By Gil Hale —

Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.

Part One

“It could be a trap,” Josiah said.

Someone had to break the grim silence that hung over their briefing, had to act like they were still a team, even if it meant saying the obvious. Anyway, he really didn’t like the look of the narrow side streets and old commercial buildings where this tip off about an arms deal would lead them.

“Henderson says the man’s a reliable snitch,” Buck argued. He was the only one who knew the police officer who had passed on the information.

“But is Henderson reliable?” Nathan asked, rather reluctantly. “I asked around and I didn’t like some of what I heard.”

“What did you hear?” Chris Larabee had been staring at the papers spread out on his desk, with no sign he was listening to any of them, but Josiah knew he would pick up on anything relevant.

Nathan reported it uncomfortably; he could see Buck’s irritation growing. “They say Henderson’s too close to his informers, and that there are criminals in his area who seem to lead a charmed life—always lucky enough to be somewhere else when there’s a bust.”

“You’ve no call to repeat that kind of gossip,” Buck said angrily. “I suppose that’s from someone who’s been transferred and holds a grudge.”`

“A couple of folk who’d asked for transfers,” Nathan said. He didn’t push it. Like Josiah, he was aware that Buck had known Henderson years before, and one of Buck’s defining characteristics was his refusal to think ill of old friends.

But was this an old friend or just an old acquaintance? Josiah wasn’t sure that Henderson had ever been more than a casual drinking and dating buddy, and Buck hadn’t seen very much of him for years. Josiah, too, had asked around a bit, and heard the same mutterings as Nathan. Henderson was a big spender for a cop, and rookies who asked too many questions weren’t welcome around him and his colleagues.

“It could be a set up,” Chris said briefly, dismissing the rest of the debate. “Three questions. If it is a set up, why? Is it worth the risk of acting on the information? If so, how do we minimise the risk?”

“If we don’t think it’s worth taking some risks to get firearms off the streets, what are we doing in this job?” Buck challenged.

Chris ignored that, the way he ignored anything that wasn’t specifically related to the task in hand. As usual on a Monday morning, he looked gaunt and red-eyed, and it was obvious he was concentrating past a savage headache.

Josiah had asked him on Friday evening, as he did almost every weekend, if he’d like company—to come over for a meal maybe, or have someone exercise the horses with him. Chris had looked at him as if the words made no sense, and had driven off without answering.

Buck reckoned Chris got through two or three bottles of whisky in a weekend, but the horses at the ranch were never neglected, and only a handful of times had Chris failed to turn up on a Monday morning. Buck had always driven straight out to the ranch when that happened, but the last time he’d come back with a black eye and a smashed lip, and whatever words Chris had hurled along with his fists seemed finally to have finished the closeness between them.

That had been six months ago, and Chris hadn’t missed an hour of work since. Nor had he spoken a word more than necessary to any of them.

The silence around the table was getting oppressive.

“Why should anyone be setting us up?” Buck asked at last. “Henderson got a good tip off, and thought it sounded like a job for the ATF. I think it’s to his credit he called us in.”

“So does Travis,” Nathan said. “He thinks we’re better doing this than harassing mayoral candidates.”

“Suppose it actually has something to do with Varon…” Josiah thought aloud.

It was something of an exaggeration to call Varon a mayoral candidate, but he was certainly well on the way from sleazeball lawyer to aspiring politician. They’d been trying for a while to trace his connection to organised crime, ever since a bit-player they busted had sworn Varon was behind his boss’s drug dealing. The man had been stabbed in lockup before they even got there to interrogate him, and some of Chris’s permanent cold anger had been directed Varon’s way ever since, though as Travis pointed out, they had no kind of evidence of the man’s involvement other than a few words from a criminal while he was being arrested.

“Why should Varon set us up?” Buck persisted. “He knows we don’t have anything on him.”

“Maybe he’s worried what we might find if we keep looking,” Chris said. “You’re right, Josiah, he just could be behind this.”

“I don’t see why it shouldn’t be a straight tip off and an ordinary bust,” Buck said stubbornly.

Chris looked again at the spread of maps, building layouts and reports on his desk, and Josiah could see he’d come to some kind of decision.

“Get Henderson,” Chris told Buck. “Tell him we’ll assume it’s going down exactly as his snitch called it. Meet’s supposed to be just before midnight tomorrow. Tell Henderson we’ll be in position by seven.”

They all listened in silence as Buck made the call—four colleagues in an increasingly uneasy working relationship, who’d once been as good friends as any team Josiah had worked in. Whoever had set the car bomb that missed Chris and killed his wife and son had destroyed more than his innocent victims.

Josiah had grieved for Sarah and Adam; he’d prayed for Chris and for a way to reach him in his black despair. These days maybe he also grieved for the team and for the loss of the man Chris had been. He’d tried not to give up praying, but on good days it felt like pushing a massive boulder up an unending slope—and on bad days he wasn’t even sure the boulder and slope existed.

Buck finished with a few cheerful exchanges and turned to Chris as he ended the call. “Glad you see it my way.”

“I don’t,” Chris said. “Just think that if there’s any chance Varon’s behind it, we can give him enough rope to hang himself.” He raised a hand to cut off any further protest from Buck. “I’m not saying anything against Henderson. Varon’s got the connections to get this rumour out and set us up without Henderson necessarily being implicated. But in case there’s any kind of a leak at the PD—or here—the rest of our plans don’t go beyond the four of us. Not even to Travis.”

“What are the rest of our plans?” Josiah asked.

Chris pushed the maps out so that they could all see them. “We’re going to set our own trap. We’ll assume it’s a set up. You three are going to watch the approaches to the building. No need for anyone but me to be inside. If we’re wrong and there really is a deal going down there I can call you in, but by that time we’d know it probably wasn’t a trap anyway. If it is, I’d expect them to be there early. And if there’s a leak at the PD, that’ll be before seven.”

He had it all worked out Josiah realised, their positions planned, a complete strategy devised while he listened to them talk. And as usual it was a strategy which kept them away from risk as far as possible, and put Chris himself in the most hazardous position.

“I don’t think it should be dangerous,” Chris said, when Buck, who never gave up, suggested he shouldn’t be in there alone. “We’re out of sight, just looking for evidence. We’ll get into position tonight, cameras as well as the usual equipment. I want a record of anyone who even glances at that building tomorrow, let alone approaches it.”

“You hope we’ll get a link to Varon?”

Chris shrugged. “Sooner or later he’ll make a mistake. My gut feeling is that this information is designed to drag us into an ambush and that he’s behind it. If I’m wrong and we don’t get anything useful, well at worst we’ve just spent an uncomfortable twenty four hours.” He glanced at his watch. “I’ve got a meeting with Travis. I’ll be telling him what Buck told Henderson.”

He was still a damn good leader, Josiah thought, even if there was no longer any warmth to his manner. Chris had taken the view—which Josiah certainly shared—that this whole situation stank, but he’d managed to keep Buck on board and find a way they might turn it to their advantage. No wonder Travis chose to overlook the off duty drinking and the fact that Chris scared their own side as much as the criminals.

“Get the details worked out,” Chris added. “I want us in position before midnight tonight.”

“That’s a hell of a long stakeout,” Buck said. “Some of us have bladders, y’know.”

“Well, technically, all of us…” Nathan began.

“It’s a problem you’ve been handling for yourselves long enough,” Chris said, unamused. “Nathan—Tylenol?”

Silently Nathan handed him the bottle and managed not to say anything as Chris dry-swallowed four of them—at least until the door had closed behind Chris. As soon as he could speak unheard he said, “He won’t need to get in the way of a bullet. His liver’ll kill him soon enough.”

“Thinks it don’t count as killing himself if he drinks himself to death,” Buck said with uncharacteristic bitterness. “I’m not sure that he could stop now if he tried.”

“He could stop,” Josiah said. He’d known a lot of alcoholics, and that wasn’t Chris’s problem. Chris stopped drinking when he had any reason to, but the only reason he had came from the demands of their job, and even the ATF didn’t work twenty four-seven.

“Give him something more, Lord,” Josiah prayed silently, hoisting that rock another painful inch.

JD was bored. Unlike a lot of ten year olds, he knew that there were worse things than being bored, but he still found it hard not to fidget. He wasn’t sure if Ezra and Vin didn’t get restless because they were older or just because they’d been living this way a lot longer. Ezra seemed to be able to sit for hours silently shuffling, dealing and flipping cards. Vin would just lie at the edge of their den, high in this disused warehouse, with his eyes on the street below or the skyline.

