Sunstroke, Insanity, and Faith
Rated SAFE

Part One

"Vincent Tanner?" a voice asked.

Vin turned to look at the older gentleman who had said his full name. "My momma called me that. Most everyone else calls me Vin."

The man nodded. "Vin. Old Norse from the Latin vinum or wine," he commented.

Ah, the preacher, that's where Vin knew him. The gangs he was supposed to be investigating had a bad habit of running illegal immigrants across the border and then holding them hostage while demanding a ransom out of the illegal immigrant's family. It was a good racket because these people did not call the police. Vin had been undercover for almost two months now and he was just starting to identify all the players. This was Josiah Sanchez. Some of the locals hated him—called him Father Joe behind his back and said that he was some sort of wanna-be priest while making dirty little comments about how he probably just wanted access to the little Catholic boys. But most of the neighborhood treated him like some sort of holy man. Vin leaned back against the bench and looked up. "Josiah, right?" he asked.

"That I am." The man sat down next to Vin, and for the first time, Vin realized just how large a man Josiah Sanchez was. Vin hadn't spent too much time around the guy, not after he'd decided that Josiah wasn't hooked up with the gangs. He was one of the few locals who had any power who weren't. "I thought I might invite you to spend some time at the church this week."

Vin frowned. This was a very odd conversation. "You want me to come to church?" Vin's cover wasn't all that far off from his real personality. He was a hothead with a record for burglary and drug dealing and suspected of murder back in Texas. The burglary part was true enough—Vin had done some pretty questionable things in his youth, although Tucson PD didn't know about it. Being a hothead? Vin wasn't even going to deny that. He sometimes wished that he looked rougher. Men like Josiah who had that gruff, weathered look weren't hassled, but Vin was, unfortunately, cute. That wasn't a word a man really wanted to hear used to describe him. It meant men gave him shit and Vin had to give it right back. Ironically, the unsubstantiated murder charge was pretty close to the truth, too. Vin's police partner back in Fort Worth had tried to pin a murder on Vin to stop some uncomfortable questions about bribery. That's why he'd left Texas and taken a detective position in Tucson, which had about the worst crime stats in this part of the world. About the only part of Vin's cover that wasn't both highly defamatory and more or less true was the part about the drugs.

Vin scratched his neck where the Tucson sun was making him sweat. Josiah remained silent as he watched the traffic rumble past them. "Is there some reason why I would come to church?" Vin asked.

"Other than your soul?" Josiah gave him a crooked smile.

"Yes, other than my soul. I'm actually not all that worried about my soul." Vin rolled his eyes. God help him; the missionary thought Vin was a street thug who needed saving. Well, that did suggest his cover was working.

Josiah leaned back on the bus bench and looked up into the blue sky for a long time... long enough that he had to be seeing spots. Whatever this guy was up to, he was one seriously odd duck. Vin stretched so that his hand just happened to land near enough his waist band for him to pull his weapon if he needed to.

"That's why I'd like you to visit the church," Josiah said without taking his eyes off the sky. "You're a man who relies on himself and his own weapon, but you aren't a man who's quick to pull it. Down here, that's rare." Josiah slowly looked down at Vin, studying him with such intensity that Vin had to work to avoid squirming under the older man's gaze.


Josiah shook his head as if Vin had said something amusing. "This may not be much, but hopefully it can hire you for a few days." Josiah reached for his pocket, and Vin tensed up. This wasn't worth blowing his cover and losing two month of undercover work, but this guy was seriously creeping him out. Instead of a weapon, Josiah pulled out a turquoise necklace and tossed it at him. Vin caught the piece, and opened his mouth to answer, but Josiah was already ambling down the street. There were very few people Vin would ever apply the word 'amble' to, but Josiah ambled. Actually, come to think of it, he was the only man Vin had ever seen amble.

Looking down at his hand, he studied the piece. It was mostly inlaid turquoise, but up close, Vin could see bands of coral and mother of pearl in a Native American design. It was an abstract image of a man bend over until his body created a half-circle. This was worth something... a lot of something. Some Native woman had given this family heirloom to Josiah looking for help with some sort of serious trouble. And for some reason, Vin did not feel like handing it over to his bosses. The donor had probably asked Josiah to use it to hire someone. The Tohonoa O'odham, Pascua Yaqui, and Ak-Chin reservations were all within spitting distance and the San Carlos Apaches and Zuni weren’t far off either. The piece looked Zuni. And the Native People seemed to have the same respect for Josiah that most of the Hispanic and homeless population did. Someone sent Josiah out with the only payment they could manage.

"I seriously hope you aren't into something too dangerous." Vin rubbed his thumb over the beautiful piece before he dropped it into his shirt pocket. Getting up, Vin wandered in the opposite direction. He needed to drop his handler a note and let them know he had been invited over to the church for some reason. Hell, maybe if some of the gangs' victims were looking to hire protection, Vin could find something to help him break this case. He was tired of dangling out here without anyone to watch his back.

Part Two

Josiah's church was in a run-down neighborhood with little square houses that had been thrown up during World War II, but the church itself was much older. The front had tall, narrow windows and the church bell, still suspended from a huge beam, had left rust stains that ran down the white adobe. The only large window was a large round window three stories up and directly above the massive wooden doors. The plaque out front gave the church's history. Built in 1732, it just about fell down in 1860. From the research Vin's boss had sent him, it had almost fallen down again in 1970 from neglect, but Josiah Sanchez had shown up straight out of the Vietnam war and declared himself the unofficial caretaker. Without asking anyone's permission, he moved into the historical landmark and started fixing it up with his own two hands.

It took four years for the city to notice that the man had basically rebuilt and restored the entire site, and by that time, Josiah was feeding the poor out of the back and giving informal prayer sessions in the main room, which hadn't actually been used as a church in a hundred years. When Tucson tried to evict their unofficial employee, the entire neighborhood had risen up in rebellion. Police couldn't even drive their cars to the church because of the mob in the street, so the city threw up their hands and just ignored Josiah. Vin's captain had been very vocal about the fact that Josiah had more influence in this area than anyone wanted to admit.

Hopefully Captain Rodriguez had been right about this guy not doing anything immoral, because Vin was about to walk into the lion's den. Pushing open the carved front doors, Vin walked into the main room. His boots echoed on the tile floor, and pews with hand carved details were lined up and facing the front. "Hello?" Vin's voice echoed. The door slowly fell closed again, and the light from the window made a giant oval as it fell on the tile floor. "Is anyone here?" Vin walked toward the front, but no one seemed to be home.

"Hey, we're back here," a voice yelled. It wasn't Josiah, but Vin followed it through another door into a long hallway. This part of the structure was clearly newer. The exposed beams and rough adobe gave way to drywall and electric lights.

"J.D., do be careful with that. This is a historical landmark."

"I'm not touching the history. I'm only ripping out drywall, Josiah." The speaker sounded young, late teens or early twenties maybe.

"The drywall is attached to history." A loud crash made Vin flinch as he came into a room full of long tables. A few people sat playing cards, and even without the extra clothes that marked the homeless in colder climates, Vin could spot them. They weren't exactly clean and one carried a jacket that seemed a little out of place when the thermometer was hitting 110. On the far side of the room, Josiah was standing over a young man with shaggy black hair and a sheepish look on his face.

"I'll fix it," the kid promised, holding his hands up as if he could hold Josiah off. That was actually kind of funny because this J.D. was about half Josiah's size. Vin knew he was exaggerating a bit but the kid wasn't anywhere near Josiah's league. On the floor, a broken piece of drywall had two strips of lathing still clinging to it.

Josiah shook his head and turned his back to the kid. The second Josiah's back was turned, the kid gave the two homeless men a cheeky grin, and one laughed. "He's going to take a switch to you soon or later," the man warned.

"Hey, I'm an adult. You don't take switches to adults," J.D. protested. If he was claiming to be an adult, that probably meant he was at least eighteen, but Vin was guessing he couldn't be too much more than that.

"You came." Josiah wiped drywall dust off his hands. His toolbelt hung low on his hips, but Vin frowned at one particularly odd shape.

"Is that a .22?"

Josiah's hand fell on the end of the gun he'd tucked between his hammer and a tape measure. "The lord provides, but I find that sometimes I have to fill in a few gaps where his provisions fall short of my preferences," Josiah offered. Vin's eyebrows went up. The odd factor was definitely not going away. "Would you like some lunch?"

Vin ignored him and watched as J.D. struggled to get what looked like metal sheeting bolted to the studs. His drill screamed as the torque on the bolt drove it into the heavy wood.

Josiah sighed. "You are overreacting."

"No, I’m just reacting," J.D. argued. "Besides, you went and got him, didn't you?" J.D. put down his drill and walked over with his hand out. "J.D. Dunne. I help out around the mission."

"Vin Tanner," Vin responded, but his attention was focused on the wall. One wall was a roadmap of spackle and joint tape, and the wall J.D. was working on had metal sheeting covering the bottom third.

"Are you armor plating the room?" Vin asked.

J.D. smiled. "Exactly. See, I told you this was a good idea." J.D. rapped his knuckles against the metal. Stepping forward, Vin ran his hand along the plate. Half-inch steel behind a solid wall would stop most things, but the question was, who did they plan to go to war against.

"I didn't say it wouldn't work. What I said was that the bullet deflection was going to tear the exterior to shreds," Josiah said.

"He's right about that," Vin said as he craned his neck to see into the space between the studs where J.D. had pulled out the insulation. "Something goes ricocheting off that metal, and it's going to rip through your electrical wire, studs, plywood... everything that's on the outside of this plate."

"Yeah, but that won't be us because we'll be inside," J.D. pointed out.

"And who's going to be out there?" Vin poked a thumb toward the back of the mission. If he had to take a stand somewhere, he'd rather take it in the main church where the narrow windows and thick walls would be just as effective as a fort as it had been in the 1700's. This more modern addition had standard 6 by 4 foot windows on two walls and standard walls. At least the walls had been standard before J.D.'s little project.

"East Side Los Cuatro Milpas," J.D. blithely announced. Bending over, he grabbed his drill and slipped another bolt into the attachment.

Vin looked over at Josiah for some sort of denial. Phoenix had driven many of the gang members out, and a large contingent had landed in Tucson. As they tried to wrestle territory away from the other gangs, the violence had escalated. They were the main reason Vin was undercover in this neighborhood.

"You pissed off the East Side Los Cuatro Milpas?" Vin asked.

Josiah shrugged. "I shared the truth," he said raising his arms in a helpless shrug.

One of the homeless men snorted. "Yeah, only his truth included the fact that if they threatened any more of Josiah's people, Josiah was going to take one of their semiautomatic weapons and 'introduce it to their internal organs via that most convenient orifice.' Funniest thing I ever saw." The man did a pretty good imitation of Josiah, but Vin was a little more concerned about a potential bloodbath. A half inch of steel was not going to stop the gang-bangers from shooting someone as he walked down the street.

"I was simply warning them of the consequences of remaining on the life path they had chosen for themselves," Josiah offered sweetly. J.D.'s drill whined as his put in another bolt.

"Wait," Vin said. "You hired me to go to war with the East Side Los Cuatro Milpas? That's why you asked me here?"

Josiah just looked at him in a way that made it patently clear that's exactly what he wanted.

"You do know this is crazy, right? You, me and a kid against the East Side Los Cuatro Milpas? We can save money with the group rate on funerals."

"If that's God's will."

"Have you considered that God's will might be for us to go to the police?" Vin asked. Yeah, his cover story did not mesh well with someone who suggested running to the cops, but this was the East Side Los Cuatro Milpas. Even a low-level dealer and thug would run for the cops if he had them on his tail.

"Considered it." Josiah nodded thoughtfully. "Decided against it." Without another word, Josiah walked to the corner of the room where J.D. had finished his armor plating job and he started tucking the insulation back into place.

"What? So you two are just going to take on an entire gang?"

"Buck will help," J.D. said. Vin had no idea who Buck was, but unless he was Rambo on steroids, one more person in the middle of this mess was just volunteering to be another murder victim.

"We need official help with this. I am not the cops' biggest fan, but if you're talking gangs, that's who we should go to. We could drop them an anonymous phone call," Vin argued.

Josiah pulled off a long strip of drywall tape and carefully sealed a seam before answering.

"Plenty of people would like to see this neighborhood change."

"Well, yeah," Vin agreed. He was one of those people, and unless he'd missed some signal, so was Josiah. None of them seemed to have the gangs on their Christmas card list.

Josiah stopped and looked over at him. "I'm not talking about just the gangs," Josiah gave Vin the same sort of look Vin's eighth grade teacher had always given him when he got the wrong answer for x. "It's the way of the world. The middle class forgets an area, lets it decay, and then when they decide they want it back, here comes the gentrification. The police clean it up, the middle class moves in, and the poor are pushed off to yet another corner of the world."

"What?" Vin wasn't sure when this had become a political debate, but he hadn't brought his cliff notes, that was for damn sure.

"If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered."

Vin just frowned in confusion.

"Proverbs 21:13," Josiah added helpfully. "This is our home, and these people have asked for our help. We do not shut our ears to the cry of the poor, and as long as the politicians control the police, they are not truly on the side of those honest but poor citizens who would call this place home."

"You're all crazy," Vin told the room.

"He's a quick learner," one of the homeless men commented to the other. "Usually it takes people longer to figure that out." His partner just threw down a card and announced gin as he laid his cards down.

"You're all completely nuts," Vin repeated. No way could he get himself into the middle of a gang war. Hell, this wasn't even going to be a gang war; this was going to be a gang massacre. He needed to get word out to Captain Rodriguez before all hell broke loose.

"I cannot ask you to stay if you don't feel the calling in your heart," Josiah said sadly.

"But you're going to stay and try and fight off a violent gang with a .22?" Vin asked.

Josiah just gave an enigmatic smile and turned back to his drywall job.

"It's not as bad as it looks," J.D. suggested.

