She was waiting for him in Washington Park. He was surprised that he was meeting a woman, and guessed that she must be one of Raptor's lovers, someone he trusted to pick up the information for him.
He smiled as he reached her in the secluded spot. She was beautiful, and he couldn't help but imagine what it might be like to take her right here, on the picnic table, under the trees, while everyone else went about their business, eating their lunches, playing with their children, walking with their lovers...
Yes, he would love to see what she would be like under him, but there was a glint of danger in her eyes that quickly evaporated his desire, and he remembered why he was there.
"You have something for me?" she asked, her voice softly accented. Western European, he guessed.
She was teasing him and that forwardness destroyed his fantasy. He would have preferred her passive, even a little afraid of him. He nodded and handed her the file.
"I brought what you need, the whole file, everything. Done deal, straight from the ATF," he said, handing it over. His palms were beginning to sweat. That look in her eyes, it was... predatory.
"And the intel?" she asked him.
"It's all set up." He watched as she casually set a large silver coin to spinning on the top of the picnic table. "It's all right. There's nothing to worry about. I can keep a secret."
He could hear himself speaking, begging really, and it disgusted him, but he couldn't help it. That look in her eyes frightened him.
He heard the coin begin to slow, even as the knife blade sunk into his chest, piercing his heart. He felt his eyes widen, and his hands came up, but he was too afraid to actually touch the hilt that was sticking out of his chest. His bladder released and he felt his own piss running down his leg.
Coward, he thought to himself as he began to slump forward, his gaze on the coin as it slowly began to wobble and then fall over. He was dead before it came to a stop on the tabletop.
Monday, 2:30 p.m.
Chris Larabee and the rest of Team Seven sat in a small conference room, along with a representative from the FBI. The man standing at the head of the table was from the Pentagon, and although he hadn't said so, they all knew he was from the NSA. The man was older, in his late fifties, but still in excellent shape. His silver-grey hair was cut short, the style suggesting he might have spent time in the military at some point in his career. He introduced himself as David Selby.
Larabee glanced over, meeting Assistant Director Orin Travis' eyes. The AD was livid, but doing a good job of not letting it show - much. Travis had created Team Seven four months earlier, a special operations unit inside the federal agency.
Chris leaned over a little closer to the man and Travis whispered that Selby was on the level.
"This is the item we're after, gentlemen," he said and passed out two eight-by-ten photographs of a two-inch long computer chip. "It's called Magellan, and it's already had quite a trip around the world."
"And you're telling us that this computer chip - a single complete chip - is supposed to be able to crack any inscription code currently available out there?" JD Dunne asked him, his tone dubious, at best.
"That's right, Agent Dunne. It renders all computer data, worldwide, vulnerable to unauthorized access, or total destruction," the man stated bluntly.
"And you say that it's available on the open market?" Ezra questioned.
"At twenty million dollars a pop," the NSA representative replied with a nod.
"Well, hell, that's cheap. You should buy it, reverse engineer it and render it useless," JD stated emphatically, then hastily added, "Sir."
The corners of Selby's mouth turned up slightly, but all he said was, "The trick is making contact with the local distributor, a man named Henri Stein, but the FBI is getting close."
"FBI?" Chris cut in, his gaze shifting to Glen Weathers, the FBI rep at the table. The man was competent, but Larabee had a general distrust of the "feebs." "Then what do you need us for?"
"Stein has hired an assassin, a man only known as Raptor," Selby explained.
"So, let the FBI take care of him," Buck offered with a dismissive wave of his hand. "This isn't connected to alcohol, tobacco, firearms or explosives as far as I can tell."
"Maybe not," AD Travis stated, drawing the attention of every man on Team Seven, "but Henri Stein has breached National Security, FBI and ATF files, as well as others."
"I hate to tell you, Orin, but half of them are already on the Internet," the NSA contact said and sighed.
"In the process, Raptor killed one of our people," Travis continued, "a man who had access to my files. That means he's mucking around in my operations. I want him."
Larabee couldn't help the small grin that curled his lips. "So, this is personal, sir?"
"Damn right it is," Travis snapped at him. "Those files Raptor has?" He looked directly at Larabee. "You and your team are in them."
That drained the color from the blond's face. Why would Stein or Raptor want the files on Team Seven? Not that it mattered. It had suddenly become personal for him, too.
Monday 11:37 p.m.
The night was dark, the full moon hanging in the sky seemingly unable to cast enough light to penetrate the gloom. In the distance wolves howled, and now and again he was sure he could hear them moving through the woods near him, hunting.
It was a dream.
He recognized it, knew that he had dreamed it all before, but that did nothing to stop the unfolding images. So, like someone watching an unfolding accident on the freeway, he continued to watch...
He moved over the terrain, silently, carefully, his rifle in his hands, ready to fire.
His own voice was speaking outside of his head, like it was coming from an observer who floated over the scene, watching and commenting as it unfolded.
"Must be weird, getting paid to pop some guy when he isn't looking. Don't seem fair if you ask me..."
But he ignored the voice, sinking down onto one knee and raising the ring of the night scope mounted on his rifle to his eye. He peered through it, searching for... something. No, someone... his target.
"So what is it then, the thrill of the hunt? The pleasure when you've got the shot and you kill someone?"
"I save lives," he whispered to the voice, catching sight of his target, moving through the woods.
He waited... and waited... until, finally, the target glided into the center of his crosshairs and he pulled the trigger. The report was loud in the darkness.
The target fell, and he knew it had been a killing shot.
"Confirm the kill," his own voice commanded him.
"That's your job," he snarled back.
He rose from his crouch, working his way forward, still silent, still careful.
"It's in the eyes, isn't it? The first thing you see through the scope."
He moved closer to the kill, easing up on the fallen man in the off chance that he'd been wrong, and he was still alive, and waiting for him.
When he reached the fallen man, his heart was beating frantically, and his palms were damp. He didn't want to do what he had to do next, but there was no choice. It was as if the voice was controlling his body, forcing him to do it regardless of what he wanted.
He reached out, grabbed the man's vest at the shoulder and rolled him over.
He was looking down at himself. His own bullet hole drilled right through his forehead. His eyes were open, but sightless.
"Kill confirmed," he rasped.
In the distance, a wolf howled.
Tuesday morning, 6:30 a.m.
Vin Tanner blinked his eyes open and stared up at his apartment ceiling. Damn, he'd had that dream again. He hated that fucking dream.
His radio alarm had gone off, the sweet voice of Shania Twain filling his bedroom with promises of love. He threw back the covers and sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. Without hesitation he rose and headed for the bathroom and a hot shower, knowing that it would clear his head.
Less than an hour later Vin was showered, dressed, and had eaten his breakfast. He checked his guns, slipped them into his holsters, then pulled on his black leather jacket and headed out to his motorcycle.
It wouldn't do to be late for work today. Travis wanted them to help the FBI bring down Stein and Raptor, and given that the assassin seemed to be interested in Team Seven, he was more than happy to do just that.
Offices of Team Seven
"So, who was that Amazon blonde dropping you off this morning?" Nathan asked Buck as the ladies' man dropped into his chair at his desk.
"Don't ask, don't tell," Wilmington replied with a satisfied smile on his lips. He stretched out his legs and leaned back in his chair, looking like a sated big cat.
JD walked past him, pausing to reach out and rub his finger over a patch of stubble on the big man's cheek. "You missed a spot," he teased him.
Buck's grin just got wider. "She didn't," he gloated.
Josiah and Nathan just shook their heads. JD rolled his eyes. Vin and Ezra tried to ignore the unfolding drama.
"So this Raptor has our jackets, right? Does that mean that we've been targeted?" JD asked them.
"What do you think, JD?" Josiah asked him.
"Who'd want to kill one of us?" the young man asked in earnest bewilderment.
The others all looked at him, amazed once again by the young man's apparent naïveté. Vin and Ezra both snorted softly and this time Buck rolled his eyes. Josiah and Nathan only grinned and shook their heads again.
JD thought for a moment, and then he blushed. He shrugged and shook his head, saying, "All right, that was a pretty stupid question... I guess."
Chris nodded his agreement with JD's assessment from where he was leaning against the doorway to his office. "No guess about it."
"So, does this mean we are in the computer chip business, or the assassination business?" Ezra asked Larabee.
"The survival business," Vin answered for Chris, prompting various noises of agreement from the others.
