By Gil Hale — corbidae@yahoo.com

Part Five

A wintry dawn broke over Colorado. At Alderways, Jacobson was red-eyed and exhausted after a completely sleepless night, but satisfied that the FBI had enough evidence to start the place’s house of cards tumbling. Several members of the ancillary staff had given positive identification from the photos of Chris Larabee before the management realised they were being questioned, and in addition to that, the exhaustive fingerprinting of rooms and hallways Jacobson had ordered after talking to Sanchez had thrown up several partials that any expert would confirm as matching Larabee’s. That ought to be enough to start getting further warrants.

The junior doctors, too, seeing the way the investigation was tending, were suddenly more co-operative in their eagerness to distance themselves from any criminal charges or accusations of unethical conduct. Jacobson thought the corruption probably went all the way to the top. The director of Alderways was absent—supposedly at a conference—and no one seemed likely to be able to interview him in the near future. The lawyers were trying to lock down every avenue of questioning and preparing for a long litigious siege. Jacobson thought they were too late to stop disaster falling on Alderways. The thought gave him considerable satisfaction.

In Denver, Orrin Travis had left his wife sound asleep to come into his office long before the day officially began. He wanted to keep abreast of all the evidence that now seemed to prove that Chris Larabee had been kidnapped, brain-washed or worse, and incarcerated for the last several months. He intended to do all that he could to see that every single person involved was brought to justice—and he would have dearly liked to know exactly what team 7 might be doing to achieve the same end.

The names of Edward Stanford and his brother Vincent had had a galvanizing effect on him when he saw them. Luckily, his personal conviction that Vin and Ezra were on the loose somewhere—with a completely unpredictable Chris Larabee—could remain unofficial. He hoped for some contact with the remainder of the team, preferably one of the saner ones, which he was limiting to Sanchez and Jackson. In his efforts to get in touch with them, he was slightly troubled by his inability to contact Rain, and decided he’d have to look into that during the morning. But it was the Tanner-Larabee-Standish unexploded bomb that was worrying him most.

Hahn Reichart saw the dawn just beginning to lighten the sky as he went to speak to the night security chief, and asked him which two of his men had been sent out in the early hours. The security chief looked nervous, which probably meant he’d been told not to mention this by Otto.

He told Hahn the names, adding hastily, “I wouldn’t have sent the boy. I told Mr Otto he’s inexperienced, but Leo has been asking him for more assignments.”

And Otto indulges him, Hahn thought. He had noticed his son’s weakness for young men, though he didn’t believe it had ever become a problem before.

“You obeyed your orders,” he told the chief. “Have they come back yet?”

“No, sir. Mr Otto said they wouldn’t be back until the afternoon.”

“Has he been in contact with them?”

“No, sir. I don’t think he’s up yet. Do you want me to… ?”

“No. I’ll do it.”

Hahn went through to his office to make the calls and was not particularly surprised when no one answered. His next move was not to wake Otto, but to go once more down to the basement to carry out some work which he intended to keep secret even from Berndt.

The sky was grey but light when he came back up. He looked out over the estate. His workers were already at their tasks in the grounds and barns and here in the big house—negroes, like the boy whose escape had started this, native Indians, half and halfs, all brought in young from the Paraguay part of the operation or even born here. None of them knew very much about the world outside—a soap opera was as fantastic as science fiction to them. He suspected that many of them would want to stay even if they were offered the chance to leave, such was the lure of familiarity over the unknown.

On a strange whim, he walked down to the kitchen where Maria was segmenting oranges and had a bowl of bread dough rising. She was old, plain, ordinary and many years ago had been born the bastard of some Paraguayan rancher with a native girl. She had been at the estate for most of the years he had owned it and although he’d never forgotten her status, he too found something comfortable about familiarity.

“Please, sir,” she said, flustered and alarmed. He was not given to entering the kitchens unless there was a problem.

“Bring me a cup of coffee, Maria,” he said.

Relieved, she went about it in a nervous silence, her skill with food at odd variance with the rest of her manner. If he forgot her origins, what did he see? A woman who would have seen Kinder, Kuche, Kirke as a happy way to live? He had almost given up struggling against the way his eyes and mind had begun to betray him. When she placed the coffee very carefully in front of him, he asked her, “What do you believe, Maria?”

He wouldn’t have had her punished if she’d been too confused and afraid to answer, but she said quietly, “The things I learned as a girl, sir. From Father O’Higgins.”

He smiled slightly at the name. There was nowhere an Irish priest couldn’t reach, it seemed. “And what did the Father teach you?”

Maria plucked anxiously at her apron, but she answered. “That this world is a fallen one, sir, and full of trouble, but we can get our feet on the right road out of it by following God’s own son, so we can.”

Hahn could almost have laughed as he heard the Irish expressions from Maria whose English was slow and careful and whose normal mode of speaking to him was painfully formal; perhaps he might have laughed too at the idea of such nonsense sustaining her through forty years of drudgery, but he didn’t; it would have been too much like striking an old but faithful mare.

Not a mare, not an animal—a woman!

Why did he keep hearing these things in Larabee’s voice, a voice hoarse with screaming, rasping these imaginary challenges as he had rasped his defiance to the last?

“When you have finished preparing das Fruhstuck, tell Berndt to arrange for one of the others to make coffee for my visitors, and you come to my room.” There was real fear in her eyes, and though he had no need to stoop to explain himself, he said, “You are not in any kind of trouble, Maria. I want you because I can trust you for a particular task.”

She looked not only amazed but as if he had given her some kind of medal. “Thank you, sir.”

He drained his coffee, and went hastily to check the monitors in the security office, into which the cameras from around the estate fed their information. He was sure Larabee was somewhere closer now, but the man’s real presence would trouble him less than his phantom, mocking voice.

Josiah woke to the unfamiliar—recently, he told himself, just recently unfamiliar, he had had his moments in the past—feel of a warm woman snuggled up beside him. Rosa smiled as she felt him stir. “Welcome back. There hasn’t been a sound. Not so much as a footstep in the hallway. I’m just going to put coffee on.

His appreciation of a well-rounded woman (encouraged by the Song of Solomon) was definitely enhanced when she was making coffee. He enjoyed the sight and the aroma for a few minutes of peace before Sammy came padding in barefoot, eager to start doing what he could to help Chris by directing them towards the estate.

Josiah’s plans about this had been thrown a little when JD came bounding along in the early hours full of the conversation he’d just had with Chris. On reflection, though, finding the estate might as well still be their priority. Chris hadn’t really communicated anything useful about his plans to JD and they would be as available for him out searching the countryside as they would sitting in Boulder.

Buck and JD appeared just as the coffee was ready, thrown out by Rosa’s mother. “She said she couldn’t feel comfortable in the shower knowing we were in the apartment,” JD explained. “Is there anything to eat?”

Josiah didn’t have to defend Mrs Dubose’ fridge and cupboards because Nathan was the next arrival, carrying bagels and the maps Josiah had asked him to fetch. While they ate, Josiah told Buck and JD about Sammy’s offer. Buck listened, but he was somewhere in another world most of the time—not a very pleasant world judging by the expression on his face. It was JD who greeted Sammy’s suggestion with real enthusiasm.

“It’s lucky I’ve got my laptop with me. I can call up maps of almost anywhere, but better than that, I’ve a programme that will show you in 3d what the map locations really look like. Quite a lot of it is ground or aerial photographs, but where they don’t have those the computer generated pictures are really good. It should make it a lot easier for Sammy to see if he recognises any landmarks.”

His enthusiasm was infectious. They all crowded around the laptop, with Rosa pushing them back a little so Sammy didn’t feel suffocated, and watched as JD magicked up view after view spreading out from the place where Sammy had tumbled into the road in front of Chris’s Ram and had innocently set off the events of this long painful half year.