This was a cool place though. JD liked it. It was high and quiet, and real hard to get up to if you didn’t know the tricks. Vin and Ezra were cool too, even if they sometimes treated him like a little kid. He looked at Ezra hopefully. Sometimes Ezra would teach him card tricks or tell him about famous cons that had been played. Vin mostly seemed to want to teach him to lie quiet and watch things, and he wasn’t in the mood for that.

He moved again, restlessly, and must have knocked a little piece of metal. It made a lot of noise as it bounced off the walkways and down to the warehouse floor.

“Sorry!” he whispered hastily.

Vin rolled over and looked at him reproachfully. Ezra shook his head slightly. JD hated it when they did that.

“Give ‘im th’ book,” Vin murmured, somehow getting the sound much softer than JD’s whisper.

Ezra carefully put down the cards, felt inside the backpack they kept their food and belongings in, and took out a slightly battered book which proved to be about all sorts of uses and tricks for Windows XP.

“Yes!” JD said, much too loudly, and had to hastily whisper “sorry” again.

He took the book and looked at the first few pages. It was great! He could read this for hours. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would have thrown it out, but he knew Vin and Ezra must have got it when they went dumpster diving the night before.

The thought briefly took his mind away from the book. He felt bad that things had gotten so hard for Vin and Ezra after they’d helped him. He’d wanted to make up for it by going dumpster diving too, but Vin said he made too much noise, and Ezra said he was ‘inadequately selective’ whatever that meant. All he’d been allowed to do was to wait down at floor level and keep watch, while he did some of the exercises Vin had taught him, so he’d still be fit when they didn’t have to hide so much.

He didn’t know how long that would be. His foster father wanted him back, and it made him feel shivery and scared when he thought of why. And Vin said some of the police around here knew what the man was doing, and instead of stopping him, they’d take JD back, and that was why no one at all could see them, because if the police were bad you couldn’t trust anyone.

JD knew that the police were still looking for them, even though it was three weeks since Vin and Ezra had helped him get away. He knew the police were calling it abduction, too, and Ezra had explained what that meant, though Vin and Ezra tried not to let him see it bothered them.

Vin leaned over and patted his arm. “Enjoy yer book, and stop worryin'” he said. “Ez, come here a minute. See that guy down there? I seen his picture in one of them newspapers y’ were reading.”

Ezra slid quietly across to join him, somehow making less noise than JD did turning pages.

“I think you’re correct. ‘Up and coming’ I believe they described him.”

“Be headin’ down, not up, if he’s with lowlife like Eli Jo. You still got the story?”

“Unfortunately I think it might have been one of the papers we wrapped the rubbish in.”

JD lost interest in the conversation. He sprawled comfortably on his stomach, and managed to lose himself in his book.

Chris had ordered radio silence soon after midnight, when they were all in position. Now, twelve hours later, it was time for the next check in he’d scheduled. It had been a long, cramped, completely unproductive stretch of watching and waiting.

“I’m in position. Nothing to report.” That was Josiah. He sounded peaceful. Maybe he’d spent the time meditating.

“In position. Nothing.” Buck’s reply was more of a growl. He’d be stiff, bored and fed up, but he’d do the job professionally.

“In position.” That was Nathan. “There’s a man watching the door of your building, Chris. Arrived fifteen minutes ago. Could just be having a quiet cigarette or waiting for someone, but I don’t think so.”

“Let us know if he moves or anyone joins him.”

It was earlier than he’d expected any activity. If it was directed at their—supposed—operation, it meant there was a leak, and Chris’s money would be on Henderson and his men. He wanted absolute proof, though. They were law officers, and he wasn’t making accusations unless he was sure. Besides, Buck would fight the idea every inch of the way.

He was a good friend, Buck, loyal to a fault.

Took a real bastard to drive him away.

Chris went back to checking the security of his position. It would have been a hell of a lot easier if this ‘meet’ had been planned for one of the big, barely used, warehouses or depots that crowded this area. Instead, and it added to his suspicions, it was supposed to be in this upstairs room, with bare walls and no furniture beyond a few storage boxes. The room was reached only by stairs to a wooden walkway outside; it would be a bad place to be trapped in… and a good choice for someone setting a trap.

He’d thought he might have to go into the roof somehow, which would have been inconvenient, but after a long and careful examination of the room, he’d realised he had another alternative. There was a cupboard at one end, and although at first glance the shelving in it looked built in, a closer examination had shown him it was shelf units. He’d spent the most constructive part of his night moving the back unit a couple of feet forward so that he could conceal himself and his camera in the space behind. He’d removed all the screws and not replaced them, because he wanted to be able to flatten it to the floor if he needed to come out in a hurry, but he’d looked at it in daylight early this morning, and nothing showed. He’d left the cupboard doors wide open, exactly as they’d been when he entered the room. His only reservation about his position was that once, in the night, he’d heard a small noise that was probably no more than a rat, and had had an uneasy feeling he was being watched. It hadn’t happened again, and he’d decided it was nothing, or nothing that threatened him.

Of course, if he’d made a mistake, the board of the shelves would be no protection at all against bullets, but he couldn’t make himself care. Even his body couldn’t summon up any of the automatic symptoms of apprehension these days; he could hardly remember the dry mouth or heightened awareness he’d once felt before action, back when his survival mattered.

For about ten seconds his control slipped and he let himself think of Sarah and Adam. The longing to be with them again was a pain that cut through him and almost made him gasp aloud. Savagely he got a grip, deadened every feeling rather than endure that searing grief. He had to concentrate on the job. He was good at his work, and it might keep some other family from destruction.

Shortly after that, Nathan’s ‘watcher’ was joined by another man. Ten minutes later a couple of thugs strolled into the side street and loitered at the end where Buck was hidden. They were probably there to put any casual passer-by off walking down this way. There were very few buildings in use nearby, and the only trade visitors they’d seen had been in the early morning, so it wouldn’t be a difficult matter for the street to be kept empty.

At 3.00, he got the heads up from Josiah, who was in the building opposite, that someone was coming up the stairs towards his room. Chris shifted slightly, made sure he was in a position to see the whole room through the small hole he’d bored in the unit back during the night. The hole fitted the camera lens; he’d checked that.

He didn’t recognise the man who came in carrying a black holdall.

He did recognise the equipment that the man began to take out.

There was enough C4 there to send half the street up.

Chris had considered the possibility of explosives, but had thought a bomb much less likely than an ambush. He certainly hadn’t anticipated anything on this scale. His ideal plan had been to get as much evidence as they could and then to get out unseen. What he’d wanted was a trail that led to whoever was behind this set up. Now he no longer had that option.

He said softly into the radio, “Plan B, boys.” Simultaneously he flattened the shelves in front of him.

“Hands on your head. Up against the wall!” he ordered.

He’d never seen a criminal more taken by surprise or quicker to obey. The guy didn’t even try to go for his weapon, and he pressed back against the wall as if he wanted to squirm through it. Chosen for his explosives knowledge, presumably, and expecting to be well away before anything dangerous happened.

Bombs held such a personal bitterness for Chris that he had to stand still a moment and get a rein on his anger before he approached him. If the man made even the slightest of moves…. But he didn’t. Maybe he saw in Chris’s face what would happen if he did. Instead he walked with careful obedience, hands on his head, down to the street.

Chris hastily looked for his men. Josiah and Buck had the two loiterers from that end of the street down on the ground. Where was Nathan? He wasn’t answering when Chris called for him to check in. And where was the police back-up that Buck would have called in the moment he heard the words ‘Plan B’?

Josiah finished off his man with a punch that would have downed a steer. Chris gestured to him to cover the explosives expert, and ran to the far end of the street where Nathan had been concealed.

No sign of him. No sound of a struggle or gunshots.

Chris approached the warehouse as cautiously as was compatible with haste—he didn’t intend to make himself a target against the light—and as he dived for the cover of a pile of crates near the door, he saw Nate had been outnumbered. There were three men struggling with him, and the one good thing was that they seemed to want him alive, probably as their ticket out of the trap that had sprung on them.

One man had gone down groaning just as Chris came in, but the other two had a good grip, and now a knife was pressed across Nathan’s throat.

“Come out, Larabee, or we’ll finish him,” the man holding the knife said.