"We don't know what else Raptor's ATF mole gave up before he was killed," Larabee told them, walking over to the collection of desks in what was fondly called the "bullpen." He was carrying what looked like a nylon bag for some kind of small automatic weapon, which he set down on Wilmington's desk. "Our files might all be part of a bigger plan."
"So it appears that this mission has become a three-headed beast," Standish said and sighed a little dramatically.
"Cut off one head..." Vin told the undercover agent, and then paused, waiting for the man to look up and meet his eyes. "...y' better believe the other two will bite'cha... right in the ass."
The others weren't sure how to take that, and Chris spared them having to figure it out by stating, "Intel from the NSA and the FBI has Raptor and Stein meeting later today to ink the deal on this hit of his. JD?"
"Okay, from what the NSA and the FBI gave us, Stein imports exotic cars - remodels some older ones, fine tunes the rest. His warehouse, which is near Purgatorio, is heavily guarded and swept for listening devices twice a day."
"But now we have this..." Larabee said, opening the nylon case on Buck's desk and pulling out what appeared to be a small black plastic rifle.
"Oh, cool!" JD said, his eyes rounding with excitement. "A laser bug!"
"A what?" Vin asked, frowning at the device.
"A laser bug," JD repeated. "You target a window and the beam picks up the vibrations from inside," their young techno geek explained. "The window acts like a microphone, resonates, doesn't leave a detectable radio signature."
Larabee handed the device to Tanner, who took it, hefting it like it was a weapon. He thumbed on the laser and swept it over the room, getting a feel for the weight and the accuracy of the sight. "So what, I just have t' stay in the line of sight?" the sniper asked Dunne.
"Yeah," JD replied, jumping slightly when the laser light passed over his chest. "Point and eavesdrop."
"Not a problem," Vin said with a grin.
"Well, gentlemen, maybe we will have the opportunity to see what a Raptor looks like," Standish added.
"Count on it," Larabee told him. His gaze shifted to Tanner, noting the smudges under the man's eyes. "I want a complete run down on the warehouse and the surrounding area in an hour," he told the men. "We'll meet in the conference room then, work out a game plan."
The others nodded, breaking off to begin their work. As they did, he called, "Vin," and nodded to his office.
The sniper led the way and Larabee closed the door behind him. "You all right?" Chris asked him, walking over to lean back against his desk.
"Yeah, fine," Tanner replied.
"Looks like you had a tough night," the blond pressed, hoping to get the man to open up and talk to him. Tanner still hadn't completely integrated into the team, and he worried about him, probably more than he should.
Vin shrugged one shoulder in reply. "Bad dream is all, ain't nothin'. I c'n do m' job just fine, Larabee."
"Didn't say you couldn't," Chris replied.
Tanner considered that for a moment, then nodded. "Sorry. Guess it's got me a mite snappish."
Larabee grinned. "A mite," he agreed. "You want to take that gizmo to the range?"
Vin shook his head. "Easy enough. Just gotta find a good spot t' use it from."
"All right," Chris replied. "Go see what you can find."
Later that morning
The building was on the southern edge of Purgatorio, an area where Denver's new wave of urban renovation clashed against the lingering decay of the infamous inner city neighborhood. North of Boulder Avenue the old brick warehouses had mostly been converted into mixed-use communities with lofts and apartments above trendy retail space - primarily bars, restaurants, art galleries, interior design studios and various clothing boutiques and a few offices. A few of the old parking lots had been converted into parking garages, the rest into green space intended for the health conscious and dog friendly residents who quickly snapped up the units as soon as they became available.
But south of Boulder Avenue the buildings were still mostly untouched. Many of the 19th century brick warehouses were boarded up, awaiting their chance at a new life and, in the meantime, providing shooting galleries for local addicts and shelters for the many homeless who prowled the streets of Purgatorio, looking for food or a corner to panhandle the money necessary for a pint of beer. Private security companies were making a killing ensuring that the two communities never met somewhere along the way.
And a few of the old buildings, those closest to the urban renewal, had already been partially renovated, their exteriors left untouched, but their interiors gutted and rebuilt to house businesses, art galleries and clubs. Stein's building was one of these. And, from the number of cars on the small, fenced outside lot, as well as those inside, being restored, Stein was doing a booming business.
The man had a small army of mechanics and other automotive experts working for him, preparing more cars for his rich clientele - men and women who wanted to feel like they were driving a one of a kind automobile. He also had a small army of security people keeping watch over the building and the cars.
Team Seven watched the building for several hours, getting a feel for the general comings and goings of the customers and the employees, as well as a sense of where all the heavy security was positioned on and around the building. Once they knew that, they made plans and repositioned themselves to keep the warehouse under surveillance until Raptor arrived.
Chris waited until he heard from all of his people, except Vin, who was beside him, lining up his position before he activated the laser bug.
"JD, ya ready?" Tanner asked over his lip mike. "Stein just came into the office."
"All set, Vin," JD replied.
"Okay, here goes," Vin said, switching on the laser and aiming it through an open window in Stein's office.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Inside the building, Henri Stein was getting angry. Raptor was late.
Vin watched through the scope on the laser bug as Stein stalked over to his computer and sat down, logging on to his e-mail account and checking to see if his contact for Raptor was also currently online. He was, and an image of the man's face popped onto Stein's computer screen. The small camera on top of Stein's machine was sending his image to the man as well.
"Where the hell is this guy?" Stein demanded, his voice clear on the receivers Larabee and JD were holding. Dunne was in a small mobile command post, Larabee still beside Vin to cover his back.
"Like I should know?" the man replied, his voice thickly accented, but still clear thanks to the laser bug. "I'm halfway around the world here."
"You recommended him," Stein snapped.
"The guy uses an encrypted e-mail message routed through a dozen web servers. I don't even know what the dude looks like. Nobody does."
"All he's looking like right now is late," Stein snapped.
"Not my problem, Henri," the contact replied.
"If he doesn't show up here in ten, I'll hire somebody to take care of you!" Stein snarled.
"You need a stress pill, Henri."
"I need action!" they heard Stein snap, then "Garr!" and the man fell silent.
As Larabee waited, he worried about the bug. "Can the beam be spotted?" he softly asked JD via his lip mike.
"The beam is only a half-mil wide. You'd need a magnifying glass to see it," JD replied. He was sitting inside their operations center, located in the back of a black Chevy Suburban parked in the closest of the new parking garages.
"How's the perimeter?" Larabee asked the others.
"Well, a no-brainer sticks his head out every once in a while, but that's it," Buck offered. He was riding shotgun with JD and was sitting behind the wheel of the Suburban, a pair of high-powered binoculars in his hands so he could keep watch over the west side of the building.
"Same here," Josiah reported, covering the east side. "Very low profile."
"Roger that," said Nathan, who was observing the north side of the warehouse.
"Yes, I concur as well," Standish added, already bored with watching the south side of the building. He was used to being on the inside on these missions, not spending his time doing surveillance work.
"Hang on," Nathan interrupted, watching as a tall, shapely blonde approach the building. She stopped and knocked on one of the doors.
One of the guards opened the door and she stepped inside.
"A woman just entered the building - alone," Nathan told them.
Larabee and the others waited. Less than a minute later he could hear the sound of her high heels ringing on the floor as she entered Stein's office.
"Who are you?" the man snapped at her. The woman was tall, shapely, with blonde hair, pulled back in a professional look. She was also wearing glasses that accentuated her blue eyes.
"Patrice Rolov. I represent the man you know as Raptor." Her voice was low, sultry and slightly accented, although Larabee couldn't decide where she might be from. She sounded vaguely Slavic, he thought.
"No kidding," Stein said, and then chuckled softly to himself.
"Is this a problem, Mr. Stein?"
"I hire an assassin and I get a secretary," the man replied, shaking his head. Stein was tall and handsome, with longish dark hair and brown eyes. In his late thirties, he was used to women appreciating his looks, and responding appropriately.
"My employer prefers to deal with his clients at arm's length," she responded smoothly.
"I prefer to deal face to face."
"It doesn't work that way," she told Stein firmly. "If this arrangement isn't satisfactory, then our business is done," she concluded, turning and starting away.
"Okay, Nate, be ready to tail her when she comes out," Larabee announced over the mike.
"Wait!" Stein called.
The blonde stopped.
"Don't get passive aggressive on me," he told her, his tone vaguely a threat.
