THE DAMAGE DONE

Vin Tanner vanished two weeks ago. Left the badge on his desk and turned in his weapons downstairs. His landlady found three months' rent on her kitchen table along with a note. Another note was taped to the door of the basement where he teaches self-defense, cancelling all classes. JD has tried to trace Tanner electronically, watching for credit card transactions and cell phone use. He's been hacking databases and satellite feeds, even tapping into FBI and CIA accounts. Buck has called in favours right and left among his Army and law enforcement connections, just in case Tanner checks in or gets picked up. No APB out yet, but it won't be long now; Buck is getting antsy. Nathan has gotten Tanner's picture out to the local hospitals and morgues and he calls the ME every morning before Chris gets into the office. Ezra, aka Andrea Gianelli, a persona he spent six months in therapy trying to get away from, has spread the word he wants to speak to Vin Tanner, former ATF. They think they are so clever, hiding what they're doing from each other and from Chris. They are all prepared to get on the stand and swear no one else knew about it. But I'm Josiah Sanchez, twice and thrice as old as any of them, and I see things.

Chris has had his hands full keeping Judge Travis off our collective backs. Hard as he may come down on any of us, we know that he's backing us with the Judge and the City Council and doing it with everything he's got. None of us blame him for what happened. Tanner walking out of that meeting was a given, no matter who lost their temper and who didn't. Chris knows. Still, I ran across him standing in front of the large windows in the bullpen, watching the rain pour down in rivulets and streams.

"He didn't take his coat," he said, warming his hands around the paper cup of coffee.

I said nothing, promised nothing. The rain kept coming down.

"Josiah. I have to know."

And there it was, the question, the plea.

"I'll need to take a few days," I said.

==

I go by Josiah when I lend a hand at the shelters and soup kitchens, but there are places I'm known as the Preacher and nothing else. Those are the places of dirty needles and crooked spoons over Bic lighters, where thighs and backs are cheap. It's where you wake up with a kitchen knife between your ribs if you go to sleep. It's where the crazy women in tinfoil hats and the vets with the metal plates in their heads go when there is nowhere else left to go. A place like that lets you sink out of sight, swallows you up at once. A few days, and there is no trace.

I knew Vin Tanner before I met him. I'd seen him in streetcorners all over the world, warming his hands over coals in a trash bin. He was seldom in the shelters and not for long in the prisons. Sometimes he was a soldier or a prize fighter, but most often a runaway kid. Pleased as I was to meet him as an ATF agent, I knew that part of him would always remain in Purgatorio. It was where his home was and where he'd go for cover.

==

Finding him was more of a coincidence than anything else. A face half hidden by a baseball cap, a back that turned, fast and he dove into the crowd. I did not go after him, but stayed at the edge of the moving mass of humans, waiting for him to break free and seek the high ground. When he did, I was already there, not fooled by his attempts to throw me off track, no, not me. I am a profiler. I may not know always where people go and how, but I know where they end up. In this case, it was on the sixth floor of a nearby parking lot.

The concrete glistened with moisture and oil slicks. A slight rattle of metal and I knew he was scaling the barbed wire fence with an agility I had lacked, but made up for with wire cutters. There was a muted thump as he hit the ground, then soft, wary footfalls. I stepped out into the small circle of light from the spotlight, hands held out, palms up.

"Vin," I said and waited for him to acknowledge me. If he didn't, it meant he'd already left.

"Preacher, huh? Whaddya want?"

The voice was coming from behind me, but I didn't turn around. When he wanted me to see his face, I would.

"I came to see you," I answered truthfully. I hadn't promised Chris I'd bring Vin back. "The rest...I don't know. If you'd like to clean up and sleep some, I'm offering. There's a motel down the road. If you'd rather walk out of here, I'll let you. My word on it."

Nothing.

"My word," I said, pressing the point.

A long sigh and the shadow that was Vin Tanner stepped out of the dark.

"Nothing wrong with my hearing, Josiah," he said. "Motel is fine."

With the baseball cap on, he could have passed for a kid JD's age, if it hadn't been for the terrible calm in the blue eyes. He wore an over-sized bomber jacket I hadn't seen before. One sleeve was slashed through from shoulder to wrist and I assumed there had been a fight and that he'd won it.

==

Getting out of the car, he asked me was I carrying, meaning an open cell phone or a wire. I asked him was he carrying, meaning an unlicensed weapon or an illegal substance. We ended up patting each other down. Word only goes so far.

