“It is the Nature of the Beast which will always prevail.

One can be true only to one’s own Nature.”

                        ~Unknown

 

~The Scorpion’s Sting~

By: Roz

roswell1947_98@yahoo.com

 

Only one streetlight in the grungy, long-abandoned lane still worked, and Sydney parked her car underneath it out of habit.  Not that the light would prevent her car from being stolen – there would be no witnesses anyway.  For her purposes, though, perhaps that was for the best.  She stuck her gun in the glove box and shoved her star into a pocket before slowly getting out of her car.

 

As she started down one of the narrow alleys, she didn’t bother to stay in the tiny pools of light.  The shadows seemed less threatening that usual – perhaps because she expected someone to jump out at her at any time - rather than her usual paranoia.  Besides, the lights in the alley were much like the lights in the street – most had been burned out or vandalized long before. She picked up her pace to a brisk walk.

 

The alley opened into a clearing about three blocks down.  At one point, it had been a loading dock, but the prosperous businesses in this part of town had long since moved out or burned up.  The alley was no longer used – not for anything good, anyway.  It was filled with litter and empty boxes and old, dented dumpsters overflowing with garbage.  And shadows.  So many shadows.

 

Sydney slowed to a walk and looked around the clearing.  They were there; she could feel them watching her.  Yet they did nothing.

 

Five alleys led out of the clearing.  Sydney knew which one to take, and she headed directly for it.  The shuffling sounds behind her reaffirmed her suspicions, and she spun around to see a group of men forming in the open space.  They had positioned themselves well; she was almost completely surrounded.

 

“A girl like you doesn’t belong in a place like this,” one of the men said, taking a step toward her.  “It makes me wonder why you’re here.”  She recoiled back a step, straight into the arms of another thug.  Though she tried to fight him, he and the others forced her facedown on the wet concrete.  They frisked her quickly, then searched her pockets.  One emerged triumphantly with her Ranger’s star.

 

“Well, what have we here?” the man taunted as she was hauled to her feet.  “A Texas Ranger?  Please!  We’re not worthy.”

 

Sydney was silent, surveying the faces of her captors.

 

“We weren’t aware that you guys even knew about us, much less thought of us as a threat to you.  But I suppose since they handed you to us on a silver platter, we might as well make lemonade from our lemons.  Congratulations – you will be our official message to the other ninety-eight Rangers.”

 

“What message?” she spat.

“That you don’t screw with us.”  He drew his weapon as she was pushed to her knees.  “Any last words?”

 

“Actually, yes.”  He circled around her and she closed her eyes, expecting to be silenced at any moment.  “It’s amazing how quickly people forget the old saying.  Quid pro quo and all, you know.  Like when one defends a person their entire life, but suddenly when one has a gun to one’s head, that person is unwilling to step up.”

 

“What the hell are you talking about, lady?” the man asked.

 

“I mean, I know you turned on the law and everything, but I never thought you’d turn on me.  Blood is thicker than water, after all.  I thought they taught you better than that.  And even if they didn’t, don’t you think you owe me – just a little?”

 

“Enough babbling, you psycho,” he snapped.  Sydney tensed and said one final silent prayer – just in case.

 

“Wait,” another voice said.  She looked up to see a younger man step forward.

 

“What do you mean, ‘wait,’ Perdiz?”

 

“I mean wait. Don’t shoot.  She’s… with me, I guess.”

 

Sydney smiled slightly.

 

“With you? She’s a cop!”

 

“A Ranger,” she corrected quickly.

 

“Shut up,” the man snapped.

 

“Yeah, she’s a cop,” Perdiz said.  “And she’s also my sister.”

 

~/~

 

Sydney walked through the warehouse, carefully stepping past piles of ingredients and small white packages.  Perdiz led her into a converted office and shut the door. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Nice to see you, too,” she answered. “It’s been awhile.”

 

“I’m sorry. I’ve missed you,” he said.

 

“Good.”

 

“Now… what are you doing here?”

 

She took a deep breath.  “I came to warn you.”

 

“Of what?”

 

“The Rangers know where you are. They haven’t done anything yet – to my knowledge, anyway – but I don’t know how long that will last.”

He stared at her for a long while. “Why are you telling me this?” he finally asked.

 

“Like I said… blood is thicker than water.” She turned away and started pacing. “Look… when it was just you and the cops, I was fine with it. I figured you’d live your life and I’d live mine.  And I was good at it.  I got promoted; I became a Texas Ranger… I never forgot where I came from – or you – but I let it go.  It’s different now. I know what you’re up against, and I’m worried about you.”

 

He grinned. “Bring it on. I can take it.”

 

“No, you can’t, Leandro,” she answered softly.

 

“Andy,” he corrected.

 

“You’re missing the point. I know these people. I’ve worked with them for years – gone on raids, done searches, solved cases – and you don’t know what they’re like.  Some of them have multiple black belts in the martial arts.  Some could pick off a tiny moving target at two hundred yards.  They are the best of the best, and you’re no match for them.”

