AUTHOR NOTE: Somehow, ads have been linked to some keywords in my stories - I am reloading chapters that I find, so please email me if you find one. I did not approve such a thing! - AJB



PROLOGUE: Trailhead

The alarm clock was seven minutes from launch when Vin Tanner's hand slipped from under the covers and slapped it off. Waking before the alarm was his usual routine - he kept setting the device just in case his natural tendencies let him down. Unlikely, but he could recall a time or two the alarm saved him a late arrival at work where he'd then be the prank target for the day. The idea of bumping Ezra from that delight made him smile when he remembered the next torture he'd thought up for his late-rising teammate.

Before throwing the covers back, he rolled to his back and took a moment to gather his thoughts regarding his team. Facing the ceiling but not really seeing it, Vin smiled again when he realized that today was a three year anniversary - three years ago today he joined the ATF and by accepting a position on a developing team that was now like family. Up until that point, he always worked and lived alone, enduring a series of foster homes and group homes after his mother died just after his fifth birthday and then as an adult, excelling in the naturally solitary position of an Army Ranger sniper.

With a bagful of dark memories and visible scars to remember them by, Vin left the Army to join the U.S. Marshals' Office where he remembered very quickly why he left the Army. He didn't mind following rules, but when they came from a superior he neither trusted nor admired, the job created more stress than he was willing to endure anymore. Only a fortunate series of events causing Chris Larabee to cross his path saved Vin, and he finally found a family.

Excited to start the day, Vin threw back the blankets, sat up and turned, placing his feet on the cool floor. "It's definitely fall," he thought with a shiver. He hustled to the bathroom and started the shower, then trotted to the kitchen and nudged the coffee maker to life. Though the thin apartment walls he heard Maria Hernandez scolding her children in Spanish. Vin chuckled at the exchange - the first day of school was not going over very well next door.

By the time he returned to the shower, it was warm and steamy and Vin relished the extravagance of a long shower. Once it was over, he dressed, poured two travel mugs of the powerful, black liquid that his teammates refused to acknowledge as coffee, tucked his Glock automatic into his waistband and pulled on a flannel shirt. Juggling the two cups, he left the apartment and locked the door.

"Senor Vin!"

He grinned at turned at the little girl's voice. "Buenos dias, Esmeralda!" he greeted. Then he looked up to the girl's mother. "Good morning, Maria," he said, glancing over her shoulder and winking at the toddler hovering in the hallway behind his mother. "I can walk Esmeralda to the bus if you'd like," he offered. "I see Jesus is still feelin' poorly." The toddler sniffled as if on cue and blinked his watery eyes.

"Bless you, Vin," Maria sighed. "Wait. I have something for you."

He smiled down at the excited little girl reciting a half-English, half-Spanish description of the contents of her brand-new backpack. Since moving into the barrio area of Denver known as Purgatorio, Vin helped a lot of the children and their parents with their English. He spoke fluent Spanish, but with a teasing amount of Texas accent. He learned that you could take the man from Texas, but not Texas from the man.

Maria reappeared and handed Vin a warm tortilla stuffed with scrambled eggs and her special, home- made salsa. Vin smiled broadly and tucked one travel mug in his breast pocket. It was a tight fit, but his stomach's growl forced the decision.

"Thank you, ma'm." The delicious scent triggered a Pavlovian response and Vin swallowed. Maria chuckled. "See you later, m'am. Come on, 'merelda, you can tell me about your things as we walk." The little girl happily chatted all the way down four flights of stairs as Vin finished the burrito.

Esmeralda bounced at his side all the way to the bus stop a block away where she joined the cluster of milling children at the corner. Vin greeted a few of the mothers and they assumed custody of the little girl. He gave his thanks and departed, heading toward the well-schooled Jeep parked around the corner where he could see it from his bedroom window.

After situating the coffee cups, Vin climbed into the driver's seat and started the vehicle. The drive to the Federal building was a chilly twenty minutes since he never bothered get real windows for the topless vehicle. The heater, though, excelled at warming his feet and between it and the coffee, the chill was tolerable. Vin expertly avoided the congested school zones and other busy streets and pulled up in front of the building's main doors in good time. A slight, dark-haired young man dashed from his waiting spot at the top of the flight of concrete stairs.

"Hey, Vin!" John Daniel Dunne greeted as he scrambled into the Jeep. "Are you ever gonna get real windows? You may as well ride the Harley."

Vin chuckled. "I promised Chris I wouldn't ride it to work anymore, remember? " Vin glanced over his shoulder and merged into traffic. "Fall is in the air, ain't it?"