Slowly, but more confidently with each step, Sammy began the complicated task of retracing his footsteps. They knew he’d walked roughly west, which helped narrow things down a little, but Josiah soon saw that without JD’s program they would have been hopelessly lost. As it was, they began to get something of a sense of Sammy’s route, then JD had the idea of using aerial photographs to search for any large estates in the right direction, places far enough from Denver and the other towns to involve a reasonably long drive.

It might have been a resounding failure, except that Rosa had the inspired suggestion of checking the area covered by aerial photographs against the map. There was a large patch of territory in the direction where they were searching, that had apparently never once been photographed from the air.

“I can get satellite images, though,” JD said, typing in some web address so fast Josiah could hardly see his fingers move. It took a little while to accustom Sammy to the idea of what he was seeing in these. Looking at a promising collection of buildings, Nathan sketched out a rough plan on a piece of paper.

“Yes!” Sammy said. “Oh, yes. That could be it. See—that’s the little barn, and that’s where the wood for the fires goes. And the master’s big house! It is right, Agent… Josiah.”

Josiah still wasn’t certain, and he could see something of the same doubt on Nathan’s face: Sammy was so keen to help, he might have convinced himself. But he was picking out details now, listing them more to himself than to them, and the chance he was right seemed good enough to act on.

“Let’s take a look,” he said.

“I could come,” Sammy offered hopefully.

“Sorry, son, we need someone to take care of things here.”

“To be our home base,” JD added.

Buck moved, a little less gloomy now there was the prospect of action. “You’ll have to look after the women,” he told Sammy. Rosa looked at him, but apparently forgave him since he was doing his best to make Sammy feel good about being left behind.

“We’ll be fine,” she told Josiah. “But shouldn’t you call in some of your people?”

“Once we’re sure it’s the right place,” Josiah said. He didn’t want to contact Orrin Travis too early—he could imagine some of the things Orrin might say when they did. Best to do it when they were moving fast on an indisputably good lead. He would have liked to kiss Rosa goodbye, but Lyndon and Sammy were there, and Mrs Dubose was tidying the bedrooms.

Rosa smiled, and he didn’t think it was imagination that it seemed to promise something when the time and place were right. “Take care,” she said.

JD was already out of the door, laptop under his arm, and Nathan and Buck close behind him. Josiah hurried to catch up. The estate, or Chris, or maybe both, because if Chris was even half himself he’d be wanting to do something about these people. Today might bring some answers at last.

As soon as he caught a glimpse of a light somewhere far ahead in the darkness, Ezra looked for a place to pull off the road into the woods; it meant treating the Mercedes like a jeep, but she responded beautifully. Perhaps when everything else was over, Ezra would be able to find her a new home…

He bumped to a halt and killed the headlights. It would be difficult to see how obvious the trail of smashed bushes was behind them, but any light was more of a risk.

“We c’n cover our tracks at first light,” Vin said. “Dawn’s coming.”

Ezra had decided before they even left the ranch that nothing would be gained by mentioning the way Vin was rubbing at his left arm, and favouring the ribs on that side. It would be equally futile to even hint at the fact he’d noticed Chris shaking with tiredness as well as cold, and that his limp was undoing the increased ease of movement he’d been gaining before. He did, however, map out in his mind the way he could cover and compensate for these things.

As the first early light allowed them to conceal the Mercedes, and the worst of the damage they’d done getting her off the road, he worked with an energy that made Chris look at him as if he was checking a memory against reality, and Vin say, “We ain’t that damaged.”

“I am merely endeavouring to thaw my frozen circulation; I assure you I haven’t abandoned my normal objections to physical labour.”

It must have been unconvincing. Chris said, “Not planning… to take ’em on alone.”

Well, he had wondered…”At what point then are we considering reinforcements?”

“We’ll… take look.”

“More people, more chance of being picked up on some security camera,” Vin said.

Ezra was tempted to use a rather appropriate expression of Billy Travis’s—’well, duh’—but he restrained himself. He understood what they had in mind; it would have been his own first choice of plan if he had not been so uneasy about the fitness of his companions should they run into any unexpected problem. Assess the site, assess the number of people who might be prepared to defend it, and if possible, perhaps from one of the outdoor workers whom Sammy had described, ascertain if any of the big players were currently in the building. These were not minor matters to achieve even with a larger, fully fit team, but on the other hand their small group had quality.

They checked Leo hadn’t worked his hands or feet loose, then gagged him and decided to leave him in the car itself rather than the trunk, where he might actually be able to make more noise by kicking. Vin and Ezra disabled everything they could in the car that might conceivably be used by a chin or an elbow to gain attention. The car phone, horn, lights, the list was surprisingly long. They also found something that looked like an emergency transmitter giving the car’s current location, and removed that too.

“A pity we didn’t find it earlier,” Ezra murmured. “We could have laid an interesting false trail.”

“This way might hold ’em up longer,” Vin said. “Not sure if anything’s wrong and nowhere to look.”

He threw a blanket over Leo, who they’d pushed down on the floor behind the front seats. He’d get up in the end, but there wasn’t much he could do when he did, not quickly enough to cause them problems.

“You c’n lie there and think how you got yer hands dirty torturing a guy who’s a thousand times better than you’ll ever be,” Vin told him.

Chris made an impatient gesture, his mind on attack.

Ezra smiled, and added to Leo, “You appear to have been under a sadly mistaken apprehension as to what really makes a man. Never forget Chris Larabee—I can assure you your miserable group of enslavers and torturers is never likely to.”


If he couldn’t actually see Chris, he’d almost have imagined him to be back to normal. Locking the doors on Leo, tipping a half-salute to Chris, Ezra followed on. Vin, who was almost as good at evading surveillance as he was at following a trail, led the way.

They had to move slowly, made even more cautious by the sound of an early helicopter apparently arriving at the estate. Vin wanted to approach at the furthest point of the fields and rides, far from the house, where he thought pressure pads and the more effective motion detectors would be infrequent before the perimeter. Even so, he made them crawl in at ground level, reckoning that anything this far out would be set high enough to avoid animals.

“Reckon they’ll have the good stuff further in, inside the fence,” he murmured. “Y’ can just see th’ fence. They’ll have a cable underground as well, one that’ll show a shape, pick out a man compared to an animal. There’s insulators on the main fence—but just electric fer livestock. Reckon they’ll rely on security men more.”

“Their privacy—secrecy in fact—is their biggest protection,” Ezra agreed. “Imagine the scenario where two idiot hikers lose themselves and somehow stumble this far; with a lethal fence, one might electrocute himself and the other dial 911 bringing attention here. I’m sure you’re right and that their surveillance will be efficient but involve an element of human decision.”

“That’s in our favour,” Vin said.

“Plan?” Chris demanded, not sure where this was leading.

“There’s cattle,” Vin said. “I c’n smell cows. Heard a horse a while back. There’s men working. There’s going t’ be movement of some sort near th’ fence sooner ‘r later. Look at th’ sun.” This was not in fact possible, as it had not yet risen even a tiny crescent above the horizon. “Be a nice patch of sunlight close t’ th’ fence in around an hour I’d say. Good chance th’ herd’ll move into it. We use them fer cover. None of those detection things’ll do much better’n 12 foot, ten maybe. When the cows is close we c’n get ’em agitated, use ’em fer cover. I c’n get through. Got rubber-soled shoes. Like I said, the fence is fer animals rather than men. Problem is, it’d be hard to make it look much like th’ fence broke—best we c’d hope is it’d confuse ’em a bit. Maybe some of th’ labourers’ll come out to get th’ cows back.”

“Do it… stay outside,” Chris said. “Watch.”