 

He scowled at her for a moment before speaking. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that – for the moment.  Besides, I don’t plan on fighting them. I plan to play this out smart.”

 

“I didn’t mean they’re just the best physically. They’re smart… and quick on their feet. And they have lines of experts waiting to help them solve any problems they can’t overcome themselves.”

 

“So I’m officially at war with the almighty Texas Rangers, then.”

 

“Unfortunately, yes.”

 

“The ultimate enemy.”

 

“Dammit, Leandro, would you listen to me? You can’t take them on. They will kill you. That’s why I’m here. I know you’ve done some crazy stuff, little brother… but I don’t want to see you dead. I don’t want to have to call Dad and tell him you’re gone, and I couldn’t bear to see Mama at your funeral.  Losing you would kill her.  And that would kill me.”

 

“What do you suggest I do? Back off? My boss would have my head!”

 

“I don’t know; I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”

 

He sighed. “I’m sorry, Sydney, but I have to play this one out. If you don’t want it to end badly… help me.”

 

“How?”

 

“You’re my insider.  Make sure that I’m gone by the time they figure out where I am.”

 

She looked away and didn’t answer for a long time. “I think that’s technically aiding and abetting.”

 

“And this isn’t? It’s consorting with the enemy, at least. Come on, Sydney, you’re already in up to your neck. If they find out who I am, they’ll never trust you again anyway. You have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

 

“Are you trying to blackmail me?”

 

“No, I’m just giving you a good incentive. Think on it. And when you decide, call me.” He scribbled a phone number on a small slip of paper and handed it to her. “One of my men will walk you back to your car. It’s not safe for a woman like you to be walking these streets at night. There are crazy people out there.”

 

Sydney sighed. “There are crazy people in here.”

 

~/~

 

Sydney stared at the piece of paper as the letters began to dance before her eyes. Everything seemed dull and blurry, but she couldn’t seem to focus.  Gage drummed his fingers on her desk, bringing her out of her trance. “You okay?” he asked.

 

“Yeah, I just… didn’t sleep well last night.”

 

“Well, you might want to snap out of it PDQ. We have a briefing.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“A briefing. You know, one of those meetings where they tell us stuff?”

 

“Yeah, I know what a briefing is.” She glared at him. “Couldn’t they give us a little more warning?”

 

“It’s an ‘emergency,’ they say. I’m not sure if I buy that yet. Let’s go.”

 

Sydney pushed herself out of the chair and followed her partner to a conference room. It was already full of familiar faces, including Walker, Trivette, Alex, and Captain Briscoe.  A tall man in a suit stood in the front corner.  He gave Sydney a nearly imperceptible nod as she entered, and she raised an eyebrow at him before taking a seat next to Gage and opening the file that was given to her. She tried not to react as she pulled out a picture of her brother along with his rap sheet.

 

“Good morning,” Captain Briscoe said, getting to his feet. “As I’m sure most of you know by now, we’ve had a large increase in the drug influx to the Metroplex recently. We believe that we’ve found the source.  It’s a group that started in Louisiana, transporting heroin through the Gulf, and now it seems they’ve chosen to migrate west.”

 

“Is this the guy in charge?” one of the Rangers asked, holding up the picture of Perdiz.

 

The man in the suit stepped forward. “That’s the problem. Perdiz is second in command, as far as we can tell, but we don’t really know who’s in charge.”

 

“This is Special Agent Reece from Washington,” Briscoe announced.

 

“Yippee,” Gage whispered dryly.

“We will be forming an inter-agency task force here to take them down, but we have to figure out who’s in charge first. If we don’t, he’ll just pick up more men and keep it going.”

 

“How do you recommend that we do that?” Trivette asked.

 

“We’re working on that.”

 

“I see,” Gage put in. “An ‘inter-agency task force,’ and you’re already keeping secrets from us. I think that’s a record.”

 

“Gage,” Briscoe warned.

 

“With all due respect, Captain, we could deal with this ourselves.”

 

The other Rangers murmured assent. Sydney was quiet.

 

“Maybe you could, but I wouldn’t recommend it, Ranger,” Reece growled.

 

“And why not? So we can do the work and you can get the glory?”

 

“No, because I know how you guys work.  You rush in. Yeah, sometimes you get the bad guy, but do you care how many plans you screw up? No! Think about it – we have to take them all out at once, both here and in Louisiana. We have way of doing that. You don’t.”

 

Sydney choked back a laugh, sending herself into a coughing fit. Reece ignored her.

 

“Look, I’m here because we want your help. You guys make up one of the best law enforcement agencies in the country – we realize that. But you can’t do this alone.”

 

Sydney shot him a cool look. “We’ll see.”

 

~/~

 

“Were you followed?”

 

“Of course not.”

 

“Good.” Sydney tossed a file onto the hood of her brother’s car.  “You won’t believe some of this.”