JD buckled up and flipped his phone open, his fingers flying over the keys as he texted. "Buck wanted to know when you got here."

Vin shook his head with a grin. Buck, the team's explosives and tactical expert, adopted JD the moment they met three years ago. JD, an accomplished computer and electronics genius, was the youngest of the group at 23. Right from the start, Buck was the only one that seemed able to tolerate and control the exuberant kid and took him under his wing to show him the ropes of being an ATF Agent. Even after three years, Buck still acted as the father figure JD never had.

JD finished the text and put the phone away. "Thanks for the ride, Vin."

"Didn't make much sense for the both of us to drive to the range." Vin dodged down an alley to avoid a red light.

"Shouldn't be too crowded this time of day," JD said. "I usually qualify during lunch like half the department does."

"Yeah, I prefer mornin's for just that reason."

"I hear that temporary Range Master's pretty good. Robby McMillian. You know him?"

"Heard of him," Vin replied, pushing through a very stale yellow light. "From San Diego."

"Yeah. He was an Army sniper, too, I guess."

Vin didn't bother to reply. JD and the team knew he wasn't much for conversation and JD usually didn't have a problem carrying on the discussion on his own and the subject changed to the upcoming release of a new video game. JD somehow got a hold of a copy and proceeded to relate to Vin his evaluation of the game. Vin was the only other team member that could best JD in a video game and the mop-haired kid was always up for the challenge. Vin enjoyed the match ups because of the normalcy of it all. Such youthful pursuits were missing in his history. The two of them were close in years, but Vin was much older in life experience. Josiah, the team's profiler, called Vin "an old soul."

Tucked behind an industrial area on the outskirts of Denver, the Federal shooting range boasted outdoor and indoor ranges, a small simulated town street that looked like a Hollywood set, and a rifle range complete with varied terrain. With quarterly qualifications under way, there were more cars than usual parked in the front lot.

Vin and JD jumped from the Jeep and passed through gate security, walking directly to the handgun range. Vin, pleased to find an open end spot, pulled and checked his weapon. JD did the same a few positions away, chatting all the while with his neighbors. To hear him made Vin chuckle. Both of them passed the handgun qualifications with ease and brought up the rear of the line to log their results with the Range Master. A few minutes later, Vin stepped before a man with a clipboard.

"You're Tanner?"

Vin met Robby McMillian's eyes. "Yup," he acknowledged softly. McMillian looked older than Vin expected. Steely grey eyes studied him from under salt-and- pepper eyebrows. The man's hair, though, was completely silver, surprisingly thick and combed straight back. Age lines trickled from the corner of his eyes and mouth. Vin didn't feel any warmth from the man, and his first impression was to be cautious.

McMillian checked his sheet. "You're slated for the rifle range, correct?"

"Yup. JD here's my spotter."

"I'll get you a gun." McMillan turned, but Vin stopped him with his next words.

"Don't bother. I have my own in the lockers."

The Range Master checked his sheet again. "Okay, I see that." He set the clipboard down. "I have to qualify, too, so I'll join you."

Vin raised an eyebrow as McMillian walked away.

"Oh boy!" JD breathed. "This should be good! I think you can beat him, Vin."

Vin shook his head and walked to the armory building. "It ain't a contest."

"Sure it is, Vin, Ezra . . . oops." JD's mouth snapped shut. Vin stopped and tilted his head in JD's direction with narrowed eyes. JD offered a weak smile.

"Ezra's takin' odds on this?"

JD stuffed his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders. "Uh huh. You weren't supposed t' know."

Vin rolled his eyes and continued walking. Ezra Standish, his team's undercover Agent, also happened to be an accomplished gambler. "That's why he was so interested in when I was shootin'," he muttered. "It all makes sense now."

JD, uncharacteristically quiet since the slipped information, collected a spotter scope and radio as Vin retrieved and inspected his sniper rifle. Vin handled the weapon with respect, checking every part with a sharp eye. He was the only one that used this particular weapon but habit made him check it thoroughly. There was a time in his life when a weapon just like this was an extension of his physical body and the only thing he completely trusted. A lot had changed in the past three years.

Vin, satisfied, hefted the weapon and its tripod and headed to the range. JD followed and kept his silence. He knew Vin needed to find his zone, and wondered if his partner noticed the small crowd gathering just outside the armory. He could see hands flashing as cash crossed palms. Vin angled a wry grin in his direction and JD wrinkled his nose as a reminder that he should never under estimate his friend's observational skills.