"Yes, yes it is," Vin contradicted him. "You have no idea who you're up against."

J.D. smiled. "We've actually been doing this for a while, Josiah, Buck and me. You'd be surprised at who we've gone against."

Vin might have followed up on that tantalizing lead, but Josiah had moved to his side so quietly that Vin just about jumped out of his skin when Josiah took him by the arm.

"I'll see you out," Josiah said as he pulled firmly on Vin's arm. Vin didn't really have a choice about leaving, not unless he wanted to start a fight, and given the strength of the grip Josiah had on his arm, Vin did not want to start that fight. Instead, he got firmly escorted to the exit and left standing in the brilliant Tucson sun.

Part Three

"Hidalgo Josiah says that you shouldn't be coming around." The woman stuck her foot out from under her skirt and rested it against the handle of the church's main doors. She was sitting on a barrel that someone had rolled up the three steps and onto the narrow stoop in front of the old adobe church.

"Hidalgo Josiah?" Vin asked. He wasn't sure whether the woman really thought of Josiah as some sort of Spanish nobleman or if she'd just done too much crack. Her face had the drawn and lined contours of an addict, but her eyes were clear, so he was guessing she was either a recovering addict or an incredibly good actress.

"Hidalgo Josiah," she repeated firmly. "He said that if you're so worried, you should go pray for your soul somewhere else." Vin stood on the top step of the church not sure what he was supposed to do now. Captain Rodriguez had made it clear that he wanted the East Side Los Cuatro Milpas, and if they had a chance to protect Josiah along the way, that was just a bonus. Vin ran his thumb across the turquoise jewelry in his pocket, not sure why he hadn't turned that over when he'd debriefed his boss, but he hadn't.

"I really need to get through," Vin said. He gave the woman his best charming smile. Unfortunately, she wasn't charmed. She just looked at him like he was a bug that was in danger of getting stepped on.

"Now darling," a new voice called. "Do you really want to treat him like that?" A dark haired man swept past Vin and stopped no more than an inch from the woman. The man tilted his head and studied her. "You are looking more and more beautiful every day."

Vin's eyebrows nearly crawled off his forehead and up into his hairline. The woman wasn't buying it, either. "Buck, don't you give me that line of yours."

"Maria, it is obviously not a line. You have such wisdom in those deep brown eyes of yours that I just want to lose myself in them." He took her hands in his and leaned over to kiss them. The gesture was so unctuous, so totally over the top, that Vin expected the woman to curse the guy out. Instead, she got a fond expression on her face and shook her head slowly.

"Your momma raised a scalawag."

"My momma raised me to see the beauty of a woman, and you, Maria, are a beautiful woman."

She snorted.

"Now, since I am going to see Josiah, I know you'll let me through."

"Never said you couldn't go through, Buck."

"Ah, but I plan to take our young friend with me."

"But Josiah said..."

"Yep," Buck interrupted her. "He says all sorts of things, particularly when he gets a notion in his head. I'm still trying to decide why one dream about a crow means he's fated to die in this church of his."

"It wasn't a crow, it was a whole flock of birds of darkness swooping down upon me, and when I woke up, the crow was sitting on my windowsill." Josiah walked around from the side of the building, a board over his shoulder, and a tool box in his other hand. "Maria, I do appreciate your assistance."

"No problem, Hidalgo Josiah." She stood up and gave Buck a quick kiss on the cheek before she headed down the steps.

"Hidalgo?" Buck asked with some amusement. "You giving out promotions? If so, I've always had a yen to be a duke, myself."

Josiah sighed and headed toward the main doors. "I told her that she couldn't call me Father Josiah. I'm not an ordained priest."

"Ah, so she promoted you." Buck was still smiling, and Vin was starting to get the impression he was the kind of man who generally did. "So, you're the latest stray Josiah picked up in the streets?" Buck turned to Vin and stuck out his hand. "Buck Wilmington."

"Vin Tanner." They shook hands for a second and then Buck stepped back to open the door for Josiah.

"So, why the guard on the door?"

"She was entirely self-appointed." Josiah shifted the board up higher and headed into the church. "I might have mentioned that Vin has chosen to not join us..."

"I never said that," Vin defended himself as he followed Josiah into the church. Josiah turned around, and Vin had to duck to avoid getting clocked by the wood beam. "What I said was that defending ourselves against the Los Cuatro Milpas was just plain stupid."

"He's got you there, Josiah. It does seem a mite bit on the dumb side," Buck agreed. Vin blinked, momentarily caught off guard by the way Buck agreed with him.

"So you think we should call the police?" Vin asked.

"Never said that. I just said it was stupid, but that doesn't mean anything since we have a long and proud history of stupid around here." Buck closed the door behind them. "Is J.D. still playing carpenter?"

"Playing might be the word," Josiah said, giving his head a little jerk toward the room where he had been mounting metal plates last time Vin had seen him. "I need to get some work done around back. I assume you can keep an eye on our friend." Josiah was talking to Buck, but his gaze stayed on the floor, like he was searching for the meaning of life in the terra cotta tile or something.

Vin jumped when Buck threw an arm around his shoulders. Buck gave Vin a little hip bump like they'd been friends for years, and Vin was really starting to wonder if Buck was artificially cheerful. Usually the people down here got the cheap drugs, the ones that made them slur and stagger, but Buck was acting like he had taken a few too many prescription happy pills. "I'll keep him out of trouble," Buck offered. "So, should I go do a little rummaging around in the basement?"

"Might be a good idea," Josiah agreed without ever taking his eyes off those tiles. And then, he just ambled off again toward a side door.

"So, Vin, what brings you to this little cesspool we call home?" Buck asked as he took a step back. Vin frowned and reached under his shirt to check on his gun. It was there, but Vin suddenly realized that Buck had used the distraction of the hip-check to feel for weapons. Crossing his arms, Vin glared at Buck. Buck just smiled at him. "Is that a SIG-Sauer pistol? I'm a fan of the .45 ACP 1911, myself, but every man has to choose his own weapon."

"Buck!" a voice called out. Vin took a step back to cover this new person darting into the room, who turned out to be J.D.

"Hey, kid. You about done in there?"

"It's looking good, but I expected you earlier."

Buck shrugged. "You know how it goes. These women sure do hate to see me leave, and I have trouble leaving them when they're crying for me to stay."

J.D. rolled his eyes. "You got stuck talking to that IRS guy again, didn't you?"

"Yep," Buck agreed with a smile. Reaching over, he took a swipe at J.D.'s head, but J.D. danced away, blocking Buck's move. Buck just laughed. "But that doesn't mean I don't still have animal magnetism with the ladies. It only means that my natural charm does not extend to government employees. I don't know what that guy thinks he's going to find, but he is welcome to enjoy an intimate evening with my books. Personally, I can think of far more pleasant ways to spend a night." Looking over at Vin, Buck wiggled his eyebrows.

Vin understood locker-talk, the way some men felt a need to talk up their conquests with women. However, he generally didn't approve of it, and he was starting to take a dislike to Buck. Unfortunately, J.D. was watching Buck with almost worshipful eyes. Josiah definitely should keep him away from men like Buck who could get the kid twisted around, especially since Vin was still not convinced that Buck was entirely sober.

"So," Buck said, turning to face Vin, "you were going to tell us what brings you to Tucson."

"I was?" Vin stared at Buck, not letting any emotions through. Buck raised one eyebrow and just waited.

"He's been doing some small time stuff on the streets," J.D. finally answered for him. "Josiah thought he might be willing to give us a hand, but he didn't seem all that interested in helping." Now J.D. crossed his arms and gave Vin a look that would make a cactus wither with shame.

"I didn't say I wouldn't help, kid. I said that going to war with a gang is stupid."

"It is," Buck agreed before J.D. could go off, and the kid looked like he was about to give Vin a seriously big piece of his mind. "'Course, it's even more stupid for the gang to go to war with us, but I figure they'll need to learn that one on their own. Some people, you just can't teach 'em." Buck gave an exaggerated shrug. "So, I was going to go poke around a basement. Anyone interested in giving me a hand?"

"With Vin?" J.D. looked over toward Vin with near-panic in his eyes, and the hair on the back of Vin's neck stood on end. Whatever was in this basement, it was serious trouble, and Buck was offering to bring him into the middle of it. Fuck. He hadn't told his handler he was heading into any trouble, and he didn't have even a tracker much less a wire on him. Vin tried to keep his face impassive, but it wasn't easy with Buck studying him.

"Josiah picked him up, right?" Buck asked. "The man does have a good eye for talent. After all, Josiah saved your scrawny ass from about a million years of community service scrubbing walls." Buck smiled and threw his arm over J.D.'s shoulders. Instead of freezing or stiffening up the way Vin had, J.D. seemed to lean into the touch. Vin didn't know these two well enough to understand their dynamics—were these two brotherly or sexually involved or just really blissed out on some good scripts?

"That's how I met Josiah," J.D. admitted with a sheepish grin. "I was tagging walls, and he grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and dragged me into the church about two seconds before a cop car came by. Man, I thought he had saved me because I already had two arrests for tagging, and they would have thrown the book at me." J.D. laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Instead, I figured out that getting caught by Josiah was way worse than the cops. He really makes you not only work your ass off to atone for your sins, as he calls it, but he makes you feel really shitty about having sinned in the first place. Still, he's a good guy."

"Yep, that's why we all look out for the church," Buck agreed. He moved to the narrow slot window at the front of the church and looked out, all the humor of just a second ago gone. "Tanner, this is likely to get ugly, and I'm going to tell you this right now—Josiah won't give up on his church or his people, and we're not going to give up on Josiah. If you want to stay out of the middle of this, you need to leave and not come back here. If you stay, you'd better be willing to defend this place and the people who take refuge in it." Buck turned back around and gave Vin an even stare, one that promised that he would return any trouble Vin brought to this place.

For a minute, Vin was caught between competing goals. If these people had something illegal in their basement, as a detective he had an obligation to find and report that. However, Captain Rodriguez had made it abundantly clear that defending Josiah Sanchez was priority number one and taking the gang down was priority number two. If Vin tried taking down Sanchez and his defenders, he was definitely going off the script, and the captain wasn't likely to appreciate that. "I don't really know what you have in mind," Vin said slowly, not willing to commit himself unless he knew more.

Buck gave a slow smile. It wasn't the same sort of open, carefree smile he'd thrown around a few minutes ago, but rather it was a small one, one that gave Vin his seal of approval. "That's a good answer for a man," he said. Vin was just starting to think Buck had more depth than was immediately apparent. "Why don't you ride along and see what we have planned. I'll tell you how I hooked up with Josiah, and you can tell me that story you keep ducking."

"Ducking?" Vin frowned.

"Yep. The one about why you showed up in Tucson. Not to offend a city my family has lived in for five generations, but Tucson is the sort of place where people end up when they're trying to get out of any other place. It isn't really a destination people willingly choose."

"Amen to that," J.D. said with a shake of his head. "My bus money ran out when I hit Tucson, so here I stayed."

"Your family isn't here?" Vin asked. J.D. might technically be a man, but he certainly seemed young enough to stick close to home.

"No. I actually grew up in L.A., but my mom got sick and then she died. It's a long story." J.D. shrugged and then headed for the door, obviously unwilling to discuss that with a near-stranger. "What about you? What brought you to the land of cactus and heat and heat and heat?" When he opened the door, a wave of that heat swept into the room. These old adobes were built to hold off the brutal desert heat, but Vin started sweating at the thought of walking back out into the bake oven. Tucson was usually a little cooler than Phoenix, but nature had been playing some nasty pranks lately, and it left Vin with an irrational desire to quit his job and curl up under the nearest air conditioning vent.

"Had some trouble in Texas," Vin admitted. Buck waved a hand, inviting Vin to go out ahead of him, and Vin's back itched at the thought of Buck back there. Yeah, the man put off some class-clown vibes, but Vin was starting to think that was a cover that he carefully tended. Either that or he had multiple personalities rattling around in his brain.

"Is this the sort of trouble that would send you running from the law?" Buck asked.

"Is that any business of yours?" Vin stopped on the steps and turned to face the other man.

Buck had on his silly grin again; it made him look like an overgrown boy. "Seeing as how I put up bail and do a bit of bounty hunting as my primary sources of income, yeah, it would be my business."

When Vin had first met J.D., he had thought him little more than a boy, but now J.D. moved to the opposite side of the steps, out of the crossfire and in a perfect position to cover Buck if trouble started. The hair on the back of Vin's neck was getting really tired of standing at attention, but these two were enough to make a grown man give up undercover work. It was downright stressful. "Didn't go that far," Vin said carefully. From the way J.D. had angled his body, he had a weapon in his jeans and Buck wasn't even being subtle about resting his hand on his hip, right near a suspicious bulge. If he was a bounty hunter, he'd have a license to carry a concealed weapon, and Vin didn't need this to escalate. He held his hands out away from his body. "There's no one looking for me, so if you want a payday, you'll have to track down some other felon."

Buck shrugged. "Can't blame a man for trying. I mean, I have an IRS fellow back at the office trying to take what little profit I've made this year, so a big payday would come in handy."

"That's no joke," J.D. added. "It'd be nice if we got paid at some point this month."

"Keep it up, and you'll be looking for other work altogether," Buck warned.

Shit. The man was teaching J.D. bounty-hunting. That was a sport most men picked up after doing time in the military or the police, but J.D. was just a kid. Vin didn't like this. Then again, he didn't have to like this. According to the captain, he just needed to get information on where the gang was and when the gang planned to attack. The Tucson PD would do the rest.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," J.D. said in a singsong, clearly not that intimidated by Buck's threat to fire him. Trotting down the steps, he pulled open the passenger door on a '77 or '78 Cadillac Fleetwood that was so dirty it looked gray instead of white. "Coming?"

"I thought we were going to the basement," Vin said carefully.

