"Their Fates Aligned"

by Trudy A. Goold

The Magnificent Seven is copyright © The Mirisch Corporation, MGM, Trilogy, and the rest of the Alphabet Soup. No infringement of that copyright is intended by this story.
"Their Fates Aligned" is copyright © 2002, Trudy A. Goold.

Author's Notes: Thanks to Mog, who created the Mag7 ATF AU; to Rhicy, for her Eternal series, which got me thinking; and to all the fans of Mag7 who have done such a wonderful job of keeping the characters and series alive.
WARNING: This story contains some scenes containing gory violence; inadvisable for sensitive readers.

Part One

"...An' Vin says that that's how you tell when someone's trying to wipe away their tracks. Ain't that right, Vin?"

Vin, who'd been sitting on the boardwalk just outside the saloon, looked up from under his hat to see JD and Buck approaching. "Ain't what right, JD?" he asked calmly.

The youngest member of the Seven waved his hands enthusiastically, almost hitting Buck on the forehead. "I was just telling Buck about how you showed me what it looked like when someone tries to erase their tracks," JD explained, ignoring - or perhaps not even noticing - the glare Buck shot in his direction at the near-miss. "How you were saying what it looks like when they use branches with leaves, or branches without leaves, or--"

"Rider coming in!" came a sudden shout from farther down the main street of Four Corners, interrupting JD's explanation, and all three men looked over in that direction.

A moment later, the rider came into view.

"Hey, ain't that George Davies?" JD asked, peering at the features of the approaching rider.

Vin nodded. George Davies owned one of the smaller ranches situated around Four Corners - a pleasant enough man, who treated his people well, from all Vin had heard of him. "Yep." Then he frowned, standing up and looking closer. "Horse is near to founderin'," he said quietly. "Buck, you'd best fetch Chris - he an' Nathan are at the church with Josiah."

As Buck headed for the church, Vin heard the saloon's batwing doors swing open behind him. There was no need to look to see who it was - Ezra's step was a familiar one, and Vin knew that he'd been in there playing solitaire. He'd most likely heard the shout and come out to see what was going on, Vin figured.

Then Davies reined his horse to a stop in front of the three peacekeepers. He nodded to them as he dismounted, and then glanced around. "Mr. Larabee here?"

"He's comin'," Vin replied, taking in the man's pale and sweating face, and the signs of a hard run on the horse. Whatever it was that had brought Davies to town looking for them, it definitely had him spooked.

"Is something wrong?" came Chris' voice from the direction of the church, and Vin glanced over to see the Seven's leader approaching, flanked by the others.

"Yes, sir, Mr. Larabee," Davies replied, sounding shaken. The words startled Vin; despite the fact that all of the townsfolk and a number of the small ranchers and farmers in the surrounding area had benefited greatly from the Seven's presence, it was an extremely rare thing for one of them to call Chris - or any of the others, excepting maybe Ezra at times - 'sir'.

"What is it?"

"I... I found a... a body... just outside my woodshed," Davies stuttered. "It... it... I think you'd better take a look-see."

Chris glanced over at Vin to see what he thought, and Vin gave a slight nod. Something nasty had happened; a dead body, unless it was a close friend or relative, shouldn't have spooked the rancher this badly. Out here, life was cheap, and death was all too common.

"All right," Chris said, turning back to Davies. "Ezra, Buck, JD, I want you to stay here. Those marshals are due sometime within the next hour or two with their prisoner. If they don't get here by evening, wire the Judge to let him know. The rest of you are with me. Let's go."

As Vin followed Chris, Nathan and Josiah to the livery, he reflected grimly that although he'd planned to avoid the marshals when they arrived, this wasn't exactly the way he'd hoped to do it. He was starting to get an uneasy feeling about this.


Half an hour or so after Chris, Vin, Josiah and Nathan had left with Mr. Davies, JD heard a knock on the door of the sheriff's office. Putting down the dime novel he'd been reading, he opened the door, took in the two U.S. Marshals and their prisoner with a glance, and then motioned them in.

"Glad to see you made it," he told them.

The older man, who had iron-grey hair and was almost as tall as Josiah, frowned. "We're looking for the Sheriff."

"An' you've found him," JD replied calmly. He'd gotten used to this reaction by now. It still bothered him that most people looked at him and saw a boy instead of a man, but he'd learned enough to know better than to let it show. "JD Dunne, Sheriff of Four Corners."

The younger marshal, a man who looked to be about Ezra's age, looked disbelieving, but the older one simply nodded. "I'm Bill Freeley; this is Mike Carter. And this here," he gave their prisoner a sharp shake, "is Luke Dalkey - we're transporting him to Yuma."

"Yep, Judge Travis mentioned that," JD said. Leading them to the cells in the back, he opened one of the doors and stood aside to let Freeley put his prisoner in. Then, locking the cell, he returned to the desk. "He'll be safe in here for the night. There'll be someone on guard for the entire time."

Freeley nodded, and then looked around. "I heard Chris Larabee was in these parts," he commented. "Do ya happen to know if he's around? He's an old friend of mine."

The Seven had experienced enough in the past several months to know that Chris Larabee's 'old friends' tended to be one of three things. Either they were gunslingers aiming to test themselves against Chris, enemies who were after him; or - on very rare occasions - they really were old friends.

Considering that this man was a federal marshal, JD doubted that Freeley was a gunslinger - besides, he looked to be older than Josiah, and gunslinging was a young man's game. So that meant that either he really was a friend of Chris', or he was an enemy. Just because he was a marshal didn't necessarily mean that he was a good man - another lesson that JD had learned well.

Whichever it was, Buck would probably know - JD would ask him, hopefully before Chris and the others got back from Davies' place. And either way - whether he was Chris' friend or not - right now, at least, JD could feel comfortable giving a completely honest answer to the question.

"I'm afraid he ain't in town, Marshal Freeley," JD said calmly. "Matter of fact, I ain't exactly certain where he is at the moment," he added, which was also true enough. They hadn't been gone long enough to have reached Davies' ranch yet, which meant that they would be somewhere on the trail. Ezra'd taught him that sometimes the best way to deceive was to answer with the literal truth.

Freeley nodded. "Well, if he doesn't get back before morning, I suppose I'll just have to make arrangements to see him later. In the meantime, we've been riding a long ways today and both Marshal Carter and I are feeling a bit peckish. Can you recommend a place to eat?"

"Well, the hotel serves food, but it ain't exactly cheap... You could always try the saloon - they've got a good cook in there," JD said.