 

“Ugh, that’s a terrible picture of me.”

 

Not willing to pass up a chance to mock her brother, she grabbed the photo and held it up to her brother’s face. “No, you’re really much uglier in person.”

 

He ignored her and continued reading. “Wow… six foot three.”

 

“Ha. Six one, tops.”

 

“Like you would know, Shorty.”

 

“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, dear.”

“And a lovely hand it is, too.” He finished flipping through the file and handed it back to her. “Is this all they know?”

 

“All the Rangers know, yes. But this file came from the Feds… and God only knows what they’re holding back.”

 

“Ooh… we’ve caught the attention of the big kahuna, huh?”

 

She grinned. “That’s why they put the ‘eye’ in FBI.”

 

“That’s terrible,” he said, choking back a laugh.

 

“I know. And I have a list as long as your arm of other things that those initials could stand for.”

 

He smiled. “Oh, I can imagine. You’re really nervous about this, aren’t you?”

 

“Why do you ask?”

 

“Because you don’t start cracking corny jokes until you’re really scared about something.”

 

She shrugged. “Whatever.”

 

“Don’t worry about it. Trust me – they know nothing.”

 

“They know who you are and where you are. Isn’t that enough?”

 

“Have they planned the raid yet?”

 

“What?”

 

“You know – raid. Where way too many cops with guns burst into your place of business, bust up your merchandise, and arrest your employees?”

 

“That’s a rather biased view… No, I don’t think they have. They’ve got surveillance on the place, though, which is why I asked you to meet me here. If they see me with you, it’s all over.”

 

“If they do, stick with me. I protect my own,” Perdiz insisted.

 

“Of all things, at least you learned that.”

 

He ruffled her hair gently. “Get some sleep, big sister. Find out what you can and call me, but don’t obsess over this. You can’t control everything.”

 

“You remember what Mama always used to tell us about the strings of Fate? I think she was wrong… They feel more like chains.”

 

He smiled. “Welcome to my world, big sister. Enjoy your stay.”

 

~/~

 

Special Agent Reece sauntered over to the gang at Walker’s desk. “Have you read the file yet?”

 

“Maybe. So?” Syd asked coolly.

 

“Just wondering. Captain Briscoe said that you four were the ones to talk to.”

 

Gage glanced over at his partner. “Well, he’s nothing if not blatantly honest.”

 

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” she replied. “Why don’t you just call another briefing?”

 

“Because not everyone has seen the results of our surveillance so far. You guys have. What do you think? Do we have enough for a warrant and a raid?”

 

“For a warrant… probably, if you get a lenient judge,” Alex answered. “But how far would that get you now?”

 

“And as for your surveillance, I’d say it stinks. You have records of people entering and never leaving, or the other way around. How many people have you missed altogether?” Syd asked.

 

He ignored her.

 

“Wait a minute,” Trivette said. “I thought you wanted to get the leader, not just Perdiz. You have reason to believe that he’s in that warehouse?”

 

Reece shrugged. “Plans change. The drug levels in the Metroplex are increasing almost exponentially, and they seem far too comfortable with that. We want to put some major pressure on them – knock them out of that comfort zone – and they’ll be more likely to make mistakes.”

 

“I love it when plans change and no one bothers to tell us,” Gage murmured.

 

“If we got more specific surveillance of the warehouse this weekend, think we could pull off a raid Monday?”

 

All four Rangers stared at him. “Not a well-organized one,” Walker said sharply. “We would need much more information.”

 

“It doesn’t have to be well-organized. Even if we don’t catch Perdiz… the goal here is just to pressure them. To let them know that we’re up to the challenge.”

 

“We can pull it off,” Walker replied, “But I need every detail of that building and the organization. Without it, it’s too dangerous to send people in there.”

 

“It’ll be in your hands by lunch.” Reece strolled confidently out of the office.

 

“Jerk,” Sydney muttered after him before heading back to her desk. She rifled through a file, then looked up at her partner. “Gage… have you seen the McCormick papers today? I don’t remember where I put them.”

 

“No, I don’t think so.”

 

“Well, I was working on them at home last night… maybe I left them out in my car. I’ll be right back.” She hurried out of the office.

 

“Has anybody else noticed that Syd’s been acting kind of funny for the past few days?” Gage asked.

“She said she hasn’t been able to sleep very well recently,” Alex said.

 

“Yeah, she mentioned that to me, too. It’s nothing that I can put my finger on, either…” He wandered to the window and watched as Sydney left the building and headed for her car. On the way, she pulled out her cell phone and a small piece of paper and made an extremely brief phone call before pulling a handful of papers out of her car and hurrying back toward the building. Gage picked up the file that she had been looking at and flipped it open, looking for a name. To his chagrin, he found it – McCormick. He shoved the file in a drawer and headed back to Walker’s desk.