"A basement, just not the basement here," Buck said with another of his ridiculous smiles. "So, I told you I'd spill the beans about me and Josiah." He trotted across the pavement and opened the driver's side door and stood there leaning on the car. "It was about six or seven years ago at Christmas. Someone left a tyke of about three or four on Josiah's steps, right there where you're standing. No one was quite sure where the child had come from, or for that matter, what to do with her."

"And that's where you came in?" Vin asked. Glancing up and down the street, he made his choice. He was dumb as a post for getting into a car with two strangers and no backup, but that was the nature of undercover work. He headed for the backseat door, grateful that he wasn't going to have to ride with J.D. at his back the whole time.

"Yep. Josiah asked me to find the mother. I am known for being able to find my man or my woman anywhere. Truth be told, I'm even better at finding women." Buck winked and then ducked into the car.

"But why did he want to find the mother?" Vin asked. "Shouldn't he have called Child Protective Services or the fire department or something?"

J.D. twisted around in his seat as Vin got in. "That's the thing about Josiah—he's all about second chances. He said that no mother would give up a child on Christmas if she wasn't desperate, so he asked Buck to find her and make sure she was okay."

"Were you around then?" Vin asked, wondering if J.D. was some runaway who had gotten caught up with Buck when he was still too young to smell bullshit when it came his direction.

"Um, no. I was still in L.A. back then."

"Well he's telling the story right," Buck glanced over his shoulder and frowned at Vin for a second. "Sure enough, Josiah wanted me to find the mother and check on her. It turns out she'd fallen in with a pimp who was a real son of a bitch."

"Is there any other kind?"

"Well, sure," Buck answered, a little too quickly for Vin's taste. "Plenty of women have used their bodies to get out of poverty or raise families. There's a reason it's called the oldest profession, and in some places, the house only takes a big enough percentage to cover the costs. But this woman, she'd gotten hooked up with the worst kind. He'd get his girls hooked on drugs and sell them to anyone with ten dollars. Even worse, that pile of shit had started taking notice of her daughter." Buck stopped talking for a second and focused on driving. That and trying to strangle the steering wheel. Vin could see where his knuckles were turning white as he told the story. "Hell was too good for that piece of shit."

"Amen," J.D. agreed softly.

"Anyway," Buck continued, taking a large breath as he very obviously tried to shove his anger aside, "I found the mother and helped her get free of that bastard. Josiah found her a better place and reunited her with her daughter. It turns out that woman thought that a cute little girl like hers being found on Christmas would land on the news and get Marcela a good home. But all Marcela wanted was her momma back, and Josiah gave her that." Buck finished his story and after that, there were a few minutes of relative silence as he drove farther into town.

"Was there a reason for that little lesson?" Vin finally asked. He was more for plain talk, and if Buck had something to say, he should just come right out and say it.

Buck waited until the next red light, and then he turned around in his seat. "You met Marcela's mother on the church steps today. Maria and a couple of dozen more just like her will throw themselves between Josiah and any trouble. That means that we are going to do whatever it takes to make sure that self-destructive old piss-ant stays safe, even if he has a thousand dreams about his damn birds of darkness. Got it?"

Vin didn't answer right away, and Buck had to turn back around when the light turned green and the car behind them laid on his horn.

It was J.D. who spoke next. "It's not exactly like Josiah can't take care of himself."

"Oh, I do know that," Buck agreed cheerfully. "Josiah may feel guilty for knowing a dozen ways to kill a man with a paperclip, but that doesn't change the fact that he knows 'em and he'll use 'em if his flock is in danger."

"He... what?"

Buck grinned as he looked in the rearview mirror. "Didn't you know Josiah is one of our Vietnam veterans?"

"Yeah," Vin said slowly. When he'd told the captain that Josiah had made contact, Captain Rodriguez had gotten him a dossier that had included the years Josiah had served in the Army.

"He was special forces. There are a lot of rumors about what Josiah did in the jungle, and he's not denying any of them." Buck pulled into the parking lot of a place called the "Players Only" club. It looked like a refurbished warehouse, but the billiard balls on the sign suggested that it had found a new life as a pool hall. "Don't underestimate Josiah."

Vin looked from one man to the other. "Are you trying to convince me to help or convince me that you don't need my help?" he asked them.

"Maybe both," Buck said before he got out and started striding toward the front door of the club. J.D. lagged behind, waiting as Vin got out of the back.

"Nevermind him. He just worries about Josiah, and the IRS audit has him a little twitchier than normal."

"Funny, I thought imminent death at the hands of the East Side Los Cuatro Milpas would do that."

"Nah," J.D. said with a grin of his own. "They really wouldn't mess with us if they knew who we were." And then J.D. went trotting after Buck. For his part, Buck had been standing at the door, watching. They might have brought Vin along, but Buck clearly wasn't going to trust Vin around J.D., that was for damn sure. Either these two had some sort of relationship or Buck was just the biggest mother hen Vin had ever met.

Pulling the doors open, Buck flashed the room a wide smile. "Ladies and gentleman, Buck has arrived, and the fun can commence." J.D. rolled his eyes and Vin was left trailing after them as they all entered the club. The inside was nicer than he'd expected with a dozen pool tables on one side, a small sitting area near the door and a well-stocked bar. "Where's Big Lester?" Buck asked.

Vin could see the flash of panic in the bartender's face, and he moved to cover the door as his hand fell close enough to his weapon to pull it if he needed it. He was grateful to see J.D. ease into some cover by a large square pillar.

"Gentleman," a man in a tailored gray suit walked out from a backroom, "I am afraid Big Lester found himself in a difficult situation monetarily, and he has retired to St. Louis to lick his rather substantial wounds. Do I gather from your exuberant greeting that you are associates of his?" The man gave them the sort of helpful smile that Vin might expect from a teacher or a policeman, someone who was being paid to be particularly polite. He also noticed that the man was holding his left arm out and to the side. Vin was guessing he had a weapon up his sleeve.

"Buck Wilmingon." Buck offered his hand, and the man took it gingerly, letting go and backing away a step as soon as politeness allowed. "My friends, J.D. Dunne and Vin Tanner." Vin wasn't sure how he felt about being included as one of Buck's friends, but he certainly wasn't going to debate that now in front of this stranger.

The stranger smiled. "Ezra Standish, at your service. I am the new owner and proprietor of "Players Only." Now the expression looked genuine enough—pride with more than a little greed mixed in.

It took Buck a second to respond. "Well, shit."


Part Four

“Excuse me?” Ezra looked downright offended.

“Ain’t nothing against you,” Buck hurried to say, “but Lester had an arrangement with us.” Buck walked over to a table and dropped down into one of the chairs. Vin moved to the side, and he noticed that a good number of the patrons were quietly sliding toward the door. Ezra seemed to notice as well.

“Now, I’m sure there will be no hostilities," he assured the fleeing customers. "Have you tried the billiards tables?” All Ezra's reassurances just seemed to make them take off even faster. The place was left with one old man at the bar who looked too damn drunk to walk out on his own and a woman in the corner who had her feet propped up on an empty chair as she watched like they were a picture show and she just needed the popcorn. Vin didn’t think they were that entertaining, but from the woman’s expression, she did.

With his customers gone, Ezra turned to Buck. “Whatever protection racket you may have engaged in when Lester owned this place, I can assure you that I am not likely to continue it. I am very capable of providing for my own security.” Again, he had his arm out to the side. This man dressed like an escapee from some high-end clothing catalog, but Vin didn’t doubt that he could take care of himself. He had a certain hardness around the edges that didn’t come from a fancy upbringing.

“Whoa now.” Buck held up his hands. “I think you got yourself the wrong end of the horse, there. When I said we had a deal, I wasn’t talking about taking money from Lester. Although I wouldn’t turn down any loans if you have some extra cash laying around.” Buck smiled widely. “I guess you could say we use this place like a gathering point.”

“An office,” JD offered. “With beer on tap.”

Ezra finally glanced over at JD. “You will not be served alcohol on these premises.”

“But…” JD looked downright offended, but Buck… his smile just got a little wider as he looked at JD. These two definitely had some vibe that Vin was not understanding.

“And as for your plan to conduct your business out of the Players Only, might I suggest that you find another plan. I intend to run this house with an eye to attracting serious gamblers and players of both means and refinement.” The tight smile Ezra offered them made it clear that he considered them lacking in both qualities.

“I think he’s insulting us,” Vin said. Despite the fact that Ezra was clearly a man who valued money above all, Vin found himself respecting both the way he refused to back down and the way he stayed close to cover and kept his body coiled for action. It made Vin a little jumpy, but he could respect a man who watched his own back. Buck, however, just leaned back and stared up at the ceiling.

"Now, I don't mean to sound arrogant," Buck looked back down at Ezra, "but you won't last a week without us."

"Were that to prove true some time in the future, I would tender you my apologies, but as of right now, I fail to see how you are anything other than a petty thief and extortionist."

"Buck!" JD called out. The edge of panic in his voice made Vin drop to one knee before he even had a second thought. Buck rolled out of his chair, hitting the floor and pulling his gun at the same time. Ezra dove for the bar, which he'd been sticking close to the whole time, and that left the two customers. "There!" JD was on one knee pointing at the door when the bullets ripped through the front of the Player's Only. The one small window shattered and sunlight streamed through a dozen holes in the siding as the sound of fully automatic weapons blasted the air. The door swung open as the glass inserts shattered with a loud crash. The woman who had been perched on her chair fell to the floor with a startled shriek, but the man at the bar just took another drink of his beer.

"JD, cover the back," Buck called. He crawled toward the door, gun in hand, brushing glass out of his way as he crawled. Vin pulled his own weapon, caught between the need to keep his cover intact and an urge to call for backup. While he expected trouble undercover, he didn't expect someone to shoot fully automatic guns at him. Buck laid on his belly and pushed the edge of the door open, pointing his gun out the door, but Vin could already hear the squealing of tires as someone pulled out of the parking lot. Vin's hand twitched toward his phone. He could call it in. But if he did that, his cover would be irrevocably lost. Months of work would be gone, and even worse, there would be no one to help these idiots fight whatever trouble they'd landed in.

"They're gone," Buck called from the front as he stood and brushed himself off.

"Clear back here," JD said as he came back from the back. "They didn't even try to come around back. Amateurs." JD sounded like an old soldier disgusted at some failure in tactics, which sounded strange coming out of a kid who couldn't be more than eighteen or nineteen.

Ezra stood up behind the bar and looked around. "I... but... look what they did to my bar. Those barbarians destroyed my bar." Stepping out from the bar, he nearly wailed as he looked at the broken window and the dust and splinters still drifting to the floor. "You!" Ezra pointed a finger at Buck. "You did this."

"Me? I was the one in here getting shot at. You might want to invest in glasses."

"So, I suppose it is just coincidence that you attempt to extort money from me and then these hooligans destroy my bar?"

"I don't suppose it's coincidence seeing as how people know Big Lester lets us use this place," JD offered in a tone of voice that suggested he was trying to be genuinely helpful. Ezra glared at him.

"He's right," Buck said. "The East Side Los Cuatro Milpas aren't going to have to do too much asking around to find out that this place is right up there with the church in terms of places we're likely to go."

"Buck!" JD looked at Buck with horror. The kid had just figured out that if the gang had taken steps against the bar, they had probably taken the fight to the church, too.

"I know, but we need to pick up supplies before we head back there. Ezra, it's been real nice chatting, but we're in a hurry." Buck headed for the door leading into the employee areas. Vin watched as Ezra's mouth came open, probably to protest, but Buck and JD were already heading into the back of the bar.

"Now wait just one minute." Ezra gave Vin a nasty look, and Vin held up his hands in surrender. He was not trying to extort or intimidate a local businessman. Hell, he was going to have enough trouble trying to explain to Captain Rodriguez exactly why he hadn't called for backup, so he definitely didn't need more trouble.

"You okay?" Vin asked the two customers. The guy at the bar was still nursing his beer, and the woman was sitting on the floor looking wild-eyed but unharmed. She nodded. Not sure what else to do, Vin chased after Ezra who had chased after Buck and JD.

The back hall led to a dozen doors, but Vin could still hear the running argument as Ezra ripped into Buck, threatening to call the police if the man took anything off Ezra's property without permission. Vin hurried after their voices. The door at the end of the hall led into a narrow staircase, and Vin could hear Buck's voice echoing in the basement. The bar might only be a few decades old, but the brick here was worn with age and crumbling in places.

"Just wait 'til you see what we're talking about or you just might regret that call," Buck advised. As a police officer, Vin truly wanted an explanation for that comment. The stair was steep and curved around. Vin came around the corner to find the three men standing in the middle of a dark room lit only by a single hanging bulb.

"It's the bald one. It always amused Josiah to put it behind the bald one," Buck offered. Vin looked, and there were eight statues, each set in a small stone niche formed within the wall.

"Oh my god. Those are Bodhisattva, and if you remove even one, I will have you up on charges of grand larceny, sir. If these are genuine artifacts from India or China, why these might be worth...." Ezra whistled instead of giving an answer. He'd put his back to a wall and had his cell phone in his left hand, making it even more obvious that he was hiding a weapon somewhere handy enough that he felt confident he could reach it with his right.

"Actually, they're Josiah's, but I don't suppose this is really the time to argue about that," Buck said.

"Guys, whether he calls or not, the cops are going to be here soon," Vin pointed out. He'd like to think they'd be here within seconds on a call of automatic weapons fire, but he wasn't that naïve. In this neighborhood, it would take a little while because no one car would venture down this way without one or two more as backup. That would slow them down... assuming that anyone had bothered to call them at all.

"So we hurry," Buck said. Walking over, he took the statue of the bald man and carefully pulled it off the shelf it sat on.

"Since that was on the property at the time that the title was transferred from Lester to myself, one could argue that it became part of the property, possession being nine-tenths of the law and all," Ezra protested again.

