/ Language: English / Genre:det_police, / Series: NCIS

Blood Lines

Mel Odom


Mel Odom

Blood Lines

1

Gymnasium

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

1203 Hours

“Did you come here to play basketball or wage war?”

Shelton McHenry, gunnery sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, shook the sweat out of his eyes and ignored the question. After long minutes of hard exertion, his breath echoed inside his head and chest. His throat burned. Despite the air-conditioning, the gym felt hot. He put his hands on his head and sucked in a deep breath of air. It didn’t help. He still felt mean.

There was no other word for it. He wanted the workout provided by the game, but he wanted it for the physical confrontation rather than the exercise. He had hoped it would burn through the restless anger that rattled within him.

Normally when he got like this, he tried to stay away from other people. He would gather up Max, the black Labrador retriever that was his military canine partner, and go for a run along a secluded beach until he exhausted the emotion. Sometimes it took hours.

That anger had been part of him since he was a kid. He had never truly understood it, but he’d learned to master it-for the most part-a long time ago. But now and again, there were bad days when it got away from him. Usually those bad days were holidays.

Today was Father’s Day. It was the worst of all of them. Even Christmas, a time when families got together, wasn’t as bad as Father’s Day. During the heady rush of Christmas-muted by the sheer effort and logistics of getting from one place to another after another, of making sure presents for his brother’s kids were intact and wrapped and not forgotten, of preparing and consuming the endless supply of food-he could concentrate on something other than his father.

But not today. Never on Father’s Day.

The anger was bad enough, but the thing that totally wrecked him and kicked his butt was the guilt. Even though he didn’t know what to do, there was no escaping the fact that he should be doing something. He was supposed to be back home.

Usually he was stationed somewhere and could escape the guilt by making a quick phone call, offering up an apology, and losing himself back in the field. But after taking the MOS change to Naval Criminal Investigative Service, he was free on weekends unless the team was working a hot case.

At present, there were no hot cases on the horizon. There wasn’t even follow-up to anything else they’d been working on. He’d had no excuse for not going. Don, his brother, had called a few days ago to find out if Shel was coming. Shel had told him no but had offered no reason. Don had been kind enough not to ask why. So Shel was stuck with the anger, guilt, and frustration.

“You hearing me, gunney?”

Shel restrained the anger a step before it got loose. Over on the sidelines of the gym, Max gave a tentative bark. The Labrador paced uneasily, and Shel knew the dog sensed his mood.

Dial it down, he told himself. Just finish up here. Be glad you’re able to work through it.

He just wished it helped more.

“Yeah,” Shel said. “I hear you.”

“Good. ’Cause for a second there I thought you’d checked out on me.” Remy Gautreau mopped his face with his shirt.

He was young and black, hard-bodied but lean, where Shel looked like he’d been put together with four-by-fours. Gang tattoos in blue ink showed on Remy’s chest and abdomen when he’d lifted his shirt. Shel had noticed the tattoos before, but he hadn’t asked about them. Even after working together for more than a year, it wasn’t something soldiers talked about.

Before he’d entered the Navy and trained as a Navy SEAL, Remy Gautreau had been someone else. Most enlisted had. Then whatever branch of military service they signed on for changed them into someone else. The past was shed as easily as a snake lost its skin. Men and women were given a different present for that time and usually ended up with a different future than they would have had.

But they don’t take away the past, do they? Shel asked himself. They just pretend it never happened.

“Where you been?” Remy asked.

“Right here.” Shel broke eye contact with the other man. He could lie out in the field when it was necessary, but he had trouble lying to friends. “Playing center.”

Remy was part of the NCIS team that Shel was currently assigned to. His rank was chief petty officer. He wore bright orange knee-length basketball shorts and a white Tar Heels basketball jersey. Shel wore Marine-issue black shorts and a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves hacked off. Both men bore bullet and knife scars from previous battles.

The other huddle of players stood at their end of the basketball court. Other groups of men were waiting their turn.

Shel and Remy were playing iron man pickup basketball. The winning team got to stay on the court, but they had to keep winning. While they were getting more tired, each successive team rested up. Evading fatigue, learning to play four hard and let the fifth man rest on his feet, was a big part of staying on top. It was a lot like playing chess.

“You’ve been here,” Remy agreed in a soft voice. “But this ain’t where your head’s been. You just been visiting this game.”

“Guy’s good, Remy. I’m doing my best.”

The other team’s center was Del Greene, a giant at six feet eight inches tall-four inches taller than Shel. But he was more slender than Shel, turned better in the tight corners, and could get up higher on the boards. Rebounding the ball after each shot was an immense struggle, but once in position Shel was hard to move. He’d come down with his fair share of rebounds.

Basketball wasn’t Shel’s game. He’d played it all through high school, but football was his chosen gladiator’s field in the world of sports. He had played linebacker and had been offered a full-ride scholarship to a dozen different colleges. He had opted for the Marines instead. Anything to shake the dust of his father’s cattle ranch from his boots. None of the colleges had been far enough away for what he had wanted at the time. After all those years of misunderstandings on the ranch, Shel had just wanted to be gone.

“You’re doing great against that guy,” Remy said. “Better than I thought you would. He’s a better basketball player, but you’re a better thinker. You’re shutting him down. Which is part of the problem. You’re taking his game away from him and it’s making him mad. Problem is, you got no finesse. He’s wearing you like a cheap shirt. If we had a referee for this game, you’d already have been tossed for personal fouls.”

“Yeah, well, he doesn’t play like a homecoming queen himself.” Shel wiped his mouth on his shirt. The material came away bloody. He had caught an elbow in the face last time that had split the inside of his cheek. “He’s not afraid of dishing it out.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t say that fool didn’t have it coming, but I am saying that this isn’t the time or the place for a grudge match.” Remy wiped his face with his shirt again. “The last thing we need is for Will to have to come down and get us out of the hoosegow over a basketball game. He’s already stressed over Father’s Day because he’s having to share his time with his kids’ new stepfather.”

Shel knew United States Navy Commander Will Coburn to be a fine man and officer. He had followed Will into several firefights during their years together on the NCIS team.

The marriage of Will’s ex-wife was only months old. Everyone on the team knew that Will had taken the marriage in stride as best as he could, but the change was still a lot to deal with. Having his kids involved only made things worse. Before, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day had been mutually exclusive. This year the kids’ mother had insisted that the day be shared between households.

One of the other players stepped forward. “Are we going to play ball? Or are you two just going to stand over there and hold hands?”

Shel felt that old smile-the one that didn’t belong and didn’t reflect anything that was going on inside him-curve his lips. That smile had gotten him into a lot of trouble with his daddy and had been a definite warning to his brother, Don.

The other team didn’t have a clue.

“The way you guys are playing,” Shel said as he stepped toward the other team, “I think we’ve got time to do both.”

Behind him, Shel heard Remy curse.

›› 1229 Hours

At the offensive goal, Shel worked hard to break free of the other player’s defense. But every move he made, every step he took, Greene was on top of him. Shel knew basketball, but the other guy knew it better.

A small Hispanic guy named Melendez played point guard for Shel and Remy’s team. He flipped the ball around the perimeter with quick, short passes back and forth to the wings. Unable to get a shot off, Remy and the other wing kept passing the ball back.

Shel knew they wanted to get the ball inside to him if they could. They needed the basket to tie up the game. They were too tired to go back down the court and end up two buckets behind.

Melendez snuck a quick pass by the guard and got the ball to Shel. With a fast spin, Shel turned and tried to put the ball up. But as soon as it left his fingers, Greene slapped the shot away. Thankfully Melendez managed to recover the loose ball.

“Don’t you try to bring that trash in here,” Greene taunted. “This is my house. Nobody comes into my house.” Sweat dappled his dark features and his mocking smile showed white and clean. “You may be big, gunney, but you ain’t big enough. You hear what I’m saying?”

Shel tried to ignore the mocking voice and the fact that Greene was now bumping up against him even harder than before. The man wasn’t just taunting anymore. He was going for an all-out assault.

Melendez caught a screen from Remy and rolled out with the basketball before the other defensive player could pick him up. One of the key elements to their whole game was the fact that most of them had played ball before. Greene was a good player-maybe even a great player-but one man didn’t make a team. Special forces training taught a man that.

Free and open, Melendez put up a twenty-foot jump shot. Shel rolled around Greene to get the inside position for the rebound. Greene had gone up in an effort to deflect the basketball. He was out of position when he came back down.

Shel timed his jump as the basketball ran around the ring and fell off. He went up and intercepted the ball cleanly. He was trying to bring the ball in close when Greene stepped around him and punched the basketball with a closed fist.

The blow knocked the ball back into Shel’s face. It slammed against his nose and teeth hard enough to snap his head back. He tasted blood immediately and his eyes watered. The sudden onslaught of pain chipped away at the control that Shel had maintained. He turned instantly, and Greene stood ready and waiting. Two of the guys on his team fell in behind him.

“You don’t want none of this,” Greene crowed. “I promise you don’t want none of this.” He had his hands raised in front of him and stood in what Shel recognized as a martial arts stance.

Shel wasn’t big on martial arts. Most of his hand-to-hand combat ability had been picked up in the field and from men he had sparred with to increase his knowledge.

“You’re a big man,” Greene snarled, “but I’m badder.”

Despite the tension that had suddenly filled the gymnasium and the odds against him, Shel grinned. This was more along the lines of what he needed. He took a step forward.

Remy darted between them and put his hands up. “That’s it. Game’s over. We’re done here.”

“Then who wins the game?” another man asked.

“We win the game,” one of the men on Shel’s team said.

“Your big man fouled intentionally,” Melendez said. “That’s a forfeit in my book.”

“Good thing you ain’t keepin’ the book,” Greene said. He never broke eye contact with Shel. “Is that how you gonna call it, dawg? Gonna curl up like a little girl and cry? Or are you gonna man up and play ball?”

Remy turned to face the heckler. “Back off, clown. You don’t even know the trouble you’re trying to buy into.”

Greene was faster than Shel expected even after playing against the man. Before Remy could raise his hands to defend himself, Greene hit him in the face.

Driven by the blow, Remy staggered backward.

2

›› Gymnasium

›› Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

›› 1238 Hours

Shel exploded into action, throwing himself forward and lifting his hands to protect his face and head. Greene tried to take advantage of his longer reach and hit Shel, but the big Marine slapped the blows aside like they were nothing.

Greene pulled his arms in to better defend himself and even managed to get off another punch, but Shel ducked his head and took the blow on his forehead. Something in Greene’s hand snapped. He roared and cursed in pain as he tried to backpedal.

Mercilessly, Shel drove forward and caught his opponent around the throat with his left hand. He clamped down hard enough to shut Greene’s air off.

Panic widened Greene’s eyes. He flailed at Shel. Instead of releasing his hold, Shel tucked his head between his arms and squeezed harder. Blood veins swelled in Greene’s eyes. He struggled to speak, but it came out only as a cough.

One of Greene’s men came up on Shel’s right and threw a punch at his head. Shel leaned forward, pressed his face into Greene’s, and let the blow slide by across his shoulders. Then he swept his fist back over his attacker’s arm and caught the man on the side of the face.

The man dropped like a poleaxed steer.

Another man kicked at Shel from the left side, but Shel lifted his arm to block the effort, felt the impact shiver along his forearm and elbow, and drop-kicked the man in the crotch.

The man sank to his knees and retched. Before he could get up, Max ran to join in. Trained in combat, the Labrador seized the man’s arm and yanked him to one side into a sprawl. The man tried to get up. Max growled threateningly. The man got the message and lay still.

For a moment, Shel was lost in the anger that he normally kept locked away. He stood in the center of a gray fog and nothing seemed real. Then Remy was there. At first, Shel couldn’t even hear what the other man was saying. He saw Remy’s lips moving, but nothing reached his ears.

Then, in a rush, the world came back into focus.

“Shel!” Remy cursed and grabbed Shel’s arm. “Let him go! Shel! You’re going to kill him!”

Shel suddenly realized that Greene was deadweight hanging at the end of his arm. Remy had hold of Shel’s thumb and was peeling it back.

With effort, Shel bottled the anger and put it away. He made himself breathe out. Then he opened his hand and let Greene sag to the floor. He knew he wouldn’t have killed Greene. He still possessed enough control to stop short of that. But he wanted the man humbled.

By that time several Marines and sailors were closing in. Most of them hung back, uncertain about what to do.

“Calm down,” Remy ordered the crowd. “We got everything under control here.” He fished his ID card out of his pocket. “Special Agent Gautreau. NCIS. Anybody who wants to go home from this will stay out of it.”

›› Locker Room

›› Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

›› 1307 Hours

“You want to tell me what that was about?”

Shel tucked his shirttail into his jeans, buttoned the fly, and cinched his belt. He had pulled his boots on right after his pants the way he always did. The shirt always went on last.

Remy, still dressed in basketball clothes, leaned against the lockers in the dressing room. Everyone else in the room gave them plenty of space.

MPs had arrived within minutes and started sorting everything out. Remy had interfaced with them and cut Shel loose, which had suited Shel just fine.

“What?” Shel asked. “The part where Greene was ticked about potentially losing the game because he got tired of me hanging with him? Or the part where you stepped into that haymaker and nearly ended up lights out? Because, honestly, neither one of those things makes sense to me.”

Remy looked flustered. “I didn’t see him because I was busy watching you.”

“ I wasn’t going to hit you.” Shel calmly put his gear into a gym bag and zipped it.

“At the time, looking at you, I thought you might hit anybody.”

Shel flashed Remy a crooked-toothed grin. He didn’t feel humorous, but he’d learned that a show of gentler emotion sometimes defused a situation even if he didn’t feel it.

“I wouldn’t have hit you,” Shel said. “I wouldn’t even have hit him if he hadn’t hit you.” And maybe that was the truth.

“It was just a game.”

“Yeah. I had a good time. Glad you invited me.”

Remy looked at Shel as if he thought he were insane. “We could have gotten waxed out there.”

“Me and you?” Shel shook his head. “We could have taken a dozen guys like Greene. Maybe two dozen. He crawfished out of the situation quick enough once things started to go south.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“That’s because you didn’t see that look on your face when he pasted you.”

Remy frowned and touched his jaw tenderly. “We could have gotten in a lot of trouble.”

“Not from Greene and his buddies.” Shel reached back and ruffled Max’s ears.

“From the MPs. We could have spent Father’s Day in lockdown.”

“We aren’t. C’mon. I’ll buy you a beer at the canteen.”

Remy didn’t readily agree.

That bothered Shel. He believed in working closely with his team. Remy’s reluctance, though understandable, hurt.

A cell phone rang shrilly and cut through the hiss of water coming from the showers. Remy reached into his pocket, pulled out his phone, flipped it open, and spoke his name.

Shel leaned up against the lockers and waited like he was totally relaxed. Instead, his insides twisted even tighter. His anger was an old acquaintance. He knew from experience that it wasn’t going to be easily dismissed. He needed another diversion.

And the canteen’s probably the last place you need to be, he told himself honestly. Thinking about it, he figured beer and a pizza would be a better choice. He felt the need to apologize to Remy. That was normal too.

Remy listened to the phone conversation for a few minutes, then said, “Sure” and closed the phone. He looked at Shel in idle speculation. “That was Maggie.”

Shel waited. Special Agent Maggie Foley was the team’s only civilian agent. She specialized in interrogation and profiling. Before landing the post at NCIS, she had been a Boston police officer.

“I thought maybe she was calling because she’d heard about what went down here,” Remy said.

Shel had figured the same thing.

“But she’s calling about something else,” Remy went on. “How do you feel about doing a job on Father’s Day?”

“What kind of job?”

“Fugitive recovery op. Got a guy on the local Most Wanted board that just turned up in Charlotte.”

“Sure.” Shel grabbed his gym bag. “You got a change of clothes?”

“Yeah.”

“You coming?”

“Planned on it. I don’t know that you’re safe out there alone.”

Shel gave Remy another crooked-toothed grin and slid his mirrored sunglasses into place. “Grab a shower and change while I go get my truck. If you’re not out front in ten minutes, you’ll have to catch up.”

Remy cursed at him but started working on the combination to his locker.

Shel stepped out of the room. He was aware that most of the men were staring at him. He didn’t like the attention, but he blew it off and concentrated on the job in front of him. Being in motion helped soothe him.

This was what he needed.

›› Gymnasium Parking Area

›› Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

›› 1326 Hours

Shel sat behind the steering wheel of his black Jeep Rubicon and ignored the fact that two MP Hummers now occupied the parking area in front of the gym. He knew they were there because of what had happened earlier.

Violence was part of every soldier’s world. If it wasn’t present out on the battlefield or in whatever country he was policing, then it lurked in the camps, posts, and bases where those warriors gathered. Violence was a necessary product of the trade they practiced, and it didn’t always stay under control.

Max sat patient and quiet in the backseat. The dog had learned to adjust to Shel’s dark moods when they stole up on him.

After checking his watch, Shel popped the glove compartment open and took out a dog treat. He called the dog’s name, then flipped the treat over his shoulder. Max caught it easily and devoured it with a couple of noisy chomps.

“You’re not the most polite company I could have,” Shel told the dog’s reflection in the rearview mirror.

Max barked at him.

“When we get back from this, if there’s time, I’ll take you down to the beach,” Shel promised.

Max barked again.

One of the first things Shel had learned after being paired with a K-9 unit was how smart the dogs were. He knew that Max didn’t understand his words, but he also knew the dog understood his intent. There were more good things in store for him than just the dog treat.

Lynyrd Skynyrd played on the stereo. Shel could listen to-and appreciate-a lot of different music, but it was Southern rock that took him back to his roots outside Fort Davis, Texas.

His daddy hadn’t cared for the rock and roll too much, but Shel knew Tyrel McHenry was acquainted with it. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles had been big during the Vietnam War when Tyrel had served.

But back home, Tyrel only listened to country and western music. Hank Williams Sr., Bob Wills, and a handful of others made up the core of his musical library. He had cut off anything new about the time Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn were singing together. But he had made allowances for George Strait and Randy Travis.

His daddy, Shel reflected, was some piece of work. He was a hard man to understand and a harder man to get to know. But he’d been fair when Shel and his brother were growing up.

Just never warm. Especially not after Shel and Don’s mama had died. That was how Tyrel had always referred to her. “The boys’ mama.” Never his wife.

And just like that, Shel was thinking about his daddy and his daddy’s ways all over again.

›› 1328 Hours

Remy jogged to a fire-engine red Camaro Z-28 that he had restored and continually worked on. He opened the trunk and dropped his gym bag inside, then hauled out the duffel containing his gear. All of the team carried spare weapons and tactical armor everywhere they went. It was the nature of the job.

Shel pulled up behind Remy and waited as the other man threw his duffel in the back. Remy kept out a 9 mm Beretta M9 pistol in a paddle holster. He wore a loose basketball jersey outside of his khaki pants that would cover the weapon.

Weapon already in place, Remy slid into the passenger seat. Golden yellow wraparound sunglasses masked his eyes.

“You ready to do this?” Remy asked.

“Yeah.”

“’Cause after that scene on the basketball court, I’m not so sure.”

Shel throttled the angry response and concentrated on breathing out. Pleasant or not, Remy’s concerns were warranted.

“I’m fine.” Shel slipped the Jeep into gear and headed out of the parking lot.

“You’re fine?”

“Yeah.”

“Just like that, you’re fine?” Remy clearly had a hard time believing that.

Shel glanced at him. “Yeah.”

“Then you tell me what that business back at the basketball game was.”

“An aberration.”

“Cool,” Remy said sarcastically. “I feel all relieved now. You’re using big words and everything.”

“You’re really going to make this hard, aren’t you?”

“We’re lucky we’re still outside a cell, still walking around. So, yeah, I’m gonna make this hard.”

“I got a thing,” Shel replied.

“What kind of thing? About winning basketball?”

Shel made himself tell the truth. “About Father’s Day.”

Remy stared at him in silence for a moment. “Oh. Okay.” Then he relaxed back into his seat like he was hesitant about saying anything else.

3

›› Interstate 40

›› West of Jacksonville, North Carolina

›› 1403 Hours

Charlotte was just under five hours from Camp Lejeune. After they were out of Jacksonville, the town surrounding the Marine camp, Shel headed west on Interstate 40, chasing the sun.

“If the traffic stays good,” Shel said, “we’ll be in Charlotte around seven.”

Remy nodded. He leaned back in the seat and played a PSP game. Earbuds filled his head with the sounds of battle on the brightly lit screen. He had pulled out the game system before they’d cleared the main gates at the camp.

“Is our fugitive still going to be there?” Shel asked.

“Yep.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yep.” Remy twisted and turned slightly in his seat as he followed the game’s shifting environment.

“And if he’s not?”

“Then maybe I saved Camp Lejeune from Shelzilla. Bad thing is nobody knows, and I don’t get a medal or a commendation.”

Shel took in a deep breath and let it out.

“That ain’t gonna work,” Remy said.

“What?” Shel asked irritably.

“Trying to suck in all the oxygen in the Jeep and hoping I pass out from asphyxiation.”

The growing irritation inside Shel almost broke free. “You planning a comedy routine?”

Remy grinned a brilliant white smile. “Nope. This is what you call natural humor. But if you want, I can use hand puppets. Might make it easier for the slow kids to comprehend.”

Shel ignored him. And he continued to do so for the next 137 miles.

›› Interstate 40

›› Outside Greensboro, North Carolina

›› 1619 Hours

Shel pumped gas at the small convenience store while Remy went to grab some burgers from the fast food franchise located inside. Max ran around the dog-walking area.

By the time Shel paid for the gas, cleaned up after Max, hit the head, and returned to the Jeep, Remy stood waiting with two paper sacks of burgers and fries and a tray containing a half-dozen bottles of water. They divvied the food, and Remy emptied one of the water bottles into a dish beside the Jeep for Max.

“Who’s the fugitive?” Shel unwrapped one of the burgers and took a bite.

“A lowlife named Bobby Lee Gant.” Remy bit into his burger, then winced a little; Shel saw him try to cover the reaction. Remy’s jaw was still swollen from the punch he’d taken.

Shel chewed, thought for a moment, then swallowed. “The biker guy who did the carjacking in Jacksonville back in April?”

Remy nodded. “That’s the one.”

The carjacking, which had involved a young Marine and his wife, had been particularly heinous. The couple had been shopping in Jacksonville. The Marine had just returned from Iraq. While they’d been stopped at a light, Bobby Lee Gant and three of his buddies had driven up beside them on their motorcycles. Gant and one of his buddies had ridden doubled up.

At the light, Gant slid off the motorcycle he had been a passenger on, crossed to the young Marine’s car, and smashed the window with a tire iron. Then he’d taken a pistol from his belt and shoved it into the Marine’s face.

Just back from Iraq and the horrors he had seen there, the Marine hadn’t reacted well to the open violence. He’d grabbed for Gant’s pistol automatically and ended up getting shot in the face. He had survived but had been forced to undergo cutting-edge reconstructive surgeries to repair the damage. His right eye had been lost, and his military career had ended at the same time.

One of the other men had yanked the wife out onto the street. Then Gant had driven off in the car while his friends followed on the bikes, leaving the couple behind. Luckily the Marine’s wife had her cell phone and was able to call for medical assistance immediately.

NCIS had been trying to get a lead on the biker for the last two months. It was the kind of assignment Shel enjoyed: danger with a hint of vengeance.

“How’d we find him?” Shel asked.

“Charlotte PD nabbed Gant’s girlfriend on a holding charge. She’s pregnant. A fall like that, she’d be inside county lockup and the kid would end up on its own. She tried to pull hardship, claimed that her family had disowned her and nobody would take care of her kid. Charlotte DA froze her out.”

“Hard.”

“Yeah.”

Despite the years of military life, wars, and what he had seen while with NCIS, Shel hadn’t hardened to the struggles of others. He empathized with the young mother. A lot of people who trafficked in crime weren’t evil. Not like Bobby Lee Gant. They were just people looking for an easy or quick way out of a bad situation.

“The girlfriend rolled on Gant?” Shel asked.

“Like a log.” Remy pushed the last of his first burger into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Afternoon sunlight glinted on his yellow gold lenses.

“Did Charlotte PD check her story out?”

“Maggie says no. They don’t have any paper outstanding on Gant and we’re not going to let them play on our court. They forwarded it to us.”

Shel unwrapped his second burger, then tossed one of the meat patties Remy had purchased for Max to the dog. The Labrador snapped the patty out of the air like a Frisbee and gulped it down.

“Don’t see how he does that,” Remy commented.

“I trained him to eat like a Marine,” Shel said.

“I kind of got that from the way he chews with his mouth open.”

Shel ignored the gibe. He wasn’t ready to play yet. “You think Charlotte PD took an honest pass on this and left Gant undisturbed?”

“Nope.”

“Me neither.”

“Gant will probably know something’s up.”

“Yeah.” Shel dropped the wrapper into the bag. “So if Gant knows the police have located him, why’s he still there?”

“Maybe he doesn’t know. Maybe Charlotte PD has a stealth mode like none we’ve ever seen.”

Shel folded his arms across his broad chest. “Let’s say they don’t.”

Remy grinned. With the swelling in his face, the effort was lopsided. “Gant’s daddy is in Charlotte. Maggie says he’s a bad dude. Runs the local chapter of the Purple Royals.”

“Motorcycle gang.”

“That’s the one.”

Shel sipped his iced tea. NCIS had encountered the Purple Royals before. They were a dangerous motorcycle gang fueled by meth and arms running. Most of the inner circle was made up of “one percenters,” men who were confirmed criminals.

“Me and you against a biker gang?” Shel asked.

“Well,” Remy said, “we don’t have to bring them all in. Just Gant.”

“True.” Shel warmed to the coming encounter. He tilted his head back to look at the sun. “It’s getting late.”

“Let’s roll.”

›› Interstate 85

›› Near Salisbury, North Carolina

›› 1703 Hours

“Are you going to play that thing the whole way?” Shel asked.

Remy paused the PSP and pulled the earbuds out of his ears. “You want to talk?”

“Thought maybe you wanted to tell me about Gant’s daddy.”

“We’re not planning on hooking him up.”

“In case we happen to cross paths. I noticed you were looking through a file Maggie sent you.”

Remy put the PSP away and reached into the backseat for his backpack, then pulled out the small notebook computer all the team members carried as part of their equipment. He settled the computer across his knees and brought it to life.

“Victor Gant’s in his late sixties,” Remy said. “He was a ground pounder in Vietnam. Pulled three tours.”

“Three?”

“Yeah. Put in his twenty altogether. Pulled the pin at thirty-nine.”

“Then turned to a life of crime as a biker?”

“Back then there weren’t as many openings for military-issue as there are now. Especially not for somebody who liked to stay in the bush. Today he probably would have segued directly into the private security sector. He mustered out as sergeant first class after the first Gulf War.”

“Came back to spend time with Bobby Lee and his mom?”

Remy snorted. “Not likely. Bobby Lee’s mother had already divorced Victor back in the seventies.”

“Any special reason?”

“Maggie didn’t dig deep into this. She stayed with Victor Gant’s crime side. It was intense enough. Besides that, he’s not the focus of our little trip. Not long after Victor Gant mustered out, he got into a bar fight and killed a man.”

“Why?”

“It was part of a turf war. Maggie’s notes indicate that the police investigating the homicide thought Gant should have taken a fall for murder one. The DA couldn’t make premeditation stick, so he didn’t try. Gant was convicted of manslaughter and spent seven years inside. He did his whole bit, so there’s not even a parole office in his life.”

“Not much father-son time there,” Shel observed.

“No. But Bobby Lee started hanging around anyway.”

“Is Bobby Lee a Purple Royal?”

“No. They don’t have an interest in him.”

“Except that Victor Gant’s his daddy.”

“That’s about the size of it.” Remy looked at Shel. “So what is it you hate about Father’s Day?”

4

›› Tawny Kitty’s Bar and Grill

›› South End

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1705 Hours

“You ask me, Victor, this is just wrong.”

Victor Gant glanced at Fat Mike Wiley and said, “Ain’t asking you, am I, Fat Mike?”

Fat Mike shrugged and sighed. His broad, beefy face turned down into sadness only a basset hound could show. “No, I guess you ain’t. But if you woulda asked, I’d have told you I didn’t like this none.”

“Don’t expect you to like it. Just keep my back covered while we’re having this little set-to.”

“Ain’t got no problems with that. I been there for you over thirty years.”

Victor knew that was true. He’d met Fat Mike in Vietnam. They’d hunted Charlie in the bush, blew him up when they found him, and partied hard in the DMZ next to Charlie. Those had been some crazy times. Some days-in a weird way he didn’t quite understand-he missed them.

In those days Fat Mike hadn’t been fat. Lately the man was starting to earn his name. He stood an inch or two over six feet and tipped the scales at nearly three hundred pounds. Back in the day, Fat Mike had been called Fat Mike because he rolled his marijuana joints thick as sausages when he blazed.

Now his biker leathers didn’t fit him quite so well. But he wore his hair long and sported a Fu Manchu mustache like he’d done when they’d been in the bush, even though the first lieutenant they’d had at the time had tried to keep his troops disciplined and clean-shaven.

One night, while the lieutenant was sleeping and probably dreaming up new ways for his men to risk their lives out in the jungle, Fat Mike and one of his buddies had rolled a grenade into the lieutenant’s tent. Three seconds later, they’d needed a new lieutenant. The one they’d gotten had been a little smarter than the last one and knew to stay out of their way.

Victor was gaunt and hard-bodied. No spare flesh hung on his six-foot-two-inch frame. He was sixty-seven years old and was still whipcord tough. He wore a full, short beard that had turned to pewter over the last few years, but he’d kept his hair, and it hung down to his shoulders in greasy locks.

He wore his colors, and his jacket covered the two Glock. 45s he carried in shoulder holsters. His jeans were clean but held old mud, blood, and oil stains. Under the jacket he wore a sleeveless black concert T-shirt featuring Steppenwolf. Square-toed biker’s boots encased his feet.

Fat Mike sat astride his Harley next to Victor. There were a lot of other sleds in the gravel parking lot. Tawny Kitty was a biker bar and not a tourist attraction.

There were a few cars there too. Victor swept them with his gaze. Some of the vehicles belonged to college kids still in town for summer classes who thought slumming would be cool. Or they belonged to young women looking for bad boys.

The bar was a rough-cut square of stone and wood. Neon lights promising “Beer” and “Live Entertainment” hung in the windows. Another sign advertised Open. The sign advertising Tawny Kitty showed a young blonde in revealing clothing with a saucy glint in her eyes. The years had faded the colors of the sign, but it still drew salacious attention.

Victor stretched and reached into his jeans pocket. After a moment of digging, he brought out a crumpled cigarette pack. He unfolded it and stuck a cigarette in his mouth, then lit it with a skull-embossed Zippo lighter.

Without another word, he swung his leg over the motorcycle and stepped toward the bar. As always, Fat Mike was right behind him.

›› 1707 Hours

The interior of the bar was a little better than the exterior but not by much. Tawny Kitty was twenty years out of date. Two dance stages equipped with brass poles and backed by mirrors divided the large room into distinct areas. The long bar serviced both areas.

The stench of beer, cigarettes, reefer, sweat, nachos, and cheap perfume hung in the turgid air. Victor barely noticed it. He’d spent more time inside places like this than he had outside of them.

Young women-their bodies hollowed out by drugs and years of having their pride stripped out of them to leave only hard-edged anger or dulled acceptance-gyrated on the stages to an old 38 Special song. Nearly two dozen men and a handful of women sat around the stages. None of them appeared especially entertained.

Victor swept the bar with his gaze and didn’t see the man he was looking for. He wasn’t surprised. He and Fat Mike had arrived a little early. Victor did that when he was meeting with people he didn’t particularly trust. Staking out the terrain first was important. That had been one of the first lessons he’d learned in Vietnam.

A petite hostess approached them. She wore immodestly cut jean shorts and a chambray shirt with the sleeves hacked off and tied well above her waist. Her dishwater blonde hair held a green tint under the weak light. Tattoos covered her arms and legs and ringed her navel.

“Can I get you boys something?” the waitress asked.

“Beers,” Victor said.

“Domestic or imported?” the waitress asked.

“American,” Victor said. “I fought for this country. I’ll drink the beer that’s made here too.”

“You want me to take you to a table?” the young woman asked. “Or do you want to pick one out for yourselves? It’s early yet. Got plenty of room.”

Victor waved her off. “When you get those beers, we’ll look just like this.” He walked through the tables and took one against the back wall that gave him a good view of the room. Then he dropped into a chair.

Fat Mike sat at another table nearby and to one side. They always left each other clear fields of fire in case they needed it. If the waitress thought the seating arrangement was odd when she returned with the drinks, she didn’t mention it.

›› 1717 Hours

Minutes passed as rock and roll pounded the bar’s walls.

Victor drank his beer and gazed around the bar. Other bikers lounged nearby, but none of them were Purple Royals. The Tawny Kitty was a neutral zone, a lot like the DMZ back in Nam.

“You seen your boy today?” Fat Mike asked from his table.

“A little.”

“A little?” Fat Mike shook his head sadly. “Don’t he know it’s Father’s Day? He should be hanging with you. A boy should be with his daddy on Father’s Day.”

“This ain’t exactly something I want Bobby Lee hanging around for.” Victor took another sip of beer. “Boy’s got enough problems.”

“That beef with them jarheads down in Camp Lejeune?” Fat Mike waved the possibility away. “If they was gonna do something, they’d have done it by now.”

“They been looking for Bobby Lee.”

“Well, they ain’t found him.”

“We met a lot of jarheads while we were doing our bit,” Victor said. “You know the problem with jarheads.”

“Ain’t smart enough to know when to give up on something. I know. Bobby Lee shouldn’t have left any witnesses behind when he jacked that car. Me and you wouldn’t have done that.”

“Me and you wouldn’t have jacked no car.”

Fat Mike shrugged. “Me and you was always too smart for that. We learned what we needed to know back in the Army.” He grinned like a sly old hound. “But you got to cut Bobby Lee some slack. You wasn’t always there. He’s learning the best way he knows how.”

That rankled Victor. He hadn’t even known Amelia was pregnant with the boy until he’d gotten served with the papers. He’d married her while on a weekend bender, then come to his senses when he was sobered up back in South Korea. He hadn’t come home again.

He’d told himself that Bobby Lee wasn’t his, that Amelia was just sticking it to him for the child support the Army made him pay. But then he’d come back home after the Gulf War and seen the boy. There had been no denying it then. The boy had been the spitting image of him.

Victor could remember how weird that had felt. With everything he’d done, everything he’d seen, he’d never once thought about being a daddy. He didn’t run with guys who had kids-in the Army or out. He remembered his old man, but there weren’t any fond memories there. His daddy was the reason Victor had joined the Army at eighteen and quit high school midterm to go to Vietnam. Fighting the Vietnamese made more sense than trying to fight his daddy.

At first Victor and Bobby Lee had only grudgingly admitted the other existed. Victor hadn’t held that against the boy. He didn’t hold it against him now.

He could remember when the child support had been pushed through and the Army had given a big chunk of his pay to Amelia every month. Victor hadn’t had much love for Bobby Lee then. But things were different now. Victor liked the idea that the boy was a lot like him and that there was some part of him that would continue existing after he was gone.

He just wished Bobby Lee wasn’t so reckless. That carjacking in Jacksonville had been boneheaded. But Victor figured the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree there either. If Uncle Sam hadn’t covered Victor’s mistakes, then found a use for them, he might have ended up the same way.

“Bobby Lee and me are gonna hook up later,” Victor said. “Gonna be down at Spider’s. I’m buying Bobby Lee a new tattoo.”

“Boy’s got a fetish about them, don’t he? I’m surprised Spider can find a place to put a tattoo on him.”

“Been saving a place right over his heart. For when he was in love.”

“Bobby Lee’s in love?”

“Thinks he is. He’s got a girl pregnant who says she loves him. She ran off from her folks and they’re thinking about getting married.”

“Is the kid his?”

“He thinks it is.” Victor could barely remember having the conversation with his son. They’d both been blitzed at a recent cookout when the chapter had gotten together to celebrate the prison release of one of the members. Victor couldn’t even remember the girl’s name.

“Be good if it is.”

Victor nodded and sipped beer.

“Hey,” Fat Mike said, “I just realized he’s about to make you a granddaddy.”

“Yeah.” That concept was still new to Victor. It sat among his thoughts like a poised rattlesnake and made him feel uneasy. He was just now starting to get comfortable with the idea of Bobby Lee. Adding to the confusion wasn’t a good idea.

And there was no telling what Amelia might try to do. Back when Victor had mustered out and come home, after Bobby Lee had started coming around when he was twelve or thirteen, Amelia had tried to stop it. She’d even taken out a restraining order to keep Victor from the boy. The problem with that was that Bobby Lee was coming to see Victor, not Victor to see Bobby Lee.

Then Victor had gotten busted on the manslaughter charge. There hadn’t been any way around it, and he’d been lucky they hadn’t gotten him stuck with murder one. Time inside the pen hadn’t been easy, but he’d done it standing up.

When he’d gotten out three years ago, Bobby Lee had ridden up with the other Purple Royals like he belonged. Fat Mike had even given him the keys to Victor’s ride, and Bobby Lee had ridden home behind his daddy for the first time ever.

Of course, that hadn’t fixed everything between them. There was too much history that had been bad, too much time that had been lost. Bobby Lee’s own arrogant rebelliousness-honed to a razor’s edge fighting his mama and stepdaddy-had kept him from getting too close to Victor.

The fact that Victor didn’t want the boy in the Purple Royals was another stumbling block. It wasn’t to keep Bobby Lee from a life of crime. Bobby Lee’d had a long history with juvie even before he met Victor for the first time. There was no keeping the boy out of trouble.

The attack on the Marine in Jacksonville was going to be a problem sooner or later, though. The best thing Bobby Lee could have done was leave North Carolina. Go out West to California.

The reason Victor didn’t want Bobby Lee in the Purple Royals was because he didn’t have enough of what it took to be a member of the gang. Bobby Lee was too independent and boneheaded. Victor had seen a lot of young men like him. He’d seen them blown up and shot down in the bush.

Maybe in time Bobby Lee would change.

“You a granddaddy.” The thought seemed stuck in Fat Mike’s mind. Thoughts often got that way for him. He was rattlesnake smart and junkyard-dog clever, but his mind tended to run in the same track when left to itself. “Means only one thing. Me and you are getting old.”

“Speak for yourself. I intend to stay young until they scrape me off the highway.” Victor upended his beer and drained the last of the bottle’s contents.

Then the door opened and the man Victor was waiting for entered the bar.

He was young, and his appearance was rough. His road leathers were scarred and dusty. His black hair hung wild and tousled to his shoulders. When he lit a cigarette, his jacket separated long enough to reveal the semiauto pistol tucked into his waistband.

Most people, Victor reflected as he looked at the guy, would have been surprised to learn that the man was an undercover FBI agent.

His true name was unknown to Victor, but on the street he went by Thumper. He even had a tattoo of the bunny from the Disney film on one shoulder. Except that the image wore biker’s leathers and breathed fire. One guy had made fun of the tat in a bar, called him Bambi, and Thumper had put him in the hospital.

Whoever the federal agent truly was, Victor knew the man had been around the track.

Thumper nodded at Victor, then crossed the room and dropped into a chair on the other side of the table.

“How’s it hanging, bro?” Thumper asked.

“I’m not your bro,” Victor said. He moved his hand on his thigh slightly. The butt of one of the Glocks was only inches from his fingertips. “I’m here to do business. Not make friends.”

Thumper smiled slightly. “I can live with that. So tell me what’s on your mind.”

5

›› Interstate 85

›› Near Salisbury, North Carolina

›› 1718 Hours

For a long moment, Shel thought about just ignoring Remy’s question. He knew if he decided not to answer, Remy wouldn’t push it. Finally he said, “We’ve never talked about family.”

“No.”

Since Remy had been pulled into the team to replace Frank Billings, who had been killed in South Korea, he’d gradually warmed up to everyone else. But-like Shel, Nita, and Maggie-he hadn’t talked much about family.

Only Will and Estrella did that. Will’s current situation was screwed up, what with figuring out the pecking order with his ex-wife’s new husband in the picture. And Estrella had never gotten over her husband’s death. Both of them had pictures on their desks and computers, and they had stories to tell about what was going on in that part of their lives.

“Did you get along with your daddy?” Shel asked.

Remy looked ahead at the interstate. His face was as expressionless as his tinted sunglasses. “I never knew the man. My grandmere raised me and my brother.” The French Creole influence from New Orleans sometimes crept into Remy’s words.

“Didn’t know you had a brother.”

“I don’t. Not anymore.”

Shel knew there was a story there. He could feel the jagged pieces of it in Remy’s words. But he let it go.

“My daddy’s a hard man to get to know,” Shel said. “All my life he’s been distant. Not really a part of my life. Like he was just somebody curious and looking in through a window at me.”

Remy didn’t say anything.

“When Mama was still alive,” Shel went on, “it wasn’t so bad. She buffered everybody. Kept us all on an even keel. But Daddy was distant with her, too.”

“You ain’t the most talkative man I’ve ever met,” Remy commented.

Shel had to grin at that. It was true. “Neither are you, kemosabe. And that’s why you and me having this conversation is… odd.”

“We don’t have to have it.”

“Unless we play another basketball game.”

“Never again on Father’s Day.”

Shel knew Remy was giving him an out and gently letting him know he didn’t have to continue talking. Or maybe the topic was a little uncomfortable for him too. Shel wasn’t sure.

But Shel discovered that once he’d opened the can, the worms insisted on crawling out. Most of the reason for that, he was sure, was because he was confident Remy would never tell another soul. And because Remy wouldn’t waste time trying to correct Shel’s thinking or tell him how he should feel.

›› 1723 Hours

“Mama always said Daddy got messed up in the war,” Shel said. “She knew him before he went to Vietnam. His daddy raised him to be a rancher, but when he got old enough, he signed on with the Army.”

“Not the Marines?”

“I was never one to follow in my daddy’s footsteps.” Shel admitted that honestly. “It started long before the choice of service in the military.”

“Your father was in Vietnam?”

Shel nodded. That was a source of pride for him despite the confusion that generally roiled up when he thought of his father. “Pulled four two-year tours. Got released in ’72 when his mama took sick. He had to go back and help work the ranch-the Rafter M. Mama said that taking care of Grandma was the only thing that brought him home.”

“But somewhere in there he met your mother.”

“Somewhere.” Shel reached back and patted Max on the head. Having the dog with him 24-7 was a blessing. “Mama said they knew each other in grade school, all the way through high school. She said they talked like they were going to get married, but Daddy wouldn’t do it because he thought he might get killed.”

“A lot of boys did. Today isn’t much better.”

Shel nodded. “She said Daddy was surprised when he came home and found out she hadn’t married.”

“Eight years was a long time to wait.”

“That’s what Daddy said. But Mama said that eight years wasn’t any time at all when you were waiting for the right man.”

Remy grinned, and the ease that the expression created on his face had Shel grinning before he knew it too.

“So they had a love story going on,” Remy said.

“The way Mama told it.”

“How’d your father tell it?”