 

~/~

 

“What are we watching for, anyway, Reece?” the other agent in the car asked.

 

“We’re trying to find routines… how many people are in there… you know, stuff like that.”

 

“And we’re supposed to figure that out by sitting in a car across the street from the front door – which they never use – and watching as nothing happens?”

 

“Shut up, Dollard,” Reece snapped. “You do what I tell you to.”

 

“Yeah? And who says you’re right and I’m wrong?”

 

“You really want to know? Joseph Davies.”

 

Dollard stared at him for a moment. “Assistant Director Davies?”

 

“Yep. So shut your trap and keep your eyes peeled.”

 

“The only things I see are the trucks – and they’ve been coming and going since before we had a watch on the place.”

 

“What trucks?”

 

“Those.” Dollard pointed to a light blue semi parked a little further down the street. It bore markings that looked like a company name, but Reece couldn’t make out the words. “They all belong to a company around here – J. Tolley and Sons. They’re one of the few legit things left around here. They make kitchen stuff, I think.”

 

“I don’t even want to know how you know that.”

 

Dollard ignored him. “They’re the only traffic back here now. Haven’t you seen them? Three or four have passed us in the last few hours.”

 

Reece glanced up at him for a moment, then back to the old warehouse. “Huh. I hadn’t noticed.”

 

~/~

 

Perdiz watched with a satisfied grin as the last two semis were backed into the loading docks.

 

“We got more trucks than we’ll need for the stuff, boss,” said a younger man as he entered the dock.

“I know. Don’t worry, Marco, I’ve got it all figured out. The Feds can’t see all of us leaving at once, right? So we’re sticking the workers in the trucks with the merchandise. It’s only a five or ten minute drive to the new location – there’s plenty of air. Take ’em, unload ‘em, and bring the trucks back.”

 

“What are we going to do with them?”

 

“Put them right back where we found them. Old Tolley will never even know that they were gone. It’s funny, though…”

 

“What?”

 

“Tolley and his sons can’t be running these trucks. They never work Saturdays – they’re Jewish. So much for our intelligent FBI agents out front.”

 

~/~

 

“Team One?” Reece called through his radio.

 

“Ready,” it cackled.

 

“Team Two?”

 

“Ready.”

 

“Team Three?”

 

“Ready.”

 

“Team Four?”

 

“Ready and awaiting your command, O Captain, my captain.”

 

“Dollard,” Reece ordered through the radio, “Shut up.”

 

“Do all teams know their assigned area?” the SWAT commander asked. Several affirmations crackled back to him.

 

“Then we go on my count,” Reece said. “One… two… three!”

 

The vans quickly surround the building, and the teams leapt into action. Two teams took the loading dock, two more broke down the front door, and Reece’s team used the side entrance.

 

They found a totally empty warehouse.

 

The men thoroughly searched the space to no avail. Everything that they had expected to be there was gone. Even the floor looked like it had been cleaned.

 

“I don’t believe this,” Gage said as he looked around. “It’s not even like they’re gone, it’s… it’s like they were never here.” He took a step toward Reece. “Are you sure they were here?”

 

“Positive.”

 

“This wasn’t a fluke, Gage,” Walker said softly. “Something – or someone – tipped them off.”

~/~

 

“After today’s fiasco, I expect you realize that we need to take more drastic measures,” Captain Briscoe said.

 

“Yes, sir,” Walker replied.

 

“I want you to figure out where Perdiz is and plan a real raid.”

 

“You don’t want to wait and find the man in charge?”

 

“I don’t think that ‘the man in charge’ is anywhere near Texas. With as many secrets as the Bureau is keeping from us, I’m not even sure that there is a man above Perdiz at this point. I want this gang out of Texas. Now.”

 

“Are we still officially working with Reece?”

 

“Officially, yes. But if he’s not willing to be completely honest with us, why should we tell him everything?”

 

Walker nodded.

 

“We have a mole, and I don’t know if it’s in the FBI or here. The plans for the raid are need-to-know only. Understand? You and I know about it – keep it that way. If you must tell someone else to get it planned, clear it with me.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“And Walker – under no circumstances are you to inform Reece.”

 

~/~

 

“We may have something here,” Trivette said, holding up a computer printout. “A friend on the West Side just e-mailed me. He said that they’ve received a few reports of strange activity at a warehouse over there. It was vacant until a few days ago.”

 

“And now?” Gage asked.

 

“They saw semis going in and out this weekend. They’ve counted a large number of men inside – and they’ve spotted Perdiz.”

 

“Was he with anyone?” Syd asked.

 

“No. Still no clues about his boss.”

 

“Start surveillance,” Walker ordered.

 

“You don’t want to tell Reece?” Sydney questioned.

 

“No, not yet. Why?”

 

“I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter, really. I just want to make sure that this isn’t going to come back and bite us.”