The hotel clerk took us for what we were, an older gentleman with a young friend just picked up from the street corner. I ordered food, I hadn't brought any, although almost everything else was in my duffel bag. Nate hadn't questioned the list I'd put on his table, although it included both needles and antibiotics.

Vin stopped in the door to survey the room. Patchy as his formal education might be, there was nothing wrong with his tactical sense and no one questioned his streetsmarts more than once. He took in the heavy dresser and the king-sized bed, the windows at opposing angles. No fire-escape but plenty of ivy outside the windows. He nodded.

"We wait for the food," he said and almost as an afterthought bent down to slash the phone cord with a switchblade my cursory inspection had missed. "Then the dresser goes in front of the door. You wanna leave, you leave before that."

I nodded. Waco had taught me not to push.

The food arrived and Vin inspected it, but without the desperate urgency that meant starvation. Before moving the dresser, he stuffed a roll into his mouth and I was glad to see him chew it slowly. He went into the bathroom and the shower started running.

He was in there for a long time. I know the feeling of washing away more than blood and dirt. When he came out, I had laid out the equipment on the bed.

==

Vin's height and weight was in his files along with recent photos and prints. I had planned for circumstances rather more dire than that. He held out his arm for me to peel some skin cells off with the tiny metal scraper, then pricked his finger with the scalpel blade himself. I soaked up the tiny globule of blood with a square of filter paper and popped it into a test tube.

"Do you mind?" I asked, holding up the scissors.

"No." Vin sighed. "Go ahead, 'Siah."

The sandy hair curled around my fingers and I snipped off rather more than I had intended. That went into another test tube and I snapped the lid, then passed one of the thermoplastic wafers to Vin.

"Bite down on this," I said. "Four minutes."

Vin eyed it for a moment before sliding it it into his mouth.

"And I want you to have this," I added, handing him the small envelope I'd carried around for more than twenty years.

With the wafer in place, Vin couldn't talk; he raised his eyebrows.

"It's a key to a safety deposit box in the Fleet bank office on 77th Street," I explained. "It holds my will, several old photographs and my sister's music box."

Everything precious to me was in there. And if Vin wanted to leave something behind, I'd keep it safe for him.

"Take the bag. Your Western Union codeword is Kurosawa."

Vin started to shake his head no, but I cut him off.

"I can't stop you," I said," and I can't go with you. At least let me do what I can for you. Let me see you off."

I'm the Preacher and I see things others don't see, but sometimes I see less. Sometimes, all I see is bugs crawling this way and that. Not with my team. I look at them and the bugs stop crawling. That was the reason Vin already knew. I had another.

"I was with the Bureau in 1993," I told him. "A bad year for US law enforcement overall, worse for some. There was a series of retaliatory actions against police officers; I was part of the profiling team heading the investigation."

The bomb had been expertly placed and detonated, completely demolishing the car. The on-site team had brought the medical examiner a container of ash and blackened bone fragments. Sarah Larabee had been identified by her wedding ring, fused to the finger bone. The six tiny diamonds that had been all the Larabees could afford had been intact.

"Four days before the ME identified Adam," I said. "A chip off a vertebrae too small for an adult. Until then, Chris had been hoping for a ransom call."

I had heard the keening from my office three floors up. From my window I had seen Buck wrestle Chris into his car. Though I hadn't known either of them at the time, the sound had haunted my dreams for years.

"Sometimes late at night, he takes out the report and looks at it. All those photographs of bone and ash. Wondering if we missed something, if Adam is still out there somewhere. Vin, this time he has to know."

Vin spat out the wafer, wiped it dry and gave it to me.

"Okay," he said quietly. "I think you'd better tell him you found me in an upstate morgue. Don't ask me how I know, but there's a John Doe in Boulder who'll fit my description. As for the rest of it - you've got what you need. What you came for."

"Yes. I'm sorry, Vin."

He shrugged.

"Don't be. Wasn't as if I had been planning on coming back, anyway. You'll take care of them, won't you, Preacher?"

"Always," I said.

"Then we're good," he said, picking up the duffel. He slung it over his shoulder and walked out on me.

Long after he was gone, I sat on the bed in that motel, turning the wafer over in my hands. The print was perfect. Just looking at it, I could see my friend smile.

FIN