"Don't get your knickers in a twist," Buck said. "You can argue that out with Josiah later." He put the statue on the ground and then reached into the niche and pulled on a lever. Vin heard a loud clicking under him, and he jumped off the stairs, afraid that the old wood was creaking and ready to give way. Instead, he saw a crack open in the rough boards that formed the side of the stairs.

"You want it all?" JD asked.

"It'd be best," Buck agreed. JD reached over and pulled the boards back, and Vin nearly swallowed his tongue. A sniper rifle, smoke grenades, fully automatic weapons, a grenade launcher and a half-dozen pistols were all neatly hung from hooks in the hidden compartment.

"Good lord," Ezra breathed. Vin was feeling pretty much the same. Who the hell were these people? Anyone collecting weapons like these should have gotten the attention of ATF, but when Vin had talked to Captain Rodriguez, the man had made it clear that Josiah Sanchez and his friends were victims to protect, not fucking gun runners.

"Now, I understand the need to protect oneself, so you may count on my discretion." Ezra's voice had a sharp edge of fear now.

"And even if you weren't discrete, we wouldn't do anything about that, would we?" Vin gave Buck and JD a hard stare. Buck just stared back, but JD looked confused.

"What would we do?" he asked. Five minutes ago, he'd sounded like a battle-hardened soldier reporting in from the front. Now he sounded like a kid.

Slowly Buck smiled. "Our friend thinks we might be the sort to shoot a man for knowing some uncomfortable truths."

"Us?" JD looked and sounded horrified. "We wouldn't do nothing to anyone."

"Well, I reckon these two are a little suspicious," Buck said as he pulled the weapons off their hooks. At the bottom of the compartment, ammunition was stacked up. "Grab that, will you?" he asked Vin before passing a half dozen guns over to JD.

Vin looked at Ezra who had backed against the wall and then at the two now very-well-armed men. JD gave him a crooked smile. "We may not stay exactly inside the lines of the law, but we wouldn't ever turn on someone."

"Well, I would rather not be the first," Ezra said softly. Vin agreed with that, but right now, he didn't see any way out of this except to play the cards he'd been dealt. If he tried breaking cover now, he was very likely to find out whether or not these two would shoot him to avoid jail time, and he really wasn't that trusting of human nature. Hell, his own partner in Texas had tried to frame him for murder, so these two men who were little more than strangers had no reason to treat him any better.

"Ezra, I suggest you stay down here." Buck took the last weapon and pushed the hidden door closed. "We know you're not on our side, but the gang is likely to think you're picking up where Lester left off."

"Wait, what? I do not wish to become entangled in any of your conflicts. I'm sure these people will understand that the Players Only has changed hands."

"I wouldn't suggest you try having that conversation," Vin said. "They're a dangerous gang out of Phoenix, and they have a reputation for shooting first and worrying about whether people are friend or foe later."

"So, you'd be best just staying down here until one of us come for you," Buck finished. He headed for the stairs with enough military weaponry for a small army gathered in his arms.

"We shouldn't be too long," JD said. "If you check the lever behind the statue of the guy on the elephant, you'll find some supplies and water in another compartment, so you only need to bolt the door behind us."

Ezra drew himself up. "I most certainly will not. This is my club and my reputation. If I cower in the basement, what will the clientele think?"

"That you have the common sense god gave a goose," Buck suggested as they reached the main floor. Vin trailed behind JD and Buck, feeling very exposed. If someone saw them carrying this much firepower, they were all going to attract the wrong kind of attention. Vin was a cop, and he still suspected that the cops would shoot them on sight for having even half this stuff. Anyone who could gather this kind of stash was dangerous—maybe even as dangerous as Los Cuatro Milpas.

They headed out through the main room, and the bartender was back, serving drinks to three men who didn't seem to mind that the room was getting uncomfortably hot with the new ventilation courtesy automatic weapons fire. Ezra stopped when he saw that, staring at them in confusion.

Buck ignored the customers."Put the rocket launcher and grenades in the trunk. Keep the semi-automatics and handguns in the backseat. JD, Vin, load three weapons each as we head over. If they tried to take Josiah, they're going to be in for more of a fight than they expected, but he can't hold out forever."

"You got it," JD agreed happily. Vin wasn't sure what to do, but for right now, he just followed these two and tried to keep an eye on Ezra who had finally shaken free of his shock and was back to chasing them. "You need to make it clear to these people that we are not in any sort of alliance with one another. I will not have my establishment targeted because of your difficulties."

"We'll get right on that," Buck said sarcastically. He headed out into the parking lot without even checking first to see if the place was surrounded by police. Vin flinched, half-expecting to hear the entire SWAT team take a shot at Buck the second they caught sight of the guns in his arms. However, nothing happened as he crossed the parking lot to the car and opened the trunk. JD hurried to lay the weapons down and then held his hand out for the ammunition Vin had in his hands.

Vin was trying to figure out a way to avoid getting in the car with these two when the sound of something pinging against metal startled him. A crack a half second later made him spin around and then he was flying toward the asphalt with Buck on his back.

"East wall!" Buck called out. They hit the ground together, and Buck rolled to the side pulling at his gun. Vin reached for his own gun, but it almost slipped out of his hand which was slick with something from the road.

"There!" JD cried out, and Vin saw him on one knee firing toward the wall. Ezra was using the hood of the car for cover as he returned fire as well, but it was hard for Vin to see because Buck was in front of him.

"JD, get back here."

"I can see him!"

"I need you here!" Buck called. Vin felt strangely uncoordinated, but that didn't matter because Buck caught him by the arm and hauled him upright, propping him up against the car.

"I'll call 911," Ezra pulled out his cell phone.

"Vin, should we call the cops?" Buck asked.

"What?" Vin frowned. No way did he want to blow his cover—not now. True, the captain was going to kill him for being in a shoot out in the middle of the day, but he could talk his way out of that. He was good at talking his way out of trouble. "No, no cops," he said.

"He's hurt."

"And I'm not going to turn a man over to the cops unless he wants it."

"He could die."

"Who?" Vin asked.

"Buck, maybe we should call for help."

"Yep, but not from the cops. Vin is one of us, JD. We take care of our own." More pops sounded and all three men ducked down.

JD turned and fired a couple of shots while Buck opened the car door. "I'll get him in," Ezra said. Vin just blinked, not really quite understanding what was going on as Buck pulled an automatic out of the car and turned to fire over JD's head toward the enemy.

"What the hell am I doing?" Ezra muttered, but he got his hands under Vin's arms and lifted him up and onto the seat.

Vin stared at the red on his hand. "I've been shot," he said.

"Well there's a brilliant observation. You are, no doubt, a Rhode scholar." Vin reached out and caught at Ezra's arm, and his blood smeared red against Ezra's white silk shirt. "And you are buying me a new shirt," Ezra complained as he knelt on the floor of the backseat. He put a hand on the seat and leaned over Vin, gun in hand. Car doors slammed.

"I'll call Nathan," Buck said. The car took off so fast that Vin slid toward the door and Ezra caught him, holding him in place.

"My mother would have a good laugh right about now. She always said to walk away from trouble. Now mind you, I'm a little more likely to take a first class ticket on Qantas Airways, but the general concept is the same." Ezra leaned close as though he was sharing some confidence, but when his fingers pressed into Vin's side, Vin cried out.

"How is he?"

"Staring at me like he has no idea what's happening. Might I suggest that we get to some secure site where we are less likely to get shot and then call 911."

"If we have to, we have to." Buck sounded grim. "Vin. Vincent!" Vin blinked and looked up toward the front seat. JD was driving and Buck was leaning over the front seat holding a cell phone up to his ear. "Should we call the cops? We can get you to a hospital in ten minutes."

"No cops," Vin repeated. His legs were cold and he knew he wasn't thinking straight, but he also knew he didn't want the cops. He definitely didn't want the cops.

"Fair enough," Buck agreed. "Nathan!" Buck turned around to face front again. "Nathan, we have trouble. We're heading for Josiah's, and we're going to need a few of your special talents." Vin closed his eyes. Did he know a Nathan?

"Hey, keep your eyes on me," Ezra tapped him on the cheek. "I have no intention of letting you die and allowing those two to somehow impugn my skills as a caretaker. Just focus here. And when you recover, be sure to call me seven kinds of a fool for getting involved at all."



Part Five

Vin cried out in pain as they took a corner.

"Sorry, sorry," JD said.

"Just drive," Buck said, his voice tight. Vin wondered why no one was pulling them over for speeding and reckless driving.

"Do not die on me, understand?" Ezra leaned close, and Vin could smell his expensive cologne. "The bleeding's slowed, but I somehow doubt that getting buffeted about in the back of a car is ideal."

"I'm trying!" JD yelled.

"You're doing fine, JD. If fancypants doesn't like your driving, he can just keep it to himself."

"Great." Ezra's voice was so soft it was almost a whisper. "I am surrounded by cave men who believe that ignoring a problem will make it go away. I really should have stayed in the basement."

Vin gasped as they took another corner fast enough that he slid on the seat, hitting his head against the door. "Oh for god's sake, if you're going to kill him, shoot him and be merciful about it," Ezra complained.

"We're here." JD's voice went so high that it nearly broke. The brakes squealed, and Vin threw his arm out as he felt himself side toward the edge of the seat. Strong arms caught him.

"Fuck," Vin managed as he pressed his hand to his side. His fingers stuck to his shirt, the warm blood pressing up between his fingers.

"That would sum it up nicely." Ezra was kneeling on the floor. "Are we likely to get shot the second we open these doors?"

"That does seem like a possibility," Buck agreed. "You keep your heads down. JD, cover me."

"You got it." JD pushed the driver's side door open and scanned the area as professionally as any cop Vin had worked with. Hell, he was better than the idiot partner Vin had worked with in Fort Worth.

"Maybe we should go to the hospital," Vin said softly, but Buck was already out of the car.

"Now you come to your senses." Ezra sounded weary, but he pulled his cell phone out. "I am starting to regret winning that club. Big Lester certainly left out a few of the more interesting details." Ezra hadn't even hit the first number before the door opened and JD stuck his head in.

"The area's clear and the doc is already here."

"A doctor? That sounds promising," Ezra said. Vin noticed that the man dropped his phone into a pocket in a move so fast that he doubted JD had even seen it. Ezra obviously didn't trust JD and Buck, and the cop part of Vin could understand that. They weren't just the victims being targeted by the gang—they were clearly neck-deep in something. And Vin didn't know how these two would react to someone calling 911.

"I'll be fine." Reaching out, Vin put his hand on Ezra's arm, holding it tightly. If JD and Buck were dangerous, Vin didn't want a civilian getting in the middle. He'd talked his way out of tighter spots than this. "They have a doctor here, and I don't think it's too bad."

Ezra gave him a disbelieving look, but Vin just struggled to sit up.

"We've got to move. A few of the gang members have been driving past," JD said, his eyes darting to the street. Vin had to agree—they were too exposed out here and car doors didn't stop bullets nearly as well in real life as they did in the movies. JD held out his hand and Vin took it, sliding across the seat and hissing as his side radiated pain.

"Let's get you to Nathan. Hey, you seem to be a little more aware, that's good, right?" JD looked at Vin with all the hope of a child at Christmas. He wanted someone to tell him that everything was going to be okay, but Vin didn't know. His side was burning with pain, and the backseat had a good amount of blood in it. Not enough to suggest the patient had bled out, but if Vin had seen that much blood in a car, he'd certainly be worried about the patient.

"Perhaps conversation can wait until we aren't in grave danger of being shot at, again." Ezra got out of the car and got one arm around Vin's waist.

"Yeah, good idea," JD agreed. Walking between them and the street, he covered their retreat, his gun at his side.

"Hurry it up," Buck called from the front door, his own gun hidden behind his leg. "I don't want to be standing out here if the shooting starts. Josiah would never forgive us if his adobe got chipped."

"No joke," JD agreed. Vin and Ezra just staggered up the stairs and into the blessed cool of the church. The heavy adobe walls reflected the heat away, and Vin just wanted to sink down onto the tile floor. Instead a young black man hurried to his side.

"Buck, you never mentioned anyone getting shot! Let him down. Right here. Be careful." The new man got his hands around Vin's waist and helped lower him to the ground. The cool tile felt good against his overheated body.

"Nathan, this might not be the best place to stop for any length of time." Buck closed the church doors. He and JD both grabbed an end of an enormous timber and lifted it into place as a cross-bar to lock the doors. Nothing short of a tank was coming through.

"You can't move a man with a gunshot wound. He should be at the hospital. Why didn't you tell me the problem was this serious over the phone?"

"I reckon because you'd tell us to take him to the hospital."

"He'll be alright, won't he?" JD asked. Vin looked at the doctor, hoping to get the answer to that. He'd had undercover operations go bad, but very few had gone this bad this quickly.

"You do know I'm not a doctor." Nathan glared at both JD and Buck.

"Good lord," Ezra sighed, "is there anyone else here who thinks that perhaps we should be getting medical attention before Mr. Tanner manages to expire?"

"He ain't going to die," Buck said firmly as if saying it would make it true. "And as far as your doctoring skills, you know more than most doctors I've ever known, Nathan. That makes you the closest thing we have."

"No, no I'm not. The closest thing you have is a hospital." Nathan might be making the argument, but he had already cut Vin's shirt off and his fingers were exploring the wound.

"Well, the closest thing outside of that. He said he didn't want to risk going to the cops, so we aren't. Not when he got shot trying to help us. So, you can patch him up, right?" Buck asked.

Nathan leaned back on his heels. "If he were in the hospital, this wouldn't be any trouble at all. Treating someone on a dirty floor, it's touch and go. He needs a transfusion to prevent shock, antibiotics for any infection, monitoring in case something internal has been damaged."

"Perhaps we ought to worry about his life now and concern ourselves with any legal difficulties he may have at some future date." Ezra suggested.

Nathan immediately nodded. "Buck, that actually sounds like a good idea."

