a hand then.”

“No. Go talk t’ Ez. He’s getting bored.”

“He can practise using his crutches after lunch,” Chris said, but he went to sit on the porch, though he did about as much talking as usual. Vin whistled softly, no real tune, as he started to polish the Explorer. He hadn’t felt hungry at all until now, in spite of hardly having eaten for the last couple of days, but at lunch time he was suddenly ravenous.

Buck and Josiah came back early afternoon, with Buck’s Glock.

“No trouble?” Chris asked.

“No. You know Guzman. Very quick to be helpful when it’s in his best interests. We’re going to have to get enough evidence to take him down one of these days, though. Makes my skin crawl going near him. Think I might have to get a new back up piece now this one’s been in his hands.”

Once he’d fetched himself a beer, he walked over to the Pickup. “Nice work, kid,” he said to Vin, who’d decided he might as well make a clean sweep and was about to start on Josiah’s suburban. “Julie’ll think I’ve bought a new one.”

Vin flushed slightly at that generosity. “About yer gun…,” he started.

“I understand why you took it,” Buck said quietly.

Vin met his eyes, and saw that he did, perhaps better than anyone else could. He remembered the look on Buck’s face when he saw the crashed Ram.

“Yeah. Well, all th’ same, I’m sorry I sold it to Jose,” he said, and meant the apology this time.

“Don’t worry,” Buck said. “Josiah always enjoys a chance to preach with his fists. Guzman’s sorry he ever saw it.” He held out his hand. “I’m sorry about a few things too. New start?”

Vin took it. “New start,” he agreed.

“Damn, your hand’s colder ‘n a dead fish,” Buck said, his own grip warm around Vin’s. “That’s what comes of doing the cars with just a couple of buckets of water. Is that all old grumpy’d give you?”

“What else is there?” Vin asked.

“There’s a real long hosepipe somewhere, got a jet like a fire hose if you turn it on hard enough…”

After that, the afternoon got very wet, and Chris yelled at them both loud enough to prove his head must be mending.

Continue on to Part 5 of 8