~/~

 

Sydney parked her car two blocks away and jogged quietly toward the dark building. She began a silent perimeter, remaining in the deep shadows so she couldn’t be spotted. She quickly counted two cars – four Rangers total. They had the front and back of the warehouse covered, but the alleys on either side were pitch black.

 

Quickly locating a side door, Sydney ducked into the alley unseen and rapped five times on the door. After a few moments, Marco opened it and pulled her inside. “The boss has been expecting you,” he said, leading her to a small office in the warehouse.

 

“All black. Nice,” Perdiz greeted her.

 

“Gee, thanks.” She removed her leather jacket and black gloves and hung them on the doorknob.

 

“It’s been awhile.”

 

“I know; I’m sorry. Things have gotten a little crazy since the raid.”

 

He laughed. “That really was enjoyable, you know.”

 

“Yeah,” she said simply. “Right.”

 

Taking the hint, he changed the subject. “So, what have they learned since then? It’s been almost a week; they must have something.”

 

“I’m sure you’ve seen the surveillance teams outside.”

 

“Yeah. No Feds, though.”

 

“Walker didn’t want us to tell them.”

 

“Ah, I see. The Rangers are taking over. Any news of another raid?”

 

“No.”

 

“Interesting. What about the Feds? Are they planning anything else?”

 

“Not that I know of.”

 

“Always nice to hear a report like that. Got some time?”

 

“Yeah, I guess.”

 

“Good.” He sat on a small couch – the only nice piece of furniture in the entire building – and gestured for her to sit beside him. “We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”

 

She took a seat. “It is good to see you again… regardless of the circumstances.”

 

“And I meant it when I said I’ve missed you, but you know that I only did what I had to do.”

 

She smiled sadly. “I suppose so – at least, I suppose it was reasonable for you to think so at the time.”

 

“Look… If I could do it over, I probably would do it differently, Sydney. But when you make the choice that I did… you can never go back.”

 

“I don’t want to hear that.”

 

“Right…” He put an arm gently around her, and she leaned against his shoulder. “Remember when I was ten, and I got into that fight in the park with… with…”

 

“Joey Criswell.”

 

“Yeah, him. You were always trying to keep me out of trouble, but I never listened.”

 

“Never. Especially when I told you to pick fights with people your own size – not boys twice as big as you.”

 

“He would have ripped me to shreds if you hadn’t been there.”

 

She laughed. “Oh, yeah. As it was, I nearly lost a few teeth.”

 

“Nonsense. He was no match for you.”

 

“I was thirteen! But such is being the older sibling, I guess.”

 

“I kept getting into trouble – even after you left for college. I was a horrible child. Half the kids at school probably wanted to kill me, but the other half loved me. Seriously! Especially the women. Maybe I’m not as upright as you are, but I must say that I’m a born leader… and a damn sexy man…”

 

~/~

 

Sydney gradually became aware of her surroundings and leapt to her feet. “You let me fall asleep?”

 

Perdiz looked up from his desk. “No… I put you to sleep. My stories always did bore you to death.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I figured you looked tired. You had circles under your eyes, you know. That job is getting to you, I swear.”

 

She grabbed her jacket. “What time is it?”

 

“Ten.”

 

“In the morning? Oh, God!” She pulled her cell phone from her jacket pocket and began to dial. “I’ll never be able to explain this. I’ll have to… I’ll call in sick. That’s what I’ll do. Tell them I’m sick and I slept through my alarm.”

 

“Not on that phone you won’t. There’s no signal in here.”

“Huh?”

 

“The walls are steel-reinforced concrete. There’s no signal.”

 

“Well, what do you recommend? I can’t leave here in daylight!”

 

“I don’t know… call from here?”

 

She shook her head. “Caller ID. I need a window…” She left the office and began wandering around the warehouse. “I know there’s signal; I saw a tower. I just need a window…”

 

“Right… Sydney, it’s really not that big of a deal. What, are they going to fire you for being late one morning?”

 

“Gage is probably freaking out…”

 

“Who’s Gage?”

 

“My partner.” She stopped at a window and dialed, but hung up after a few rings. “No answer.”

 

“See? No problem.”

 

“With my luck, they’re out looking for me.”

 

“Does he have a cell phone?”

 

“Oh, yeah…” She dialed again quickly. “Hi, it’s me… Oh… Well, I didn’t feel very good – I missed my alarm; I must not have heard the phone, either… No, I don’t know why my cell phone wasn’t working… Well, I don’t know if I’ll be able to come in at all today… You what? But… Yeah, I – I guess I’ll see you – uh, soon.” She hung up and slowly turned to her brother with a terrified look on her face.

 

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

 

“They’re… they’re outside. They’re about to raid the place,” she whispered.

 

Perdiz swore and turned back to the warehouse. “Pack it up, guys! We got cops outside!”

 

The warehouse burst into action as men grabbed for weapons and frantically tried to box the finished powder. Some pulled out matches and began to set fire to the unfinished stuff – destroying the evidence. Sydney watched their actions as if in shock until Perdiz grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “Are you armed?”