Chris noted the use of his name, confirmation if he’d needed it that the trap had been set specifically for his team. He stood up slowly, keeping as much cover from the crates as he could. Buck and Josiah would be dealing with the three men outside, and there was still no sound of the promised back up.

“You don’t want to add to your problems by killing a federal agent,” he said.

“We won’t need to kill him if you don’t try to stop us leaving.” The knife man was narrow-faced, with greasy hair dangling. He looked as if he was no stranger to cutting throats.

Chris needed a distraction, something, anything, which would give him a chance to get the initiative.

Nathan knew it, but Nathan was looking dazed, blood running down from a cut over his ear. The knife was pressed too tightly against his skin.

Where the hell was the back up?

Chris glared at the men in an impasse that had only lasted moments but was already too long.

It was then that he saw someone move in the shadows behind Nathan and his captors. Only years of experience and discipline kept Chris from showing anything in his expression as the figure slid silently forward and into the light from the doorway. It was a kid, a boy of fifteen or sixteen, filthy and dishevelled, but he moved with adult confidence. He looked directly at Chris, and as their eyes met the sense of connection jolted Chris like a paddle to the chest. The kid was there to help, and he knew what he was doing.

Chris braced himself, ready for it.

The boy flung something that rattled loudly against the far wall of the barn and caught the attention of the men holding Nathan. In the second they were distracted, he stepped forward and brought a club-like lump of wood down on the back of the greasy man’s head. Chris, moving almost simultaneously, disarmed the other, and Nathan was bending the knife hand away from his face even as the man holding him staggered. The surprise had been just enough to tip the balance in their favour.

Chris stood panting, covering the prisoners and offering an arm to Nathan.

“I’m okay,” Nathan said. “It’s not much. Scalp wounds bleed a lot.”

Chris turned to the boy. “Thanks,” he said. “Chris Larabee, ATF. We owe you.”

The kid hesitated. “Vin,” he said briefly. “Seemed like you were having a spot of trouble with Eli Jo here.”

“You know him?”

“Him and one of the others outside.”

“Be grateful if you’d stay around then.”

“Fer now,” Vin said, drifting to his side. “My friend’s gone t’ let yer men know what’s happening.”

On cue, Josiah arrived, with another kid around the same age as Vin behind him, and slowed down, relieved, as he saw that things were under control.

“Where’s that back-up?” Chris asked.

Josiah shrugged slightly. His eyes met Chris’s, and they were thinking the same thing. No way should it have taken this long, and it wasn’t in Henderson’s favour that it had done.

The boy behind Josiah was quite a bit cleaner than Vin, and although his clothes looked as if he’d been living in them for a while, they were still on the right side of disreputable. He looked at Chris with more cynicism than any sixteen year old should have possessed, and at Vin with a glance that clearly meant he thought it was time to bolt.

Vin shook his head. Maybe, like Chris, he had felt that startling moment of complete understanding, or maybe he just wanted to make sure Eli Jo was booked. Going by the way Vin was looking at the man, there was some personal animosity there.

“Let’s take it outside,” Chris said, gesturing to everyone to move.

Buck, watching the other men in the street, was speaking fast and angrily into his radio. Chris went to secure the stairs to the explosives, and was nearly bowled over by yet another child, a much smaller one, hurtling out of the warehouse where Josiah had been.

“Vin! Ezra! You are all right? I know you said to stay put but I heard all the fighting and I was watching and I couldn’t see you, so I thought you might have been hurt. I’d have run away fast enough if I had to. You know I’m fast.”

It was a dark-haired boy, probably no more than nine or ten years old, and he was hugging Vin and Ezra while he talked.

“Are there any more of you?” Chris asked Vin quietly. “There’s a lot of C4 up in that room, and I don’t want anyone going near it.”

“This is JD, and no there’s no more,” Vin said. He didn’t look happy that JD had shown himself. “It’s all right JD. No one’s hurt. And they’re ATF.”

“But who are they calling in to assist them?” Ezra said softly to Vin.

Chris realised, as he probably should have done before, that the boys might well want to avoid the local police. Presumably the ATF were considered to have better things to do than take street kids in to juvie. He couldn’t just let them run off though, and he saw that they were now getting poised to do just that, though Josiah was between them and freedom in one direction and Buck blocked the way in the other. The little boy, JD, was already edging to the side where he could dart past Josiah.

Vin looked at him. “You called in the p’lice?”

Before Chris could answer, their back up finally arrived, screeching into the end of the street where Buck was standing. The sight of the police car was all the trigger the boys needed to make a dash to escape, but Chris had also been ready. As they took off, he was just fast enough to grab Vin’s filthy shirt, and although the material tore, by then he’d got a grip on Vin’s arm.

“I’m in charge here, not the PD,” he said, meaning it as reassurance, but Vin still wrenched to get free.

Ezra, alert to what was happening behind him, stopped and turned, but little JD, moving as fast as he said he could, had sprinted off so quickly he’d eluded Josiah and nearly reached the end of the street before he realised he was alone.

He turned back to look for his friends, just as the second police car raced in behind him.

“JD!” Vin and Ezra yelled in simultaneous alarm, and Chris heard Buck shout as well.

It was too late. The car had turned in rapidly, and JD was standing in the centre of the street. The young driver of the police car hit the brakes. JD realised his danger, and tried to jump, but neither of them had enough time. The car skidded on, and caught JD as he moved.

Chris watched in horror as the small body was flung into the air from the impact with the hood. It looked bad, and the way the kid landed and didn’t make a move or a sound, looked worse.

He was sharply aware of several things at once: shouts from the police behind him; Buck running, quicker to react than anyone else; Vin and Ezra, shocked briefly into immobility; the continuing need to secure the prisoners and the explosives. He got a more secure grip on the boys, unwilling to let them go forward until he knew how seriously JD was hurt.

“Call an ambulance,” he snapped at Josiah. “Nate—see if there’s anything you can do.”

He gave hasty orders to the police about dealing with the men under arrest and with the explosives. Vin and Ezra weren’t struggling against his hold. They’d both regained control to the extent that if Chris hadn’t been looking at them when the accident happened he would have thought them callously indifferent—but he had been looking and had seen their fear for JD and their horror when the car hit him. It said uncomfortable things about the way they’d had to live that they had learned to cover up so strong a reaction so effectively. That sort of self control came with a price.

Nathan looked up and gestured to him to come over. He wouldn’t have done that if what the boys were going to see was a dead body.

Still making arrangements to secure the scene, Chris walked slowly towards the small group by the police car, drawing Vin and Ezra with him. The young police driver, who looked nearer their age than Chris’s, was close to tears. Buck was down on his knees, like Nathan. JD lay in a distorted sprawl, blood running down his face, and Chris didn’t need to be a medic to see he was seriously hurt.

“Nate?” he asked quietly.

It was Buck who looked up, angry, because he couldn’t bear to see a woman or a child hurt.

“He should never have been here Chris. No child should be running around on the streets like this. He should have been safe at home.”

“And so he would have been,” an unfamiliar voice broke in, “if he hadn’t been snatched by these boys. Don’t worry Buck; I’ll be taking them in with the other men—with their record and the charges against them, I’ll be holding them until I’m sure there are secure places at the Youth Center.” The man speaking aggressively from behind Chris had to be Henderson, arriving even later than the rest of his men.

Chris turned sharply. Vin, shaken briefly from his stunned silence, retorted bitterly to Henderson, “JD weren’t safe at home and you knew it.”

“You profited from it,” Ezra added.

Henderson moved threateningly, but aborted the move when he caught the expression on Chris’s face. “Larabee,” Chris introduced himself shortly. “You won’t be arresting these boys. They helped save Nate Jackson while we were waiting for your back up. I want to hear a damn good explanation as to where you were.”

“Ambulance is comin’,” Vin said, his brief defiance already forgotten, and his attention back to JD.

“He’s got serious injuries, Chris,” Nathan said quietly, finally getting the chance to answer Chris’s question. “But as far as I can judge, I’d say he’s got a good chance of recovering from them.”

Chris felt the slight sag of relief in the boys, and shared it. “Nathan, you ride along with him and get that cut stitched. Buck, go to the hospital and…”

“Tell him t’ keep anyone else away. They wanted JD t’ do some real bad stuff. Don’t let his foster dad near him.”