"It's not passive. It's not aggressive. It's business."
She wasn't reacting at all the way he expected. "Okay, okay... Whatever."
She walked back over to Stein and handed him a slip of paper. "Here is the account number for the deposit of funds. You'll transfer half now, the rest tomorrow night."
Stein hesitated for a moment, but as soon as the woman made to leave again, he huffed out a sigh and walked over to his computer and logged into his bank, making the electronic transfer. As he did, the woman walked slowly around his office, her gaze sweeping over everything.
"So, what's your percentage of the million dollars?" Stein asked her, typing in the Swiss account number when prompted.
"That's between me and my accountant," she replied coolly.
"Of course," Stein replied. "Your accountant must be a very clever man," he told her as she stopped to admire his small octagonal saltwater aquarium. A lionfish hung in the water, sizing her up. "You certainly can't report your earnings to the government," he added.
She frowned and removed the stylish glasses she was wearing when she caught sight of the refracted laser beam in the water.
"I'm sure that he must spend most of his time looking for the kind of investment-" He stopped when she turned and raised her finger to her lips, then gestured for him to join her.
Outside, on the roof of the building where Larabee and Tanner stood, Chris reached up and touched the receiver that was in his ear, frowning at the sudden silence.
When Stein joined her, she looked at the beam, Stein following her gaze and catching sight of it as well. She sighed softly, almost sadly, and turned, walking straight to the exit.
"Wait!" he called, then grabbed his walkie-talkie that was setting on his desk and snapped into it, "Hans, sweep the perimeter!"
"Heads up," Buck said as he watched several men exiting the building, all of them armed.
"Buck, what's up?" Larabee demanded.
"You've been made, stud," the ladies' man replied.
"Let's go," Larabee said to Vin and the sniper was immediately moving.
"I lost the signal," JD announced as soon as Tanner released the trigger, terminating the laser beam.
"Time to go, people - everybody pull back," Larabee announced over his lip mike.
"What about Raptor's handler?" Buck asked him.
"Cover yourselves first," Chris snapped, he and Vin packing the laser bug and heading quickly to the edge of the building they were on.
"I can do that," Wilmington replied, turning the key in the ignition and heading the Suburban to the exit of the parking garage.
As Vin and Chris neared the location where they had made their climb up to the roof, two of Stein's men appeared.
"Nathan, we have a flag and play up here," Larabee announced into his lip mike, his voice strained, but not panicked.
"Roger that, I'm on the way," Jackson replied, pulling away from the curb. He was in Larabee's black Ram pickup truck and he headed straight to the location where he'd dropped the two men off earlier. "Coming around in twenty seconds," he announced.
On the roof, Stein's two men opened fire even though they were too far away to make anything but a lucky shot. Chris and Vin didn't bother returning fire, concentrating instead on reaching their ropes as quickly as possible. They hooked themselves up.
"Let's fly, pard!" Vin said as he and Larabee went over the edge of the roof, repelling straight down, and right into the bed of Chris's Ram.
"Hit it!" Chris yelled at Nathan, slamming his palm against the rear cab window.
Above them, the two men reached the edge of the roof where Chris and Vin had disappeared and leaned over, firing down at the retreating Ram. But Chris and Vin were lying curled up on the truck bed, both men pressed up against the side of the truck to present as small a target as possible.
"Whoo!" Tanner yipped, flashing Larabee a huge smile.
Chris shook his head, but he had to grin as well. Close, but no cigar for the bad guys.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A few minutes later Team Seven was back at a deserted parking lot in Purgatorio where they had started out earlier that morning.
"Everybody all right?" Larabee asked them, looking from man to man.
The others all nodded.
"Somethin' don't smell right about this one," Vin said, shaking his head, his gaze sweeping the area like he could feel another sniper's crosshairs on him.
"Undetectable laser?" Ezra questioned accusingly, looking straight at JD.
"Almost undetectable," Dunne corrected the undercover man and shrugged. "Hey, it was the best we had."
"Worked fine, too," Buck said. "We just got unlucky."
"Or she's good, damn good," Vin told him.
Chris frowned. He didn't like the way this was going any more than Tanner did, but there was nothing he could do about it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
On a nearby rooftop, the blonde woman used a sniper's scope to watch the seven men in the parking lot. In one hand she absently twirled a large silver coin through her fingers, a predatory smile on her lips.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Back in his warehouse, Stein paced among his mechanics, checking on their progress with various cars, trying to wear off some of his simmering anger.
One younger Hispanic man was startled as Stein passed by, sending the chrome grille he was working on clattering to the floor.
Stein stopped and stared at the man, then started toward him, lifting his arm and holding up his index finger.
"How many fingers am I holding up?" he asked the nervous mechanic.
"One," the man replied, looking half-confused, half-scared.
"That's how many weeks you've been here. That's how many chances you have left. Understand?"
The man nodded, swallowing hard and immediately returning to his work, beginning to polish the grille all over again. Stein watched him for a brief moment, then turned and started back to his office, but before he'd gotten very far Raptor's front woman joined him.
"Where did you go?" he demanded, his voice pitched low so it didn't carry to the men working on the warehouse floor.
"I had to report to Raptor. He isn't happy about this morning's breach of your security."
"He's not the only one," Stein growled. "Come on," he told her, nodding toward his office.
The pair headed off to Stein's office, the young Hispanic man watching them as they left, a thoughtful expression on his face.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"So?" Stein asked when they were alone in his office.
"Your lack of proper security may force him to cancel the job," the blonde replied matter-of-factly.
"A man with his reputation gets hinky?" Stein was incredulous.
"Raptor's reputation is not your concern," she told him coldly, blue eyes narrowed. "But he does want to know who knows your business."
"Competitors probably. Nothing to get nervous about."
"Any potential threat to my employer makes me very nervous, Mr. Stein."
"Well, if your employer has a problem..."
Team Seven Offices
"How'd you do this?" Nathan asked, watching the exchange between Stein and the blonde woman he had seen earlier this morning.
JD was seated at his computer, watching the conversation through the camera on the top of Stein's computer. "I used a sniffer to find the IP address of his T1, broke through the firewall, used a proxy server, and thanks to a security bug in his browser was able to upload an applet that made his camera and microphone go live, sending the data stream here."
Nathan hesitated for a moment, not sure he had understood a word the man had said, but he grinned and commented, "You really are scary."
JD glanced up at the man, grinning. "Yeah, I know. Why don't you tell Buck that for me."
Nathan shook his head. "Oh no, I'm not getting in-between the two of you." He walked over to his desk, picked up his radio and keyed the mike, asking, "How's the view outside?"
"Considering the distance, pretty good," Buck replied. He was lying on the top of a warehouse roof several hundred yards from Stein's with a camera and an extra high powered telephoto lens attached to it. Through the lens he was able to keep a close eye on the comings and goings on two sides of the building.
"Ditto here," Josiah said. He was on another rooftop, armed with an identical camera and lens and doing the same thing with the other two sides of the building.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"...you might need this," Stein said, handing the blonde an envelope.
She started to open it, saying, "It's the only reason I came back. The plate number?"
"And the make and model... and even his shoe size. He arrives at nine o'clock. I'll be there."
"No, you won't," she told him quickly. "Raptor doesn't work with an audience."
"Yeah?" Stein said and sneered. "Well, I'm paying for the front row seat. This hit is a message to the feds who keep screwing with me. I want to see it delivered - in person."
She met his eyes, then turned and started out.
"Where the hell are you going?" Stein demanded.
She paused and turned back to face him. "Shopping," she replied, the ghost of a smile on her lips. "Accessories are everything."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"She's on her way out, guys," Nathan said into the radio.
"Copy that," Buck replied, peering through the telephoto lens. "Come out, come out, wherever you are..."
"Roger," was Josiah's more taciturn reply.
Then, as they continued to watch, the blonde exited the warehouse on Buck's side.
"Got her," Wilmington crowed as he snapped off several shots before she climbed into a white SUV. He snapped a picture of the license plate as she turned and headed down the road toward him. "Okay, boys, I have a plate... Colorado, Two - Alpha - Bravo - Mike - five - four - three, a white Ford Explorer. She's heading out east, on Golden Avenue."
Nathan immediately entered the plate number into their database that tapped the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles.
"I'll catch her when she crosses Boulder," came Larabee's voice over the radio.
"It's a rental," Nathan announced, "registered to one... Patrice Rolov."