An hour later, they were lying flat on the rocky soil, the smell of gunpowder sharp against the scent of the dusty earth. Vin took a moment to find a smooth spot for his elbows among the array of rocky lumps and pitted earth. The rifle felt smooth and warm against his cheek and snug against his shoulder, the familiar sensations comfortable in the roughness of the terrain. Carefully sighted in, he squeezed the trigger in a practiced fashion. The rifle's kickback was a loving push and the target quivered in the scope's cross-hairs.

"Dead center," JD brought the sharpshooter back to the now with his comment. Vin, so tuned to the moment, forgot about his teammate a mere yard away. Then he heard JD say, "1,000 yards and dead center. Can he beat that?"

Vin's eyes slid sideways as JD shook his head in amazement.

A sharp report to their right made JD fumble for the spotter scope. "Damn!" he puffed. "He's dead center, too!" With each shot, JD's usual chatty nature slowly returned

Vin sat up and collected his small notebook. "Not surprised. I heard Mac's pretty good," he commented softly as he hopped to his feet.

"'Pretty good'?" JD repeated in amazement. "That's better that 'pretty good,' Vin." The younger man rolled to his feet and gathered the spotting scope. He tucked it under his arm as he fell in beside his team's sniper, tilting his head aside to focus on Vin. "Can you beat him?"

Stepping carefully over the rocky ground, Vin hitched a shoulder. "Don't rightly know."

JD rolled his eyes. "Aw, comon' Vin. I know you have a feeling. We've been here all morning. You can't tell yet?"

"Not yet."

The younger man snorted. "And you're a liar."

Vin laughed and readjusted the rifle sling on his shoulder. He'd wondered himself who was the better shot since he didn't know a lot about McMillan. He respected the sniper's range scores so far, but he chose to hold his opinion until he knew about the man's field success. Paper targets were one thing, but shooting at a live target in a hot situation is what really defined the mettle of a man.

JD touched his ear briefly, obviously listening to the radio chatter, and then raised his eyes to Vin. "1,100?" he asked, his wrist microphone poised at his lips.

Vin paused and looked back down range in thought. "13," he answered in a soft voice as he continued walking.

"Ha!" JD barked, shaking an accusatory finger at his partner. "You're challenging him, aren't ya? Okay, then!" He keyed the wrist mike. "Setting up at 1,300," he reported, his grin igniting his eyes' twinkle. Releasing the mike button and excitedly repositioning the sniper scope under his arm, JD gave Vin a quick glance. "Too bad Ezra's not here. I'm sure the odds are changing fast."

"You know better 'n to sell Ez short." Vin began walking to the 1,300 yard mark. "He's connected."

JD adjusted his ATF baseball hat. "You're probably right. Want to take a guess on the odds?"


Many questions and 300 yards later Vin settled onto the ground, nestling his elbows into the sparse soil as he set the rifle against his shoulder. JD knew to stop talking at this point so his teammate could concentrate. Vin welcomed the quiet; although he appreciated their friendship and JD's skills, Vin preferred the quieter company of their team leader. They shared something indefinable and were brothers at heart from the very start.

After a few minutes consisting of minor adjustments to his body and equipment, Vin nodded once. "Ready."

JD reported readiness to the Range Master and touched the earpiece. "You're clear. No wind changes."

Vin's attention narrowed to his sites, the target and the very familiar feel of his rifle. He felt his breathing and heartbeat slow as his senses took over. Every nuance of the environment registered automatically in his mind to aim the shot. He held for several long seconds until his instincts told him the time was right. Only then did he gently squeeze the trigger. He knew the results as he shot, but still felt satisfaction at JD's report.

"Dead center! Great shot, Vin!"

"Thanks." Vin brought his rifle's scope to his eye and found McMillian's target. Less than a minute later, he heard a shot.

"Three o'clock on the line!" JD whooped. "He's off center two inches! You beat him, Vin!"

JD's report barely registered in Vin's mind as he frowned and sat up. Slowly standing, he shouldered the weapon and collected his notebook.

"Vin? You beat him!" JD repeated, waiting for a reply.

"I reckon I did," Vin mused as they began their trek to the range office.

Tuning out the excited chatter of his teammate, Vin tried to understand the unease slowly building in the past hour. His adversary's eyes stuck in his mind; something there bothered him and instinct screamed that Robby McMillian wasn't all he seemed. Vin couldn't pinpoint any particular reason why he felt that way, but his wariness weighed heavy because there was one thing the Team 7 sniper had learned a long, long time ago: Never ignore your instincts.