Chapter 1

Staging

Sam walked into the locker room, coat slung over his shoulder, practiced nonchalance on his face.

I will NOT feel guilty. I refuse to feel guilty.

It's not like we're hurting anybody.

He told himself that every time he walked into this building lately. And it never worked.

There was Sarge, big grin on his face, trading lighthearted verbal jabs with Wordy. I think he knows, and he's letting it slide...but if this goes wrong, he'll lose his job over it!

Sam felt his smile fade at the thought, even as the others turned to greet him, so he replaced it with a new grin that he hoped didn't look forced.

It was easy to smile with these guys.

"Sam-tastic!" Spike held up a hand for a high-five, which Sam obligingly gave him. Wordy slapped him on the back. Sarge, Ed, and Lew smiled at him….

But Sarge always has a question behind his eyes.

If he doesn't know, he suspects.

Sam spent a minute or two in friendly sparring with his comrades, and still managed to have his street clothes stowed and his uniform half on by the time Jules arrived.

"Hey, everybody," she called out, though there was of course no line-of-sight between her and the men's dressing area. She'd come in seven minutes after he had, just as planned, and her loud greeting made sure everyone noticed how much time had elapsed.

The men all returned her greeting, and took it for granted that she headed to the separate locker room she had all to herself, as of course she did.

Sarge is looking at me again. Sam pretended not to notice, and he followed his usual strategy of introducing a safely neutral topic of conversation. This time it was hockey.

The morning dragged at first. Workouts went well, but afterwards the team began to get antsy.

Sarge ordered them to the firing range, and they all shot until they were sick of it.

And then, just as they returned from the range, the claxon sounded. "Team One, hot call, gear up!"

Finally!

Spike whooped. "It's about time!"

Kira fed them the details. "Armed subject, multiple hostages, multiple 911 calls, confirmed. The location is the Sow and Cow Meat Market." She rattled off the address. "Subject is described as a white male, approximately 20-25 years old, wearing camo. Evidently he has a duffle bag full of weaponry, possibly including explosives. 911 operator reports that he overheard a demand for all cellphones to be turned over, and the calls have stopped. Uni's have established a perimeter, but are staying back."

"Copy that," Sarge confirmed for all of them.

Sam's mind was spinning even as he strapped on his gear.

A vet?

Do I know him? Did I serve with him?

Will Sarge let me handle negotiations if I did?

They rushed to the garage, climbed into their trucks and sped away, lights and sirens blaring. Sam had the wheel of one truck, and Spike rode beside him.

"Okay, guys, check out your PDAs," Spike said into his mic. "These are the floor plans for the Sow and Cow. Could they have thought of a worse name, by the way?" And then, for the benefit of those driving, he began to tell them the salient details that they couldn't look at right now.

"Okay, if I were this guy, I'd be holed up in the freezer area in the back. No outside access except one strong metal door. No windows back there."

"But awfully cold, Spike," Sarge noted.

"Yeah, well, maybe he's wearing thermal underwear. But even if he's not in the freezer, just being near it would put him well back from any easy access points. And we have very solid construction here, from what I'm seeing. Stealthy entry could be a real challenge. Same with finding a good sniper perch."

Sarge's voice came over their headsets. "Kira, did the subject make any demands that we know of?"

"None mentioned. 911 has not attempted to re-establish contact with any hostages for safety reasons."

"Copy that, Kira, we should be there in 6 minutes."

"We'll stage in the alley just behind the location," Ed added.

"Copy that," everyone replied.

"Time to kill the noise, guys," Sarge ordered when they got within a few blocks of their target. Sam switched off his siren, but kept his lights flashing. He knew that barricaded subjects tended to go ballistic when they knew the cops had arrived, but with no windows in the back, in the broad daylight, the lights wouldn't cause a problem.

They pulled in, strategically parking to block off access to the alley and remain out of sight of the few side windows in the building. All officers disembarked from their vehicles quietly and converged around the center of command: the combined power of Sergeant Greg Parker and Officer Ed Lane.