"Rolov? Russian," Ezra said, leaning back in his chair, thinking.
"I'm on her six now," Larabee announced.
"Patrice Rolov comes up a blank," JD said after grabbing his radio and keying the mike.
"It's an alias," Ezra said into his own radio.
"Vin," Larabee said, "give me five minutes, then I'll pass off the baton."
"Roger that," Tanner replied as he passed Larabee, who was driving Jackson's brown and beige Ford Explorer. The sniper was riding his motorcycle, a 1958 FL Duo-Glide.
"Chris," JD said. "If Rolov is an alias, then it's a good one. She's got a driver's license, credit cards... but they lead... absolutely nowhere."
"Shit!" Larabee snapped.
"Have you lost her?" JD asked him.
"No, I'm still with her," Chris replied. "Just another idiot on the road... She's turning left on... Lakewood Boulevard."
"Traffic report shows all clear ahead," Nathan offered.
"Hang on, she's turning again," Chris said a moment later. "Nice... an old pro evasive maneuver."
"Did she make you?" Vin asked him.
"No, I don't think so, but if I follow her, she will. This could be our only chance. I don't want to blow it by getting spotted. Vin, pick her up in the alley right before Englewood Drive."
"Roger that," Tanner replied. And then, a few moments later, he announced, "We're back in business. She's headed south on Aurora Drive."
"Keep it up, gentlemen, I believe I am on to something here," Ezra announced.
"Well, Ez, what have you got?" Buck asked him over his radio.
"I'll let you know in a moment," the undercover man said, JD and Nathan exchanging looks as they waited for more.
"Heads up, she's pullin' into a Pep Boys," Vin announced.
"Auto parts, for a rental?" Nathan questioned.
"Maybe her boss has something planned for his victim's car," JD offered.
"She's parkin'," Tanner told them.
"Keep your distance, Vin," Chris warned him.
Tanner watched as a man with long blond hair exited the vehicle. "Damn it!" he hissed. "I dropped the ball," he said. "We lost her... Damn, she's good."
"Either Raptor's trained her very well, or-"
"I know exactly what you're thinking, Mr. Larabee," Ezra interrupted. "And you are quite correct. Patrice Rolov, it's an anagram for Veloci Raptor. She's the assassin."
An underground parking garage
A nondescript Honda hatchback pulled into the almost empty top floor of a parking garage and rolled to a stop not far away from a red Ford Explorer. A man climbed out, greeting the beautiful blonde woman waiting for him with a casual, "Good evening."
He went around to the back of the car and popped the hatch.
She walked over to stand beside him, bending slightly to set a briefcase she was carrying on the ground beside her.
The soft-looking man in his late-forties and well on his way to completely bald, tossed back a blanket that covered several high-powered sniper's rifles in the back of the Honda. "This one," she said, pointing to the Remington 700.
He reached in and picked it up, then handed it to her, saying, "Excellent choice."
She tested the weapon's weight in her hands and then lifted it, pressing her eye to the ring of the scope. She tested the pull on the trigger and then nodded to him as she handed it back.
"I'll just be a minute," she said, picking up the brief case and walking over to set it on top of one of the many trash cans scattered throughout the parking structure. As she did, he slipped the rifle into a carrying case and zipped it up, then turned to watch her.
She opened the briefcase and took off her matching suit jacket and skirt, her black lace teddy giving him a teasing glimpse of her curvaceous body. On a long silver chain hanging around her neck was the same large silver coin she had been twirling through her fingers as she had watched Team Seven regroup earlier that day.
Over the teddy she pulled a sheer black dress with hand-embroidered floral patterns strategically positioned to obscure the view of her breasts and groin. She folded the skirt and jacket, placing them into the briefcase, and then reached up and removed the clasp that had been holding her hair back. She shook the thick blonde locks out so they cascaded over her shoulders.
After pulling the dress down over the small Glock she was wearing in an upper thigh holster, she closed the briefcase and picked it up, along with her purse, and walked back over to the gun dealer.
"Do you mind getting rid of these for me?" she asked him, handing him the briefcase and adding, "Your money's inside."
He accepted the case, saying, "That coin around your neck, I recognize it."
"Really?" she asked him, her head tilting slightly to the side.
"I did business with a guy who had one just like it."
"Did you?" she asked, snapping the coin free of the circle of silver that held it.
The dealer chuffed once, noting the change in her eyes, the coldness that had taken over. "Probably a coincidence," he said, chuckling a little nervously.
"I'm not sure I believe in coincidence. Things happen because they're supposed to," she told him, twirling the silver coin through her fingers as he watched it, mesmerized. "Moments of crisis, when the whole world seems to slow down... It's hard to judge the passage of time in those moments,' she told him, her voice also pitched to hold his attention. "That's what I use this for," she told him, pointing it at him as she held the coin between her second and index fingers. He swallowed hard. "It's a yardstick, a benchmark for time," she said, taking the rifle from him and walking over to her Explorer to slide it onto the front seat.
She closed the door of the SUV and turned to face the man. Then, stepping up to a metal beam running along the wall of the garage and creating a six-inch shelf running the length of the garage, she set the coin to spinning on its edge and added, casually, "When this stops spinning, you will be dead."
The dealer bolted like a rabbit from cover, heading straight to his car with the briefcase clutched to his chest. She watched him go, a small smile on her face.
He threw the case into the car and climbed in, starting the Honda and speeding away so quickly that the tires squealed on the concrete floor.
She reached into her purse and removed a small transmitter, pointed it at the fleeing car, and pressed the button. A moment later the car was enveloped in flames as the briefcase exploded. The wreckage crashed into the wall of the garage and continued to burn.
She reached out, catching the coin as the impact of the car striking the wall of the garage knocked it off. Dropping the transmitter back into her purse, she slipped the coin back into its silver circle and then walked around to the driver's side of the Explorer, climbing in and driving away before anyone came to see what the explosion had been about.
No one paid any attention to her as she rolled up, paid for her time, and pulled out into traffic.
The same time
JD stared at the image of the darkened office coming in from Stein's computer. "I feel like I'm waiting for the energizer bunny to roll by," he complained.
"What's it look like outside?" Chris asked as Buck and Josiah came walking back into the office after making a circuit around the federal building.
"All clear," the older man replied.
Buck added, "If you don't count the thousands of people who live and work down here."
"Well, keep your eyes open," Larabee said and sighed.
Buck grinned. "Any killer babes, I'll let you know right away," he promised and the three men smiled and chuckled softly.
Chris turned away from them so they could continue coordinating the security in and around the federal building. He walked back over to where JD sat at his desk, Vin nearby, his hip hitched up onto the corner of his desk, his arms folded over his chest.
"She's baiting us," Chris muttered more to himself than the others.
"Think she'll still go for Stein's target?" Nathan asked him.
"Oh yeah," Larabee replied. "She's a professional. She'll do her job, then come back for the bonus points."
"Why do you do that?" JD asked Tanner, who was twirling a 70-caliber shell through his fingers.
The sniper pointed it at Dunne and said, "Helps me think."
Chris snorted. "About what?"
Vin thought for a moment, then said simply, "Things."
"How inscrutable," Ezra commented dryly. "You should write fortune cookies, Mr. Tanner."
Vin turned to face the undercover man. "Enjoy life," he said, pointing the shell at him this time. "Eat out... more often."
Standish smiled. "That, Mr. Tanner is not a missive for a fortune cookie, but rather a doggie bag."
"Whatever," Vin replied, grinning at Larabee.
Chris shook his head.
The young Hispanic man sat at a diagnostic computer, checking the computer chips he had found inside the onboard computer of one of Stein's imported cars. And he thought he had finally found what he'd been sent there to find - the Magellan chip.
He reached in and removed the motherboard with the chip, smiling for the first time in a week. But he had no sooner straightened before a gun was shoved into his face by one of Stein's guards and he was roughly taken to the man's office.
The guard handed Stein the motherboard.
"So, you like electronics," Stein said. "You should come over to my place, and set up my VCR."
"I was just working on the car," he replied, beginning to struggle as the two guards tightened their grips on him.
"If I'd known you were a fed, I wouldn't have given you health insurance," Stein told him, turning the mother board over in his hands. He looked up, moving toward the captive, saying, "It looks like the main CPU of a very expensive car... and it is. But inside... it's Magellan code." He carefully removed the chip and held it up for the agent to see. The man met Stein's eyes, his expression defiant.