Vin’s voice was low, for Chris only. He was looking at Chris with reluctant trust. Ezra was regarding Chris with a complete lack of it, but it was obvious they both thought he had the power to do something. Chris wasn’t sure he had, legally, but he found himself saying to Buck as the paramedics gently checked JD, “Buck—stay with the kid. He may have seen something here, so treat him as a witness who could potentially be in danger. No one’s to see him unless I okay it.”

Buck’s attention was fixed on the small body being carefully moved to the ambulance. “Be glad to stay with him,” he said, “But…”

“Just do it,” Chris said shortly. “No one except medical staff without my authorisation. I’ll call you and explain when I’ve dealt with things here.”

He couldn’t imagine anyone better than Buck to protect the kid… and he wanted Buck away from here, in case he had to let rip at Henderson.

Chris had an eye on what was going on in the street, and it seemed to be being done professionally, so he stayed where he was until the ambulance left. Josiah joined him, looked as if he was about to say something, then changed his mind. After a moment Chris realised why. Somehow, maybe when he’d been dealing with Henderson, he’d changed his grip on the boys, and was now standing with one arm around Vin’s shoulders, the other hand on Ezra’s. Well, what the hell. Like Buck said, no kid should be alone on the streets, and however tough and savvy these two looked, they were just kids.

“I didn’t see the boy, sir. We got the call late and…”

That was the young police driver, who had been standing there frozen and white-faced as the paramedics worked.

“It was an accident,” Chris said firmly. It was another black mark against Henderson. He should have made time to say this. “There was nothing you could have done. You reacted quickly enough; it was an impossible situation.”

He said it forcefully rather than kindly, but the young man looked as if he’d just had a heavy sentence lifted. Chris looked at Josiah, who nodded. Josiah would follow this up. He’d do it better, and Chris had a lot of other responsibilities just now, including working out what he was going to do with Vin and Ezra.

At least they weren’t trying to run at the moment. He could hardly take a step without tripping over them. They could evidently see as well as Chris could that Henderson hadn’t given up the idea of taking them in, and had decided to stay where they might be safer.

Chris dealt with everything he needed to do at the scene. He’d question the men later—he’d warned Henderson that he expected to find them safe and ready for him. Most of them were probably hired muscle, but he had some hope of the man who’d been setting the explosives.

“Eli Jo’s th’ one t’ watch,” Vin said softly as the men were taken away. “He’s the one set you up.”

“You think, or you know?” Chris asked. It was clear Vin had some longstanding feud with the man.

“Think,” Vin admitted.

“He’s been loitering around this area,” Ezra said.

“Hanging about with some guy—what did y’ say the paper called him, Ez?”

“I don’t remember a name. Just that he was part of the team around some newly prominent political figure.”

Chris looked at them sharply. There was no way they could have guessed this was something he wanted to know. “I’ll hear about it later,” he said quickly. It might be the sort of link he was looking for that could be followed to Varon, but even if it wasn’t it played neatly with what he’d decided to do about these two—which was the same as the story he’d given Buck to use about JD. They were witnesses in a case the ATF was investigating. In Chris’s book, that put them under his jurisdiction.

He told Henderson so, when the man came back demanding to arrest the boys now that everything else was dealt with. Henderson didn’t like it, and made blustering threats about going over Chris’s head.

“Do it, and I’ll make it clear why I don’t trust you with them,” Chris said. “I’ll have every aspect of your involvement in today’s business examined, and every murmur about you and your methods dug up. Maybe we could start with that kid they’ve just taken to hospital. What’s a close scrutiny into his foster care going to turn up? I suspect you know.”

“These boys are runners,” Henderson said, red with suppressed anger. “You lose ’em and there’ll be hell to pay. And the ATF can’t keep them forever. You’ll have to hand them over sooner or later. They’re not going to be treated as juveniles, not at their age and with charges against them that include a killing and abduction. They’re going down, Larabee, and the most you can do is postpone it a few days.”

Henderson was afraid of him. Chris could see it easily enough; but Henderson’s fear would make him cautious. And vindictive where he could afford to be. He would go after the boys, and even if Chris could make a damn good case for them as witnesses, it was going to be difficult to protect them if the charges were as serious as Henderson said.

He wasn’t really a believer in being able to judge someone on sight. He’d seen criminals with honest eyes and faces that had won the trust of experienced officers. Even the startling sense he’d had of knowing exactly what Vin was going to do in the warehouse, of knowing Vin himself, didn’t mean he might not have been involved in violence. Not murder. Chris was sure of that. But a fight in which someone had died? Vin certainly had the air of being able to look after himself on the streets.

Still, if you couldn’t judge faces, you could judge actions. Vin had risked his neck to help Nathan, and Chris had seen little JD run to both the boys like they were his big brothers. Whatever Vin and Ezra might have done, he didn’t believe they were simply hardened young thugs. Something more was going on here.

He felt compelled—by a sense of justice, he told himself—to find out more about these accusations, and to find some way of keeping the boys from being locked up. Meanwhile, he had to make sure they didn’t bolt once the threat of the police was removed, because he doubted they had any reason at all to trust the system, or to think that he could influence it.

He had been aware for a little while now of Vin assessing the diminishing police presence in the street, of Ezra calculating how much attention Chris was paying, and of the silent agreement between the two of them that it was nearly time to make their break for it.

“Don’t even think about it,” he warned.

“Henderson weren’t lying,” Vin said. “Juvie’ll think we’re bad news.”

“The Youth Center is always overcrowded,” Ezra agreed. “Besides, we absconded from there before.”

“Judge’ll say stuff about our best int’rests, but it’ll be everyone else’s best int’rests that counts.”

“I’m sure Mr Henderson will make an eloquent case for protecting society from delinquents like us.

Chris had already noticed that Ezra spoke as if he’d attended an extremely expensive private school, and Vin as if he’d never attended school at all. It gave an odd emphasis to their agreement.

“You’re not going to be locked up and you’re not being turned loose,” he said, and called Josiah over from where he was still deep in conversation with the young police driver. “Josiah, we’ll take these two back to the office for now; I want their statements about today and any activity they saw over the last couple of days, and I want them to look at some photographs. You get their files. We need to know what’s on record against them.”

Vin and Ezra looked at him with resignation and with no hope at all that he could achieve anything. Chris knew that the only thing keeping them from running was the lack of an opportunity now that he and Josiah were both marshalling them along. He was very careful, on the way to the Ram and afterwards, not to give them the slightest chance to bolt, and even then he suspected that the only reason he arrived at his office with them still in tow was that they wouldn’t either of them make a break for it alone. He didn’t risk stopping to pick up any food, though he and Josiah had barely eaten today, and the boys looked as if their last meal was longer ago than that.

“Coffee?” he offered them. They both looked as if they needed something hot. He was sharply aware that they were too pale, and very quiet. “Josiah, while you’re making calls, send out for a pizza as well.”

The boys accepted the coffee silently. Now that he had them more or less trapped, they seemed to be putting most of their energy into not showing they felt defeated and afraid. He felt an unexpected impulse to reassure them but it was no good trying to do it with words. He needed something a lot more practical than that, and he wasn’t sure he could achieve it by himself.

He decided to do something he’d hadn’t done in a very long time. He picked up the phone, and asked Orrin Travis for help.

Buck had dozed, in spite of the discomfort of the hospital chair. He’d eaten a hasty meal, and was following it up with a machine-made coffee. He was tired and frustrated, and things didn’t look like improving. Well, maybe they were improving slightly. Nathan had passed through the system to the point where his cut was being stitched and he’d soon be released.

It was almost impossible to find out any real details about JD, though. Providing security for him didn’t entitle Buck to medical details apparently, only to know his whereabouts and make sure no one unauthorised got in to see him. Not that they could have managed it yet. JD had been moved to surgery, Buck did know that much, and would eventually go from there to intensive care.

Buck could go back to his apartment once Nathan was discharged and he’d taken him home. He’d done what Chris wanted and made sure that the foster father would have no access and that the hospital would check before anyone else was allowed to see the boy.

“But that won’t be for some time,” one of the friendlier nurses had told him. “He’s a very sick little boy. Even if he had family they would only be allowed brief visits.”

Yep, Buck could go, he just somehow felt like he’d be abandoning the kid when he left.

His cell phone rang; he looked around for any notices forbidding him to use it, but he seemed to be okay in here.


It was Josiah, hoping to find out JD’s condition.

“They won’t tell me anything except that he’ll be going into intensive care. Is Chris there?”

