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Phoenix, Arizona

Chris Larabee, head of MAG7 Agency, a group of men in the work of protecting people and answering unanswerable questions, slowly drew his long, lanky legs off the top of his desk and stood up. The scowl on his face would have cleared his office, but everyone else had seen the look already, and nobody was hanging around to see it again. The rest of them knew why he scowled, and they waited... all of them in their own space, only a fraction more controlled than he.

He walked out of his office with his familiar black coffee mug, paused at the pot trying to seem like he wanted some of the newest brew, then he paced to the front office door. The exterior hallway was still empty. It had been empty the last twenty times he had walked there to look. But twenty times was twenty-one times too many, and he finally let out the curse he'd been holding in check all this time.

"Damn that kid! Where the hell is he? He's late!"

"Calm down, Stud."

"Whoa, Cowboy!"

"We had an appointment with Cheever at three! He should have been here!"

Buck Wilmington, the weapons expert, and Vin Tanner, the hunter, were the only two brave enough to get close enough to be within arms reach. They were respectively his oldest and his best friends. They knew how to help him, for now... if things didn't get any worse. For now, they semi-surrounded him, and as they talked to him, they began to herd him back toward his office.

Buck took the first crack. "Got it right there, Chris. He's just a kid. Probably got his eye on a sweet young filly. He'll show up when his hormones turn him loose."

"By then, I'm going to show him hormones! He's late!"

"Now, Chris. Ain't one to forget real often, Pard. He might have just run into something he just had to do!"

"What I'm afraid of. Last thing he just had to do got us all in hell in Nogales. Nearly got him killed."

"It wasn't his fault."

"Don't matter, Vin." It was worry Vin read in his friend's voice, and self-blame, again.

"Wasn't yours, either." Chris had almost died getting the boy home. They had all almost died. It wasn't their fault either.

"Can't prove that by me! Where the hell is he?!"

They were back by the man's office door when the front one eased open. A mirror image of their boss and friend slipped in, walking almost as silently as Vin Tanner could on a hunt. But his father's eyes were sharp, his ears keen, and his instincts shrewd. He spotted the boy inside two seconds.

"WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN!"

"Now, Dad... I can explain."

"GET IN HERE, THEN, AND IT BETTER BE DAMN GOOD!"

"Stud! Calm down!"

"Chris... remember, he's your son... he's a good boy!"

The two put themselves between Chris Larabee and his seventeen-year-old, Adam. They didn't fear for the boy, only for the father and his sanity. The anger proved nothing but their friend's pent-up fear.

"I suggest you two move! You're right, Vin... he's my son. I'll handle this."

"Not 'til you prove to us you're gonna calm down and talk, not yell."

Chris turned, walked to the coffee pot, sloshed the dark brew up to the brim of the mug, and plowed back past the group at the door. "You boys don't have to worry. I'm not going to hurt him... much!" He swept his son in front of him for the final yardage to the door.

The son looked back over his shoulder, eyes level at the two men who tried to protect him. "Buck, Vin... come on... it's Dad. His bark's worse than his bite... ah... .usually."

"You sure?" Buck called after him..

"Yeah." Then he gave them a close approximation of a Chris Larabee grin. "But, guys... stay real close... just in case." The office door slammed behind the two kin.

"Adam... where have you been! Scared the living hell out of me. You were due in at three. It's almost eight."

"I wasn't doing anything really wrong."

Chris had passed him, now he spun, "Really wrong? Really wrong! What's that supposed to mean? What have you been doing?"

"Nothing much... just driving the get-away car!"

"THE GET-AWAY CAR!"

There was not a single, square inch of the floor of Chris Larabee's office that didn't have a partner, or a staff member, or a janitor standing on it. As usual, they had all been listening at the door.

"Okay... what did he just say... did he say what we think he said?" Ezra stood there... not knowing whether to laugh at the joke, or simply faint at the horror.

Chris spun on his people. "HELL! EVERYBODY OUT!" He spun back on his son. "Adam, you start at the front... with Minute One... you tell me every last thing that went on. Don't you miss a single, solitary thing!"

"Can't we stay?" J. D. Dunne, the youngest partner, the incurable gossip, hadn't moved an inch.