Offices of Team Seven
"Hey! Guys! C'mere quick!" JD barked.
The agents who were there hurried to join him at his computer. JD was already on the phone, taking to someone. He hung up, saying, "Looks like the FBI got in a little deeper than they wanted," as he nodded to the screen where they could see what was happening in Stein's office.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"It's laughable how incompetent you FBI people are," Stein was saying to the man.
"That chip will destroy a lot of lives," the young man said.
"Awesome, huh?" Stein asked. He set the chip down on his desk and then turned to face the captured agent. "Listen, when I see your boss tonight, I'll tell him you did your best... but it wasn't good enough." He turned back, picking up a silenced handgun.
"Go to hell," the agent hissed.
Stein raised the gun. "You first," he said, and then he pulled the trigger.
The agent jerked in the guards' grips, then dropped to the floor.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Lord Almighty," Vin said softly.
JD was pale, his hands shaking slightly. "His boss... Timothy Johnson, Intermountain West Assistant Director, FBI."
"Well, now we have Raptor's target," Chris said, shaking his head. What a stinking waste. "Let's keep our heads down, people, we're targets, too."
LoDo (Lower Downtown), 8:50 p.m.
The American Association of Law Enforcement Officers, Law Enforcement Charity Dinner was in full swing as it neared 9 p.m.
On a rooftop near the swank hotel where the dinner was taking place, Raptor readied the weapon she had acquired from the now-deceased gun dealer. She primed the chamber and turned on the night scope, double-checking the range.
The blonde had already been to the rooftop earlier in the day and she knew the exact distance of the shot she would have to make. But it paid to be cautious.
Satisfied that she was ready, she used the scope to check the license plate numbers of the limos dropping off the heads of various law enforcement agencies until she found the one she was waiting for. Right plate number, right make and model of vehicle... The kill was close.
On other rooftops near the hotel, most of the members of Team Seven were also deployed, looking for Raptor. Ezra was in one location, closer to the assassin than he realized. On another building, Vin was also checking through the scope of his own rifle, looking for any signs of Raptor. Beside him, JD used night binoculars to do the same.
Josiah and Nathan were in the hotel where the event was taking place, both on the top floor, looking for the woman.
Buck was on the street level, keeping an eye on the arrivals.
"No activity, sector one," Josiah announced.
"Sector two clear as well," Ezra announced.
"Nothing in sector three," JD said into his lip mike.
"Heads up, boys, here he comes," Buck said, seeing the AD's limo pulling up outside the hotel.
"Come on, come on, come on," Ezra chanted softly, using his own night binoculars to try and find the assassin.
Raptor was focused on the man climbing out of the target's car. Right general height and weight... The hair color seemed off, but he could have had it dyed recently for vanity's sake... Then the target turned so she could see his face and she frowned, and jerked slightly in reaction. Chris Larabee? How could they have possibly known?
"Sector three, ten o'clock," Vin rasped into his lip mike when he caught sight of the blonde. "I got her," he said.
"Take the shot," JD and Buck said simultaneously.
Vin gently squeezed the trigger of his rifle and watched as Raptor was thrown back away from her own rifle, but he knew it hadn't been a kill shot. Having to place the shot between two decorative pipes that made up a railing on top of the small three foot wall that ran around the top of the roof, he had only caught her with a glancing blow to the side of her protective bullet proof vest.
"Nice shot, Vin," JD said, "but she's still vertical. Our angle here is too high."
The sniper cursed softly under his breath.
"I have her," Ezra said as he left his position, heading for where he had heard a grunt when she had been hit.
"Spread out, I want her," Chris said, already moving toward the building.
"Let's go," JD said, clapping Tanner on the shoulder. They moved out, listening as Josiah and Nathan also began to move in to seal off Raptor's escape routes.
Being the closest, Ezra knew he would reach the assassin first. He moved toward the side of the structure where he knew the woman had been set up to take her shot, his Walther P99 in his hands and ready to fire. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the blonde appeared in his peripheral vision, her clasped hands striking his arm. He felt a bone break and his fingers sprang open in reaction. His gun clattered to the rooftop even as the assassin stepped in front of him, her knee coming up to his mid-section as her hand shot out, grabbing his shoulder and jerking him into the strike.
Pain had numbed his reactions after the initial blow, but some primitive part of his mind that demanded he survive kicked in and he twisted away, taking the worst of her attack on his hip.
They both lashed out with their fists. She was strikingly beautiful, he realized, even as his foot snapped out in a kick that she was able to avoid. He cursed himself for not spending more time with the others in the dojo.
He drove forward, punching again, but she was spinning away from him, her leg coming up tight against her body and then thrusting out, catching him in the abdomen because he didn't want to block the blow with his broken arm.
He went down, but immediately pushed himself up. Not fast enough, though. She pursued her advantage, rushing in to strike him again.
Ezra threw a wild punch, hoping to hold her back, but she blocked it easily, her foot snapping out to catch him in the chest - a blow he was able to partially block. But her hand shot out, grabbing the back of his neck so she could pull him over and thrust her knee into his face.
He reacted, his good arm shooting up and over the one she used to hold his neck. Jerking himself to the side, his arm reaching across her, he was able to roll her shoulder in the direction he was moving and force her over. Broken arm or not, he knew this was his best chance to end this now, before she killed him, and he tried to use it to hold her down. But the pain that exploded up his arm made him weak and she was able to jerk her elbow up, forcing him to lurch back to avoid being hit in the face.
She scrambled forward, free again.
Where were the others? Panic flared along his nerves as she immediately drove back toward him, her foot snapping out, and her fists following. He took a blow to the face, his nose erupting with blood even as he saw an opening and drove his good arm out, his fist slamming into her midsection. She stumbled back, gasping for air.
Knowing he had no choice but to pursue the attack, he pushed himself up, fist striking a second time, catching her in the face, then snapping back, grabbing her long blonde ponytail and jerking her face forward as his knee came up to meet it.
But somehow she avoided the blow, twisting away. He raised his fist to hit her again, but she was coming at him too swiftly. He adjusted, used her attack to catch her and flip her over onto her back on the graveled rooftop. His lungs burned and he gulped air, trying to fill them. Had she struck him again? He wasn't sure. Pain was making it impossible to think.
She rolled away from him, coming up onto her feet. So beautiful, he thought and yet so deadly. He had never expected to be killed by a woman.
His hand flashed down to the web belt he wore, pulling the knife from its sheath. It was all he had left to defend himself with, and he knew he wasn't very good with it. Not like Nathan, or Chris. A shame they hadn't been the ones here.
And she had one as well and this break had given her the time she needed to pull it free.
They circled each other, his broken arm held up to protect his neck and chest, his other arm using the knife to cut arcs in the air, trying to hold her back. Surely the others would get there any moment...
Then she struck, faster in his eyes than she really was, the blade arcing down toward the shoulder of his good arm. He used his broken arm to deflect the blow, howling in pain as he did. But he struck back at the same time, his reflexes slowed by the agony shooting from his arm into his shoulder and neck.
She grabbed his hand and turned his attack back on himself, forcing him to embed the knife into his own thigh.
Her fists lashed out, striking him, driving him down onto the rooftop. He fell onto his back, knowing that he wasn't going to be able to get up this time.
He heard more than actually saw her scrambling across the gravel on the surface of the roof and realized that she was looking for the gun he had dropped. His vision cleared as she found it, lifting it to point it at him even as he somehow managed to sit up. His hand closed around the hilt of the knife embedded in his leg.
"So... I'm the one you're after," he managed, drawing the blade free, gasping as he did.
"No, but now that you have pissed me off," she snapped, her accent thicker now as she sighted the gun.
He didn't think, he reacted, hurling the knife at her. And, to his great surprise, it sank into her upper arm. She stumbled backward from the blow, her arms flailing out at her sides as she tried to regain her balance. Then she was turning, diving over the edge of the rooftop like a swimmer leaving the block for a race.
She was gone.
He collapsed forward, exhaustion and agony making it impossible to hold himself upright any longer. But he had to know.
He crawled forward through the coarse gravel to the small wall that ran around the edge of the roof. Pulling himself up, he tried to look over it to see if she had fallen to her death, or if a balcony had saved her. But he just didn't have the strength to do it. He sagged onto the short wall. Then, the glint of something shiny caught his swelling eye and he fumbled for it with numbed fingers.