"Thanks, Sheriff," Freeley said, and led his companion out.

JD sat back down at his desk, and returned his attention to the novel he'd been reading, while keeping a watchful eye on the prisoner.


After the minor excitement of George Davies' appearance, Ezra had returned to playing solitaire desultorily at a table in the back corner of the saloon, feeling quite bored. The stage from Denver, with its potential marks, wasn't due in for another two days; and since it was the middle of the week, there was no one else willing to play cards with him except his fellow peacekeepers. And none of them presented any real challenge - especially not after he'd been playing regularly with them over the past several months.

Besides, at the moment - since Chris had taken Vin, Nathan and Josiah with him - the only ones left in town with Ezra were JD, who was on duty over at the jail, and Buck, who was currently flirting outrageously with Inez - again. Does the man never give up?

Suddenly, the saloon doors opened, and Ezra saw two strangers walk in. Most likely the US Marshals they'd been expecting, he figured, taking note of both the clothes they wore and the way they held themselves with the ease of long practice.

Buck had also turned to look at them, and a moment later, Ezra saw a wide grin cross the scoundrel's face.

"Well, if it isn't Bill Freeley! You finally irritate your boss enough to get assigned out here permanently?" Buck asked.

The older of the two marshals shrugged in response. "I asked for escort duty this time," he replied, walking over to the bar to stand next to Buck, leaving his companion by the saloon doors. "Heard you and Chris had become the law around here, and I thought I'd see if I couldn't run in to you, see this for myself."

"So, you're one of the marshals Judge Travis told us to expect?" Buck asked. "You get your prisoner settled in at the jail all right?"

"Yep," the older man replied, as Ezra slipped the cards he'd been playing with into his pocket and, standing up, wandered over to join them.

The younger marshal, who'd finally come over to where Buck and the older one were standing at the bar, frowned. "You certain that kid was the sheriff, Bill?"

"I'll have you know, sir," Ezra said mildly, motioning for Inez to get them all something to drink, "that Mr. Dunne, although somewhat young for his position, is indeed the sheriff of this town, and happens to be an extremely capable one at that."

"Bill, this here's Ezra Standish," Buck said. "He rides with Chris and me."

"Not to mention the rest of our illustrious group," Ezra murmured, as Inez put four tumblers of whiskey on the bar. He was careful not to mention the names of the rest of the Seven, just in case either of these marshals knew about Vin being wanted. "Thank you, Inez."

"You're welcome, Señor Ezra."

Buck and the two marshals nodded their thanks to her as well.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Standish," the older man said. "My name's Bill Freeley - I'm an old friend of both Chris and Buck here. This is Mike Carter; he's the one who actually brought Dalkey - our prisoner - in."

Carter was also, Ezra suspected, going to be trouble. His comment about JD and the way he was looking disdainfully around the saloon spoke of a huge chip on his shoulder. However, Ezra didn't let this conclusion show in his expression. The marshals would only be staying the night, and it was, after all, the middle of the week. There wouldn't be that much trouble for Marshal Carter to get into, even if he sought it out. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Marshals. Particularly as you are a friend of Mr. Larabee's."

"Speakin' of Chris, where is he, Buck?" Freeley asked then, turning back to the scoundrel. "I asked the sheriff, but he just said that he wasn't exactly sure."

"Good for JD," Buck commented. "Chris ain't the most popular fellow around - you know that, Bill. Especially after the past several years. There've been a few problems since we started here. Nothin' we couldn't handle, but it's made us all real careful.

"As for where he is... Chris and the rest of our group rode out to investigate a body that one of the local ranchers found. They probably won't be back before dark."

Freeley looked disappointed, but nodded in understanding. "Well, in that case, your young sheriff mentioned that there is reasonably good fare served here, and we're both quite hungry."

"Inez, my darling, please get these gentlemen a meal, on me," Buck said.

Inez gave the scoundrel a scorching look, but nonetheless turned to the two marshals and inquired, "What would you like, Señors?"

"Whatever you've got that's good and hearty," Marshal Freeley replied.

"Of course," Inez replied, and headed for the back, where the storerooms and the small kitchen that had recently been added on were located.

"You see, Ezra?" Buck declared, grinning. "She does like me."

Ezra sighed, but forbore to comment. Instead, he nodded to the marshals, and returned to his table and the game of solitaire he'd been playing.

Sometimes I do wonder if Mother is right about this being a waste of my talents...


An hour after they'd left Four Corners, Davies and the four peacekeepers arrived out at his ranch.

Davies hadn't been able to tell them anything about the body itself; all he'd managed to say was that he'd ordered his men not to let anyone, including each other, near the woodshed until he returned with the Seven.

Chris had praised that decision, which had helped Davies calm down a bit, but the rancher was still very tense and shaken as they rode up to the ranch house, Vin noticed.

Vin stayed in his saddle for a moment and glanced around as the others dismounted. He couldn't see or hear anything that seemed out of place, but the uneasy feeling he'd had since leaving town had been increasing with every mile they'd ridden - and now that they were here, his instincts were screaming that there was something very wrong.

"This way," Davies said after they had hobbled the horses, pointing towards the barn. "The woodshed... it's just around back."

"Coming, Vin?" Chris asked quietly, as Josiah and Nathan followed Davies.

Vin frowned as he dismounted. "I don't like this," he murmured. "Somethin' ain't right here, cowboy."

Chris frowned in response. "You think it's a trap?" he questioned, alarm flickering across his face.

Vin shook his head. "No. It ain't got nothing to do with Davies. It's somethin' else. I just..." He grimaced in frustration. "I can't say what it is, exactly. I just don't like it."

Suddenly Josiah reappeared. The preacher looked pale and sickened. "Chris, Vin... I think you'd better see this," he said grimly.

The two of them looked at each other, and then, as one, turned and followed Josiah.

As they came around the corner, and got their first look at the body, both Chris and Vin stopped in their tracks.

It's a good thing JD ain't here, was all Vin could think. He could easily see why Davies had been so spooked. In fact, he found it surprising - now that he saw what Davies had found - that the rancher had retained enough sense to come and get them.

The body had been that of a young woman. Had been.

She'd been attractive when she was alive, Vin figured; she had curly, dark brown hair, and brown eyes that were now wide and staring in death. Her face was completely untouched - which made the sight of what had been done to her all the more horrifying.

She had been eviscerated, her body slit open from the base of her throat to her pelvis; and, judging from the look of absolute terror on her face, she'd still been alive - and aware - when whoever had killed her had started to cut.