Vin thought about it. Ezra, relieved, saw the potential in this idea. They would gain some understanding of how the security guards worked, how many they were and how they were armed. The chances of them carrying any weapon actually illegal in Colorado was minimal unfortunately, and he was hoping to avoid any demonstration of the type of ammunition they were using. There was usually a way though…

“Sammy would have been classed as an illegal alien had he ever come to the attention of the authorities,” he mused. “I doubt whether there is any chance of the slave labour here being armed, but the conjunction of weapons and illegal aliens might be a useful pretext for calling in the ATF.”

“Good… thinking,” Chris said. “I want to see… who’s there, first.”

“You’re hoping that we’ll see someone directing operations?”


“Yes, I suspect we would have to be.”

“Listen… reports.”

“We want to be that close, we’d best find a very good place to hide out,” Vin said. “And we’ve no kind of thermal shields. Best case scenario, we hear them when they’re checking the fence out, and hopefully they’ll concentrate their manpower on the inside of the perimeter. Worst case, they look for us out here, very thoroughly.”

Chris rubbed a hand across his forehead as if it ached. “We try,” he said. “Cover… ourselves. When you cut… fence, Ezra call in the team and Travis. Use illegals… reason.” He glared at both of them, annoyed not with them, Ezra knew, but with the permanent frustration of his speech failing to catch up with his thoughts.

“We’ll have to play it by ear a bit,” Vin said. “If we get a chance to go in without getting ourselves killed before back-up gets here we take it; if not, we try to pick up one of the guards, find out exactly who’s on the premises. If we have to, we’ll wait.”

He looked at Chris doubtfully. Chris nodded, “Not… suicide,” he said. “But when we can… the old man’s mine.”

Vin grinned. “Guess you sh’d be up to an old man. Me ‘n Ezra, we’ll deal with his army.”

Chris resorted to a gesture rather than words, but the meaning was plain enough. The morning was light enough now, just a hint of mist lifting. Vin led them to where they could see the small herd of cattle. A decent place to hide was hard to find; they had to settle for a place where a slight open rise was backed by a lower area thick with undergrowth. They watched from the rise, freezing in silence, until the herd pressed near the fence. “Okay,” Vin said, dropping completely flat now and blending surprisingly into the undergrowth. Ezra watched him with some concern; his arm seemed to be functioning a little better, but it wasn’t hard to see that squirming over the ground was hurting him quite a lot.

He glanced at Chris, who in spite of the fact he looked whiter than ever in the light, seemed to be recovering the indefinable things that made him the leader. He, too, was watching Vin. “Ribs,” he said. “Bruised?”

“He appears to be coping. I think he’s suffering from discomfort rather than anything that will actually impair his abilities,” Ezra said. If he hadn’t believed it, he would have insisted on an adjustment to this plan.

“Call,” Chris said. “Buck?”

“Josiah, I think,” Ezra said. This really didn’t seem the time for an explanation, but he added, “Circumstances and our uncertainty whether Alderways was really a good lead unfortunately led to this train of events where Buck knows you are alive and well but we appear to be placing obstacles in the way of his seeing it for himself.” He mentally replayed that speech and added, “Buck thinks we’re keeping him away.”

“Got it… first time,” Chris said, not grateful for the translation. “I’ll… talk to Buck. Get on. Call… Josiah.”

Otto Reichert waited impatiently for Adler to make his way from the helicopter that had just landed. Why his father had called a conference at all, let alone so many people at such an early hour, he had no idea, but at least Adler was his ally.

“Do you have any news?” he asked sharply.

“No. Have you been in contact with your men at Larabee’s ranch?”

Otto had made a brief attempt, but the car phone had been out of action. It was so implausible that anything could have happened to two of his men he’d been putting it down to a communications glitch which he’d deal with once this wretched conference was out of the way. “Why? Had yours had problems?”

“I’m concerned,” Adler said, which was a rare admission. “The last report from my two had been normal. They had orders to go home once they were relieved—they should have confirmed the relief, but whoever was on last night just called here, checked your guys’ arrival had been confirmed and left it at that. Then five minutes before I left I had some girlfriend on the phone saying Bennett—he’s one of our least bright sparks—had texted her to say he’d be relieved any minute, but then had never shown up. I’d hardly time to do anything about it, but they just called me from Ackerman to say they can’t locate either of our guys.”

“We don’t want to tell my father about this,” Otto said quickly. “Not before the meeting. I don’t think he knows I sent any men out—he hasn’t said anything to me about it, anyway. We’ve a few minutes. We’ll go up to the security room, and Peters should be able to playback that confirmation our men arrived.”

Peters could, but there was very little to the message, just a quick call to say they’d reached the ranch and were just turning in. There had been no problems with communication then…

“What do you think, Peters?” Otto asked.

Peters stood there with that stolid look on his face that said he wasn’t employed to think.

“The car should have something that transmits its location,” Adler said.

Peters did something with the equipment, then shook his head. “That’s not working either. Should do in any area unless the cable’s cut.”

Otto’s unease grew. Adler glanced at his watch. They needed to make a decision quickly. Otto imagined the old man’s scathing anger if he found out men from the estate had been sent out and he hadn’t been informed. Especially Leo. His father didn’t see the boy’s qualities. To hear him these days, you’d think that no one matched up to Larabee, even though he’d seen him left a drooling wreck. No, his father would say it had been a foolish mistake, and what’s more he’d probably say it in front of the assembled meeting.

“Have you sent anyone else out there?” he asked Adler.

“Four, well-armed. They should be arriving at the ranch shortly.”

“We’ll wait till they report before we say anything to the old man. Let him have his conference first. We don’t want the Paraguay representatives to think we’re incompetent.”

“Do you know why he’s called in so many of our top people? I hear the director of Alderways is coming as well.”

“He’s already arrived,” Otto said. “No, I think my father’s mind is finally going. He’s been getting slightly strange for the last few months, and since Larabee escaped it’s really been exacerbated. After the meeting it will be a good opportunity for us to talk about the problem with the others.”

He would have to push, even so, to get them to take a stand against the old man. Even though he was weakened and withered with age, they were still afraid of him. Otto looked around the twenty men gathered in the largest room of his father’s extensive suite, and saw fear. It was hidden behind polite expressions and cold eyes, but it was there in every case.

Hahn sat in his high backed chair, behind a small table with a laptop on it. Otto craned his neck, and realised it was so the old man could see all the current feed from the security room. Paranoid as well as growing senile: as if Larabee was about to appear with a small army. Something else on the table looked like a remote control. He hoped they weren’t going to have to watch some interminable footage of the great old days.

He couldn’t quite understand the expression on his father’s face as he looked around the room. Otto didn’t like that. It made him nervous.

Chris was pretty sure he’d never been much for introspection, but the last few months had forced it on him, once he could think at all. Not being able to answer the question ‘who am I?’—that’d force some soul searching on anyone.

The answers had been slow coming. He understood now how many glimpses of the truth he’d not recognised. When he’d stood in the yard early … was it only yesterday? Had to be. When he’d stood in the ranch yard, and the vague memories of loss had clarified into painfully sharp recollection of just how dear to him Sarah and Adam had been, and how he’d lost them, he’d felt he’d regained a huge part of himself no matter how much it hurt. The same with every minute with Vin and Ezra, and with the talk with the kid last night, and every mention and memory of Buck and Josiah and Nathan.

Now, lying here shivering, his cheek throbbing and dizziness not far away if he moved too fast, he realised he knew who he was again, really knew it, and in spite of all his physical discomfort the thought was exhilarating.

It lessened the urgency of his need to act, though, muted that feeling that he had to smash this place in order to get back what they’d taken from him. He was still determined it would happen, but it was as if with the dawn a sort of tunnel vision had suddenly widened out. He saw the situation whole, and while he didn’t care too much about himself, he wasn’t taking unnecessary risks with Vin and Ezra. They were quite good enough at doing that themselves.