Yes, it was some kind of a coin... And then he recognized it. It was a Hong Kong dollar. His strength deserted him and he slid back off the wall, dropping to the rooftop once more, the silver dollar clutched tightly in his hand.
Someone was calling to him, but he couldn't answer them, darkness was rushing up at him, sweeping over him like some invisible surf, pulling him away from the voice, away from the pain....
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The first thought to flash through Buck's mind was a question: How could so much damage take place in such a short period of time? It had taken him and Chris less than seven minutes to reach the rooftop, but there were no signs of Raptor, and Ezra was lying on the ground, looking like he'd tangled with the Terminator.
"We need an ambulance!" Chris barked into the mike, he and Buck heading straight for Ezra. He dropped down, watching as Wilmington checked the man's pulse. "She's gone. Repeat, Raptor's gone. Seal off the building. Find her!"
"Ezra, where you hurt?" Buck asked, trying to see if the man was bleeding.
They could both already hear the wail of an approaching siren.
"Doesn't look like he was shot," Buck said. "But she sure kicked the shit out of- Damn, I have blood," he said, finding the leg wound. He reached down, pulling a field dressing from a large pocket on his black pants and tying it over the bleeding wound.
"Don't move him," Chris said. "Let the medics check him over first. He could have a neck injury."
The ladies' man nodded. "Yeah, okay... Hell, anything could be hurt." He shook his head. "She's good."
"She's dead," Larabee vowed. He reached out, gently taking hold of Standish's upper arm. "Hang in there, Ezra," he told the man.
Two hours later
Larabee and the others stood as Dr. Daniel Chandler stepped into the ER waiting room. Dan was a familiar face, having treated most of them at one time or another. He was a tall man, a little on the thin side, mid-thirties, with thick, reddish-brown hair that always looked like he was in need of a haircut, and dark brown eyes. He was wearing jeans and a long-sleeve navy blue T-shirt under his white coat. Hiking boots were his preferred footgear.
He was speaking as soon as he reached them. "Some nasty bruises, one cracked radius, two cracked ribs, the knife wound was all flesh, so it's going to take some time to heal, but that's not the worst part," he told them without preamble.
"What's the worst part, Doc?" Vin asked him, looking worried now. The initial list had left them all looking relieved, but there was more?
"The boot marks on his ass from where he's been kicking himself," Dan concluded dryly. "I take it one of the bad guys got away?"
Larabee nodded, but there was just the hint of a smile on his lips. There had been a time, not so very long ago, that he would have thought it impossible for Ezra to care like that, but the man had become a team player, one of his men, his team, and he was proud of him. "Nothing worse?"
Dan shook his head. "We're going to keep him here tonight, keep an eye on that puncture wound. If all goes well, he can go home tomorrow afternoon, but he's probably going to need some in-home help for a few days."
There was a collective sigh of relief.
"He can stay at my place," Josiah offered and Chris nodded.
"Oh, I almost forgot. He was clutching this in his hand," the doctor told them, fishing into his pocket and pulling out the Hong Kong dollar, handing it to Chris. "I thought you might need that for whatever it is you're working on."
"Thanks, Doc," Larabee said, but he had no idea what it was, or what it meant. "When can we see him?"
"Give us a few minutes to get him moved into a room and I'll let you know where he-" Chandler was interrupted as a nurse joined them.
She smiled at them, recognizing them as well. "Mr. Standish is in room 230," she told them.
"Just remember he needs his rest," Chandler told them as they started for the elevators.
"Thanks, Dan," Chris said, stopping to shake the man's hand.
"No problem," the man replied.
A few minutes later they were all gathered in Ezra's room. The man looked better now that he'd been cleaned up, but the bruises on his face, cast on his arm and brace on his leg left him looking like an ad for an injury attorney.
"Did you catch her?" he asked them as soon as they entered the room.
Chris shook his head. "She slipped past us."
Ezra closed his eyes and sighed heavily. "Damn."
"Yeah," JD agreed. "How about you?"
"They say I will be fine," Standish replied, his green eyes blinking open. Looking up at the six worried faces was better medicine than anything the staff at the hospital could give him. These men actually cared about him.
"Dan says you'll probably be able to go home tomorrow," Chris told him.
"And that you might need some help for a few days," Josiah added. "You're welcome to stay with me. Or I can come over to your place for a couple of days."
Ezra's eyes rounded with surprise. "Th-Thank you, Mr. Sanchez, either would be acceptable."
"Look, the doctor says you need to rest," Chris said. "I'm going to have some officers stationed outside your-"
"I wasn't Raptor's target," Ezra interrupted him.
"You weren't?" Nathan asked.
Ezra shook his head. "And she didn't say who was, I'm afraid. Keep your heads down, gentlemen."
Offices of Team Seven
An hour later, the six men were scattered around the office, Chris pacing, Buck and JD both leaning back at Dunne's desk, Josiah and Nathan sitting at the medic's, and Vin, removed slightly from them, sitting on the top of his own desk, his feet swinging slightly.
"So, if Ezra wasn't Raptor's secondary target, who was?" Larabee asked them.
"Me," Tanner said softly.
The others all turned to look at him.
"You? How do you know?" Chris asked him, suddenly worried.
Vin held up the silver dollar Dr. Chandler had given them, wiggling it back and forth between his thumb and index finger.
"That?" Chris asked him, confused now. "What is it?"
"Seven years ago..." Vin started, and the others made the quick calculation - back when Vin had been a sniper in the US Army, "...this hung 'round the neck of 'a Austrian who called himself Dragon," Tanner continued, his voice more deeply accented than usual. "His plan was t' blow up a room full 'a world leaders. One shot, I took the man down..."
Chris nodded, knowing that would have been Vin's job. And Tanner was good, damn good.
"His, uh, body flopped around on the ground... like a turkey with his damn neck snapped," Vin continued, his gaze turned inward as he recalled the events of that day. "They do that sometimes..."
Josiah nodded, having remembered seeing something like that several times over his own long career.
"This little girl- teenager," Vin corrected himself, "came over to him... yellin', screamin', cryin'..." He looked up, meeting Chris's eyes and the blond swallowed hard, already seeing where this was going. "Was his daughter," Tanner stated. "She weren't the Raptor then... just a scared little girl who'd watched her daddy die."
JD glanced away, shaking his head.
"Guess she's back t' settle some old debts," Vin concluded.
The muscles in Larabee's jaw jumped; there was no way in hell he was going to let that happen.
"Hey, guys," JD said, frowning and sliding off his desk. He slipped around to his chair and dropped into it, staring at his computer. "Get over here, quick."
The others, except Vin, moved to crowd in behind JD. On his monitor was the open data stream to Stein's desktop. And on it, Raptor was easing herself into a chair in front of the computer. The room was dark, and she leaned back, obviously willing to wait. She looked almost as bad as Ezra. Her face was bruised, a butterfly stitch holding a cut above her eye closed. A thick bandage was wrapped around her upper right arm.
"Looks like Ezra did more damage than he thought," Nathan commented.
A few minutes later Stein stalked into the room. "You?" he snapped when he got his first good look at her. "Who do I ask for a refund, you or your alter ego?"
She looked up at him, her eyes cold, then she stood. "They knew I was coming. Your organization has a leak."
"You blew it," Stein hissed back at her. "You owe me."
"Yes," she snarled back, "I do."
She turned and typed something on the computer, then tapped the enter key.
JD's screen turned blue. "Damn," he yelped, "feed's gone."
"Doesn't matter," Chris said. "It's time to take her down. Vin knows her MO, he'll run..." He trailed off, glancing around the office and looking for Tanner. "...point."
All that was left was the silver dollar, buzzing slightly on Tanner's desktop as it finally lost its energy and fell over to stop spinning.
"Damn it!" Larabee snarled. "He's gonna get himself killed."
Buck stepped up beside his friend and, reaching out, rested his hand on the man's shoulder. "He knows what he's doing, Chris."
"Let's go," Larabee replied, praying Buck was right.
Vin pulled up outside the building on his motorcycle, his gaze sweeping over the nearby rooftops, wondering if she would drop him before he even entered the warehouse. But some part of his mind knew that wouldn't happen. She wanted revenge, wanted it up close and personal. She would let him into the building where she would be waiting to stalk him, and then kill him.
Just like his recent dream, he realized, and a cold chill snaked its way down his back.