"Oh, my god..." Chris murmured from beside him.

Vin had seen people tortured before, but never anything like this.

It took him a good minute or two to regain control of himself. Once he had, however, he looked away from the body and directed his attention at the surrounding area.

"Vin?" Chris questioned after a moment, breaking the silence that had fallen over the group. Looking over, Vin could see that his friend had also managed to regain control.

"She wasn't killed here," he said quietly. "No blood on the ground. Whoever killed her brought her here - or had someone else bring her here - after she was dead." He looked around again, this time noticing the faint marks that led off to the west - away from the barn and the house. They looked to be several hours old. "Nathan, y'all got any idea when she died?"

Nathan looked up from where he was examining the body, his expression grim, and shook his head. "'Fraid not, Vin. Probably sometime yesterday, but that's all I can tell you at the moment.

"Except..." The healer hesitated for a moment, and then his mouth tightened. "Except that she's missing her heart."


Part Two

Brring! Brring!

Vin sat up, startled, as the sudden loud noise jerked him out of a sound sleep. For a brief moment, he felt confused - the room seemed strange, unfamiliar. This wasn't his--

Brring! Brring!

What the hell am I thinkin'?! O' course it's my room! he thought, irritated with himself, as he stood up, grabbed his cell phone from the table beside his bed and opened it. "Tanner," he said.

"It's about time!" came Buck's voice. He sounded more than a bit exasperated. "Where are you, Vin? Chris is starting to get antsy - you were supposed to be here half an hour ago!"

As he headed for his closet, Vin glanced at his clock out of the corner of one eye, and grimaced. It was nine o'clock. Buck was right - he had been due at the office at eight-thirty. Chris was probably ready to go straight past 'antsy' to 'pissed off'.

"My alarm must've been turned off or somethin'," Vin offered, as he pulled a pair of jeans and a loose shirt out of the closet. "Tell Chris I'll be there in forty-five, okay?"

"Fine," Buck replied, sighing. "But you'd probably have a better excuse for Chris than that - he's not in a good mood."

At that, Vin frowned. "Why not?" he demanded. "We got the warrant for Lavini's place. I'd've thought he'd be happy that we're finally gettin' to move in."

"I dunno," Buck said with a sigh. "I just know he's in a bad mood. Just get here as quickly as you can, okay?" he added, and then hung up.

Vin looked at his phone for a long moment, still frowning. Chris' mood must be really bad if Buck's waitin' for me to get there rather'n tryin' to cheer Chris up himself, he thought, concerned. Quickly getting dressed, he grabbed his helmet and hurried out the door. Trotting down the hall toward the stairs, he paused for a moment to nod to Señora Rodrigues - whose turn it was to keep an eye on the toddlers from this floor - before continuing on.

As he directed his motorcycle through the mid-morning Denver traffic, he found himself puzzling over Buck's comment about Chris' bad mood. There was no reason for it. They'd gotten the search warrant for Sebastian Lavini's home and warehouses last night, and today was the big day - they were finally going to take down one of the major Denver arms smugglers. Certainly Chris had been pleased enough about that last night. What could have happened - aside from Vin's being late, of course - to change that? It didn't make sense.

Besides, it wasn't as though the bust was going to happen this morning - they were going to go in at 12:30, when most of Lavini's people would be at lunch, and they'd gone over all the plans for the bust last night. And anyway, Ezra probably wouldn't be in until ten. So what was the problem?

That question plagued him for the rest of the trip in to work.

According to Vin's watch, it was 9:35 when he exited the elevator on the eleventh floor and walked into Team Seven's office - he'd made better time than he'd expected.

Buck and Josiah were the only ones there when he entered.

"Where are the others?" Vin asked softly, as he walked over to his desk and put down his helmet.

"Chris took JD down to get him a new vest - seems the one from our last bust hasn't been replaced yet - and Nathan is getting us some breakfast," Josiah answered. "Ezra called just after Buck talked to you, and he's due to arrive sometime within the next twenty minutes."

Well, maybe it was the matter of JD's vest that had put Chris in the foul temper Buck had mentioned. On their last bust, JD had been shot in the shoulder with a Teflon-coated bullet - a 'copkiller' - and, while the wound hadn't been serious, his bulletproof vest had been rendered useless. Chris had been after supply to get JD a new one ever since, and they'd been stalling - something Chris didn't take too well to when it involved the safety of one of his team members, especially considering how often they seemed to get injured.

A moment later, the door opened and Nathan came in, carrying a large box of muffins.

"Mornin', Nathan," Vin said, eyeing the box hungrily. He'd been in such a hurry to get here that he hadn't stopped for breakfast on the way. "Did ya get any blueberry?"

Nathan rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, grinning. "Did I get any blueberry, he asks! I could hardly forget to, considering what happened to Buck and JD the last time they forgot," he replied. Opening the box, he handed two muffins to Vin. "Here you go. They're even still warm from the oven."

Vin smiled back, feeling some of the tension brought on by his unusual awakening start to fade. "Thanks, Nathan - I owe you one."

"You're welcome," Nathan declared, still grinning, as he handed the box of muffins to Josiah and Buck.

Just then, the door was flung open violently, and the four teammates looked up.

Vin stared in surprise as he watched Chris Larabee storm through to his office, open the door, and then slam it quite firmly shut behind him. What the hell...?!

Then JD poked his head in, and, seeing that Chris wasn't in the main office, slipped in.

"What happened, JD? Didn't they have your new vest in?" Vin asked.

JD shifted uneasily. "Yeah, they had it - finally..."

"So why's Chris so angry?"

JD just shrugged. Vin looked at the others, but it was obvious that they didn't have any clue either.

Before he could say anything, however, Chris' office door opened again. "Vin!"

Ignoring the sympathetic looks that were directed his way by the others, Vin got up and strode into their leader's office. He sat down in the chair facing Chris' desk, and then looked at his friend with some concern. "What's wrong, cowboy?" He paused for a moment, and then added, "The bust is still a go, ain't it?"

"Yeah, the bust's on," Chris replied. "Why weren't you here on time?"

Vin sighed. "I don't think my alarm went off this mornin'. Buck's call woke me up.

"So, if the bust's still on, an' JD got his new vest, what's wrong?"

Chris picked up a folder sitting on his desk and handed it to Vin. "This," he declared.

The tab said 'DELGATO, ERNESTO'. For no reason he could think of, Vin felt a shiver run down his spine as he read the name. "What's this?"