 

“What? Uh… yes.”

 

“Good.” He drew his own weapon and checked the clip. “Let’s go – we’ve got to get you out of here.”

 

“I just… I don’t understand how this could happen. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

 

He grabbed her arm and tried to haul her away from the window. “Come on, Sydney!”

 

“Texas Rangers! Everybody freeze!” a familiar voice called as the doors were thrown open and men invaded the space.

 

The feeling suddenly returned to Sydney’s legs, and she followed her brother past the office to a small storage area with a window. He picked up a box and slammed it through the glass, then grabbed Sydney’s leather jacket and knocked out the remaining shards. “You first.”

 

She shook her head. “I’ve got the gun. Go.”

 

He swung both feet through the window and slid into the alley. “Come on.”

 

“Freeze!”

 

Sydney stopped halfway out the window and turned to face the too-familiar voice.

 

Gage’s jaw dropped in shock as he recognized his partner with Perdiz. “Syd?” he choked.

 

She slid into the alley and started running before he could recover.

 

“I said freeze!” Gage yelled, following them out the window. “Stop or I’ll shoot!”

 

Sydney turned and fired down the alley. Gage ducked for cover behind a Dumpster as a spray of bullets flew past. One ricocheted off the metal, giving off a spark. The quick footsteps faded, then disappeared, and Gage slowly slumped against the dumpster.

 

~/~

 

“Gage? Are you hurt?” Trivette crouched next to his friend. “Gage?”

 

The younger Ranger slowly looked up and met his eyes. “What?”

 

“Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?”

 

“No, I… Syd…”

 

Trivette put a comforting hand on Gage’s shoulder. “Gage… Sydney’s not here, remember? You talked to her right before the bust. She’s home sick.”

 

“What’s wrong, Trivette?” Walker asked.

 

“I think he hit his head or something. He’s totally incoherent.”

 

Gage slowly sat forward and put his head in his hands. “I’m not incoherent. And I didn’t hit my head.”

 

“Are you sure? You were talking about Sydney.”

 

“I know. She was here.”

 

“Gage, Sydney wasn’t here.”

 

The younger Ranger leapt to his feet. “Do you really think I would lie to you about this? She was here! She was with Perdiz!”

“What?” the older Rangers exclaimed.

 

“They got away… She shot at me. My own partner shot at me!”

 

“Take it easy, Gage,” Trivette said gently.

 

“Don’t you tell me to take it easy!” Gage yelled. “Wait until your own partner betrays you – tries to kill you – and then you can tell me to take it easy!” He slammed a fist into the dumpster, then turned and stalked off.

 

~/~

 

“Wait a minute… You think Sydney’s a dirty cop?” Alex asked as she took Walker’s empty dinner plate. “But… I don’t understand how that can be. If she is… how did we miss that?”

 

“I don’t know. All I can figure is that she knows Perdiz from somewhere else, and she intervened when she found out about the first raid.”

 

Alex stuck the plates in the dishwasher and turned back to her husband. “But she had so much good in her. I mean, she was good at her job, but she was a good person, too. She had lots of friends, people that looked up to her… How could she turn her back on all of that?”

 

Walker gently pulled his wife into his arms. “I don’t know.”

 

“You’re going after her, aren’t you?”

 

“Yeah. I think most of the guys see her as a traitor now, and they’re itching to catch her. Honestly, I just want to get her back safe and find out why she did it. She needs somebody on her side.”

 

“What about Gage?”

 

“I don’t know yet. I may pull him off this.”

 

“Why?”

 

“He’s taking it hard. This morning, it seemed almost like he was in shock, but then he got angry – really angry. And the longer he stewed over it, the angrier he got. If he found her right now… I don’t know what he would do.”

 

A few baby babbles, then short cries, came through the monitor on the counter. Walker released his wife and started for Angela’s room, but Alex grabbed his arm. “You don’t really think he would hurt her, do you? I mean, I know he’s in pain right now, but… after all they’ve been through…”

 

He shrugged. “I wish I knew.”

 

~/~

 

Sydney stared bleakly into the dreary, rainy night. “What are we doing here, anyway?”

 

“This is our designated emergency spot – for if anything like this happened. Anybody who got away should be meeting us here.”

“So we’re just going to wait here – in a church – forever?”

 

“No. I’ve got a place just up the street that we can go to.”

 

“Oh.” She turned away from the window and slowly surveyed the interior of the small church. It was Catholic and ornate statues of the Stations of the Cross covered three walls with the altar and the tabernacle on the fourth. Sydney slowly walked along the stations, praying silently.

 

“That was one thing that Mama ingrained in us both – faith. Ever thought about how heavy it would be to bear the sins of the world?”

 

She stopped in front of one of the last stations, a crucifix, and carefully examined the structure. “Yeah, actually, I have. Have you?”

 

He didn’t answer. “You really care about him, don’t you?”