He removed his helmet and set it on the bike, then climbed off. He'd broken almost every traffic law there was to get to the warehouse as fast as he had, but he knew the others would be close behind. This had to be over before they got here, or they would become collateral damage in this little war.
He pulled his SIG 229 from its holster and checked the rooftops once more out of habit, and then he moved forward and checked the door. It was unlocked, which didn't surprise him, and he pulled it open, accepting the assassin's invitation to come in and play.
Easing into the darkness he could have sworn he heard the distant howl of a wolf, but that was impossible. It was just the dream, come back to haunt him.
His swept the interior with his gaze, his SIG following his gaze as if it were an extension of his eyes.
He moved farther into the building, silently, carefully, constantly checking left and right, up and down. As he reached the end of a row of expensive cars, he found one with the passenger side door open. A man was seated behind the wheel.
Vin eased around the front of the car, readied his weapon, and opened the driver's side door. The man fell over and spilled out of the vehicle, apparently dead. He squatted down, the open door giving him some cover and checked for a pulse, just to be sure.
Rising, he continued on, finding another of Stein's guards lying dead on the floor a little farther away. He moved past the body, the hole in the man's head making it unnecessary to check for a pulse this time.
Vin felt his heart beating fast, but concentrated on controlling his breathing, forcing his body into a state of calmness.
Moving silently forward, he kept up the same careful movements, always checking for a shadow that was out of place, the flash of movement in his peripheral vision, the telltale sound of a breath, or a footstep.
He felt something brush along the back of his neck, dropped and spun, ready to fire, but he didn't, his brain registering the truth and stopping him before the reality of what he was looking at reached the thinking part of his brain. Another victim, this one hanging upside down from a hook that held him suspended from the ceiling.
The body count was picking up. He was getting closer.
He found some stairs and made his way up, silent, like a ghost haunting the building, like the wolves, hunting in the forests.
At the top was a door. He eased through it only to find another open door across the hall. Another invitation, he knew.
Moving forward he stepped into Stein's office. The man himself was seated at his desk.
Vin crept up behind him, then slid to the side, reaching out to grab the man's neck at the same time. But he need not have bothered. Stein was dead as well, the Magellan chip pressed into his forehead. The sniper pulled it free and slipped it into his pocket, wondering what kind of damage blood could do to a computer chip. JD would know, but he didn't.
The computer monitor was turned off. A small radio with an earpiece and a throat mike was sitting in front of it, and a note was taped to the screen, two words written on it: Use it.
Vin picked up the unit, continuing to scan the room for danger as he made his way over to a corner that offered him some cover, then holstered the SIG and quickly clipped the radio unit to his web belt. He slipped the throat mike choker around his neck and snapped it into place, then positioned the receiver in his ear and pressed along the choker to activate the mike.
He reached down, drawing his SIG once more and starting forward, Raptor's voice saying into his ear, "Let's finish this." Her voice was hard, cold.
He didn't reply, just continued on to the door and, after checking, stepped out into the hallway. She could be anywhere in the building and now she was hunting him, just like he was hunting her.
It was just like his dream...
He made his way back down the stairs and into the open space of the warehouse floor.
"Vincent Michael Tanner... You're a very special kind of man, aren't you?" she asked him.
He reached up, pressing the earpiece into his ear a little deeper, eyes and weapon moving constantly
"No matter what you see in their eyes..." she continued, "pain... sorrow... you pull the trigger."
He remained silent, moving, looking, waiting. He listened, hearing the faint echo of her voice in both ears, using that to guide him.
"Do you get the rush?" she asked him, and then answered herself before he could - not that he had intended to. "No, of course not. You're a professional... Emotions don't enter into it."
He turned left and then right as she spoke, moving in the direction the echo seemed to be louder from. Staying in the shadows, he continued. He breathed deeply, rhythmically, his heartbeat slowing. His senses were focused, working better than usual.
"You don't have fun with it, do you?" She sounded like he must be a fool not to.
His steps were silent, deliberate. He tilted his head, turned it left, then right, and then left again. He changed course, his SIG moving up and down, an extension of his eyes now, ready to bring death.
"Must be hard to get up in the morning, huh?"
Not as hard as she seemed to think.
"It helps to have a reason to get up... I had a reason," she told him. "I spent years looking... backtracking... going through the kill books of men like you... until I found the one."
He liked the sound of her voice, the cadence of it, even the accent. She could have made a good living reading books onto tape.
"Then I had to find just the right job... plant just the right intel... It's always better when the target comes to you..."
He preferred going after his target; the hunt. It was primal, something that lived in the history of his cells - something that rose up inside of him and took over, his thoughts, his feelings slipping away like clothing being shed. They were trappings of a modern world, a civilized world. But the hunt wasn't civilized. It was survival.
"I saw it all happen... My father was totally defenseless. I know your rationale... you were saving lives."
That was what he had told himself, after the fact. At the time, though, it was only the hunt - predator against predator, the first one to kill the one who survives.
"Life is overrated... a never-ending chain of miseries..."
He had believed that once, but not any longer. He had friends now, family. And he was getting closer...
"The men I killed here tonight... I did them a favor... And I had fun doing it."
Definitely closer... He could feel the hum begin in his blood, feel it like a mist of electricity that wrapped itself around him, lifting the hairs on his arms.
"How about a change of scenery?"
He was too close; she was moving at last. He heard the soft squeak of metal hinges, the sharp stab of her heels as she descended the stairs.
And he was moving, thoughts evaporating as the hunt took over. He was the predator now, she the prey. He tracked her, moving through the warehouse swiftly, surely, maneuvering around cars and crates of auto body parts and engines.
Catching the shimmer of a shadow moving, he dropped into a crouch, the SIG coming up, ready to fire, but she was already behind cover, waiting for him to move from his cover so she had a shot.
It was as if he could hear the air stir as she leaned far enough to check. But he held his position, nostrils flared. Then he moved, checking to the left and to the right. He no longer bothered with up and down. They were on the same level; he knew that with absolute certainty. He would hear it if she tried to climb, or took cover beneath a car.
"You think we're different, Vincent... You are doing the right thing, no matter the consequences..."
He moved, knowing somehow that she had stopped.
Somewhere in the back of his mind he could see the images from his dream, the body... turning it over... finding himself, a bullet hole in his forehead...
"But there are consequences..." she told him.
"Kill confirmed," he heard his own voice say...
"It's time you take responsibility for your actions," she stated, voice gone cold and hard again.
He moved faster now, but it seemed to his eyes as if everything was slowing down.
"You are just like me..." She snorted softly, an attempt at laughter. "You're a killer."
He could smell her now, a faint copper tinge to the mix of sweat and some kind of sweet perfume. Blood. He smelled blood, and he felt himself begin to loosen up, his muscles moving more fluidly, more easily, more swiftly, even if his eyes were watching everything drift past at a snail's pace.
"But the killing is easy... Living with it is hard."
Close, so close. He heard himself say, "I'm nothing like you."
She chuffed. "Ah, the man of few words finally speaks."
It's always better when the target comes to you... "Y' got a problem, lady," he told her, reaching up to turn off the throat mike.
"What's that?" she asked him.
"Y' talk too much," he said, stepping out into the open. He watched as she spun toward him. It was so slow, her blonde hair flying out like a dancer's as his finger gently squeezed the trigger. And then she was spinning back in the other direction, falling... falling...
He watched her hit the ground, bounce slightly; a soft grunt of surprise.
Stepping closer, his eyes met hers, but it was already too late, the life had left them before she had struck the ground. The perfectly round hole in her forehead leaked a drop of blood.
"Kill confirmed," he whispered into the night.
Outside Stein's warehouse
Vin was sitting on his motorcycle, waiting, when Larabee and the others arrived. Chris was the first one out of the vehicles, stalking toward him. He stopped when he reached Tanner, who was playing with something in his hand. "You didn't say goodbye," he chastised the sniper.
Vin flashed him a small smile, glad that he didn't sound too pissed off. But he'd needed to do this alone. He wiggled the item in his fingers at Larabee.
"The Magellan chip?" Chris questioned.
Vin nodded again and handed it to his friend, saying, "Enjoy life..."
Chris grinned. "Eat out, more often," he finished in an echo of their earlier exchange.
Buck and Josiah exchanged confused looks, but it didn't matter if they didn't understand. It was over, and Vin had survived, unharmed.