"Well, there's hope that at least one of you is not utterly mad," Ezra muttered.

However, Buck crossed his arms. "He sided with us, and Josiah picked him, that's enough for me. We don't turn our own over to cops."

Either the wound was playing games with Vin's perceptions or a criminal had just declared more loyalty to Vin than his own partners ever had. Maybe it was the blood loss, but Vin just could not figure these guys out. If they were bad guys, they sure as hell shouldn't care about a gunhand they'd hired the day before getting shot. And if they were good guys... well, good guys didn't usually have stashes of military-grade weapons hidden in the people's basements.

"We have a bigger problem, Buck," Nathan said. "Josiah's gone."

"Gone?" Buck sort of froze in place.

"Josiah can't be gone." JD looked confused. "Josiah is always here, and knowing there's a problem, he wouldn't just leave."

Nathan chewed on his lower lip for a second, and looked around the empty church. "I don't think he left on his own," he final said. "Don't go flying off the handle, but the back door's been broken down. I figure whatever trouble found you, found him already."

"Well fuck." Buck ran a hand over his face.

Propping himself up on one elbow, Vin looked at the despair in Nathan and Buck and JD. "We need to call the police. This is out of hand."

"I concur," Ezra agreed.

"Might not be a bad idea," Nathan suggested. He put a hand on Vin's shoulder and gently pressed. Vin tried to stay up, but his side burned like it was on fire and he sank back onto the ground with a low moan of pain. "We also need to get IV fluids into Vin, here."

"Can't you do that here?"

Nathan didn't answer right away, but with a sigh, he nodded. "I brought IV fluids, and I can keep an eye on blood pressure, but I don't have access to dopamine or dobutamine if he starts getting into serious trouble."

"It sounds like I should go to the hospital," Vin said.

"Can't say I like that idea at all." Buck knelt down and put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "We can protect you here—from the cops and from Los Cuatro Milpas. You go to a hospital, and they're going to target you, for sure. Nathan's a better doctor than he gives himself credit for, so let's move you into the saferoom and then JD and I are going to go see if we can't find our missing minister. Nathan, you'll stay with him?"

"I think I'd prefer it if you'd have a little less faith in me. I'm going to lose my medical license before I ever get it, aren't I?" Nathan sounded resigned. "Vin, I have emergency supplies, and the bullet looks like a minor wound with mostly muscle damage. Shock is going to be the worst of it."

Ezra stepped away from the wall, his eyes going from Buck to JD and back. "So, you're going to take on this gang yourselves? Are the two of you quite insane?"

"Yep," Buck agreed with a smile.


Part Six

Vin stared at the exposed beam ceiling wondering what the hell he'd gotten into. Nathan had hooked him up to an IV, and either he'd lost more blood than he'd thought or Nathan had put something extra in it because he'd fallen asleep. And now he was waking up in the basement wondering how the hell he was supposed to explain any of this to his captain. Now that the adrenaline had faded, Vin could clearly see that he shouldn't have gotten in the car without calling his handler. That was enough to earn a write-up, but that wasn't the worst of his problems right now.

Nathan's strong hands had carefully washed and bandaged his wounds. Vin felt like he'd been punched in the stomach a dozen times, but he didn't feel the sort of dizziness or pain that meant he was in serious trouble. That meant that Nathan had taken care of him.

If Vin reported any of this, Nathan was going to get in serious trouble for practicing medicine without a license. Of course, that wouldn't be nearly as serious as the trouble Buck and JD would get into over those weapons. Vin could dismiss Buck's inveterate cheerfulness as some sort of disguise because Buck was clearly a dangerous man. However, he couldn't dismiss the fact that Buck had covered him, gotten him out of the line of fire, and even then, his first instinct had been to protect Vin. Considering that the man was a bounty hunter, he should have pounced on the idea that Vin was a wanted criminal. Instead, Vin was tucked up in a basement room with a brightly colored Navajo blanket and an IV.

Even without considering how much trouble he was in... and Vin was in a hell of a lot of trouble, he had no idea what to tell his superiors. He was going to lose his job over this fuck-up, Vin knew that already. He hadn't called his handler, he'd gone to an unknown location with unknown people, he been in the middle of a gunfight in a parking lot, and he clearly remembered telling Buck to not call the police. Yeah, he was screwed. Well, he'd been screwed before. He'd been screwed far worse before.

In Fort Worth, things had been so bad that Vin had sat in a holding cell wondering if he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. He and his partner David Bowell had been investigating Eli Joe Liard for a series of murders, and next thing Vin knew, evidence from the murder of Jess Kincaid had shown up in his apartment.

It'd never been easy for Vin to trust—not after losing both his parents. His father had taken off before Vin could really remember, and his mother had died of cancer. While his aunt had taken him in, he'd always felt a bit like Cinderella with the evil step sisters—only with a lot more testosterone since he'd actually inherited four step-brothers, all of whom seemed to hate him on sight. So when David had partnered up with him when Vin was just out of uniform, Vin felt like he'd finally gotten inside the "brotherhood." He'd had someone at his back for the first time in what felt like his whole fucking life. Then his partner had made a neat little trap, and Vin had walked right into it. He'd trusted David and that had gotten him a knife in the back, all because David had been taking bribes to help Liard cover up his crimes and consolidate a hold over the local prostitution ring.

Vin might have spent the rest of his life in prison, only David's girlfriend got tired of being a punching bag and had blown the whistle. Vin certainly hadn't saved himself—and he hadn't given his trust to the right people. So this feeling of faith in Buck and JD and Josiah and Nathan—it was scaring the piss out of him. He didn't know the difference between faith and insanity, and even now, he couldn't help wondering how much his wound was influencing all these thoughts.

"You're up." Nathan moved to his side and sat in the chair pulled up to the side of Vin's bed. Now that Vin's head was clearer, he could see that Nathan was younger than he'd first thought... maybe mid-twenties. He might even be younger than Vin who was twenty-six. Nathan's head was shaved, but his chin was stubbled and he looked tired. Nathan lifted Vin's arm and wrapped a blood pressure cuff around it before pumping it up. "You're doing well. Your blood pressure is holding well, and the IV has some antibiotics in it, although I would still recommend that you find an actual doctor who can get you stronger medicine."

A scraping sound distracted Vin, and he looked over to see Ezra just standing up from a chair. "Yes, as comforting as that sounds, I'm rather more worried about our friends upstairs."

"Friends?" Vin frowned. Had Buck managed to find Josiah?

"Well, perhaps friends was a poorly chosen designation. Armed thugs ripping the place apart in search of the hidden door to this charming little death trap might come closer to the truth."

Vin sat up, groaning as his entire stomach objected. He felt like Mohammad Ali had been using him for a punching bag. "What?"

Nathan reached out and caught him by the arm. "Hey, do not go ruining all my good work by opening that wound. Any more bleeding, and I will call 911 and send you to the hospital, no matter what Buck says. Legal problems are not worth dying over."

"I'm fine," Vin said, pushing Nathan's hand away. "How long have I been asleep?"

"About fourteen hours," Ezra answered.

"Buck? JD?" The fear twisted Vin's guts worse than the gunshot wound. His worries about how to explain this disaster were quickly taking a backseat to other worries.

"They are not going to rush into anything," Nathan said. Vin stared at the man, daring him to try and say that again with a straight face.

Nathan sighed. "Fine, JD would rush in. Wherever angels fear to tread, that's where you'll find JD. I've known him since his freshman year of high school. He started at Mary Meredith High School when I was a senior. But that's not Buck. He'll talk big, but he'll check out the situation before he rushes in. As long as Josiah is not in immediate danger, he's going to stay on the perimeter and try to find a safe way to get him back."

"And you're sure of that?" Vin demanded.

For a second, Nathan stared at him with an expression that came annoyingly close to amusement. "This isn't exactly the first time we've gotten into a tight spot. Buck knows how to take care of himself." Nathan snorted. "Hell, Josiah isn't exactly helpless and innocent himself. When I was a kid, I used to think I was big and bad getting into trouble on the street, but those two... they redefine the words."

Ezra moved closer. "Wonderful. They're both paragons of manly virtue. However, we still have gang members trying to find us. Is anyone going to worry about that?"

"Nope," Nathan answer. "Well, not unless Buck hasn't shown up by tomorrow morning. I have an embryology class I can't afford to miss."

"Wonderful," Ezra repeated, the sarcasm clinging to the word.

"Fourteen hours... that's too long. They may need backup." Vin swung his legs over the side of the bed and then stopped to think about his options. If he called the captain, he was going to end up tangled in enough red tape to choke an elephant. He wasn't sure he even could explain the situation well enough to avoid the psych ward. He could call in an anonymous tip, but that wasn't likely to actually work. Hell, the poor sap who'd driven off the road and called 911 had been ignored for two days while he died in a ditch, so he didn't expect a quick call to work. That left him with one option, which was the best one out of a whole lot of shitty alternatives.

"Can you get in touch with them?"

Nathan's eyebrow went up. "Buck usually turns his phone off when he's doing something either stupid or suicidal."

"Do you know where they were heading?"

"No way. No." Nathan shook his head. "You are not getting out of bed. You've been shot. Do you get that?"

"You can't possibly be suggesting that you are in any shape to provide assistance," Ezra added. It looked like Vin was outnumbered. He smiled at them and reached down to pluck the IV out of his hand.

"Yep. If they get killed, Los Cuatro Milpas are going to make it impossible to stick around here. I don't know about you, but I'm starting to like this place."

Nathan crossed his arms and got a stubborn look on his fact, but then from what Vin had seen, the man had entirely too much common sense to fit in with the rest of them. So he focused on Ezra.

"I suspect that you won that club of yours, maybe in a fair game and maybe not, but you won it. But if Buck and JD go down in a hail of bullets, you aren't going to live long enough to enjoy it. Now, you look like a man who knows how to protect yourself and your interests..."

"Particularly when my interests lie in avoiding death," Ezra broke in. "I am not going up against a gang."

"Then you'll just give up that beautiful club of yours?" Vin studied the man, watching the tension in Ezra's body. "You'll just let the gangs destroy your dreams? I would think that a man who takes care of himself, who carries a concealed weapon and faced down three armed men who walked into his club... I would think that man would stand up for himself." Ezra's mouth came open and then he closed it, but Vin noticed that he didn't deny any of it.

"You're as crazy as the rest of them," Nathan said.

"And you were willing to risk your career to come when Buck called," Vin answered. "Where are they?"

"This is not a good idea. You could have internal injuries still."

Vin let his hand ghost over his wound. The skin was hot, but it wasn't overly swollen.

"You could," Nathan said stubbornly.

"And I could get hit by a bus." Vin stood up and looked around the room. Unless he missed his guess, this place was stocked with food, water, and extra clothes. He walked over and pulled a cabinet door open. It was the third door before he found shirts. Pulling one off the hanger, he cringed as he put one on. He was going to hurt like hell for a while. Actually, he was going to feel a whole lot worse when Captain Rodriguez caught up with him, so he should enjoy the feeling of being employed while he could.

"So," Vin pinned Nathan with a hard glare, "where are they?"

Nathan crossed his arms, and for a second, Vin thought the man wasn't going to answer. However, then he sighed and shook his head. "You're an idiot for not just going to the hospital. They gang house is southeast of here, off Kolb."

"Where exactly?" Vin started opening cabinet doors until he found the stash of guns.

"No way are you going alone. I'm going with you," Nathan said. He crossed the small room and opened a cabinet behind Ezra. Guns were lined up on a pegboard with ammunition on the shelf underneath. These guys made militia groups look like girl scouts. "If they are in trouble, I can help. And if they aren't, I'm going to make sure you don't do any more damage to yourself."

"Seriously?" Ezra asked them both. "You are both going out there? Two against a gang?"

"Seems about right to me," Vin agreed. He pulled two guns down off the pegboard and tucked them into his waistband before pulling a box of ammo from the shelf.

"I am going to regret this," Ezra sighed, but he pulled a gun down and pulled the ammo clip out and started loading it.

Nathan reached out and caught Ezra's arm. "Look, Big Lester never got involved, and believe it or not, Josiah, Buck, JD, and me... we handled bigger problems than a bunch of gang-bangers who got run out of Phoenix."

The look Ezra gave Nathan bordered on disgust. "I don't need people to fight my battles."

Vin stepped forward before the growing tension could turn into something ugly. "So, the three of us go and check on Buck and JD. Worst case scenario, we decide these guys can kick our ass and we call 911. But maybe we can help them out and get Josiah back before things get any uglier."

Ezra and Nathan were still staring at each other, and Vin got the impression something unpleasant had happened while they were out. Ezra did have a particular way of talking... a slight southern accent and a very fancy vocabulary that suggested that he'd come from money—maybe Nathan just resented that. Or maybe Ezra didn't like Nathan whose accent still had a bit of the streets to it. Nathan had definitely grown up in this neighborhood. Or maybe Vin had no way of knowing what bug had crawled up either of their asses.

"Sounds like a plan." Nathan finally shifted his gaze away from Ezra. "But if I see blood on that shirt, I'm calling 911."

"Agreed." Vin held out his hand to shake on it. For a second, Nathan looked at him, and then he took Vin's hand in his own for a quick shake. When that was done, Vin held out his hand for Ezra. This time the pause and the consideration took longer as Ezra studied him, not bothering to hide his doubts. Finally, Ezra sighed.

"I am certainly going to regret this." He took Vin's hand in his own and shook it. "Now let's go get those two idiots before these Neanderthals decide that we are easy prey."

Vin smiled and Nathan carefully unbarred the door to their hidden room and all of them headed out into the trashed room that had once been Josiah's main dinner hall. One wall was still missing the drywall, and the armor plates shown in the fading light. For better or worse, they were going to handle this themselves, and only then was Vin going to worry about how to handle his job and his coming unemployment.