“He didn’t. Never said one word about it. And my brother and I never asked him. Not even after Mama passed. Daddy came back to the ranch, and he worked it hard. He still does.”

“Sounds like Kurt Russell should be a ranch hand there.”

Shel grinned at that despite the bad mood the day had left him in. “It’s a working cattle ranch. The living’s hard and the profits are lean, but Daddy’s a simple man and keeps at it. Mama’s buried there with Grandpa and Grandma McHenry. Two of Daddy’s brothers are buried there too.”

“Sounds like a big commitment.”

“He’ll never leave that piece of ground. I reckon when the time comes, we’ll plant him there too. My brother, Don, isn’t happy about that, but that’s how it goes. Daddy’s leaving me control of the land. According to the will, I have to buy Don out if he wants me to.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother.”

“One. Don.”

“Is he military too?”

“Nope. He found a way to irritate Daddy even worse than I did. Of course, Don doesn’t see it that way. He became a Bible-thumper.” As he talked, Shel heard his accent thickening. His words-his thoughts even-turned more toward how he’d been raised when he was talking about his daddy.

“A preacher?” Remy asked.

Shel nodded.

“I still don’t see why Father’s Day bothers you so much. A lot of people have father issues.”

Shel took a moment to think about that. It was hard, he was discovering, to get everything he felt into words that someone else would understand.

“I joined the Marines because I wanted my life simple,” Shel said.

“That was your first mistake.”

Shel ignored the comment. “I liked the idea of organization and structure, of knowing how I was supposed to treat other people.”

“You don’t think you got that at home?”

“From Mama, sure. And from Daddy, too, I guess. He taught me how I was supposed to treat other people, but-” Shel stopped, suddenly embarrassed. He had already revealed far more than he’d intended to.

“But not how to act around him,” Remy said.

Shel wanted to tell Remy to just forget they were having the conversation, but he couldn’t. It was on his mind. And today was Father’s Day. Tomorrow it wouldn’t be, and he might not feel inclined to talk about any of this. Then it would lie waiting to ambush him, as patient as a circling buzzard, for another year.

“I knew how to act around him,” Shel said. “I just didn’t know how we were supposed to act together.”

“You were into sports. You don’t have any father-son moments in there?”

“Daddy came to some of the games. Don and Mama shamed him into it on occasion.”

“He didn’t like coming?”

“Daddy doesn’t like being around other people. He didn’t make friends. He was what we always called standoffish.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do other people make him uncomfortable?” Remy asked.

Shel shook his head. “I’ve seen Daddy walk into a bar filled with people, most of them wanting to form a lynch mob, and take command of the whole situation. We had a vaquero in from Mexico one summer. His name was Miguel. He was eighteen. I was twelve at the time. The way he could stick on a green mount and break him was amazing. I wanted to be just like him.”

The road noise filled the pauses between Shel’s words.

“Anyway, Miguel got into a fight with one of the local guys,” Shel went on. “Words were said. Pride was hurt. And it was all over a girl.”

“Now there’s a bad mix,” Remy said.

“Yeah. Miguel was outnumbered, and those boys pulled out baseball bats. Miguel pulled a knife. Jimmy Dean Harris got cut pretty bad and ended up in the hospital. It was his daddy that gathered up the lynch mob that night.”

“Exciting little town you grew up in.”

“I’ve heard New Orleans isn’t exactly filled with saints,” Shel countered.

Remy displayed a flat, mirthless grin. “My grandmere would agree with you. She wanted to move out of that place, but she never could. Even after Katrina, she’s back where she grew up.”

“A lot of people get stuck in their ways.”

“I know that’s true. But anyway, your father walked into this bar.”

›› 1729 Hours

“He did walk into that bar that night,” Shel continued. “I followed him, but he didn’t know it. Daddy got a call from one of the men inside the bar, and I followed him into town on my dirt bike.”

“Where were the police?”

“We didn’t have police. We had a sheriff’s deputy. And he didn’t want any part of what was going on.”

“Brave soul.”

“This was Texas. Old Texas. And it was twenty years ago.”

“Not exactly prehistoric.”

“Not if you’re going by a calendar.” Shel looked at the interstate stretched out before them. “But things hadn’t changed much since the frontier days. At least, most folks living around there didn’t think they should have. Daddy got out of his truck with an old Colt. 45 on his hip and a pump-action shotgun in his hands. He didn’t hesitate about walking straight up to that bar.”

“I would have at least thought about it. Why didn’t he call for help?”

“Because Miguel was a Mexican, and nobody else would have risked their neck for him. And because that’s just the way Daddy is. He skins his own cats.”

“I thought you said it was a cattle ranch.”

Shel started to explain. The country accent came back to him so naturally when he started talking about things back home. Then he saw Remy grinning.

“I know you didn’t mean that he really skinned cats,” Remy said. “That’s just one of those country terms.”

“City boy,” Shel snarled good-naturedly.

“So what happened at the bar?”

“I peeked in through a window. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared to death for Daddy, but I don’t think I’d ever been more proud of him.”

“But it wasn’t his fight.”

“The way Daddy saw it, it was. He’d brought Miguel there to break horses and help out with the stock for the summer. What happened to Miguel-according to Daddy’s way of thinking-was his responsibility. Daddy faced all those men in that bar and told them he’d kill the first man who hurt Miguel.”

“Would he have?”

“They thought so.”

“What did you think?”

Shel looked at Remy and nodded. “He’d have killed any man who laid a hand on Miguel that night. That’s gospel truth.”

“Not exactly Joe Average.”

“Daddy never has been.” Shel took a deep breath and let it out. “Anyway, Daddy left with Miguel. He saw my bike and knew I was there. I thought he was going to kill me. He’d told me to stay home. Instead, he had Miguel and me load my bike into the back of his pickup, which wasn’t easy, and we went back to the ranch.”

“And that’s where it ended?”

“The sheriff came out the next day and told Daddy he didn’t want him going into town waving guns around and threatening folks. Daddy told him he wouldn’t have had to do it if the deputy would do his job, and he was lucky he didn’t bill him for keeping the peace and preventing a murder that night. Mama came out and gentled things down before the sheriff made a bad mistake. She was the only one who could do that where Daddy was concerned. Don talks to Daddy, and sometimes Daddy listens. But I think it’s more out of respect for him being a preacher.”

“What kind of relationship does your brother have with your father?”

“After Mama died of cancer while I was in high school, Don got relegated to the role of family peacemaker. I think that’s part of the reason he became a preacher. He figured out how to keep the peace in his life, and he mostly kept it between Daddy and me. But we never made it easy for him.”

“Does Father’s Day affect your brother in the same way it does you?”

Shel grinned at the thought of what was probably going on back home right now. “No. Don’s got a whole new set of problems. He has a hard time giving up on an idea, and he wears like leather. So he goes to see Daddy on Father’s Day whether Daddy likes it or not.”

6

›› Four-Mile Tavern

›› Outside Fort Davis, Texas

›› 1629 Hours (Central Time Zone)

Don McHenry was aware of the sudden quietness in the bar as he stepped into the long, deep cool of the building. Outside, the Texas countryside was parched and sun blasted. The heat called up twisting mirages over the baked countryside. Scars were already starting to show from the heat, and summer wouldn’t even officially begin for a few more days.

Don gazed around the bar but knew that most people there wouldn’t meet his eyes. Fort Davis was a small community. Most people knew he was a preacher either from attending church or from seeing the televised Sunday morning meetings or just from the presence he had in the community. He served on the development boards and umpired games at the Little League ballpark.

So some of the drinkers were anxious about him being there.

Although Texas wasn’t a dry state, it was still close enough to the Bible Belt of the country that some shame was attributed to drinking. A few of the churches still spoke against it. Don didn’t feel that way and sometimes enjoyed a quiet beer when he took his sons to a Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington.

Four-Mile Tavern was named for its geographic location. Built along the highway leading into Fort Davis, the bar was four miles outside the city limits. At one point it had been a small house. The story went that the owners had built a small room onto the front of the house to sell moonshine to locals. Over the years its reputation had grown, and people from outside the city had started to drive in to drink there and hang out in front of the building.

So new construction had begun. Within a few short years, the house had more than quadrupled in size. Unable to keep up with the demands and fearful of law enforcement frowning on their homegrown business, the owners had gotten a liquor license and gone legit. They’d also purchased some secondhand restaurant equipment and started serving lunches and dinners to truckers, tourists, and those in the city who preferred to do their drinking outside of it.

As Don stood there in the door, he saw a handful of men and women slide out the back way. A few of the others gave him a hard-eyed stare.

“Hey, preacher,” an older woman with frosted hair said as she walked up to him. “If you’re here on business, we don’t want any. You got your shop, and I got mine. And looks like you done chased off some of my customers.”

“Well, Katie,” Don said with a smile, “chasing your customers off wasn’t my intention.”

The woman’s severe face relaxed a little. She tossed her bar towel over one shoulder and put her hands on her hips. She even offered a smile.

“It ain’t your fault, Pastor McHenry,” Katie said. “I get too many Protestants in here and not enough Catholics. At least Catholics ain’t afraid to drink in front of the priest. Why, I’ve even seen nights Father Bill bought a round for the house when he became an uncle or he’d shot a good game of golf.” She winked at him. “Of course, Father Bill always waited till there weren’t very many people in here at the time.”

“You know I don’t preach that consuming alcohol is a sin when it’s used in moderation.”

“You just scared out the backsliders, is all. And maybe a few of them who was here with people they oughtn’t have been here with. But I guess you know that.”

“I wasn’t taking names.”

“You never do.” Katie looked at him a little more tenderly. “I suppose you’re here to see your daddy.”

Don nodded. “I am if he’s here.”

“He is. He’s in the back. In the TV room.” Katie looked a little sympathetic as she jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “You know the way.”

“I do. Thanks.” Don headed for the back of the tavern. His steps rang against the hardwood floor. It sometimes amazed him how solid and big that tavern sounded and how much his footsteps sounded like they did when he was alone in church before service started. The sound seemed right, though, since the tavern and the church were both places people took their troubles when they got too big for them.

“Can I bring you anything?” Katie asked.

“A vanilla Diet Coke, please.” The tavern kept a range of flavorings to add to soft drinks. Don had drunk his first vanilla Coke in the tavern as a boy and still liked one on the rare occasions he was there.

“I’ll bring it on back,” Katie promised.

›› 1632 Hours (Central Time Zone)

When Don was growing up, everyone in the neighborhood who owned a TV called their living room the TV room.

Television reception hadn’t been very good in rural Texas for a long time-still wasn’t in some areas. There wasn’t much air-conditioning back then either; installing units was too expensive, and the wiring was problematic. Relaxation had come on shaded porches at the end of the day when the work was done. Most people enjoyed the radio, and Don remembered neighbors sitting around on porches on cool evenings listening to baseball games together. Church had often been held under tents too.

Those were the things Don remembered most about his childhood, and they were the things he kept with him when he’d grown up. He liked to keep things simple. Unfortunately, in the hurry-up world that was forced onto young minds-and maybe not-so-young minds as well-through television and the Internet, simplicity was all but lost these days.

When personal satellite dishes had come along, families had started investing in televisions. The TV became a status symbol of sorts, and so they started calling living rooms the TV room the way that empty nesters started calling their children’s rooms the hobby room.

The Four-Mile Tavern had been one of the first to put TVs in for public viewing in the 1960s. Boxing, NASCAR racing, baseball, and horse races had all been big. And the patrons of the Four-Mile often placed wagers on those events. Gambling was illegal in Texas, but back then the laws had been hazy, and the sheriff and his men had turned a blind eye to anything that didn’t involve cards, dice, and roulette. As long as nobody reached for a weapon.

Coupled with beer, air-conditioning, and TV, the tavern had become a booming local enterprise. Some of that success was mired in blood, though. Fights broke out over bets, over women, and over perceived slights. In rural Texas, fights were settled with fists, tire irons, and-occasionally-guns. It had helped that the local sheriff’s deputies usually did their drinking there too.

When Don led church retreats in large metropolitan areas, other pastors he met had trouble understanding everything he faced while shepherding his flock. But to be fair, he didn’t quite understand the problems those city preachers dealt with either. Of course, there was more about gang violence in the news than there was about rural feuds and murders.

Don chose to believe that God gave each of his teachers their own burdens to carry. He also believed that God gave them each the strength and tools to deal with those burdens.

All things considered, Don loved living in Fort Davis, keeping church there, and raising his sons and daughter on the baseball and softball fields. He’d been to the big cities and hadn’t seen anything there that he couldn’t live without.

Shel, on the other hand, seemed bound and determined to see the whole world.

Not see the world, Don amended. Just get off the ranch and stay away.

During his service as a youth minister, as choir leader, and finally as preacher of The Blessed Word Church in Fort Davis, Don had handled everything God had ever put before him to do. By all counts, he’d been successful doing God’s work, and he gave thanks every day that he could make a difference.

But there was one man whose heart Don felt he’d never touched the way God would want it touched. Don had failed time and again, but through God’s grace he had never given up.

And maybe, Don sometimes thought, hoping that he wasn’t being irreverent, I haven’t given up because of that stubbornness I got from Daddy. Maybe his own bloodline will be the end of his reluctance about accepting God.

Tyrel McHenry, his daddy, was the most stubborn man Don had ever met. And Don was there tonight to make another stab at getting through to the man.

7

›› Tawny Kitty’s Bar and Grill

›› South End

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1737 Hours

“Don’t know why you feel you gotta come on all hard and everything, Victor. We’re all friends here.”

Gazing across the table at Thumper, Victor knew that the man had been in tight places before. He knew how to handle himself. Not just with guns and fists, but with words and emotions as well. He didn’t panic at the first sign of trouble.

That was good and it was bad. The fact that he’d weathered the initial blast meant he had backbone. Now it remained to be seen if he had any brains.

“You don’t like it, maybe you should leave.” Victor kept his voice flat and neutral.

Wraparound shades kept Thumper’s eyes hidden, but Victor knew the man was assessing and reassessing the situation in seconds. The first thing Thumper had to be worried about was how much danger he was in.

Guys that went deep undercover knew from the moment that choice was made that they didn’t have a friend left to them in the world. If they were found out by the gang or organization they were infiltrating, they were dead. If they turned dirty while they were under, unless they had really good evidence to the contrary, they were incarcerated with the same people they had started out trying to lock down. If they forgot for a moment where their loyalty-and ultimately their safety-lay, their lives were worth less than nothing.

Thinking about the situation an undercover agent would find himself in, Victor reflected that it wasn’t far removed from looking for Charlie in the bush. It took nerves of steel to play the game.

Or drugs to mute the fear.

If Thumper had been legit, he should have gotten up from the table and walked out. No biker worth his salt took an insult straight up like that. He’d have been into the wind or he would have busted Victor in the chops.

Unless you figure you’re sitting right next to what you want and you won’t pick up your cards from the table because you think you’re going to win, Victor thought. He was about to disabuse Thumper of that notion.

The biker’s face hardened a little, but it was all for show. Thumper just didn’t know that yet.

“I don’t know what you’re trippin’ on, dude,” Thumper said, “but I don’t appreciate it.”

“I’m gonna lay somethin’ down for you, man, and you can decide if you want to pick it up or if the weight’s too much for you.” Victor’s eyes never left those of the other man.

Thumper glanced away. He didn’t bother to meet Fat Mike’s gaze either.

Victor wondered if Thumper’s cop buddies were listening to the conversation. He didn’t think Thumper was stupid enough to wear a wire, but there had been plenty of time to wire the tavern before the meeting took place. Frankly he didn’t care.

“I know you’re a cop,” Victor stated. For a moment, the accusation hung in the air.

›› 1741 Hours

Thumper turned back to Victor and proved just how good he was at playing the role. He laughed. And he sounded like Victor had just told him a really good joke.

“Dude, I seriously don’t know what you been smoking, but if you got any of it left, I want some.”

“You went to school, right?”

After a brief hesitation, Thumper smoothly nodded and tossed in a devil-may-care shrug. “Sure. Before I got old enough for juvie. After that, it was splitsville for me and the public school system. I was just a product of the state.”

“Is that so?” With his free hand, Victor reached into his jacket pocket and took out a few photographs. He noted that Thumper reached a little more deeply under his own jacket.

From the way Fat Mike moved in his seat, Victor knew that he had his sawed-off shotgun out under the table and leveled at Thumper’s midsection. If the man made a wrong move, Fat Mike was going to blow him in two.

“You ever hear of an East Coast motorcycle chapter called the Iron Goblins?”

Thumper’s face seemed frozen. No emotion showed. “Lots of chapters out there now,” Thumper countered.

“You see, I went to school,” Victor said. “I learned to add, and I learned when things don’t add up. And you? You don’t add up.”

“Maybe I should just call it an afternoon,” Thumper suggested. “I got things to do and places to go.” He slid his chair back.

“If you leave before I’m through talking to you,” Victor stated, “you aren’t going to live to see morning.”

Thumper tried to cover his nervousness by reaching into his jacket for a cigarette.

Fat Mike eased the hammers back on his shotgun. The clicks sounded ominous and loud enough to be heard over the music.

“Chill, bro.” Thumper’s voice sounded strained and brittle. “I’m just going for a packet of cigarettes.”

“Leave your hands on the table where we can see them.” Victor leaned back in his seat and fished out his own cigarettes. He slid the pack across to Thumper, then added his Zippo lighter. “Smoke one of mine. Keep it friendly.”

Thumper took the pack, shook a cigarette out, and lit up. He almost looked calm. Except for the fact that his hands were shaking as much as a man going through the DTs. He breathed out a thick plume of smoke.

“You guys are waaaayyyy too intense, bro,” Thumper said.

Victor smiled, but the effort was cold and calculated. There were people who’d seen that smile who never walked the earth again. He thought he could stop short of that with Thumper. In fact, Thumper-if he could be reasoned with-could make other things much simpler.

If Victor had not been able to figure out a way to use Thumper and his cop connections, he and Fat Mike would have buried the guy tonight. In fact, Fat Mike had been happier with that idea than with what Victor had in mind.

Thumper made a show of smoking calmly. “I’m starting to feel offended. I have to tell you that. That business we’ve been talking about doing? That’s pretty much over at this point.”

“Guess what, genius,” Victor said. “Once I figured out you were a Fed, whatever business you and I might have had was taken off the table.”

Thumper’s eyes hardened. “We were talking about a supply of meth.”

“I got to be honest with you about that,” Victor said almost pleasantly. “That was just me and Fat Mike setting you up. We were just yanking your chain.”

Thumper glowered at him. “Setting me up for what? To rip me off?”

Listening to the desperation in Thumper’s voice, Victor knew that someone was monitoring the encounter. Maybe Thumper hadn’t worn the wire to the meeting, but that didn’t mean he’d arrived without any backup.

“We got hookups,” Victor said. “You want something, we know a guy who can get it for you. We just take our cut out of the middle.”

Thumper looked at Victor, then at Fat Mike, then back again. “You guys have got cooks working for you.” He was referring to meth cooks.

Victor fanned the photographs in his big, callused hands. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Thumper snarled a curse that was loud enough to draw the brief attention of two bikers at a table only a short distance away. Victor looked at the men for a long, hard minute and they looked away.

“You know what I’m talking about,” Thumper stated angrily. “You garroted Hobo Simpson. Garroted him and dropped him into a hole somewhere out in the woods.”

Victor smiled coldly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, you do.”

“If you got proof of that, then arrest me.” Victor shoved his hands out in front of him. He hadn’t planned the move and it caught Fat Mike by surprise too. Fat Mike shifted uneasily and for a moment Victor thought he was going to bring the shotgun into play.

“I ain’t no cop.” Thumper sounded sullen.

“Yeah, you are.” Victor spread the photographs across the desktop in a move so smooth it would have done a riverboat gambler proud. “Got you a six-pack here, Thumper. Isn’t that what the cops call mug shots?”

“Don’t know.”

“If you’ve been arrested and held for questioning, you’d know that.” Victor delighted in turning the knife a little, letting Thumper know he wasn’t thinking straight enough to keep himself out of trouble.

“Okay. Maybe I heard it called that.” Thumper’s eyes never went to the photographs.

“Take a look,” Victor said in a soft voice. “See what I see.”

“I ain’t here to play games,” Thumper said. “I got people who are gonna be all up in my grill if I don’t hook them up with the meth I promised them.”

“The meth won’t be a problem,” Victor stated. “Like I said, I know a guy who knows a guy.” Passing on information about someone selling drugs wasn’t illegal. Not as long as he didn’t ask for money. “Look at the pictures.”

After a moment, Thumper did. As soon as he recognized the people in the pictures, he froze. Then he called Victor a vile name.

Victor knew that the undercover cop had recognized the people immediately. They were his ex-wife, son, and sister.

“Where did you get those?” Thumper demanded in a hoarse voice.

“Chill, dude. They’re just pictures.” Victor turned the photographs over, then spread them again.

“They’re of my family,” Thumper said.

Victor knew the name Thumper had called him was a tell. He’d known it as soon as Thumper had said it, and he knew they weren’t going to finish their conversation alone.

Victor left the photographs lying facedown on the table. He passed a magazine he’d brought with him to Fat Mike, who got up and walked away without a word. From here everything was a gamble, a desperate roll of the dice. The kicker was that the club had an excellent attorney on retainer, and Thumper had recognized his family.

Quietly Victor sipped his beer and waited. Less than a minute later, FBI agents in black riot gear burst through the doors with guns drawn. They started shouting at once. There was a brief flurry of activity as some of the bikers tried to escape. The agents put them down with stun batons, then screwed the muzzles of their weapons into the base of those men’s skulls.

Victor finished his last sip of beer and put his hands in the air. He didn’t resist when one of the men grabbed him out of the chair by his hair and made him drop to his knees.

“He had pictures of my family,” Thumper said to a grizzled guy wearing glasses. “I wouldn’t have blown cover if he hadn’t.”

Victor just grinned.

Without a word, the grizzled agent reached for the photographs on the table and flipped them over one by one. Victor laughed as he saw the surprised look on Thumper’s face. The pictures-each and every one of them-showed Thumper drunk and drugged out with other members of the Purple Royals. None of the pictures, though, were of Victor or Fat Mike.

He’d made sure they weren’t compromised.

Thumper picked up the photographs. “I don’t understand. I saw them! I swear I did!”

The grizzled agent swung his attention to Victor. “Like to think you’re cute, don’t you?” the agent asked.

“Cute enough,” Victor responded. “And about to get cuter. Me and you, we gotta talk. Now that I got your attention.”

8

›› Four-Mile Tavern

›› Outside Fort Davis, Texas

›› 1648 Hours (Central Time Zone)

Seated at one of the small round tables that dotted the floor in the tavern’s TV room, Tyrel McHenry looked like he’d been carved from stone. He was sixty-three years old. Age and a lifetime of hard work had eroded the excess flesh from his lean body.

He was not quite as tall and broad-shouldered as Shel was, but looking at the two of them together, a person would know where Shel had gotten his build.

Don had always thought-though he would never mention it to either one of the other men in his family-that his daddy and Shel were more alike than they were different. If anyone didn’t fit into that family, Don felt certain it was him.

Tyrel’s hair had finished going iron gray a few years back. Long exposure to a blistering sun and harsh winters had bronzed his skin. Permanent wrinkles wreathed his cold blue eyes and pleated his leathery cheeks, which he kept smooth and shiny with a straight razor he used every morning and every evening if he was going to go out.

He wore straight-legged jeans tucked into cowboy boots. Tyrel had always maintained that the difference between a working ranch hand and a drugstore cowboy had been whether the jeans were worn on the outside of his boots or tucked in. A ranch hand tucked them in so they didn’t catch in the stirrups or get caught on anything while he was working.

The black Western shirt was carefully pressed and had white pearl snaps. Tyrel’s high-crowned black cowboy hat sported a silver hatband etched with Native American symbols. Don’s mama, part Lipan Apache, had made the hatband for her husband and marked it with signs that she’d claimed would bring him peace.

Though his mama had been a devout Christian woman who went to church every Wednesday and Sunday, she’d also held on to some of the old ways because she hadn’t wanted the culture to disappear. And if her husband was dead set against believing in the works of the Good Lord, maybe he’d have been a little more open to something else. Anything that would have brought him peace.

Tyrel smoked an unfiltered Camel cigarette and kept his gaze focused on the baseball game on the big-screen TV on the wall. A handful of other men sat quietly and watched the game as well.

Don approached his daddy and stood nearby. Even as a grown man, he’d never walked up to his daddy without being acknowledged first.

“What do you want, boy?” Tyrel asked in his coarse voice. He never turned his gaze from the TV.

“I came to see you, Daddy,” Don said.

“I thought you just did come to see me.”

“Yes, sir. But that was back in May.” Don’s mother had succumbed to her illness on May 12, and Don always visited on that anniversary so his daddy wouldn’t have to be alone.

“You came out to put flowers on your mama’s grave.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tyrel nodded in quiet satisfaction. “She’d have liked that. You looking after her like that.”

“Yes, sir.” When he’d arrived at the grave, Don had discovered a woven flower blanket that covered his mama’s final resting spot. His daddy made them himself. At least, Don hadn’t ever found out if anyone else did them. And the braiding was similar to the rope mending his daddy had taught him to do.

“Well, you planning on standing there all night?” Tyrel asked. “I thought you had a church to run.”

“You don’t exactly run a church, Daddy,” Don said. “It’s not a business.”

“Seems to me you get paid by people who go there. That’s a business.”

Don knew his daddy was deliberately baiting him and avoided the old argument. “People go there to be with God. They leave money so they have a house to do that together in. And to help out people in the congregation that aren’t able to fend for themselves.”

Tyrel flicked ash from his cigarette in annoyance. He took another draw on the Camel and breathed out a cloud of smoke.

“You say toe-may-toe; I say toe-may-tah.”

Don had long since given up trying to caution his father about smoking. Tyrel McHenry wasn’t a man much given to listening to advice he didn’t want to hear.

“Don’t you gotta get back to that church soon?” Tyrel asked. “Must be an evening prayer or something you gotta give.”

“We’re not having service tonight till seven,” Don said. “I wanted families to have time to spend the day together.” He paused. “Do you mind if I sit with you, Daddy?”

Tyrel hesitated for a moment, and Don thought he almost looked over. “Suit yourself. You’re a grown man.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, Daddy.” Don took a chair beside his father. As he looked at Tyrel, he realized that the years were marking him harder. Don couldn’t help wondering how much longer his daddy would be with them.

Then Don felt miserable because his daddy had never truly been with any of them.

That’s not true, he reminded himself. Daddy was always there for Mama.

All throughout the time he was growing up, though, Don couldn’t remember much softness between his parents. Tyrel had worked from sunup to sundown, and he’d been early to bed after he’d washed the supper dishes for his wife.

Don could recall nights he’d sat by the fireplace and listened to Rachel McHenry read from the Bible. They were always stories from the Old Testament, filled with wars and fearful things, because those were the ones Tyrel tolerated best.

The stories of David from the books of 1 and 2 Samuel were Tyrel’s favorites. Don could remember his mama asking his daddy one night why he liked those stories so much.

Tyrel had thought long and hard about his answer before he gave it. That was usually his way. Tyrel had always taken longer to answer deeper questions. Responses to general questions about right and wrong, about the code Tyrel McHenry lived by, came lightning quick, but things beyond mending fences and how a man should react in everyday situations took him longer.

“I like that book,” Tyrel had said, “because even though David did a powerful lot of wrongful things, God still loved him. It just seems uplifting. Can’t see how it would be true, but I like those stories.”

Don had read the books several times to try to figure out what drew his daddy to them. He’d finally given up in frustration. Whatever secrets lay in those pages had eluded him.

›› 1654 Hours (Central Time Zone)

“You want something to drink?” Tyrel asked.

“No, thank you, Daddy. Katie’s bringing me a soda.”

At that moment, Katie appeared, placing a cocktail napkin and the soft drink glass in front of Don.

Tyrel smiled in disbelief and shook his head. “Come to a bar to drink a soda pop. Don’t that beat all.”

“I got to deliver a sermon tonight, Daddy. I’d rather not do it with beer on my breath.” Don took a sip of his drink.

On the screen, the Rangers turned a double play against the Yankees. Their success spurred a spate of happy curses from a couple of the men.

“And I didn’t come here to drink a soda pop.” Don looked at his daddy, who had yet to turn his full gaze on him. “I came here to be with you.”

“I came here to be alone,” Tyrel said.

“If you’d wanted to be alone, you’d have stayed at home.”

“But you already been by there, ain’t you?”

Reluctantly Don nodded. He’d gone by the Rafter M Ranch first and found only Gonzalez snoozing on the porch. Gonzalez was nearly Tyrel’s age, but Tyrel took care of the other man and gave him lodging and payment for his help around the ranch.

“I wanted to ask you to come to church tonight, Daddy,” Don said.

“I’m not interested in church,” Tyrel replied. “What happens between me and God stays between me and God. Don’t need to go airing it out in public.”

As always, that bit of insight into his daddy’s spiritual affairs made Don relax a little. His daddy was a believer or was at least paying belief lip service. That was a start.

“It’s Father’s Day,” Don went on. “I thought maybe you’d like to spend part of it with me.”

“You’re here, ain’t you?”

“And my family,” Don went on patiently.

“Son, we’ve had this conversation a hundred times if we’ve had it once.” Tyrel stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. “Comes a time in a man’s life when he cuts loose from his family to make one of his own. A man can’t ride two broncs. You gotta choose one or the other. I think you’ll find that in the book of Ecclesiastes.” He paused. “Personally, I think you made a fine choice in leaving. You married a pretty little gal, and you got two fine boys and a daughter. You got your family.”

“They’d like to see more of their granddaddy.”

“You and yours are welcome to come on out to the ranch any time. You know that. I’ve told you enough. And you’re coming out there enough that them boys are learning to ride good enough. Might even be as good as Shel someday.”

“We’d like to have you to supper after the service.” During Don’s eleven years of marriage, his daddy had never once stepped inside his house other than to help repair or install something. Even that was done after protest, after Tyrel became convinced his son really couldn’t manage it on his own.

Occasionally, if he moved fast enough, Don managed to lay out steaks or burgers on the grill and get a meal together before Tyrel could leave. But despite Don’s best efforts at being cordial, he’d known his daddy wasn’t comfortable being there.

He just didn’t know why that was so. Tyrel liked small children, and they liked him. Don’s sons and daughter adored their grandpa, and he doted on them when they were around. He just kept his distance.

“I’m planning on stopping by the truck stop on my way home. They got that coconut pie I like.”

“You can always stop by there on your way home. After you have supper with us.”

“I already got my plans in order.”

“Change them. It’s Father’s Day.”

Tyrel turned and looked at his son. In that unflinching gaze, Don felt somehow diminished, like he was looking at something that would always and forever be larger than he was. He was ashamed that he felt this way in front of his daddy. He didn’t like feeling weak and helpless, and he truly believed that God had put this work before him.

“I’m not changing my plans,” Tyrel said. “They’re good plans. They fit me. I don’t plan my life around you, and you ought not plan yours around me.”

“It’s just supper, Daddy.”

“I thought it was church, then supper.”

“Church won’t last too long tonight. I want to get everybody home early.”

Tyrel sipped his beer. After a minute, he shook his head. “No thanks. I already got my mind made up. Don’t mean to not be social, but I got a lot to think about.”

“What?”

“Where to move them cows. Gonna be hot and dry come August. Pasture might not survive. Hay’s expensive if you have to feed it during the summer. I don’t want to do that.”

“You get through every year.”

“It gets harder. Ain’t like that job you do. Just memorize a few lines of Scripture and quote ’em at people now and again.”

Don knew that if he’d been Shel and had just heard his work tossed off so casually, an argument would have broken out then and there. Shel had always been defensive around their daddy.

“Yes, sir,” Don said instead. He’d always found it easier to keep the peace than to fight with his brother or his daddy.

“There’s a science to ranching,” his daddy said. “A man that don’t pay attention and learn what he needs to survive ends up sacking groceries somewhere. I’m too old to do that.”

“Yes, sir.” Don sipped his drink. “Have you heard from Shel today?”

Tyrel fished his pack of smokes out of his pocket and lit up a new cigarette with a Zippo lighter. He squinted and waved the smoke out of his face with a hand. “No.”

“I haven’t been able to get ahold of him either.” Don had called several times just in case Shel had forgotten it was Father’s Day. The calls had gone unanswered and unreturned.

“I haven’t tried to get hold of him,” Tyrel said simply. “Likely he’s busy. No reason he should be calling anyway.”

“It’s Father’s Day. He should call.” Don felt irritated and a little sad. Over the last few years, Shel had seemed to be drifting farther and farther away from their daddy. It hurt Don to see that and recognize it. It hurt even more when he realized there was nothing he could do to prevent it. Both men needed each other, but neither of them seemed willing to admit it.

“I didn’t raise either of you two boys to be soft.” Tyrel knocked ash from his cigarette.

“Calling your daddy on Father’s Day isn’t being soft. It’s about respect and love.”

Tyrel turned and looked at Don. “You ain’t your brother. You don’t feel what he feels. Shel’s got his ways, and you got yours. What works for you ain’t necessarily gonna work for him. He don’t say what’s on his mind as easy as you do, that’s all.”

Shel and Don had been different almost since day one. Don got that they were different, and that they would probably always be different.

But on Father’s Day, Don didn’t want to have that conversation with his daddy. He knew it would probably lead to an argument. And if there was any arguing to be done, Don fully intended to set his sights on Shel.

“Ball game’s almost over,” Tyrel said. “Reckon you need to be getting back to the church before long.”

“That’s all right, Daddy. I got a few more minutes. If you don’t mind, I’ll just sit here and watch the game with you for a little bit.”

“Do what you want, but there’s men in here who come to watch the game. Not to listen to you and me talk.”

“Yes, sir.” Knowing his daddy wouldn’t take part in any more conversation, Don quietly sat and watched baseball. It wasn’t the ideal Father’s Day, but he knew it was the best his daddy would allow him to have.

There in the darkness of the tavern, he quietly loved his daddy and asked God to help him understand how Tyrel McHenry had come to be the cold, hard man he was. And he hoped that Shel had a good reason for not coming home and not calling.

Otherwise Don was going to have that argument after all.

9

›› NCIS Offices

›› Camp Lejeune, north carolina

›› 1909 Hours

“Are you trying to hypnotize that computer screen?”

United States Navy Commander Will Coburn’s voice broke the spell of Maggie Foley’s cycling thoughts. She glanced away from the computer and looked at her commanding officer.

“Because if you’re trying to hypnotize it,” Will continued, “I don’t think it’s going to work.”

“I was trying to catch up on some of the files.” Maggie leaned back in the ergonomic chair and tried to find some of the relief the design promised. “We’ve all got court appearances to do in the next few weeks, so I wanted to start prepping everyone.”

Court appearances were a major part of an NCIS special agent’s life. Coming in weeks or months after the fact-oftentimes nearly a year because they dealt with civilian courts as well as military ones-preparation was important. Cases came and went, but an agent had to be ready to make the jury or the judge believe he or she remembered everything as if the events had happened only yesterday. That kind of confidence wasn’t gained just overnight.

Will paused at the coffeepot and poured a cup.

The NCIS offices weren’t completely deserted, but only a skeleton crew of agents was in place. Crime never truly came to a halt. Most of the cubicles were silent, but Maggie knew it would be business as usual in the morning.

“You could have let that go for tonight.”

Maggie knew she could have, but she hadn’t wanted to stay in her apartment or go out. Over the last few years, the NCIS offices had gotten comfortable for her. It was Father’s Day, and she didn’t want to sit at home and feel guilty about not calling her father. Not that Harrison Talbot Foley III would have truly cared other than to tweak whatever guilt she might have felt.

“I didn’t feel like going out, and I didn’t feel like staying in,” Maggie said. “I needed to work on something that was mindless. Organizing files does that for me.”

Will blew on his coffee and sipped. Then he grimaced and put the coffee down. “I take it you haven’t been drinking the coffee.”

Maggie held up an extra-large Starbucks cup that was still almost half-full. “Nope.”

Will busied himself brewing a new pot. “Well, at least it’s peaceful tonight.”

“It was quiet tonight. At least, it was until someone gave us a lead on Bobby Lee Gant.”

Quiet contemplation passed over Will’s face for just a second; then he nodded. They all remembered who Bobby Lee Gant was.

“Anything solid?” Will asked.

“We hope so.”

“‘We’?”

“Shel and Remy are en route.”

“Where?”

“Charlotte.”

“How did you find out Bobby Lee was supposed to be there?”

Maggie told him about the woman who’d been flipped by the Charlotte PD investigators.

“Whom does Bobby Lee know up there?” Will asked when she’d finished.

Maggie brought up Bobby Lee Gant’s file. “His father. Victor.”

The man’s grim visage filled the screen. Maggie had worked in law enforcement long enough to know that pure evil existed in the world. Looking at Victor Gant, she couldn’t help but get the feeling the man was intimate with all aspects of that dark force.

Will nodded and ran a hand through his short-cropped black hair. “The biker guy.”

“Right.” As she studied Will, Maggie knew he was tired and struggling. Even without her degrees in psychology and years of profiling suspects and victims, she would have known that.

“You could have called me,” Will said. He was a little over six feet tall and rugged looking. He was bigger than Remy Gautreau but nowhere near as developed as Shel McHenry. His green eyes looked bloodshot. He was tan from the sun and the sea, and he wore the Navy like it was a part of him. During the last few months he’d been out sailing with his kids on the weekends every chance they’d gotten.

“You were with Steven and Wren, and it’s Father’s Day,” Maggie said. “I wasn’t going to interrupt you. It’s just a quick look-see. If it doesn’t feel right, Shel and Remy will shadow Bobby Lee and wait till we can get someone there. They know the drill.”

Will watched the coffee drip into the glass pot. “Bobby Lee’s elevator doesn’t go quite to the top.”

Maggie smiled. “That sounds like something Shel would say.”

“That’s because it is something Shel said. And he said it because Bobby Lee is dangerous.”

“Shel and Remy can handle themselves. There’s no sense in sending three men on a two-man job. Shel could probably collar Bobby Lee himself.” Besides, Maggie thought, you needed the time with your kids. But she knew better than to tell Will that. He already felt torn in different directions enough by the job and his family. Getting that balance right had always been a struggle for him.

“How far out are they?”

Maggie brought up her GPS program and entered the ID designation for Shel’s Jeep. It took only a second to locate the vehicle and mark its position. “They’re in Charlotte now. It shouldn’t be long.”

Will took a fresh cup of coffee. “When you know something…”

“You’ll be my first call.”

›› 1915 Hours

Will stood in his office and peered out the window. The camp was still light enough that he could easily see the surrounding grounds. Everything was green and full. He knew if he opened the window he’d be able to smell the ocean.

Maybe I should have gone fishing, he thought. But he knew that wouldn’t have helped his mood. If anything, it would have made the situation worse.

“Trying to hypnotize that window?”

Refocusing on the glass, Will saw Maggie’s reflection as she leaned in the doorway behind him. She was petite, a handful of inches over five feet, with an athletic body kept taut and fit through rigorous exercise. Her dark brown hair dusted her shoulders, and she regarded him with deep hazel eyes. She wore a black skirt and a white blouse, looking like all she had to do was throw on a jacket to have dinner at one of the best restaurants in Jacksonville, the city just outside Camp Lejeune. She was intelligent and insightful and incredibly competent in the field.

“Maybe,” Will replied. “I think I’ve almost got it.”

Maggie smiled. “So how did today with Steven and Wren go?”

Will hesitated long enough to make sure he spoke in a conversational tone. “I didn’t come here to get counseling.”

“Of course you didn’t. You came here because you didn’t want to go home and sit there alone.”

Will sipped his coffee. She was right; he had been avoiding the emptiness of his living quarters.

“I have a counselor I talk to these days,” he said. Maggie had helped him get in touch with one of the people on base.

“Is it helping?”

It was the first time she’d asked. Will was a private person about a lot of things, and he was especially private about the painful things. What he was still going through-even after the divorce-hurt more than he wanted it to. And he didn’t like talking about it.

“I think so,” Will replied.

“Good.” Maggie waited, then prompted him again. “So how’s it going tonight?”

“I’m planning on talking to Doug about it next session.”

“Doug’s not here right now. A lot has changed the last month. Your ex-wife has a new husband. Steven and Wren have a new stepfather. Those are big things. And Father’s Day is a red-letter day.” Maggie shrugged. “I thought maybe you might want to talk about it.”

Will did. And he didn’t. It was a brief struggle before the balance tipped. He took a deep breath and let the air out, and some of the tension inside his chest broke.

“It’s kind of confusing actually,” he admitted.

“Because now Barbara is married again and you’re not.”

Will thought about that. “Because Barbara is married again,” he agreed. “Not because I’m not. The last thing the kids or I need right now is another stepparent involved in the mix.”

Maggie smiled. “You’re probably right. I suspect Barbara wouldn’t handle you getting married with the same grace you’ve handled her marriage.”

“The way I’ve handled it hasn’t felt very graceful.” In fact, Will sometimes felt certain that he wouldn’t have made it through the transition at all without God’s help. That closeness he felt-though at times it was still strained because of all the horrors he saw in his line of work-had gotten stronger in him. He’d learned to acknowledge God’s presence as his quiet strength.

“I think you have been,” Maggie said.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“I also suspect that her new husband-”

“Jesse,” Will said.

“-doesn’t care for the situation either.”

“Probably not.”

“He’s not a kid person,” Maggie said, “so having them around is…” She paused, searching for the right, technically inoffensive term.

“Inconvenient,” Will said.

“Having to share them with you is more than inconvenient to him,” Maggie said. “I’ve seen his type. He likes to be top dog. He wants it to all be about him.”

Will looked at Maggie then. “You haven’t mentioned this before,” he said.

“It’s because I mind my own business.”

Will cocked an eyebrow. “But here you are in my office.”

Maggie smiled guilelessly. “Yes.”

Will gestured to a seat across from his desk. Maggie slid into it and sat attentively.

“So now you don’t have any more questions?” Will asked.

“You know what you want to talk about more than I do,” Maggie replied. “A good counselor only leads a conversation when that isn’t the case.”

Will hesitated for a moment and wondered if talking at all was a mistake. But he felt the need to. Today had been harder than he’d expected. Taking Steven and Wren back to be with their new “dad” for part of Father’s Day hadn’t been easy.

“You’re right about Jesse,” he said. “He does want it to be all about him.” Will shook his head. “I honestly don’t know what Barbara sees in him.”

“He’s always home. He’s always around. It’s all about him, and he wants to be there so it can be all about him.” Maggie shrugged. “It’s not rocket science. Barbara wanted a man who was home.”

“And I wasn’t.”

“Not enough for her, no. But the work you were doing with the Navy was important, Will. Never forget that. Military careers are hard on everybody. You went through the same things that she did, and you got to see your children a lot less.”

That had been one of the things Will had sought to redress after taking the NCIS posting.

“Not everybody can do what you and those other men do on a daily basis.”

“She blamed me.”

“She blamed your job. You just got caught up in the fallout. Jesse wants home to be all about him. So he’s there. By default, even though it’s not exactly for the right reasons, his desire meets Barbara’s needs.”