"Raptor?" Nathan asked him.
He jerked his head in the direction of the warehouse. "Inside."
"Dead?" JD asked him.
Tanner nodded. "Oh, yeah."
In the distance, the wail of a siren reached them. They would be there for a while, dealing with the scene, the paperwork. Chris reached into his pocket and pulled out a candy bar, handing it to Vin, who accepted it and tore it open as JD asked, "What about Stein?"
"She killed 'em all b'fore I got here," Tanner said around a bite of the bar.
"So it's all over but the paperwork," Buck said and grinned.
The following day, late morning
As soon as Ezra stepped out of the bathroom in his room, Nathan was there and he helped the man back over to his bed and eased him down. As the undercover man lay back against his pillows, the former medic lifted Standish's injured leg and swung it over to the stack of pillows, placing it in the center for him.
"How're you feelin'?" he asked the injured agent.
"Not nearly as bad as I appear, I'm afraid," was the mournful reply.
The other five men scattered around the room all grinned. Leave it to the undercover agent to be worried about his rakish good looks having been damaged by Raptor's attack.
"Hell, Ez, even if you're only feeling half as bad as you look, reckon I could shoot y' right there and put y' outta yer misery," Tanner drawled laconically.
"A thought that has crossed my mind, Mr. Tanner," was the immediate droll reply. "But then I thought... what a tragic waste."
The grins widened and the men chuckled.
"You want me to get a nurse?" Nathan asked him seriously, seeing the man's very real wince of pain.
Ezra's eyes opened. "No, thank you, Mr. Jackson." He looked around at the men who had somehow become his friends, his family, his gaze stopping when it reached Vin. "And I am given to understand that you were the Raptor's intended target?"
Tanner nodded once. "Yep. Didn't take too kindly t' the fact I killed her daddy."
"No, Mr. Tanner, you didn't kill her father. You simply did your job, and stopped an assassin from killing God knows how many innocent people," Ezra corrected him.
Vin's gaze immediately dropped to the floor and his cheeks colored slightly, but it was enough for the others to see the reaction.
"Innocent politicians?" Buck questioned dryly, sparing Vin any additional embarrassment.
"Well, innocent can certainly be a relative term," Ezra clarified.
Vin tilted his head to the side slightly. Yes, it had been his job, and he had saved lives, but he wasn't sure he hadn't enjoyed it, too, enjoyed the hunt... But at the time, it had just been what had to be done, and he knew he'd do it again tomorrow if the same situation arose.
"When they lettin' ya out of here?" he asked Ezra.
The undercover agent sighed loudly. "They have yet to make that clear to me," he stated grumpily.
"Well, maybe Nathan and I can find that out for you," Josiah offered.
"Any assistance you could provide, ascertaining the occurrence of my future emancipation from this place would be greatly appreciated."
Nathan and Josiah both stopped to stare at the man. "He actually managed that while on drugs," Sanchez said, a touch of awe in his voice.
Nathan nodded, equally impressed.
"One 'a ya want t' translate?" Vin asked the two men.
Buck grinned, saying, "Think he was just thankin' Nate and Josiah for finding out when he's gonna get sprung."
"Indeed, Mr. Wilmington, indeed."
The two men left, grinning. Buck walked over to JD and snaked his arm around the younger man's neck, saying, "C'mon, kid, let's go get some coffee." He looked up at the others. "We'll be back in a few. Ezra, you want anything?"
"No, thank you," Standish replied, watching them go. Then he looked over at Vin and Chris, who were leaning against the wall, side by side. "Are you all right?" he asked Vin directly.
Tanner nodded. "I'm fine, you just worry about getting better yourself."
Ezra nodded. "I will recuperate as soon as I can escape this place." He looked at the two men. "I'll be fine. Why don't you go on home, get some rest."
"That's what I'm supposed to be telling you," Chris reminded him.
The man smiled. "Yes, well, I'm feeling a little tired and thought I would take a brief nap..." He paused long enough to yawn loudly. "...If you wouldn't mind?"
"Sure," Chris said, pushing away from the wall. Vin did the same. "You get some rest. I'll let Buck and JD know."
"I do appreciate it..." Ezra said, his voice trailing off as his eyes closed.
The two men waited for a moment, watching as the man's breathing grew deeper and slower. Then they stepped out into the hallway, waiting until Buck and JD came back a few minutes later, letting them know that Ezra was sleeping. And, shortly after, Josiah and Nathan returned as well.
"They're planning to let him go home tomorrow, around ten or so," Nathan said.
"I'll pick him up and take him home," Josiah said. "I already have a bag packed so I can stay with him for a couple of days."
"Sounds good," Chris said, looking around at the men. He smiled. "Look, why don't you guys head on home, get some rest, relax. We'll get back to it day after tomorrow."
There were nods and smiles from the others and the men headed out. Chris glanced over at Vin, saying, "Thought you might like to get out of town for a while. Why don't you come out to the ranch?"
Tanner thought for a moment, and then nodded. "Sounds good," he said. It would be good to get away from everything for a while, and he loved Larabee's ranch, even boarded his horse out there. Right now some time up in the hills on the cantankerous gelding was just what he wanted.
Chris nodded. "We can stop by your place on the way out, so you can grab your stuff."
"Appreciate it," Vin said, still more than a little amazed that he had been accepted into this band of brothers.
Chris nodded and they walked out to the parking lot in silence.
A few hours later
Peso picked his way along the rocky trail and Vin sat on his back, letting himself finally relax. He and Chris had stopped by his apartment, then headed for the ranch, stopping at Mom and Pop's, a small diner not far from the turn off to the property, for lunch. After Tanner had stowed his stuff in Larabee's guest room, the two men had headed out to the barn to ready their horses.
Pony was trailing along behind Peso now, happy to let the big horse find the best path. Chris and Vin hadn't talked, each just enjoying the beautiful spring day.
When they reached the small meadow Tanner had discovered on a ride a few weeks back, they climbed down from their saddles and looked around at the breathtaking scenery.
"Beautiful, ain't it?" Tanner asked softly.
"It sure is," Chris replied, wondering how he'd missed the spot all these years. He glanced over at the younger man and asked, "You all right? Really all right?"
Vin turned to meet his eyes, but he didn't answer immediately. He considered the question for a long moment, then nodded and said, "Yeah, I think so... will be, anyway."
Chris could see the lingering turmoil hiding behind the man's pale blue eyes. "Sucks when the past comes back to haunt you..." he said quietly. He had plenty of his own demons.
Vin took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out. "She said we were the same," he said, voice soft, his eyes taking on a faraway look.
"And do you think so?" Chris asked after several moments passed and Tanner still hadn't continued.
Vin blinked and refocused on Larabee. "Maybe... a little."
"What makes you say that?"
"Reckon we both enjoy the hunt," he said. "Just feel a little different about the kill."
Chris nodded. "She was a hired killer, an assassin."
"And I'm a sniper... a paid killer and sometimes even a paid assassin."
"You're just doing your job, your duty."
Tanner nodded. "And she was just doin' what her daddy taught her. I know there's a difference, Chris, don't get me wrong. But sometimes that line can get a little blurred... and that can be damn uncomfortable."
"That's why you need friends, family," Larabee told him. "So they can help you make that line a little clearer."
Vin nodded. "Reckon that's true, too," he admitted, his cheeks turning a little pink. "Been a long, long time since I felt like I belonged somewhere... really belonged... y'know?"
"Yeah, I know," Chris replied, a small smile lifting the corners of his mouth. "The team... It's been a long time for me, too."
"Think Josiah's gonna survive a few days at Ezra's?" Vin asked, abruptly changing the subject before either of them ventured too far into territory they weren't comfortable with.
Chris grinned. "Oh, probably... If he's lucky."
Chuckling softly, Tanner climbed back into his saddle. "Ez did a whole lot better than I expected."
Larabee nodded his agreement. "He's come a long way, too," he said, looked up at the man who had become closer to him than a brother in so short a time.
Vin understood exactly what Chris was saying, and he felt a few more of the ghosts from his past set free. He had found his place... friends... family... and he felt, for the first time in many years, at peace.
Author's Note: This story first appeared in the multi-media zine, A Small Circle of Friends #11, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. This is our recycling zine, and this is a recycle of the "Scorned" episode of Soldier of Fortune, Inc. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of our zines that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang - Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 12-5-2006. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com)