“He’s on the other line.”

“I’ve done what he said. No one’ll get to see the kid without his okay. I hope he’s sure about what he’s doing though.”

“Seems like there might have been attempts by neighbours to report the foster father,” Josiah said. “I was talking to that police driver and he said he’d heard there were some but they hadn’t been followed up or had got lost in the system or something.”

“So it could be no more than rumours.”

“I wouldn’t take the risk, would you?”

And no, Buck wouldn’t. He didn’t like what was coming over from Josiah, which seemed like yet another criticism of the local force, but he disliked any hint of abuse a lot more.

“He hasn’t any other family at all,” Josiah went on. “I’ve got some of the paperwork on all three boys. JD was orphaned a couple of years back, and they couldn’t trace any relatives.”

Buck thought of the brief glimpse he’d had of the eager little boy. “Surely they could have found him a proper family.”

“I don’t know why they didn’t. I’m trying to find out who his case worker is. Chris says try to find out the boy’s condition and call us back.”

Frustration made Buck answer more irritably than he meant to. “Well how exactly does he think I’m supposed to do that? And since when did Chris give a damn anyway?”

He regretted it the moment he’d said it, and was about to say so when Chris himself took the phone.

“Buck? Can you hang in there a bit longer? I’ve called Rain, and she’ll pick Nathan up. I’m working on getting you some kind of rights to see JD.”

Buck was startled, not just by the statement, but by the note of life and purpose in Chris’s voice, stronger than he’d heard it in… well in a hell of a long time.

“Do you think you can do that?” he asked. “I hate the thought of that kid having no one here at all for him. I know the doctors and nurses are good, but it’s not the same.”

“I’m hoping to get some kind of legal order in the next couple of hours,” Chris said, startling him even more. “I think that’s Travis now on the other line. We’ll get back to you.”

He was gone before Buck had time to ask any of the questions he was bursting with, but he left him feeling more hopeful, and not just about JD. That had sounded almost like the old Chris Larabee for a few minutes there.

He settled back in his chair, reconciled to the waiting.

Judge Tom Carrington had been a friend of Orrin Travis for many years. Their families had become close, and he’d shared Orrin’s pleasure at becoming a grandfather, and his grief at losing a son.

He could never, in all that time, recall Travis asking a work-related favour.

“I know it’s unusual,” Orrin had said, catching him with the request as he was about to leave the office for home. “But I think it’s just about within the bounds of what you can do. The older boys are important witnesses in a case Larabee’s team are working on, and he thinks they’ll abscond from the Youth Center—apparently they’ve managed it before. Also, they seem to be at some risk, from people who might not want them giving evidence.”

Carrington agreed to meet Orrin, along with his team leader, Larabee, and the boys in question. He planned to see them at the ATF building rather than the Center and in hasty preparation skimmed through the parts of the boys’ records that he was able to get at short notice.

Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner. Neither of them had actually appeared before a juvenile judge, but there seemed to be plenty of reasons why they should have done. Standish had been running cons with his mother before he was out of diapers, and she’d fled the state some three years earlier. The boy had been briefly placed in a care home—very briefly if the dates were correct—and had then disappeared.

Tanner had been in and out of the system for years, though mostly out. Orphaned when he was five, on the death of his mother, he’d been fostered for a short while. The maternal grandfather had wanted the boy, but he was an itinerant who earned his money working with horses, and had been considered unsuitable. He’d managed to take the boy anyway, and nothing had been heard of either of them for three years. Then the grandfather had reappeared at a hospital, being treated for a major stroke, and the boy had been picked up there and returned to foster care. After that it was a pattern of running, being picked up, placed in one home or another and running again, until he finally disappeared completely from… The judge paused to check it correlated. Yes, he’d run away from the Boys’ Home with Standish. That was three years ago. Impossible to tell if they’d been together ever since, but their one further appearance had been together. They’d been locked up for a night at the Youth Center—or part of a night. They’d escaped alarmingly quickly.

On that occasion, they’d been in the Center because they’d been arrested for being involved in a fight at some illegal gambling joint. The accusations levelled against them since were even more serious, though they’d never been arrested or charged. Worst was a fatal stabbing, with an eye witness identifying Tanner as the killer, but there also seemed to be a wealth of evidence that together they’d abducted a ten-year-old boy from his foster home. Given that Tanner was almost sixteen, and Standish a couple of months older, they might well have been facing a full trial in an adult court if they’d been brought in in the normal way and not by Orrin’s team.

Larabee, though—he was sure he’d heard the name before—was disputing the evidence in these cases. He also appeared to be claiming the boys had been instrumental in saving the life of an ATF agent. That was unexpected. Tom wished he’d had time to get some more information, on the incidents and the background.

He was well on the way to ATF headquarters when he finally placed the name Larabee. Chris Larabee. Of course. He remembered the appalling tragedy a few years back. Orrin had spoken of the man once or twice over the following months. Tom had the impression Larabee had gone rapidly downhill, perhaps not surprisingly, and that Orrin had been worried about how long he’d be able to keep him in his post. Evidently he had come through and remained in the ATF. Now that he thought about it, Tom had a feeling he’d heard the name more recently too, perhaps to do with some court case.

After he’d parked, he called a lawyer friend who he thought might well have come across Larabee in his work.

“Chris Larabee? You want the facts or urban legend?” his friend asked wryly. “I’ve never actually been in court when he’s been involved, but I’ve certainly heard of him. They say he’s cold, dangerous and a complete bastard if you cross him. Good at his job though. Most people find him somewhere between frightening and downright terrifying. There all sorts of stories about cases he’s given evidence in. I can believe the one about the juror who burst into tears and asked to be released from the jury, but not the defence counsel who had to dash out to change his trousers. Was there anything specific you wanted to know?”

“No, I think that’s more than enough.”

Much more. Until now, his main worry had been that he might be considering an unduly lenient option for a couple of young delinquents. Now he was also going to have to worry about whether placing them with Chris Larabee constituted a cruel and unusual punishment.

His first sight of the three of them was not reassuring. They were gathered in Orrin’s office, the boys dirty and sullen, Larabee a black-clad threat looming behind them.

“I’m afraid they’re straight from the street,” Orrin apologised. “We wanted to get this settled as quickly as possible. This is Chris Larabee. Chris—Tom Carrington. He’s one of the juvenile judges.”

“Grateful you could come at short notice, sir,” Larabee said. The boys were silent, looking at the judge with suspicion rather than respect.

“Would you like to explain to me just what you’re proposing for the boys, Mr Larabee?” He’d heard it in outline from Orrin, but he wanted to hear it from Larabee himself.

“I’d like them to be placed in my custody, and the charges against them to be reviewed in the light of new evidence we can offer. They’ve information that could potentially be vital in a case I’m building, and I’m also concerned about their safety. They may be able to identify one of the men behind an attempt today to ambush my team.”

“Would that be generally known?”

“It shouldn’t be. But a lot of information seems to have been leaking. We were set up today.”

Tom didn’t want to get into this; he’d already had a hint from Orrin that there might be an IA investigation soon. His job was to concentrate on the boys.

“You are aware of the serious nature of the charges against them,” he said. “In Tanner’s case it could be murder.”

“I didn’t kill Kincaid,” the scruffier of the boys said angrily. Tom noted that this was Vin Tanner—as unprepossessing a youngster as he might have expected, and clearly out of line.

Larabee’s hand dropped, warningly, on Vin’s shoulder, and Tom saw with interest the brief battle of wills.

Nothing was said between them, but Vin repeated, much more politely, “I didn’t kill Mr Kincaid, sir.”

The judge noted wryly that there was one person in the room whose authority the boy did respect. Now that he had silence, he went on, “I gather you’re disputing the evidence, Mr Larabee? You know there was an eye witness?”

“Eli Jo Chavez,” Larabee said. “The man’s just been arrested for trying to kill one of my team.”

“If you enquire of anyone other than the local custodians of law and order you will discover exactly what type of man Mr Chavez is,” the other boy said. Tom was taken aback. Nothing in Standish’s record had suggested he spoke like the more superior sort of counsel. There was that hint again, too, of a problem in the PD.

“Chavez’ testimony has to be suspect,” Larabee said. “He was holding a knife to my man’s throat this afternoon, and was part of an attempt to blow us and half a street up.”