He should have seen Vin’s discomfort before. He watched him critically now while he could, and decided Ezra was right. It was oddly comforting that Ezra had been keeping an eye on this until Chris had it covered himself. He lost Vin in the undergrowth, and listened closely now as the call to Josiah’s cell went through on the second attempt.

Ezra hadn’t gotten out more than a couple of sentences about their location when Josiah said, “We’re already on our way. I’ll explain how later. We were going to drive to within sight of the estate, not approach too closely but make sure it looked the right place before…”

“Tell him… not turn in,” Chris whispered urgently.

“I would advise you not to turn down the road to the estate,” Ezra said. “In spite of the distance from the buildings, there are cameras there registering any vehicle that comes onto the road at all.”

“Too late,” Josiah said. “You think we’ll get a reception committee?”

“Travis,” Chris ordered.

“Chris says call in Orrin Travis. There’s enough going on here, we should be able to justify it.” He and Chris both looked up at the sound of a second helicopter. “In fact, maybe there’s something big happening. Tell Travis that we can call the bust because there are illegal aliens and guns here. If he asks any questions, I suggest you blame the lack of further information on us.”

With Chris prompting—and Ezra putting up with it in a way that told Chris his conman still wasn’t convinced Chris was okay—Josiah and Ezra agreed that the rest of Team 7 would approach while they could but co-operate as soon as they were stopped. “Show your IDs,” Ezra said. “Don’t mention the bust or what you’ve told Travis. Say that the ATF is investigating the shooting of two men from here, who’ve been found at a ranch near Denver.”

“You shot someone?”

“No, but they won’t know that.”

“How am I supposed to know they came from here?”

“Tell them the younger man—his name’s Leo—was wounded but not killed and the information came from him.”

Josiah ran over his instructions again. In the background Chris could hear the impatience with this from the rest of the occupants of the car. JD and Buck were both demanding the phone. He hoped it was Nathan behind the wheel.

Buck grabbed the cell, not without violence judging by the amount of noise. “Ezra? Ezra, goddammit, will you put Chris on this thing.”

Chris took it. “Buck!”

“Chris… damn it’s good to hear your voice. Chris, what the hell is going on? Why are we chasing our tails all across the country? When I get my hands on Vin and Ezra_”

“I’m okay,” Chris said as quickly as he could manage, answering what he knew was the real urgency behind Buck’s words. “Need you… to do… your part.”

When had Buck ever been able to ignore his need, voiced or not? He could tell his old friend wasn’t mollified, but Buck still said. “You know we will. But I’d like to know how and when we’re going to meet up again when we’ve done it.”

“We’ll find each… other, old dog,” Chris said, hoping Buck could hear his warmth in the words that still came hard. He had to cut the connection then though. He knew Vin must be close to the fence.

Even from the rise, which gave them a good vantage point, there was no sign of Vin at all, but he could see the group of cattle pressing close to the fence, their flanks steaming a little as some warmth from the wintry sun reached them. He was puzzled at the lack of labourers in the field now; they’d seen some when they first took up their position. He tried to communicate this to Ezra, and was annoyed to find that in addition to the faulty link between his brain and his mouth, his voice gave away how violently he was shivering. He fended off Ezra’s attempt to give him some of his own clothes, and finally managed to get his point across.

“That’s odd,” Ezra agreed. “But if anything it’s in our favour. Chris, at least take the sweater. I assure you it’s natural wool, and will add a useful layer of warmth.” He paused. “If it comes to shooting, never let it be said you shot someone in cold-blood!”

In spite of himself, that amused Chris, and he could see it was distracting Ezra watching him shiver. He accepted the sweater, and it helped. He watched for Vin, although he knew how well the sharpshooter could disappear into his surroundings. He only saw him at the very last minute. Vin dealt with the fence at almost impossible speed and disappeared among the cattle. A wild, blood-chilling ululating yell startled Chris almost to his feet and made the cattle mill in panic.

“That’s Vin,” Ezra said—though Chris knew damn well he’d been just as startled.

The cattle were crashing about now. One steer rammed into the cut fence, pushed through the gap, and another followed.

Vin came back, much faster than he’d gone, and they all pulled back into the undergrowth.

“That should start something,” Vin said.

Orrin Travis had been on edge for so long he was well-prepared. When he received Josiah’s call, he was able to commit two teams to back up his mavericks. He began to adjust his paperwork with a skill honed over a number of years. This was going to be an official ATF action. He just hoped Team 7 hadn’t already done anything so far out of the book that to explain it would tax even Standish’s skills—or that would play into the hands of the legal experts who were putting every obstacle they could in the way of the investigation at Alderways.

He mentally added to that a hope they hadn’t shot anyone, or gotten themselves shot. Most of all, he hoped there was a chance of having a complete Team 7, led again by Chris Larabee. They could make his life as stressful as they liked; it was much better than the alternative he’d had to live with for the last half year.

Josiah saw two black Mercedes approaching down the narrow estate road. He braked immediately and held his ID out of the window. Four men jumped from each of the cars and a lot of armament was visible, but the story Ezra had suggested worked like a charm. After a hasty call, it was agreed the two cars would escort them back to the estate.

Hahn Reichert had asked the head of the Paraguay section to give his views on the situation first. The man had been a windbag for more than fifty years; he could be relied on to keep talking until he was stopped. This left Hahn in peace to watch the developing security situation on his laptop. The one aspect of the modern world he embraced was the new technology. With the software he had, he could sit in a meeting and yet watch every part of his estate.

He called up the view of the fields and pastures out towards the large barn. The picture was too small for him to be sure, but he thought the last of the workers were just entering the barn. Maria had followed his orders and gathered them all there, house servants and outdoor labourers. He’d warned Peters to expect it. Peters like Berndt had the ability to obey orders without thinking about them.

Maria herself had been puzzled but unquestioning. Something though—an instinct of the heart rather than intelligence—had perhaps given her a sense of what was to happen. Just before she left she had paused and looked directly at him, with a grave sadness that gave her dignity.

“Go with God, Maria,” he’d told her in her own language. He knew that whatever she feared, it wouldn’t affect her obedience.

He glanced down at an alert on his screen. An unrecognised car had just turned on to the estate road. He saw that Peters sent two out to intercept it. Not Larabee, Hahn thought, but almost certainly something to do with him. It would soon be time.

He made a slight gesture to Berndt who stood at the door. Silently Berndt locked it. He did it without knowing or caring why. Should Hahn have told Berndt more? He thought not.

Vin, Ezra and Chris had slid back well under the thick bushy growth that filled this slight hollow. Things were falling well for them. Several steers were out now, trampling the fence down as they came.

“Where’d all the workers go?” Vin asked. The noise he’d made and the lowing milling cattle should have brought some of the labourers before anyone from the house came to investigate the breach in the fence.

“Everything is remarkably quiet except that herd,” Ezra muttered. “Too quiet.”

The sound of an engine gave the lie to that. Vin looked out cautiously down the line of the fence. “Not too bad,” he reported in a whisper. “One vehicle. Looks like three guards. They can’t have picked up a definite on me or they’d have sent more.”

He flattened down again behind the rise and listened to the voices.

“Get those fucking cattle out of the way!”

“Let me see the wire.”

“Where the hell are the lazy bastards who should be working out here? We need them to round the cattle up.”

“Peters says the boss sent them all to the big barn.”

“What for?”

“Old Mr Reichert he meant, not Mr Otto. You don’t ask the old man why.”

“This wire’s been cut. The cattle have trampled it, but it was cut first.”

“Fuck, that’s all we need. All the bosses are in that meeting, Peters just sent eight men out up the road, we don’t want another problem here. Could it have been one of the workers, thinking he had a chance while the rest were being rounded up to the barn?”