Part Seven

"Oh good god." Ezra's low whisper broke the silence, and Vin looked over, alarmed. "There's slime," Ezra complained quietly. Vin blinked and looked down at the shorn weeds that passed as a lawn in this rundown neighborhood. Someone had dumped out a plastic kiddy pool and the green algae and slime made a short river that Ezra had stepped into. Looking down, Vin realized that Ezra was wearing the sort of expensive men's shoes that Vin generally wouldn't be caught dead in.

He looked up at Ezra, not sure what to say, and Ezra just sort of sagged and shook his head as if Vin was somehow defective for not understanding the horror of slime. However, Vin wasn't talking when they were trying to get close to the house. Knowing Buck and JD's hunting strategies, Nathan had scaled a neighbor's tool shed, and checked their target's roof. The eaves vent was crooked on one side, so either the guys had been in the attic or they were still there. Considering how hot attics got in summer, Vin had vetoed going in after them, especially since he wasn't up to crawling onto someone's roof right now. As much as he knew that his gunshot wound was minor, it still hurt like a son of a bitch and climbing walls and crawling through attics wouldn't improve that.

Nope, they were going for the backyard windows. It was a dangerous approach, but Vin hoped that these guys were arrogant enough to skip a proper lookout. And it would help if Ezra hadn't developed some sort of slime phobia. Shaking his foot, Ezra carefully stepped over the algae trail and moved to the side of the house, his mouth still twisted into a disgusted sneer.

Rolling his eyes, Vin picked another spot on the wall and flattened himself against the hot adobe. Nathan was already in place closer to the kitchen window. The man might be studying to be a doctor, but he knew his way around a weapon about as well as any cop Vin had ever met. Nathan leaned in toward the window and then pulled back, shaking his head. No suspects. Vin leaned over to check the window nearest him. Through the broken blinds he could see three gang members. A cheap coffee table was littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts. A soccer game was on the television, the announcer shouting in Spanish as one of the teams made a goal, and the three guys had all their attention on the set. Vin flashed the others a quick "3" on his fingers and then he started inching down the wall to check the next window.

Ezra was muttering something to himself, but he had a gun in hand and he was edging toward the bedroom window nearest to him. He might complain about slime and insanity, but the man got the job done. He looked in and then his thumb went straight up into the air. He'd found Josiah, and from the thumb-up gesture, Josiah was alive and in reasonable health. Vin was shocked at the sudden relief that swept through him. He may not have known Josiah long, but he hated the idea of a man with so much goodness in his heart being killed by animals who would kill for a six-pack of beer.

Vin gave a nod and moved toward the kitchen window. He could only see a ragged tower of pizza boxes and a scattering of plastic bags. He gave the others a shake of his head. Nathan had moved closer to Ezra's position. Whatever conflict they had between them, they were working together, and Nathan was covering Ezra.

Vin ducked and cringed as his side burned. If he called Captain Rodriguez right now, he could get a quick trip to the hospital where they had the good drugs. Unfortunately, Josiah would probably be dead before Vin could explain even half the story.

When he moved close enough, Ezra leaned over and whispered. "Your preacher looks a little worse for wear, but he's alive in the bedroom."

Vin didn't even bother arguing about Josiah being his preacher, and Nathan looked murderously angry. For a healer, he looked like he wouldn't mind doing a little killing right now. "They're torturing him," Nathan hissed.

Edging toward the window, Vin looked in. Josiah was tied and his face was mottled and red. They'd slapped him around some, but it was hard to tell if they 'd done that before or after tying his hands behind his back. From the look on Nathan's face, it didn't really matter; they'd taken Josiah and Nathan wanted him back. Vin shook his head. As much as that sort of loyalty appealed to a part of him that he thought had long ago given up on fairy tales and myths like loyalty, this wasn't the time to lose their heads. Josiah was safe, he wasn't in immediate danger, and they needed to do something smart. Even though he hated admitting it, something smart would include calling Captain Rodriguez and getting backup. Now that Vin had eyes on a hostage, the hard questions would have to wait until after this mess was cleaned up.

"I'm calling for help," Vin whispered as he reached for his cell phone.

"Thank heavens," Ezra sighed, his eyes still scanning the backyard for danger since Nathan was steadily watching inside the house.

Vin hadn't even gotten the cell phone out before the house burst into action. A crashing sound made Vin drop to one knee and then there were shouts and screams and the unmistakable pops of a small-caliber weapon followed by the larger bark of something big... .44 or .357 big. Nathan slammed the butt of his gun into the bedroom window, shattering it, and Vin spun away and raced for the backdoor. Ripping it open, Vin pointed his guns at two gang members who had their weapons pointed toward the hall. "Tucson Police Department, put your weapons down!" Vin bellowed. The two hesitated, caught between Vin and whoever was in the hall.

"Do it!" JD screamed. His weapon was barely visible above the eye that peeked around the corner. Vin didn't like the kid making a target of himself, and he stepped farther into the room. If these two wanted to take a shot at someone, they'd better not shoot at some wet-behind-the-ears kid who didn't look old enough to carry the weapon he was pointing.

"Tucson Police... I will fire. Put your weapons down and put your hands behind your head now. Right now." Vin shouted, doing his best to command the situation with his voice... his presence. One of the gang members looked wildly from Vin to JD and back, and Vin could almost smell the fear rolling off him. He was high as a kite, and it wasn't a good trip.

"Pendejos!" The other swung his gun around toward Vin. Vin had a moment of perfect clarity, where he could see but he couldn't get his body to move as quickly as his brain seemed to be moving. This guy was going to shoot him. Shoot him again. Why the hell hadn't he called for backup? A gun fired, and Vin pulled the trigger on his weapon. The recoil made the barrel twitch up before Vin could pull it back down to target the shooter, but he was already falling. His hands were thrown wide as he fell, and the second gang member had dropped his gun and was running for the door. Vin targeted the second guy, but he wouldn't shoot a fleeing suspect.

When Vin turned his gun back toward the first guy, he could see in the unnatural curve and stillness of his body that he was gone. JD moved toward the living room, and with a nod for JD to watch his back, Vin went to check the kitchen. The room was empty, so the other two gang members must have taken off before he came through the back door. "Clear!" he called. The second he did, he flinched. Fuck. There went his undercover operation.

Vin walked back through the tiled back entry to look at the dead gang member. Buck came out from the back room, his weapon still drawn but at his side. Sure enough, he had an old .357.

"So, Detective Tanner?" Buck asked. His expression was almost amused, but Vin held his breath. He'd seen these guys with illegal weapons. He'd watched Nathan treat a gunshot wound without reporting it, and his testimony could put these guys in prison for a couple of years. Vin glanced over at JD, wondering what sort of man JD would be after a couple of years in prison. All Vin knew was that he didn't want to find out.

"Did we all come through unscathed?" Josiah asked as he walked out of the back bedroom, rubbing his wrists. Nathan was right at his heels and still looking a little twitchy.

"Looks like," Buck agreed. He crossed his arms, his gun still in one hand. Vin could feel his guts tighten as he watched the group slowly forming. JD drifted closer to Buck. Buck leaned against the wall as Josiah came up behind him, and Nathan was sticking so close to Josiah that you couldn't get a piece of paper between them. This was a team. And Vin had no idea what the hell he was supposed to do.

"Might I suggest that we vacate the area," Ezra commented. He must have come through the window after Nathan because he'd come walking out of the back bedroom; however, he still managed to look starched, even with drywall dust sprinkled through his hair and over his shoulders.

"Have two dead men back there, and one out here," Josiah commented. "If a man can kill another, he should be willing to explain his reasons to the world. Killing should never be done in the dark—literally or figuratively," Josiah said calmly. "Who killed this one?" He looked at the man who had fallen in the living room.

"I think I did," JD said, his voice shaky. "I shot him. He was getting ready to shoot Vin, and that was even after Vin said he was a cop. He was still going to shoot him." The more JD talked, the faster and higher his voice was going. Whatever work JD had done for these guys, he hadn't killed.

"I don't think your shot took him. I think mine did," Vin said. With his heart in his throat, Vin carefully put his weapon away. If he misjudged these men, this would be the time for them to kill him and walk out without ever having to worry about the cop who had learned too many of their secrets.

"Wait," Ezra said, "did I hear correctly that Mr. Tanner identified himself as an officer of the law?" Ezra looked at Vin with something close to panic in his expression.

"Tucson Police Department, gang unit," Vin agreed. He held his breath as that information travelled through the group. Buck still had his weapon in hand, but he wasn't pointing it anywhere; Nathan had gone gray, but despite the fact that he had been caught committing a couple of felonies, he wasn't pulling his gun out. Hopefully that was a good sign.

Buck sort of nodded. "Seems quiet around here. I guess the neighbors are either working or they don't want to get involved. Before we call the cops, Nathan and Ezra should probably take off. They weren't directly involved in this." Buck looked down at the dead body and then he looked up at Vin, his gaze unflinching. For half a second, Vin realized that Buck was giving him a choice. Vin either accepted Buck's terms or they were going to be enemies because Buck would protect his own, and Nathan was one of his own.

"A man must face his own demons, but this is a burden you two don't need to worry about." Josiah reached out and put a fatherly hand on Nathan's shoulder.

"So, I suppose I should go pack for a very fast trip over the nearest international border," Ezra said wearily, but it was an odd tone, like he'd done this before and he really wasn't all that surprised. Vin frowned at that. If Ezra was some sort of international criminal well-practiced at running from the law, why would he have come here? Saving some club couldn't have been that important to him.

The only thing Vin knew was that he didn't want to make trouble for these people. In the middle of a territory under attack by gangs and politicians, they'd found a team.

"As long as we can explain these three deaths, I think your involvement is unimportant," Vin said carefully. Leaving Ezra out meant leaving out the guns in the basement of Players Only. What the hell was he doing? Vin was not only going to lose his job, but he was going to go out in a blaze of glory and internal reprimands that were going to get him blackballed from any police force west of the Mississippi.

From the look on his face, Ezra wasn't buying any of it, but Nathan had his head cocked to the side and he was studying Vin as though seeing him for the first time.

"Since Vin here followed me and JD after we didn't check in for a while, I suppose that means his car is out there," Buck said slowly. "I guess you two can find your own way home."

Nathan watched Vin for several seconds before nodding in agreement. "I suppose we can."

Ezra made an impatient noise as Nathan hurried him back toward the bedroom. "I would much rather utilize the door, which is, after all, the civilized way of entering and exiting."

"Yeah, but I want a chance to wipe off anything I might have touched," Nathan said.

"Ah, excellent point," Ezra agreed.

Vin watched them leave, and even now he kept his eyes on Buck's gun. If Buck took this chance to turn on him, Vin wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting his own weapon out in time to defend himself. His only consolation was that he'd have an extra second to call himself an idiot for putting his trust in someone.

"So," Vin kept his voice slow and cautious, "I decided to check this place out and I just happened to show up in time for you to break through the ceiling?" Vin was guessing, but from the white dust on just about everyone's head, he thought it was a good guess.

Buck smiled. "Hell no. JD and me figured we were in a shitload of shit, and then we saw our friend the cop show up. Seemed like that was a good time to make our move and trust you to have our backs," Buck offered cheerfully. "Now Josiah, are you sure you don't want to maybe sit down? You took some mighty big hits back there."

The look Josiah gave him would have made a flower wither, but Buck just smiled wider. Not knowing what else to do, Vin got out his cell phone and called for backup. As soon as he hung up the phone, he looked at the group. "Wait, how do we explain my gunshot wound?"

Buck's smile fell off, and Josiah crossed the room so fast that Vin fell back a step just out of surprise because Josiah was one hell of a big man when he was coming straight at you. "Where are you hurt?" Josiah asked. Before Vin quite knew what was happening, Josiah had his shirt off and was talking about medical training and Vietnam. By the time the uniformed officers showed up, Vin had JD, Buck and Josiah all hovering over him.


Part Eight

Captain Rodriguez was a big man, even bigger when he was leaning over your hospital bed. Vin looked up and waited for the interrogation to start. His report wouldn't hold water for more than two seconds, and he knew it. However, he'd been hard-pressed to avoid subjects like Nathan when the hospital was filling him full of antibiotics and pain killers that made his brain fuzzy.

"How are you feeling?"

"I felt better before they tried helping me," Vin complained. That got a smile. It wasn't easy to see because the captain had a beard and mustache, but the lines around his eyes deepened.

"Doctors are like that." Straightening up, the captain walked over to the narrow window with the spectacular view of the parking lot and a whole lot of dirt. "When did you break cover?" he asked. That wasn't where Vin expected the interrogation to start, but it was as good a place as any to start poking holes in Vin's story.

"I have no idea." Better to sound like an idiot than like a dirty cop who had helped criminals get away with... actually, Vin wasn't sure what he had helped them get away with. "Whose bullet took out the perp in the living room?" Vin asked. It was a useful distraction from his own failures and he really wanted to know.

Rodriguez turned and studied Vin for several seconds. "Yours. Internal Affairs is going to have to clear you."

Vin nodded. He doubted that he'd be cleared, but he knew the shoot was good. Everything else was in doubt, but it'd been a clean shoot.

"John Dunne's bullet would have killed him if you hadn't put two in the perp's heart," Rodriguez added. "I can't say I'm sorry that you saved the kid from that guilt. The army might call someone a man at eighteen, but that's awfully young to start killing."

"So, he's in the clear?"

The captain nodded. "He was pretty panicked over the idea of shooting someone at all, and he's got a bail bondsman's license and a concealed weapon permit. He's clear. Buck Wilmington might be in some trouble for making the decision to rush in there when he saw you outside, but I've known Buck long enough to know he'll charm his way out of any problems."