"Our next case," Chris replied. He glared at the folder. "I had a meeting with Travis at seven this morning to discuss our plans for the Lavini bust, and while I was there, he handed this to me. Apparently this guy Delgato is something of a mystery, and the powers that be ordered Travis to put his best team on it."

Vin frowned. "That still don't explain what's got you so angry, Chris. Would've thought you'd like gettin' a compliment like that."

Chris shook his head. "It's just... I've got a very bad feeling about this one."

Vin glanced down at the folder, and felt that shiver run down his spine again. Chris wasn't the only one. But still... "An' that's why you're stompin' around here like a bear with a sore paw?" he demanded.

Chris shrugged.

"So, who's Delgato?" Vin asked, opening the file and taking a quick check through the contents to see what they had. Then he looked back up at Chris with an expression of disbelief on his face. "This is everything?!"

The folder contained an immigration record for one Ernesto Delgato, native of Chile; a copy of Delgato's DMV records; a paid parking ticket; and a list of properties - including a few warehouses and outlets listed as being for a legitimate import/export business - that he owned.

"That's all," Chris confirmed. "At least on paper. Like I said, apparently he's something of a mystery."

"On paper," Vin repeated. "An' off?"

Chris sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Unofficially, the higher-ups suspect that he's in to everything from arms smuggling to creating and distributing some of the new designer drugs that have been hitting the streets lately."

Vin frowned again. "But they haven't got any proof? Not even anythin' to add to the file?"

"None at all. Not even a whisper of it," Chris replied with another sigh.

"So why're they bringin' us in?" Vin demanded, perplexed. "If they ain't got anythin' to go on, what makes 'em think we can take this Delgato down?"

"That's exactly what I asked," Chris said tiredly. "Travis didn't answer me. Part of the reason I don't like this case."

Vin nodded in agreement and understanding as he put the folder back down on the desk.

"Well, nothin' we can do at the moment, cowboy," he pointed out in a reasonable tone. "We'd do better t' concentrate on the Lavini bust right now."

Chris smiled ruefully. "You've got a point," he admitted.

Then Vin grinned. "You reckon Ezra's managed to drag himself in yet?" he asked, a gleam of mischief in his eyes.

Chris sighed, his expression changing to show the mixture of amusement and mild exasperation that the southerner always seemed to invoke in him. "It's not yet ten," he replied.

Vin shrugged. "'Cording to Josiah, Ezra actually called just after nine t' say he'd be in before ten. Should we go take a look an' see if he's actually done it?"


Buck looked up as the door to Chris' office opened, and felt the tension in the room ease as Chris and Vin walked out. Vin was grinning, and while Chris still didn't look all that pleased, he was no longer glaring furiously at everyone and everything. Not for the first time, Buck thanked whatever power - whether God, Fate, Chance, or some combination of the three - had placed Vin Tanner in Chris Larabee's life.

"Ez here yet?" Vin inquired, as he headed back toward his desk.

"Mr. Tanner, I really would much prefer it if you would refrain from making use of that undignified appellation," the agent in question declared, coming out of the break room and into the office with a muffin in one hand.

Vin's grin widened. "Whatever you say, Ez," he replied, sitting down and turning on his computer.

The rest of them - except Chris, who was standing in the doorway to his office with an expression of long-suffering patience on his face, a sure sign that Vin had gotten him to relax - all grinned as well, as Ezra scowled.

"Cheer up, Ez," Buck said, chuckling as he watched the southerner's expression change to a reasonable imitation of the infamous 'Larabee glare'. "Remember, we're taking down Lavini today."

Ezra's expression lightened slightly at that reminder. "Ah, yes, our favourite east-side arms dealer," he declared, a smile crossing his face as he sat down at his own desk and took a sip of the fancy coffee he always picked up from the coffee shop just down the street. "Definitely an event to be lookin' forward to." He leaned back in his chair, looking quite pleased with himself. "The odds are nine to four that the warehouse our team has been assigned will be the one with the greatest amount of contraband."

Buck grinned. "So, who was unwise enough to take you up on that bet?" he asked. He'd thought that everyone in the Federal Building knew the three rules about Team Seven. First of all, never, ever get Chris Larabee mad. Secondly, never bet against Ezra, even when the odds appeared to be in your favour. And third, that Team Seven had the most peculiar luck, which in today's case would most likely not only result in them netting the greatest amount of contraband, but probably a gun battle or two along the way.

If there was a new sucker in the building for Ezra to fleece, Buck wanted to know about it - it could quite often be a great deal of fun watching Ezra teach new people a lesson or two about underestimating one's opponent. Definitely a hell of a lot more fun than getting fleeced by Ezra himself.

Ezra grinned. "The new leader of Team Six," he replied. "Senior Agent Alex Rossman appears to feel that our 'legend' is exaggerated completely out of proportion."

Josiah was opening his mouth to respond - all of Team Seven were justifiably proud of their reputations as Denver's best (not to mention their reputations as mavericks) - when Chris stepped in, interrupting the banter before it got too involved. "All right, boys," he said firmly. "We've got two hours left before we have to be in position. Vin, JD, Nathan, I want the three of you doing equipment checks, then load everything into the van when it's ready. Ezra, Buck, I need the two of you to re-check that list of addresses we made out, make sure the warrant applies to each and every one of them. I know we went through it last night, but I want to make sure. Josiah, you're with me - we're meeting with the other team leaders to make sure they all understand the plan."


Two and a half hours later, Team Seven had completed the sweep of the warehouse that they'd been assigned to check, and had catalogued five large cartons of firearms - most of them military issue - along with a completely unexpected haul of a hundred kilos of cocaine and heroin, and made twelve arrests.

Nathan was on the way to the hospital with Josiah - while they'd been in the process of searching the warehouse, one of the men they'd ended up arresting had 'accidentally' knocked a pile of wooden crates over onto the profiler. Thankfully they'd been empty, but Nathan suspected that he'd ended up with a broken rib.

Our 'peculiar luck', Buck thought ruefully, shaking his head as he surveyed the chaotic scene in front of him. The cops who'd been backing them up on this case were taking away the prisoners. JD was sitting at the warehouse manager's desk, going through his computer. Ezra was currently brushing furiously at his jacket, trying to get rid of the minute bits of dust and plaster that he had gotten covered with during the course of their search. Vin was leaning against the doorway of the warehouse, surveying the area much like he himself was. And Chris was standing in the centre of the receiver dock, his expression relaxed, with a hint of concern - for Josiah, Buck knew.