Tom looked at the papers he’d brought with him. This certainly conflicted with the description of Chavez as a ‘respected local citizen.’ “All right,” he said slowly. “This obviously needs looking into. But there’s also the matter of abduction of John Dunne from his foster home.”

His experienced eye was on the boys as he said this, and he was surprised to see not guilt or apprehension, but distress. Larabee stepped forward, almost protectively. “John Dunne’s the other boy Orrin called you about. We believe his foster home was abusive—and we’ve discovered his care worker was suspended last week in the ongoing federal investigation into people downloading child pornography from the internet. JD was hit by a police car this afternoon, and injured. One of my men, Buck Wilmington, is at the hospital keeping an eye on his situation, and we’re asking for him to be given some kind of rights—maybe as a guardian—with the boy.”

Orrin had mentioned this, but not the context. The judge glanced again at his notes, abandoned them, and decided that ‘unusual’ was an inadequate word for this. He’d just have to rely on his instincts. The boy in hospital wasn’t a problem. “I can put your man in the position of a guardian,” he agreed. He turned to Travis. “You think there’s something in this accusation of abuse.”

“I do,” Orrin said firmly.

Tom looked again at Tanner and Standish. They were both silently hostile. They looked very much the delinquents their records suggested. Tanner was probably the veteran of a number of street fights, and Standish sounded as if he could sell shares in the Federal Reserve. But the evidence Larabee was offering in their favour did seem to have some merit.

“These boys helped save the life of one of my team this afternoon,” Larabee said now. He might not have meant it to sound like a challenge. And he might not have realised that he was looking at Tom more menacingly than any law officer ought to be able to look at a judge.

“I’m considering that in their favour,” Tom said. “Mr Larabee, when you say you want these boys placed in your custody, what exactly are you proposing? Not to keep them here, presumably?”

“I’ve a ranch.”

“It’s well out of the city,” Orrin said. “Difficult to access without transport.”

“The boys would be with one of my team at all times,” Larabee said.

The judge thought of ordering that to be at least two, but reconsidered. Instead he said, “There would need to be regular—preferably daily—visits from a case worker.”

“Josiah Sanchez, my profiler, has been involved in a lot of youth work. He recommends a Mrs Wells.”

Tom felt he was losing the initiative here, but it was a good choice. Mrs Wells would be excellent if she was available—and in the circumstances, he was prepared to pull any strings he could to ensure she was.

“All right, Mr Larabee,” he said. “Unorthodox as it is, given the unique circumstances I’ve decided to agree to your request. The boys will be placed in your custody, and you’ll become their legal guardian, initially for a period of sixty days. At the end of the sixty days, the three of you will attend a session with me at the juvenile court room, when we’ll review the situation.”

He turned to the boys. “You understand the arrangements that have been made for you?”

Standish looked bored, Tanner was looking at Larabee. They did both nod, though. He hadn’t been expecting gratitude. Actually, given that Larabee exuded all the personal charm of an attack dog, he’d wondered if they might protest, but if anything they seemed slightly relieved.

“You’ll let the hospital know about Wilmington?” Larabee asked.

“I’ll see it goes through tonight.”


“We’re all grateful, Tom,” Orrin said. “Now, if you’ve finished with Chris, I know Evie is hoping you might come and have dinner with us. Laura’s out of town, isn’t she?”

“New grandchild,” Tom said. He felt he deserved some of Evie’s excellent cooking. “Mr Larabee, I’ll be in touch to let you know about a case worker and the arrangements for the case review.”

Larabee nodded. “We’ll be heading out to the ranch then. Vin, Ezra, Judge Carrington gave up his time to come here and sort this out.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ezra said, without a trace of sincerity.

A mutter from Vin might have been the same words. Apparently it was acceptable to Chris, anyway. He turned to go, Vin following as close as a shadow, Ezra a wary pace or two behind.

“Thanks, Tom,” Orrin said as the door closed behind them.

“I hope we don’t come to regret it,” Tom said. “I’m not sure whether it’s Larabee or the boys I should be feeling sorry for.”

“Chris Larabee’s a good man.”

“He’s certainly a formidable one. On the other hand, they looked a pair of young ruffians, so perhaps the three of them deserve each other. If you’ll lend me your office for a minute, I’ll call the hospital about Wilmington and arrange to send the paperwork. Oh, and I’d better try to get in touch with Mrs Wells, too, before the pleasure of a meal with you and Evie distracts me completely.”

Josiah felt that things were moving a good deal faster than he could keep up with—like a rock rolling down the far side of a hill, perhaps. It wasn’t the case, though they had made some progress there. Vin and Ezra had identified one of Varon’s partners as the man they’d seen talking to Eli Jo, which might not make admissible evidence but opened up some lines of investigation. The explosives man they’d picked up had turned out to be wanted by the FBI, but he’d been hired by Eli Jo, as had the other men they’d picked up. Josiah had questioned them all, and didn’t believe they knew any more than that. Eli Jo himself wasn’t talking, but he’d already acquired a slick lawyer who ought to have been out of his price range.

No, he had no problem with the way the case was going. It was the prospect of Chris Larabee taking on two delinquent teenage boys that he was finding hard to get his mind around.

“Are you sure about this?” he’d asked when Chris first told him what he’d asked Orrin Travis to do.


“They’ll be difficult, probably disturbed, and they’ve got a reputation as running from everywhere they’ve been placed.”

“Vin won’t run,” Chris said, with a confidence that made no sense at all to Josiah. “And I don’t think Ezra’d go without him, though that might need watching.”

“The judge may not think the arrangement’s suitable.”

“I’m not going to se them locked up,” Chris said, in a tone that his team didn’t argue with. “I think the judge’ll see sense.”

People often did when confronted with Chris in a determined mood… All the same, Josiah was waiting rather apprehensively to find out what had been said. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d known Chris actually care about something the way he seemed to do about this. In fact, Chris had been different, less grim and impersonal, ever since the boys had appeared on the scene. Josiah had noticed it when Chris found time to reassure the young police driver, and in many small ways since then.

He looked up when he heard the three of them coming back.

He only needed to look once. It wasn’t that anyone was smiling, or even talking, but the tension was gone. Chris looked almost relaxed, and Vin and Ezra, who had been stiffly controlled earlier, had let go of that rigid self-possession, and looked as white and tired as normal youngsters might at the end of a harsh day.

“What exactly did the judge agree to?” he asked.

“I’ve custody for sixty days, and the charges will be looked at again. Oh, and he’s made Buck JD’s legal guardian.”

Chris said it almost casually, as if this wasn’t a startling upheaval to his life. “I’ll call Buck and let him know, then we’re heading out to the ranch. If you don’t mind the drive, maybe you could come along, put me in the picture about how you got on at the PD while the boys clean up and eat. Though we might need to pick up some groceries on the way… and some clothes I suppose…”

It was dawning on him, Josiah saw, just what he’d taken on. These two didn’t come with suitcases or report cards.

“We don’t need clothes buying us,” Vin said, and got surreptitiously elbowed by Ezra. “There’s places give out old clothes. We just been…”

“Out of circulation,” Ezra supplied.

“Yeah. Because of JD. We ain’t usually so…”

“So reprehensibly filthy. However we certainly have no objection to a newer wardrobe if you’re offering to purchase it.”

Vin elbowed him back, harder than he probably intended to, and Ezra, who had perched on the edge of a desk, fell off.

Chris hoisted Ezra back to his feet. “We’ll get you clothes from a store,” he told Vin firmly. “Now do the two of you want to ride together or one with me and one with Josiah?”

They rode together. Josiah had a feeling that Ezra, who was definitely still wary of Chris, might have considered the alternative if Josiah had owned a sports car or something with a touch of class. One sight of the suburban was enough. Ezra followed Vin to the Ram.

It was a couple of hours before they arrived at the ranch, but they had managed to buy enough groceries for a small army and several sets of basic clothes, and hadn’t lost either of the boys. Maybe Chris was right about them… or maybe they were just too tired to think of running tonight.

The ranch was silent and dark.

“Yosemite’s been over and seen to the horses,” Chris said to Josiah, seeing him glance towards the barn. “Did I tell you I got another two?”

Chris hadn’t told him anything about the ranch in the last couple of years, but Josiah didn’t say so. Vin and Ezra, who had been silent and withdrawn, looked at the barn with some interest.

“Some woman who Yosemite worked for occasionally asked him if he could find them a home. Her job got transferred to Europe. She’s spoilt them though. They’ve got some real bad habits.”