"He will?" Vin frowned. Yeah, he'd fallen for them, but Vin was somehow bothered by the idea that other people fell for Buck and his smile or JD's innocence or Josiah's quiet strength. He could feel something almost possessive rise up, like he didn't want some idiot from IA liking these guys. Either he was on too many drugs, or they just needed to give him enough to make him pass out so he didn't have to deal with the emotions that were swirling through his head. He was a loner; he was used to that. Hell, Rodriguez had given him the case because he could handle weeks or even months without the emotional connections to other people.

"Yeah, he will. Besides, he's the only one of you who didn't make a potentially fatal blow, so he's less likely to catch crap than the rest of you."

"He... but... the two perps in the bedroom." Vin stared at the captain in confusion.

Walking over, the captain sat in the only chair and leaned forward. "I told you to be careful of Josiah the first time he contacted you, yes?"

Vin nodded. "You said he was more likely to be a victim than one of the perps, but you wanted me to stick close because people in the neighborhood trusted him."

"I know I didn't say he was likely to be a victim," Rodriguez said with some amusement. He was a large man, but right now, he looked a lot like Santa Claus with his white hair and the twinkle in his eye that suggested he knew something Vin didn't. Oh, he was a seriously tanned Santa Claus, but he had the look. Vin narrowed his eyes as he tried to figure out what his boss wasn't telling him. "I said he wouldn't start things. I never said he couldn't end them if push came to shove. Both men had their necks broken, most likely by a kick to the jaw. I take it Josiah's hands were tied."

Vin nodded as he tried to reconcile the idea of big, gentle Josiah and the image of the man kicking someone to death. The two didn't seem to make sense together.

The captain leaned back in his chair, and the frame groaned under the weight. "My brother was in Vietnam. His crew got in trouble, and Josiah Sanchez and two of his Rangers were sent in to get them out. Josiah won't start trouble, but he sure as hell isn't anyone's victim."

Vin thought about the stories he'd heard—about Josiah refusing to leave his church, building it up brick by brick and serving meals to anyone and everyone who came to his door. Lots of soldiers from Vietnam had trouble adjusting back into life, but Vin just couldn't quite wrap his mind around this new view of Josiah that Captain Rodriguez was offering him.

"So, here's the issue..." the captain stopped, and Vin braced himself for the bad news. He'd been out on his ear before, and he'd land on his feet this time the same as every other time. Someone would hire him. "Josiah and Buck seem to have taken a liking to you, and that doesn't happen with many people. Neither of them are interested in helping to bring these gangs down for whatever reason." Captain Rodriguez's mouth came together into a tight line, and Vin could see just how frustrated the man was over that. "However, they have both indicated that they don't mind you hanging around the church. So, are you willing to go back in undercover, even though those two know you're a cop?"

Vin's mouth came open. The shock stole his words so that he could only stare at his captain and wonder why the hell he wasn't being fired. Captain Rodriguez pushed himself up and patted Vin on the shoulder. "I don't need your answer right now. Hell, I wouldn't take it considering that you've got drugs going through that IV of yours. But think about it. If Josiah accepts you, the people down there are going to tell you a lot more about what goes on in that neighborhood. However, working undercover when your cover is compromised is about the most dangerous job a cop can take. You need to consider that." With one last pat, Captain Rodriguez left the room.

For a long time, Vin listened to the beeping of machines and wondered when he'd fallen down the rabbit hole. This couldn't be reality. Reality was a lot more predictable. For example, reality always kicked him in the teeth.

The squeak of the door warned him that someone was coming, and Vin looked over, watching as Josiah walked into the room. Silently, he moved to the chair and sat down, angling his head down as if he were in prayer, and then he just sat there.

Vin lay in bed waiting for Josiah to say something. Streaks of sun drifted across the tile floor and the hospital slowly quieted as the visiting hour passed. Finally he couldn’t take it any longer. "You need something?" he asked Josiah.

Josiah looked up at him and seemed to think about that for a long time. "Taoists say that a wise man practices wu-wei: the art of going through life without feeling the need to carve the world up to fit your own needs. I can't say I'm perfect or even particularly good at achieving wu-wei, but I can say I try my best."

It took Vin a few seconds to even process that strange speech. "What?"

"A good traveler leaves no track or trace behind. Perfect speech is like a jade-worker whose tool leaves no mark. In trying to create, the first rule is to not destroy." Josiah held up a bracelet that was nothing more than green stone beads on a string and he studied it. Vin was starting to suspect that he was hallucinating the whole meeting... or he might have thought that except his imagination wasn't usually this creative. "When I was in Vietnam, I met a very wise man. My father was a minister, and his idea of fatherly love almost convinced me that there was no God." Josiah's smile was tight and full of self-mocking. "However, Phuc taught me to see the world in a new way."

"Fuck?" Vin was definitely hallucinating.

Josiah smiled at that. Gesturing up toward the heavens he said, "The almighty does have a wicked sense of humor. Phuc introduced me to the Tau Teh Ching. It says that those who overcome others require force. Those who overcome themselves need strength. I have spent my life trying to find strength, and yet I seem to keep finding myself in situations where I use force."

"Like killing those two men?" The question slipped out before Vin could edit himself. Shit, as a cop, he knew better than to interrogate a suspect without a lawyer or a Miranda waiver, and as a man, he had the sense to not poke people with hand-to-hand combat skills that allowed them to take out two enemies with their hands tied behind their back.

Josiah sighed and leaned back in the chair so he could study the ceiling for a long time. "If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared."

"More wisdom from Fuck?" Vin guessed.

"Phuc," Josiah corrected him, "and no. That's Psalm 130. I've never claimed to be anything other than a very confused man, Vin Tanner. I reached out to you because I believed that I saw something familiar in your soul, but my sins blind me as easily as the next man. In Cyprus, when Paul met the false prophet Elymas, he told the man that he would be blinded for leading others away from the truth, and he was."

Vin shifted around until he could reach the bed controls. Whatever Josiah was rambling on about, Vin really felt the need to meet this sitting up. The bed motor whirred as it lifted him, and Josiah took the time to study him. "Right then, I know I'm on some drugs here," Vin lifted his hand with the IV, "so maybe you could explain what you came for using smaller words."

Josiah nodded. "I invited you to join my path, the path JD and Buck and Nathan have chosen to share with me despite my attempts to get them to find their own paths. I did so believing that you were a kindred soul."

"And now you know I'm a cop," Vin said, hoping to hurry this along. The uncertainty of not knowing what Josiah was trying to say made his stomach turn sour.

The smile on Josiah's face was honestly amused. "That doesn't matter."

"It should."

"Why?" Josiah looked at Vin, waiting expectantly for an answer, and Vin could only stare back. How the hell did Josiah get him off balance so easily? "What you do and who you are—they are separate issues. I just came to say that I still consider you a kindred soul. If you chose to come back to the church, you would always find a plate of chorizo and a bunk waiting for you."

"Even though I'm a cop?" Vin demanded as Josiah stood up.

"I was a soldier, a hippy, a brother, a son, a minister, and a homeless man. None of those things tell you who I am," Josiah said gently. "Just know that you're welcome."

Vin was struggling to come up with some sort of rebuttal, but Josiah just left. Vin was left laying in his hospital bed wondering exactly how he was supposed to react when the rest of the world failed to live down to his pessimistic expectations.


Part Nine

"Hey, are you about ready to go?" Vin twisted around and then cursed colorfully as his healing wound flared in pain. "I didn't think you'd be that pissed about me showing up," Buck said as he stepped into the room. He looked around. "So, no wife or best girl to drive you to some fancy place you have in the Catalina Foothills?" Buck smiled at the nurse who had been getting Vin's signature on about a million forms. She didn't react so Buck came closer. "Good morning, ma'am. Beautiful day out there."

She glanced over. "I'm married."

"Good for you. Whoever got a ring on your finger is a lucky man," Buck said with a smile just as wide as ever. Vin wasn't sure if Buck was still flirting or if he had some congenital defect that made him act like a fool around women. Surprisingly, the nurse seemed to melt some.

"Yes, he is lucky."

"Well, when you go home tonight, you be sure to remind that husband of yours that he caught himself one beautiful and compassionate wife," Buck suggested. "So, is my friend here ready to go or do you need to yell at him some more about stepping out of the way when the bullets start flying? You'd think a cop would have better sense than that, wouldn't you?"

"Are you a cop, too?" the nurse asked.

Buck got an exaggerated expression of horror on his face. "I would never make it as a cop. The first time my orders interfered with my ability to stop and tell a beautiful woman just how beautiful she was, I'd give up the badge. No thank you. I have my own bailbond office. Buck Wilmington. I offer good rates for anyone with good family connections who isn't going to run off in a panic if jail looms a little too close." Buck pulled a business card out of his pocket. "If you know anyone who needs an honest businessman, you can call that number any time, day or night."

"Unless you're in a felon's attic ready to drop down on him," Vin pointed out. Buck's smile widened until Vin thought the man's face might split open. "Well, there's that. But when I see a duly sworn officer of the law about to arrest my bounty, I sometimes get a little overly aggressive. It might have worked out fine if those gang members hadn't been so intent on killing one of Tucson's finest. So, are we ready?"

"An orderly will come and escort him out of the hospital," the nurse said, gesturing toward the wheelchair. Considering that Vin had been in a shootout with a hole in his side less than two days earlier, he didn't feel a need to ride around in a stupid chair. Before he could say as much, the nurse was right in front of him. "You will wait for the orderly or I will track you down and find some painful set of shots I need to give you, understood?"

Vin looked over toward Buck, but he had his hands up in surrender. "Oh no. I have learned to never go against a beautiful woman."

Vin sighed and looked at the nurse. He didn't think she was all that beautiful, but when she graced Buck with a smile, Vin could see a hint of true beauty behind a whole lot of fatigue. Buck smiled back at her. "I'll make sure he follows your orders," Buck promised.

"Thank you." The nurse gathered the paperwork and headed past Buck, offering him one last small smile.

"You'll make sure I follow orders?" Vin asked.

"Hey, never go against the fairer sex. No profit in it," Buck said with a wink. "So, JD is helping Josiah fix his place up. If we left it up to Josiah, he'd do everything at a snail's pace. He's always talking about making the wood find its place without forcing it with tools. If I didn't respect the hell out of that man, I'd say he was loony as a cartoon. So, since JD is busy, are you up to torturing Ezra a bit?"

Vin looked over in alarm.

"He's so busy trying to convince himself that he wasn't involved that he twitches when I even mention the world ceiling." Buck's grin was infectious and a little malicious.

"How often have you been saying it?" Vin asked.

Buck's cat-that-ate-the-canary expression was enough to let Vin know just how much Buck had been over there. "He's really fixed the club up nice. It's a good place to drink some beers and tell a few stories. Besides," Buck said as he shrugged his shoulder, "Ezra does seem to grate on people's nerves a mite. Someone has to hang around and toss people out on their ass when they're too drunk to be polite."

"And you're his bouncer?"

"Not a bad job between bailbonds. Of course, I thought it might be a better job for you."

"For me?"

Buck's smile widened. "You stood with Josiah. For most of the neighborhood, that's enough to explain why you're one of us, but you've got to have some sort of cover. If I can't blackmail Ezra into hiring you, I'm going to have to put you on the books as one of my bounty hunters, and trust me, the IRS man is unamused with my company books now. Something about how I pay more money out than I have coming in. I don't know why they're worried. I pay my taxes." Buck winked.

"Don't tell me," Vin said, holding his hands up as if he could physically push away the words. For Buck to have access to the high-end weaponry in Ezra's basement, there was serious money going through there, and Vin did not want to know what. For some reason he couldn't explain, he trusted that they weren't doing anything that could hurt anyone. Captain Rodriguez certainly believed that. So as far as he was concerned, his job was to bring down other criminals.

"Oh, no worries on that front," Buck said. "If it makes you feel any better, we do tend to use Josiah's sense of morality, which greatly limits the scope of our business."

"Just... just don't forget I'm a cop," Vin asked, but then the orderly showed up, and he moved to the wheelchair for the ride out to the curb. Vin rode, wondering if he should do this.

Captain Rodriguez hadn't been back for his answer, but now that Vin's head was clear of the drugs, it was pretty clear that the man had more connections with Josiah's group than he'd ever admitted. No one had questioned the fact that his wound wasn't bleeding on-scene, and Vin's suggestion that he didn't remember being shot, while technically true, certainly left out a whole lot of facts that he did know, and the captain had to know that. The captain's brother had been saved by Josiah in Vietnam. The captain hadn't been surprised by a minister kicking two gang members to death, and Buck... Vin had no doubt that Buck wouldn't be here if the captain didn't want him here. A dark corner of his mind suggested that he was being set up for something, but he had no way of knowing if that was reality or just more shadows from Fort Worth and his partner's betrayal. Vin hadn't tried to trust anyone since then.

The orderly pushed him to the desk where he signed one more form that he didn't read, and then Vin got a ride out to the drop off. Outside the heat slapped him in the face, and Vin could feel himself start to sweat immediately. His wound itched.

"Oh no you don't."

Vin looked up, and Nathan frowned at him over the top of an old car. "Do not scratch that," Nathan said, pointing his finger. "I may only be a first year med student, but even a first year med student knows that you don't scratch a gunshot wound."

"He's fine," Buck said, slapping his hand against Vin's shoulder. "Him and me were going to go over to the Players Only and get some drinks."

"With his pain meds and antibiotics? I don't think so."

"Don't be such a worry wart."

"With you around, someone has to worry," Nathan countered. Vin waited as Buck opened the front passenger side door and then he slid in, ignoring the fight. Buck got in back and Nathan got behind the wheel, and they were both still at it as Nathan pulled away from the curb.

"A shot of whiskey will help kill the germs."

"Alcohol can cause serious side effects when taken with alcohol."

"I'm not talking about getting him pie-eyed. We were just going to have a few drinks."

"Not a good idea."

"Sure it is." Buck was still smiling; Nathan was not.

"When taken with antibiotics, drinking can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting...."

"Well now, that just sounds like the normal old results of drinking."