Abruptly, Chris stiffened. Buck watched, puzzled, as the team leader walked over to a pile of crates stacked at the far end of the dock and bent down to take a closer look. A moment later, he stood back up, a frown on his face.

"Vin!" he called.

Vin looked up, away from the chaos on the floor, and then shot a questioning glance at Buck. Buck shrugged, indicating that he had no clue what had gotten into Chris, and then watched as the young sharpshooter headed over to where Chris was standing. He saw Chris point at one of the crates he'd been examining, most likely telling Vin to look at it, and then a frown matching Chris' crossed Vin's face.


"What is it, cowboy?" Vin asked, as he reached Chris.

Chris' mouth tightened, and he pointed at the pile of crates that he'd noticed. "Take a look. Does the sender's address seem familiar to you?"

Vin obediently looked, and Chris saw his eyes widen in surprise and a frown cross his face as the younger man read the address. "Ain't that one of the ones from the Delgato file?" he asked.

Chris nodded in agreement. "That's what I thought as well," he said out loud, as Vin glanced at him.

"Do ya think it's just coincidence?" Vin questioned - though the tone in his voice and the expression in his eyes told Chris that he didn't believe for a moment that Chris was actually even entertaining the idea.

"Nope," Chris confirmed. "I don't like convenient 'coincidences'. If this is for real, and not just a setup of some kind, it might explain why we suddenly managed to get the warrant for Lavini when we've been tryin' for the last three months." He heaved a tired sigh, and then turned and started walking back toward the rest of the team, knowing that Vin was just behind him.

"JD," he said, as he reached the manager's office and looked in, seeing the young electronics expert starting to push himself away from the computer, "check that thing again and see if you can find any mention of an Ernesto Delgato or the crates over at the far end of the receiving dock. They might be under the name of Delgato Import/Export. When you've got everything you can find on them, give it directly to me."

"Got it, Chris," JD replied, and immediately returned his attention to the computer and started typing rapidly.

"Thanks, kid," Chris said, and then stepped away from the office and returned his attention to Vin. "Travis wants us to start with the Delgato investigation ASAP, but considering that we just finished a bust, we can put it off until tomorrow. I want to take a look at whatever information JD manages to get before going through the situation with the rest of the team."

Vin nodded in understanding. "Want me to do a bit of quiet checkin' around this evenin'?" he asked.

Chris shook his head, feeling a hint of panic in the pit of his stomach at the thought of Vin looking into this mess on his own. "No," he said firmly. "According to his file, Delgato's lived here for the past twelve years, and he's never been caught at anything. I don't want you risking yourself, especially without the rest of the team to back you up."

Vin held up his hands in mock surrender. "Got it. I'll leave it alone," he replied.

"Leave what alone?" Buck asked from behind them, and Chris firmly clamped down on his instinctive urge to jump. He hadn't known Buck was there.

"I'll explain later," he said firmly. "Now, why don't you and Ezra head back to the office and start getting your reports done. Vin and I will wait here and bring JD back with us."

"All right," Buck said slowly, and Chris noticed the puzzled look the ladies' man gave both himself and Vin. "We'll stop by the hospital on our way there and see how Josiah's doing."

Chris nodded in agreement. Despite the fact that he'd ordered Nathan to give him a call on his cell as soon as there was any news, he planned on doing the same thing with Vin and JD. "We'll see you back at the office."


As it turned out, Josiah had two cracked ribs - no broken ones - so he and Nathan came back to the office with Chris, Vin and JD in the surveillance van.

The rest of the afternoon was spent quietly, most of the team occupied with writing their reports of the bust, with Ezra and Buck every so often sharing a chuckle at the memory of the expression on Senior Agent Rossman's face when he'd found out that Ezra had won their bet.

JD had managed to find about fourteen pages worth of stuff on Delgato on the warehouse manager's computer - most of it apparently having to do with Delgato Import/Export and shipping information. Chris just stuffed it all in the folder and stuck the folder in his bag. He'd take it home with him and study the files carefully before briefing the rest of the team on their new assignment.

Finally, at five o'clock, all the reports were finished and everyone headed out. Seeing as it wasn't a Friday night, and with Chris being obviously preoccupied with something other than the wrapping up of the Lavini case, the rest of the team scattered to do some private celebrating.


Part Three

Vin was frowning as he stood up and got back into his saddle.

"Well?" Josiah asked. Vin had spent about ten minutes studying the one particular patch of ground. Dusk was fast approaching, and once the sun set, not even Vin's expert tracking skills would let them continue following the trail.

Vin shook his head, his attention firmly focused on his knees as he brushed the dust off his pants. "There ain't anythin' left t' follow," he said softly, his Texan drawl getting thicker. "Whoever this feller is, he sure knows how t' hide his trail. Reckon we ain't gonna be able t' catch him."

Chris rode up next to Vin and put his hand on the young tracker's arm for a moment, in a gesture of wordless reassurance. "Then let's head back to Davies' ranch. We'll collect Nathan and... the girl's body, an' get back to Four Corners."

Vin finally looked up, meeting Chris' eyes, and Josiah watched as the two held one of their silent conversations. A moment later, Vin nodded, and the three of them turned to ride back to the ranch, where'd they'd left Nathan to take care of the body.

They'd been following the trail Vin had found leading from the woodshed for the past two hours, but Josiah figured they were only about an hour's ride or so from the ranch, maybe a little bit more. They'd lost the trail several times, and each time - until now - it had taken Vin a while to find it again.

Josiah could tell that Vin was upset at having finally lost the trail completely, but all three of them knew that there was nothing else they could possibly do at the moment. Personally - despite both his knowledge of Vin's skill and having watched the young tracker in action on a number of previous occasions - Josiah was astonished that they hadn't lost the trail before this. He certainly hadn't been able to see any of the trail sign that Vin had been following, despite the fact that the tracker had pointed out most, if not everything, of what he had noticed. But then, that was why Vin was the tracker and he wasn't.


Nathan looked up from where he'd just finished bundling up the girl's body as he heard the sound of horses approaching. A minute or two later, Chris, Vin and Josiah appeared out of the darkness.

Nathan frowned slightly as he studied them. Josiah didn't look at all pleased, and as for Chris and Vin... while Nathan couldn't read either of the two of them as well as they could read each other, it was obvious that Vin was upset, and that Chris was worried.

"Guess you didn't find him," Nathan said quietly, as Chris drew his horse to a stop in front of him.

Chris shook his head. "Whoever this bastard is, he's too damned good at hiding his tracks. Vin managed to keep us on his trail for almost two hours before it vanished."