“Maybe. Look, I’ll get on to Peters, get him to sweep the grounds in case it was someone coming in. You check outside, Michaels, in case we do have a break out. Roe, you go over to the barn, check who’s there against the roster, see if anyone’s missing and get someone to round these damn cattle up.”

Vin felt Chris tense with readiness at his side. Couldn’t be better. Only two of them here for the time being, and one of those at the car calling his chief.

The one called Michaels had pushed through the fence, looking for any signs someone had run. Vin could see he was no expert at tracking, but even if he had been, the steers were trampling everywhere and would have covered any sign. Michaels cursed them and shouted to Roe to hurry up and get someone to drive them back inside. He himself went on, walking where the way into the woods was most open.

“Mine,” Vin said softly.

“Ribs?” Chris’s voice was a soft breath against his ear.

“Sore, not cracked.” He saw Ezra about to protest and added, “I’m quietest.”

Concern warred with knowledge of this truth on Ezra’s face, then he gave a slight nod of agreement. Chris squeezed Vin’s arm, to wish him good luck or to tell him to take care, maybe a bit of both. Vin moved off silently.

He found that he could time his movements to tie in with the moments when the cattle were distracting Michaels, and it wasn’t too hard to get close. He decided to take him down hard, though. He didn’t want a struggle. If Chris wanted to question someone, it’d have to be the next guy.

He moved as close as he dared, then stooped and picked up a small stone. In his pocket he still had the rag Ezra had rejected as a gag for the man back at the ranch. It made a good enough sling, rough but enough to whack the stone at the steer nearest to Michaels with a lot more force than Vin could have thrown it.

The steer objected noisily, bellowing and trampling in a circle, its head swinging to find what had stung it. Michaels stared at it, obviously wondering what had disturbed it, and Vin was able to move fast and cold cock him before he guessed anything else was wrong.

Vin caught him as he dropped and pushed him roughly out of sight. He should have brought something to tie him up, he doubted he’d be out for long.

There was a slight movement to his left. Vin spun then checked his aggressive movement. Ezra. Vin shook his head, meaning ‘I could have flattened you before I saw who you were’. Ezra grinned, in the way that said ‘I could take you any time’ only in words a few syllables longer. He held out some pieces of cut cable.

“From the car,” he said quietly.

Between them they quickly trussed Michaels, who was already stirring sluggishly. Vin rolled up the grimy rag that had served as a slingshot. Ezra shrugged, and let him use it this time. Must have run out of handkerchiefs.

So much for Michaels. The cattle were still spreading out near the fence. It gave Vin an idea as they rejoined Chris.

“They weren’t all blacks, those workers,” he said. “I saw some who looked half Indian before they all disappeared. Long haired, too.”

Chris caught on quickly. He might not look too great, Vin thought, but in every other way all this danger and violence—and having someone to go after—seemed to be curing him. Nathan’d never believe the difference it had made.

“Herd … cows?” Chris asked.

“Hell, yeah. Worked with all sorts of animals in m’ time.”

“Who would have guessed,” Ezra murmured. “Your plan, I take it, is to start herding those beasts back inside the fence as if you’d been sent to do it?”


He dropped his thick coat. That left him in the jeans and sweater he’d slept in the previous night. The clothes were dirty enough, from that and crawling about. He’d only had a brief look at the labourers who worked as slaves on this estate, but he thought he’d pass a casual glance.

“I’ll get the cattle packed together; you two come in low on the far side of the herd. Their bodies’ll hide you from him”—he gestured to the man at the car—”and probably from anyone else who might be watching.”

The cows and young steers were already finding there was nothing really interesting to eat on the far side of the fence. Vin cut a long switch and yelled at them a bit, but it was easy enough to get them back through. He kept his face turned away from the man at the car, who glanced up once, saw the round up he’d ordered was happening, and went back to his conversation.

Vin made sure Chris and Ezra were through the fence, and that the third man, Roe, was way across the pasture and approaching the large barn. He glanced at Chris—struggling but ready—and at Ezra who was dodging with disgust out of the way of a hot stream of cattle piss. The man at the car had just finished his call. Time to turn the herd.

The man looked up as the steers suddenly came pounding towards him.

“Stand still, sir,” Vin said, trying to sound panicky and putting on a Spanish accent. “They’ll go around you.”

“You stupid dago bastard. I’ll have your back flayed for this!” the man yelled, and then Ezra emerged from the cover of the herd and hit him with perfect precision. They bundled him into the back of his own vehicle, and scrambled hastily inside before the cattle were all past.

Ezra started the engine. “Where to?” he asked.

Chris had picked up the man’s semi-automatic and looked as if he might be rethinking his decision to wait for back-up, but he said, “Barn.”

“To take the other man—Roe was it?”

“To get… workers out.” There was an urgency in his voice as if he’d just seen a danger none of them had thought of.

Ezra was already obeying as Chris went on, “Why… all the workers… one place? This time of … day. The old man… was Nazi.”

Vin didn’t get where this was going. Ezra was first puzzled then appalled. “You can’t think… that kind of slaughter took place sixty years ago, in war time. Anyway, a barn wouldn’t be airtight.”

“Not gas, maybe,” Chris said. “Machine gun? Explosives? Why all… together otherwise?”

“You think someone’s going to blow them up in the barn?” Vin said, shocked.

“Getting out,” Chris said, waving the semi-automatic in the direction of the house. “Finish things… here.”

“If they do plan to evacuate the place, feeling we’re closing in, it might be conceivable they would do something so murderous,” Ezra said doubtfully. “But I have to say my impression was that they were not taking the threat that seriously yet. We would have had a very different response just now if they were.”

Vin agreed, but now Chris had put the thought in his head, he did see something ugly and threatening in the way all the slave-labourers had been collected into one place—not too differently from the cattle Vin had just herded. Ezra sent the car bumping faster over the ground. The barn stood silent and shut. A death trap? Vin could hardly believe it, but Chris did, and that was enough.

Hahn Reichert watched the different security situations appear on his laptop, and unlike his chief of security, assessed what was happening with a good deal of accuracy.

The ‘coincidental’ problem by the fence right at the furthest point of the pastures—that was Larabee, he was sure of it. Through his earpiece he’d listened to Peters increasingly agitated conversations with the men he’d sent out to meet the car, which had duly proved to have an ATF team with a plausible reason for approaching. Hahn was sure Peters was concentrating his attention in the wrong direction.

On his screen, one of the security staff’s trucks bumped across the grass towards the big barn. There was nothing to prove it, but he was sure he knew who was inside it, and it wasn’t his personnel. He smiled slightly. Larabee was good. He almost felt a sense of pride in him.

But Hahn was better. He was the one who knew not just what was happening but what was going to happen. Interesting Larabee had gone for the barn not the house. Hahn saw in that the measure of the man, because he could imagine Larabee’s desire for revenge. The strength of his commitment to the small, the unwanted, the worthless, was illuminating.

It was time to act.

He looked around the room, saw the faces through a cloud of others that memory interposed. Dead, dying, tortured, humiliated, corpses of the past… but not of the future.

The prickle of unease that Larabee had sparked all those months ago had grown steadily. In the last two days it had become a burning, consuming agony. A blindness had finally been scoured from his eyes and now what he saw was unbearable.

He stood, and all the talking stopped immediately. He picked up his phone to the security room, and told Peters, “Take all the remaining security staff and go immediately to the entrance to the drive. The ATF men will be there shortly, and will be followed by other of their colleagues.”

He made an impatient gesture to Otto, who stood up ready to bluster about his statement. Otto would never realise how much too late it was.

“Gentlemen,” Hahn said. “I regret to tell you that recent events have convinced me that it is time to wind up our operation.”

A second of silence broke into a hubbub of protest, Otto and Karl’s voices rising above the rest. He allowed it to continue a while; Peters needed a few minutes. Then the head of the Paraguay section stormed to the door, to make one of the dramatic exits he favoured—and found it locked. As he tugged at it and others stared, Hahn began to speak again.