Nathan spared a second to glare at Buck in the rearview mirror. "Take JD out if you want to corrupt someone."

"Well, I would, but Ezra is mighty touchy about JD having a beer at his place. He acts like the police are perched on the ridge ready to sweep down on him the minute he sets a foot out of line. That's why I'm looking forward to taking Vin here out for drinks."

Vin looked over his shoulder. "You're using me to torture him, aren't you?"

"Yep," Buck agreed with a smile. Nathan shook his head, but his expression was almost fond.

"When I first met Ezra, I thought he was a stuck-up, self-important, arrogant jackass." Nathan seemed to think about that for a second. "Actually, I still think that, but I'm starting to have some sympathy for him. You don't actually have to torture him," Nathan said, glancing in the rearview mirror again.

"Sure I do." Buck leaned back and stretched his arms out along the backseat. "Got to toughen him up, right?"

"Your version of liking someone is dangerous." Nathan shook his head. "You should have seen him when Josiah and him decided to take a liking to me. I was a junior with all of four high school credits, and Buck decided to be my personal truant officer. Every time I ditched school, there he was."

"It got you back on the straight and narrow," Buck said.

"No, watching you get shot in the leg and holding your leg together with my two hands did that," Nathan quickly answered. "Following me around just pissed me off, but knowing that being there could make a difference... that I could save a life... that put me on the straight and narrow."

"You don't think I'll have to get shot in the leg again to get Ezra's head out of his ass, do you?" Buck asked.

Nathan just shook his head.

Watching the conversation, Vin really did feel like Alice after getting dropped down the rabbit hole. This was a whole new world, one where men put their lives in each other's hands and then had faith that they wouldn't be let down. He couldn't figure out if he was developing faith or going insane or if the desert sun hadn't just finally cooked his brains. But even with a nagging little fear clinging to him, this was exactly where he wanted to be.

"I think having me hang around should be enough torture," Vin said. Buck laughed and then leaned forward to slap Vin on the shoulder.

"That's the spirit!"


Part Ten

Vin leaned back, watching the two men get more and more heated over the pool table.

"Why must the unwashed and unenlightened always patronize my place," Ezra complained quietly. He sat down on the stool next to Vin. "Are you going to do something?"

"If they break anything, yep," Vin agreed. There was a line that people didn't cross in Players Only. This was Ezra's place and none of the group would allow anything to happen in it. He thought he'd taught that lesson pretty damn well, but if these two wanted a refresher course, Vin could do that.

Ezra sighed. "Your assurances would be more reassuring if you would intervene before my possessions were destroyed."

"Now where's the fun in that?"

"It would be novel, at very least," Ezra said dryly. Vin smiled and took another drink of his beer. Ezra loved to pretend he cared only about the money. Ezra cringed as the volume of the fight increased. Okay, so maybe he did care about the money, but the club was more than money. As much as Josiah obsessed over his church, Ezra obsessed over the club. The first drunk guy slammed the cue stick down on the table, and Vin put his beer down and stepped away from the bar.

The second man glanced over and said something to the other guy in a low voice. Then both looked over toward Vin before heading for the door.

"Well thank heavens. I fail to understand the attraction in beating on each other. Neanderthals," Ezra muttered as he headed over to check to see if the table felt had been damaged. Vin was a little more concerned about the aggression he'd seen between those two.

"I'll be back," Vin told the bartender. The man gave him a nod and watched as Vin headed outside. The heat of summer had faded and a slight breeze swept away the heat that rose from the asphalt. A man was pulling up on a motorcycle and the two men stepped off the curb behind the bike, already cursing at each other. They were big guys, so Vin had no intention of getting involved unless he had to, but he leaned against the wall of the club and watched as they crossed the lot, still yelling profanities and shoving at one another.

"Nice place," the new man said as he turned his engine off.

"Usually, it is," Vin answered without taking his eyes off the pair. A tall man was walking past on the sidewalk, pushing a shopping cart full of boxes and clothing. The homeless man said something that Vin couldn't hear, but both men stopped cursing at each other and they turned to face him. "Aw, shit," Vin said. He took a step forward and sent up a quick prayer that this wasn't about to turn ugly. Today was not his day for getting a prayer answered because the two took off after the homeless man. Seeing his own death coming at him, the man took off, at first he pushed his cart in front of him, bouncing along the walk, but he quickly abandoned it and sprinted down the street.

Vin exchanged a look with the stranger on the motorcycle. Most men avoided trouble, particularly trouble that came in two very large packages and particularly when the victim was 'only' a homeless man. Finding five men who Vin trusted at his back hadn't changed his mind about humanity in general. However, the man immediately kicked started his bike.

"Get on," he said. Vin threw his leg over the bike and grabbed the man around the waist as he took off. The bike dodged and weaved through the parking lot and over a crumbling chunk of concrete before they bounced up onto the sidewalk. Vin cursed and held on tighter as the stranger steered them between a fence and a mailbox with very little room on either side. The bullies were directly ahead of them now, and the driver pulled the bike to the far left side of the walk. Vin leaned to the right. The bike wobbled a little, but Vin reached out and punched bully number one in the back as they drove past.

The driver pulled the bike out into the road and did a u-turn sharp enough to make someone lay on the car horn. He pulled the bike around, but the homeless man wasn't running away now. Rushing toward the bike, he waved his hand. "Vin! Vin! You know me from Josiah's place!" That was probably true, but Vin didn't remember the man; he just knew that no one was going to pick on someone around him. The second the bike stopped, Vin jumped off the back and reached out to pull the homeless man behind him.

"What the fuck are you doing?" the second bully demanded. He was drunk and angry, and his fists were drawn up at his sides.

"Seems like you're the one who needs to back off," the stranger said as he got off his bike. Vin could tell just from the voice that this was a man who wasn't bluffing. He had a certainty about him... a hardness that suggested that he was looking for a reason to hand out a little punishment.

"Who the fuck are you?" the bully demanded. His friend came up behind him, and their earlier fight had been forgotten in the face of an actual opponent who could fight back.

"Chris Larabee," the man said with a cold smile that just dared this guy to take a swing. Vin took a step forward so that he was on Chris' left, and the two of them presented a united front. They weren't as big as these two idiots, but Vin was guessing they were going to win this particular fight. Tires squealed and Buck's old car pulled up so close to the motorcycle that Vin thought he was going to hit it.

"I just can't trust you to stay out of trouble anywhere, can I?" Buck asked cheerfully as he got out of the car. The bullies were drawing back now. Picking on one homeless man was one thing, but the danger of their situation was just now sinking through the alcohol-fog in their brains.

"Got bored," Vin said.

"Next time you get bored, you might want to take Ezra with you. He was calling you all sorts of names for running off with a stranger," Buck said. He had pretty much dismissed the two bullies, and he was looking at Chris Larabee with an odd expression.

Chris was looking back at him in shock. "Buck Wilmington?" he finally asked.

Buck's eyebrows went up. "Chris? Oh my god, Chris Larabee as I live and breathe." Buck stepped forward and caught Chris in a one-armed hug. "Shit, you are looking rough. It must have been six or seven years."

"Closer to eight," Chris answered, slapping Buck on the back as he returned the hug. The two bullies took the opportunity to run for the hills, and Vin ignored them.

"Is this someone I should know?" Vin asked.

The two men backed away fromtheir hug. Buck's face was lit from inside with joy and the grin on his face was as honest and open as it could be, but Chris still had a tightness about his face; his smile was small and controlled.

"Vin, this is Chris Larabee. We served in the army together."

"Together?" Chris gave a bark of laughter. "I thought I was the corporal always kicking your ass."

Buck slapped his arm. "That too. I haven't heard from you in years. How's Sarah? My god, I don't even know if you had a little boy or a girl." Buck's smile didn't waver, but Chris' face turned to stone. Slowly, Buck's smile faded. "Chris?"

"She's dead." Chris looked off into the distance. Vin felt like a voyeur, watching a man in this much pain didn't seem right.

"Aw, fuck. Chris, I’m so sorry. What happened?"

Chris took a deep breath. "Boat caught on fire. She didn't get off, and the Coast Guard couldn't find her."

Buck rubbed his hand over his face and turned away. Vin backed off a step, wanting to give the men some privacy. "The baby?"

Chris didn't answer right away. "Adam," he said softly. "He was five. He was on the boat with his mom."

"Fuck," Buck breathed the word. "Aw, shit, Chris. I had no idea."

"Didn't want people to know. Spent the last year or two at the bottom of a bottle." Chris' confession was simple and plain, with none of the guilt or the hope Vin normally saw in recovering alcoholics. "I guess I was looking for a place to sit in the dark and try to find a reason to not find the bottom of a new bottle."

"Then you're coming back to the church with me."

"Church?" The first signs of alarm crossed Chris' face.

Vin made a rough huffing sound. "Yeah, that's what I thought the first time Josiah talked me into coming over," Vin said. "Luckily, you're more likely to get swindled in a game of dominoes or stuck washing dishes than anything else. For a church, there's not a lot of preaching going on." Vin promised.

Chris looked at him hopefully. "So, I won't get accosted by some preacher man telling me I need to forgive and forget?"

Vin shook his head. "Nope. Near as I can tell, Josiah still hasn't forgiven himself four days out of seven, and he doesn't forget, ever. I doubt he'd even try and talk you out of drinking. He may, however, say a lot of shit that makes no sense about rivers over stones and green pastures. We all just nod and try real hard to not think too hard on what he says. Josiah has a way of making a man question things, even when they don't want to."

"He's a good man," Buck said softly. "Josiah's been through a lot, and he's a good man. I know he'd want you to come and get some rest, at the very least."

"That might be good," Chris said.

"Hey, why don't you let Vin take the bike back to Ezra's place, and I'll take you over to the church. We've got an extra bedroom in the basement." Buck's voice was soft, and for a second, Vin could see Chris pulling back, like the sympathy was too much for him. Vin remembered losing his mother—the overwhelming pain of knowing he was alone in the world. Even so, he couldn't imagine how it felt to lose a wife and son. However, the flicker of hesitation passed, and Chris nodded. Turning toward Vin, he tossed the keys. And then, without a word, he went back to Buck's car with him. Unless Vin was gravely mistaken, their group of six had just turned into seven.




Chris checked the internet connection, running the security protocols even though he didn't quite understand them. It took several seconds for the laptop to load the new desktop. He logged into the FBI system and waited.

The camera light blinked on a half second before Associate Deputy Director Smyth appeared.

"Larabee," he said with obvious relief. Then again, considering that the agency had been ready to boot him for his alcohol problem, Chris figured his boss had probably worried that Chris had crawled back into a bottle the second he got out of sight. "Is your cover secure?"

"My cover is pretty much my life," Chris pointed out. This wasn't a real job, and they both knew it, but if the agency left Chris alone and let him get on with staring at a wall and drinking enough whiskey to dull the pain, he'd live with this farce.

"Does your contact suspect you're FBI?"

"Buck just thinks I'm one more vet who got kicked in the teeth by life," Chris said. At one point he might have cared about playing nice, but that need for financial or professional success had died with Sarah and Adam.

"Good." Smyth nodded. "Any contacts so far?"

Chris shrugged. "Josiah Sanchez, ex-Ranger. He seems to be doing some holy man thing now, so I can't see him being involved enough to feed the local PD anything."

"I'll check his background," Smyth offered. "Anyone else?"

"Some small time hood, Vincent Tanner." Chris actually liked the man, so he hated putting the FBI on Vin's tail. However, the job was the job.

"Do you think he could be feeding the local LEOs their new intel?"

"I doubt it. He's a bouncer in a local club and he works part time for Buck picking up cons who jumped bail."

"And you're still sure Wilmington isn't the new informant?"

"Yeah, he has no reason to work with the police." Chris knew Buck well enough to know two things: his smile covered a lot more than was ever apparent and he couldn't afford to get in bed with cops. As far as Chris could tell, no one else had figured out that Buck was doing more than visiting the local whore houses, but the houses were clean and safe and the girls were all old enough to make their own choices. Chris wasn't going to make trouble on that front, especially considering that there wasn't any hard evidence that he'd found in his quiet investigating. He wasn't going to encourage the FBI shut down safe whore houses and put the women on the street where they'd be in danger every time they turned a trick.

"Just remember that you haven't known him for eight years, Chris. You're a long way from backup and this could get very dangerous."

"I doubt that," Chris said. "So far, I'm not anywhere near serious criminal activity or the police's link to it. It could take me months to figure out where the locals are getting their new intel."

Smyth nodded. Chris figured this was pretty low priority. After all, the locals had better control over the border here than they had in decades, so the spike in arrests for kidnapping and human trafficking and gun running were actually a good thing, not a sign that the FBI needed to ride in on a high horse and take the locals to task.

"Are you okay?" Smyth's question caught Chris totally off-guard. Bob Smyth had known Sarah. He'd known Adam, watched him play with the other kids during fucking company picnics. And suddenly Chris hated Smyth. He hated him for asking that when he knew better than most what Chris had lost.

"Do you really think I'll ever be okay?" Chris demanded.

Smyth had the decency to look away. He sighed. "I can't give you a lot of back-up on this, but if you need me to run names or check out stories, just let me know. Meanwhile, just collect whatever you can."

Chris nodded without answering.

"Chris, you were one of our best."

Chris stared at his boss, waiting for something that required an answer, because that had been a simple statement of fact. He had been one of the best. Past tense. He wasn't any more.

"Keep yourself safe," Smyth said softly. With another nod, Chris reached over and hit the disconnect button on his laptop. He really couldn't handle any more sympathy today. It was time for a whiskey. Maybe he'd even let Ezra talk him into that hand of poker. Losing a week's salary would be the cherry on the shit cake. Closing the laptop, Chris headed upstairs. Night had fallen, and the line for the soup kitchen would be getting long. He'd help Josiah with the sandwiches and then head over to Players Only for some whiskey and cards. Right now, that's all he had the mental energy for.


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