"Why NOT?!" Chris glowered at the small man, throwing out his arms in sheer exasperation. "If I kick you all out, next thing I know, you'll all be outside on the ledge!" He took a breath. It didn't really calm his temper, but he didn't let it go full bore either. "Okay... son... where were you when you were supposed to be here?"

"Well, first, I went to the library. I needed a book on Arizona history, and I looked it up on the library's website. They had it at the south side branch."

"And?"

"Well, I got it."

"And?"

"Then, I had to pick up my shirts for football practice."

"You don't play football."

"Yeah... I do... started with Big Brothers/Little Brothers at the first of the school year. It's just flag, but the Big Brothers decided to get matching shirts for our Little Brothers for the end of the school year... so we could play in 'em this summer, during summer school."

"Summer school?!"

"Geez, Dad. Your brain still isn't right after Nogales! You can't remember nothing."

"Anything! What can't I remember?"

"I've got summer school to make up for the time in Nogales and the hospital. Right?"

"Hell... yeah... right! Adam... son... cut to the chase. Where were you?"

"Well, after I got the shirts... I went by the bank."

"The bank? Which bank?"

"Ah, your bank, Dad, the one just up the street from the sporting goods store."

"And why the bank?"

"I needed cash, Dad."

"You needed cash... so you went to my bank. How much this time?"

"Ah... about fifty."

"FIFTY! What did you need fifty dollars for?"

"Ah... I've got a date."

"Damn expensive date!"

"No, just a burger and a movie."

"Then why my fifty?"

"Geez, Dad..." The boy blushed. "Do you have to talk like this in front of all of them?"

Chris blushed himself knowing where he had been dragging his son's ego and their family business.

"Later, then. But why the bank? Why then?"

"Mandy works there, Dad! Geez!"

"Later. What has this got to do with you being late?"

"Well, I went inside to get the money, and I was talking to Mandy."

"Mandy?"

"Mandy Jackson... you know... Uncle Nathan's niece."

"What? That skinny little brat that put snakes in my bedroll at the company camp-out?"

"She hates snakes."

"Could have fooled me. Found two in my boots! Hell, found one rolled up in my shorts!"

"Shoot, Dad... they were just greenies. She did it on a dare, and she was only eight! Man, Dad, we've grown up a lot since then."

"Why were you talking with Mandy today?"

"She works at that bank, Dad!"

"Oh... yeah. She's old enough to work there?"

"Dad! Geez! I've got a date with her tomorrow night!"

"Oh... oh... okay. What's that got to do--"

"There was a hold-up."

"AH-SHIT! WE HEARD THAT CALL ON THE SCANNER! YOU WERE THERE?!"

"No... I was in Nebraska! Hell, Dad ... I'm not ever going to finish this!"

"Chris... why don't you just sit down over there behind your desk, Pard." Vin pointed him toward his executive desk chair. "That's right. Sit down... put your feet up... good. Now..."

"Now... shut up, Chris. Let the boy say his say. It's getting late. Sounds to me like there might be a few yahoos out there we don't want to miss."

"No, Buck... I took care of it!"

"YOU WHAT?!" Chris was half-way out of the chair.

"SIT!" Buck shouted at him. "ADAM, son... you best get this out fast or some of us are gonna bust a damn gut... your Dad first, me and Vin next, the rest of 'em close behind. Ain't gonna be a pretty sight, at all."

"It was classic!"

"SHIT!"

"Chris... easy... he's okay... he's not hurt." Vin moved a little closer to Chris, ready to move if the man felt inclined to throw things again. The repairs on the office suite had been nearly a hundred-thousand last time Chris cut loose with projectiles and firearms. Ezra, the budget watcher, had made a display of all the spent shells they had dug out of the walls and the furniture, just to help their leader remember. He had presented it to Larabee with a grin on his face... a grin that didn't last nearly as long as it took him to run to hide behind Buck.

"Classic! What the hell was classic?!"

"If you stay shut... he'll tell us, Mr. Larabee."

"Ezzzz--raaa!"

"Ez... think you better just keep a lid on it, Pard."