“He didn’t like it that Steven and Wren were with me most of today. And he didn’t like it when they called and asked him if they could stay the night and come back tomorrow.”

“That would have been a big concession.”

Will nodded.

“But he wasn’t big enough to make it,” Maggie said.

“No.”

“Why do you think he felt that way?”

Will folded his hands together and leaned across the desk toward her. “I’m not the professional here.”

Maggie shook her head. “That’s not how we do the work. I don’t just give you the answers. You have to look for them yourself. Besides, you know the answer to this one.”

Will did because the answer was simple. “Jesse didn’t want them to be with me because it was a distinct reminder that it’s not all about him. Not where they’re concerned.”

A pleased look flashed in Maggie’s hazel eyes. “Bingo. But it cuts deeper than that.”

Will’s momentary triumph faded. “I don’t understand.”

“You were one of the youngest lieutenants ever promoted to commander,” Maggie said. “You can figure this one out.” She sipped her coffee.

Will was silent for a full minute as he tried to wrap his brain around what Maggie was saying.

“Do you think Jesse would have usurped Father’s Day from you if he could have?” Maggie asked finally.

“Yes.” Will answered without hesitation.

“But he didn’t.”

“No.”

“Why do you think he didn’t?”

“Because it’s Father’s Day.”

“Is the visitation written out in the divorce papers?”

Will gave that consideration and shook his head. “No. But it only seems fair. Barbara gets them on Mother’s Day.”

“Because you allow it.”

“Yes.” Then Will understood. “And she allowed me to have them today.”

“In spite of the fact that Steven and Wren have a new father figure in the house. This was Jesse’s first Father’s Day with them as their stepdad. It was probably kind of a big thing to him.”

“Because it’s all about him. Only today wasn’t, because Barbara didn’t let that happen.”

Maggie nodded.

“Maybe I shouldn’t feel as angry at Barbara as I have been for not having Steven and Wren all day.”

“You’re going to feel the way you feel, Will,” Maggie said. “I just want you to understand that you had something good today-several hours of almost stress-free time with your kids-that could have been much harder.”

“Barbara wanted me to be with Steven and Wren today.”

“I think so. But that can’t have set well with her new husband.”

“Because it’s not all about him.”

“Exactly. But even if they’d been there, he wouldn’t have appreciated them as much as you did. The emotional ties and investments aren’t there.”

Thinking back over the way Steven and Wren had reluctantly left him when he’d dropped them off, Will realized that what Maggie was saying was true. It helped a little.

“Father’s Day has gotten complicated,” he said.

“But not impossible.”

“No.” And please, God, never let it be impossible. Will relaxed a little more and glanced at the clock on the wall. “Have you eaten?”

“Not yet.”

“Neither have I. I could order Chinese in.”

“Sure.”

Even as Will reached for the phone on his desk, though, it rang. He lifted the handset and identified himself.

“Commander,” a no-nonsense voice on the other end of the connection said, “I’m Special Agent-in-Charge Scott Urlacher of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If I may, I need a moment of your time.”

1 0

›› NCIS Offices

›› Camp Lejeune, north carolina

›› 1923 Hours

Will covered the mouthpiece and looked at Maggie. “FBI. SAC Urlacher?”

Maggie shook her head, letting him know the name meant nothing to her.

“What can I do for you, Agent Urlacher?” Will hit the speakerphone button, motioning for Maggie to stay quiet.

“Do you know a man named Victor Gant?” Urlacher responded.

Will didn’t hesitate about answering, but he was instantly wary. “I do.”

“You’ve got paper out on his son, Bobby Lee.”

Will agreed to that as well, wondering why the FBI agent had called him.

“I’ve got a situation I was hoping you could help me with,” Urlacher said.

“If I can,” Will replied. He wasn’t in the habit of making blind promises.

“Victor Gant is in a bad bit of business out here in Charlotte,” Special Agent-in-Charge Urlacher said. “He runs with a local biker gang.”

“The Purple Royals,” Will replied as he gazed at the file Maggie had opened up on his computer in front of him. “He doesn’t just run with them. He leads it.”

“Yes, sir. Our intel suggests that the Purple Royals deal meth and weapons.”

The notes in the folder agreed with that assessment. Will didn’t say anything.

“We’ve had an undercover officer on-site in Charlotte for months,” Urlacher said. “He made contact with Victor Gant and was trying to negotiate a sizeable drug buy. Gant has a resource for opium that beats most anything we’ve seen down here.”

“Down here” let Will know immediately that Urlacher wasn’t from the South.

“How can I help you?” Will asked.

Urlacher hesitated. “I need some leverage to use against Gant.”

“I don’t have anything. We’ve been working the case against Bobby Lee.”

“I understand that. What I was wondering was if you’d gotten any closer to bringing Bobby Lee Gant in.”

Will swapped looks with Maggie, and he knew what the FBI man was about to ask.

“Not yet,” Will said.

“With everything Gant’s done, I can hold him for a few days before we have to charge him,” Urlacher said. “To hold him any longer, I’m going to have to charge him with something. I can make a case for threatening a federal officer, especially in light of how he confronted our undercover, but that’s not going to be enough.” The FBI agent sighed. “We might not even be able make that stick. Gant maneuvered the situation so it’s his word against my undercover’s.”

Will didn’t say anything.

“I’m wondering if you could heat up your search for Bobby Lee Gant,” Urlacher said.

“Trust me,” Will said evenly, “nobody wants him more than we do.” He’d interviewed the young Marine in the hospital and seen firsthand the damage that Bobby Lee Gant had wrought. Even after everything he’d seen while at NCIS, the atrocity had sickened Will.

The young Marine had looked small, helpless, and defeated in that hospital bed. His wife hadn’t looked much better. But she’d asked Will to find the man who had done that to them.

Will had promised he would.

“I need to put pressure on Gant to turn his opium source,” Urlacher said. “But to do that, I need something to offer him in return.”

“You want to offer him Bobby Lee?” Will couldn’t believe it. Anger stirred in him. “There’s no way Bobby Lee is going to walk after what he did.”

“He’s a young man,” Urlacher said in a matter-of-fact voice. “Still has a lot of years ahead of him. Hasn’t been in a whole lot of trouble, judging from the jacket I’m going by. A jury could be persuaded that young man could be rehabilitated.”

Will didn’t think so. Neither did Maggie, judging from her sour expression. Her profile of the man had shown him to be a career criminal. Salvation wasn’t in the cards for Bobby Lee Gant. Not once the jury saw the damage the young Marine and his wife had suffered at Bobby Lee’s hands.

“I’m willing to take my chances in court,” Will replied. In fact, he wanted a jury to handle the case because he felt certain they would punish Bobby Lee Gant more than a deal between the DA’s office and a defense attorney would.

NCIS had processed the evidence, and the case was airtight. The only trick would be in making the civilian DA stick to his promise to prosecute to the fullest extent of his office.

“Maybe you misunderstand what I’m getting at,” Urlacher said.

“I think I understand perfectly,” Will said. “For whatever reason, your undercover operation against Victor Gant was blown. You still want to salvage something. Since you don’t have your guy in the wringer, you want to offer to free the guy I’ve got in the wringer. That pretty much sum it up?”

Urlacher was silent for a moment. “I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation we’re dealing with here. Victor Gant and his motorcycle gang are responsible for an increase in opium feeding into this county. I want to shut that pipeline down.”

“I don’t blame you.”

“Ultimately a lot of those drugs are going to find their way onto military bases. They always do.”

“And when they do,” Will said, “we’ll take them off the board. Bobby Lee Gant is another matter entirely. He’s going to take the fall for what he did.”

“I understand why you feel the way that you do. I heard about what he did to that young soldier-”

“He was a Marine,” Will corrected automatically. “One of the Marines that I’m supposed to help. I couldn’t be there to stop Bobby Lee Gant, but I am going to help see that Bobby Lee goes away for what he did.” He let out a breath. “If you’re a betting man, Agent Urlacher, I advise you to bet on that.”

“I think the DA in Jacksonville can be persuaded to do business with us,” Urlacher said. “All cases involving civilian personnel go through him.”

That was true. Only cases that involved strictly military personnel went through military courts.

“We have a good working relationship with the Jacksonville DA,” Will said.

“He might like to have a new one with the FBI.”

“I don’t see how working with the FBI would be in his best interests.”

“The FBI is a good friend to have.”

“The FBI,” Will said, “can’t fill the DA’s court with civilians violating ordinances in Camp Lejeune. The DA can’t hold military personnel in jail if this camp decides those men are better off working at their jobs. Trust me when I say that we make his life a whole lot better than you ever could.”

“I don’t think you can muscle up that much resistance.”

“It’s not just me,” Will said. “With the military, it’s never just an individual. Civilians make the mistake of seeing an individual, but we’re never alone. And these are the Marines. They’ll want justice done.”

“I think the federal government can pony up more respect than that.”

“I’ve worked with the DA over the years,” Will said. “He’s not a guy who likes getting strong-armed. You take that approach with him, I might not have to do a thing.”

Urlacher cursed.

“Now, if there’s nothing else,” Will said, “I’ve got work to attend to.”

“I’ll be talking to you, Commander.” Urlacher broke the connection before Will could respond.

“Sounds like he has issues,” Maggie said.

“Maybe a few.” Will took out his Pocket PC and scribbled Urlacher’s name onto a Post-it note. He’d write up a file about the conversation later on the off chance that they might bump heads again. “Let’s get hold of Shel and Remy. If Urlacher has Victor Gant, he’s probably holding him in Charlotte.”

“Are you thinking they might cross paths?”

Will nodded. “We got the tip about Bobby Lee Gant from the Charlotte PD. If Urlacher finds that out, he might want to pursue Bobby Lee himself.”

›› Interview Room

›› Federal Bureau of Investigation Field Office

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1941 Hours

Calm and at ease, Victor Gant sat in the uncomfortable straight-backed chair like he didn’t have a care in the world. He actually sat too far from the table, but he couldn’t move the chair because it was bolted to the floor.

He didn’t know if anyone stood behind the one-way mirror to his left, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to go to jail long-if he went at all. He wasn’t worried about that. What concerned him more was whether or not he’d be able to sell the other part of the plan.

That was questionable, and it was important.

The FBI agents had left Victor his cigarettes even though the building was supposed to be smoke-free. He knew that was an attempt at buying him off, but he didn’t care. If the cigarettes hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have smoked them. Time would have passed just as slowly, but he would have been more aware of it.

He inhaled carefully, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs to absorb the nicotine. When he let the smoke out in a steady stream, he saw the past coiled in the gray mass. He was never far from the past. Maybe it was thirty years and more on a calendar, but it remained only a single thought away.

One thought and he was right back in those green jungles with Charlie all around him.

The interview room door opened.

Victor barely glanced up.

The hard-nosed FBI agent who had arrested him at the Tawny Kitty stepped into the room. He carried a slim folder in one hand.

Victor knew at once that the folder wasn’t his. He’d seen his folder. It was thick with past brushes with the law and the evil that he’d done. There was a dark part of him that took pride in that work.

Urlacher dropped the file on the scarred conference table.

Victor grinned at the man. “Catching up on your reading, Hoss?”

“Do you know what genealogy is?” Urlacher countered.

A cold chill spilled through Victor’s stomach. “Family history. I ain’t dumb.”

“I never thought you were.” Urlacher put a big hand on the file. “But I find family histories mighty interesting. Not always good reading, but interesting nevertheless.”

Victor lit a fresh cigarette from the butt of the old, then crushed out the old one and fanned the smoke. His handcuff chains rattled and pulled at the connection to the belt around his waist.

“Take you, for instance,” Urlacher said. “You’ve got an interesting family tree. Father and grandfather were both hard-core military guys. Noncoms, both of them. Your father served in Korea and World War II. Your grandfather fought in World War I. Both of them were decorated heroes.”

Victor leaned his head back and blew a perfect smoke ring that floated toward the ceiling.

“You,” Urlacher said, “weren’t quite so decorated.”

“Vietnam was a different kind of war,” Victor said.

“I know. I was there.”

Interested in spite of himself, Victor leaned forward. “Where?”

“I was a PJ.”

Now that was interesting. PJs were pararescue jumpers, men who’d parachuted into hostile territory under enemy fire and pulled out survivors. Everyone respected the PJs.

“I knew some PJs,” Victor said. “They had a saying.”

“‘That others may live,’” Urlacher responded.

“They always said you guys went to Superman school.”

“We did.”

Victor smiled at Urlacher. “I know you ain’t here to rescue me.”

“I’m not. If I had my way, I’d drop-kick you into the deepest, dankest cell I can find.”

“Love the way you sugarcoat things. Must make you a real heartthrob with all the guys you bust.”

Urlacher’s face hardened. “Let’s get something straight, melonhead. I’m not your friend. I’m not going to be your friend. If push comes to shove, I’m going to rip your ears off and feed them to you. Are you hearing me all right?”

“So far. I’ve still got my ears.” Victor took another drag on his cigarette.

“You’ve also got a son.” Urlacher opened the file.

1 1

›› Interview Room

›› Federal Bureau of Investigation Field Office

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1941 Hours

Before he could stop himself, Victor glanced at the file Urlacher had brought into the room. Bobby Lee’s picture was on top. Bobby Lee looked bruised and cocky.

“You don’t want to go down that road,” Victor said quietly.

“Sure I do,” Urlacher stated. “It’s the same road you took getting to my guy.”

Victor didn’t say anything.

“You build a road,” Urlacher said, “it goes both ways. My guy says you threatened his family. Now I’m telling you that I can hit you right back.”

“I never threatened his family. You saw the photos.”

“I saw the ones you wanted me to see. But my guy also says your friend hightailed it with a magazine just before we showed up. So you show some pictures, do a little sleight of hand, then send them away with your buddy. That might fly in a kiddie show, but this is serious business.”

“The FBI’s got no interest in Bobby Lee.”

“No. But more than that, I can make the interest the Marines have in Bobby Lee go away.”

Victor leaned back in his chair. “If I cooperate? Tell you what you want to know?”

Urlacher nodded and smiled. “See? I told you I didn’t think you were stupid.”

Victor didn’t say anything. His thoughts felt scrambled. He hadn’t seen this curve coming.

“Bobby Lee’s pregnant girlfriend ratted him out,” Urlacher said. “She told the Charlotte PD where to find Bobby Lee. The Charlotte PD called Camp Lejeune and talked to the NCIS agents there. You know who they are?”

Victor nodded. “I know who they are.”

“The word I get is that they want Bobby Lee pretty bad after what he did to that Marine.” Urlacher grinned mirthlessly. “You and I both know soldiers. Probably every bit as old school as one-percenter bikers when it comes to taking a pound of flesh back from someone who’s wronged them.”

Silently Victor agreed. “Do they know where Bobby Lee is?”

“Yeah.” Urlacher closed the file. “But so do I. And I’ve got a team headed there now.”

Victor thought about that. “The boy’s green to trouble. He’s not going to know how to handle himself. If your people confront him, surrendering is gonna be the last thing on his mind.”

“Then I guess that’ll just be bad all the way around.”

A million thoughts rattled through Victor’s head all at once. He felt them surge like a tide of writhing snakes, and none of them were friendly or comforting. He kept seeing Bobby Lee shot up and dead. Both of them were caught like rats in traps.

Only Bobby Lee didn’t know that yet.

Let it go, Victor told himself. They’ll bring Bobby Lee in. They’re the FBI. They’re trained for situations like this.

But Victor also knew his son. Bobby Lee envisioned himself as some Old West gunfighter. He was determined to die with his boots on.

And the idea of going to prison for what he’d done to that Marine would have been impossible for the young man at his age.

The emotion that rushed through Victor surprised him. He wouldn’t have believed how much he didn’t want to see his son get hurt. They hadn’t known each other long, but it had been long enough for Victor to see himself in the young man and know that he had a bid for immortality. Especially with a grandson already on the way.

Victor stubbed his cigarette out in the overflowing ashtray. “Let me talk to Bobby Lee.”

Urlacher didn’t say anything.

A curse ripped through Victor’s lips. “Let me talk to Bobby Lee, get him to give himself up. If you do that, I’ll give you my connection.”

And then, Victor knew, the war would be on. He and Tran went back over thirty years. But he didn’t doubt for a second that Tran would have him killed for rolling over on him.

Slowly Urlacher nodded. “I can do that. But if you’re lying to me, I’ll carve the rock they’ll set over Bobby Lee’s grave and stomp it into place myself.”

›› Spider’s Tattoo Shop

›› Doggett Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 2026 Hours

Shel stood across the street from the tattoo shop and gazed at the neon blue spider holding tattooing needles in all its legs. As the animation kicked in, the neon spider’s legs blurred into motion, and a cloud of black webbing spurted up.

“Nifty,” Shel said as he adjusted his sunglasses. The sun was still up and would be for another fifteen or twenty minutes. But shadows had already started to steep themselves between the buildings. Pools of darkness spread across the sidewalks.

Remy looked at him. “People still say nifty?”

“Some do,” Shel said. “The really cool people do.”

“I never heard anybody say nifty.”

“I would say that’s because you don’t hang with cool people, but you’re here with me now.”

“I’ve never heard you say it before.”

“That’s because you haven’t been listening.”

“I listen just fine.” Remy turned his attention back to the tattoo parlor. “How do you want to do this?”

Shel studied the area. The tattoo parlor was flanked by a deli and a Chinese restaurant. Both businesses still had customers. So did the tattoo parlor.

“Straight ahead,” Shel answered. “Go in. Introduce myself to Bobby Lee. Then take him down.”

“Oh yeah, I really like how inconspicuous that’s going to be. Especially after Will called to give us the heads-up about the FBI.”

“The fact that the FBI is involved at all is putting pressure on our timetable.” Shel glanced down the street and searched for any unmarked cars that might have been filled with FBI agents. For the moment, he didn’t see any. “If we had time, we’d go with my other great plan.”

Remy shot him a look. “I’m afraid to ask.”

“We’d build a giant wooden horse and climb inside. Pretend to be a gift to Bobby Lee. On second thought, maybe we could disguise ourselves in a giant wooden Harley.”

“Wow. I can see you’ve been giving this a lot of thought.”

“I stopped thinking about how we’re going to do it after Will called. We’re all out of time.” Shel glanced at the tattoo-artist spider again. “I’m not going back without Bobby Lee.”

“He could have friends.”

“I don’t think his friends would be all that friendly. Bobby Lee doesn’t strike me as the dedicated friend sort.”

“This part of your Father’s Day mad-on?”

Shel shook his head. “Just me doing my job. I’m going to go check out tattoos.”

“Why you?”

“Do you see any black customers in that tattoo shop?”

Remy looked, then shook his head. “That place has probably got a rear exit.”

“Probably.”

“Maybe I should slip around back and set up there. In case Bobby Lee somehow gets wise to your stealth ninja moves.”

“Sure.”

“Give me five minutes.”

Shel nodded and reached down to pat Max on the head. The Labrador sat quietly and contentedly beside him as Remy walked down the block and crossed the street.

Despite the tension that coiled in his stomach-more from the possibility of FBI interference than from the idea of facing Bobby Lee-Shel remained calm and cool. This was business as usual, no matter if it was Father’s Day.

He scratched Max behind the ear, listened to the dog pant in the heat, and felt the sweat trickle down his back under the slim-line Kevlar vest he wore. A sleeveless flannel shirt softened the edges of the vest, and the tails of the shirt left outside his pants covered the matte black Mark 23 Mod 0 SOCOM. 45-caliber semiautomatic pistol in the pancake holster at the base of his spine. Extra magazines rode in his jeans pockets, but he doubted he’d be able to work a reload inside the shop if things went awry.

Excitement flooded Shel’s veins with adrenaline. He lived for this.

›› 2027 Hours

Bobby Lee Gant lay in the chair with his eyes closed, riding on a pleasant wave of alcohol and pills. He felt the sharp bite of the tattooing gun as it chewed through the flesh over his heart. The raucous buzzing echoed inside his head over the thundering bass of the heavy metal music blasting through the tattoo parlor.

Someone slapped his forehead.

“Hey!” Bobby Lee opened his eyes and tried to push up from the chair. “Don’t you be slapping me, you big piece of-”

“Stop moving!” Spider spoke gruffly around a fat cigar shoved into his wide mouth. He was a big man in his fifties, with a flat, rugged face and beard and hair that roped down to his broad shoulders. He held the tattoo gun off to one side and dabbed at Bobby Lee’s chest with a wipe with the other hand. “You keep moving around like that, this tat’s gonna look like a three-year-old done it. And if you walk out of here with a bad-lookin’ tat and you tell everybody I done it, I’m gonna charge you double.”

Juiced by the drugs and whiskey, Bobby Lee grinned. “Okay, okay.” He started to raise his hands in surrender.

Spider cursed. “Keep your hands down!”

Bobby Lee put his arms at rest beside him. It was hard to be still. With the drugs and the music working, he wanted to be up and dancing. More than that, he wanted to be with Lorna, his girl. He closed his eyes and thought about that.

The tattoo gun started buzzing again. Pain seeped back into his skin.

“You spell Lorna with two o ’s, don’t you?” Spider asked.

“What?” Bobby opened his eyes again and tried to peer down at his chest.

Spider barked laughter that echoed even over the heavy metal. He put a big hand on Bobby Lee’s forehead and pushed him back into the chair.

“Man, relax,” Spider guffawed. “I’m just screwing with you.”

Bobby Lee lay back.

“I know it’s spelled with a u,” Spider said.

Irritated, Bobby Lee reached for the pistol tucked into his waistband.

Spider’s demeanor changed in a flash. He dropped a hand to Bobby Lee’s arm and trapped it against his body. “Hold on there, boy.”

“Let go!” Bobby Lee shouted. “I ain’t in here for you to make fun of.” He held on to the pistol, but Spider’s strong hand prevented him from pulling it.

“Chill, bro,” Spider said. “I was just havin’ a little fun.”

“It ain’t fun for me. That’s the name of my woman. I don’t want it spelled wrong.”

“It ain’t gonna be spelled wrong.” Spider held up a forearm. There in ink he’d written Lorna. “Got her name right here. As long as you spelled it right, I spell it right.”

Bobby Lee stared at the man a little longer, then relaxed in the chair.

“We cool?” Spider asked.

Bobby Lee nodded. “Cool.”

“Then you just get mellow, bro, ’cause we’re in the home stretch.”

But before Spider could start in with the ink gun again, Bobby Lee’s cell phone rang. It was just a track phone, a cheap, disposable handset he’d had Lorna purchase for him. He waved Spider off, pulled the phone out of his pocket, and flipped it open.

“Got some bad news, man,” a voice said after Bobby Lee answered. “Lorna told the cops where you are. They’re on their way there now.”

Panic flooded Bobby Lee as he scrambled up from the chair despite Spider’s protests. He wasn’t going to jail. No way.

1 2

›› Spider’s Tattoo Shop

›› Doggett Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 2033 Hours

“Something I can help you with, man?”

Shel looked at the slim young woman behind the counter to the right of the door inside the shop. She was dressed in black jeans and a black Anthrax concert T-shirt. She was pale enough to pass as a vampire. Metal studs gleamed in her eyebrows and at the bottom of her lower lip. Her long blonde hair was the color of old bone.

“I wanted to see about getting a tattoo,” Shel said. He let the Texas drawl slide naturally into his words. In the military he’d learned what he called “TV talk,” that flat Midwestern accent used by news anchors and sports announcers.

The woman looked at him and smiled. “You don’t seem the type.”

Shel smiled back and stepped toward the counter. His gaze took in the closed-circuit monitor hanging from the wall.

“And what type do I seem like to you?” Shel asked.

The woman folded her arms and leaned a hip against the counter. “Mama’s boy. Joe Average. Joe Military.”

Shel knew he couldn’t help looking military. Even when he was in disguise-even better ones than his current effort-he still looked like a Marine poster boy.

“Actually,” the young woman went on, “you look like you could be some superhero’s secret identity.”

Terrific, Shel thought. But he kept his smile in place. “Actually, it’s worse than that.”

She cocked an eyebrow and waited.

“I’m afraid of needles,” Shel said conspiratorially.

The woman looked at him askance. “A big guy like you?”

“I know. Shameful, isn’t it?”

“Well…”

Shel nodded and shrugged. “If I hadn’t met this girl, and if she wasn’t into tattoos, I wouldn’t be here tonight.” He paused. “And I have to be honest-unless I see something I really want, I’m not even getting one.”

“A girl, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Pretty?”

“Yeah.” Shel shrugged again. “I guess that makes me sound pretty dumb, huh?”

“As long as you don’t do anything really stupid, you should be okay.”

“What’s really stupid?” Shel asked.

“Getting her name tattooed on you. Then you have to explain to all your other girlfriends why you got that one’s name… wherever you put it.”

“Maybe I won’t show it to them.”

The young woman grinned. “Oh, they’ll look for it. I would.”

“I could just date only girls with that name,” Shel suggested.

“Right.” The woman took a book down from a shelf over the counter. “Got some designs here you might like. Small. Distinctive.” She looked at his biceps. “Big as your arms are, I’d check out some tribal tats. That would look cool.”

Shel grinned again. He’d learned a long time ago that women of all ages liked his grin.

Noise erupted from the back. The door opened, and Bobby Lee Gant stepped into the room with a 9 mm pistol tightly gripped in his fist. He was young and thin, at least twenty pounds too light for his five-foot, nine-inch frame. He wore holey jeans, square-toed boots, a Confederate flag bandanna that held back his greasy hair, and a motorcycle jacket without a shirt. Drops of blood glinted in the center of a tattoo of a skull with a rose clenched in its teeth. Lorna was inscribed beneath the skull.

“Hey, Bobby Lee,” a gruff voice said. “Get back in here, bro.”

Judging from the young man’s jerky reactions and his unfocused gaze, Shel figured Bobby Lee was higher than a kite. Shel didn’t move. Beside him, Max set himself, hunkering low and getting prepared to separate and go for the pistol.

Shel signed to Max, and the dog sat with a quiet but forlorn whimper. Max wasn’t used to quietly sitting out while guns were in evidence.

Bobby Lee whipped his pistol toward Shel. “Get your hands up!”

›› 2033 Hours

When Remy saw three unmarked sedans suddenly whip by the end of the alley, he knew something had gone badly wrong. Or was about to. He slid his Beretta out from under his shirt and held it ready as he catfooted through the alley toward the tattoo parlor’s rear exit.

His cell phone buzzed against his hip. He braced against the wall in the deepening dark of the approaching evening and slid the phone out so he could read the caller ID as it buzzed again.

A loud voice sounded inside the shop. Someone screamed.

Caller ID showed that the call was coming from NCIS headquarters in Camp Lejeune.

Remy pulled the earpiece connector from his shirt pocket, slipped it into his ear canal, and tapped it to open the line. “Gautreau.”

“Remy.” It was Will’s voice, calm and intense at the same time.

“Yeah.”

“We just got word from Charlotte PD that the FBI is on-site at your twenty.”

The sound of running feet echoed down the alley.

“Oh yeah,” Remy agreed. “They’re here.”

“Where’s Shel? He’s not answering.”

“Shel’s inside.” Remy tried the back door. It was locked.

“What’s going on there?”

Remy watched helplessly as four men entered the alley from either end. They carried flashlights and military-style assault rifles.

“Put the pistol on the ground!” one of the arriving men yelled. He wore an FBI jacket over his bulletproof vest. “Do it now!”

“You might want to get hold of the FBI,” Remy stated calmly. He let his pistol drop to hang from his finger. “Let them know that you’ve got two men out here working this.”

“They know,” Will said. “Maggie’s already sent them copies of your photo IDs.”

“Good to know,” Remy said. But it didn’t make him feel any better.

The four FBI agents locked into position along the alley.

“Drop the gun!” the man bellowed again.

Ruby lights glowed to sudden life against Remy’s chest. He knew he was only a heartbeat from death. Carefully he bent over and placed the pistol on the pavement and awaited further orders even though he was pretty sure he knew what they would be.

“Get on the ground!” the man ordered. “On the ground now! Facedown! Hands on top of your head!”

Remy followed orders and took care that his hands were always outstretched from his body so they wouldn’t think he was reaching for a weapon. His heart felt like it was going to explode.

Memories of other times he’d been arrested back in New Orleans flashed through his mind. It was hard to believe that he was going to survive such an encounter when there had been so many close calls back then.

The rough pavement chewed at his cheek. He had to force himself to lie there when footsteps pounded in his direction. In the next instant someone blinded him with a flashlight beam while someone else jumped in the middle of his back and raked his arms behind him.

Hard metal bit into his wrists and secured his hands behind his back.

“I’m with NCIS,” Remy said. “My ID-”

Someone punched him in the back of the head and snarled, “Shut up.”

“Hang in there, Remy,” Will said over the earpiece. “We’ll get you out of there as soon as we can.” Then one of the FBI agents stripped the earpiece.

Blood from a split lip tasted warm and salty inside Remy’s mouth. He shut up and stayed where he was as he was roughly frisked. But he hoped Shel was still safe.

›› 2035 Hours

Slowly, not offering any sudden movement that might panic Bobby Lee Gant, Shel raised his arms. “Hey, bro,” Shel said. “I don’t know what you’re smoking, but I just came in to check out tattoos.”

“Who is he?” Bobby Lee demanded.

The young woman behind the counter shook her head. “He just came in. He was asking about tattoos.”

“Bobby Lee!” the big man from the back room roared.

Shel recognized the man from the file Remy had downloaded. His name was Ralph “Spider” Gemmell, a known associate of biker clubs.

Bobby Lee swiveled and pointed his pistol at Spider. “Back off, man!”

Spider came to an abrupt halt. “You don’t want to do this, bro. It’s gonna end bad if you do.”

“I ain’t going to jail!” Bobby Lee screamed. His eyes rolled in panic like an animal’s. “They ain’t gonna take me to jail!”

“Dude,” Spider said, “it’s just jail. Ain’t like they’re gonna lock you up forever.”

“They ain’t locking me up at all!”

Shel thought about reaching for the pistol at his back. But he knew if he did, he was going to have to use it.

Let it ride, he told himself. Let this develop. He’s smart enough to realize he isn’t going to get out of this without getting hurt.

At least, Shel hoped that was true. Whether Bobby Lee was sober enough to do the right thing was another question.

Outside, through the large windows that overlooked the parking lot and Doggett Avenue beyond, two unmarked sedans with flashing lights shrilled to halts. Car doors jacked open, and men in Kevlar armor and FBI jackets took up ready positions behind cover.

“FBI?” Bobby Lee said in surprise.

Well, Shel thought, he isn’t so high or panicked that he can’t read.

“It ain’t supposed to be the FBI,” Bobby Lee moaned. “It’s the Marines. The Marines are supposed to be after me.”

“Maybe they’re not after you,” the woman behind the counter suggested. “Maybe they’re here after somebody else.”

“Who?” Bobby Lee demanded.

The young woman flinched back. “I don’t know. I was just saying.”

In the next minute, though, a man on a loudhailer stripped away that illusion. “Bobby Lee Gant! This is the FBI! Put down your weapon and come out with your hands up!”

Bobby Lee whirled around just in time to get lit up by ruby spotter lights. He glanced down at his chest and cursed.

“Give it up, bro,” Spider advised. “They got you cold. You can still get out of this in one piece.”

A lithe movement put Bobby Lee next to the young woman at the counter before anyone could move. He roped an arm around her neck and pulled her body back against his.

“I’m getting out of here!” Bobby Lee declared. “Or I’m going to kill her stone dead! I swear I am!”

1 3

›› Spider’s Tattoo Shop

›› Doggett Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 2037 Hours

The young woman screamed and tried to break free from her captor. Bobby Lee popped his forearm up and hit her in the mouth. She stopped screaming and remained still.

“Try that again,” Bobby Lee yelled, “and I’ll hurt you bad! Do you understand me?”

The young woman nodded and shivered in fear.

“Don’t do that, bro,” Spider said. His voice was more calm than Shel expected. “If you just stay calm, Bobby Lee, you’ll come out of this all right. I promise. But if you go off half-cocked, you’re gonna get a lot of people hurt.”

Shel forced himself to remain still. Any move on his part would turn the tattoo shop into a bloodbath. He didn’t know why one of the FBI snipers outside didn’t drop Bobby Lee Gant in his tracks. Shel also wondered where Remy was.

Spider stepped forward slowly. “Give her to me. She don’t deserve none of your trouble.”

“Well she’s in it now,” Bobby Lee snarled. “All of you are. Whatever happens to me is the same what happens to you.”

Moving slowly, Spider took another step toward Bobby Lee.

Shel’s breath locked down in his lungs. Don’t, he thought. Bobby Lee wasn’t holding together well. He wasn’t going to handle the situation.

“Give her to me, bro,” Spider said.

Bobby Lee shook his head. “I can’t. I can’t. ICANTICANTICANTICANT.”

“Yeah, you can.” Spider took another step. “That there’s my blood, Bobby Lee. My sister’s girl. I promised my sister I wouldn’t let any harm come to her.” He gestured with one hand. “You got to give her to me an’ let me get her outta this. C’mon now, bro.”

“No.” Bobby Lee shook his head like a scared child. Unshed tears gleamed in his eyes. “I heard stories about what prison’s like, man. I ain’t gonna go. They ain’t gonna do something like that to me. I ain’t gonna be no…”

Spider wouldn’t stop moving.

Shel knew that was a mistake, and it was like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion. He wanted to tell Spider to stay back, that the FBI snipers would put Bobby Lee down without hurting the young woman if it came to that, but he couldn’t. If he spoke, he would further split Bobby Lee’s attention and ratchet up the tension.

It was at a time like this, Shel knew, that his brother Don would have told him to pray. But Shel had never been a big believer in the power of prayer. He had prayed on occasion, but he’d never been able to put his heart into it or really believe.

Instead, he remained still and hoped that he was wrong about how events were about to unfold.

“Bobby Lee, listen to me.” Spider took another step. He was close enough now that he could have reached out and touched the pistol in Bobby Lee’s hand.

Bobby Lee pointed the pistol and squeezed the trigger without warning. The detonation filled the tattoo shop with rolling thunder.

Spider recoiled only slightly. His head jerked to one side. Shel saw the ugly wound in the side of his face and the huge exit wound in the back of Spider’s head. Death had to have been instant, but he remained on his feet for just a moment. Then his legs went out from under him and he sank to the floor.

“I told him!” Bobby Lee shouted. “I told him to stay back! It wasn’t my fault he didn’t listen!”

Even though he’d seen it happen before, Shel couldn’t believe the suddenness with which the violence had erupted. He watched Spider fall in the periphery of his vision, but he kept his eyes on Bobby Lee. Beside Shel, Max bunched, ready to leap into action. Shel stilled the Labrador with a hand signal and Max subsided.

One of the sniper’s ruby dots flicked to the exposed side of Bobby Lee’s head and tracked across his face. Even though he couldn’t see the light, Bobby Lee instinctively pulled back more tightly behind the young woman. She shuddered as she cried. Tears tracked her face and blood ran down her chin.

Shel continued to hold his hands up and offered no threat. He debated saying anything until the young woman started fighting against Bobby Lee.

“Don’t fight him,” Shel instructed. “Just-”

“Shut up!” Bobby Lee roared. “Shut up! Shut up!” He brought the pistol around and pointed it at Shel. Shel saw the young man’s finger tighten on the trigger and knew he was going to shoot.

Before Shel could move, two sledgehammer blows chopped into his chest and one caught him in the right shoulder. The impacts vibrated through him and drove him back as pain washed away his thoughts. The sharp bite of intense agony told him the vest hadn’t stopped all of the bullets. As he fell, he managed to grab Max’s left foreleg.

Hold on, Shel told himself. Hold on. He tried because he knew that Max might attack. Without him there to back Max up, Bobby Lee would gun him down. Shel tried to maintain his grip, but the white-hot pain sucked him into a whirling pool of blackness.

›› 2040 Hours

Helplessly Victor Gant sat handcuffed in the back of the FBI sedan and watched his son write his death warrant. Victor spoke through the wire mesh that locked him in the rear seat.

Urlacher was crouched behind the driver’s side door with the loudhailer clutched in one hand and a pistol in the other.

“If you kill my boy,” Victor threatened hoarsely, “the deal’s off. I won’t tell you nothing. You hear me?”

“Hold your fire,” Urlacher said over the radio. He didn’t turn around or even acknowledge that Victor had spoken. “Nobody shoots until I give the word.”

Adrenaline flooded Victor’s senses. In frustration, he pulled at the handcuffs that kept his arms behind his back. He watched the violence unfolding in the tattoo shop and tried not to be sick.

For the first time in years, Victor was afraid. Fear hadn’t touched him like that in a long time. And he couldn’t remember the last occasion he’d been concerned over anybody outside of his own skin. Not even for Fat Mike, who’d been with him for over thirty years.

But he was afraid now for his son, whom he’d barely gotten to know. A man was supposed to be afraid for his son. Victor didn’t want to be, but he saw so much of himself inside Bobby Lee that he didn’t want anything bad to happen to him.

And he was scared to death that something terrible was about to happen. All he could do was sit and watch.

“Bobby Lee,” Urlacher said over the loudhailer.

Inside the tattoo parlor, Bobby Lee spun toward the line of cars out in the parking lot. He brought the pistol up to the side of the young woman’s face. The barrel was superheated from the recent firing. She jerked her head away as the barrel seared her flesh.

Don’t shoot, Bobby Lee. Victor willed his son to hear him. She’s just scared and hurt. You still got her. But for a moment he thought Bobby Lee was going to shoot anyway.

Instead, Bobby Lee pulled the pistol back and clubbed the woman’s ear. She stumbled and nearly fell, but she stayed on her feet in front of him. A handful of ruby laser dots danced across Bobby Lee’s face.

Victor stopped breathing and waited for one of the snipers to empty Bobby Lee’s brainpan.

“Hold your fire,” Urlacher ordered.

Bobby Lee yanked the woman in front of him again. He propelled her to the door and opened it a little. “I want a car!” he yelled. “And I want an airplane standing by at the airport.”

“Kid’s seen too many movies,” the FBI driver said quietly.

Victor cursed at him and kicked the back of the seat.

Urlacher and the FBI driver ignored him.

“Bobby Lee,” Urlacher said, “I’ve got your father in the car with me. He doesn’t want you to get hurt. He wants you to surrender.”

“You lie!” Bobby Lee yelled. “My old man wouldn’t give in to nobody like you!”

Urlacher turned to Victor and spoke through the mesh. “It’s your play. You want to talk to him or sit on the sidelines?”

Victor hesitated only for a moment. “I’ll talk.”

Urlacher nodded at the driver. “Get him out of the back.”

Gingerly the driver eased back and opened the rear door.

Looking back, Urlacher locked eyes with Victor. “You try to run, I’m gonna shoot your legs out from under you. That’ll probably spook Bobby Lee; then these men out here will blow him out of his socks. You be sure and think about what you’re doing.”

“I am,” Victor gritted. He didn’t try to get out of the car. “Can you make this go away too? If I give you what you want?” If Tran didn’t kill him first.

Urlacher hesitated. Victor wouldn’t have believed the man if he’d just said yes like it was nothing.

“It’ll take some doing,” Urlacher said, “but I can convince the right people that what you’re going to tell us will be worth it.”

“Even after Bobby Lee killed them men?”

“It’ll be a tough sell,” Urlacher admitted. “But I’ve sold worse.”

Victor nodded. “Okay. Let’s do this.” He slid off the seat and stood beside the car. He raised his voice. “Bobby Lee, can you see me?”

Bobby Lee jerked his head around. His Confederate flag bandanna hung askew and allowed his hair to trickle down into his face. He looked worried and scared and lost.

Just like a kid, Victor realized.

“I can see you,” Bobby Lee said. “What are you doing with them?”

“They got me under arrest.” Victor smiled like it was all one big joke and he was just getting to the punch line. He turned slightly so that the handcuffs showed.

“Why?” Bobby Lee demanded. He looked more lost than ever. He kept turning his head from side to side, trying to take it all in.

“Bobby Lee,” Victor said, afraid he was going to lose him, “look at me.”

Bobby Lee settled a little.

“You’re gonna have to turn yourself in,” Victor said.

“No way.” Bobby Lee shook his head vigorously. “I ain’t going to prison. I got me a hostage. They’re gonna give me a car and a plane, or I’m gonna kill this girl.”

The ruby lights hung on to Bobby Lee’s head, face, and exposed shoulder like a clutch of predatory insects.

“That’s stupid talking,” Victor said. “I cut you a deal. They’re gonna let you go free.”

Thirty years and more of dealing with Tran, and Victor was going to burn that bridge in a heartbeat for a son he barely knew. It almost didn’t make sense, but blood was blood, and Bobby Lee was his boy.

“Don’t need you to cut me no deal,” Bobby Lee shouted back. “I’m gonna cut my own deal.”

“They ain’t gonna let you out of here, Son,” Victor said in the calmest voice he could manage. “They can’t. Goes against FBI rules.” He didn’t want to tell Bobby Lee they could kill him in an eye blink because that might unnerve him even more.

“You scared?” Bobby Lee asked.

The question startled Victor. “No. Why?”

“Because you ain’t never called me son before.”

Victor hadn’t, and he only then realized he’d called Bobby Lee that. But it had seemed so natural calling him that when he was trying to calm him down.

“Just give up the girl,” Victor said. “Put your weapon down. We’ll get through this just fine.”

Bobby Lee hesitated; then he shook his head again. “I can’t. I don’t want to go to prison.”

“You ain’t gonna go to no-”

“Shut up!” Bobby Lee roared. “I don’t know how they got you here to lie to me, but I ain’t gonna believe you! You ain’t never cared about me!” He pointed the pistol at Victor.

Not knowing what to do, Victor stood silent and helpless. His stomach turned sour, and bile burned the back of his throat.

“Get me a car!” Bobby Lee ordered. “Get me a car and a plane or I’m gonna kill her and kill as many of you as I can before you get me!” He fired three shots at the unmarked sedan where Victor stood.

The bullets smashed through the windshield and caromed off the top of the car. The federal agents ducked to cover. Victor never flinched, but he grew cold and still inside as he waited for the FBI to return fire.

“Hold your positions!” Urlacher ordered. “No one shoots!”

You’re a greedy man, Victor thought. Still wanting what I can give you. He watched the FBI agent from the corner of his eye, but his attention was focused on Bobby Lee.

“Get me that car!” Bobby Lee shouted.

Pride thrummed through Victor, but it was short-lived as he watched the big man with the dog slowly push himself to his feet behind Bobby Lee. Victor had clearly heard all three gunshots when Bobby Lee had shot the man at almost point-blank range. There was only one way the man was getting to his feet.

He’d been wearing a bulletproof vest.

And if he’d been wearing a bulletproof vest inside the tattoo shop, that meant he was some kind of cop.

“Bobby Lee!” Victor yelled. “Look out! Behind you!”

If Bobby Lee had turned instantly, if he’d trusted the warning, Victor knew he would have caught the big cop stone-cold. But he didn’t. He hesitated for just an instant, and by then it was too late.