 

“Who?”

 

“The guy who followed us today. Who was he?”

 

“That was Gage.”

 

“Your partner?”

 

“My partner,” she affirmed. “Well, my ex-partner.”

 

“You were in love with him.”

 

“Why do you say that?”

 

“Because of the way you’re acting. You really are depressing, you know that?”

 

“Hey – I just gave up my whole life for you. My job, my friends – everything I’ve ever dreamed of just went up in smoke,” she spat. “I just lost everything. So don’t you mock me.”

 

“Aha… you had it bad for him.”

 

She started for him angrily. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why would you even say that?”

 

“Because it’s not just your mood. It was the way he looked at you. He called you ‘Syd’ – you hate that name; you don’t let anybody call you that. And the fact that you fired five bullets at him and missed. I know you. If you had meant to hit him, he would be dead.”

 

“I betrayed them all, okay? I admit that. But I don’t necessarily want to see them get hurt.”

 

“Yeah, whatever.” He checked his watch. “I don’t think anyone else is coming.”

 

“We’ve only seen seven or eight guys.”

 

“Yeah, well, like you said, the Texas Rangers are good at what they do. Don’t worry, most of those guys were expendable anyway.”

 

~/~

“Are you guys crazy? Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

 

“You’re a little late, Reece. We figured you would have been in here by lunch yesterday at the latest,” Trivette answered.

 

“No, I spent the afternoon getting reamed out by my superiors, thank you very much. What are you doing?”

 

“I’m cross-referencing Sydney’s files with our information on Perdiz,” Trivette said. “You did hear about…”

 

“Yes,” he said tersely. “Find anything?”

 

“Not yet… Oh, wow.”

 

“What?” Gage asked, jumping to his feet.

 

“Perdiz and Sydney have the same mother. She’s his sister.”

 

Gage swore softly. “I need a plane ticket to Houston. Now.”

 

~/~

 

An older man opened the door of the small house before Gage had a chance to knock. “Hello, Francis. I figured you would be coming.”

 

“I need to speak to your wife,” Gage said, following the older man into his living room.

 

“I wish you could, but I’m afraid she’s in no condition to talk to you right now.”

 

“Where is she?”

 

“In our room. Crying. Again.”

 

“Why?”

 

“She saw the news report. She is now convinced that not one, but both of her children are going straight to Hell.”

 

Gage sank onto the couch. “Her children? Arthur, I don’t understand. Why aren’t you listed as his father?”

 

“Because I’m not. We should have put my name on the certificate anyway, but they told us not to.”

 

“But Sydney’s always described her mother as…”

 

“Quiet? Shy? Conservative? Definitely. But it wasn’t her fault – she was raped.”

 

The Ranger shifted uneasily. “Sydney never mentioned it.”

 

“She was only three then. We had a tiny apartment in a bad part of town, and we wanted to give Sydney a better life than that. We applied for a loan on a home… but we were both very young, and it didn’t look good.” He sighed. “Melosa went to see the bank owner without telling me. He told her that he was busy, but that he would be more than happy to discuss it with her over dinner. I never would have let her go if I’d known… but she left one night while I was teaching a class… and you can fill in the rest.”

 

“You filed charges?”

 

“No. He threatened to destroy us – and he would have. They would have ripped her to shreds in court. There’s no way she could deal with something like that.”

 

“They found out, though.”

 

“Unfortunately. Leandro was always a problem child, you might say, but he found out about it when he was thirteen or fourteen. I wish I knew who told him… He went to confront his father, who apparently told him that he was a miserable half-breed who would never amount to anything.”

 

“Nice guy.”

 

“Leandro took it as a personal challenge of sorts to become ‘better’ than his father. He basically cast off his Latino half, even insisting that everyone call him ‘Andy’ instead of his given name. His crusade was to gain more money, power, and respect than his father. And I suppose, in his mind, he accomplished that.”

 

“Even if the rest of the world would say the banker was a better man.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“What about Syd?”

 

“Sydney was his polar opposite. She had her wild phase, of course, but it came to a quick end when Leandro told her the truth. She saw it as her fault – we wouldn’t have tried for the loan if it weren’t for her. That was when she decided to go into law enforcement – as if she could right this wrong by preventing the same thing from happening to others.”

 

“I still don’t understand, though. Everything you’ve told me seems to separate her from Perdiz. Why would she help him?”

 

“They may have been opposites, but they were incredibly close. They were both ‘half-breeds’ before that was really acceptable, I guess. She watched out for him – not because she was the older sibling, but because she was always more in control than he was. Leandro could ignite any situation; Sydney could calm it down. They evened each other out. She was a book nut – she owned every book on detective work or law enforcement ever written, and she was perfectly happy to read all weekend. He got her involved in things – without him, she probably would never have gotten involved in singing or theater. On the other hand, she was probably the only thing that kept him from dropping out of school. When they separated, though… both went their different directions.”