"Meeee, toooo," Ezra stepped back about a step into the crowd. He was a brave man, truly, but he was also a very practical man. Larabee's temper could come straight out of hell.

"Adam... get on with this!" The temper was barely in check.

"See, Dad... I was talking to Mandy and these two guys came in, shotguns, ski masks, baggy pants, gunny sack... the whole works. Even shot at the guard, but hell... couldn't hit the red side of a red barn." The boy stopped a minute to enjoy his joke.

"Adam... I'm waiting."

"Well... the one at the teller's window... Mandy's window... saw her try to slip the dye canister in the bag, and he freaked. He started yelling... he and the other one were waving their guns around, making threats. One at the window put the gun to Mandy's throat and said she was going with them. He started pulling on her... man, I was scared."

Chris's throat was dry, realizing now what his son had witnessed. "Did he hurt her?"

"No, Dad. I... I sort of..."

"You sort of what?" His voice wasn't angry anymore, just quiet and worried. His face was pale. "Adam, what did you do?"

"I told them to take me instead."

"Oh, God." Chris didn't feel like he could breath anymore. He had almost lost his son less than a year ago. Now, he had almost lost him again, and he hadn't even known. He was nowhere to help.

"It's okay, Dad. I'm okay."

"You went with them?"

"Yes, sir. They took me out the door, and down the street about two blocks... pushing, shoving. But, guess what?"

"Guess what?" Chris heard his son again... a kid.

"They didn't have a driver, Dad. Their driver had spooked, or decided to give up on bank robbing as a career. Anyway, he wasn't in the car."

"What did you do?"

"Well, the shit from the bank... sorry, the robber from Mandy's window, started to just shoot me then and there... said I could I.D. them for the cops. What a brain... he still had his mask on... I couldn't tell him from... well, you know. Anyway, I told him I couldn't be a witness if I was an accomplice... right, Dad?"

"Good thinking."

"Told him to let me drive... that I was a great driver... that I could get that heap of theirs to go ninety for sure... maybe more."

"And then you had to prove it... right!" Chris just put his head in his hands. "How fast... how far... were the cops?"

"Well... ah... I just got in, and I put on my seatbelt and shoulder harness, then I gunned it. The two guys laughed at me for putting on the safety gear, but I told 'em if my old man ever found out I'd been doing ninety without my gear, he'd shoot me... dead... and that weren't no bull. The first one put his gun to the back of my neck and said that was all just fine, but if I stopped he'd shoot me himself. The second one just kept looking out the front to see if he spotted choppers. Hell, Dad... they wouldn't put a chopper in that part of town, would they? But I told him to keep looking or we'd get a big surprise."

"And he believed you!" Vin just shook his head.

"At the moment, they were too busy worrying about the cop cars on our butts to think about it."

"This is too good... just too good... boy, if you're lying to your old man..." Buck had begun to laugh about halfway into the tale.

Chris lifted his head... serious now. "Too easy to check, Buck. If he'd try to lie to me with a story like this... he's a bunch more stupid than I generally claim he is. Finish it, Adam!"

"Hit eighty-five down Border..."

"Ah, hell..."

"Spun over left down Broncho..."

Chris had the route pictured in his mind... amazed at the boy's ability to choose a good route in the middle of this, until Vin...

"That's the wrong way... Broncho is one-way east, not west..."

"Well... I remembered that after I missed the first car..."

"Damn! How many?"

"A whole big bunch... wasn't much of a problem, though, Dad..."

"Good... Good..."

"...until we came up on the freight truck..."

"Ah, geez."

"I just swerved that bucket right, spotted the first freight ramp I could see, gunned it, and rolled back out the door. Those two boys should have put on their belts. When that car hit the wall, they shot out the front like rockets! Piece of cake!"

"PIECE OF CAKE, MY ASS!" Chris came up with a roar.

"But, DAD!" The boy decided to back up anyway.

"Pard... calm down... easy..." Vin backed up, too.

Chris came around the desk.

"Look, Chris... he's okay..." Buck stepped into the breech.

"He's gonna think okay!"

"But, DAD!"

"You could have gotten yourself killed!"

"Chris..." Even Ezra put himself between hell and the boy.

"Now, Dad... Now, Dad. DAD! HELL! DAD! JUST ONE DAMN MINUTE!"