1 4

›› Spider’s Tattoo Shop

›› Doggett Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 2043 Hours

Shel struggled to focus through his swirling senses as he stood unsteadily on his feet. Bobby Lee was in front of him, his back to Shel, hugged in tight to his hostage.

Chest straining as his empty lungs tried to kick into action again, Shel ignored the burning pain in his right shoulder and reached for the SOCOM. 45 holstered at the small of his back. His fingers found the grip, but the pistol felt alien to him and his hand felt too big and numb.

It’s just shock, he told himself. You’ve been here before. Just work through it. He was dimly aware of the action out in the parking lot, the shouting voices, and the traffic beyond.

Bobby Lee started turning. His pistol dropped away from his hostage, and he shoved it forward to track toward Shel.

Shel tried to bring his right arm up, but it wouldn’t work properly. Pain arced through his shoulder and chest. He gave up and managed the SOCOM in one big hand. Ruby laser sights danced over his body and lit up his left eye, but he ignored them and hoped the FBI sharpshooters held their fire.

Either way, Shel had decided Bobby Lee was leaving the picture. The young man was too unstable to deal with and more people were going to get hurt-beginning with the woman he was holding.

Bobby Lee’s mouth moved. Shel couldn’t hear the words. His ears still rang from the previous gunfire, and the pain had detached his brain to a degree, leaving only the part of him that focused solely on survival. But that part was Marine-trained, the best military training in the world.

Despite the danger, despite the fact that he’d already been shot, despite the fact that he might get shot again by Bobby Lee or the FBI, Shel held his fire until he had his target cleanly in his sights.

Bobby Lee’s pistol had almost gotten all the way around toward Shel. The barrel belched a muzzle flash that stood out bright and hard in the tattoo shop, but the bullet went wide. Shel centered his sights at the bottom of Bobby Lee’s chin just over the woman’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The pistol bucked against his palm and he rode the recoil slightly up. He fired again and he knew the second shot was a few inches higher than the first.

Without a sound, Bobby Lee fell backward. He dragged the woman down with him, or her legs gave way out of fright. Shel wasn’t sure which. He was just as surprised when the FBI didn’t open fire on him.

›› 2044 Hours

Grimly Shel marshaled his reserves and went forward. His balance wasn’t too good, and he knew he wasn’t very strong. But he had to secure the weapon.

Max got there first. The Labrador bunched and sprang into action. Before Shel could take another step, Max seized the pistol in his teeth and tore it away. He flung it to one side and stood guard over Bobby Lee.

One look at the young man’s face told Shel there was no need to guard, but the dog had been Marine-trained too, and Shel wasn’t going to break that. In fact, Shel wasn’t certain he was going to stand up much longer. But he did.

“You okay?” Shel asked the young woman.

Her face was covered with Bobby Lee’s blood, and she was seriously freaked. She couldn’t answer.

“It’s going to be all right, ma’am,” Shel said. “You’re going to be all right now.”

“Special Agent McHenry,” the loudhailer announced, “this is Special Agent Urlacher of the FBI. Put down your weapon. We’re coming in.”

Shel turned and put the pistol on the counter. He reached for the woman’s hand, took it in his, and gently pulled her to her feet.

“Come on now,” he said. “Let’s get you away from that.”

She started to look back at the body.

Shel caught her chin in his hand and gazed into her eyes. “That’s not something you want to do,” he told her gently. “Just let this part of everything go.”

The woman nodded; then she wrapped her arms around him and wept uncontrollably. “I thought he was going to kill me.”

“Yes, ma’am. But that didn’t happen, did it? You came through this just fine.” Shel stroked her hair and patted her back like he would for one of Don’s kids. Bad situations could make children fearful of everyone, and it took a gentle hand to bring back courage and confidence.

She looked up at him. Tears had tracked through the blood, but she’d smeared a lot of it on Shel’s shirt. “He was going to kill me, wasn’t he?”

Shel thought about lying to spare her from those thoughts, but he knew she’d see the truth in him. He’d never learned to lie very well except while he was undercover.

“Yes, ma’am. I believe he was,” Shel said.

FBI agents rushed the door.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome.” Shel held her for just a moment longer; then the FBI agents invaded the room.

Two of the agents advanced on Shel. Max barked at them furiously and bared his gleaming white teeth.

One of the agents pointed his pistol at Max.

“Mister,” Shel said in a cold voice, “if you hurt that dog, I’m going to put you in the hospital.”

“Call the mutt off,” an older agent ordered. “I talked to your commander. Coburn. We’ll get this sorted out in a little while, but until then I’m taking you into custody.”

“That’s fine,” Shel said. “But the dog goes with me. He’s not going to allow us to get separated.”

The agent nodded.

Shel stood still and endured the pain as one of the FBI agents secured his hands behind his back with disposable cuffs.

“Get him to a medical unit before he bleeds out,” the older agent said. He glanced back at Bobby Lee Gant lying on the floor and cursed fluently enough to impress Shel, who’d been around Navy men most of his life. “This is a total mess.” Then he cursed some more.

›› 2056 Hours

Light-headed and hurting, Shel sat on the bumper of the ambulance while the emergency medical technicians worked on him. They cut the disposable cuffs, freeing his hands, then cut off his shirt and unfastened the Velcro straps of the Kevlar vest. One of the two bullets embedded in the vest dropped to the parking lot pavement.

The EMTs kept working on him and ignored it.

“Hey,” Shel said. He had to struggle for the words, and he didn’t understand that. He’d been shot before.

“I got no exit wound,” the lanky black EMT said as he searched Shel’s massive shoulder. “Bullet’s still inside.”

“Don’t worry about that,” the blonde EMT said as she examined the massive bruises already forming across Shel’s chest. “The OR can take care of that. Let’s just get him stable.”

“Can’t get him to stop bleeding.” The first EMT threw another bloody compress into a bucket at his feet. He tore open a package to get a fresh one. “I think we’ve got a bleeder inside him somewhere.” He glanced at Shel. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I just got shot,” Shel said. “I need that bullet that fell off the vest.” He tried to lean forward, then discovered he was so woozy he almost fell over.

The EMTs braced him and shoved him back against the ambulance. But that only got Max excited and he started growling.

“I’ve got to have that bullet,” Shel insisted. “It’s evidence.” The habits he’d learned while serving with NCIS were ingrained, and he’d always been one for training.

“Lie still,” the blonde ordered. “Tony, get that bleeding stopped.”

“I’m trying. I told you that.”

Max barked more loudly and bumped up against Shel’s legs.

“He’s bleeding too much.”

“I know that. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

Shel tried to speak, to remind them about the bullet; then he thought maybe he should tell them that he really wasn’t feeling very good. Before he could say anything, though, he blacked out.

›› 2057 Hours

Hands cuffed behind him, Remy sat in the back of the unmarked sedan and watched as the FBI agents secured the tattoo parlor. They were good at what they did. He had to admit that.

Still, knowing that didn’t make him feel any better about being on the wrong side of the wire mesh in the vehicle. Too many old memories sat there with him. He kept remembering his brother, and remembering how Marcel had died in his arms.

“I forgive you, Remy. So does God. Find peace in your life. Just ask God to help you.”

The door opened and tore Remy from those dark thoughts. One of the FBI agents stood in the doorway and reached for Remy.

“Come with us,” the agent said. “We got a problem.”

Remy allowed himself to be pulled from the back of the car. “What problem?”

“Your partner.” The agent shoved Remy toward the ambulance where other agents had taken Shel. “He went down and now the dog won’t let anyone near him. The EMTs say if they don’t get to him quick, your buddy’s gonna die.”

Max’s warning growl hung in the air. Remy heard it then. The car had muffled the noise. He quickened his steps.

1 5

›› Spider’s Tattoo Shop

›› Doggett Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 2058 Hours

Shel lay sprawled on the parking lot. His color was bad. His normally tan complexion had turned the color of whey. Blood pooled across the pavement from his injured shoulder.

Max stood braced over him. His fangs were bared as he growled at everyone around him.

“If you can’t get that dog to calm down so the EMT can work on your buddy,” the FBI agent told Remy, “we’re gonna have to shoot him.”

“No.” Remy looked at Max and tried to focus on the fact that he could still see Shel’s chest rising and falling. But the motion was too slow and too shallow. “You can’t shoot the dog.”

“We can’t let that man die either.”

“Free my hands,” Remy said. He turned his back toward the agent.

“You’re in custody.”

Remy cursed. “Have you got concrete between your ears? Free my hands. If I’m not free, that dog isn’t going to listen to me. Do it now.”

“Do it, McKinley,” a gruff voice ordered. The salt-and-pepper-haired FBI agent came up beside the ambulance. Max growled at him.

McKinley unfastened the cuffs.

Remy massaged his wrists and went forward. “No guns,” he told the FBI agents. “Anyone pulls a gun right now, the dog may go for you. And he won’t let anybody close to Shel.”

They stood around him. The revolving red and blue lights striped the scene.

“Max,” Remy called. “Hey. Take it easy now.”

The Labrador kept his fangs bared. He straddled the big Marine’s midsection protectively. Only a dog that big could have done that job.

“Max. It’s me. Remy. We’re friends.”

Max gave him a sideways look.

Remy held his hands up to show he meant no harm and carried no weapon. He squatted down almost within reach of Shel but no closer. Max wouldn’t have allowed anyone to get any closer without going for a throat.

“Tango, Max,” Remy said. “Tango.” It was their secret word, the one that Shel had taught the Labrador that would tell him to obey Remy. Each member of the NCIS team had a secret word. If something happened to Shel, the dog wouldn’t leave his side unless someone else with a code word commanded him to.

For a moment Remy didn’t think Max was going to obey. He’d never used the word for real, never when Shel hadn’t been right there to enforce it.

Then Max lowered his head and tail. The liquid uncertainty in the dog’s brown eyes was almost heartbreaking.

Carefully Remy reached for Max, aware that the control word might not hold under the circumstances. “Shel’s hurt, boy,” Remy said in a soothing voice. “Shel’s hurt and we gotta let these people take care of him.” He curled his fingers in Max’s fur and gently pulled him off Shel.

The dog came reluctantly and sat beside Remy. Quivering and fearful, Max licked Remy’s face. Though he wasn’t a fan of dog saliva, Remy dealt with it. He patted the Labrador’s head and stroked his fur.

“Can we get him now?” the blonde EMT asked.

“Yeah,” Remy said. “And plug that shoulder wound. You’ve got a nicked artery in there.” He tried to say it calmly, but the idea of an artery hosing Shel’s blood out with every heartbeat was scary.

The blonde started to pick Shel up from the ground. “I hardly think-”

Remy stood without a word and kept hold of Max’s fur. The dog stood with him at once. “Back off,” Remy snarled. Anger settled into him.

The blonde EMT stepped back. “What makes you think you can just-?”

“Urlacher.” Remy focused on the medical supplies in the kit beside Shel. “Back them off.”

“What do you think you’re doing?” Urlacher asked.

Remy hunkered down and popped open the first aid kit. He pulled on a pair of surgical gloves. “I’m a combat medic. This is a combat wound. I know what I’m doing. I’m saving my friend’s life. That’s what the Navy trained me to do.”

“He can’t-,” the blonde started to protest.

“He can,” Urlacher said. “He is. You step back out of his way and prepare to transport.”

Remy worked feverishly to pack the wound and staunch the bleeding. Once he had that done, the rest of it was in a surgeon’s hands. He blinked sweat out of his eyes as the black EMT knelt beside him to assist. When the man didn’t get in his way, Remy allowed it.

›› North Carolina Airspace

›› 2134 Hours

Tension knotted Will’s stomach as he flew through the night. He tended to the airplane’s needs out of habit and training rather than thinking, and he didn’t like that he was doing that. Flight was less risky than driving a vehicle on the ground-and, thankfully in this case, faster-but a pilot still had to pay attention.

Maggie sat beside him in the copilot’s seat. She wasn’t trained to fly, but she coordinated the communications loop so he wouldn’t have to. She turned toward him. “Director Larkin is online now.”

Before becoming the director of the NCIS, Michael Larkin had been a homicide cop and then division leader in New York City. His record and his no-nonsense handling of cases and personnel had won him his current position. Although they sometimes butted heads over procedure-especially in regard to the military way of handling things-Will liked and trusted the man.

“Will,” Larkin said quietly.

“Sir,” Will responded as he made an altitude adjustment. “Sorry to interrupt your trip.”

“It’s all right. I’m just glad we’ve got phone service out here.” Larkin had gone on a family fishing trip, and they were currently staying at a cabin in Cape Hatteras along the Atlantic shoreline. “How’s Shel?”

“I can’t tell you anything more than Maggie did, sir. Remy said the OR took Shel back about twenty minutes ago. We haven’t gotten any word yet.”

“Remy said it looked bad.”

“Shel’s been through worse.” Will had kept telling himself that from the moment after he’d received the news.

“I guess what I really want to know is how you’re doing.”

“I’m fine.”

“One of your men is in the OR,” Larkin said. “I know you’re not fine.”

Will silently admitted that. Shel’s getting shot, the severity of it, created painful echoes of the loss of Frank Billings. Frank had served with Will aboard the aircraft carrier where he had made commander, then followed him into the NCIS billet. When the business in South Korea had started up, Frank had been the first casualty Will’s team had ever suffered.

The only casualty, Will amended. God willing.

“I’m fine as I can be, sir.” Will stared through the plane’s Plexiglas windows and listened to the even throb of the dual engines. “There’s going to be some confusion in Charlotte.”

“I understand that. Apparently my answering service has already received several phone calls from Special Agent-in-Charge Urlacher. I take it he’s the point man on the confusion.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How did he get involved?”

Swiftly, with cool efficiency despite the tension inside him, Will relayed the story.

“Urlacher is trying to flip Victor Gant on his opium supplier,” Larkin said when Will finished.

“That’s the way I understood it.”

“Well,” Larkin said, “I suppose there’s not much chance of that now, is there?”

“No.”

“The rest of it, whatever Urlacher’s business is with Victor Gant, doesn’t concern us.”

“No, sir,” Will agreed. “I’m just going to Charlotte to bring Shel home.”

“Do that, Will,” Larkin said. “I’ll keep Urlacher off your back. Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

Larkin broke the connection.

“Will.”

Will glanced at Maggie.

“I’ve got Shel’s brother, Don, on the line. I still haven’t gotten an answer at Shel’s father’s house.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Will said.

1 6

›› Rafter M Ranch

›› Outside Fort Davis, Texas

›› 2057 Hours (Central Time Zone)

The whole time Don drove his Toyota Camry down the long dirt road that led to the house where he’d spent all his childhood years and become a man, he felt his father’s gaze on him. The ranch house sat far enough back off the highway that no one could approach without Tyrel McHenry noticing.

It was still early enough, Don knew, that his daddy would be up. Probably watching a baseball game and soaking homemade corn bread in a glass of fresh buttermilk. That was one of the treats his daddy loved, though he wasn’t much for pies and cakes outside of the occasional piece of coconut pie.

Don still wore the suit he’d delivered his message in at church only an hour ago. He and his family had barely gotten home before he’d received the call about Shel from the NCIS.

He parked beside his daddy’s Ford F-150. After a minute, because he knew his daddy didn’t like any sudden movement out in the yard, Don got out of the car and walked toward the home.

The ranch house was a small three-bedroom that Tyrel McHenry had built with his own hands before he’d asked for his wife’s hand in marriage. He’d wanted to give her a good home, and he had. He still managed the roofing and upkeep on his own, though Don and Shel had both spent considerable time helping out while they were growing up.

Don was just stepping up onto the wooden veranda that ran around two sides of the house when he heard his daddy’s voice from the side.

“Kind of late for you to come calling, ain’t it?” Tyrel asked.

Don froze where he was and-for just a second-felt as guilty as he had when he’d tried to come sneaking home back in high school after staying out too late with Shel. That hadn’t happened often. Shel had stayed out a lot, but Don hadn’t.

“Yes, sir,” Don said. “I wouldn’t have come if it hadn’t been important.”

Tyrel sat in the dark of the porch in one of the two rocking chairs that had been on the veranda as long as Don could remember. They’d taken some mending over the years too, but they’d stood up under the weather and the time. Tyrel had built them as well.

“Your brother was shot,” Tyrel said flatly.

“Yes, sir.”

“I already know that. Them people he works with called.”

In the dark, Don couldn’t see his daddy’s face. He had no idea how his daddy was taking the news, but he sounded as calm as ever.

“They said they couldn’t get hold of you,” Don said.

“They left a message.”

Confusion spun through Don. “They called more than once.”

“They did.” Tyrel rocked gently in the chair.

“You didn’t answer the phone.”

“Didn’t need to. I heard their message. If anything changes, I expect they’ll leave a different message.”

Feeling overcome, Don sat down on the edge of the porch like he’d often done when talking to his daddy. They hadn’t ever talked for long. God knew Don had tried, but Tyrel McHenry had just never been one for long-winded conversations. It came to Don then that he’d probably talked to his daddy more that day than he had in years.

“They say Shel’s hurt pretty bad,” Don said.

“He’ll be all right.” Tyrel’s voice was firm and unyielding. “He’s been hurt before.”

Don sat there for a moment and tried to figure out what he was going to say next. Then he realized that there was no other way than to just say it.

“I’m going up there, Daddy,” Don said. “Commander Coburn said Shel needs to take some time off to heal up. Now I know Shel; he’s not going to want to do that. So I figured I’d go up there and bring him on back here so he could be with family.”

“That sounds good. But I’m betting you won’t get him to come.”

“I’ve decided I’m not coming home without him. For one, he needs to rest. And for another he hasn’t been around his family-” his daddy, Don wanted to say-“in a long time.”

“Good luck with that. You know how stubborn Shel can be.”

And I know who he gets that from, Don thought, but he didn’t dare say it.

“Maybe,” Don said cautiously, hoping he was sounding like he’d just come up with the idea on the spot, “he’d listen if you told him that.”

Tyrel stopped rocking. “Ain’t my business to be telling a man full growed what he ought to be doing.”

“You’re his daddy.”

“Both of y’all are an age you don’t need a daddy telling you what to do.”

“Then come with me and ask him to come home.” Don tried to stare through the darkness to see his daddy. But he couldn’t quite see the older man’s hard face. “I can get another plane ticket.”

For a long moment, Tyrel didn’t say anything. During that time Don thought his daddy was actually considering the possibility.

“You go ahead on and do that if you’ve a mind to,” Tyrel said. “But it ain’t for me to do.”

“Why not?”

“Because I just told you it wasn’t.”

Anger got past Don’s defenses. He didn’t understand his father. He never had. Not when it came to being involved in family.

“That’s your son up there lying in that hospital bed,” Don said hoarsely.

“He’s gonna be fine.”

“You don’t know that. They don’t know that. That’s why they called.”

For a moment Tyrel didn’t speak. “Don’t go getting yourself all worked up into a lather, boy. Come morning, everything is gonna be fine, and you’ll find out you just got yourself upset for no reason at all.”

Shaking, Don stood. “Daddy, I’m going to tell you something I haven’t ever told you. Maybe I should have. I just don’t know.”

“Maybe you should just hold on to that,” his daddy cautioned, “before you say something you can’t take back.”

“I’ve held on to it too long already.” Don took a deep breath and asked God to stand beside him while he spoke. “When Joanie was pregnant with Joshua, I was so afraid of becoming a father because I didn’t know how to be one. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to love him enough. I was afraid we weren’t going to have anything in common.”

“You didn’t have no cause to think that way.”

“Didn’t I?” Don couldn’t believe it when he stepped up onto the porch. “You raised Shel and me, but you haven’t been the best father you could have. Half the time-especially after Mama died-I don’t think you even cared.”

“Yet here you are,” Tyrel said. “Standing on your own two feet and telling me man-to-man what’s on your mind.”

“You weren’t there, Daddy. You weren’t there when my children were born. You weren’t there when I was scared to death I didn’t know how to take care of them. You weren’t there when Shel shipped off to the Marines. You weren’t there when most of his unit had gotten killed in the Gulf War and the Marines thought he was dead too.” Tears stung Don’s eyes and he let them flow.

“I think maybe it’s time you went on home,” Tyrel said quietly. “You’re getting too worked up. You’re worried about your brother, and that’s understandable.”

“You know when I realized how little of a father you’d been?” Don asked. His voice was so tight with emotion he almost couldn’t speak.

“Don-”

“When I held Joshua in my arms the first time,” Don said. “That’s when. I held my son and realized how good it made me feel. That’s when I realized how much Shel and I had missed growing up.”

“I never cut and run on you boys,” Tyrel grated. His voice was tight with some emotion too, but Don didn’t know exactly what it was. “I was there every day. Putting in time on this ranch. Making sure you had a roof over your heads, plenty of food on the table, and clothes on your back.”

“There’s more to being a father than that, Daddy.”

Tyrel pushed up out of the rocking chair. Don felt afraid for just a moment. He’d seen the deep anger that resided in his daddy. Tyrel had never turned those hard hands on his sons, but Don had always thought it was possible. Although since Tyrel had never flattened Shel while he was growing up, maybe it wasn’t. Because Shel had sorely tried his patience.

“You know the biggest thing I was afraid of when Joanie was pregnant?” Don asked in a quieter voice. “I was afraid I was going to be you. I didn’t want any child of mine to grow up with a daddy like I had.”

“It’s time for you to go,” his daddy said. “You need to get some sleep if you’re gonna catch a plane outta here in the morning.”

Don tried to think of something else to say and couldn’t. Helplessly, he watched his daddy walk to the front door, enter, and lock the door behind him. The house was completely dark inside.

Although he thought about going to the door and demanding to be let in, Don knew that wouldn’t do any good. Tyrel was through talking, and when that happened, there was nothing else to be done.

In the quiet darkness on the porch, Don took a deep breath and wondered if he’d destroyed what little remained of the fragile connection he had with his daddy. He tried to tell himself that he’d be better off.

Shel had walked away from their daddy for the most part. He only stopped in often enough to remember why he’d left home.

“Daddy,” Don said loud enough to be heard through the closed door, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. But I’m not sorry I said what I said.”

There was no answer from the darkened house.

After a few more moments, when he was sure his daddy wouldn’t be answering, Don turned and walked back to his car. He stood beside it for just a moment and bowed his head in prayer.

God, you want me to honor my mother and my father. You have to know how difficult this is. Please show me how, because I can’t find a way on my own.

Lifting his head, Don got into his car and drove back toward home. There was a lot to be done by morning.

›› Interview Room

›› Federal Bureau of Investigation Field Office

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0017 Hours

Victor sat motionless and stared at the one-way mirror. Occasionally he took note of his reflection, but there was nothing there he wanted to see.

He kept seeing Bobby Lee.

As he sat there, Victor tried to assess how he felt. He hadn’t tried to do anything like that in years. Normally he didn’t bother. Normally there was enough whiskey, drugs, and women at hand that he didn’t need to feel much of anything. He’d always operated on instinct.

Instinct is the survival of the species, Victor told himself. Having kids is part of it.

Only someone had gunned down his kid.

When he’d seen the EMTs walk the big man out of the tattoo shop and seen all the blood gushing out of him, Victor had known the man was in trouble. Only an artery pumped like that.

Personally, Victor hoped the man died. But in case he didn’t, Victor had memorized his face. If the man lived, retribution was going to be swift and final. It didn’t matter who he was. Some other father was going to lose his son too.

The door opened, and Urlacher entered.

Victor didn’t even glance at the FBI agent. He kept track of him in the mirror.

“Don’t know what you’re doing here, supercop,” Victor said. “The deal’s off. It died with my boy.”

“That’s not how I see it,” Urlacher said.

Victor grinned slow and easy. “Then you need to get your eyes checked.”

Urlacher sat at the table. “You’re still in a world of hurt. You aren’t free of me yet.”

“If you could make anything stick, we wouldn’t be in here talking, would we?”

With a tired sigh, Urlacher leaned back in his chair.

“Do you really think all your fed bosses are going to let you just hang around here trying to trip me up?” Victor asked.

Urlacher didn’t answer.

“I don’t think so. Especially not as deep as you like to run personnel on a job.”

“Are you just talking to hear yourself?”

Victor grinned again, even though he didn’t truly feel like it. “I was going to offer your undercover buddy a deal tonight. Before you decided to be a hard case about it. Maybe you’re ready to listen to that now.”

“I’m here about the opium that’s showing up in North Carolina.”

“There’s a Salvadoran gang running opium through North Carolina.” Victor shook out a cigarette, the first one he’d had since he’d been returned to the interview room. He lit up and dragged a deep lungful. “Maybe taking them down would be enough to satisfy the people you’re banging heads for.”

Urlacher seemed to contemplate that for a moment. “What Salvadoran gang?”

“Mara Salvatrucha,” Victor said. “They named themselves after some kind of army ant. Whatever they are, they’re mucho trouble. You interested in them, supercop?”

“You don’t get your opium from them.”

Victor grinned. “I don’t deal in opium. Don’t know where you get that idea.”

“It’s more than an idea.”

“Then prove it. Arrest me. Let me call my lawyer. Then I’ll be out of here as soon as he posts bail for me. And whatever you get some DA to charge me with, my attorney’s going to beat. Then we’ll turn around and sue you for false arrest. It’ll make a nice retirement package.”

Urlacher frowned. “I’ve heard of the Mara Salvatrucha. They also call themselves MS-13.”

“One of the most notorious gangs operating out there right now,” Victor agreed. “Those guys are big-time hard-core. They’ll bury you soon as look at you.” He knew that from personal experience; they’d already crossed paths a couple times, and blood had spilled like water. “They’ve even got themselves a History Channel special.”

“What do you have?”

“I got names. Places. Players. Routes they use to bring cargo in from Houston right up Interstate 35, then out Interstate 40 to here. If I give you what I got here, then you can follow the play back there and bring down some major players.”

“Are they getting work from the same place you are?”

Victor smiled and spread his hands. “I don’t sell drugs. I already told you that.”

Urlacher cursed.

“These guys deal opium,” Victor said. “Get it from a Yakuza connection down in Mexico. The Japanese mafia is treading on the toes of the Colombian cocaine cartels. Gonna be a real shooting war down there when this all breaks loose. Might help domestically if you could start working on getting a handle on it now.”

Urlacher only stared at him.

“So what’s it gonna be, supercop?” Victor asked in a flat voice. “That’s the deal on the table. You want to ante up and play with the big boys? Or are you gonna roll the dice with Mr. DA?”

1 7

›› Intensive Care Unit

›› Presbyterian Hospital

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0814 Hours

When he tried to open his eyelids and found that they weighed about a hundred pounds each, Shel knew he was on serious pain medication. The too-bright illumination from the overhead track lighting was another clue. The fact that his nose itched told him that at least one of the prescribed meds was Demerol. His nose always itched when he was on Demerol.

“Hey.”

Woozy, Shel rolled his head to the side. The room seemed to spin. He closed his eyes involuntarily.

“Easy,” a soft feminine voice suggested. “Go slow.”

Shel checked his teeth with his tongue. It was a habit after all the fights he’d been in. At least this time it didn’t seem like any dental work was involved. Everything was where it was supposed to be.

“You still with me?” the woman’s voice asked.

When he recognized her voice then, Shel said her name. “Maggie.”

“Got it in one, Marine.”

Shel didn’t want to try to smile. He always looked goofy when he was on Demerol and smiled. Some of the guys he’d toured with had pictures to prove it. But he smiled anyway because Maggie was there and he thought it was great she was there. In fact, everything seemed kind of great.

He blinked his eyes open again. “Good to see you, Maggie.”

“I bet.” Maggie stood at the foot of the hospital bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Better than I’ve felt in a long time.”

Maggie laughed.

“Didn’t know you were twins.” Shel tried to focus and bring the two images back into one. He almost had it, but it took nearly everything he had to accomplish that.

“I think I’ll suggest to the nurse that they cut back on the meds,” Maggie said.

“Sure.”

“If you start hurting, you’ll want to let them know.”

Shel nodded, and the effort seemed like it took forever. The room spun again too.

“Can I get something to drink?” he asked.

“You can have ice.”

Shel sighed.

“Sorry, big guy. Nurse’s orders. With all the painkillers you’re on, if you drink water, it might come back up.”

“Ice,” Shel agreed.

Maggie fed him a few ice chips with a plastic spoon.

Shel savored them, holding them in his mouth till they slowly melted and relieved some of the parched sensation in his throat. That was from the tube the emergency room people had shoved down his esophagus to keep the airway open. The next couple of days weren’t going to be pleasant swallowing.

“How bad is my arm?” he asked.

“Nothing permanent,” Maggie replied. She spooned more ice chips into his mouth. “The bullet tore into your upper thoracic cavity and struck the underside of the glenohumeral joint. There was some-”

“English,” Shel protested.

“The bullet hit you in the chest and caught the underside of the ball and socket joint in your shoulder.”

“Now that I can understand,” Shel said, “but only because I’ve had a few shoulder separations.”

“The surgeon did mention there had been previous operations.”

Shel nodded. “Football.”

“Then you know the rehab you’re going to have to do to get everything back in shape.”

“No permanent damage?” Shel asked again because he wanted to hear it once more. One of his biggest fears was that he’d get disabled somewhere along the way, then shelved at a desk job or released on a medical discharge. All he had was the Marines. If something like that happened, he didn’t know what he’d do with himself. He didn’t have a family like Don, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want one.

“No permanent damage,” Maggie agreed. “The bullet deflected downward and went into your right arm. It nicked the brachiocephalic artery just enough to cause problems.” She paused. “Remy probably saved your life. Twice. When you went down, the EMTs couldn’t get to you.”

“Max,” Shel said, understanding at once.

“You passed out from blood loss. Max went into total protective mode. Unfortunately that wasn’t what you needed at the time.”

“Max is okay?” Shel knew there were times when a dog had to be put down so medical teams could save an unconscious and wounded K-9-equipped soldier.

“Max is fine,” Maggie said. “He’s downstairs with Remy. They’ve become best buds.”

Shel grinned. “You won’t believe how sad a day it is when a man’s dog deserts him.”

“Hardly. Max knows you’re here. Somewhere. How he knows is anyone’s guess, but-”

“He’s a trained Marine. Never underestimate Marine training.”

Maggie gave him a wry look. “-but he’s refusing to leave the hospital now that he’s here. He walks the corridors a lot looking for you.”

“Remy?” Shel deadpanned. “I knew he was starting to warm up to me, but-”

“Oh, if you can do humor, maybe you can get your own ice chips.”

Shel smiled and thought again how he shouldn’t be doing that. “I give.”

Maggie gave him another helping of ice chips. “Anyway, the EMTs should have started you on an IV immediately. And packed the shoulder wound. Remy did that and kept you alive until you

reached the ER.”

“Naahhh,” Shel said. “I’m too tough to kill.” Fatigue washed over him then, or it might have been the Demerol. He closed his eyes and quietly went away.

Somewhere in there, though, he heard Maggie whisper, “I hope so.”

›› Federal Bureau of Investigation Field Office

›› 400 South Tryon Street

›› Suite 900

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1126 Hours

Dressed in a suit, including jacket and tie, Will Coburn sat in the waiting area outside the FBI offices. He referenced his notes on his Pocket PC and ignored the attention he was getting from the young FBI agent seated on the other side of the office. The agent had been put there to bird-dog him. Will didn’t mind. As long as the agent was there, it was a sure indication that whoever had assigned the detail to him was in the building as well.

Will had been kept waiting for over two hours. But he didn’t think of sitting there as waiting. He was guarding the door. Special Agent-in-Charge Urlacher was in the building. Will intended to see to it that the man didn’t leave without talking to him.

Ten more minutes passed; then Urlacher emerged from the back offices with Victor Gant and three other agents. Gant, Will noticed, wasn’t in handcuffs. That, he decided, was interesting.

Will stood and put his Pocket PC back on his hip. He straightened his jacket over the holstered Springfield XD-40 snugged under his left arm and followed Urlacher and his entourage out into the hallway.

“Special Agent Urlacher,” Will called.

Urlacher looked over his shoulder but didn’t break stride on his way to the elevators. He nodded at one of the younger FBI agents. The agent peeled off from the group and headed back toward Will.

“I’m sorry,” the agent said. “Agent Urlacher can’t be bothered right now.”

Without saying a word, Will stepped around the man, moving too fast to be stopped because he’d never slowed his pace.

The agent grabbed Will’s right wrist and pulled. “I said-,” he started.

Will smoothly slid his hand over the agent’s wrist, rotating his own wrist toward the man’s thumb to pop it free. He grabbed the man’s jacketed shoulder before he could react, then twisted him around and shoved him face-first into the wall hard enough to jar the picture hanging there. He jacked the wrist he’d captured up toward the man’s shoulder blades.

The man grunted in pain and stood in place.

“Touching me without provocation is assault,” Will said in his commander’s tone. “I’m a federal officer, so that’s a federal violation.”

The other two agents reached under their jackets for their weapons. Will held his captive and stared straight into Urlacher’s eyes. Victor Gant seemed amused by the situation.

Urlacher raised his hands and the two agents pulled their hands back. “Commander Coburn.”

“That’s right,” Will said. “I thought maybe we could have a word.” He forced a smile. “A polite word.”

“It’s hard to be polite when you’re wallpapering the hallway with one of my men.”

“It’s hard not to wallpaper the hallway with your men while one of my team is lying in the hospital because you had to try to high-hat us,” Will said. His captive struggled, so he lifted the man’s arm higher till he was tiptoeing to keep the pain at a tolerable level.

“Pretty harsh talk from a single man,” Urlacher said.

“Trust me,” Will said, “I’m all that’s standing between you and a base full of Marines that happen to think a lot of my gunnery sergeant.”

“What do you want?”

Will stepped back from his captive and released him. He watched the man. The agent nursed his arm and walked over to join Urlacher and the others.

“There’s going to be a review by the Charlotte police department crime teams of what went down last night,” Will said.

“You mean the shooting.”

“I do mean the shooting,” Will said. “I expect my gunney to be cleared in the matter. I thought I’d come talk to you and get this worked out ahead of time. In case you or your men had problems remembering exactly how everything happened last night.”

“You’re with the NCIS?” Victor Gant asked. A crooked smile twisted his thin lips.

Urlacher put a hand on Victor’s chest and held him back. “Stay out of this,” he said.

“Do you know who I am?” Victor demanded.

“I do,” Will said. “I don’t have an issue with you at the moment, Mr. Gant. I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Maybe I have an issue with you,” Victor said. “Your man killed my son. Shot him down like he was a dog.” His voice was hoarse with anger.

Will met the man’s angry glare and didn’t look away. He couldn’t. Both of them knew it hadn’t happened the way Victor Gant said it did, but any weakness on his part would have confirmed the other man’s story in his mind.

Urlacher grabbed Victor by the arm and shoved him back. “Get moving.”

Victor continued to stare at Will.

“Take it outside,” Urlacher said, eyeing the man vehemently. “Or I will arrest you.”

Victor went, accompanied by two of Urlacher’s agents, but he glared at Will until the elevator doors closed.

1 8

›› Federal Bureau of Investigation Field Office

›› 400 South Tryon Street

›› Suite 900

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1132 Hours

Urlacher wheeled on Will. “Your timing stinks, Commander.”

“I’d have preferred to meet in your office,” Will said. “You’re the one who forced this.”

Urlacher stepped to within inches of Will. “I didn’t force anything.”

“You did.” Will didn’t budge an inch. He locked eyes with the older man. “If you hadn’t gone there last night, my guys could have taken Bobby Lee Gant without anyone getting hurt.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do. They’ve worked a lot of pickups. And did it without anyone getting hurt.” Of course, there were some that didn’t turn out so well, but Will wasn’t going to mention those.

“What do you want?” Urlacher asked.

“Like I said,” Will replied, “I want that shooting report squared away. No problems for my gunney. He’s a good man and a fine Marine. His record’s going to stand clean and without blemish.”

“And if I don’t see it that way?”

“Then you’re going to be in a world of hurt.”

Urlacher laughed, but the effort didn’t sound convincing. “There’s nothing you can do to me.”

“You seem to be getting awfully chummy with Victor Gant,” Will said. “My guess is that you’re going to try to get him to snitch on some people for you.”

“I can’t hold him on what I’ve got.”

“He wasn’t wearing cuffs when he went through here.”

Urlacher didn’t say anything.

“My gunney took three bullets and nearly died,” Will said, “so he could take down the problem you lit a fire under without getting that woman hurt. If your report doesn’t corroborate that, I’m going to look into Victor Gant’s business with a microscope.” He smiled slightly. “I’m betting that’ll throw a kink in whatever tea party you’ve got planned with Victor Gant.”

“You can’t do that.”

“I can.” Will kept his eyes locked on the other man’s. “When Bobby Lee Gant hurt that Marine in Jacksonville, he had three men with him. I’m still looking for those three men. For all I know, they’re part of Victor Gant’s little motorcycle club.”

Urlacher growled a curse. “You’re making trouble for yourself.”

“Not if I don’t have to. I’ll take a clean report on that shooting and I’ll pack up and leave.”

A frown tightened Urlacher’s lips and he gave a grudging nod. “It’ll be like you said.”

“Not like I said,” Will told him. “Like it was last night. You owe my gunney that. He might have saved the lives of your men.”

“You’ll get your report.”

“By end of day,” Will said. “Or we start turning over rocks in Victor Gant’s neighborhood.” He reached into his jacket pocket and took out one of his business cards.

“I’ll have it there.” Urlacher scowled as he took the business card. Without another word, he turned and walked away.

Silently Will watched the FBI agent go, but he couldn’t help wondering what it was that Urlacher was working on. For the agent to have capitulated so quickly, it had to be something big.

Let it go, Will told himself. You’ve got enough on your plate. He let out a deep breath, then turned and walked away.

But he couldn’t get Victor Gant’s eyes or voice out of his mind. The man had radiated pure evil and hate. Will decided he was going to be happy when he could get Shel out of the hospital and back home.

›› 1137 Hours

Surrounded by FBI agents, Victor stared at the elevator indicator lights as the cage dropped to the bottom floor. One of the agents had stopped the cage and waited for Urlacher to get on again. Victor had only heard a muffled version of Urlacher’s conversation with the NCIS agent. The cage swayed and the two men next to him bumped against him.

“Don’t go getting any ideas,” Urlacher said.

“Wouldn’t think of it,” Victor replied.

“You tangle with the NCIS, make this personal, I don’t have enough juice to pull them off you.”

“Understood.” Victor nodded. It was already personal. How could somebody killing his son not be personal?

“What happened to your boy-”

“Bobby Lee,” Victor interrupted.

Urlacher looked at him.

“My boy,” Victor said. “His name was Bobby Lee. Don’t you go remembering him as just another dead kid.”

Urlacher didn’t back off. “Stay away from those NCIS people.”

Despite the No Smoking sign posted in the elevator, Victor took out his pack of cigarettes and lit up. Overhead, the smoke alarm shrilled.

“I heard on the news that Marine who shot Bobby Lee lived,” Victor said.

“If you go around him, I’ll toss the deal and put you in jail.”

“For what?”

“For whatever,” Urlacher said. “Jaywalking. Spitting on the sidewalk.”

Victor smiled. “You act like I should be afraid of them.”

“They run a pretty tight crew.”

The elevator dinged and came to a gentle stop. The doors opened. Victor got out with the cigarette in his fist.

Two matronly women gave him discourteous looks. One of them pointed at the No Smoking sign posted inside the elevator cage.

Victor said something offensive and both women stepped toward the next elevator cage.

“I’ve got half a mind to take you and stash you in protective custody,” Urlacher said.

“Quickest way to guarantee that I won’t tell you a thing.” Victor walked through the downstairs hallway. His eyes roved the people and stared through the glass doors at the front of the building. “You leave me be, I’ll get you what you want.” He stopped and looked at Urlacher. “And this is where we go our separate ways, gentlemen.”

Hesitation soured Urlacher’s features. In the end, though, Victor knew that the FBI agent didn’t have a choice. Not if he wanted to nab all the opium he had his eye on.

“All right,” Urlacher said.

“Then I guess I’ll be seeing you.” Victor took his sunglasses from his shirt pocket and slipped them on. He took his cell phone-returned to him with all his other possessions that morning after he’d agreed to the FBI’s deal-from his pocket as he walked away. He punched in Fat Mike’s number.

“Yeah,” Fat Mike answered.

“Me,” Victor said. “I need a ride.”

“Where are you?”

“Walking out of FBI offices.”

“Cool, bro. I’m just dipping my beak at the strip club over on Tyvola Road.”

“That place seems a little upscale for you.”

Fat Mike laughed. “Maybe it was, but after I walked through the door, its standing dropped through the basement.”

“I’ll be out front.” Victor stepped through the glass doors and out into the heat of the day. “Got a question.”

“Okay.”

“Do you know where they took that cop? The one that killed Bobby Lee?”

Fat Mike sucked in a breath. “Yeah.”

“I want to go there.”

“Now?”

“Yeah.” Victor closed his cell phone and pushed it into his pants pocket. He lit another cigarette while he waited and thought about what he wanted to do to the big Marine who had killed Bobby Lee.

›› Parking Lot

›› Presbyterian Hospital

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1208 Hours

Will pulled the dark gray Taurus he’d gotten from the rental company into the parking lot and started to get out. When he opened the door, a blast of superheated air slapped him in the face. It was hard to believe that it was going to be hotter still in a couple more weeks.

Before he could get out, he tracked movement in the side mirror, and a big hand fell onto his door. He’d already abandoned his jacket when he’d gotten into the car, so it took only a second to reach up under his arm and free the Springfield pistol.

In the next instant, Victor Gant stepped to the window and smiled at him. “Hey, cap’n,” the biker said. “I come in peace.”

Will kept the XD-40 in hand as he checked his mirrors. There were no other bikers in sight, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there.

“Just me,” Victor said good-naturedly.

Will didn’t say anything. He knew the man would say what was on his mind when he was ready. After all, he’d come all this way and somehow even beaten Will to the hospital to say it.

“Ain’t you got nothing to say?” Victor asked.

“It’s your show,” Will said calmly. “Why don’t you run it and I’ll see if I find any conversation starters.”

“A man of few words,” Victor said. “I like that.” He kept his hands in plain sight. “I liked how you stood up to Special Agent Urlacher and told him off. That was choice. And all he could do was stand there and eat crow.”

“I’m pretty sure you didn’t come here to congratulate me for that.”

“No, I guess you’re right. I didn’t. I was wondering if you’d do a favor for me.”

Will waited, sensing what was coming.

“Do you know if the big Marine that shot my boy believes in God?” Victor asked.

“You want to be careful what you say next,” Will said.

“No foul, cap’n,” Victor said. “Just asking for a little information, that’s all. Sometimes I stand around on street corners and hand out them pamphlets what’s got God’s Word on ’em. I was just asking about that sergeant.”

Will said nothing, but he felt the naked, cold threat that blew in off the man.

“Tell him for me that if he don’t believe in God now, he should start real soon. Things come at you in life and everything changes so fast that sometimes you don’t get the time to do the things you should. Tell him I said he should get to know God because him and God could be on a first-name basis before you know it.”

As he gazed into the dark hate in Victor’s eyes, Will’s stomach lurched a little. It wasn’t because he was afraid, though it was normal to be fearful at a time like this. It was because he knew that Victor couldn’t be scared off his chosen course.