“Delinquents,” Ezra said, looking slightly less bored.

“Like us,” Vin agreed.

“Worse attitude than you,” Chris said. “Take those two horses to court, and the judge’d spend the whole session avoiding getting bitten in the ass.”

Josiah had forgotten how primitive the sixteen year old sense of humour was. Even Ezra seemed to find that prospect amusing. Rather to Josiah’s surprise both boys were interested enough in the horses to volunteer some questions. He would have thought they were very much city kids, but Chris seemed to sense that Vin had been around horses, and Ezra actually volunteered the information that he could ride.

They struggled into the house with bags of groceries and clothes. At least, Josiah, Chris and Vin did. Ezra carried the one expensive jacket and pants he had talked Chris into adding to the pile of shirts and jeans.

It was a long, long time since Josiah had been out to the ranch, and the last time it had been neglected and dirty. He was startled, to say the least, to find the kitchen spotless with every surface gleaming.

“Mrs Potter,” Chris said, seeing his expression. “Buck and I, we said some things a few months back… I guess you know that. Afterwards, when I’d cooled down a bit, I took a long hard look at this place. I knew Gloria wanted some work that gave her time for the children. It’s been rough for all of them. The hours suit her and it suits me that she takes care of the place.”

Josiah knew Mrs Potter, whose husband had been killed in a shooting their team had investigated. She and the children had, as Chris said, had a hard time. It was like Chris, even at his worst, to have thought of her.

“Trouble is, she worries I pay her too much,” Chris said wryly. “That’s why it’s so damn clean.”

Ezra seemed untroubled by it, but Josiah could see Vin was uncomfortable at the prospect of touching the surfaces. The boys did look grimier than ever against this hygienic background, and the fluorescent light emphasised the tiredness of their faces.

“Don’t worry about it,” Chris told them. “Mrs Potter would be glad to have some real dirt to clean off. I’ll show you the bathrooms, anyway…”

His cell phone rang before he could make a move to do that. Josiah hoped it might be Buck with some news, but the expression on Chris’s face went from surprise to anger to black fury. He slammed the phone down, and cursed Henderson fluently, in language that was a reminder of his years in the Seals. It made Josiah blink, and would certainly have appalled the judge. Vin and Ezra looked impressed.

“What’s Henderson done?” Josiah asked hastily, before Chris could improve their vocabulary any further.

Chris hesitated, perhaps deciding whether to send the boys off first, but Vin asked abruptly, “He’s let Eli Jo go?”

“Near enough,” Chris said.

“They wouldn’t dare,” Josiah said. “That’d be like an open invitation to IA.”

“It wasn’t that simple. Seems Eli Jo had—appeared to have—a seizure. They got the police doctor, did it all appropriately. While he was being transferred to an ambulance, he staged a miracle recovery. Injured one of the attendants, got away from the men escorting him, made a successful break for it.”

“It still looks bad,” Josiah said.

“But harder to prove, especially if the doctor’s known to be on the level. You can see how it could be done. That fancy lawyer slips Eli Jo some fast acting drug to simulate a heart attack or fit; they’d have to transfer him to a hospital. Henderson’s only got to make sure some of his cronies are the guards and the break is on.”

“He’s wanted now though,” Vin said. “Means he’s on th’ run. I c’n tell y’ places he might go. People he might go to.”

Chris nodded, accepting the offer with more respect than he accorded most adults. “Okay. You give me the possible contacts; I’ll get Travis to put some of our own people on it. Josiah—you show Ezra the bathroom and call Buck for me. Vin can get cleaned up when we’ve finished.”

Josiah showed Ezra the layout of the building. He found the youngster difficult to read, and it was the end of a long day, but he thought perhaps something more than tiredness was bothering Ezra.

“I don’t think you or Vin will need to worry about Eli Jo,” Josiah said tentatively.

“Eli Jo is a cretin. I wouldn’t waste a thought on him.”

Well, that had the ring of truth. Either Josiah had been mistaken or something else entirely was bothering Ezra. Whatever it was, he seemed to forget it at the prospect of a hot shower in a well-equipped bathroom. Josiah made sure he had everything he could need, and left him to it.

He called Buck, but Buck had already found out his new role from the hospital staff and was in a hurry to go to see JD now that he was settled in ICU. Josiah looked into the kitchen, and found Chris and Vin absorbed over a map.

“I ought to get back,” he told Chris. “With Buck staying at the hospital and Nathan out of action, one of us should be in town.”

“Travis has taken us off everything except the follow up to yesterday’s business, but you’re right,” Chris agreed. “Go check up on Henderson—put the fear of God into him. I got a call from that judge, and Mrs Wells is coming some time tomorrow morning, so I’ll wait here ’til she’s been. After that, I might get Nate to stay with the boys.”

He walked outside with Josiah. “Buck okay?” he asked.

“You know Buck,” Josiah said. “Marshmallow when it comes to a hurt kid. I think he’ll be at the hospital all night.”

Chris nodded, thoughtful.

“I’ll be off then,” Josiah said. “Call me if you need me, though.”

“You think I can’t manage two boys and six horses?” Chris asked, just the slightest quirk of a smile lightening his face.

Josiah turned hastily to unlocking the suburban, so Chris wouldn’t see him grin inanely. This was a side of Chris Larabee he’d almost forgotten he’d missed it for so long.

If the change was thanks to Vin and Ezra, the state ought to give them a free pardon and a medal apiece.

Buck couldn’t believe it when the nurse said that the situation was better than it might have been. JD looked smaller than he had done, and much too pale for anyone who was going to be all right, and there seemed to be monitors and tubes all over the place.

“He’s doing well, Agent Wilmington.”

He couldn’t remember her name. Trudi? Tracey? She was pretty and pleasant, but he couldn’t concentrate on anything except the little boy lying so still on the bed. The doctor had spoken to him, but in doctorese which he’d need Nathan to translate. He’d picked up a few positives, like no internal damage, and some real negatives, like the fact there might have been brain damage they wouldn’t detect ’til the kid woke up, but the rest had passed him by.

“You can hold his hand, and talk to him.”

They hadn’t washed JDs hands. Buck took one small cold one into his and absently noticed the ingrained grime. How could a bright, cute little kid like this have ended up on the streets? Chris had better be damn sure he was right about those older boys.

Vin woke sweating and shaking, and saw from the clock it was still just the early hours of the morning. He shifted uncomfortably in the too-soft bed with its too clean sheets. He didn’t fit in this room. It was all right for Ez. Ez knew how to live this way, washing all the time and having expensive stuff about the place.

He looked over at the other bed in the ranch’s guest room. Ez was asleep. They’d both been dog tired, too tired even to eat more than a mouthful, and once Chris had got word from the hospital that JD was out of surgery okay, it was like someone had flipped a switch on Ez. He hardly even complained when they realised no one had thought to buy anything to sleep in.

Vin didn’t care about that. He’d most all his life laid down in what he’d got on. A clean T shirt and boxers was pretty smart to go to bed in. He just wished he could stop waking up. This was the third time, and every time the nightmare seemed to get worse.

It was stupid. He knew JD hadn’t died, and anyway, it was a police car hit him, not Eli Jo cutting him with a knife, which was the way it kept playing in Vin’s dream. He threw the pillow on the floor, but the mattress was nearly as soft. His eyes closed, and there was Eli Jo, meaner and more vicious, and Vin knowing there wasn’t one thing he could do to stop him…

He jerked back awake, and this time he got up. He couldn’t stand just lying there. He’d go to the bathroom, maybe walk around the house a bit. He pulled his jeans on, then slid silently into the hallway, moving that way out of habit. Hard to believe it was just last night he’d slipped through the darkness to watch Chris a while, and had begun to guess he was setting a trap for Eli Jo and his gang.

Quite a lot of the doors were shut. He slid extra quietly past the one to Chris’s room, embarrassed to be waking up with bad dreams like some kid. He still couldn’t quite believe Chris had come through for them and saved them from lock up, even though when he’d met Chris’s eyes that afternoon it had startled him nearly out of his skin to see the understanding in them.

He’d known then Chris was the sort of man who’d do his best to get them justice. He hadn’t imagined he’d actually give them a place to stay.

He found the bathroom, but after he’d been in, he still couldn’t face trying to sleep again. He could just about get Eli Jo out of his head, but even when he was awake he couldn’t stop seeing JD lying there with the blood on the side of his face. If he lay down and closed his eyes, it was all going to start up again, and he was still cold and shivering from the last time.