All eyes surveyed the building as if they hadn't yet seen the floor plans on their PDAs. They always did that, since those floor plans often contained major errors. So far, at least from the outside, this one seems to have been accurate.

"Hey guys, check this out." Spike was inspecting a breaker box on the outside wall of the meat market. Its lock had been broken, and the door hung askew.

Ed walked over to see it. "Did he kill the power, Spike?"

"I'm thinkin' this guy knows what he's doing, Boss. Look at this." He stepped back and pointed. "He only messed with one breaker...the biggest one. I'm willing to bet that one controls the big meat freezer. I'm betting he's holed up in there, just like I said, but he cut the power to it first, so he wouldn't freeze. And he didn't just throw the breaker, he smashed it, so we can't turn the cold back on." He shot a significant look at the others. "He's probably got the hostages in there, and he's standing in the freezer doorway to make sure nobody escapes."

Spike spoke with that odd combination of emotions only he ever displayed; the common desire to convey vital and accurate information, and his unique sense of satisfaction...even admiration...for the cleverness of a technical coup.

Spike stepped back a bit further to allow the others a better view. "He'd probably be able to completely close himself in there pretty quickly if he knew we were coming."

"You can bet he knows, Spike," Sarge replied. "He had to have seen people talking to 911 before he confiscated the phones. But that's a double-edged sword. If he locks himself in there, he's cut off from all supplies. We'll have the advantage."

"Yeah. Except that the hostages will be fish in a barrel," Ed muttered.

"Copy that," Sarge replied quietly. And then, into his mic, "Kira, we need this breaker repaired ASAP, but tell the repairman that he's NOT to turn the power back on without my say-so. We need the option of power, but we need it off for now. Don't want to freeze our hostages."

"Copy that, Sarge."

Spike caught the Sarge's eyes with a look of urgency. "You gotta understand, Sarge, that in order to fix that breaker, he's got to cut power to the whole box, and that means cutting all power in the building. Our guy will know...or at least suspect...what we're up to."

Sarge's eyebrows went up, and his expression grew more troubled. He patted Spike's shoulder in silent thanks for the intelligence. "All right, Kira, did you copy what Spike just said?"

"Yes sir."

"So...I need the repair guy to be on scene but on standby, then. And I need to know how long he would need to have the power off while fixing the breaker. This could get really touchy."

"Copy that."

"I wonder how long ago he threw the breaker," Ed mused. It will stay cold in there for quite a while, cold enough to be pretty uncomfortable."

Sam shook his head, growing more and more worried for the hostages as he pictured the scene. "If this guy's a vet, and it's a pretty good bet that he is, he's going to be ready for just about any approach we try."

Sarge looked him full in the eyes now. "Which makes it all the more likely that we're going to have to talk him down, Sam, and that's got your name written all over it."

Sam felt two simultaneous jolts; the joy of being so entrusted, and the heavy weight of the responsibility. "I thought so too, sir."

Sarge just nodded.

Lew stepped up with a question of his own. "Would it be possible to bypass the box...set up some kind of generator, so that the repairs can be made without killing power to the building?"

Spike seemed intrigued, but before he could answer, Kira's voice cut everything else off.

"Sarge, 911 has a man on the line claiming to be our subject."

Parker shot a look and a nod to Sam. "Okay, Kira, patch him through. I want him on all of our headsets, but I don't want him to hear anybody but Sam." He turned to the rest of the team. "I need reccy now, whatever you can give me."

"Copy that." The team...all except Sam and the Sarge...fanned out to survey the setting more thoroughly.

Kira said, "Okay, team, I'm going to use Channel 1 for all live team chatter. It will also carry the audio of Sam's negotiations to the rest of the team, but the subject will not hear anything on this channel. Channel 2 will be for Sam and the subject to talk to each other, but I will also allow Sam to hear the team on a lower volume."

"Copy that."

Sam felt a flutter in his chest as he heard his call go live.

It's all on me right now.

Next: Chapter 2 - Numbness