“You just give him that message,” Victor said as he turned and walked away. He threw a hand in the air and a big motorcycle engine rumbled to excited life. Without turning his back to Will, the biker stepped out to the edge of the parking lane. “And you have yourself a nice day, cap’n.”

A motorcycle and sidecar sped into view and stopped behind Will’s rental car. Victor threw a leg over the sidecar and dropped into it. He tossed Will a final salute and rode out of sight.

Will remained where he was and listened intently. He was certain Victor Gant hadn’t put in an appearance by himself. Sure enough, less than a minute later, a handful of other motorcycle engines roared to life all around Will.

Hard-faced men wearing their colors rode slowly up behind the car; then they too roared out onto the street and were gone.

Carefully Will took his suit jacket and used it to cover his forearm and the pistol in his fist. He wasn’t going to take any chances. Moving slowly, he slid out of the rental car and turned his steps toward the hospital. The sooner they could move Shel-even if it was only to get him back to the base hospital-the happier Will was going to be.

1 9

›› Intensive Care Unit

›› Presbyterian Hospital

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1233 Hours

Maggie stood at the observation window overlooking the private intensive care room Will had arranged. She had her arms crossed and looked worried.

The two Marine guards stationed out in the hallway carried assault rifles and holstered pistols. Their orders were to inspect the sleeve IDs that had the pictures of all personnel allowed to enter the area. As Will approached, they immediately formed a human wall.

Their BDUs were crisp and clean, and they were alert.

When they recognized Will, they stepped back to allow him passage. They stood at attention.

“Afternoon, Commander,” one of them said.

Both saluted.

“At ease,” Will said.

The Marines sat back down in folding chairs that creaked under their weight. Neither of them was a small man. They kept their assault rifles across their knees.

Maggie glanced up at Will and smiled. Some of the fatigue dropped away and she looked a little more hopeful.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“Urlacher’s on board,” Will said.

“Did he have a problem with that?”

“I didn’t give him a lot of choice.”

“No. I suppose you didn’t.”

Will stood beside Maggie and gazed through the window. On the other side of the glass, Shel looked like death warmed over. It hurt Will to see the big Marine looking like that. Shel had always seemed like a force of nature, as unstoppable as the morning sun.

“How’s he doing?” Will asked.

“In and out,” Maggie said. “He lost a lot of blood, and it’s going to take him a while to build his strength back up. But the real danger is past.”

“That’s good.” Will glanced down the hall. “Did you get a chance to talk to the doctor?”

Maggie nodded. “She’s a good woman. She knows her stuff. According to her, the surgery couldn’t have been any better.”

“Good to hear. Did she say anything about when we could move him back to Lejeune?”

Maggie studied his face. “What happened?”

“I ran into Victor Gant out in the parking lot.”

Worry creased Maggie’s face. “I thought the FBI was going to lock him down.”

“They didn’t. Evidently Victor is cutting some kind of deal with them.”

“Must be a pretty big deal.”

Will shrugged. “Not our concern.”

Maggie blew out an angry breath. “No, but Victor Gant is.”

“I know.” Will glanced back into the hospital room. “I’m going to work on that a little.”

“What?”

“I’ll tell you about it if I turn out to be as bright as I think I am. In the meantime, why don’t you give the director a call and ask him to request a few more Marine volunteers to cover security here at the hospital.”

“All right. I could go with you.”

Will shook his head. “Stay with Shel. When he wakes up, when he needs something, I want him to know we’re here.”

“Remy’s here too.”

“I’m going to need Remy with me. I’ve got a few places to go.”

“Where angels fear to tread?”

Will smiled at her. “Those places too.”

›› Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner

›› 618 North College Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1352 Hours

Will parked his Taurus behind the redbrick building that housed the county medical examiner’s office and got out in the heat. The severe lines of the building were only partially blunted by the trees and landscaping.

Remy got out the other side and flared his Tar Heels basketball jersey so it covered the pistol at his hip. Gold chains shone around his neck.

“You want to go over what it is we’re doing here?” Remy asked.

“When Bobby Lee was brought in, he was carrying drugs,” Will said as they headed toward the glass door. “Heroin. I thought maybe we’d pick it up and have a look at it.”

“Okay.”

Will opened the door and allowed Remy to enter. “Then we see if we can’t get some leverage.”

“Where are you going to get the leverage?”

Will held up two fingers. “Bobby Lee had two things we can work with regarding our investigation.”

“And what investigation is that exactly?”

“When Bobby Lee attacked our Marine in Jacksonville, he had two buddies.”

“I read the reports.”

Will led the way down the cool hallways and followed the posted signage to the medical examiner’s office. “We’re investigating the identities of the two men who were with Bobby Lee.”

Remy smiled. “You’re hoping that at least one of those men belongs to the Purple Royals.”

“I wouldn’t say hoping.”

“But you wouldn’t be surprised.”

“No,” Will said. “I wouldn’t.”

“If they are, Victor Gant isn’t going to like you putting pressure on him.”

“At the hospital today, he came on our turf and fired a warning shot,” Will said. “We’re going to return the favor.”

“The drugs-” Remy stopped himself. “The heroin Bobby Lee was carrying is part of your leverage.”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“We’re going to have it couriered to the labs at Camp Lejeune and analyzed under a spectroscope. The tests should be able to identify the trace elements of metals in the heroin. Those are based on geographically related patterns.”

“Gant isn’t growing his heroin empire here.”

“No, he isn’t. But it’s being grown somewhere.”

“If someone could trace the heroin back to its native soil, you’d think it would’ve been done before now.”

“It would’ve been. That’s not what we’re going to do. The mixture of those trace elements-from one crime scene to the next-is as distinguishable as a fingerprint.”

“A lot of guys could have been caught holding a stash Gant or the Purple Royals sold them.”

“I know.” Will turned to Remy and smiled. “All I need to do is find one biker who knows the guys Bobby Lee hung with in his father’s gang.”

Remy smiled and nodded. “I like it. Not exactly gonna make us popular with the FBI.”

“I’m not in a popularity contest. I’m trying to make sure my Marine is safe while he recovers.”

The young woman at the desk looked up from her computer monitor. “Hi.”

“We’re here to see Dr. Greer.” Will held his NCIS ID open for her.

Remy did the same.

The woman lifted the phone and called the doctor.

›› 1406 Hours

The morgue was cold, but Will was too intent to really notice.

Remy seemed a little uncomfortable. The Tar Heels jersey was too lightweight to blunt much of the cold. He stood with his arms folded.

“Which of you is Commander Coburn?” Dr. Allen Greer asked.

“I am,” Will said. “This is Special Agent Gautreau.”

“Okay.” Greer gazed at Will for a moment, then shifted his attention back to the corpse on the table. The medical examiner didn’t seem overly disposed to a friendly personality. He was heavyset and wore thick sideburns that had gone gray with age. He leaned over the open chest cavity of a middle-aged man. “What can I do for you?”

“You’re holding the body of Bobby Lee Gant for us,” Will said.

“You’re here to take custody of the body?”

“No.”

Greer looked at him again. “I was assured that body would be gone before morning.”

“It will be.”

“Then why are you here interrupting my work?”

“I came for Bobby Lee’s personal effects that were on the body.”

“I see.” Greer pulled off his bloody gloves and threw them into a biohazardous materials container. “I heard about the shooting yesterday. It happened in front of several witnesses.”

“Yes.”

“I was told there’d be no problems clearing the man responsible.”

“There won’t be.”

Greer walked over to a wall of small vaults and checked a notebook. Then he searched the vaults till he found the one he wanted. He reached inside and brought out a large plastic Baggie containing the last things Bobby Lee had had with him that day.

“That’s good,” Greer said. “If you ask me, more force should be shown to those motorcycle outlaws. But they’re making good money in the area, which means they can hire the lawyers necessary to keep them in business and out of jail.”

“Maybe we can change that a little,” Will said.

“Just sign the chain of custody book and the contents of that bag are yours.”

›› Office of the Chief of Police

›› Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department

›› 601 East Trade Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1437 Hours

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Ben Tarlton was a young, energetic, and simple man. In his late thirties, he was one of the youngest police chiefs the city had ever seen.

He was a no-nonsense man with an open and honest face that he kept meticulously shaved. His brown hair was cropped short, and his hazel eyes were sincere. His uniform was neatly pressed with creases that looked sharp enough to slice cheese.

His office was compact, filled with law enforcement manuals as well as pictures of his family. Most of the photographs revolved around Little League sports.

One of the plaques on the wall was a toastmaster award, and others were for coaching and Bible study. There were also pictures of Tarlton in a Marine uniform.

“Commander Coburn, sir,” Tarlton greeted as he stood up behind his desk and offered his hand.

“Chief Tarlton,” Will responded. He introduced Remy, and they shook hands as well. “I appreciate you seeing us on such short notice.”

“Not at all. It’s my pleasure. How is your agent?”

“He’s fine,” Will said. “Thank you.”

“He’s a lucky man.”

“He’s a good man,” Will said. “God seems to take care of those.” Even as he said it, though, Will felt a pang as he thought of Frank Billings.

“More times than not, I’d agree with that assessment.” Tarlton gestured to the chairs in front of the modest metal desk. “Please. Have a seat.”

Will and Remy did.

“So what brings you here?” Tarlton asked.

“We thought we’d share information,” Will said.

Tarlton leaned back in his chair and smiled. “You’ll forgive me my cynicism, but it’s been my experience that federal agencies aren’t in the habit of sharing information with local law enforcement agencies unless they want someone to blame or just to throw their weight around.”

“That’s not why I’m here,” Will replied.

Tarlton waited, but he rolled his wrist over and glanced at his watch.

“We ran the pistol that Bobby Lee Gant used on those people last night,” Will said. “We didn’t pull any federal hits. No wants, no warrants.”

“You get a clean gun every now and again,” Tarlton said.

“I know. But generally only weapons that have been used in the commission of a murder or a drug deal get logged through channels.”

“Not every weapon hits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ regional crime gun center,” Tarlton agreed.

“But,” Will said, “one of the things I’ve learned while working at the NCIS is that local PDs often have records of their own.”

Tarlton maintained a level gaze. “Some do.”

“I know you by reputation,” Will said. “You do an honest job here.”

“Flattery?” Tarlton smiled a little then.

“I didn’t figure you were susceptible to something like that.”

“I’m not.”

“I’d like to know if the serial number of the pistol Bobby Lee Gant used last night is in your database.”

For a short time, Tarlton just stared at Will. The hesitation, Will knew, wasn’t anything meant personally. But the chief had some departmental pride to salvage.

“You and the FBI,” Tarlton said, “came into my city without so much as a by-your-leave-”

“That’s incorrect, sir,” Remy interrupted. “Shel and I checked in the minute we were inside city limits. The commander insists on that. We let your office know about the pick-up order we had on Bobby Lee Gant. We played by the rules and kept the house respect.”

“The FBI then,” Tarlton said.

“Yes,” Will agreed.

“And between the two of you, one of my citizens was killed.”

“We didn’t have control of that situation,” Will said.

“I’m fully aware of that.”

Will felt a little exasperated. He knew Tarlton was distancing himself from the situation on purpose. Straining relationships with the FBI wasn’t a good thing to do. Maybe Tarlton didn’t depend on them, but they obviously helped him out every now and again.

“You were a Marine,” Remy said, nodding to the picture of Tarlton on the wall behind him.

“Yes, I was. I made my way up to captain; then I pulled the pin and took the position here. I grew up here. It was a good fit, and it came at a good time.”

“Shel,” Remy said, “my friend Shel, is a Marine too.”

Tarlton sat silent.

“Most of the NCIS agents you hear about,” Remy said, “are drafted out of civilian law enforcement agencies. Commander Coburn’s team isn’t. All of us are Navy except Shel. And we take a lot of pride in our Marine.”

Tarlton looked at Remy and grinned. “Leave it to a sailor to lay it on so thick.”

Remy smiled back. “I’m not a sailor. I’m a Navy SEAL.”

“Oh, a poor man’s Marine.”

“But trained to take over when a Marine fails out.”

Both of them laughed at that. Will was still trying to sort out all the posturing that had just gone on.

Tarlton turned to Will. “You said you had a serial number on that weapon. Let’s have a look at it.”

20

›› Otis’s Salvage Yard

›› 5000 Wilkinson Boulevard

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1507 Hours

“You’ve got to watch yourself while you’re dealing with Gerald,” Tarlton said as he put the police car’s transmission in park. “He’s what you might call a few sandwiches short of a picnic.”

“I’ll follow your lead,” Will said.

“That’ll probably make us all a lot happier.” Tarlton got out, then reached back in for his baseball cap and pulled it on.

Will and Remy got out on the passenger side.

The salvage yard was large and gave the sense of a long history. A ten-foot-tall white fence with peeling paint and graffiti lined the yard. A hand-lettered sign made from a four-by-eight-foot slab of plywood hung on the fence and advertised “Otis’s Salvege Yard.”

“Hasn’t anyone ever told him he misspelled salvage?” Remy asked.

“Sure.” Tarlton stepped around to the rear of the police car and took out a pump shotgun. “I’ve told him myself. He says he misspelled it on purpose because people remember something that’s wrong a lot longer than they remember something that’s right.” He closed the trunk. “For what it’s worth, I think he’s right. But I don’t think that’s why the sign’s misspelled. Gerald’s just not that bright.”

Will nodded at the shotgun. “Is there anything we should know?”

“Don’t stand in front of me when this thing goes off.” Tarlton grinned. “This is probably a little overkill, but Gerald’s got a couple uncles who ran their wife through a wood chipper almost forty years ago. They got out of prison year before last.”

“‘Their’ wife?” Remy echoed.

“Yep. She married one of them. Then divorced him and married the other. She cheated on both of them. So one night they got drunk and decided they’d had enough. None of the Otises have got enough brightness between them to power a lightbulb, but they know how to scrap cars just fine.”

Will reached under his jacket and released the safety catch on his shoulder holster.

“The shotgun’s not really for Otis or his uncles,” Tarlton said. “It’s for the guard pigs.”

“He has guard pigs?” Remy asked.

“Yeah. Arkansas razorbacks. When the uncles ran the salvage yard, they went hunting in Arkansas and brought back a half-dozen young pigs. Started raising them up to be guard pigs.”

“Meaner than a junkyard pig?” Remy asked.

Tarlton smiled. “Sounds catchy, doesn’t it?”

“It sounds insane is what it sounds. But I knew a guy down in New Orleans who kept a guard alligator in his gris-gris shop. It actually caught a burglar one night.”

“Interesting. But if the Otis junkyard pigs ever caught anybody, there wouldn’t be anything left of him come morning.”

›› 1511 Hours

Sobered by Tarlton’s nonchalant explanation of one of the strangest things he’d ever heard of, Will trailed the police chief to the salvage yard’s main building.

The building had evidently started life as a small home, probably a two- or three-bedroom. Then a few extra rooms had been added on. Somewhere in there, the salvage yard had been tacked onto it, and the fence ran in two directions. The house was covered with the same peeling white paint and graffiti as the fence.

Tall oak trees butted up against the house and the junkyard wall. Although houses were on either side of the salvage yard and a large street ran in front of it, the business looked like it should be located out in the middle of a rural wasteland.

Tarlton had gotten a hit on the gun’s serial number almost immediately. He’d turned to his computer and worked from a short list of known gun dealers in the area. Keeping track of weapons was a problem in smaller towns, he’d pointed out, because people had a tendency to swap them out, sell them, and borrow them for years.

Gerald Otis had once owned the pistol Bobby Lee Gant had used yesterday on Shel. Tarlton had been forced to take it from the man during an altercation at the junkyard. A group of young drivers barely old enough to drive had been liberating parts to build a race car. Upon discovering them one night, Gerald had held them at gunpoint till Tarlton arrived. No other police officer would do.

During the heated moments that had transpired, Tarlton had taken the gun from Gerald. He’d later returned it, along with a polite explanation of why he’d taken it.

In the meantime, though, Tarlton had logged the weapon into his own private records system. He’d been doing that with the merchandise of every pawn shop and private dealer that he could. The list was nowhere near complete.

Tarlton walked to the front door and knocked loudly. Then he stood there and waited.

A frazzled woman in her fifties answered the knock. She peered at them owlishly from the other side of the screen door. Her hair was so white it shone like pale fire.

“Afternoon, Chief Tarlton,” the woman said in a cigarette-roughened voice.

“Afternoon, Maisie. I came out here to see Gerald. It’s official business.”

“Who’s your company?”

“Investigators from the Marine base at Camp Lejeune.”

“Military men?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Now you know Gerald don’t like nothing to do with the government.”

“I know. But they need his help.”

Maisie frowned at that, as if trying to figure out why Tarlton would sell her such a big bill of goods.

Will waited patiently even though time was getting away from him.

“All right, you can go on back.” Maisie slipped the lock open on the door and pulled it wide.

“Thank you, Maisie.” Tarlton carried the shotgun across his chest with both hands as he entered.

Inside, the house smelled like motor oil and rust. An engine occupied a table in the center of the living room. A block-and-tackle assembly had been mounted on the roof.

The television in one corner of the room broadcasted a soap opera.

“Gerald’s out back in the garage with Woody and Taylor,” Maisie said. “You can see yourself out.”

Tarlton tipped his hat and went through the room to the door that let out to the back.

As he looked around the smoke-stained room, Will remembered other people like these who’d been frozen in time and pretty much forgotten about.

“You just mind them guard pigs while you’re out there,” Maisie said. “Gerald’s not feeding ’em like he should. They might get a little out of hand.”

“Thank you,” Tarlton said as he stepped out the rear door and onto shaky wooden steps.

Will and Remy followed.

›› 1514 Hours

Outside the house, the ground was barren in all directions. The earth was stained black where automotive oil and all kinds of other fluids had been dumped for years.

The salvage yard was primarily filled with automobiles. But there were also boats, motorcycles, and farm equipment. Two 1950s airplanes interested Will immediately.

Snuffling from under the house startled Will. He turned just as three lean shapes burst into view. The hogs stood almost up to Will’s hips. Yellow tusks curled up from their lower jaws. They were an indiscriminate brown color, covered by sparse curling hair. Rings festooned the wiggling pink noses.

One of the hogs tried to put its snout against Tarlton’s pocket. The police chief popped the animal in the nose with the butt of the shotgun.

Surprised and hurt, the hog let out a bleat of pain and ran away. The other two hogs backed off and snorted and grunted indignantly. Their ears flattened against their low-browed skulls.

“Chief Tarlton,” a deep voice called. “That you?”

Looking forward, Will spotted a tall, rawboned man in an olive uniform shirt and blue uniform pants standing next to a ramshackle building. He was bald on top, but the hair around his head trailed down to his shoulders. He looked like he was in his forties.

“Gerald,” Tarlton called back. “Need a few words with you if I can.”

“Sure. Come on ahead.”

›› 1517 Hours

Gerald Otis stood at least six feet seven and was built broad enough that he made Shel look small. But his weight was from overeating and had gone to fat. He smelled like oil, gasoline, and bacon grease.

The shed was a study of contrasts. Barely standing, it housed a pristine 1969 Pontiac GTO that had been lovingly restored and seemed incongruous to its surroundings. The bright red paint seemed to glow with an inner fire.

“Man,” Remy said as he examined the car, “that is some sweet ride.”

“It is.” Gerald Otis smiled broadly. “I’ve been taking my time putting it together.” He shifted his attention to Tarlton. “What brings you out this way, Chief?”

“I’d like you to talk to someone if you would,” Tarlton said. “This is Commander Will Coburn of the NCIS.”

Otis’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Don’t know what that is.”

“I’m a military cop,” Will said. “I specialize in Navy and Marine crimes.”

“I never been in no service. Don’t see how I could help you.”

“The chief tells me you sometimes deal in guns,” Will said.

Gerald hesitated. He ran a big hand across the back of his neck. A guilty flush flamed his face. “I ain’t supposed to do that, I know. Chief Tarlton done explained that to me.”

“I’m not here to give you any trouble over that,” Will explained. “I just need to know if you can identify a gun for me.”

Gerald’s face cleared as worry lifted from him. “Sure.”

Will took a picture of the pistol Bobby Lee had used from his shirt pocket and showed it to the big man. “Have you seen this gun before?”

“Sure. I sold it.”

“If someone asked you to identify it, how would you do that?”

“Serial number. Each one of ’em’s different.”

“Did you write down the serial number of this pistol?”

“Nope.” Gerald frowned again. “That’s one of the problems I got into with the chief. I didn’t write enough stuff down.”

Will looked at Tarlton. The police chief had a twinkle of merriment in his eyes.

“Ask him to identify the pistol for you,” Tarlton suggested.

Will did.

And Gerald rattled off a string of numbers and letters.

“That’s the serial number,” Gerald said when he’d finished.

From the picture, Will couldn’t tell. He took out his iPAQ and brought up his notes on the pistol. Then he asked the man to recite the numbers back again. The numbers and letters matched perfectly.

“Gerald has a gift for numbers,” Tarlton explained. “Once he sees them, they’re his. Always.”

Will was quietly amazed.

“The few times the DA has had to put him on the stage to hammer someone else for trying to sell Gerald something, he’s run numbers forward, backward, and sideways,” Tarlton said. “You could come back a year from now, and he’d still know the serial number without ever seeing it in the meantime.”

Will knew Tarlton was letting him know that acquiring unimpeachable testimony was entirely possible. He concentrated on smoothing out the testimony he’d need.

“Did you sell this pistol to Bobby Lee Gant?” Will asked.

“No. I sold it to another biker. That big guy that always hangs around with Victor Gant. Victor is Bobby Lee’s father.”

“You sold the pistol to that man?”

“Yeah. Fat Mike. That’s what he goes by.”

“If I needed you to testify to that in court, would you be able to do it?”

Gerald looked troubled. “Would it be like the other times the chief has had me do it?”

Will looked to Tarlton for guidance.

Tarlton nodded.

“Yes,” Will replied.

“Then I can do it.”

21

›› The Bloody Skull

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 2156 Hours

The bar was more a clubhouse for the Purple Royals than a business enterprise. The bikers came there when they were in town, and they circled the wagons there when they were under attack from the outside world.

Victor Gant sat in the back office and gazed at the security monitors mounted on the wall in front of him. Although no sheet of paper showed it, he owned the bar. The business and the employees were wholly subsidized by the Purple Royals.

The people he’d hired to run the place didn’t exactly have it made. But they could at least live well enough. All they had to do was be available for the nights the gang was in town.

And the gang was definitely in town. Word had gotten out-over the phone, by word of mouth, and through the TV-that Victor’s son was dead, shot by a federal agent. Now the place was packed.

Heavy metal crashed through the surround sound system. The dancers worked the crowd, more enthusiastic than they’d been in months because the money was flowing like water. Victor thought the bikers were acting like children; certainly they were creating a mess in the bar.

He tried not to let the men’s pursuit of a good time bother him. But it did. He couldn’t isolate himself that well. He felt Bobby Lee’s absence in a way he never would have thought possible before.

He reached for the longneck bottle on the desk and took a sip. The beer was warm and flat. He didn’t know how long it had been sitting there. Too long.

His eyes roved the security monitors, searching for anything to distract him. Some of the women were attractive, not the used-up specimens the bar usually held. A lot of those women were on their last legs, coked up and decaying from the inside.

Today, not even the new ones held his attention.

You’re bordering on dinky-dao, brother, he told himself. Totally whack. You need to pull yourself together.

But it was hard. He kept seeing Bobby Lee in his mind. The young man had been all the immediate family Victor knew he was ever going to have. And that family had been wiped out in a heartbeat.

Reluctantly Victor dropped his feet off the scarred wooden desk and threw the flat beer into the nearly filled trash can. The glass bottle shattered and tinkled down among the others.

His leathers creaked as he walked out of the room and onto the main floor. Bikers stepped aside in front of him like the Red Sea parting for Moses.

He paused at the bar and called Creeper’s name. Creeper wasn’t the man’s real name, of course, but so many people knew him by Creeper that likely only the law enforcement agencies would know what his given name was now.

Creeper was young and hard. He hadn’t pulled Nam with Victor and Fat Mike and the others, but he’d made his bones in the first Gulf War. The vets got together and argued over who’d had the worst war, those who’d slogged through the jungles or those who’d slogged the desert.

They even each had their own conspiracy theories. The Nam vets pointed to Agent Orange as being responsible for so many cancer-related deaths. The first Gulf War vets had the mysterious “malaise” that had descended on them and might have been part of a biological weapon Saddam Hussein had been bankrolling.

Creeper turned and looked at Victor.

“Hey, boss man,” Creeper said. “What’ll you have?”

“Beer.”

“Coming up.” Creeper squatted and reached into the cooler beneath the counter. He brought up a fresh longneck, peeled the lid with the church key, and slid the bottle down to Victor’s waiting hand.

Victor took a long draw. “You seen Fat Mike?”

“Not yet.”

“Soon as he gets here, send him in to me.”

Creeper shot him a thumbs-up.

Victor made his way back to the office, a pit of roiling rage in his chest. He sat at the desk once more and used the remote control to flick through the television stations.

The need to do something vibrated through him. His hand actually shook as he brought the longneck to his lips. That hadn’t happened even when they were back in the bush taking heavy fire.

News footage of the standoff at the tattoo parlor started to roll on-screen. Victor muted the anchor’s commentary and just stayed with the images.

There behind the glass, he saw Bobby Lee standing with his hostage. He knew how scared his son had been. He looked so young; this was the first time he’d gotten into a situation that was so far over his head.

In another minute, Bobby Lee would be dead-again.

Victor sipped his beer, but he couldn’t turn away from the impending violence.

His cell phone rang.

Victor thought about not answering the call. But he was looking for a distraction of any kind.

He flipped the phone open and said, “Yeah?”

›› 2203 Hours

“Ah, my friend, it is good to hear your voice.”

“It’s good to hear yours.” But you’re a little late calling in condolences. Victor drank some more beer. Tran was his partner in the heroin business. No one knew that. They’d been very careful to set the business up that way. Rather, Tran had been careful to set things up like that.

They’d met in Vietnam. Tran had been a Kit Carson scout, one of the regulars who’d defected from the North Vietnamese army to lead recon missions for the American troops.

That had been back when both sides had figured the Americans were going to win the war.

A Kit Carson’s life expectancy hadn’t been high. If he was caught by his old army buddies, they tortured him as long as they could before they killed him. And his new army buddies weren’t the most trusting. A number of Kit Carsons had gone down under “friendly” fire that was anything but. The Department of Defense had a name for such things too. Misadventure sounded equally innocuous.

Tran, though, had seemed to flourish as a traitor to his people. When the tide of the war had changed, Tran had changed with it by going back to the NVA and claiming to have been a prisoner.

However, the friendship he’d had with Victor Gant had included a lucrative black market trade that involved drugs and women. During the thirty-plus years between, they’d found a way to do business. The latest thing with the heroin was by far the most lucrative.

“I just found out the bad news and wanted to call and see how you were doing,” Tran said.

“I’m fine.”

“You sound a little rocky.”

“I said I’m fine. Drop it.”

Tran didn’t acknowledge that one way or the other.

Victor sipped beer. Both of them were careful not to mention the other’s name.

Tran was based in Vietnam, where he oversaw the poppy growing and the production of raw opium. Back when he’d first gotten everything together, he had contacted Victor and explained how he’d gone into the drug business in a big way. It had taken them almost two years to work out the ocean transport through a shipper based in Singapore.

“I was told there’d been a problem,” Tran said.

Victor knew the man meant he’d heard about the arrest. “It’s taken care of. I negotiated my way out of it.”

“How?”

Victor grinned a little. After all these years, Tran didn’t completely trust him when the pressure started to mount. But that was okay. He didn’t completely trust Tran either.

But it made Victor wonder who among his group was selling him out to Tran.

“I’m going to give them something,” Victor said, answering Tran’s question. “Our southern competition.”

“Do you think that’s wise?”

“Are you questioning my decision?”

Tran didn’t respond right away. “What happened?”

“A business negotiation with one of their men went south. His people were taking more of an interest than I thought, and they chose to make everything personal.”

“Couldn’t you have negated that?”

“The guy I had to deal with wasn’t local. He was based in Virginia. The domestic arm.” Meaning the FBI in Quantico, Virginia, and not the CIA at Langley, Virginia.

“I’m sure you did what was best.”

“I did. In fact, I streamlined the pitch I was giving the associate of the Virginia team.”

“And they went for it?”

“I didn’t give them a choice.”

“I see.”

Victor drained the beer bottle and dropped it into the wastepaper basket. It shattered with a brittle pop.

“I didn’t have a choice, either,” Victor went on, his voice tightening till it was edged steel. “The business I’m taking care of at this end isn’t easy. Sometimes deals have to be cut to preserve what we’ve got going on.”

“I realize that. But you have them off of you?”

“Till next time. Unfortunately the reality is that this business of ours is established. People are going to talk. Customers as well as rivals. When that happens, we’ll have to stand prepared to take care of it.”

“What about this man? The one who cost you so much?”

“I’m going to cost him.”

Tran was silent for a moment. “I could take care of him for you.”

Victor took a moment to think about that. The offer came with subtext, but he wasn’t sure exactly what it was. For Tran to offer to reach across the Pacific Ocean to whack the Marine meant that he’d come into more muscle than he’d had before.

The offer also served to put Victor on notice that he wasn’t as insulated as he had been.

“No need,” Victor said. “I’m going to take care of this. I’m going to take the time I need to do it right.”

“I know you see this as a personal challenge,” Tran said. “But you can’t allow any harm to come to what we’ve got going on. We’ve worked too long and too hard to get what we have.”

“You just worry about your end. I’m going to take care of things here. You’ll see.”

“It would be better for you-and for what we’re doing-if you put this behind you.”

Victor couldn’t believe the suggestion had been made. “Put the murder of my son behind me?” His voice was cold and hard.

Tran hesitated for only a moment, then-showing that their relationship had changed over the years-said, “It wasn’t murder. I saw the news footage. He killed a man and tried to kill that Marine. I’m sorry for your loss, my friend, but he’d been given every chance to come out of that encounter alive.”

“He was my flesh and blood,” Victor snarled. “My family.”

“I know.”

“Do you?” Victor tried to control the anger that threatened to break loose inside him. “Do you remember what happened when your family was killed?”

Tran’s voice was soft, but a hard edge rang in his words. “I do.”

“Me and you,” Victor said, “we found out who the soldiers were that killed your family. And they were American soldiers.”

It had been one of those incidents that didn’t come out of Vietnam until years later. The military and the media had worked together for a time to shut down all the atrocities that young American soldiers committed while they were overseas.

Everybody back home was so interested in the John Wayne image of the American soldiers, they didn’t think of what it had really been like to be there. There wasn’t a day most of those young men hadn’t been afraid. Never a day passed that sudden, harsh death hadn’t dogged their footsteps through that hellish jungle.

As a result of that fear, the quickness that death could reach out, and the merciless nature of the enemy they’d faced, a lot of soldiers had gone feral and become pitiless killers who saw only enemies in everyone outside their own group.

Chaplains and officers had tried to keep those young soldiers from becoming barbarians. Their efforts had broken down and failed on several occasions. Sometimes those chaplains and green second lieutenants got fragged by the very men they were trying to save.

“We buried your family, me and you,” Victor said. “We dug those graves with our hands and laid your family to rest. Then we found out who those men were… and we killed every last one of them.”

That had been a bloody business. They’d hunted the men down and ambushed them in the jungle. Some of them had gotten loose. It had taken four days to find the last one. Under Tran’s cruel skills, it had taken the man two days to die.

For just a moment, the smell of burned flesh filled Victor’s nostrils at the memory. He didn’t remember any good times from his tours in Nam. But he just hadn’t been able to escape the jungle till Uncle Sam had finally called him home. Even then, the jungle still lived inside him today. It was only a heartbeat away.

“I remember,” Tran said.

“You’d better remember.”

“But in the end, killing those men didn’t bring my family back.”

“I know that. But the idea of the man who killed Bobby Lee walking around breathing the same air that I do offends me.”

“Vengeance is for the young,” Tran said quietly. “We are older now. We know the things that matter. This business we’re doing matters. You’ve got a good life. You shouldn’t be thinking about throwing it away. I’m asking you, as your friend, to let this be.”

Irritation filled Victor. In the beginning, Tran had been the low man on the totem pole regarding the operation. He hadn’t had any contacts. Victor had provided everything.

Now that he had control over the product and thought he could easily pick up another distributor in the United States, Tran wasn’t quite as closemouthed about how the operation was conducted as he had been.

The thing was, Tran also knew what Victor was about. If Tran tried to freeze Victor out, Victor would go over to Vietnam and finish a final piece of the war.

“I can’t,” Victor said.

Tran sighed. “I was afraid that would be your answer.”

“Was there anything else?” Victor asked.

“No.”

“Then I’ve got a few things to do around here.”

“Of course. I just wanted to express my condolences and to check on you.”

“You just take care of your end of things.”

“If you need anything, you’ll call?”

“Of course,” Victor replied.

“Get some rest. You sound exhausted.”

Victor broke the connection and tossed the phone onto the desk. Then his eyes roved over the security monitors showing the street outside.

He zoomed in on the undercover police car parked in the alley across the street. Every time the Purple Royals gathered, Police Chief Tarlton put people there. It would have been comical if Victor had been thinking about the cops and not about getting revenge.

22

›› Intensive Care Unit

›› Presbyterian Hospital

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 2308 Hours

Even with the pain medication coursing through his system, Shel knew someone was in the room with him. Fear bumped against his mind as he struggled to lift his eyes.

“Hey, Shel.”

Shel recognized the voice before he was able to focus. “Don.”

“I’m here.” Don’s hand settled on his uninjured shoulder and squeezed. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah.” Shel tried to nod, but the effort seemed to loosen his head, and he was afraid it would float away. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to see you.”

“Waste of time,” Shel said. “I’m going to be fine.”

“That’s what Commander Coburn told me. But I’ve been saving up for a vacation. Thought I’d get out of town for a bit. See how the other half lives.”

Shel grinned. “I appreciate it. You doing okay?”

“A little tired. We got word late last night. I caught the first flight out this morning. I’ve been in airport terminals or on planes all day. Nobody flies straight through anymore, it seems.”

Shel rolled his head around and tried not to be obvious about it. Although he couldn’t imagine his daddy leaving the ranch, there was that possibility.

Don grimaced. “Daddy’s not here.”

“I didn’t think he was,” Shel lied. It was funny how much it bothered him that his father hadn’t come. He was a man, full-grown, blooded in a couple of wars. How old do you have to be before you stop looking for your daddy when you get hurt? He didn’t know. “I was looking for Max.”

“Max is fine. He’s sacked out in the waiting room with some woman named Maggie.”

“You got to meet Maggie?”

“I did.”

“Maggie’s good people, Don. You’d like her.” Shel hated the fact that pain meds also sometimes gave him a bad case of motormouth.

“She seems like she is.”

“She should be in a hotel, not here. When you go back out there, tell her to go on and that I’ll be fine.”

“I told her I was going to stay the night with you. She pointed out that there was no one Max could stay with.”

“She could take him with her. He’ll go.”

“They tried taking him earlier. He’ll go outside for a little while to answer the call of nature, but he won’t get in any vehicles. He just sits at the hospital door waiting to get in.”

“That dog’s a Marine’s Marine,” Shel said.

Don grinned. “I’d say there is a resemblance.”

“Have you met Will?”

“Just over the phone. I’d hoped to meet him. It seems he and another agent-”

“Remy.”

“That’s the one. They’re out working on something.”

Shel tried to think about that, but it was hard getting his thoughts to stay connected long enough to make sense of them. “Bobby Lee Gant was the only business we had here.”

“I don’t know.”

“Maggie would know what’s going on.”

“You can ask her in the morning. Both of you need to get some sleep.”

“I can’t sleep. How’s the family doing?”

Shel tried to listen as Don told him about soccer games and birthdays. It made him sad to think he’d missed all those things, but he knew it was the pain meds. They tended to depress him too.

Somewhere in there, though, he hung on to Don’s voice and felt more at home than he had in a long time. And he slept.

›› The Bloody Skull

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0119 Hours

Fat Mike knocked at the office door.

When Victor looked up, he saw his second standing there with a sheaf of papers rolled up in one big fist.

“Where have you been?” Victor demanded.

Fat Mike entered the room and dropped into a chair in front of the desk. The chair squeaked in protest. He took a pull on his longneck.

“I been out doing what I always do,” Fat Mike said. “Keeping your six clear.”

“You didn’t tell me you were going to leave.”

“You were on the verge of pulling a mean drunk. You still are. Nobody wants to be around you when you do that. Me included.”

Fat Mike, Victor reflected, was probably the only person in the world who could talk to him like that. The only reason Victor allowed it was because Fat Mike was being truthful, not disrespectful. There was a difference.

“I’m not drunk,” Victor said.

“No, and I’m surprised. If I was you, I think I would be. Or maybe seriously messed up about now.”

Victor nodded at the sheaf of papers. “When did you take up reading?”

“A long time ago. I’d do it more often but my lips go numb after a while.” Fat Mike leaned forward and spread the pages on the desk.

Victor was in a mean mood and knew it. He glanced at the pages and saw that there were photos in the midst of the blocks of type. “At least it has pictures.”

“Yeah,” Fat Mike said, taking no offense. “Did you get a good look at them pictures?”

Intrigued, Victor slid the pages over to his side of the desk and studied them. He recognized Shelton McHenry’s photo at once. The man was in Marine dress at some military function.

There were a lot of other pictures. Evidently the Marine’s career had been extensive. His work at the NCIS had gotten him mentioned on several occasions.

“So this is our jarhead,” Victor said.

“Yeah.” Fat Mike took a pull on his beer. “He’s still military-issue. Assigned to an NCIS team in Camp Lejeune. I’ve got more information coming on the rest of the team.”

“Where’d you get the info?”

“From Beetle. Computers are his thing.”

Beetle was a computer whiz. He was also a hanger-on of the Purple Royals. He was a paraplegic, the victim of a motorcycle-van collision when he’d stolen a sled at fifteen. He still rode on a specially converted three-wheeler, but these days he did most of his cruising on the cyber highways.

“Beetle was glad to do this research,” Fat Mike said. “But I think it would mean a lot to him if you’d give him a kind word.”

“I will.” There was more information on Shelton McHenry in the printout pages than had been on the television all day. “Did you pay him?”

Fat Mike grinned. “Yeah. Gave him enough cash and drugs to keep him smothered in the vice of his choice for months.”

Victor nodded. “When he gets information on McHenry’s friends, pay him again.”

“Happy to. Beetle’ll probably be happy too.”

“Somebody thinks this jarhead is some kind of hero,” Victor grated.

“Guy’s been around,” Fat Mike said. “Pulled Iraq. A lot of special-ops assignments. He’s looked death in the face.”

Victor studied the Marine’s classic handsome face. “Pretty boy.”

“That he is.”

The dark, violent anger writhed inside Victor. He felt it moving, and he embraced it. When he had that, he could do anything.

Victor read through the bio on the man again. “McHenry. Where do I know that name?”

Fat Mike grinned. “Now that was the part I was waiting for you to remember.”

Victor put the papers down and looked back through all those years. “That skinny farm boy we ran into in Qui Nhon was named McHenry.”

“Yeah, he was.” Fat Mike rifled through the pages till he found the one he was looking for. He pushed it across to Victor. “Turns out maybe we should have killed him that night too.”

“We needed him to get us through the checkpoints.” Victor remembered that night like it had been yesterday. They’d sweltered in the truck as the kid, McHenry, drove along Highway 19 out of the coastal city. “If he hadn’t been along, we wouldn’t have gotten out of the city.”

“I know. And without him, we wouldn’t have gotten one of those guys that killed Tran’s family.” Fat Mike took in a breath and let it out. “Once we dumped that body off, I wanted to kill him. But you didn’t.”

“We needed him to get back into Qui Nhon.”

“We coulda walked back in,” Fat Mike said. “We did it plenty of times before.” He tapped the paper. “You read that report, you’ll see Shelton McHenry’s father is Tyrel McHenry.”

Victor couldn’t believe it. “That guy was the same grunt we jobbed in Qui Nhon?”

“Yeah. Ain’t that a kick in the head? Just proves how small this world is. If we’d killed Tyrel McHenry back then, he wouldn’t have had a boy that grew up to kill Bobby Lee.”

23

›› Rafter M Ranch

›› Outside Fort Davis, Texas

›› 2441 Hours (Central Time Zone)

The mare delivered her foal without any trouble, but Tyrel McHenry stood watch all night just in case. Since he’d laid the foundations of the ranch house, there hadn’t been a horse born on his ranch whose birth he hadn’t attended.

The same could be said, more or less, of the cows. When the calving season began in the winter and extended into the spring, it made for long days and long nights. Tyrel stayed horseback for days on end, making cold camps and watching over his flock. From time to time, he had to help out with the birthing. Sleeping on the ground when it was still holding on to winter temperatures had gotten harder over the years, but when the day came that he couldn’t do it anymore, he figured they could just cover him on over.

Sitting there on a bale of hay and watching the mare nudge her new baby to its feet, Tyrel reflected that maybe he wouldn’t have too many more years to watch miracles like the birth of a new animal. He was getting older. He could see it in the wrinkles on his face and the slackness and weathered cracks of his skin.

Growing old bothered him. He disliked the idea of infirmity. He’d seen people-some of them younger than him-who just couldn’t seem to take care of themselves anymore. If he ever reached that time in his life, he figured it would be better to just cash in his chips and get up from the table.

But it doesn’t really happen like that, does it? he told himself. You just keep right on drawing cards, even if you got a losing hand, because you just can’t stop yourself.

Death itself didn’t bother him. A good part of him had died in Qui Nhon all those years ago.

Grimly Tyrel turned his thoughts from that time. He’d promised himself that night while looking down on the dead man’s face that he wouldn’t think of what had happened ever again.

He had been unsuccessful. Even when he didn’t think of that terrible event, the weight of it rode him around like a determined bull rider. No matter what he did to shake that weight-drinking and fighting and just pure cussedness-it would never go away.

The only person who had ever been able to remove the old fear and gentle him down had been his wife. He missed her. Every minute of every day. There wasn’t a thing about the ranch that didn’t remind him of her. And he was trapped by everything that had happened in his life.

It would have been better for her if they’d never met. Or if he hadn’t fallen in love with her despite the fact that he knew better. But he hadn’t been able to help himself, no matter how much he felt that he hadn’t deserved her love.

If she hadn’t loved him back, he could have walked away from everything. Vanishing into the back roads would have been better than trying to pretend he was a normal person.

Because he hadn’t been normal since that night in Qui Nhon.

His wife had paid the price; he couldn’t talk to her about anything that had happened in the war. His sons had paid the price as well.

And now you got grandbabies paying that same price, you inconsiderate old fool.

Although he’d never admit it, Don’s words on Father’s Day had hurt him in ways he didn’t know he could still be hurt. When he’d put his wife into the cold, hard ground, he’d thought it would be the end of those feelings.

Life was like that, though. He’d never truly been able to figure out what it was he was supposed to do.

Or why.

Mostly it was the why of things that got to him and made everything difficult.