He wandered a bit more, and saw a light in one room, Very softly he pushed the door a little further open. It was a study and the desk lamp had been left on—Chris must’ve forgotten it when he went to bed. There was a pile of papers there, and a whisky bottle and glass.

“Tell ya boy, there’s nothing stops th’ nightmares like whisky.”

The words were suddenly very clear in his memory. Old Jake, veteran of some long ago war, who’d been living on the streets since before Vin was born, used to keep a bottle by him when he could. He’d offered Vin a drink sometimes, but Vin had never risked losing the slightest edge off his awareness. Being sharp was what kept him safe.

He was safe here, because of Chris. Wouldn’t matter here.

He stood and looked for a while at the whisky bottle. His granda used to have a nip in his coffee at night; said it helped him sleep. Something that stopped the nightmares and offered a chance of some sleep was just about what he needed.

Wouldn’t be stealing. Chris had said help themselves to what they wanted. He knew there were laws about age and stuff, but hell, he lived like an adult most of the time, had been doing since he was younger than JD…

It was a mistake to think about JD. It started the scenes playing again in his head: JD, standing in the middle of the road; the screeching tires as the police car tried to brake; JD lying in the road, looking broken, looking dead…

He picked up the bottle. Weren’t like he wanted a lot, just enough to get to sleep. He wasn’t sure how much to pour, though. He and Ez were streetwise enough in other ways—but they’d stayed away from alcohol as well as drugs.

His granda used to measure a little bit out in the cap of the bottle, but that was to make it last; they’d never had much money. He looked at the glass, which he could see had been used. It wasn’t that big a glass, maybe half as big as a tumbler, no more.

Making his mind up, he filled the glass completely, and took a small mouthful. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, perhaps that it’d feel hot and strong in his mouth, but it was kind of smooth, though he didn’t like the taste much. He took another couple of swallows, and felt something like a warmth in his empty stomach. Didn’t seem to make much difference to the scenes in his mind, though.

He finished off the glass, and wondered if that was enough, and while he was still standing there holding it, looking at the bottle, the door opened.

He was startled and horrified to see Chris in the doorway—Chris in outdoor clothes, who’d evidently never been to bed. Vin stepped back, and the floor seemed not quite where his feet were expecting it to be. He stumbled and dropped the glass and it shattered into tiny pieces.

“Stand still,” Chris said quickly. He looked about as shocked as Vin was, and something else, some expression Vin didn’t understand, but he didn’t sound angry. Vin reckoned he would be—when he really took in what Vin had done. He stood still, trying to brace himself for it, although a strange feeling was creeping over him and blurring his thoughts.

“If you move you’ll cut your feet,” Chris explained. Vin looked down at his bare feet. They seemed further away than they should be, and he realised the room seemed to be spinning a little around him.

“How much did you drink?” Chris asked, pushing the sharp splinters to one side with his boot. He sounded… worried?

“One glass,” Vin said, and even just two words like that didn’t seem to come out quite clear.

Chris picked up the bottle and held it up to the light, checking the level. “Looks about right,” he said. “At least we won’t have to make a trip to the emergency room.” He looked down at the floor, and frowned. “I’ll have to sweep this up later, but I think the worst of it’s out of the way.”

He took Vin’s arm quite gently and guided him where the floor was clear. Vin concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other without giving in to the giddiness that was threatening him. By the time he got as far as the door, he realised Chris’s anger, which he’d seen unleashed on Henderson, wasn’t going to rip into him at all.

He glanced up, though it made his head spin worse, and met Chris’s eyes. For a long silent moment he felt again that odd sense of connection. It made him feel much worse than being yelled at would have done.

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Want to tell me why?” Chris asked, like a friend might ask it, like Vin didn’t have to tell him if he didn’t want to.

And Vin didn’t—only there seemed to be a hitch in the connection between his brain and his mouth, because he heard himself talking anyway. “Old Jake, he says how whisky stops him seein’ th’ bodies, says nothin’ else works as good. I weren’t lookin’ for a drink, but I just saw th’ bottle… I couldn’t sleep, ain’t used t’ a bed, ‘n…” He lost the thread of what he was saying and trailed off.

Chris stopped in the hallway, thought a moment, then instead of heading back to the guest room turned Vin another way. He still had a grip on Vin’s arm that was holding him steady as much as showing him the way. “You’re freezing,” he said.

Was he cold? Vin hardly knew. He’d been shivering when he was walking around, but now his stomach and his face were hot, and everything else felt a bit too far away.

Chris opened a door into a room Vin hadn’t seen before—an untidy room with battered furniture, books and a newspaper on the low table, and a big TV.

“This is the den,” Chris said, pushing him gently towards the large couch. “I don’t let Mrs Potter in here.”

The room wasn’t dirty, but it was kind of normal, and a relief to Vin after the spotless neatness of the guest room. He stumbled over his feet again, but he’d reached the couch, and Chris let him flop onto it. “Here,” Chris said, and Vin wondered what he was talking about until he realised Chris had taken off the jacket he was wearing and was expecting Vin to put it on.

The jacket smelt of horses and outdoors, and was warm from Chris.

“Sit there and don’t even think of moving. I’ll be back in a minute,” Chris said.

Vin wasn’t sure he could have moved, and anyway, he didn’t want to. His head was still spinning, and he just wanted to close his eyes. He slid over against the arm of the couch, and realised that the whisky hadn’t worked, because now that his eyes were shut, he could see it all again, the car and JD in the air and the sprawled body on the ground.

He was lifted upright, and blinked his eyes open. Had it been a minute? More than a minute, by the looks of it, because Chris was back, and there was a mug of coffee and a chocolate bar on the table. Chris held him upright with one arm, and stretched out his other hand for the coffee. “Drink this, and eat something,” he ordered.

The coffee was hot and strong and sweet. Chris must’ve remembered from earlier how he liked it. Vin gulped it down and ate the chocolate, and felt a bit more normal, except his mouth had still forgot it was supposed to wait for his brain.

“It don’t work,” he found himself saying. “It don’t stop y’ seeing it.”

“No,” Chris said quietly. “It doesn’t work. Stay clear of whisky. It’s a bad friend and it’ll lose you good ones.” He sounded kind of grim, but his arm was warm around Vin’s shoulders, and after a moment he went on, “JD’s going to be okay. I called Buck again after you’d gone to bed. The doctors and nurses say he’s doing well, and Buck can sit in with him part of the time.”

“He’s a nice kid,” Vin said, his eyes threatening to shut again. “He don’t deserve none of what’s happened to him.” He was glad someone was there for JD; they’d never let Vin and Ezra go near him now.

He hadn’t meant to say the last bit aloud; he only realised he had done when Chris answered. “Not yet, but I think we might be able to get you in for a visit once he’s out of intensive care.”

This time Vin did mean to say thanks, but it got mixed up with a yawn.

Chris took the empty mug from his hands and put it on the table. “Would you rather sleep in here than in the guest room?”

“Yeah.” He liked this room, the feel of the sagging couch, Chris’s stuff mostly left where he’d dropped it.

Chris tipped him over onto his side, reached for a knitted blanket that was covering a tear in one of the chairs and threw it on top of him. “Get some sleep then,” he said. “You can help me with the horses in the morning.” He sat down in the chair opposite Vin, and put his feet up on the table. “You hear me say I’ve six in the barn?”

“M’ granda worked with horses. Bin around ’em a lot when I was a little kid.”

“Good. I’ll tell you what to expect. First—and he likes you to know he’s first—there’s Pony. He’s a 15.2 hand black, a Quarter Horse… ”

The old couch had worn leather upholstery and dipping springs that rolled Vin comfortably against its back. He’d still got Chris’s jacket on, as well as the blanket. It was the most warm and safe he’d lain down in he didn’t know how long.

He closed his eyes, but he was listening to Chris. Horses took shape in his mind, black, sorrel, bay, cantering, and he realised they were crowding out the uglier pictures. The whisky couldn’t do it, but Chris could.

“Then there’s the two new ones,” Chris said. Vin knew, without making the effort to open his eyes, that Chris would be leaned back in the old chair, black-clad legs crossed, feet still on the table. “Peso—he’s a bad-tempered black devil, but he’s intelligent…”

Vin rode the words into sleep filled with horses.

Continue on to Part 2 of 8