Well, that would certainly explain why Vin was upset, Nathan figured. "We heading back to town?"

Chris nodded. "An' we're bringing the body with us," he added after a moment. "I want to see if anyone knows her. And I'd like you to make a full examination, see if you can find out anything else about what happened to her."

Nathan nodded, though he winced inwardly at the unpleasant prospect. He had already anticipated this request; it was one of the reasons he'd bundled the girl's body up already - the others being that, first of all, there hadn't really been enough light left to do a thorough examination by the time they'd arrived, and secondly, the sight of the girl's body - of what the killer had done to her - was extremely disturbing. "I already arranged for Davies to lend us a mule," he said, gesturing to the animal tethered a short distance away, next to his horse. "If one of you could help me get the body up..."

Vin swung down from his horse and took the legs of the blanket-wrapped corpse. With a silent nod to Nathan, the two men got it up on the mule and tied it down. Then, still without saying a word, Vin got back on Peso and waited with the others for Nathan to mount up.


The peacekeepers rode back to Four Corners in silence for a good while; Chris and Vin leading, while Josiah and Nathan followed behind, with Nathan leading the mule carrying the girl's body. Finally, Josiah - in an effort to get everyone's thoughts off the horrific mutilations to the body, and to distract Vin, who was being too quiet, even for him, from his failure to continue tracking the killer - broke the stifling silence. "Wonder if the marshals made it to town before nightfall," he commented.

Nathan shrugged. "I don't rightly know," he replied. "Guess we'll find out when we get back there."

"S'pose so..." Josiah mumbled. "Chris, what do you think?"

Ahead of them, Josiah saw the black-clad form of the Seven's leader turn around in his saddle. "I'm more concerned about who killed that girl than whether a pair of marshals escorting a bank robber to Yuma Prison made it to town, Josiah," he snapped.

Vin reached out and laid a calming hand on Chris' forearm. "We all feel that way, Cowboy," he murmured, so quietly that Nathan and Josiah had to strain to hear the words. "But we'd best wait till we're back in town t' talk about it."

Chris nodded in acknowledgement, gripping Vin's hand for just a moment, and then shot an apologetic glance at Josiah. "Sorry," he said quietly. "It's just--"

Josiah and Nathan both nodded, understanding Chris' reaction. "We know, Brother," Josiah replied, equally quietly. "We know."


Bill Freeley leaned back against the bar and looked around the saloon.

Carter had gone off to lie down in the rooms they'd gotten in the hotel - which was, Freeley felt, all to the good. Over the past several days, he hadn't missed the fact that Carter had something of a chip on his shoulder when it came to westerners, and he didn't particularly relish the thought of ending up in a bar brawl because the younger marshal didn't have the sense to know when to keep his mouth shut.

Buck was over in one corner, flirting with a few of the saloon girls - no surprise there. Buck was a ladies' man through and through, and had been for as long as Freeley had known him.

In the other corner, Freeley could see the fancily-dressed man Buck had introduced as Ezra Standish playing a game of solitaire. A cardsharp, the marshal figured, noticing the dexterity with which Standish shuffled and dealt the cards, and he found himself wondering why on earth Chris and Buck had taken up with such a man.

There were only a few other people in the saloon tonight - Buck had said something about it being because it was the middle of the week before he'd gotten distracted by the girls. Most of them appeared to be ranch-hands or cowboys, or the like.

This seemed to be a fairly quiet town, which made Freeley wonder just why his two friends had decided to settle here. After the death of his wife and son, Chris Larabee had thrown himself into gunfights and confrontations from here to Texas, with Buck trailing him, doing his best to make sure no one got Chris from behind. Four Corners seemed much too calm for the rage-filled gunslinger that Chris had become... and for him to have become a lawman, of all things!

When he'd first heard that, Freeley hadn't believed it for a minute. He might have believed it of the Chris he'd known before Sarah and Adam's deaths, but the man who had survived that... no, there was no way he'd get involved that way.

And yet, over the past several months, the stories of the lawmen from the small town of Four Corners - the 'Magnificent Seven', led by Chris Larabee - had become well known all over the territory, and Freeley had been forced to concede that there might be an element of truth in them. It was the reason he'd agreed to come along with Carter - whom he didn't much care for - to escort Dalkey to Yuma.

And now, here was Buck, and it looked as though the rumours had been right for once. But Freeley still couldn't see the Chris Larabee of the past three years suddenly becoming a lawman.

Abruptly the batwing doors of the saloon were flung open, interrupting his thoughts, and Freeley glanced over to see four men walk in, led by the familiar, black-clad form of Chris Larabee, who had a furious scowl fixed firmly on his face. Three of them - Chris, the tall grey-haired man, and the black man - headed directly for the table Standish was sitting at, and the fourth, a slender young man wearing a buckskin jacket, strode over to the bar and gestured to the barmaid. "Whiskey - two bottles, please, Inez," he said.

"Of course, Señor Vin," she replied, pulling the requested items out from under the bar.

Looking over toward the corner where Buck was sitting, Freeley saw that the ladies' man had noticed the entrance of the four men, and, as the marshal watched, he saw Buck whisper something to one of the girls and then come over to the bar, stepping in between himself and the young man - who looked to be hardly much older than the town's sheriff.

"What's up, Vin?" Buck asked.

The young man turned to face him, and Freeley felt a flicker of recognition as he took in the young man's clean-shaven face. He'd seen that face somewhere before.

"JD at the jail?" the young man asked.

"Yep - the marshals arrived with their prisoner about half an hour after you and the others left," Buck replied. "Why?"

The young man's expression suddenly became grim. "Chris don't want him hearin' 'bout what we found just yet. Come on," he added, jerking his head toward Standish's table.

"Vin... what's wrong? What did you find?" Buck demanded. "And why have you been gone for over five hours?"

"Not here, Buck," the young man said firmly. He gestured toward the table again, and then started walking over.

"Señor Buck..." the barmaid said.

Buck turned to look at her, and Freeley watched as she handed him a tray with six glasses. He nodded his thanks, and then followed the younger man over to the table where the other four were sitting.

After a moment, Freeley casually wandered over to a table nearby, where he could overhear them. He wanted to know what was going on - and why Chris hadn't noticed him the moment he'd walked into the saloon. It wasn't like the gunslinger to be that careless, even when he was falling-down drunk.

"What's going on?" Buck demanded, as he sat down between the black man and Standish.