He reached for the insulated cup of coffee he’d brought out with him and took a sip. The coffee was cool now because he’d been out in the barn so long, but it was still strong. He liked his coffee strong. He made it the way his daddy had. Strong enough to put hair on a rock.

His daddy had been a tanker in World War II. That had been the last of the simple wars, where everything was black-and-white, and a man could fight for what he believed in and know that he was right for doing it. The same couldn’t have been said about Vietnam.

Tyrel sat there and thought thoughts he’d promised himself he’d never think again, and he didn’t know why he was thinking them. Nothing good could come of this.

Maybe, he mused, he was putting himself through his own particular hell again because he’d stayed at the ranch instead of going with Don to check on Shelton.

What kind of daddy wouldn’t go to the hospital to see his nearly shot-to-death son?

Your kind, that hard voice said in the back of his mind. The kind that’s scared of what’s lying out there for him.

But that wasn’t all of it, he knew. He didn’t go because he didn’t want Don or Shel-or the grandbabies-to think on him too hard. He couldn’t be there for them. He couldn’t ever be there for anybody.

He’d known that since Qui Nhon.

›› 0112 Hours

Satisfied that the mare and her new colt were going to be fine, Tyrel got up from the hay bale. His knees cracked in protest.

When he was standing, he walked over to where Ramon Sanchez lay. Ramon was fourteen years old, the oldest grandson of Miguel. He was a handsome boy and looked a lot like his granddaddy.

“Hey,” Tyrel said gruffly. He kicked Ramon’s boots hard enough to wake the boy.

Ramon came awake instantly and looked apologetic. “Sorry,” he said in Spanish. He rubbed his eyes. “I must have fallen asleep.”

“You were snoring so loud I thought you were gonna spook the horses,” Tyrel said. He spoke in Spanish, but his was awkward even after all these years. Shel was the one who had taken to the language like a native.

Embarrassment flushed Ramon’s face. “My grandfather is going to be upset with me. He told me to watch over you-I mean, the horses.”

“Well then,” Tyrel said, “I guess we ain’t gonna tell your granddaddy. Get up and let’s get you to bed. We got an early morning coming if we’re gonna get everything done.” He reached down and pulled the boy to his feet.

“The mare? How is she?” Ramon glanced at the pen.

“She’s fine. Baby’s fine too. It was an easy birth.”

“Good.” Ramon sounded relieved. Then he focused on Tyrel. “You can deduct tonight from my pay.”

“Ain’t gonna do that,” Tyrel said. “The agreement was that you’d be here if I needed you, not that you’d stay awake the whole time. The way I look at it, you held up your end of things.”

“Thank you.”

“Now let’s get you on to bed.”

›› 0127 Hours

Despite his fatigue and the long day he’d put in, Tyrel couldn’t sleep. That wasn’t unusual. He hadn’t slept all that much when he was a young man, and he’d always been told that old people needed even less sleep.

In front of the television, Tyrel reached for the remote control and switched on ESPN.

For the most part, the ranch operated the way it had when he’d grown up. He still worked the cattle on a horse, and both his sons had learned to ride.

Shel had been the one to bring a motorcycle home one summer, and he’d used it for a while. Until it had broken down on him and left him with a five-mile walk home. Tyrel had taken great satisfaction-maybe a little too great, looking back on it now-pointing out that a horse didn’t break down.

For a time, Shel had nurtured his love for motorcycles anyway. The boy was stubborn, but Tyrel had to admit that Shel hadn’t gotten that from his mama. He’d been cursed with that by his daddy.

The only concession Tyrel had really made to the twenty-first century was the satellite television receiver. He’d done that mostly for Don’s kids, but Tyrel had learned to love the fact that ESPN had sports programming on around the clock.

He checked a few box scores, but none of them really interested him. He hadn’t had a vested interest in a baseball team since Hank Aaron had stepped out of the box and Nolan Ryan had come off the hill.

Those were men in Tyrel’s book. They weren’t necessarily supermen or even men who always did the right thing or always succeeded. They were just quiet men who stepped in and got the job done.

That was the kind of man he’d always wanted to be.

That was the kind of man, he realized, that both his sons had become.

The old sadness filled Tyrel then. It had a bittersweet ache that plumbed the very depths of his soul. He closed his eyes and was back there in Qui Nhon staring at the dead soldier’s eyes.

Tyrel hadn’t meant to kill him.

It had just happened.

24

›› NCIS Offices

›› Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

›› 0258 Hours

“Estrella?”

The voice, quiet and unexpected, startled United States Navy Petty Officer Third Class Estrella Montoya. She turned from her computer and looked at the forensics tech Will had called in to handle the couriered drug sample he’d sent from Charlotte.

“Yes?” Estrella said, then cleared her throat. She hadn’t spoken in hours. The last time she’d had conversation with anyone, it was to tell her son, Nicky, a bedtime story. He was currently staying with Nita, Joe, and Celia for the night since Estrella had to run files.

Actually, she didn’t have to. Will had cleared her for the evening. But Estrella had worked with Will long enough to know that he wasn’t going to stop trying to figure out a way to get Victor Gant away from Shel.

After she’d heard the story of how the motorcycle gang leader had walked out of FBI custody and accosted Will in the hospital parking lot, Estrella had known she wasn’t going to rest until she found Will the leverage he was looking for.

She thought she had that now. If forensics had come up with the physical tie they needed to the unsolved case she’d found, they were golden.

The forensics guy was a human scarecrow. Philip Carmichael was tall and lean, with a lantern jaw and razor-cut blond hair that sprouted from his head like a weed. His ill-fitting white lab coat hung on him. Despite the soft drinks and candy he habitually ate, nothing seemed to find a home on his too-thin frame.

“I got the spectroscopy results from that sample Will sent.” Philip pushed them in her direction.

Estrella leaned back in her ergonomic chair as she took the pages. Her Latino heritage marked her with bronze hair and an olive complexion. She had brown eyes and a full figure that belied the strength and endurance she had.

A quick scan of the printouts confirmed what she’d hoped for.

“The two samples are a match,” she said.

“Definitely.” Philip leaned back against the desk behind him. He fished an energy drink from the pocket of his lab coat.

“Have you got electronic copies of these printouts?”

“I’ve already e-mailed them to you. I wanted to stretch my legs, so I thought I would bring you the paper copy.”

“I appreciate the extra effort. I know Will does too.”

“Hey,” Philip said, “I love being here. This job is so much cooler than the video store I worked at till I got my science degree. I just appreciate Commander Coburn taking a chance on me.”

“Will’s a good judge of character. You brought your good luck on yourself.”

Philip smiled.

Estrella logged on to her e-mail, brought up the messages Philip had sent her, added the files she’d been working on, and started sending.

If this didn’t give Will the leverage he needed, Estrella didn’t know what would.

›› Denny’s Restaurant

›› 4541 Sunset Road

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0311 Hours

“Having Gerald willing to testify that he sold that pistol to Victor Gant isn’t going to give us anything,” Tarlton said.

Will nodded. They all knew that, but someone had to say it. They sat at one of the restaurant’s back booths. None of them was operating at prime. Tarlton looked burned, and Will knew he and Remy were operating on even less sleep than the police chief.

“There’s nothing in any of these files we can hope to use against Victor Gant.” Tarlton waved at the copious piles of paper he’d dug out of the police department records. They sat in cardboard boxes in the booth beside him.

“If there’d been anything there,” Will said, “you’d have taken him down before now. We were just hoping to find something that you hadn’t.”

“Last best shot,” Tarlton agreed. “The only thing I could possibly get Gant for is carrying concealed. With his prison record, I could get an arrest warrant for that.”

“But you weren’t there when the FBI took him into custody,” Will said.

“No. I could get some witnesses from the bar who saw them take weapons off Gant, but then I’m sure I could get other witnesses who say that only Fat Mike Wiley had a weapon.”

“Gant’s also got a deal in place with the FBI,” Will said. “They’re going to protect him as much as they can.”

“Kind of makes you wonder whose team they’re on.”

“Theirs,” Remy said. “First, last, and always. That’s how they operate when they got their own fish to clean. Then when they’re helping you clean yours, they just want to hang back and tell you how to get it done.”

“Why, Special Agent Gautreau, I suspicion that’s a cynical attitude you have.” Tarlton smiled.

“This guy Urlacher is a political climber,” Remy said. “You find his type everywhere. Gant’s moving enough heroin through the area that finding his source is going to be a big deal.”

“You can’t blame a guy for having ambition.” Tarlton grinned. “I say that with all the false sincerity I can muster.”

“We can still shadow Gant for a few days,” Remy said. “Keep him in a full-court press till Shel gets out of here and we can take him home.” He cut his gaze to Will. “Unless Director Larkin says different.”

“He won’t,” Will said. “At least not yet.” Larkin knew how badly Frank Billings’s death had affected all of them. “But the time will come.” Will looked at the notes he’d scribbled on his iPAQ and didn’t see anything there that looked the least bit promising. “My problem is that I don’t feel good leaving this for Chief Tarlton now that we stirred up the hornet’s nest.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Tarlton said, “but I’ve been making my way around here for a long time before you guys showed up. I expect I’ll be doing the same after you leave.”

“I know.” Will sighed. “I just like cleaning up any messes I’ve made before I pull up stakes.”

“You didn’t make this one. Victor Gant has been here for a while.”

The waitress came by and took away the last remnants of their dinner. When she left the check, Will reached for it.

“Nope.” Tarlton picked up the check. “Your money’s no good here. My town, my treat.”

“It seems like the least we could do after keeping you up half the night,” Will said.

“You offered me a shot at taking Victor Gant off the streets, and you had enough clout to make the FBI dry up and blow away if it came to that,” Tarlton said as he dropped a credit card over the check. “And who knows? Maybe I’ll need some help farther down the line.”

Will’s iPAQ vibrated for attention. He glanced at the screen and saw Estrella’s icon float to the top. He tapped the icon and held the iPAQ to his ear.

“Estrella? You should have been home hours ago.”

“Nita and Joe are keeping Nicky tonight,” Estrella said. “Nicky told me that was okay and that he didn’t miss me.”

Even though she tried to disguise it, Will heard the slight pain in Estrella’s voice. She took motherhood seriously.

“Take tomorrow off,” Will suggested. “Catch a movie.”

“I can’t. Too much work has piled up here. Everything will be fine. One of the reasons Nicky’s so excited about staying with Nita and Joe is because Joe has promised to take him and Celia sailing in the morning.”

“I’d be excited too.” Will sailed with his own kids every chance he got. Since he’d gotten divorced, it seemed there were more opportunities to take Wren and Steven out on the boat.

“I can make you more excited,” Estrella offered.

“Okay.”

“Philip finished the analysis of the heroin you couriered to us. We’ve got a match. If you want to bring your computer up, I’ll walk you through it.”

Will reached into the messenger bag he used to carry his computer. Remy and Tarlton leaned in closer.

“Something?” Tarlton asked.

Will nodded. He opened the computer and powered it on, then waited for it to connect to the mini satellite that provided the encrypted Internet connection to the NCIS transmissions.

The Web page Estrella had set up for her presentation appeared on the screen. Will put the phone on speaker. No one in the restaurant was close enough to overhear.

“Let me walk you through the time line as I’ve constructed it,” Estrella said. “Thirty-one hours ago, Bobby Lee Gant used his pistol to murder one man and threaten Shel and a young woman.”

Will rubbed his eyes tiredly. It was hard to believe so little time had passed. But the first forty-eight hours of any investigation were always the most important. If something didn’t break during that time, things generally went badly.

“Nine months ago, Fat Mike Wiley bought the pistol from Gerald Otis,” Estrella continued. “So somewhere in there, the pistol went from Fat Mike’s hands to Bobby Lee’s.”

Will studied the time line and saw those two incidents marked.

“Four months ago, a man named Walter Simpson went missing,” Estrella said.

“I worked that case with the sheriff,” Tarlton said. “Simpson lived in Charlotte, but everybody knew he was a meth cook. The sheriff and I suspected he worked for Victor Gant.”

“As a matter of fact,” Estrella said, cycling the Web presentation forward so that another page opened up on the computer monitor, “I did some digging. Five men who’ve been tentatively identified as Purple Royals were busted in Mecklenburg County, Robeson County, and Guilford County. At the time of their arrests, all of them had meth on them that came from the same batch.”

“You said tentatively,” Tarlton said.

“I think a little digging could improve the standing on that point,” Estrella acknowledged. “The important thing is that these men were carrying meth that could be tied to Simpson.”

“How was it tied?” Remy asked. “Recipe or product?”

Will knew that meth cooks almost always created the drug the same way every time and that the individual products tended to be unique enough to identify. Further chemical breakdowns could verify that beyond doubt. Recipes were filed with law enforcement departments, and drug samples were kept in federal clearinghouses.

“Both,” Estrella answered.

“That indicates there was a tie between Victor Gant and Simpson,” Will said, “but how does that help us?”

“Because a month ago hunters found Simpson’s body, and it had a bullet from Bobby Lee’s gun in it.”

And that, Will knew, was the beginning of something they could work with.

25

›› Rafter M Ranch

›› Outside Fort Davis, Texas

›› 0231 Hours (Central Time Zone)

Restless, Tyrel flicked through channels. He knew he had insomnia bad when he couldn’t even focus on baseball. In fact, not even cold corn bread soaked in buttermilk had taken the edge off, and generally that would guarantee he’d sleep like a baby.

He flicked through the channels and ended up on FOX News, thinking the news would surely put him out of his misery. Thoughts of Shel kept banging around in his head, though, and he couldn’t seem to get them nailed down in any manner that would let him know why he was thinking about him so much.

After a few minutes of watching the international news, Tyrel almost changed channels. Then he saw Shel’s picture on the screen behind the anchorman.

The picture was a twin of one Tyrel had stuck in his wife’s family Bible. It was where she’d kept all her important papers and memories. The Bible still held pressed flowers from the first time Tyrel had courted her, along with baby pictures and report cards.

Tyrel sat up a little straighter and turned up the television’s volume. He wasn’t worried about waking Ramon. The boy had sacked out in Don and Shel’s room. That was how Tyrel still thought of the bedroom at the back of the house.

Don and Shel’s room.

Like they were going to be coming right back at some point.

At least their mama hadn’t had to watch them move out, especially the angry way Shel had left. Tyrel knew that would have hurt her. And maybe it would have damaged their relationship. She’d always put a lot of store in her boys.

That was what she’d always called them. The boys, like they were the only two boys in the world.

Tyrel forced himself to focus on the news story. The anchor related how a young man named Bobby Lee Gant had killed one man and was about to kill a woman and maybe Shel when Shel had shot him.

The fact that his son had killed somebody didn’t bother Tyrel. That was what soldiers did. He’d killed men himself. War was war, and killing enemy soldiers was what he’d been over there to do.

But one didn’t deserve it at all.

Tyrel blinked back the pain of that stray memory and listened to the dead young man’s name again. Something about it sounded familiar. Then again, in Texas there were a lot of Robert Lees and Johnny Lees. Bobby Lee couldn’t have been so unique that he’d notice it.

Then the anchor started talking about another man, the boy’s father. Evidently he was a criminal too. His picture appeared on the wall behind the anchor desk.

And Tyrel was slammed right out of Texas and back into Vietnam.

›› Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner

›› 618 North College Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0357 Hours

“I’m too drunk for this,” Fat Mike said as he leaned against the wall near the building’s back door. He belched, then cursed.

“Keep quiet.” Victor spoke softly.

“We get caught, this could go really bad,” Fat Mike said.

“You’re worrying too much. We won’t get caught.” Victor stood. “You about got that lock?”

The skinny biker working on the lock raked his long hair back with a hand. “Almost. This ain’t as easy as picking your nose.”

“Get it done.” Victor glanced around. He knew Fat Mike was right. They had no business being there.

But he hadn’t gotten to tell Bobby Lee good-bye in a respectful manner. He owed his son that much, and he wanted to do it while he was still mostly intact. He knew the coroner would get around to gutting Bobby Lee at some point, even though everyone knew exactly what-and who-had killed him.

Victor didn’t like thinking about that. He was of half a mind to steal his son’s body and provide his own burial. Except that he had no place to put him, and he wasn’t going to bury Bobby Lee out in the woods where the animals could have at him.

“You said there’s only one security guard on duty?” Victor asked Fat Mike.

“Yeah.” Fat Mike belched again. “But I really think this is a bad idea. If we get caught-”

“Ain’t gonna be no ‘we.’ It’s gonna be me. I’m going in there. And if I get caught, then I’m gonna make my new buddies at the FBI pull my fat outta the fire.”

“They may let you get all nice and toasty before they do that.”

“I’m doing this,” Victor said in a cold, dead voice.

Fat Mike wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Something else you should probably know.”

“Well spit it out.”

“I found out who rolled over on Bobby Lee.”

“I already know that. His girlfriend.”

Fat Mike looked at him in surprise.

“My FBI buddies told me that. She got caught holding by the Charlotte PD. She says she fell over on Bobby Lee because she’s pregnant and don’t want the baby born while she’s in jail. I figure she just didn’t want to do no slam.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right.”

The biker at the back door stood.

“Give up?” Victor asked.

“Nah, bro.” He grinned. “I got it. Even took out the alarm.” He pulled on the door and it swung open almost soundlessly.

Victor nodded. “Way to fire. Gimme a few minutes. Wait here and I’ll be back.” He stepped into the morgue.

›› Rafter M Ranch

›› Outside Fort Davis, Texas

›› 0306 Hours (Central Time Zone)

Tyrel went back to his bedroom and switched on the light. As always, his bed was neatly made, the spread pulled tight enough that a quarter would bounce if dropped on it.

The bed had been one of the points of contention he’d had with his wife. No matter how hard she’d tried, she could never make it well enough to suit him. She’d finally given up in exasperation and let him do it. And he had, every morning they’d been together.

The Army had taught Tyrel how to make a bed. The Army had taught him a lot of things. Not all of those things had been good.

He went to the closet, stood on tiptoe, and slid away the secret panel he’d placed there. He’d built the ranch house for his wife. Every stick of it had been put there by his hand. He knew it completely, and he’d built it to be a fortress that would keep the rest of the world at bay.

But at the very heart of it, he’d hidden the darkness that consumed his soul.

Everything he’d brought back from Vietnam, other than the guilt, had been carefully packed away in the olive drab ammo box.

He carried the box back to the bed and sat down. He unlatched the lid, then slowly and meticulously began to take out things he hadn’t seen in over forty years.

Medals, mementos, and photographs soon littered the bed. He’d never paid much attention to the medals. He didn’t even know why he’d kept them. Except that his daddy had.

His daddy had kept his in an ammo box too, but he’d kept the ammo box out in his shop. Earl McHenry had been a carpenter by trade. He’d taught Tyrel everything he’d wanted to learn, which wasn’t ever as much as his daddy had wanted to teach him. Thankfully it had been enough to build the house. And in doing that, Tyrel had taught himself other things.

He focused on the pictures. It didn’t take him long to find Victor Gant.

Gant looked like the devil incarnate. He stood there smiling with his M14 on the ground beside him. He’d refused to give up his rifle for the M16 the Army had started bringing en masse into the war effort.

A pack of unfiltered cigarettes rode under his helmet band. He wore his uniform shirt open. His dog tags lay against his broad, naked chest. He’d been twenty-four or twenty-five.

Tyrel had been twenty-one at the time.

Victor Gant, already a veteran of ambushes and firefights, had seemed like a mythical hero when he swaggered through the jungle and the bars servicemen haunted in those days.

Tyrel had been swept under Gant’s influence. But for whatever reason, Tyrel had never been asked into the inner circle.

Gripped by the old fear that had haunted him for over forty years, Tyrel sorted through the pictures. He dreaded finding what he was looking for, but he couldn’t help searching for it.

Then, a couple dozen black-and-white photographs later, Tyrel found the one he was looking for.

Dennis Hinton sat on the prow of a PBR that was tied up in the Qui Nhon harbor. He was bare-chested and quiet and looked almost embarrassed in the picture. His hair was so blond it looked white against his tanned skin. Other rigid-hulled swift boats, designated Patrol Boat, River, and called Pibbers or Riverines, were visible in the bay waters behind him.

Even with all the military hardware around him and the M14 in his hands, Denny looked like a child. They all had.

Except for Victor Gant. Gant had been dark and virile, his eyes cold and merciless. When it came to killing, Victor had been one of the most efficient predators Tyrel had ever met.

This man isn’t going to let the death of his son go unchallenged, Tyrel told himself.

If there was ever a man who lived to get his pound of flesh from anyone who crossed him, it was Victor Gant.

But that night Denny had died- No. The night you killed Denny, Tyrel amended-Victor Gant had become a savior. He’d gotten Tyrel out of the worst thing that had ever happened to him.

At least, that was what Tyrel had thought at the time. That was before everything he’d done had followed him home and staked out a piece of his hopes and dreams for the last forty years.

Without warning, Tyrel’s hands started to shake. His vision misted. He wiped his mouth with the back of his arm and thought he was going to be sick.

26

›› Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner

›› 618 North College Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0420 Hours

Victor Gant walked fearlessly through the morgue. His boots thumped against the tiled floor. The red glare of the exit signs shone against the floor’s surface and made it look like coals burned underneath. Almost as if he were walking above the pits of hell.

Victor’s quick research had indicated that the offices closed down at five and that everyone went home shortly after that. An answering service picked up any after-hours calls.

Except for the lone security guard, Victor had the place to himself. They’d gotten a description of the layout from a Mexican janitor who’d worked there until he was busted selling weed. After the question was raised at the bar, Shaky Carl had come up with the ex-janitor’s name.

In minutes, Victor was in the vault. The book listing the locations of the bodies-apparently nobody completely trusted the computer systems-was on the desk.

Victor plucked a pair of disposable surgical gloves from a box near the chemicals and equipment, then strode to the desk and flipped through the book’s pages and found the latest entries.

Bobby Lee’s name was there.

Stomach tight and temples pounding, Victor tossed the book back onto the desk and stepped over to the vault area. He took hold of the handle and pulled.

The table extended outward soundlessly.

There wasn’t enough light to see clearly, so Victor took his Zippo from his pocket and spun the striker. The yellow and blue flame climbed upward and brightened the room.

Even though he’d steeled himself for what he was about to see, Victor’s heart thudded to a stop inside his chest.

Bobby Lee lay on the table. Two bullets had punched through his face, leaving hideous wounds behind. His lower jaw was shattered and torn loose. The second bullet had punched through his cheek under his right eye.

Then Victor’s heart restarted with an explosion that filled him to bursting and quickly subsided.

“I will kill the man that killed you,” Victor whispered. “I never gave you any promises while you were alive, but I promise you that now.”

He bent down and kissed his dead son’s forehead.

A footstep scuffed the floor outside the room.

›› Intensive Care Unit

›› Presbyterian Hospital

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0423 Hours

“Hey, Don.”

Don rolled over on his side and pulled the blanket up over his shoulder. If he was lucky, Shel would forget about him for another ten minutes and he could get some more sleep. All he needed was a few more minutes and he’d be-

“Hey, man, come on. Wake up.”

Don ignored Shel.

“Don.” Shel’s voice was louder now. He had always been the one more like their daddy. Shel and Daddy always got up at the crack of dawn, even if both of them had gotten to bed late the night before.

“Hey.”

Exasperated, Don said, “Give it a rest, Shel. A few more minutes isn’t going to kill anybody.”

“Your phone is ringing. Wake up.”

Worn to the bone, Don rolled over and looked up at the dark ceiling while he waited for his brain to make the necessary connections. Then he remembered; he was in the hospital in North Carolina with Shel.

“You awake?” Shel asked.

“Yeah.” Don listened. “I don’t hear a phone.”

“That’s because it stopped ringing.”

“Oh.” Don groaned as he sat up.

“So how’s that chair for sleeping?” Shel taunted.

“Remember when we had to sleep out in the barn when the cows were calving?”

“Yeah.”

“Those were good times by comparison.”

“I remember. Me and Daddy would be awake all night, and you’d sleep most of it away.”

Don heard the country accent come back into Shel’s words. It was funny listening to it happen. Shel had cleaned up his diction a lot after he’d entered the Marines. A lot of the men he’d served with had been merciless about accents, and he’d had a bad one.

“Not my fault. I’ve always needed more sleep than you guys.” Don rubbed the heels of his palms against his eyes.

“You going to see who called?”

“What time is it?”

“About four thirty.”

Don thought about that. “Joanie and the kids won’t be up by now.” Then he factored in the time difference. “It’s three thirty in Texas.” Since it wasn’t the family, that narrowed the possibility to a parishioner at his church. Don had a reputation for being a good counselor and a lot of people had his cell phone number.

He laid his head back and closed his eyes. All he needed was a few more minutes of sleep.

“Don,” Shel said.

“Yeah.”

“You need to check that phone?”

Don fumbled with his pocket. “Why are you awake?”

“The night nurse is cute. I didn’t want to miss her.”

“Thanks for that.”

“You’re too married to appreciate things like that.”

Don peered at his brother. He could barely make him out in the darkness. “You sound better.”

“I feel better. I’m ready to get out of here.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Shel sighed. “This being laid up is going to be wearisome.”

“You should enjoy the downtime.”

“I wasn’t made for downtime.”

Don silently agreed with that. He didn’t know who was more driven: Shel or their daddy. When he opened the phone and checked under recent calls, he was surprised at the number he found.

“So who was it?” Shel asked.

“Daddy,” Don said. “I didn’t even know he knew my cell phone number.”

›› Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner

›› 618 North College Street

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0423 Hours

Howie Jernigan attended junior college and loved horror magazines. He needed money to go to college, and he intended to be a writer. Both of those things were parts of the reason he’d taken the job as night security guard at the county medical examiner’s office.

The money thing was self-explanatory. The writing part was almost as easy to explain, but it was slightly twisted. When he sold his first horror novel, he wanted the About the Author page to mention that he’d once worked in a morgue.

That would get people’s attention and boost up the cool factor. And it would be something he could talk about on Leno or Letterman.

The fact that the medical examiners did autopsies of murder victims there only added to it. He could claim he’d been part of big murder cases. Instrumental, he told himself. I was instrumental in the solution of several big crimes.

Unfortunately, during the four-month tenure of his employment, there had been no big murder investigations. There had been drunk drivers and heart attack victims, people who’d drowned and people who’d burned to death in fires.

There hadn’t been a single murder of note.

At least, there hadn’t been any until Bobby Lee Gant had gotten his head blown off at the tattoo parlor. Even then, Bobby Lee wasn’t murdered. He’d been killed in self-defense.

But still, the shooting went down as a homicide. And that was what it would stay called too. If a person killed a person, no matter if that killing was justified, it was a homicide. A justifiable homicide, but a homicide nonetheless.

Howie had played high school football and remained in shape. The shirt of his security uniform was tight across his shoulders and chest. He was twenty-one years old and knew how to take care of himself. He was prepared for anything.

But during his employment at the medical examiner’s office, there had never been any break-ins or even juvenile destruction of any kind. It had always been quiet. He’d sat in the office where he watched the security monitors in between reading books by favorite authors. Mostly he’d read.

But tonight the security cameras had gone down.

There hadn’t been any real instruction on what to do if that happened. Howie didn’t want to call the police department all freaked out if it was something as simple as plugging a wire back in somewhere or throwing a switch.

And he didn’t want to look like he was scared being there alone. Being remembered as the wannabe horror writer scared of his own shadow wouldn’t have been a good thing.

So he’d gone looking for the switch.

That was when he thought he’d seen a light in the autopsy room.

Going into that room pretty much guaranteed he’d be creeped out. Every time he went in there he was pretty much creeped out.

He’d only actually seen a dead body in there once. That had been when he’d gotten the tour during business hours. Seeing the wrinkled and withered body of the old man had almost been enough to put him off the job.

Standing outside the autopsy room, Howie told himself that the medical examiners went off the clock at five and he didn’t come on till ten. That almost guaranteed that there’d be no dead bodies from ten till six in the morning Monday through Friday.

When the light flickered out in the vault room, Howie almost went for the police anyway. Only a deep fear of being ridiculed kept him from it. Despite his size, he was always the kid who’d gotten shoved into his own locker in junior high.

Some of the people who’d done the shoving had gone on to become police officers. Some of them had gone on to become the druggies and thieves in town too. That was just life after high school.

He wasn’t armed. Protecting dead bodies didn’t usually involve any kind of real danger. The only problem would be kids wanting to break in to look at bodies and challenge each other to touch one.

Kids, Howie reflected at the grand old age of twenty-one, did some awfully strange things and had truly weird ideas.

With his long-handled flashlight in hand, he approached the door of the vault. The beam fell over the open doorway. That was strange, because he’d been certain it was shut. He always liked to make sure this door was closed. Sometimes-actually more often than he liked to admit-he imagined some of those dead people in the vaults getting up off the tables and coming calling.

Those were definitely not happy thoughts.

As he held the flashlight on the door, he listened for any sound of movement inside. If it had been kids, he’d have figured they would have given themselves up by now.

But there were a few kids these days who wouldn’t give up anything unless they had to.

Howie cleared his throat and said, “Come on out of there now. Come on out and we’ll talk. We don’t have to call the police if we can talk.”

There was no response.

Getting aggravated, Howie rapped his flashlight against the doorframe. “Come on out. I mean it. If I have to come in there after you, we’ll be calling the police-and your parents-for sure.”

There was still no response.

Howie screwed up his courage. He heard nothing in the room. Of course, he reminded himself, zombies that weren’t moving were quiet too. But he didn’t really believe in zombies. They were just cool monsters.

He walked into the room and shined the light around for a second. When he caught sight of the body rolled out of the vault and hanging there over the floor, he froze. He couldn’t even breathe.

Despite the fact that he hadn’t been there when the doctors had gone home, Howie was fairly certain they never left the bodies hanging out in the open like that. His hand crept down for the cell phone he wore on his belt. The phone wasn’t for use on the job. It was more to keep up with his peeps.

Before he could pull the phone from his belt, he heard someone breathe behind him. He wasn’t alone in the room.

Just like that, he realized his mistake. He’d become that guy. In every horror movie, there was always that guy who became the sacrificial lamb. Usually he was the one who walked into a basement-or a medical examiner’s morgue-when everyone else understood that you weren’t supposed to do that.

He turned around slowly, but it was actually as fast as he could move. All of his muscles felt numb and dead. Although he didn’t point the flashlight at the figure standing behind him, there was enough reflected glow to recognize that a man stood there.

In the darkness of the morgue, the man looked like some wild-eyed creature. Howie had just a moment to wonder if maybe zombies did exist after all.

Then the man swung something that caught Howie in the face and drove him backward. Darkness drank down his thoughts and took him away before he hit the ground.

v 27

›› Intensive Care Unit

›› Presbyterian Hospital

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0428 Hours

Shel cranked the bed upward with the remote control taped to the side of the bed. Movement hurt, but hurting meant he was alive. It also meant that the doctor had cut back on the pain medication, but that was all right. Pain meds were a necessary evil in recovery. He’d been wounded enough times to know that. But he was just as glad to get over needing them.

Don just stared at the phone in his hand.

“Are you gonna call him back?” Shel asked.

“I’m thinking about it,” Don said. He gazed at the phone like it was a coiled rattler about to strike.

“If Daddy called, it must have been important,” Shel said.

“It could have been a mistake.”

Shel snorted. “Wimp.”

“Nope. Just thinking things through. The one thing that keeps coming back to mind is that Daddy has never-and I do mean never — called me on my cell phone.”

“All the more reason to call him.”

“He might have accidentally hit the buttons.”

“And dialed your cell phone number?”

Don grimaced. “Does sound pretty weak when you say it like that.”

“It is weak,” Shel said. “Give me the phone and I’ll call him.”

Don started to hand the phone over, then pulled it back. He eyed Shel suspiciously. “If I give you the phone and you chicken out, Daddy’s going to see my number on his caller ID.”

“I didn’t know Daddy even had caller ID,” Shel said. His daddy was notorious for being against technological advancement, though he’d gotten satellite television once it became available.

“He’s got it,” Don said. “You can call him from the hospital.”

“If I call him from the hospital, they’ll mask the numbers. When he sees a number he doesn’t recognize, he’ll probably ignore it.”

“Don’t you have a cell phone?”

“Yes.”

“Then why don’t you use it?”

Shel tried to be very patient. He also tried not to think about his daddy having a heart attack and calling for help.

“Because Daddy won’t recognize that number either. Give it up, Don. Your phone is the only one we can use.”

Reluctantly Don handed his phone over. “Have you ever thought about how ridiculous it is that two grown men have trouble calling their daddy?”

“Not really,” Shel replied.

“Well, maybe you should,” Don said.

Shel found the number and hit Send. His breathing grew shorter and tighter, and he felt like he was going into combat. He hated the fact that the machinery connected to him revealed that rising stress level to Don.

Tyrel answered on the second ring.

“Don,” Tyrel growled.

“It’s not Don, Daddy,” Shel said. “It’s me.”

“Where’s Don?”

“Went to the bathroom. He left his phone on the nightstand. He’ll be back directly.” Shel was conscious of how his accent had crept into his words. “I figured I’d call you back and see if something was wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

Shel listened to the slur in his father’s voice. Tyrel drank every now and again, but he never let it get ahead of him. In all his years growing up on the Rafter M, Shel had never seen his daddy drunk. He suspected he was listening to that now.

“I called to talk to you,” Tyrel said.

“Yes, sir,” Shel said.

“I didn’t come up there because I figured you were too mean to kill. You got too much of your old man in you for that.”

Shel honestly didn’t know whether to feel proud or angry about that comparison. Other people had always compared him to his daddy, but he’d never done it himself.

It was something he would never do.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Are you doing all right?” Tyrel asked.

“I am.”

“Nurses taking good care of you?”

“Yes, sir.” Shel felt uncomfortable talking to his daddy like this. Tyrel wasn’t one for talking about things. It’s the alcohol, Shel couldn’t help thinking. He braced himself as best he could because he knew the call could be as unpredictable as a roller coaster ride.

“I wouldn’t… want nothing to happen to you, boy.” Tyrel’s voice cracked at the end.

Before he knew it, and without even understanding why, Shel had a lump in his throat. It wasn’t just his father’s admission that he cared about him, which wasn’t something Tyrel McHenry had ever owned up to; it was the fact that his daddy was anywhere near to losing control.

The only time Shel had ever seen his daddy hurting had been at his mama’s funeral. Even when Shel’s mama had died in the hospital and they’d all been sitting in that hospital room listening to her gasp for her last feeble breaths, Tyrel McHenry had never shown weakness.

When she’d gone on, when the heart monitor had flatlined and the constant chirp filled the room, they’d watched as the nurses had disconnected everything. Then Tyrel had stood in those straight-legged jeans he always wore, taken his cowboy hat off, and walked over to his dead wife. He looked at her for a time, then bent down and kissed her gently on the forehead.

“Sleep easy, ol’ gal. I got my hand on the wheel. I’ll get your young’uns raised up right,” he’d whispered.

Then he clamped his cowboy hat on and turned to Don and Shel with his face like stone.

“You boys tell your mama good-bye. I’ll be outside waiting when you’re ready.” And he’d walked out.

That day, Shel had hated his father. It had been everything Don could do to keep him from forcing a confrontation right there in the hospital parking lot.

Then, days later at the funeral, Tyrel had stood at the back of the family area in the funeral home and listened to the preacher’s words. Tears streaming down his own face, Shel had turned to watch his daddy. Only one time, and only briefly, Tyrel had sipped at a breath and hiccuped. His face had knotted up in agony. Then he’d forced it back to that harsh mask he’d always worn.

That was what Shel heard now, and it left him shattered and scared in ways he’d never felt even when he’d been under fire on the battlefield.

“I’m fine, Daddy.” Shel was surprised by how tight his voice was. “I’m just fine.”

“Well, you stay that way, boy. I won’t put up with anything less.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The reason I was calling is this.”

Shel waited.

“That boy you shot-”

Shel wanted to point out that Bobby Lee had been a full-grown man, but he didn’t.

“-had a daddy,” Tyrel continued.

Through the haze that swirled inside his head and muddied his thoughts, Shel tried to get a sense of what his father was trying to tell him. He felt like he was going to have to defend himself for shooting Bobby Lee.

Instead, Tyrel said, “I knew that boy’s daddy. He’s a vicious man, Shelton. He’s one of the devil’s own. You’re going to need to watch your six for a while. And if there’s a way you can punch Victor Gant’s ticket for him, you might just be better off for the doing of it.”

Shel barely breathed. He couldn’t believe what his daddy was telling him.

“You hear me, boy?” Tyrel growled.

“Yes, Daddy,” Shel whispered.

“You watch yourself for the next little while. And you take care of Don, too. He ain’t like you and me. He looks more for the gentle side of things. He ain’t gonna know how to look for somebody like Victor Gant. You hear me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’d be better if you sent him on outta there and got him outta the line of fire,” Tyrel said. “And tell them friends of yours to watch out for themselves too. If Victor Gant can’t get at you, he’ll take what he can.”

Shel listened to the thud of his heart banging inside his chest. How does my daddy know someone like Victor Gant? Shel couldn’t think clearly enough at the moment to reason that out.

“Well,” Tyrel said, “I reckon that’s all I got to say. Now that I said it, I’m gonna go to bed. If you had any sense, you’d do the same instead of lying awake at all hours of the night.”

“Yes, sir,” Shel said, but even before he got the words out of his mouth, Tyrel had hung up. Shel took the phone from his face and gazed at perplexedly.

“Shel,” Don said softly.

“Yeah.”

“What did Daddy want?”

“To tell me to watch my six,” Shel said numbly.

“Your six?”

Shel tossed Don the phone. “My rear flank. He told me to look out for trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“From Victor Gant.”

Don took a moment to reason that out and connect the dots. “The father of the young man you shot?”

“Yeah.”

“Why would Daddy call you to tell you that?”

“He said Victor Gant is one of the devil’s own. He said Victor Gant would come after me for killing his boy.”

“I think Commander Coburn knows that,” Don said.

“Probably. Will’s a smart man.”

Don looked puzzled for a moment. “How did Daddy know about Victor Gant?”

“He said he knew him.”

“Daddy?”

Shel nodded.

“How would Daddy know a man like that?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” Shel lay back on the pillow, but he knew he wasn’t going to get any more sleep that night.

v

28

›› Sheraton Hotel

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0639 Hours

Will rolled over in bed and grabbed his iPAQ phone from the nightstand. “Coburn.”

“Aren’t you up yet?”

It took Will a moment to recognize Police Chief Tarlton’s voice. The man sounded entirely too awake and happy for it to be the time that showed on the PDA’s viewscreen.

“No,” Will answered. He slitted his eyes against the weak sunlight hammering the eastern balcony windows. The drapes only blunted part of the brightness. “Is Shel-?”

“Everybody at the hospital is fine,” Tarlton said. “Besides your people, I okayed some of my guys for OT.”

“I appreciate that.”

“No problem. Since you’re going to help me stir up my favorite hornet’s nest and rile the FBI, it’s the least I could do.”

Despite the lack of sleep, the worry, and the fatigue he felt, Will couldn’t help but grin. “I’m going to do all that, am I?”

“Oh yeah. In fact, you’re going to love the next little thing that dropped onto our plates during the night.”

Will waited.

“That’s the part where you’re supposed to ask me what happened,” Tarlton said. “Kind of a prompt.”

“I’m patient,” Will said.

“Guess what was broken into last night?”

“I don’t have a clue.”

“The county medical examiner’s office.”

Thoughts circled through Will’s mind, and he didn’t like how any of them were shaping up.

“Want to guess who broke in?” Tarlton said. “I’m discovering that you’re lousy at prompts.”

“Victor Gant,” Will said.

“Yep.”

“But that doesn’t make sense.”

“We’re not exactly dealing with a logical person here,” Tarlton said. “You need to keep that in mind.”

“Was Gant caught on the premises?”

“No. That would have tidied up what we had planned for the day.”

“If you could have sold the judge on it.”

“I think I could have. But Gant breaking into the county medical examiner’s office gives us a free move. So to speak.”

“The medical examiner’s office is under county jurisdiction.”

“Yes.” The smile was evident in Tarlton’s voice. “Guess who’s going to be riding shotgun with us today?”

“The sheriff.”

“Yep. He’s an old fishing buddy. After I got the particulars of this, we agreed that a joint effort by the city and county was required. We also decided that the NCIS could stand the heat too.”

Will smiled. “Because you know that busting Gant today is going to irritate Urlacher.”

“Nolan-that’s the sheriff-and I figured you and yours could ride along. When it comes to matching up federal muscle, we thought maybe you could handle Urlacher and the FBI.”

“Because Bobby Lee Gant’s body is property of the NCIS as evidence.”

“Exactly. How soon can you be down to Alice’s Cafe?”

“I don’t know where that is.” Will stood and started grabbing clothing from his duffel bag.

Tarlton gave him directions.

“Why are we meeting there?” Will asked.

“Because we don’t want the bad guys to figure out what we’re going to do,” Tarlton said. “And so Nolan and I can have a piece of pie while we’re waiting on you. It’ll take you ten minutes to get here.”

›› 0643 Hours

Will knocked on the adjoining room door and said his name, then used a key card to disengage the lock. Slowly he pushed the door open.

Remy was sitting up in bed with his pistol gripped in both hands. His eyes were red-rimmed with sleep. Max sat on the bed beside him. The Labrador’s head was lifted, and his ears were pricked.

“Tarlton found a lever we can use to get over on Victor Gant,” Will announced. “We’re rolling in five minutes. You’ll need your riot gear. Meet me in the parking lot.”

Remy nodded and said, “I brought my gear with me. Never go anywhere without it.” He pushed out of bed like he’d had eight hours of sleep and walked over to a duffel on the desk.

SEALs, Will thought in disgust as he went back to his own room. He figured he’d be lucky to beat Remy to the car.

›› 0647 Hours

By the time Will was ready, Remy was leaning against the bumper of the gray Taurus with his arms folded and looking totally alert. Max lay in a black pool of fur at his feet.

Will opened the trunk, and Remy threw in his riot gear duffel. They moved to the front of the car and climbed in. Max took the backseat, then hung his head between them.

“Didn’t know you got Max last night.” Will started the car and let it idle for a moment.

“Swung by the hospital. Figured I’d get him out for a bit today. There’s a park not far from here.”

“I’m surprised Max left.”

“Shel told him to.”

“I’m surprised the nurses let him go. From what I’ve heard, they’re practically ready to adopt Max as the hospital mascot.” Will put the transmission in reverse and backed out.

Remy grinned as he adjusted his wraparound sunglasses. “This dog’s got stealth ninja moves those nurses have never seen. I’d swear he’s been SEAL-trained.”

“How’s Shel?”

“Groggy. Sore. Ready to get out of the hospital.”

Will knew that would be true. He accelerated, halted at the parking lot’s edge for a moment, then merged with traffic.

“Shel seemed a little distracted, though,” Remy said.

“Did he?”

“Yeah. His brother was there. Sleeping. Shel and I talked, but he didn’t say what was on his mind.”

“He came close to getting killed,” Will said. “That usually brings me up short.”

“Maybe, but this is Shel. It didn’t happen, so it doesn’t matter.”