"WHAT!" Chris halted under the unrecognizable tone in his son's voice. "WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?!"

"Hell, Dad. What would you have done?"

"I'd have..."

"You'd have started shooting in the bank, right?"

"NO!"

"You'd have let them take Mom or Mandy?"

"Not if I could help it!"

"You'd have let them drive off..."

"Maybe..."

"If you could have stopped them."

"Well... no... BUT I'M NOT A SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD BOY!"

"No... you're a past-seventeen year old man... and so am I."

"Shit!"

"Look, Dad. It's okay. I mean, after the cops took me in..."

"Ah, hell!"

"Wasn't a problem. Mandy and the bank manager I.D.'d me to them. The robbers cursed me for a son-of-a-bitch driver. Oh, and I used my call to get Captain Ramondo to back me up. The cops just let me go."

"At least he still had a head to use, Stud. Seems like he used it pretty good."

"That's true. Hell, Adam..."

"Hell, Adam, he knows you did the right thing. Hell, he'd have done the same thing. He just hates to admit it, or see you standing in harm's way again. You know it, don't ya. We don't have to say it do we?"

"No. He'd die of pure embarrassment if somebody made him say it."

"Say what... that I love you? Hell, you didn't talk to me for days yourself when I said it in front of your friends."

"Geez, Dad!"

"See." The man reached out and ruffled his son's hair. The boy blushed a furious red, but he smiled.

"Come on, guys. Somebody going to take me home... cops towed my car from in front of the bank. Ah, hell..."

"Where did you park? You didn't use Handicapped again, did you?"

"Well. I was only gonna be a minute."

"This is at least the third time, Adam. You pay the fine... and don't you use my account to do it. Next time I find out you've done that... I just might sell that little car of yours to help you remember."

"You wouldn't sell my M.G.!"

"No... I wouldn't do it... I'd just suggest real hard that you do it yourself and give the money to a food bank or something. A warning from me ought to be enough, Adam."

"Yes, sir."

"The very next time, son. You're a hero for what you did at that bank, but you were a little shit before you got in there. Don't need to be both... right!" Finally, Chris was able to let his heart stop pounding, to focus on something more reasonable for a young man's world. Parking tickets... fine. Towed car... sure. High speed chases, bank robbers, shot guns at his son's head? Chris felt his world shift and shift back. He drew in a deep, thankful breath and made himself switch back to the reasonable world. "Not again, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Now, about this date and my fifty dollars... why so much?"

"Well... I sort of... I sort of wanted to get her something."

"Like?"

"...flowers! and candy!"

"That's why I've got money, and you don't."

"You've always been a tightwad!"

"No... I haven't. But listen, take it from me, a single long-stem rose or even a few carnations or a little bunch of spring flowers. That's a real, special touch. A nice gesture. Save your dough... then when it's really special... go all out. For your mom, on our twentieth date... it was time for a dozen long-stem, cardinal-red roses with babies' breath, and a big box of Godiva Special Chocolates."

"Now that's why she calls him THE STUD!" Buck grinned.

"No... it's not... but how would you know?" Chris grinned at his friends, getting back to his more level self.

"Okay, Pard... where to?"

"Well then, hero... let's go get you something to eat, go get you home. Maybe the boys will join us."

"Sure... that's great!"

"Say, Adam? Does your mother know about this yet?"

"Ah, hell, Dad! You're not going to tell her, are you?"

"No... you're going to tell her."

"Geez, Dad. But you're going to be there backing me up, right?"

"I'll be there. I'll be there behind you... about ten yards behind you... somewhere off to the right... way off to the right."

"Why right?"

"Think."

"Oh... Mom throws to the left."

"That's right."

"Why would you be to the right?"

"She won't throw at you. She's going to throw things at me."

"Why... you didn't do anything?"

"Will that matter?"

"It should."

"Should... hell. All your mom's going to say is I taught you everything you know... and that put you in danger today... and that makes that all my fault."

"You mean like father, like son?"

"Yeah. Yeah... that sounds damn fine to me! Hell, bring all these boys with us. Let's all just go on home and tell your Mom what a hero we are."

THE END
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