“I have one last action I need to take.” He picked up the remote control from the table. He thought they would guess now, but they just stared at him as if he had gone insane.

Perhaps he had.

Or perhaps he’d become sane.

He glanced at his watch. Time enough. “Gentlemen,” he said, as if offering them a toast. “We don’t have glasses, but I think I may truly say I raise this to Chris Larabee.” He held up the remote control…

… and pressed the button.

To Chris, the air felt thick with something about to happen. He jumped from the car as Ezra stopped with a jolt. The swift movement was a mistake in one way—giddiness swept over him and he nearly fell—but saved his life.

Roe proved much quicker on the uptake than his colleagues. He turned, saw instantly it was a stranger leaving the car, drew and fired without a pause. If Chris hadn’t staggered the bullet would have hit him in the chest. As it was, it just grazed his arm. Simultaneous shots from Ezra and Vin took Roe down before Chris had even found his feet properly.

“Chris, your arm!”

Chris ignored him. It stung, and a bit of blood was trickling out, but not enough to worry about. He wanted to get into the barn. He looked to see how the door was locked and found it not only unfastened but ajar. That was wrong…

He pushed it open, and was faced with a sea of nervous faces that reminded him of Sammy’s the first day he’d seen him. Cowed faces, people who’d been ill-treated until they accepted brutality as a normal part of life. He looked around them. There were indoor and outdoor servants; it looked as if every person the estate owned was in here.

There was no sign of explosives and no one seemed to be making them stay, but he still had that feeling of something about to happen and he wasn’t taking a chance with their lives. “Outside, all of you!” he ordered.

He wondered if they’d obey a stranger but they moved immediately on his word and he made them line up at what should be a safe distance from the barn. They’d be visible on any camera, but there was no reaction he could see coming from the house.

“Chris,” Ezra tried again. “At least let me look at your arm.”

“Scratch,” Chris said. “Ruined sweater … sorry.”

“I don’t give a… I’m not concerned about the sweater,” Ezra said.

“How long we planning t’ stand here in th’ open?” Vin asked quietly. He and Ezra had moved close, one on each side.

Before Chris could even try to think about that, an elderly woman came up to him nervously. “I am Maria. The master told me you would come,” she said in heavily accented English. “I must gather everyone in the barn and wait for you, then do what you say.”

Chris, Vin and Ezra all stared at her.

“Do you know who he is?” Vin asked, thinking she’d mistaken Chris for someone else.

“Mr Larabee,” the woman said. “The master showed me a picture before he sent me away.”

Chris lost the feeling that he was back in control. He wondered for a moment if he’d lost his grip on reality altogether, only Vin and Ezra looked equally confused. The old man—he had no doubt what master she meant—knew they would be here? He must have had more reason than that for his actions. Chris was completely at a loss. All he could do was stand there and stare at the woman, who waited patiently.

“I… don’t get this…” Chris said thickly. The burst of energy, the sense of purpose that had brought him so far, was fading fast. Vin slid an arm around him from one side, Ezra stood guard on the other, but they were equally silent, equally at a loss.

Then the world blew up.

The roar and heat and shock and blast of it only brushed them where they were, though the ground seemed to rock and the hot air battered their faces. Chris’s ears rang. He could only gape at the massive destruction. Where the estate house had stood, a huge crater smoked and in the hush after the explosion the only sound was debris still falling. Then Maria began to cry, and someone else to mutter in rapid Spanish, perhaps a prayer.

Chris couldn’t take it in. The destruction he and even the ATF could never have achieved had been carried out for him on a more massive scale than he could have imagined. The rooms where he’d been questioned so brutally, the men who had ordered it, the whole ugly organisation of this place was gone within the space of a minute, and still the smoke rose and stones tumbled, and still nothing made sense.

He sagged against Vin’s arm, he felt Ezra lend his strength on the other side, then the two of them were all that was keeping him from the wet ground. He heard Vin talking in rapid Spanish to Maria; Ezra said quietly, “We’ll take care of things, Chris. Rest a minute.” Their voices were far off, but a reassurance he could let go, leave it to his friends.

His eyes closed, but behind the lids he could still see the glaring brightness of the explosion. He had to know what had happened—why it had happened—but he was just going to catch his breath first.

“We got you,” Vin said firmly. “It’s over, Chris. Nothing left but clear up and explanations.”

An ugly thought jerked Chris briefly back to awareness. “Team?”

“Are safe,” Ezra said. “I have just received a confused but reassuring message from JD.”

That really covered everything that mattered. Chris suddenly realised how exhausted he was. His head rolled against Vin’s shoulder, and he didn’t try to lift it. Ezra said something in a tone that was unusually gentle, but he couldn’t make out the words. It didn’t matter. He could slide into darkness safely.

The explosion was big enough to register on all sorts of monitoring equipment, from satellite to seismic. Orrin’s first report came in from a police helicopter which had seen the flare from a distance and diverted to over fly the scene. After that, they came in thick and fast.

His first horrified thought was that Chris had somehow managed to blow the place up, followed quickly by the even more distressing fear that he’d blown himself and Team 7 up at the same time. Josiah, getting through to him on some security man’s equipment reassured him about that, but couldn’t offer any idea as to how the explosion had happened.

“We managed to talk to Ezra. Cell phones aren’t working too well, though JD’s state-of-the—art one’ll still text. Ezra got through to us on a car phone from a security vehicle near them. They don’t know any more than we do about what caused this, but they’re okay. They’ve all the estate workers—basically slave labour—with them, so they’ve got their hands full. We’re going to have to go a long way around to reach them. There’s too much rubble in the way of a direct route, and more falling all the time.”

“Team 8 are already on their way,” Travis said. “I’ll arrange for Team 3 to come in by helicopter, and I’ll send someone along with them who can deal with these workers. They’re all illegal aliens?”

“I wouldn’t treat them like that,” Josiah said. “Like I said, they’ve been used as slave labour. I think you’ll find they had no say in coming here—probably bought from poor families in South America, or kidnapped.”

“I’ll get someone who’ll handle it sensitively,” Orrin promised. “Do we know anything about who was in the building?”

“At least twenty, and I think we can assume they’re all dead. The man who owned the estate was holding a conference with a lot of his senior people—including the director of Alderways, according to the chief of security here.”

They were both silent a minute, considering the ramifications of this, then Orrin said briskly, “Secure the scene. Detain everyone who’s uninjured until we know more about what happened and about these ‘slaves’. You’ve called ambulances?”

“Yes, but it’s only for minor injuries. Peters, that’s the security chief, says that he and all his men had been sent out to the gatehouse shortly before the explosion. All the servants had been dismissed to a safe place earlier. I don’t think it can have been an accident.”

“Mass suicide?” Travis asked doubtfully. “I’ve been making enquiries about the director of Alderways, and he doesn’t seem the type for it.”

“Maybe they weren’t all in on it,” Josiah suggested. “Anyway, we’ve started questioning those who aren’t too shocked. It’ll go quicker once Team 8 arrive, but I’m starting from the hypothesis that the explosion was triggered by someone in the building.”

Once he’d broken off the call, Orrin communicated the few facts to everyone concerned, making sure Jacobson was first to receive the news about the director of Alderways. It might give him a chance to trip up some of the people being difficult there.

He didn’t communicate to anyone his personal conviction that whatever the direct cause of the explosion, Chris had to be behind it, somehow.

Ezra’s first idea had been to lift Chris into the car, but Maria shyly offered a better alternative. There was a concrete hut, beyond the barn but still well out of the area affected by the explosion.

“It’s for the guards, when they watch the men out here,” she explained. “There is a_” she consulted Vin quickly, “_a camping stove, and I could make some coffee.”