“True.” Will shot through traffic.

“We’re in a hurry?” Remy asked.

“We are.” Will tapped the brake, then accelerated around a delivery truck and briefly took the inside lane again. “So you think Shel has something on his mind?”

“Yep. On the way out of the hospital, I called Estrella and let her know. If anybody can get that jarhead to talk about the warm and fuzzy of his life, it’s her.”

Will silently agreed. Shel and Estrella had been close ever since Shel had been assigned to the team. They shared a bond that partly came out of the language they shared, but he knew it was more than that too.

“Where are we headed so early?” Remy asked. “The PD is back the other way.”

As he drove, Will explained.

›› Alice’s Cafe

›› Kings Drive

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0656 Hours

“Well,” Remy said a few minutes later, “nobody’s going to miss them. It looks like a law enforcement convention.”

Will had to agree. Police cars and sheriff’s deputies’ vehicles filled the small parking area around Alice’s Cafe and spilled over into the surrounding neighborhood. There was a mix of sedans and off-road vehicles, and Will could see a mix of police uniforms and sheriff’s uniforms on the men standing by the cars.

“Do you think there are enough of them?” Remy asked with a grin.

“Victor Gant’s biker club is pretty deep in manpower too.” Will pulled in behind Tarlton’s car as the police chief flagged him down.

“Morning, Agent Coburn,” Tarlton greeted. “This is Sheriff Nolan Greene.” He indicated the tall, heavyset man in a sheriff’s uniform.

Greene stood nearly six and a half feet tall and was built like a bear. He looked as though he was in his late forties. Gray brushed at his temples and robbed the color from his sandy-red hair. Freckles covered his round face. He wore a Sam Browne belt that supported a Desert Eagle. 44 Magnum.

“Nolan’s big enough to go hunting bears with a switch,” Tarlton said, “but he still packs that hand cannon.” He handed Will a white paper bag. “I figured you guys didn’t take time for breakfast.”

“No.” Will dug into the bag and found it held biscuit sandwiches with sausage, breakfast steak, bacon, ham, and eggs. “Thanks.” He took one of the biscuits and passed the bag on to Remy.

Tarlton handed him a tall cup of coffee.

“Benny’s always had this thing for tea parties,” Greene growled with mock sarcasm.

“Don’t want to miss breakfast,” Tarlton said. “Most important meal of the day.”

Remy took a biscuit out and flipped it to Max. The Labrador caught the biscuit but didn’t make it disappear until Remy gave him the command that it was all right.

“Army dog?” Greene asked.

“No, sir,” Remy replied. “This is a Marine.”

“Better-looking than some I’ve met,” Greene acknowledged, with a quick glance at Tarlton.

›› 0701 Hours

“Victor Gant is holed up in a closed warehouse,” Tarlton said. He pointed at the location on the street map spread across the hood of his car. “This neighborhood we’re in, Cherry, is an older one. I won’t bore you with the history, but it’s had its ups and down.”

Will was vaguely familiar with the neighborhood’s history. Cherry was one of Charlotte’s older neighborhoods and had shuffled back and forth between affluence and poverty and between black and white and was currently being torn between private residences and strip malls.

“Factories and houses have come and gone around this neighborhood,” Tarlton said. “Back in the 1960s, the building in question was a machine shop. Supplied the war effort over in Vietnam. Back in the day, it offered a lot of jobs and helped stabilize the economy. In the 1990s, it went bust. A few other businesses tried locating there. Mom-and-pop shops. Storage facilities. Nothing worked. Then the Purple Royals bought it.”

“The motorcycle gang bought the building?” Remy asked.

Tarlton nodded. “Some of the biker gangs have put down legitimate roots. Set businesses up as fronts and even tax shelters. Hard to get popped on a vagrancy charge when you can prove you’re employed somewhere.”

“What do they do there?” Will asked.

“It’s a machine shop, mostly. That’s what the lower floors are. Victor Gant hired a company to broker jobs for these guys.” Tarlton grinned. “They’re so law-abiding there that they pay taxes.”

“Anybody ever gone in there for a look around?”

“Yeah. Place is run well. It’s legit. Never found any drugs or contraband there.”

“They could use it as a chop shop,” Remy suggested.

Tarlton nodded. “They could. But I’ve never found any evidence that they do. They’ve even got a speed shop in the northeast corner of the building. Custom headers. Rims. Tires. The works. All legit.”

“The cover is tight,” Will said.

“That’s what I’m saying. We’ll have to be careful inside.”

“You’re sure Victor Gant is there?”

“I know he is. After I talked to the kid at the medical examiner’s office, I put one of my undercover guys on the site. He let me know Gant showed up there a couple hours ago.”

Will took that in. “You’ve got a warrant for Gant?”

“I do. Judge Carson signed off on a warrant for Gant’s arrest for assault and for breaking and entering. The lock on the ME’s office was juked.”

“Any evidence there?”

“Not yet. I’ve got a crime team looking for a matchup.”

“But you have Gant solid on the assault charge?”

Tarlton nodded. “That’s dead-solid perfect. The kid from the ME’s office picked Gant out of a six-pack. Kid knew it was Gant by name before we gave him the pics.”

“How did he know that?”

“He’s been following the story.”

“How’s he doing?”

Tarlton shrugged. “He’s still in the ER. He’s got some bruises and a few stitches. The doc was talking about keeping him for a few more hours in case there’s a concussion. But he’s going to be all right.”

“If it comes to it, will he testify?”

“Yeah. He’s a stand-up kid.” Tarlton smiled a little. “He has visions of being a hero.”

“That’s not a bad thing,” Will said. “That’s why a lot of men get into this business.”

Will had come to the NCIS to get off shipboard duty and try to save his failing marriage. But he’d since learned a lot about the other law enforcement personnel and the passions that drove them.

“I always thought it was the cool uniforms,” Remy said with a straight face.

“They don’t come any cooler than the Marine Corps,” Tarlton said.

“Marines can’t touch Navy dress whites, Chief.”

“When are we going to do this?” Will interrupted before the friendly banter could continue.

“Well,” Tarlton said, “there’s no time like the present.” He folded the map. “Let’s roll.”

29

›› Hawthorne Machine Shop

›› Hawthorne Lane

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0729 Hours

Hawthorne Machine Shop sat back in a stand of old oak trees whose branches scraped the metal top of the two-story building. It was a rectangular cinder block building with a simple sign over the front of the north side that advertised Hawthorne Speed Shop. A black-and-white checkered flag hung above the doorway to the speed shop. A large window showed a selection of tires, rims, and other accessories in bright, gleaming chrome.

The west end of the building held another sign, announcing the presence of the Hawthorne Machine Shop. Both signs looked similar, standing on rectangular surfaces that were attached to the building by supports.

Both businesses were open.

“We got civilians on the premises,” Tarlton announced over the radio headsets.

At the back of the Taurus, Will and Remy suited up in the riot gear. In addition to helmets and Kevlar vests with NCIS Agent stenciled on the back, they also wore shoulder and knee protective gear and gloves to protect against abrasions and impacts.

Will and Remy used the buddy system, each checking the other off on the prep list as they readied themselves. Will carried one XD-40 on his right hip and another under his left arm.

Remy carried two Beretta M9s in the same positions.

Both of them left their M4 assault rifles in the equipment duffels, but they picked up chopped-down Mossberg pump-action shotguns that held five rounds and sported skeletal folding wire stocks.

“You ready?” Tarlton asked.

Will nodded. Adrenaline flooded his body, but he was used to the feeling and concentrated on his breathing. Remy was as relaxed as if he were out for a Sunday walk.

Lord, Will prayed quietly, keep us safe and let us do no harm.

After a brief radio check, they followed Tarlton’s SWAT team onto the premises.

Will’s stomach clenched in anticipation of what was about to take place.

Trying to fight the police and sheriff’s department would be foolish, and Victor Gant was no fool, but Will knew the man was ruthless.

He kept moving, the shotgun in both hands and canted forward and down so he could snap it up into readiness at a moment’s notice.

›› Allington Hotel

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0733 Hours

When the ringing phone woke him, FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Scott Urlacher cursed. He wanted to ignore it, but he knew he couldn’t. He hadn’t gotten promoted to his present position by ducking trouble when it came his way.

He grabbed the phone and barked, “Hello.”

“We’ve got a problem.”

It took Urlacher a moment to recognize the voice as one of the men he had watching over Victor Gant.

“I don’t want to have a problem,” Urlacher replied.

“The local police, sheriff’s deputies, and the NCIS are closing in on Gant’s place over on Hawthorne.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. But they’ve come loaded for bear. Riot gear and a lot of men.”

“Find out,” Urlacher ordered. “And get the team there.” He pushed himself out of bed and grabbed for his pants. He wasn’t about to let his plans for Victor Gant be thwarted by the likes of Will Coburn. Gant had managed to stay out of trouble for a long time. His son’s death had put him up against the wall.

Urlacher intended to keep him there.

›› Hawthorne Machine Shop

›› 0736 Hours

Victor came up with a pistol in his fist. His dreams had been twisted and dark, taking him back to the jungle. He’d been turning over bodies after a rocket attack had taken out his unit. Every body he turned over had worn Bobby Lee’s face.

The pistol sights settled on Fat Mike’s round face, only inches out of reach.

“Friendly!” Fat Mike yelped and held his hands up over his head. “Victor! Friendly!”

Fat Mike’s words and voice soaked through the old terror and frustration that gripped Victor. He eased the pistol’s hammer back down and dropped his hand and the weapon to the bed again.

He gazed around the simple room. It took a moment for it to click in; then he realized he was on the second floor of the machine shop. Those rooms had been turned into crash pads for the chapter.

“What’s going on?” Victor grated.

Fat Mike stood to the side of one of the windows. He peered out at the rising sun.

“Cops,” Fat Mike said. “They’re all over the place, bro.”

That woke Victor. He sat up in bed and started coughing. Cursing his smoking habit, he reached for the pack of cigarettes beside the bed, shook one out, and lit up. He joined Fat Mike at the window.

Looking out, he saw that the police had congregated on the premises en masse. He cursed again.

“I told you not to break into the ME’s office,” Fat Mike said.

“It had to be done,” Victor said. “They weren’t going to let me tell Bobby Lee good-bye otherwise.”

“Didn’t say it wasn’t the right thing to do,” Fat Mike agreed. “I just don’t think it was the brightest thing.”

“Done is done. Can’t go crying over spilt beer.” Victor reached into his pants pocket and dragged his cell phone out. He’d put Agent Urlacher’s number on speed dial.

›› 0737 Hours

Will followed Tarlton’s people. For a locally trained police unit, they moved well. They also kept quiet and didn’t talk much, which was another plus. A lot of guys got the idea they should dialogue during an op like the men featured on Cops and other television shows.

The bikers in the machine shop saw them coming. They were hard-eyed men in jeans and sleeveless shirts, with tattoos all over their arms and bandannas tied around their heads.

Tarlton’s people and Greene’s deputies put bikers and customers up against the wall as a matter of course. The same question kept cropping up.

“Where is Victor Gant?”

Only a few of those asked knew. They told them the outlaw biker leader was upstairs.

›› 0739 Hours

“Look, Victor, don’t panic,” Special Agent Urlacher said.

“I’m not panicked,” Victor replied as he watched the police invade the premises. That was the truth. He wasn’t panicked. He was angry.

“Good.”

“You said these men couldn’t touch me. You said you were gonna handle that. We had an agreement.”

“Based on what I knew of you when I cut the deal with you, they couldn’t touch you.”

“And now they can?”

“I don’t know,” Urlacher told him. “I’m working that out now. Why are they coming after you?”

“I don’t know,” Victor lied. He couldn’t help himself. Lying was a reflex action when dealing with cops. He’d done it all his life.

“I don’t think they have a leg to stand on,” Urlacher said. “But I’m headed there. Don’t say anything to these people until I do.”

“I won’t,” Victor agreed.

“And tell your men to keep their weapons holstered. Any shooting starts, this thing gets complicated really fast.”

“Sure.” Victor cursed. “Just you get here. Fast.” He hung up and shoved the phone into his pocket.

›› 0741 Hours

Tarlton almost died at the third door of the individual rooms along the second floor. The law enforcement group stood out in the oval hallway only a short distance from the steps they’d come up. Three other sets of steps mirrored the points of a compass.

Will stood behind Tarlton and saw the woman with the man in the room. Both of them were getting dressed hurriedly. The man held a Baggie of drugs that he was frantically trying to pour down the sink at the back of the room at the same time.

“Police!” Tarlton yelled. “Put the Baggie down and step back with-”

At that time, the young woman brought up the Colt. 357 Magnum she’d been holding. She had a good hold on the pistol and appeared to know what she was doing with it. She had Chinese tattoos inked along her forearms.

Will hooked a hand into the collar of Tarlton’s Kevlar vest and yanked the police chief back as he started to backpedal. Tarlton hadn’t seen the threat the woman offered until it was almost too late. Muscling the man out of the doorway smoothly and efficiently, Will pressed Tarlton into the wall just as the woman started firing.

The Magnum hollow points fragmented against the doorframe and blew splinters out into the hallway. The reports in the enclosed space were deafening. They punctuated the long scream the young woman loosed.

Will knew she was on drugs and stoned out of her mind. He’d noticed the wildness in her eyes. She wasn’t even totally aware of what she was doing.

Pressed up against the wall, Will gave silent thanks to God for allowing him to see the young woman’s movements. He’d been just as focused on the man at the back of the room as Tarlton was.

One of the deputies spun around the doorframe and lowered his semiautomatic into position. “Sheriff’s department!” he bellowed.

The young woman turned toward him.

The woman was out of bullets. Will knew that. The wheel gun she grasped so tightly only carried six rounds. She’d fired all of those into the doorframe. He’d counted out of habit.

The deputy reacted anyway. He looked young, eager, and afraid, which was always a bad combination.

“No!” Remy said and reached for the man. Evidently he’d counted the shots as well. “She’s out of-”

The young woman fired her weapon. Only the dry snap of the hammer striking the firing pin came out of the room.

Mesmerized by his own imagined brush with death, the deputy fired at the woman twice before Remy was able to grab his hands and pull the pistol up. The deputy fired two more shots into the ceiling. Remy bodychecked the man and took the weapon away.

But it was too late. Both bullets had struck the young woman. She stutter-stepped back and whipped around in a quarter turn. Blood poured down her right side.

“Stand down!” Tarlton roared. “Hold your fire!”

The biker at the back of the room dropped the Baggie and ran to the woman’s side.

Tarlton led the way into the room. He held his pistol before him and aimed at the biker. “Down on the floor!”

“You shot her!” The biker was young, probably in his early twenties. “Man, you didn’t have to shoot her!”

The biker was high enough that Will had to wonder if he’d even registered the fact that she’d shot at them first.

“Down!” Tarlton grabbed the man’s jacket collar and dragged him to one side. The police chief held the pistol back so it was out of reach. “Get on your face!”

“You killed her!” The biker cursed again in a voice loud enough that Will had no doubt the accusation carried around the oval hallway. “She’s dead!”

Remy dropped into position beside the woman. Blood soaked her side as Remy pulled on a pair of surgical gloves from the medical supplies in his combat harness. He put two fingers against the side of her neck and waited.

Then he looked up at Will. “I got a pulse.” He reached into other pockets and pulled out compresses.

Tarlton called in the shooting, then snapped handcuffs on the man whose back he was kneeling on. “They got an ambulance and the fire department rolling.”

“Anybody here got any medical training?” Remy asked.

One of the policemen raised his hand.

Remy tossed him a pair of surgical gloves. “Put those on. Let’s see if we can get the bleeding to stop.”

“You got this?” Will asked.

Without looking at him, Remy nodded. Max hovered at his side, gazing around anxiously. The Labrador had already set up a perimeter guard.

Will stepped back out into the hallway. Tarlton, finished with his prisoner, was at his heels.

Bikers emerged from the other rooms. Evidently a lot of them hadn’t awakened yet. They came out with guns and shotguns in hand.

“Police!” Will yelled with all the authority he could muster. Since he’d been one of the youngest XOs on an aircraft carrier, he’d learned to project his voice. “Put your weapons down immediately!”

The bikers didn’t follow his orders, and Will was certain the hallway was about to turn into a bloodbath.

Farther down, Victor Gant stepped into the hallway with a pistol in his fist.

“Gant!” Will yelled. “Tell them to put the guns down or this is going to go very badly.”

“For who?” Victor grinned at him with cold maliciousness. “Seems to me we got you outnumbered up here.”

“It’s not going to play out like that,” Will promised. “And you know it. We’re ready for this and your men are still getting it together. If this starts on your word, you’re the first man to go down.”

Victor hesitated for a moment. Will saw the indecision on the man’s face. Victor wanted to push the situation into a violent confrontation.

Will centered his shotgun’s sights over the man’s chest. He still wasn’t certain he’d gotten his point across. His finger curled over the trigger.

“You heard him,” Victor said without looking at anyone. “Put your weapons down and plant your faces on the floor.”

After he issued his command, Victor dropped to his face on the floor and waited quietly to be taken into custody.

Will went forward and cuffed him.

30

›› Hawthorne Machine Shop

›› Hawthorne Lane

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 0801 Hours

“Why are you here?” Victor Gant demanded.

Will hauled the man to his feet and pushed him face-first into the nearest wall. The man reeked of sour sweat, alcohol, and reefer smoke.

“Because you made it personal,” Will answered.

Victor cursed. “Your people did that when they killed my boy.”

“Bobby Lee brought what happened to him on himself.”

“Yeah, well so did your gunnery sergeant.”

Will grabbed a handful of the man’s hair and yanked his head around so he could face him. “Now I’m making it personal. I’m going to put you away, and when you get out, I’m going to put you away again. You’re not going to be able to breathe without me standing in your shadow as long as I feel like you’re a threat to one of my people.”

Victor glared at him. “You don’t have that kind of time, cap’n.”

“You’d be surprised at the kind of time I have,” Will stated.

A lazy smile pulled at Victor’s cruel mouth. “Don’t know what you think you got on me, but you ain’t gonna make it stick.”

“We’re going to start with breaking and entering at the ME’s office,” Tarlton said as he cuffed a man next to Victor. “That’s just to get you in a cage. Then Commander Coburn is going to bring up charges of tampering with evidence in a homicide investigation.”

“What evidence!” Victor tried to push off the wall.

Will dropped a knee into the back of Victor’s knee and caused it to go out from under him. He put an elbow into Victor’s back and bounced him off the wall.

“Stay,” Will growled.

“Your son was killed,” Tarlton said. “Until Gunnery Sergeant McHenry is cleared of any wrongful charges-and he will be-Bobby Lee’s body is evidence in the investigation. We have a witness who says you broke in and touched the body.”

“I was saying good-bye to my son!” Victor roared.

Will heard the pain in the man’s voice and couldn’t help feeling it as a father himself. He couldn’t imagine how he would act or how he would go on if something ever happened to Steven.

Put that away, he told himself. You’ve got a job to do here. You’re not Victor Gant, and Steven is never going to be Bobby Lee.

Will prayed for that to be true with all his heart.

“Chief Tarlton,” someone called over the radio.

“Yeah,” Tarlton responded.

“I got an FBI agent here, name of Urlacher. He says he wants to talk to you about Victor Gant.”

“Tell him I’m busy.” Tarlton pulled the biker he’d cuffed from the wall and started walking him down the hallway.

“Yes, sir. I did. But he’s waving some kind of legal paper at me that he seems right proud of.”

“It’s a court injunction,” Urlacher bellowed loud enough to be picked up by the radio. “You’re interfering in a federal case.”

Tarlton glanced at Will. “Sounds like Urlacher went directly to the nuclear weapons. You got enough muscle to handle this?”

“I don’t know,” Will answered.

“Man,” Victor said, grinning now, “you guys ought to know you can’t screw with the FBI.”

›› Parking Lot

›› Hawthorne Machine Shop

›› 0824 Hours

“Let me translate the big words for you, Commander Coburn, Chief Tarlton,” Special Agent-in-Charge Urlacher growled. “You can not usurp control of my informant. He’s under my protection. More than that, he’s under the protection of Judge Terri Watson. You have no right to arrest him.”

Tarlton leaned against the police car and eyed the FBI agent with grave distaste. “Actually, I have every right to arrest your informant. He’s been interfering with an ongoing homicide investigation.”

“He went to say good-bye to his son.” Urlacher looked apoplectic.

“Then,” Tarlton said evenly, “we agree that he broke and entered.”

“Even if he did,” Urlacher said, “here’s his get-out-of-jail-free card.” The FBI agent waved the injunction that prevented the detainment of Victor Gant.

Will wasn’t happy. He stood at the rear of the police vehicle where the motorcycle leader had been stashed. On the other side of the parking lot, Remy worked with EMTs to stabilize the woman the sheriff’s deputy had shot.

“Give Gant to me,” Urlacher stated in a harsh voice, “or you’re going to be in contempt of Judge Watson’s court.”

Since Judge Watson presided over a federal court in Washington, D.C., Will knew that Tarlton-and he-could be buried in a mountain of red tape and possibly face criminal charges.

Still, Tarlton didn’t seem to be impressed. He leaned a hip against the car and smiled. “You know, Will, I’ve had a lot of people threaten me during the time I’ve been chief here. You probably have too.”

“I have,” Will agreed. He didn’t always play nice with people outside the military’s rank and file either. The military was a different matter, though. Everything had a chain of command, and that was obeyed first.

“You ever been threatened by the FBI?” Tarlton looked as though he was really interested in the answer to his question.

“Not threatened, exactly.”

“They threw the big intimidation cloud, didn’t they?”

“Pretty much.”

“Offered interdepartmental assistance, then hosed you the first chance they got and got all offensive when you called them on it.”

Urlacher turned redder.

Despite the situation, Will found he was taking a perverse satisfaction at digging his heels in. He wasn’t going to let Tarlton swing by himself if things went south.

“That sums it up,” Will agreed.

“We found a lot of weapons in that warehouse, didn’t we?”

The Purple Royals, as it turned out, had had quite a cache of weapons on hand. Tarlton and Will were guessing that they’d been planning on a big trade-off somewhere. Weapons were better than cash in a lot of third world countries.

“We did,” Will agreed.

“Do you think we could make a case for Homeland Security?” Tarlton asked.

“It’s possible.”

Urlacher had reached his limit. He took a step forward and jabbed Tarlton in the chest with his forefinger. “You listen. If you don’t let that man go this instant, I’m going to-”

“What?” Tarlton interrupted. “Run and tell? And if you poke me with the finger again, I’m going to snap it off and shove it up your nose.”

Urlacher withdrew his hand. “Give me Victor Gant.” He pulled his phone off his belt. “Now.”

In the end, Will knew they had no real choice.

Tarlton nodded at the police officer manning the vehicle’s rear door.

The policeman opened the door and hauled Gant out.

The biker grinned. “Special Agent Urlacher,” he acknowledged. “Good to see you again.”

Urlacher didn’t say anything.

Gant turned to Will. “And you tell your gunnery sergeant that I’ll be seeing him soon. Maybe not as soon as I’d hoped, but I’m a patient man.”

Will struggled with his temper. He tried to play it cool, but he was tired and stymied. More than that, he was protective of his team. They were family to him, and a man didn’t let his family get threatened without drawing a line in the sand. He’d tried to do that here today, but Urlacher had yanked the fangs from that.

Walk away, he told himself. Just let it go. But he didn’t like feeling powerless, and he didn’t like having his team exposed to predation.

“And since you’ve gotten so swollen up over this thing,” Gant said, “maybe I’ll pick off another one of your people while I’m-”

Nothing human could have held Will in check at that moment. He’d turned the other cheek and tried to work within the law. That hadn’t worked out. His anger exploded. He stepped forward and threw an eight-inch punch into the center of Gant’s stomach.

The biker’s breath shut down immediately. Will hit him again with a hook that caught him in the side of the jaw.

Gant’s legs turned to rubber, and he dropped to his knees. His shaggy hair fell over his shoulders.

Then Tarlton was there, wrapping his arms around Will and butting Will back with his chest.

“Easy, champ,” Tarlton said. “You’ve made your point.”

Will let himself be led away. He felt guilty at once, but there was a savage need to protect his people that still demanded to be fed.

“It’s all right,” he said calmly. “I’m good.”

Tarlton stepped away from him but remained between him and Gant.

“Urlacher,” Tarlton said without turning around or taking his eyes from Will, “pick up your trash and get out of here before I decide to run you in for littering.”

Gant hacked and spat and gagged as he tried to regain his breath.

“You can’t do this,” Urlacher said to Will. He caught one of Gant’s arms and helped the man to his feet. “I’ll arrest you myself for assault.”

“You’re out of the FBI’s jurisdiction,” Tarlton said. “And if you try to press any charges, I’ll bury you and your new pet ape on the court docket. You can expect a nice long stay in town if you want.” He turned to face Urlacher. “Do we understand each other?”

Urlacher bit back a reply, swallowed, then nodded.

“Get him out of here,” Tarlton ordered. “Before I decide to find out if Judge Watson is really interested in backing your play by sending somebody here.”

“Get these cuffs off me,” Victor Gant growled. His dark eyes lasered into Will’s.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Urlacher pulled on Victor’s arm.

Victor whipped his arm free of the FBI agent. He spat blood at Will’s feet.

“You got a guy on your team who likes blowing up kids that don’t know better,” Victor snarled, “and you’re mighty big on hitting guys who got their hands cuffed.”

Will felt bad about that. As much as Victor Gant had had it coming, Will still didn’t like taking advantage of the situation. At the time, though, he hadn’t even thought about it.

“You Navy boys never was all that tough back in the jungle,” Victor said. “You guys never stayed till the water got hot.”

“I’ll be here,” Will said.

“We’ll see, Navy man.” Victor showed him a mirthless, scarlet grin. Then he let himself be led away by Urlacher. His mocking laughter sounded even after the FBI agents put him in the car.

Will watched the FBI vehicles drive away.

“You know,” Tarlton said, “I think that went really well.”

Will watched the cars make the corner and disappear. “That’s sarcasm, right?”

“One of my best things. Totally underappreciated if you ask me, though.”

“I can see how that would happen.” Will let out a tense breath. “About hitting him-”

“If you hadn’t, I would have.”

“Not a good thing to do.”

“I forgive you. It’s not like Victor Gant asked anybody’s permission for killing those men.”

“We don’t know that he killed anybody,” Will said.

“We haven’t proven he’s killed anybody. I don’t have a single doubt about his guilt. And I intend on trying to pin him to one of those murders we suspect him of.”

“It would be interesting to see if we can put that together.”

“Kind of like a hobby,” Tarlton said.

“I like the occasional hobby,” Will said.

“The problem is, if you make Victor Gant a hobby, he’s going to come back on you.”

Will didn’t say anything. He’d gotten that feeling as well.

“He’ll probably try for that sergeant of yours first,” Tarlton said. “But you can bet he’s marked a spot on his dance card for you as well.”

“Yeah.” Will took another breath. “In the meantime, Urlacher will keep him locked down. That’s almost as good as putting him in jail.”

Tarlton nodded. “It would be interesting to know what Urlacher’s working on.”

“The heroin supplier.”

“You got all that NCIS equipment and those international contacts.”

“I do.”

“You might want to broaden your new hobby and take a look into that end of things.”

Will smiled. “I was thinking about that myself.”

“I’m thinking that Sheriff Greene and I can shake up the Purple Royals while Victor Gant is MIA. We can send you a few more heroin samples. Maybe get you some names you can run through those fancy computers you have.”

“You have computers.”

“I’m betting your computers are better than our computers,” Tarlton said. “I’m also betting if anyone can trace that heroin back overseas, your agency is going to have a better shot at it than the Charlotte police department.”

“I’ll let you know,” Will said.

31

›› Intensive Care Unit

›› Presbyterian Hospital

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1208 Hours

Shel held his cell phone to his ear and listened to the phone ring at the other end. He watched the news footage of the raid on the warehouse that Will and Remy had gone on. Seeing the news story made him feel guilty. He belonged out in the field, not in a hospital bed.

“Shel?” Estrella answered in a friendly and surprised voice.

Shel muted the television. All that was left was the hum of machinery and Don’s light snoring as he slept in the chair next to the bed.

“Hey, Estrella,” Shel replied. He continued the conversation in Spanish because he wanted privacy and he hadn’t seen a Hispanic nurse in the ICU yet. “Did you decide to take the morning off since Will’s out of town?”

“Ha,” Estrella responded. “I only took the morning off because I worked all night helping Will track information regarding Victor Gant. Now I find out that it only half worked.”

“Yeah, well, the Feds got involved.” Shel scratched his nose. There was still enough morphine in his meds to make his nose itch.

“Will’s got me looking into Special Agent-in-Charge Scott Urlacher’s caseload now.”

“Under the radar, of course.”

“Of course. So how are you?”

“Bored. Ready to get out of here.”

“Bored, huh?” Estrella said. “I can’t believe you’re still slacking.”

“Now that I know they make you lie in bed this long, I’m gonna make it a point never to get shot again.”

“Good plan. Did you think that up all by yourself?”

“I did.”

“Head hurt much?”

“Don’t worry about it. They’ve got me on pain meds.”

Estrella laughed.

“Has Will given you any clue what he’s wanting now?” Shel asked.

“Will thinks Urlacher wants Victor Gant’s heroin supplier.”

“It’s not somebody local?”

“Judging from the purity of the drugs Victor Gant’s people have been caught handling, I’d say it’s not local.”

“Then where?”

“Probably out of the country. Heroin’s being traded in Central America, then getting brought into the United States through those supply channels. Usually up Interstate 35.”

“But along the way, it gets stepped on,” Shel said.

“Usually pretty hard,” Estrella agreed. “So everybody along the way can take their cut. The stuff the Purple Royals are running is almost pure.”

“They have a direct route.”

“I think so.”

“And that’s why the FBI is so hot and heavy after the source.”

“It would be a nice bust,” Estrella said. “But you didn’t call to talk about that. You’re just covering ground that you know Will has already covered.”

Shel didn’t say anything.

“Why did you really call?” Estrella asked.

“I’m getting the feeling you know me too well,” Shel said.

“I do. So fess up.”

Shel hesitated. “This is about my daddy, Estrella.”

Estrella waited and didn’t say anything. He knew she was aware that he didn’t talk about his father much.

“I got a phone call from him in the middle of the night,” Shel said. “He was drunk. Or had been drinking. Not enough to get totally skunk-faced, but drunker than I’ve ever heard him.”

“All right.”

Shel hesitated, knowing that once he pressed forward there would be no going back. “You know I don’t have a good relationship with my daddy.”

“Yes.”

“For him to call out of the blue like that?” Shel shook his head. “Something’s going on.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Victor Gant was a career Army man. He pulled tours in Vietnam. So did my daddy.”

“You think Victor Gant served with your father?”

“That’s the only way Daddy could have gotten to know someone like Victor Gant. Gant’s from North Carolina. Daddy grew up in west Texas. Except for the Army, Daddy’s never been out of the state. Never off the ranch much either.”

“I can pull records from the United States Army,” Estrella said. “But this is something that’s going to take a while. The military is still archiving some of that information.”

“It’s a needle in a haystack,” Shel agreed. “I knew that before I decided to ask you to take a look.”

“I’m glad you appreciate the effort.”

Shel hesitated a moment, then knew he had no choice if he wanted to keep his privacy. He cleared his throat. “One other thing.”

“Sure.”

“While you’re poking around in those files, I’d appreciate it if you kept this below the radar.” Shel hated asking her to do that. It was almost like he was saying he didn’t trust Will or the others.

“I can do that,” Estrella said.

“It’s just that it might not be anything. And if it isn’t-if it’s just that Daddy was around something Victor Gant did in the military and knows him from that-it’s not going to help Will track the heroin.”

“I agree,” Estrella said. “Personal business is personal business.”

“Thanks, Estrella. How’s Nicky?”

“Off sailing with Joe and Celia.”

“Well,” Shel said, gazing out the window, “that sure beats lying in this bed.” And wondering how Daddy knows a man like Victor Gant.

›› Rafter M Ranch

›› Outside Fort Davis, Texas

›› 1236 Hours (Central Time Zone)

“Do you have a headache, Senor Tyrel?”

Even though he was wearing his hat to shade his eyes against the bright noonday sun, Tyrel squinted to look at Ramon.

The youngster sat astride a paint mare. Red west Texas dust covered him like powder that had been sifted on. His black hair gleamed in the bright sunlight.

“I’m fine,” Tyrel said sourly as he continued to lean on the corral. But he wasn’t. He had a headache that felt like it was going to suck the top of his skull in and pour it out through his ears. It had been years since he’d had one like that.

The newborn colt frolicked in the sunlight. Although he wasn’t anywhere near coordinated enough yet, the colt tried to kick his heels as he ran around his mama.

“That little horse is going to be a dickens,” Ramon said. He grinned at the colt’s antics.

Despite the way he felt, Tyrel grinned a little at that. The word was his and he knew it. Hearing Ramon say it just sounded funny.

“You don’t look so good.” Ramon dismounted and tied the reins to the corral.

“I feel better’n I look,” Tyrel growled. “I can still set a horse longer than there are hours in the day.”

Ramon shrugged. “I didn’t say you couldn’t. I was just wondering if you should get in out of the sun.”

Irritation flared inside Tyrel. He reined it in because he didn’t want to visit any of it on the boy.

“I suddenly look old to you, Ramon?” he asked.

“No, senor. You looked this old yesterday too.” The answer was earnest and innocent of rancor.

“You know,” Tyrel said, “now I’m kinda wishing I hadn’t asked that question.”

“Why?” Ramon looked confused.

“Never mind, amigo. The fences all look good?”

“Si.” Ramon reached into his shirt pocket. “There are a few places we need to mend soon. I made notes.” He passed over the small notebook Tyrel always sent him with.

Tyrel glanced through the notes, then pocketed the notebook. “You eat yet?”

“I had a burrito I took with me. I’m all right.”

“You’re young, amigo. You can eat again. Come on inside the house. I got a pot of beans on.”

Ramon looked troubled. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t have asked if I hadn’t been.” Tyrel threw the dregs of the coffee into the corral and spooked the little colt into jumping and nearly getting tangled up in his spindly legs.

Even with the hangover plaguing him, the colt’s surprise pleased Tyrel. He laughed a little. That kind of innocence, where everything in the world was surprising, was hard to come by. He missed it.

›› Interview Room

›› Federal Bureau of Investigation Field Office

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1348 Hours

“I’m in a real bad mood here, Victor.”

“Maybe you should try a nap,” Victor said. “I hear a lot of people put store by them.”

Urlacher sat on the other side of the table. “You think you’re smart, don’t you?”

“Maybe so, but it seems like you’re the one with all the questions,” Victor said. He sipped the Gatorade someone had gotten for him. He’d turned down the offer of coffee, water, and a soft drink to be difficult and to prove that the FBI agents were going to do whatever it took to make him happy.

As long as they thought he was going to rat out his connection.

“Let me give you a few answers for a change,” Urlacher said. “I’m protecting you at this point. That protection’s not going to last long. And I’m betting that NCIS commander can put something on you that the local cops haven’t been able to find. He’ll find a body you didn’t quite bury enough or buried in the wrong place. Then you’re going to be looking at a fall for murder one.”

Victor sipped his Gatorade. He didn’t feel quite as confident as he had a moment ago, but he wasn’t going to let on.

“In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if I let you go, you’ll do something stupid about that big Marine who shot Bobby Lee,” Urlacher said.

“You can bet the farm on that,” Victor grated.

“Even if you manage to kill that man,” Urlacher said, “NCIS will hunt you down for it and you’ll go away forever anyway.”

“They won’t find me.”

“We found you.”

Victor laughed in derision. “I wasn’t hiding.”

“You know, Victor, that’s the first truly stupid thing I’ve heard you say.”

Victor leaned across the table. “If I decide to disappear, I’ll disappear. I was trained by Uncle Sam in one of the hardest-fought ground wars the United States has ever been in. In my time, I’ve been a ghost. I’ve walked into camps at night, with armed men everywhere, found the officer in charge, dropped a hand over his mouth, and slit his throat. Then I held him like a baby while he fought and kicked and drowned in his own blood.”

Urlacher didn’t say anything, but Victor saw that his words had left an impression on the man.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because that Navy guy hit me this morning I can’t take care of myself,” Victor said.

“I want your connection,” Urlacher said.

“You can’t have him,” Victor said.

“Hanging on to him is foolish.”

“Says you.”

Urlacher shook his head. “You can’t go back to that life, Victor. Whether you’re willing to admit it or not, everything you’ve had up till now is gone. The heat’s going to be on your gang. Tarlton will take Fat Mike and the others apart; then they’ll break the pieces.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Then I should just give you back to Coburn and let you take your chances.”

“No,” Victor said. “You gotta learn to be happy with what I’m willing to give you.”

“What you’re giving me isn’t enough.”

Victor finished the Gatorade and set the plastic container aside. “Get a pen and paper. I’ll give you the local MS-13 dealers.”

Urlacher gestured, and one of the younger agents brought over a legal pad and a pen. The FBI special agent-in-charge slid them over to Victor.

“Get me something to eat,” Victor said.

Urlacher just stared at him.

Victor didn’t move to take up the pen.

Angrily Urlacher gestured at one of the younger agents.

“Ribs,” Victor said. “Falling off the bone. Potato salad and coleslaw. And it better be hot when it gets here. And I want a gallon of tea.”

Urlacher nodded, and the young agent stepped out of the room.

Victor pulled the pad to him. Then he picked up the pen and started to write. Despite his bravado, he knew he was working on borrowed time. The FBI would protect him only as long as he kept the pump primed. The minute he shut down entirely, they would too.

You know enough, he told himself. You stretch it out, give it to them a piece at a time, you’re gonna be fine. Fat Mike or Tran will come through for you.

And then he was going to find that Marine sergeant and blow his candle out.

32

›› Intensive Care Unit

›› Presbyterian Hospital

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1402 Hours

“What are you doing?”

“I’m getting out of bed,” Shel said. “It’s what you do when you choose not to sleep all day. Like some people I could name.” He pulled the IV stand toward him.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to get out of bed.” Don pushed himself up from the chair.

Suddenly light-headed, Shel hesitated for a moment. He breathed slowly and steadily till the feeling passed. Then he disconnected the sensors attached to the adhesive pads stuck to his chest and pulled off the finger sensor.

The machines immediately chirped for attention.

“The nurse is going to know,” Don said.

“If you would stop being such an Eeyore,” Shel complained as some of the pain hit him, “we might be able to make an escape before the nurse comes to investigate.”

“You’re going to get into trouble.”

“Not if we hurry. And they don’t build Marine-size trouble here.”

“ I’m going to get into trouble.”

Shel chuckled. “If I hadn’t gotten you into trouble when we were kids, you would have turned out boring. You wouldn’t have anything to talk about in church.”

“We didn’t get into any real trouble.”

“ This isn’t any real trouble.”

“Says you,” Don told him. “All you have to do is fake being in pain and they’ll leave you alone.”

“Tell them you came after me as soon as you found out I was gone. I’ll back you up.”

“You’re not going to be able to escape. You’re decrepit.”

“I’ll warm up.” Shel used the IV stand as a crutch and got to his feet. He was actually amazed to find that he could stand on his own.

“You’re going to fall flat on your face.”

“When I do, you can tell me that you told me so then. At the moment, a little more help with the escape, please.” Shel started to shuffle off.

“Hey,” Don called. “Wait.”

“I don’t have time to wait. Escaping’s more of an active thing.”

“Yeah, well unless you intend to moon the rest of the people in ICU, you’d better put this robe on.”

Shel turned to find Don standing there with a robe. “Thought I noticed a draft.” He held his good arm up, and Don slid the robe’s sleeve over it. Then, with his good arm over Don’s shoulders and Don holding on to the IV stand, they were off.

“Do you have any idea where you’re going?” Don asked.

“Yeah. To see my dog.”

“Max left with Commander Coburn and Remy last night.”

“Yeah, well he’s back now.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’m a Marine,” Shel said. “We know things.”

›› Rafter M Ranch

›› Outside Fort Davis, Texas

›› 1307 Hours (Central Time Zone)

Tyrel dished up bowls of pinto beans flavored with jalapenos and onions, then put them on the table at the same time the oven timer went off. He used a dish towel to fetch out the pan of corn bread.

Before he reached the counter, he knew he should have gotten an oven mitt. The towel was damp enough to conduct the heat. Still, he managed to get the pan to the counter without dropping it. The distraction provided by the hangover helped.

He waited a few minutes for the corn bread to cool while he watched ESPN. Watching baseball was only a habit, though. His thoughts were on Shel and Don. And the danger they faced.

Victor Gant was probably the most dangerous and cold-blooded man Tyrel had ever had the misfortune to meet. He could remember that night in Qui Nhon like it was yesterday. The metallic odor of blood filled his nostrils.

“Don’t you worry none about this, Private McHenry. You’re Army. We’re Army. We’ll take care of this. Ain’t nobody never gonna know. This’ll be our little secret.”

But that little secret had gotten bigger and heavier to carry every year. Tyrel sometimes thought it was amazing that his back and shoulders weren’t bent under the weight of it. Back when the boys’ mother had still been alive, it hadn’t weighed as much. Being alone had made the burden worse.

›› 1322 Hours (Central Time Zone)

Ramon entered the small kitchen and looked a little apprehensive. Tyrel knew the boy wasn’t completely at ease around him even though they’d known each other for years. Most people, Tyrel reflected, hadn’t been at ease with him.

He didn’t regret it. That was just how things had been. With the hand that God had dealt him, that was just the best that things could be.

Don was always at him about seeking God’s help for one thing and another, but Tyrel knew the truth. That one evil thing he’d done in Qui Nhon had pushed him right out of the Lord’s sight.

No sparrow fell without God knowing, but he still let them sparrows fall, didn’t he?

“Did you get your hands washed?” Tyrel asked.

“ Si, senor.” Ramon stood awkwardly.

“Pull out a chair and have a sit.”

Ramon did.

Tyrel cut the corn bread into large hunks and put them on a plate. He put the plate on the table, then got the butter-fresh-churned, none of that store-bought stuff-from the refrigerator. His wife had always made it before she died, but he did now because it reminded him of her.

“What would you like to drink?” Tyrel asked.

“Anything will be all right,” Ramon said.

Tyrel opened the refrigerator and peered inside. He ran on coffee all day, but he kept milk and some juice and soda pop for Don and Joanie’s kids.

“I got juice and pop,” Tyrel said.

“Either will be fine,” Ramon said. “Thank you.”

“I got strawberry pop,” Tyrel offered. “Don and Joanie’s kids seem to like that.”

“I like strawberry.”

Tyrel took a can of pop from the refrigerator and stopped himself short of just plunking it down on the table.

“You want a glass?” Tyrel asked.

“The can is fine.”

Tyrel handed it to the boy, then poured himself a tall glass of buttermilk. He sat at the table and took his hat off.

“Do you want to give thanks, senor?” Ramon asked.

The question caught Tyrel off-stride. Normally he and Ramon didn’t take meals together. Tyrel provided food, but generally food was eaten on the run, microwaved from the refrigerator, and eaten out of hand or alone.