"We got problems," Chris said grimly, picking up one of the whiskey bottles the young man had brought over and filling the glasses. "JD at the jail?"

"Yeah - he's guarding the marshals' prisoner. Vin said you don't want him knowin' what you found?" Buck added, his tone disbelieving.

Chris nodded, his expression still grim. "Not the details - not till Nathan finds out everything he can," he said. "What we found... I don't want him seeing it."

"You went out there to see a body, as I recall," Standish commented. "Mr. Dunne has most certainly seen his fair share of bodies before."

The young man in buckskin, who was sitting between Chris and Standish, shook his head. "Not like this, he ain't, Ezra. Like Chris said, we got problems."

Standish gave Chris an inquiring look.

"First of all, the girl was murdered - and her killer was someone who was good enough at hidin' his tracks that Vin lost the trail just before dark," Chris said.

Both Buck and Standish gaped in surprise at that. "Lost the trail?" Buck repeated.

"Yeah, Bucklin, I lost the trail," the buckskin-clad man snapped. "The bastard's damned good."

Freeley watched with interest as Chris gripped the young man's arm with one hand, and the two of them looked at each other silently for a moment.

"As Chris said, Brother Buck," the large, grey-haired man who'd come in with Chris stated, "it was almost dark by that time. If we go back in the morning, Vin--"

"Won't do no good," the young man said.

"Mr. Tanner, might one inquire as to what leads you to that conclusion?" Standish asked. "After all, with a bit more illumination, surely a tracker of your exceptional skill--"

"It's gonna rain afore mornin', Ezra. That'll wash away all signs of the trail."

Freeley blinked in surprise at what he'd just heard. Tanner? Vin Tanner? No wonder the young man's face had looked familiar - he'd seen it on wanted posters from Texas!

Never mind the cardsharp - what the hell were Chris and Buck doing riding with a man wanted for murder?!


Vin was upset, Chris knew - upset about the body, upset about having lost the trail, upset about the fact that the rest of the Seven knew about his failure... and upset about whatever it was that his instincts had been telling him since Davies had ridden into town this afternoon. He tightened his grip on Vin's arm slightly, and the tracker turned to look at him again.

We'll get 'im, Vin.

Vin tilted his head slightly in acknowledgement.

"So, we are dealin' with a case of murder?" Ezra asked, absently shuffling his cards.

Chris felt his expression darken again at the reminder. "This isn't a simple murder, Ezra," he said grimly. "The girl's body..." He shook his head, consciously pulling his walls up in a fruitless effort to protect his emotions from what he was about to say. "She was... the killer... Nathan says her heart was removed."

Ezra stopped his shuffling in mid-motion, letting the cards fall onto the table as both he and Buck stared at Chris, horrified. "Her heart was removed?!" the gambler demanded in a strangled whisper.

Vin's expression was just as dark as his own. "An' she was alive for part of it," the tracker added.

At that, Ezra looked almost as though he was going to be sick. Not that Chris could blame him - he'd felt the same way from the first glimpse he'd had of the body, as had the others. "That... that..."

I think this is the first time that I've ever seen Ezra speechless, Chris reflected grimly. It wasn't exactly the pleasant sight it might have been under other circumstances.

"So, you understand why I don't want JD seeing the body, or knowin' any of the details," he finished. "I'll tell him that we found a body, and that she was definitely murdered, but no more'n that."

Buck nodded in agreement, looking very pale. "Who was it?" he asked after a moment.

Chris shook his head. "We don't know. None of us ever saw her before - nor has Davies. Nathan's goin' to do a full examination in the morning, see if he can find anything else, and then we'll turn her over to the undertaker. Hopefully someone in town will know who she is. If not..." He sighed. "If not, we'll have to send out telegrams, see if she came from any of the towns around here."

The other five met Chris' eyes, silently acknowledging the decision.

Then Nathan pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. "Well, I'd better be off to bed. I'll see y'all in the morning."

"I'm going to go relieve JD," Josiah said, standing up as well. "I certainly won't be getting any sleep tonight, and he's probably ready for a break. Either of you two know who the marshals are?" he added, glancing at Buck and Ezra.

At that, Buck's expression brightened, and Ezra gave Chris a speculative look that immediately made him suspicious. What was going on?

"One of 'em's named Mike Carter--" the ladies' man began.

"A most thoroughly unpleasant young man," interrupted Ezra, "who bears an extremely arrogant and narrow-minded attitude, and is looking for trouble."

Buck glared at the gambler momentarily, irritated by the interruption, and then returned his attention to Chris and Josiah. "An' the other's Bill Freeley."

Chris felt a touch of surprise. "Bill?" he repeated. Last time he and Buck had run into Bill Freeley had been about a year and a half ago, over in New Mexico. From what little he recalled, it hadn't been the most pleasant of meetings - he'd just finished a job and had retired to the closest saloon to get drunk. Bill had been there - trailing someone, he thought - and had tried to talk to him.

He didn't remember exactly what he'd said, but Chris knew it had been angry and hurtful - said specifically to push Bill away. Somewhere in there there'd been a brawl, and he seemed to remember getting into a gunfight at some point in that town, whatever its name was; and by the time he'd sobered up, Bill had been long gone and Buck had been furious with him. Not that that had been an uncommon occurrence at the time...

Feeling eyes on him, Chris glanced to his right, to see Vin watching him with a concerned expression.

You all right, Cowboy?

Fine, Chris assured him silently.

Then, turning back to Buck, Chris studied him. "So, how is he?"

"Seems to be doing well. Volunteered for escort duty 'cause he'd heard we were here, and was hopin' to see us," Buck replied.

"A friend of yours, I assume?" Josiah asked.

"Yep," Chris replied. "So where--" he started, and then stopped as he caught a hint of movement from behind Nathan and Josiah, and looked to see the older man walking toward their table. He smiled. "Bill!"


Bill Freeley was astonished to see the smile cross Chris' face. He hadn't seen that happy an expression on the younger man since Sarah and Adam had died. This was certainly a far cry from the moody, rage-filled man who'd threatened to put a bullet through him a year and a half ago. He gave a smile of his own in response, and saw a flicker of relief in the gunslinger's eyes. "It's good to see you, Chris," he said.

"Good to see you as well," Chris replied, his smile widening. "Have a seat," he added, gesturing to the chair the black man had been sitting in.

"Thanks," Bill said, sitting down.

"Bill, I'd like you to meet my men. You know Buck already, of course, and I assume you've met JD, the sheriff. This is Nathan, our healer," that was the black man, "Josiah," the tall grey-haired man, "Ezra..."