Chris’s hands were icy, and Ezra guessed he was suffering from cold and exhaustion as much as anything. Warmth and coffee might restore him a little. Two big lads who reminded Ezra very much of Sammy helped support Chris over to the hut. They were surprisingly gentle for people who’d never been treated with any kindness themselves. Or perhaps they had been, among their own.

They eased Chris down into the only chair. Maria lit the gas and put water to boil, while Vin and Ezra removed layers of clothing to get a look at Chris’s arm.

“Tellin’ th’ truth fer once,” Vin said relieved. It really wasn’t much more than a scratch.

A thin, long-haired young man, the Indian whom Vin had hoped to be mistaken for—ran to the security vehicle and fetched a basic first aid box. Ezra did a neat temporary repair with Neosporin and a dressing while Vin held Chris in place. The cold air on his bare chest seemed to be getting through to him, and he was stirring.

“One minute and we’re done,” Ezra promised.

He and Vin had Chris back in the—indeed ruined—sweater and a coat and covered by a horse blanket someone brought from another barn by the time Maria was making coffee.

“Fer everyone,” Vin said, gesturing to the people huddling outside, staring at the ruins of the only place most of them had known.

“In what?” Ezra pointed out. There were four mugs in the cupboard, all stained or chipped.

“One fer Chris,” Vin said, sugaring it heavily. “One fer you and me,” sugaring that generously as well in spite of the look on Ezra’s face, “and two to go around.”

Ezra grabbed one of the ‘two to go around’ and downed a scalding, black, mercifully unsugared serving before handing it back to Maria. It was surprising how good even the cheapest instant coffee could taste.

The mugs were passed from hand to hand outside, and Maria boiled more water. From the same cupboard where she’d found the coffee, she took an unopened package of gingerbread cookies which she gave Ezra.

Vin had an arm around Chris, talking to him quietly and coaxing a little of the coffee down him. Ezra saw with relief that although Chris’s eyes were still closed, he was swallowing.

Vin paused. “You with us yet, Chris? Come on, cowboy.” He sounded to Ezra not too far from the end of his own rope.

Perhaps Chris heard that even through the fog of exhaustion. He blinked open his eyes, and helped hold the cup. “No… whisky … this time?”

Vin grinned, hugely relieved. “Nope, but we got cookies.”

Chris slowly finished the coffee and ate a couple of cookies, and began to look as if his condition could be upgraded from terrible to simply bad. Vin squatted next to him. With the Coleman lit, and the number of people coming in to refill the circulating coffee cups the hut was warming up satisfactorily. Ezra had kept the semi-automatic and watched the area. He felt rather like a villainous extra in a B movie, but there were a lot of vulnerable people to protect—and just now he was including Vin and Chris in that.

Everything remained quiet though. He checked in with Josiah, and found that the security team were as shocked as the workers, and were cooperating. Team 8 were close. Team 3 were delayed, but a helicopter would be arriving. The small crowd of people outside the hut were unnaturally quiet, talking in whispers if they wanted to say something. After a while, Maria sent some of them to bring root crops from a store.

“I will make soup,” she told Ezra. Her eyes were reddened and he noticed that as she began preparing the vegetables with a knife from one of the men, she wiped tears hastily away.

Maria looked up, feeling herself watched. She shrugged. “You think I’m stupid old woman to cry for the master?”

“I would never think something so ungallant,” Ezra assured her. “He wasn’t cruel to you?”

“Yes, sometimes. He was a man to be feared. But not a small man, not small in his ideas or his cruelties either.” She paused, trying to explain it to herself perhaps. “I had known him for a long time, and at the end, I was the one he trusted.”

Ezra wondered what she meant.

“He sent us here, to be safe,” Maria said. “He told me to bring everyone, and I didn’t know why, but I saw something in his eyes.”

“Y’ think he done that?” Vin said, gesturing at the wide scene of destruction. He hadn’t left his place at Chris’s side, but the rest and repeated helpings of coffee had Chris more alert now, and they were both listening.

“I think so,” Maria said. “I think his mind was very troubled. He had lived a long life and he had done many evil things.”

“But he didn’t tell you anything except to bring your fellow workers to the barn?” Ezra prompted gently.

“He told me to wait for Mr Larabee, and to give him this.” She took an envelope from the pocket of her skirt. “I waited, because he looked too sick before, but I think he is a little better now.”

Chris silently held out his hand for it—a manila envelope with something bulkier than paper inside.

“Let me open it, away from here,” Ezra said abruptly, fearing one last trick or twist.

Chris smiled slightly and shook his head. He tore the envelope open and nothing more alarming happened than a small framed photo and a couple of sheets of paper dropping out onto Chris’s lap.

The photograph was an old black and white print in a heavy silver frame and Ezra saw it had no connection to their investigation; it was just a snapshot of a blond woman with a toddler in her arms. It looked as if it had been taken many years ago. Chris looked at it for a long time, but whatever he was thinking it didn’t show on his face. Ezra craned his neck to see what was written on the paper; Vin watched Chris; Maria looked at the photo frame as if she recognised it. None of them spoke.

When Chris put the frame down and picked up one of the pieces of paper, it occurred to Ezra he had no idea if Chris could still read. Maybe Chris had no idea either. He frowned at the words, but he seemed to be taking something in. After a long scrutiny, he handed it to Ezra.

“Read it aloud,” Vin said, glancing at Maria, maybe also wondering if Chris had gotten all of it.

It was clearly written, in an old-fashioned formal hand, the strokes of the letters forceful even though the writing was slightly shaky in the way an old man’s writing often was.

“I salute you, Mr Larabee,” Ezra read out, “and I concede you victory. It may surprise you to know that you have been waging this campaign not only for the last few days but also during all the time you were in Alderways. I do not know whether you could have won a physical battle if you had not already defeated me in the far more fundamental one of your beliefs. It may give you some satisfaction to know that harshly as you were tortured, you have inflicted a greater torture on me. What I saw in you has shattered the work and goals of a lifetime. I have made the only choice left to me. I will not become a traitor. I will destroy this work myself, and die as much of a warrior as is left to me. The photograph is of my wife and son, killed in an allied bombing raid. I do not believe things would have been different if they had lived, only that they might have been corrupted by the same lies. As it was, they died innocent. If Maria will take it, and I think she is more forgiving than most, I would like her to have it. I doubt very much whether your government will leave anything of my personal fortune, but if they do, the other paper gives you legal responsibility to use it for the people who have worked on the estate. I am grateful to you. I have inflicted a great deal of pain in my time, but I also know how to bear it, and I prefer the pain of seeing clearly to continuing blinded. I offer you my respect.” He paused. “I can’t read the signature clearly, but no doubt we’ll know his name once the investigation gets under way.”

“Chris?” Vin asked softly.

Chris held out the old photo to Maria, who took it as if it was something precious, and the other sheet of paper to Ezra. He pushed himself up out of the chair, ignored Vin, who moved to help him, and walked stiffly outside. Still in silence, he stood and gazed at the smoking ruin.

Ezra and Vin had followed him, and their attention was on him so completely that it was only at the last minute Ezra registered the rise in voices near them. He turned slightly, and saw that Buck and JD must have somehow made their way around the side of the estate through the woodland, and were coming towards them, JD hurrying a little to keep up with Buck’s long stride.

This was not impeccable timing, Ezra thought uneasily. He looked at Chris and saw him as Buck would—horribly pale, his cheek swollen and still bloody, his body visibly shaking with the cold and lingering exhaustion, the bloodstained rip in his sleeve quite obvious. Even worse, Vin was moving slightly, as if to put a barrier between Chris and the two coming. What he wanted, Ezra knew, was to give Chris a minute to find some closure as he thought about the letter and looked at the wreck of the place where he’d been hurt. It wouldn’t appear like that.

He saw the hot anger rise on Buck’s face.