Tyrel blinked at the teenager and felt increasingly uncomfortable. He didn’t give thanks for meals. There hadn’t been much in his life to give thanks for in a long, long time.

“If you don’t want to…,” Ramon said.

“No,” Tyrel said. “Giving thanks is all right. Your mama and daddy raised you up right. I was just forgetting myself, is all. I’m not used to eating with somebody and saying it out loud.” He hesitated. “You know the words?”

“ Si, senor.”

“Then why don’t you say ’em?”

“If you wish, but my father always reserves the right to lead prayer at his dinner table. He says it is a father’s duty to show the way to God and all things in the world.”

“Well,” Tyrel said, “I’ve always thought your daddy was a smart man. One of the smartest I’ve ever known. Now and again, I’ve told him that.”

Ramon smiled, more at ease now. “ Si, senor. Very smart.”

“But this here’s my table, and I do things a little differently. Don was always the one to give thanks.”

“Pastor Don?” Ramon grinned. Don was well liked by most of the community.

“Since he ain’t here, why don’t you do it?”

“Of course, senor. I will be glad to.” Ramon put his hands together, closed his eyes, and bowed his head.

Even though he felt like a hypocrite, Tyrel put his hands together too. He didn’t close his eyes or bow his head, though. He wasn’t that much of a hypocrite.

Ramon prayed in a strong, steady voice. All of the insecurity he had shown was gone. “God, we give our thanks for this meal and for your blessing. Thank you for the fine young horse you gave to Senor McHenry. He is beautiful. Thank you for our chance to be together today. Keep us in your sight and always guide us in your ways. Amen.”

Tyrel took a deep, slow breath and tried not to think too hard on the fact that he didn’t feel the trust the boy obviously did. God had turned away from him a long time ago. He’d accepted that.

›› 1328 Hours (Central Time Zone)

Tyrel and Ramon ate in silence. Tyrel was never moved much to talk while he ate. Eating was a chore, something to be done so he could move on to his next thing to do. But he remained conscious of the boy, and he was beginning to think he’d made a mistake to ask Ramon to stay. Tyrel still didn’t know why he’d done that.

As Tyrel had watched the boy praying, still clad in his dust-covered clothes, he’d been reminded of how many times he’d seen Shel and Don sit across that table from him. He’d watched them grow up at that table, had talked with them about the ranch and chastised them there too. But he’d missed a lot of dinners with them because there was always something to do around the ranch.

Had he attended more dinners than he’d missed? Tyrel honestly couldn’t remember, and it hurt him that he didn’t know. Then he got angry because he hadn’t been the one to choose to be away from the table on those evenings. He would have liked to have been at dinner instead of chasing cows, mending fences, or working on the equipment.

His life hadn’t gone the way he’d wanted it to in a long time. Still, the guilt even at this late date was sharp and jagged-edged. It cut especially deeply today, and he didn’t know what had caused that.

Looking at Ramon in his work-stained clothes, Tyrel remembered how Shel had been as a boy. Quiet and methodical, always giving himself to everything he’d ever wanted to do. He had constantly challenged himself and everything around him, like he could throw a saddle on the world and ride it till he had it in hand.

But listening to Ramon’s words had made Tyrel think of Don. Like his mama, Don had always been pulled toward the church and God. When he’d been young, Tyrel had been like Shel, but he’d given his Sundays to the Lord. That was how he’d met the boys’ mama. They’d gotten to know each other at Sunday school, then started dating at church socials.

When he’d gone away to Vietnam, Tyrel had known she might forget about him or give up on him. A lot of women during that time did. After the events that night at Qui Nhon, he hoped she had forgotten about him. He stopped writing her back; he started drinking and just put in his days on patrol, expecting the bullet that would cut him down and balance the scales that he owed.

But that bullet never came. And when he’d gotten back to the States, she was waiting. Despite his best intentions to turn away from her because he knew he wasn’t the man she thought she knew-and definitely not the man she deserved-he’d been drawn to her.

“Senor?”

Tyrel looked up at Ramon. “What?”

“Are you going to call Pastor Don and his family?”

“Why?”

“To tell him about the colt. You promised him you would call.”

Joanie and the kids wanted to know when the colt was born. Tyrel had forgotten that.

“The children will want to see the baby horse,” Ramon went on.

“I’ll give ’em a call when we finish up here,” Tyrel said. He felt resentful about having to do it, though. Don and Joanie knew how to keep their distance from him, but their kids didn’t. They kept trying to treat him like a grandpa.

“Good.” Ramon smiled. “They’ll like the colt.”

Looking at the boy, Tyrel suddenly missed Shel and Don when they were that age. Shel had been the fireball of the two, always in the middle of something and always pushing himself to go faster and higher. Don had been more quietly contemplative, but he’d let Shel talk him into trouble more than a few times. They’d never gotten into bad trouble, but often enough they’d gone and done when they shouldn’t have been going and doing. It was just how boys became young men.

He pushed those feelings away. He had no place for them. More than that, he didn’t deserve them. Their mama had been the real parent in the family. Not him.

He turned his attention to eating and walled away from the past like he’d done every day since Qui Nhon. He’d lost his past the night he shot that soldier, and he had denied the future every day he’d lived since.

That was the best he could do.

He’d held up for forty years doing that. If Victor Gant’s name hadn’t come at him, he was sure he could have finished out his tour on this world and been done with it. He concentrated on that and thought about the work he had ahead of him.

›› Visitors’ Room

›› Presbyterian Hospital

›› Charlotte, North Carolina

›› 1432 Hours

“See? I told you he was here.”

Don gazed across the room and saw Max lying at Remy Gautreau’s feet. Remy was busy chatting up a young woman in a neighboring chair.

“I still don’t understand how you knew that,” Don said. Over the years that Shel had been paired with Max, he’d often been amazed at the connection between the two.

“Part of being a Marine,” Shel responded. “I couldn’t explain it to you if I tried.”

Max’s ears pricked when he recognized Shel’s voice. Still, the Labrador didn’t move from where he was. His pink tongue snapped back into his mouth and he tensely waited.

Shel made a signal. It was so fast and so small that Don, who was watching, didn’t see it.

Immediately the dog hurled himself up and sped across the intervening space. Other people in the waiting room pulled back, but two small boys laughed and pointed at Max. His attention yanked from the pretty woman sitting beside him, Remy made a frantic grab at Max, but he was way off the mark. Then he saw Shel and relaxed.

Max immediately sat on his haunches in front of Shel. He nosed Shel and sniffed the offered palm.

“Hey, buddy,” Shel said in a low voice. Carefully, using the IV stand, he knelt beside the dog. Max licked his face in obvious excitement. “It’s good to see you too.” Shel patted the dog.

“Well, look who came back from the land of the dead,” Remy said as he joined them.

Shel looked up. “Don, this is Remy Gautreau. Remy, my brother, Don.”

“Are you supposed to be out of bed?” Remy asked Shel as he shook Don’s hand.

“Sure,” Shel said.

“No,” a stern feminine voice said from behind Don. Dread filled him immediately. “He’s not supposed to be out of bed.”

Busted, Don couldn’t help thinking.

Shel reached for Don, who helped pull him to his feet. At the same time, Max stood and took a defensive posture in front of Shel.

The nurse was in her fifties and obviously liked the position of power she had. She had a clipboard in one hand, and her other hand was braced on her hip. Her hair was permed, and she wore pale pink glasses.

“You’re not supposed to get out of that bed, mister,” the nurse said disdainfully. “You’re going to be in big trouble with the doctor.”

Doctor, Don thought. The woman used the term like she was addressing a recalcitrant five-year-old.

“Yes, ma’am,” Shel said.

“Don’t ‘yes, ma’am’ me. You’ve got my whole nursing staff in a tizzy.” The accusation came out hard and high-pitched.

Don cringed a little. It was the type of voice that bullied other people into submission.

A deep, low growl came from Max’s chest.

The nurse peered at the Labrador. “Is that a dog?”

“No, ma’am,” Shel said immediately. “That’s a Marine.”

“That’s a dog,” the nurse argued. “What is a dog doing in the hospital? And why is he growling at me?”

“He doesn’t care for your tone of voice, ma’am,” Shel said. He talked more softly. “If I was you, I’d use my inside voice right now.”

Don knew that Shel could stop Max’s growling with a single word, and he knew there was no threat from the Labrador. But the nurse didn’t.

“I’m going to get security,” the nurse said defiantly. She backed away; then-when she felt like she’d reached a safe distance-she turned and fled.

“Man,” Remy said, “you are gonna be in so much trouble.”

“Nah,” Shel said.

“Yeah, you are,” Don said.

“Is he like this all the time?” Remy asked Don.

“I can’t take him anywhere,” Don said.

“You guys are funny,” Shel said. “Maybe you should think about getting an act together.”

“Are you supposed to be out of bed?”

Don turned and saw Commander Coburn coming up the hallway.

“No, sir,” Shel said. Despite everything, Don noticed that his brother stood a little straighter.

“Now,” Remy whispered, “you’re a dead man walking.”

At that moment, the head nurse returned with three large security guys in tow. She pointed at Shel and Max.

Smoothly the commander stepped up to intercept the group. He opened his badge case and froze the security guys in place.

“Who’s in charge?” the commander asked.

The three security guys looked at the nurse.

“We won’t need you,” the commander said.

The three security guys faded like morning mist.

Suddenly alone, the nurse looked around nervously.

“I’ll need to speak to the doctor in charge of Gunnery Sergeant McHenry,” the commander said.

“Doctor is busy.”

“Then get someone else who can sign Sergeant McHenry out.”

“Only the doctor can do that.”

The commander sighed. “Then find the doctor and get him here.”

The nurse looked like she was going to protest, but there was something in the commander’s steely gaze that broke her in an instant. She turned and hurried away.

The commander walked back to Shel. “Are you ready to get out of here?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then let’s get your kit packed. I’ve got a bed and a doctor waiting for you back at camp.”

Shel grimaced.

“I’m pulling rank on this doctor only to get you clear of the situation so we don’t endanger civilians,” the commander said. “We took Victor Gant down this morning, but that doesn’t mean all the Purple Royals are going to stay clear. Do you read me?”

“Five by five, sir.” Shel saluted.

“Then let’s get a move on. We’re burning daylight.”

Shel took a step and almost fell. Even though he’d been prepared for the eventuality, knowing Shel would push himself past the point of endurance, Don couldn’t get to him in time. But the commander shifted so quick Don almost didn’t see the movement. He slid under Shel’s arm and supported him.

“I’ve got you,” the commander said. “Do you want a wheelchair?”

“No, sir. I got out here on my own two feet. If you don’t mind helping me, I’ll get back the same way.”

“All right.”

Amazed, Don watched them go. Max walked on the other side of Shel.

“Your brother’s a tough man,” Remy said.

“He always has been,” Don said.

“Give him a couple of weeks, he’ll probably be good as new.”

“I know.” Don took a breath and let it out. “I worry about him, though.”

“It’s okay to worry,” Remy said. “It’s good to worry. But you have to realize that he’s going to chart his own course no matter what you say or do.”

“I know that.”

“Brothers are special,” Remy said in a wistful voice.

The tone caught Don’s attention immediately. Whenever someone said cryptic things like that, sounding as if they were halfway in the present and halfway in the past, he knew there was a story. There was always a story.

“You have brothers?” Don asked.

“One,” Remy said but didn’t turn to look at Don. “I had one.”

“I’m sorry,” Don said.

“Yeah,” Remy said. “Me too.” He glanced at his watch. “I’ve got to get going if I’m going to stay up with the commander. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Don.”

Don took the hand Remy offered. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Remy. And if you ever feel the need to sit down and talk about brothers, I’m here.”

Remy held his gaze for a moment. Don saw the pain in the other man’s eyes.

“I appreciate that,” Remy said. “Maybe someday.” Without another word, he took his hand back and walked away.

Don watched him go and wondered at the pain and confusion he’d seen in Remy’s gaze. But Don knew from years of experience that whatever the story was, it was meant for another time.

33

›› Braddock Road

›› Lake Barcroft, Virginia

›› Thirty-Two Days Later

›› 0717 Hours

Death struck without warning on Braddock Road.

Seated in the back of the Suburban, Victor Gant stared through the dust-covered windshield between the two FBI agents. He was cuffed at the ankles and wrists, and the chains from both of those were secured to the thick leather belt around his waist.

Hospitality since he’d been among the FBI under Urlacher’s care had dropped tremendously. Victor no longer received much in the way of preferential treatment. In fact, he was convinced that any day Urlacher would send him back to Charlotte and let them prosecute him.

Victor stared at the forest on either side of the two-lane asphalt road. The early morning sun had barely started to penetrate the tightly packed trees.

“You know,” Special Agent Ralph Pittman said from the seat beside Victor, “this game you’re playing with Urlacher has about run its course.”

Victor ignored the man. Pittman was in his late thirties, old enough to talk with some experience but still too young and too full of himself to know when to shut up.

“Urlacher’s getting tired of bagging small fish,” Pittman said.

The MS-13 connection Victor had given the FBI wasn’t small. Victor knew that. It had been a major coup locally, but it wasn’t the international connection Urlacher wanted.

Victor also knew that not giving Urlacher that information was the only thing keeping him alive at the moment. If he ratted Tran out and Tran found out about it, his life would be over.

But he could hold out only so long.

When the driver’s side window suddenly cracked and the driver’s head jerked sideways and blossomed crimson, Victor thought the sniper had been after him. He realized what the danger was before any of the FBI agents in the car did. After all, none of them had ever had to deal with Charlie shooting at them from the brush.

Victor ducked his head into his lap and wrapped his hands over the back of his head. He’d seen guys who had lost a finger or two in an attack but had kept their heads intact.

The Suburban swerved out of control. The agent in the passenger seat grabbed the wheel and tried to keep the vehicle on the road. Despite his efforts, the vehicle swerved across the oncoming lane.

Two blocker vehicles, one in front and one in back, accompanied the transport Suburban. Instead of keeping Victor in lockdown at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Urlacher had demonstrated control by having Victor roused at 5:30 each morning he was going to be interviewed, then driven from the safe house near Lake Barcroft.

For the last two weeks, Victor had been out of ideas. The only thing that had kept him going was his stubborn refusal to give up and give in.

Now he was going to die.

Explosions sounded all around him.

Pittman cursed and pulled his pistol from his hip.

For an instant, Victor thought about attacking the man and taking the pistol from him. The chains were too short to allow that, though.

Without warning, the Suburban slipped off the road and flipped over onto its side. The ground scraped by only inches from Victor. Then the window hit a rock or stump or root embedded in the ground and shattered. The safety glass broke into tiny cubes and trickled away.

Victor slammed into the door and rattled against the exposed ground for a moment as Pittman’s body hammered his. Then he felt the Suburban flip completely upside down and continue skidding.

All around Victor, the world seemed to have gone into slow motion. The Suburban spun slightly as it careened across the ground. He caught a glimpse of the rear blocking car stopped in the middle of the road. The vehicle was already wreathed in flames. Judging from the damage, Victor thought it had been hit by a rocket launcher.

Then the Suburban slammed into the trees at the side of the road. The windshield gave way as branches and underbrush invaded.

As Victor hung upside down in the seat, held in place by the belts, his head slammed into the window frame. He tried to hold on to his swirling senses, all too aware that gunfire was coming closer. He thought he heard footsteps outside the vehicle.

Then his vision and hearing splintered. He surrendered to the darkness.

›› 0723 Hours

Pain strobed Victor’s head even before he snapped his eyes open. The bright light made him close them again, then blink till he could stand it. His ears felt like they were packed with cotton; sounds seemed far away.

Beside him, Pittman flailed weakly and cursed. Blood spooled from his mouth and ran up his face, which was actually down because he was inverted as well. His pistol lay loose on the Suburban’s ceiling. He flailed weakly for the weapon.

Concentrating, Victor reached for the pistol. There was just enough slack in the seat belts and the chains that held him for him to reach the pistol. He curled his fingers around it, then brought it up and pointed it at Pittman.

The FBI agent suddenly looked scared.

“No. Please,” Pittman said hoarsely.

Victor’s heart held no pity. While he’d been held by the FBI agents, he’d been aware of how much they all hated him. When he’d had some control over the situation, that had all been all right. But when that control had evaporated, they had stopped playing nice with him.

But now he had control again.

He pointed the pistol at Pittman’s face and squeezed the trigger. The FBI agent stopped in mid-scream. He slumped, relaxed in death.

“Here,” someone said.

Feet outside the Suburban tromped through the underbrush around the trees the vehicle had smashed up. The smell of gasoline drenched the area.

Victor shifted as quickly as he could and aimed the pistol toward the broken window. When he saw the man’s face, he almost pulled the trigger out of reflex.

“Easy, Victor,” Fat Mike said. “We come to get you out.”

Although he moved the pistol out of Fat Mike’s face, Victor didn’t relax. His body hurt from the impact and his senses still spun.

On his knees, Fat Mike pulled out a switchblade, flicked it open, and put a big hand behind Victor’s head, cradling it protectively.

“You’re gonna fall, bro,” Fat Mike said. “Try not to break your neck.”

“I won’t break my neck,” Victor growled. “Just get me out of here.”

Fat Mike sawed at the seat belts with the knife. The belts parted without warning. Victor dropped but managed to catch most of his weight on a shoulder. For a moment, though, he thought he’d broken his collarbone.

Another biker came over and helped Fat Mike ease Victor from the Suburban. They pulled him to his feet.

“Dead guy in the backseat has the keys to the cuffs,” Victor said.

Fat Mike crawled into the Suburban.

Throbbing pain filled Victor’s head as he gazed around the battlefield. When he saw all the violence that had been wrought, he knew no other term would adequately describe the scene.

One of the Suburbans sat in the middle of the road. Black smoke swirled up from the flames that wreathed the vehicle. The other Suburban was two hundred yards farther on. It lay on its passenger side on the other side of the road.

As Victor watched, one of the bikers tossed a Molotov cocktail into the vehicle and ran. Almost immediately, the Molotov cocktail caught fire and the Suburban began to burn.

Someone was still alive in the vehicle. Victor heard fear-filled screams of pain.

“Idiots,” Victor said.

“Why?” Fat Mike stood up in front of him and started working on the cuffs with a key ring.

“Smoke’s going to mark our twenty.” Victor felt the weight of the cuffs drop away. Fat Mike knelt and started on the ones around his ankles.

“These guys carry GPS devices everywhere they go,” Fat Mike said. “They probably already got ground units and air support closing on us.”

The ankle cuffs dropped away.

“Then we’d better fade the heat,” Victor said.

“Already taken care of.” Fat Mike swept a small radio from his hip. “Move in.”

“Roger that,” someone said.

A moment later, the thunder of Harleys filled the area.

“How did you find me?” Victor asked.

“Wasn’t us,” Fat Mike replied. “It was Tran.”

“How’d Tran find me?”

“You’ll have to ask him. He gave me a number for you to call once we’re clear of this.”

A moment later, motorcycles poured out of the woods. The Harleys weren’t trail bikes and were too heavy for soft ground, but evidently Fat Mike had found suitable places to go to ground.

“Tran sent you?” Victor asked.

“Yeah.”

“What if you hadn’t gotten me?”

Fat Mike met Victor’s gaze dead-on. “We ain’t gonna talk about that, bro. We did get you.”

Victor knew that if Tran was concerned about him rolling over for the police, he would have had him whacked. He didn’t blame Tran. It was just business.

“You okay to ride?” Fat Mike asked.

“The day I can’t ride,” Victor said, “you just drop me in a hole and cover me over.”

One of the bikers rode toward him. Victor threw a leg over the bike, wrapped an arm around the man’s midriff, and sat behind him.

“We got a place near here we can hole up,” Fat Mike said.

Victor nodded. “What about that Marine who killed Bobby Lee? Did you find out anything about him?”

Fat Mike frowned.

“Do you know where he is?” Victor demanded.

“Yeah. They went back to the Marine camp at Lejeune.” Fat Mike scratched his shaggy beard. “I think that’s one beehive you ought to leave alone, bro.”

Victor stared his friend in the eyes. “And you know that’s the one I can’t leave alone.”

Slowly Fat Mike nodded. “I know, bro. We’ll just have to be careful.”

34

›› Obstacle Course

›› Camp Geiger, North Carolina

›› Nine Days Later

›› 0734 Hours

“You ready to give up yet, gunney?”

Drenched in sweat, feeling the burn of hard-used muscles in his legs and back, Shel concentrated on running. Running shouldn’t be hard. It was one of the easiest things to do in the Marines. Even green recruits could run.

“No,” Shel gritted. His shoulder still pained him, but it was healing faster than everyone-but him-expected it to heal. “I got more.”

“I don’t think you have any more, gunney,” the young Marine beside him taunted. “I think you’re old and you’re used up. I think you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. I think you’re just holding back, trying to save something for whatever you think will be the end of this little walk before breakfast.”

His voice was nasal and full of flat a ’s. It definitely marked him as a Yankee. Shel was certain the drill instructor who’d paired the man with him this morning had done so on purpose.

“If you need me to slow down,” the young Marine offered, “you just bleat in pain.”

Ignore him, Shel told himself. He’s just trying to get you off-stride. He stared straight through the countryside ahead of them. He wore aviator sunglasses that diffused the morning sun. His gray USMC shirt had turned dark with sweat.

Max loped at his side, barely even out of idle.

That’s fine, Shel told himself. The dog can run you into the ground, but you’re not going to give in to this guy with the mouth.

The Marine pacing him was in his midtwenties, nearly ten years younger than Shel. Not only that, but he must have been some kind of track star when he was in high school, which hadn’t been that long ago. His name was Barry Garrick.

“They told me you were a great Marine back in your day,” Garrick said.

“I’m a great Marine now,” Shel replied.

“That’s not what I’m seeing. What I’m seeing is old and used up. They tell me you got hurt and it broke your spirit.”

“I got all the spirit I need, junior.”

“We’ll see, grandma.” Garrick increased his stride and started to pull away.

Breathe out, Shel told himself. You need oxygen. Get all the carbon dioxide out of your lungs. Breathe deep and keep breathing.

He lengthened his stride, pushed away the fear and pain and uncertainty, and gave himself to the run. For the last five weeks, ever since he’d been cleared for light duty, he’d gone to the various satellite camps around Lejeune and trained. It hadn’t been light duty. He’d punished himself, pushing his body back into the condition he was used to.

Remy had offered to work with him, but Shel had wanted to do it on his own, away from the NCIS personnel. He needed to be a Marine again, and the only place he could do that was with other Marines.

Shel reached inside himself for the iron strength that had always been his. There was a part of him that would never bend to anyone or anything as long as his heart still pumped. He’d created that for himself when he realized his daddy would never truly be there for him. He’d started building that strength when his mama had sat him down and told him about the cancer. He’d been fifteen then. His mama had lasted almost three years before she’d lost her battle.

Shel had never understood his daddy’s distance from his sons, but he’d been constantly aware of the emptiness he felt where his daddy’s love and affection should have been. When he’d no longer been able to stand that emptiness, he’d filled it himself. He had forced himself to be invincible and indomitable, and-for the most part-he’d been successful.

But that distance from his daddy wasn’t working now. That phone call about Victor Gant while he’d been in the hospital haunted Shel. He hadn’t found any answers. Estrella’s research into his daddy’s military career had only turned up more questions.

According to what she’d found, Victor Gant and his daddy had never served together. The only thing they had in common was an overlap in Qui Nhon.

So how had Tyrel McHenry gotten to know a proven scumbag like Victor Gant? That was the question. Actually, it was only one of the questions. Why would his daddy have made that phone call? Why had he gotten drunk that night?

Not knowing was frustrating. Not being able to ask was even more so.

Shel squeezed everything out of his body and reached for more. His body became a machine, inflexible and relentless. That was the kind of man he’d driven himself to become, the same kind of man he saw in Tyrel McHenry. Even though he didn’t understand his daddy, Shel respected the quiet strength and steel of the man when he’d buried his wife and gone on working. Those had been the things Shel had chosen to emulate from his father.

Even when Shel became those things, though, his daddy had never seemed to notice. No matter what, Shel just hadn’t been able to win his daddy’s affection.

Those memories worried at his thoughts. Since he’d returned to Camp Lejeune, he’d tried to talk to his daddy a handful of times. But the man had been quieter than ever, and he’d refused to talk about Victor Gant. During their conversations, Shel had dropped plenty of hints that he’d be open to talking about the Purple Royals leader, but his daddy had shut that down.

Shel leaned forward a little more and pushed himself. Inexorably he gained on the younger man. In twenty more strides, he drew abreast of Garrick.

“You’re breathing hard, junior,” Shel said as he powered past the younger man.

Garrick tried to keep pace. Strain etched his features. Then his legs gave out on him. He cursed as he couldn’t even maintain the pace and suddenly fell behind by a wide margin.

Shel kept running. He was deep into the runner’s high now, lost in the charge of endorphins and adrenaline flooding his body. He stayed locked on the terrain ahead.

“Gunney,” Garrick cried from behind him. “Wait up.”

Shel went another twenty paces before he stopped and turned back to Garrick. The younger Marine walked along the trail with his hands on his head to best get oxygen to his lungs.

“You okay, youngster?” Shel asked as he pulled his arm over his head.

“Yeah,” the younger man growled.

“I’m not going to have to carry you back, am I?”

“No.” Garrick shot him a sour look.

“We could always run back to barracks.”

Garrick laced his fingers over his head as his chest heaved. He grinned ruefully. “Maybe in a minute.”

“You just trying to make me feel good?” Shel asked.

Garrick shook his head. “Nope. I’m maybe a little embarrassed.”

“Nothing to be embarrassed about, Marine. You just ain’t put on your full growth yet.”

“Is that how you’re going to tell it when we get back?”

Shel gave the younger man a lopsided grin. “There ain’t anything to tell. What we do out here, it stays out here.”

Garrick kept pacing with his arms over his head. “Where are you from, gunney?”

Shel knew his west Texas accent was showing. He’d heard it himself. It wasn’t from hanging around with Don for the few days his brother had stayed at camp to get him out of Lejeune’s Naval hospital. It came from thinking about his daddy so much.

“West Texas,” Shel said. “Born and raised.”

“I thought I heard that in there. I’m from Boston.”

“I thought I heard that in there,” Shel said.

Garrick grinned. “There are some things you just can’t get past.”

“I know,” Shel said.

›› 0917 Hours

Showered, shaved, and breakfasted, Shel took his place on the firing line. He’d changed into camo pants, combat boots, and a brown USMC T-shirt that fit his body like a second skin. He wore amber-tinted aviator sunglasses and ear protectors.

Other Marines lined the range, all of them awaiting orders.

Max stayed back inside the observation building with Garrick. After breakfast, the young Marine had been free. He’d elected to spend his morning with Shel. Although he wouldn’t have admitted it, Shel was glad for the company.

It was Marine company. Garrick wouldn’t talk unless Shel wanted to talk. Remy would have talked the whole time, and if he hadn’t talked, he would have been hitting on the female support personnel. That was just Remy.

“Load your weapons,” the shooting-range drill instructor ordered.

Shel slammed a full magazine into the pistol and racked the slide to strip and seat the first cartridge. He settled into an easy combat stance, pistol framed and held so his elbows formed 90-degree angles. The fingers of his left hand wrapped around the fingers of his right to provide the push-pull force that allowed the semiautomatic’s action to operate without hanging up.

He didn’t use the sights. He just imagined the pistol was part of his body. All he had to do was point it at the target like he’d point his finger.

The order was given to fire.

Shel focused on the silhouette downrange. They were shooting at fifty feet. Most gunfights in urban areas took place at less than ten feet. MOUT-Military Operations on Urban Terrain-focused on that kind of shooting.

Without hesitation, Shel fired. He aimed for the center mass and saved the last three for head shots. He laid his weapon down, cocked and locked, and waited for the DI’s order to roll the targets in.

When the target came in, Shel saw that all the bullets had pierced the ten-ring in the heart of the silhouette, so close together that they made one hole in a two-inch group. The three head shots had caught the head exactly where the nose would be. They were hardly wider than a quarter.

“Gunney McHenry,” the DI barked as he came to stand behind Shel and inspect the target.

“Yes, Sergeant,” Shel responded. On the gun range, the DI was in command.

“Where were you directed to shoot?”

“Center mass, Sergeant,” Shel said.

“Center mass,” the DI repeated. “Yet I see this target’s head has been air-conditioned.”

Shel barely kept a grin from his face. “Yes, Sergeant.”

“That looks like two bullets passed through that target’s head.”

“There were three, Sergeant.”

The DI peered over Shel’s shoulder. “Well, bless my soul, gunney, it appears three bullets did miss the center mass ten-ring.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Did you miss your target, gunney?”

“No, Sergeant.”

The DI clapped Shel on the shoulder. “This is my firing range, gunney. We do things my way.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“I say you missed your target and you owe me a beer for each one of those stray rounds. Just in case you can’t add any better than you can shoot, that means you owe me three beers.”

Shel grinned. “Yes, Sergeant. I can live with that.”

›› 1142 Hours

“You’re not a tank, gunney. You’re not designed to take damage. You’re supposed to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

Shel tried to move more quickly, but even at his best he wasn’t matched in skills with his opponent. During his military career, Shel had never formally taken martial arts the way some of the Marines had. There were sergeants who taught hand-to-hand combat that he wouldn’t have willingly taken on without a baseball bat.

Over the years, Shel had tried to learn the combat systems, but they were too disciplined. He didn’t like thinking that much about responding to a threat. He concentrated on reacting, picking up what he needed as he learned from experience.

Martial artists were deadly when everything went their way. The problem was that things didn’t always go their way. Systems and training failed at some point when things jumped the tracks. Especially when they were pounding away at someone who could take punishment.

Shel could. He blocked punches and kicks with his forearms and legs and kept his gloved hands up close to his face. The Asian guy he faced now was a power lifter in addition to being a martial artist. He was almost as big as Shel, and he was fast. Man, he was fast.

He kept kicking and feinting with kicks, then driving his gloves into Shel’s face. The punches hurt. Shel tasted blood and his nose leaked more.

“Get your hands up, Gunney McHenry,” the DI squalled.

Shel had his hands up. His opponent just had so much raw strength that he occasionally punched through Shel’s defense. His opponent grinned, obviously pleased with himself.

“You’re not a tank, gunney,” the DI bellowed. “He’s turning you into hamburger.”

Shel knew that was true. He wouldn’t be able to handle much more punishment. Without warning, the Marine punched Shel in his wounded shoulder. Bright, hard pain flared through Shel. Before he could recover, the Marine hit him in the shoulder again.

He knows, Shel realized. Someone told him about the wound.

When the man attacked again, Shel tried to defend his shoulder. While trying to protect his injury, Shel left himself open for a left cross that almost put him down. Black comets whirled in his vision. He took a step back and lifted his hands.

His opponent came at him again, trying for the shoulder once more. This time Shel ducked beneath the blow, shifted, and twisted in an explosion of effort that sent his right hand into the man’s stomach. Shel hit with everything he had. His fist sank into the man’s body and took the wind out of him.

Semiparalyzed by the blow, the young Marine tried to step back. Shel moved with him, following up with another body blow with his left hand. Then he hooked the man twice in the side of his face with his right. The Marine’s eyes started to glaze. Fired up now, Shel brought his left hand up in an uppercut that caught his opponent under the chin.

The man’s eyes rolled back into his head and he fell to the mat.

Shel looked down at the man and felt proud. He’d been thinking the younger man was going to beat him. He could have lived with that in a combat exercise. He’d been beaten before. But in a real encounter, losing wasn’t an option.

The DI knelt beside the man and placed two fingers on his jugular. Shel breathed out, his hands above his head, as he tried to get his respiration under control.

“He’s got a pulse,” the DI said.

“I didn’t try to hurt him any more than I had to,” Shel said.

“I saw that,” the DI responded as he stood. “I also saw that he went for your shoulder.”

“In a fight, I would have done the same thing.”

“Maybe,” the DI said, “but this wasn’t a fight. This was a controlled exercise. When this young soldier comes to, I’m going to make sure he understands that.” He paused. “How’s the shoulder?”

Shel moved it. The pain was there, but it was tolerable. He smiled. “Better and better every day.”

35

›› Mooney’s Tavern

›› Jacksonville, North Carolina

›› Six Days Later

›› 1318 Hours

Shel parked in the gravel parking lot in front of the tavern and got out. The day was too hot to wear a jacket to hide the pistol at his hip. He fished his NCIS ID from his pocket and draped it around his neck. He curved the bill of his NCIS hat over his sunglasses and signaled to Max to leave the Jeep.

The Labrador dropped to the gravel and joined Shel.

When he didn’t see Remy immediately, Shel tracked the loud hip-hop music to the SEAL’s car. Remy sat with his arms folded in the front seat. He had his eyes closed and his head bobbed with the beat.

Shel stood at the side of the car. His shadow had just covered the window when Remy cracked his eyes open and looked up at him. One of his hands had slid smoothly to the pistol on his hip.

Then Remy grinned and the window powered down. “Hey, jarhead. It’s been so long I thought maybe you’d forgotten your way here.”

“Not hardly.” Shel smiled a little.

Remy uncoiled, opened the door, and slid out of the car. “As I recall, it’s your time to buy.”

“It isn’t,” Shel said, “but I’ll buy anyway.”

“What’s the occasion?” Remy fell into step with Shel as they walked toward the tavern.

“Docs just cleared me from light duty. No more desk jockey.”

“Cool.” Remy yawned. “Now maybe I can start getting some sleep on that stakeout.”

Even while on the desk, Shel had kept track of the team. Remy was currently assigned to follow up on leads dealing with a local loan shark who specialized in taking advantage of military men. Alcohol, drugs, sex, and loan sharks were always problems around military installations. Temptations were everywhere, and the young Marines and sailors were prime targets.

“Will didn’t hang with you last night?” Shel asked.

“He tried to.” Remy frowned. “A young Marine got into a bar fight with his wife’s boyfriend.”

“Didn’t hear about that.”

“That’s because you were probably sleeping.”

Actually Shel hadn’t been. Lately he’d been poring over the information Estrella had gotten regarding his daddy. He was also monitoring the FBI’s manhunt for Victor Gant.

So far the FBI hadn’t picked up the man’s trail. It was as if Victor Gant had vanished from the face of the earth. There was even some speculation that he’d left the country.

Shel didn’t think that had happened. Victor Gant wasn’t the sort of man to walk away from the game when there were still cards on the table.

“So Will covered the bar fight, and I stayed on the loan shark,” Remy said.

“A bar fight? Doesn’t seem like anything we’d be interested in.”

Remy frowned and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Before morning, it turned into a homicide investigation.”

Shel shook his head.

“Twenty-three-year-old Marine,” Remy said softly. “Just got back from Iraq.”

“He was still jacked up from being over there,” Shel said.

“Yeah. Made it worse, him finding his wife out with her boyfriend.”

“The military and marriage don’t go together easily.”

“Is that why you never married? ’Cause I was thinking maybe you just couldn’t find somebody that would have you.”

Shel knew both of them just wanted to avoid the heaviness of the murder. They saw too much of that kind of work, and the violence that led up to it. “I thought that was your excuse.”

“No, man,” Remy said. “I’m just selective. Haven’t found the right one yet.”

›› 1331 Hours

Minutes later, Shel and Remy sat at a back booth with plates of fajitas and iced tea. Max lay at Shel’s feet and watched them eat. Shel dropped food to the dog on a regular basis.

“You know,” Remy said, “that dog doesn’t look Mexican.”

Max cocked his head and looked at Remy.

“It’s an acquired taste,” Shel said.

Remy dropped a piece of fajita meat. Effortlessly Max caught the meat between his teeth. But he made no effort to eat it. Instead, he turned his liquid brown eyes on Shel.

Shel signaled the dog to eat.

Max tossed the meat up into the air and gulped it down with noisy chewing.

“So it’s like that, is it?” Remy admonished Max. “You’re not going to eat for me unless Shel okays it.”

Max just stared at him.

“He’s a one-man dog,” Shel said. He dropped a hand to Max’s head and patted him.

“I guess so. Must make a great partner.”

“He doesn’t talk as much as some I’ve had,” Shel agreed.

“Oh,” Remy groaned in protest, “you did not just go there.”

Shel grinned. “I’ve missed this.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Remy doubled his hand into a fist and offered his knuckles.

Shel met Remy’s fist with his own; then they returned to eating.

“Scary stuff in the tattoo parlor,” Remy said.

“Yeah.” That was the first time either of them had mentioned the shooting. Shel knew neither of them would speak of it again. Being in special forces, both men acknowledged that death potentially lay in wait for them at all times, but they didn’t dwell on it. They couldn’t. If they did, it made the job impossible to do.

“If Will pairs us up tonight,” Remy said, “you remember that you owe me.”

“Do you really think Will will assign me to something as lame as a stakeout on a loan shark?”

“Now you’re hurting me,” Remy said.

Shel smiled. He had missed the camaraderie.

“So where have you been?” Remy asked.

“With the Marines,” Shel said. “Getting my head together.” He paused. “It’s nothing against you, Remy. But you’re not a Marine. I’m not knocking the SEALs, and I’m especially not knocking you. But a Marine’s place when he’s rebuilding himself is among Marines.”

“No prob,” Remy said. “Whatever it takes. At least you’re back.”

Shel nodded. “I am.”

›› 1417 Hours

Victor Gant sat astride his motorcycle in the trailer. He could hear the rumble of the big 18-wheeler’s engine as it pulled the bike trailer. A small floodlight at the front of the trailer barely broke the darkness.

“Coming up on the stop,” Fat Mike said over the headset radio Victor wore.

“Copy that,” Victor said. He wore road leathers and had a Kevlar vest under his colors. Normally he didn’t wear a helmet, but he did today. It was a full-face helmet that covered his jaw and chin too. A cut-down Mossberg shotgun was slung over his left shoulder. He wore his. 45 in a shoulder holster under his colors. The chill calm that had always filled him before a hop through the jungle in Vietnam filled him now. Out of habit, he glanced at his watch.

“Spotter confirms the Marine at the tavern,” Fat Mike said. “He’s headed out the door now. He’s got company.”

“Who?” Victor hoped it was Coburn. His anger against the commander had sharpened over the past few weeks.

“The black guy that was with the Marine at Spider’s.”

Well, Victor said, that’ll have to be good enough. The black man had been there the night Bobby Lee was killed. Bagging the Marine and his friend would feel good.

“Ready,” Fat Mike said.

Immediately Victor flicked his thumb over the electric starter. The motorcycle’s big engine throbbed to life. Nine other engines did the same. Thunder filled the trailer.

The 18-wheeler slowed. Victor felt the gradual reduction of speed. He grew even more calm. Let’s do this, he growled to himself.

“All right,” Fat Mike said. “Your target’s on your left.”

The truck stopped. The air brakes chuffed loudly enough to be heard over the warbling motorcycle engines.

“I’m coming around,” Fat Mike advised.

Victor glanced around at the men who were riding with him. All of them were seasoned criminals. Most of them had killed before. Some of them had been to prison before. Going back didn’t scare them, but they didn’t intend to do that.

A moment later, Fat Mike pulled the trailer’s back door down. Bright sunlight cut into the gloom.

“All right,” Victor said over the headset that connected him to the rest of his men. “Let’s ride.” He twisted the accelerator and let the clutch out.

Victor took the lead and roared down the inclined ramp leading out of the trailer. When he reached bottom, he brought the motorcycle around and headed into the gravel parking lot. The other motorcycles trailed only a short distance behind him and flared out in a phalanx of thundering metal.

Shel McHenry, the other man, and the dog were caught out in the open. Victor grinned as he saw the Marine look in his direction. With one quick grab, Victor yanked the shotgun from the shoulder scabbard and pointed it at the Marine. As cut-down as it was, the shotgun was more pistol than anything else.

He squeezed the trigger. Double-ought buckshot exploded from the shotgun’s throat and sped toward Shel McHenry. The abbreviated weapon jumped erratically in Victor’s grasp, but the semiautomatic function fed a new shell into place.

36

›› Mooney’s Tavern

›› Jacksonville, North Carolina

›› 1417 Hours

“Max!” Shel roared as he slapped his thigh to bring the dog in close to him. By then Shel was already in motion. The Purple Royals’ colors stood out and identified them at once.

Remy broke for cover at the same time but in a separate direction to split the attention of their attackers. That was how they’d been trained for urban area action. Split, but not far, and regroup as needed. It made them harder to hit, more difficult to cover, and gave them overlapping fields of fire.

A cloud of double-ought buckshot punched through the windshield of a parked Ford pickup. The loud report almost drowned out the noise of the breaking windshield, barely audible anyway over the rumbling Harley engines. Cube-shaped glass crunched under Shel’s feet as he beat a hasty retreat. He drew the SOCOM. 45 from his hip and took a two-handed grip as he crouched behind an SUV.

Bullets peppered the vehicle.

Shel felt Max braced at his knees, ready to take action. The SUV sagged suddenly as the front tire blew. A quick step put Shel at the rear of the SUV. Pistol held high, he peered around the vehicle, then singled one of the bikers out of the pack. He aimed for the man’s center mass and fired twice.

The first bullet took the mirror off the motorcycle’s left grip. The mirror had slid over in front of the biker’s chest. The second bullet hit the biker in the chest. He lost control of the motorcycle but didn’t let go of the handlebars.

Before he could recover, the motorcycle ran into a parked car. The bike flipped onto its side and threw the rider to the ground. The biker pushed up on his hands and tried to get to his feet.

Body armor, Shel realized. Their attackers had come loaded for bear, as his daddy would say.

Remy wheeled from cover and took deliberate aim. One of his bullets struck the man’s helmet. The 9 mm round ricocheted off the helmet’s hard surface. The next two struck the biker in the neck. He struggled for a moment, then slumped to the ground.

As he watched the man die, Shel hardened his heart. The way they were outnumbered, he knew they couldn’t afford to leave their enemies able to fight.

Another biker brought his Harley around and planted his feet. He lowered an Uzi and unleashed a torrent of rounds in Remy’s direction. Remy ducked back immediately. Bullet holes chased him.

Shel shifted and fired two shots into the man’s back without hesitation. This wasn’t one of the Louis L’Amour stories where two men faced each other and slapped leather like the books Shel had grown up on as a kid. This was war. In war, a warrior didn’t always call another man out and take him on face-to-face.

The biker jerked and fell sideways. The fact that there was no blood reinforced to Shel that the men wore body armor.

A Harley engine blasted to Shel’s left and raced closer. He turned and watched as the biker lifted a machine pistol in one big, hamlike hand. Shel stood his ground and fired instinctively. Running was only going to get him killed a heartbeat later, and by then the biker could have taken cover.

Bullets cut the air only inches from Shel’s head and face. He didn’t hear them passing, but he felt the heated wind tug at his hair and pulse against his jaw. Two of his bullets caught the biker in his helmet. One of the rounds glanced from the rounded surface of the helmet, but the other crashed through the faceplate.

The biker, suddenly slack, toppled. The motorcycle dropped with him, momentarily engaged gears, and spun out. The rear tire threw gravel like shrapnel. Then the engine sputtered and died.

Down to five rounds in his p