"We have already become acquainted with each other, Mr. Larabee," Standish put in.

Chris rolled his eyes. "And this is Vin," he added, placing a hand on Tanner's shoulder. "Boys, this is Bill Freeley, one of the best marshals I've ever met."

"Pleased to meet you," Josiah said, nodding to him. "Shall I tell JD to come over here, Chris?" he added.

"Yes. Just remember, don't tell him about the condition of the body," Chris added; his tone, Freeley recognized, made it a definite order.

Josiah gave a grim nod of agreement, and headed out the door. Nathan touched two fingers to his hat in an informal salute and followed.

"So," Chris said, leaning back in his chair and pouring another shot of whiskey into the glass in front of him, "what have you been doing lately, Bill? Buck said you took escort duty in the hopes that you'd see us."

"That's right," Bill agreed, his eyes darting between Chris and Tanner. Did Chris even know that the man beside him was a wanted murderer? He doubted it - a gunslinger Chris might be, but he was a reasonably law-abiding man with a strict conscience and code of ethics. He wouldn't tolerate a murderer riding with him. And he certainly wouldn't be as relaxed in a murderer's presence as he seemed to be with Tanner. "As for what I've been doing, just the usual... nothing special over the last little while."

Standish stood up, gathering up his cards. "Well, if the two of you are goin' to reminisce, I, for one, will take myself elsewhere. Buck, Vin, would you care for a game of poker?"

Bill saw Chris and Tanner exchange another silent look, and then Tanner nodded, standing up as well. "Sure, Ezra," the Texan drawled. "Wouldn't want t' miss losin' last week's pay to ya, now, would I? Buck, you joinin' us?"

Buck shook his head. "Nope - Chris an' me got some interestin' stories to share with Bill, here."

Tanner shrugged, and then he and Standish headed over to another table some distance away, taking the half-empty bottle of whiskey and two glasses with them.

"Nothing exciting?" Buck asked then.

Freeley shook his head. "Nope, not really. What about you boys? I've heard a lot of rumours floating around about some of the trouble you've gotten into."

Buck grinned, and a faint smile crossed Chris' face. "Like I said," the ladies' man declared, "we've got some interestin' stories."

"I imagine so. So, let's hear 'em," Freeley suggested.

As Buck launched into the tale of how the Seven had first met, Freeley surreptitiously looked between Chris and the table where Standish and Tanner were sitting. He wouldn't broach the fact that Tanner was wanted for murder just yet... but he'd definitely have to tell Chris before he left. He didn't want the gunslinger trusting someone as hard and as ruthless as Vin Tanner.


Vin wasn't paying much attention to the 'game' he and Ezra were supposed to be playing; instead, his focus was on Chris' table. Having a marshal in town wasn't doing anything for the unease he'd been feeling since poor Davies had first shown up this afternoon, almost terrified out of his wits; and the fact that this marshal was obviously a good friend of Chris' was only making him feel worse. The last thing he wanted was for Chris or Judge Travis to end up in trouble because he was recognized.

"Vin?" he heard Ezra say quietly, and returned his attention to the gambler.

"What is it, Ez?"

Ezra looked briefly disgusted at Vin's use of the nickname, but didn't rise to the bait. "As it happens, that was what I was about to inquire. You appear to be most anxious concernin' something."

Vin hesitated for a moment, and then slumped in his chair and shrugged. "I just... I'se got an uneasy feelin', Ez. And it ain't just the girl's murder, either."

Ezra glanced over at the table where Chris, Buck and Marshal Freeley sat talking, and nodded in understanding. "I--" he began, only to stop as the saloon's batwing doors were flung open and JD rushed in.

"Chris, Vin! Nathan says to come quick!"

"What is it, JD?" Vin asked, as he tossed his cards carelessly onto the table and stood up, shrugging into his buckskin jacket.

"I don't know - he wouldn't tell me," JD replied, frowning anxiously. "Just said to run and get the two of you. What's going on, Vin? What did you find out at Davies' ranch?"

"We'll tell ya when we come back. Where's Nate?"

"Over at the church," JD said. He didn't look happy, but Vin felt it was probably a good sign of how much he'd learned since that first day that he didn't question him further.

A moment later, Chris joined Vin by the saloon doors. "JD, you stay here," he said firmly. When JD opened his mouth, obviously intending to protest - there were still some things he had to learn better - Chris glared at him. "You stay here," he repeated. "And you might want to keep an eye on Buck," he added, "make sure he doesn't tell Bill anything that would be too embarrassing for you."

At that, JD glanced toward the table Chris had left, where Buck and the marshal were still sitting, and immediately started over, distracted from what Nathan hadn't wanted him to know. Vin chuckled quietly to himself as he heard JD declare loudly, "Now, Buck, you ain't to tell him 'bout that time..."

Looking back at Chris, Vin saw his own amusement reflected in his best friend's face. As an attempt to ensure that Marshal Freeley didn't hear about whatever it was JD didn't want Buck explaining, it had failed miserably - and had, in fact, assured that the marshal would hear most, if not all, of the story from JD's own mouth.

The amusement lasted only a moment, however. Neither of them had any doubt that whatever it was Nathan had found was serious - he wouldn't have kept it from JD otherwise.

Ezra finished picking up the cards Vin had tossed down, and then stood up to join them. "I suppose we had best go see what sort of unpleasantness Mr. Jackson has managed to uncover," he said, in response to the questioning looks both Vin and Chris gave him.

Chris nodded, and then started out, Vin and Ezra flanking him.

The three of them walked from the saloon over to the church in silence, all of them worrying about what they would find. Vin had his suspicions. He didn't want to voice them, just in case they were wrong - but he didn't think that he was.

Nathan was standing just outside the alley next to the church, a grim set to his mouth.

"What did you find?" Chris demanded intently.

"We don't need to wonder no more where that girl's heart went," Nathan replied grimly.

He'd been right, Vin thought. Not that he was pleased - he'd have much preferred it had he been wrong, and it had been just a matter of Nathan needing a hand with something.

"Do you mean to say... to tell me that... that the victim's heart... is in that alley?" Ezra stuttered incredulously.

"That's exactly what I'm sayin'," Nathan answered quietly. His mouth tightened. "And that ain't all," he added. He then moved out of the way, so that the others could see what it was he'd been hiding.

Vin felt the same sense of horrified shock and dread he'd felt looking at the girl's body as he took in the sight of a human heart, pinned to the wall of the church with a bloody knife.


To Be Continued...

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