Chris needed this moment. Vin had ribs in a dubious condition and more to lose in any contention with Buck. Ezra stepped into Buck’s path.

“You stupid selfish pair of_” Buck’s fist finished what his mouth had started, but Ezra had been expecting it and rolled with the blow before returning it. His own temper was not proof against this readiness to assume he hadn’t cared about the state Chris was in. They crashed over together onto the hard ground, JD’s shocked protest ignored, and would have landed a lot more bruising blows if a gunshot hadn’t startled them apart and to their feet.


It wasn’t some threat—well not the sort it might have been. It was Chris who’d fired into the air. When had Chris obtained a gun? He looked at Vin, who shrugged. They’d captured enough armed people over the last night and day to have allowed Chris to help himself to half a dozen firearms. It must have been in the deep pocket of his coat; at any rate that was where he replaced it now.

Ignoring the rest of them, Chris walked slowly up to Buck, put a hand on his chest. “It’s okay,” he said.

Buck stood stock still, then he pulled Chris into a crushing hug.

Ezra rubbed his jaw. He was sure he was going to develop a bruise there, to add to the swollen lip Chris had accidentally given him earlier, while ironically the enemy had failed to cause him the slightest damage. At least JD was only likely to dent his ears with over enthusiastic questions. Answering the first ones the kid poured out, he took him over to the car so he could use the phone and let Josiah know they’d arrived. Vin joined them, giving JD a quick pat on the shoulder in welcome. They took longer over the call than they had to: Buck needed this time with Chris. Ezra found to his surprise that he was not worrying about how Chris would communicate—Chris had made it clear enough that he was still in charge, at least till he dropped.

Ezra and Vin talked to Josiah for a while, went over to the barn and checked on their last prisoner, who some of the labourers had moved there from the car and answered a lot of JD’s questions.

“What did you mean ‘last prisoner’?” JD said as they turned away from the barn.

“Two at th’ ranch, one I got some friends mindin’, one in a Mercedes we took, one in th’ bushes—we ought to get him brought in—and this one. They’ll need questioning along with th’ rest, though I don’t know they’ll be much use. They’ll get more out of the people at Alderways and that Ackerman place. Reckon a lot of them’ll be fallin’ over themselves t’ talk when they hear about this…” He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the still smoking ruins.

“You told Josiah you’d got some letter saying the guys here did that themselves? Why? I mean they could just have gotten out in helicopters and gone to wherever—Paraguay, was it?”

“It seems to have been a staggeringly unlikely change of heart in the man in charge,” Ezra said. “Even while being tortured, Chris appears to have impressed his personality upon him.”

JD grinned. “Chris is something, isn’t he? You guys—you have to understand how Buck felt…”

“We do, kid.”

“By the time we were certain of the situation at Alderways, events forced us to act.”

“I guessed that,” JD said. “It was just, the people at Alderways, I mean, even the okay ones, they were saying Chris couldn’t walk or talk, and it sounded like he wouldn’t be him at all, only he is isn’t he? I mean he looks awful, but only like it can be patched up. He will be okay to come back to the team once he’s fit, won’t he?”



If it needed fighting for, they’d give it everything they’d given the search. Starting now, he thought, as the sound of a helicopter overhead heralded the arrival at last of Team 3. Quickly they walked back to join Chris and Buck, who were sharing a bar of chocolate Buck must have had on him. Chris still looked as if he should be lying down, but he straightened with an effort as Sam Brigham approached. Buck had an unobtrusive hand under his elbow; Ezra and Vin drew close on either side. JD saw their faces when they realised McGinty was one of the men approaching and said hastily, “He was really sorry about you getting suspended.”

“Ain’t that we’re thinking about.”

“He needs to have it made clear to him that Chris’s current condition is not a suitable subject for office discussion, and that Team 7 is now complete again.”

“And the best!” JD agreed.

McGinty, though, was subdued under the eye of his team leader, and all the arriving ATF men seemed more inclined to be impressed by the scale of the devastation around Chris than to be noticing his gaunt looks.

“Guess these guys crossed you!” Sam Brigham said to Chris.

That characteristic half smile quirked the corner of Chris’s mouth and he said, “You’re… late.”

The hesitation was barely noticeable, and by the time Sam Brigham had finished defending the team and listing all the other people to blame for their late arrival, a second chopper had arrived and Nathan and Josiah came in by the route Buck had taken.

Josiah engulfed Chris in a bear hug; Nathan was caught between relief at seeing him and horror at the way he looked, but Ezra noted with satisfaction that no one in Team 3 had guessed at the extent of Chris’s lingering problems. While Nathan took Chris into the hut to recheck the dressing on his arm, Ezra took it upon himself to brief Sam Brigham on the broad outline of what they knew, and particularly the need for sensitivity with the workers.

“It’s okay,” Sam said. “Orrin’s sending in an immigration officer who’s dealt with victims of people smuggling before, and also someone from one of the Denver health centers which sees a lot of illegal aliens. They’ll be okay. Leave us to handle this now. I’ll get my pilot to take Larabee and anyone else in need of medical attention back into Denver.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Ezra agreed. Nathan had noticed for himself that Vin was favouring his left side, and Vin’s usual objection to being scanned prodded or poked was muted by his preference for staying with Chris.

“You may still need to speak for him,” Ezra said quietly as they parted. “So far, circumstances have favoured us. I don’t think it should go beyond Team 7 that he still had this impediment with his speech.”

Vin grinned. “That’s okay. Nate got the picture real quick, and he’s already told a couple of people Chris ain’t to speak till that cheek’s been X-rayed.”

“What a commendable improvement in deviousness.”

“Yeah; it’s good to have the team back together again. I’m goin’ t’ fight t’ get us all out t’ th’ ranch by tonight.”

“The most intransigent of medical personnel should be capable of seeing that that is what Chris needs.”

“And if not, it won’t be the first hospital we’ve kidnapped him from this week!”

On that positive note, Ezra strolled back to help Buck and JD harass Team 3, and then to remember the young man Leo, probably developing hypothermia in the abandoned Mercedes. Encouraged by Sam Brigham to get the hell out of his hair, and relieved by the kindly doctor and acceptable agent they found talking to Maria, Team 7 went to retrieve the Mercedes.

“Nice car,” Buck said, as they bumped it back to the road.

“Indeed. And as we have inadequate transport without it, I think that once we have disposed of the baggage in the back, we should suggest we temporarily commandeer it.”

It took a certain gift for persuasion, but Ezra had that in plenty. Mother would have applauded. The Mercedes—for the time being—was his.

“You can take Buck and JD then,” Josiah said quickly. “I’ll go on back to Boulder—got a whole lot to tell them there.”

“Vin’s hoping that Chris will be released to the ranch tonight.”

“I’ll be there. I won’t bring Rosa today, but maybe tomorrow…”

Buck shook his head as Josiah went. “It’s always the ones you wouldn’t suspect. I never thought Josiah could be such a fast mover.”

He blocked JD with his arm from grabbing the front passenger seat in the Mercedes. “Ezra, I…”

“… will be riding shotgun,” Ezra said quickly. “And carrying out any of the menial labour that might be required at the ranch if we are properly to celebrate the restoration of Team 7 and Chris’s homecoming.”

“Damn, but that sounds good!” Buck agreed.

He gave Ezra half a hug—Ezra deftly dodged the rest—and made no more alarming attempts to talk things through. When it came down to it, they all had things they could be apologising to each other for, but why spoil the pleasure of the drive. The Mercedes ate the miles with a smoothness that belied the speedometer. Buck and JD sang, but he could even listen to that with equanimity. Best of all, just as they reached the ranch, Nathan called and said the doctors should be releasing Chris later to rest at home under his supervision.

As Buck immediately voiced it, “Whooooeeeey!”

Continue on to Part 6 of 6