 

“But is that really a good reason for her to drop everything for him?”

 

“No. I can tell you that either of them would gladly die to save the other; however, their relationship was built on the fact that their differences were okay. They didn’t have to change to be accepted.”

Gage slowly got to his feet to leave, but Arthur caught his arm and led him to a small room that looked like it had once been a bedroom. Pictures covered the walls, and Arthur removed one and handed it to Gage. It was a picture of Sydney on the day that she had received her Ranger’s star.

 

“Look at her. Tell me what you see.”

 

“I see… Syd. My partner. A Ranger.”

 

“Is that all?”

 

“I guess so.”

 

Arthur pulled down a picture of what looked like a holiday celebration. Sydney sat in the middle of the floor, playing with three dogs. “What do you see now? The same thing?”

 

“Yes.”

 

He handed Gage a picture of Sydney on stage, obviously during a performance of some kind. “And now?”

 

“The same thing. Arthur, what am I supposed to see?”

 

“I’ll tell you what I see. I see a Ranger and a partner… but also a daughter, a sister, a capable woman, an animal lover, and a talented singer and actress. But you don’t know all of these aspects, so you see what you know. You see what you want to see.”

 

Gage handed back the pictures, deep in thought.

 

“I realize that I’m not making this any easier for you, and I’m sorry. Probably the best thing I can tell you is this – I know my daughter. And Leandro. And I can tell you that they both do some crazy things sometimes – they can really surprise you. So please, keep in mind that no matter what it looks like, things may not always be what they seem.”

 

~/~

 

Sydney looked up as her brother entered the room with a yawn and headed straight for the refrigerator. “I have to ask,” she said as he created a small mountain of junk food on the counter. “Whose house is this? Or do you even know?”

 

“Sure – it belongs to a friend of mine. Cookie?”

 

She shook her head.

 

“Did you get any sleep last night?”

 

“It was too cold.”

 

“I could have gotten you a blanket.”

 

“I didn’t really want to sleep, anyway.”

“Sydney.. you can’t do this to yourself. You’re not eating or sleeping, you’re stressed… Even if you don’t care anymore, think about this – if we get into trouble and you’re not on top of things, one of us could get shot.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Then why do you do it? Why do you keep beating yourself up like this? The decision is made – you’d better learn to live with it.”

 

“Gee, I don’t know, Leandro,” she spat. “Maybe it’s because I’m the older sister. I’m supposed to set a good example. But then again, I don’t suppose it would help, since you never did know how to follow a good example.”

 

He raised his eyebrows.

 

“Or maybe it’s because I’m sick of putting my life on the line for the stupid things that you do.” Her voice dripped venom. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the one rescuing you from your own stupidity. You picked on guys bigger than you; I had to fight them off. You got into trouble; I had to stand up for you. Heck, when you were seven, you climbed a tree and got stuck; I got hurt trying to help you down! Where does it end, Leandro?” she demanded. “When are you going to realize that you have to take responsibility for your own actions?”

 

“Are you finished?” he asked softly.

 

“No!” She bit her lip, fighting back tears. “Don’t you get it? I gave up everything for you, and you just brush it off,” she whispered. “You’d better be careful, Leandro. That damn cavalier attitude will be the end of you.”

 

“You didn’t figure in one thing, big sister – you don’t have to be the protector anymore. I will always take care of you. I know you got hurt, but that’s never going to happen again. And I realize you’re upset with me, but I need to know, Sydney – are you with me on this?”

 

She sighed. “I’m always with you.”

 

A key jingled in the front lock, and both fugitives leapt for their guns. As soon as they had established cover, a tall, leggy blonde walked in. She wore very little, but what she did wear was mostly fake fur and animal prints. Her three-inch heeled leather boots were cut off at mid-thigh, so thankfully most of her skin was covered, even if it wasn’t in the usual sense. She looked like she was wearing two tube tops, both too small to be of any use, and she had on at least three layers of makeup. “Andy! Baby!” she drawled, throwing herself into his arms. “I can’t believe you’re here! I missed you so much…”

 

“Oh, God,” Sydney muttered, quickly leaving the room.

 

~/~

 

“Hey, why’d you leave? I was going to introduce you two.”

 

“Sorry, I just suddenly felt very ill.”

 

“Sure. Look, Tiffany’s really a nice girl.”

 

“Oh, I’m sure she is. And which corner did you find her on?”

“Come on – the guys you date aren’t exactly Mr. Wonderful, either.”

 

“No, but at least they all have positive IQ’s.”

 

“Ouch.” He took a seat on the bed next to her. “You don’t have to like her, but could you at least try and be decent? You’re going to meet a lot of people that you don’t like if you hang out with me.”

 

“This falls under the ‘love me, love my dog’ philosophy, right?”

 

“You’re cruel.”

 

“I know it. Chalk it up to the fact that I’m miserable and sleep deprived.”

 

“Si, señorita. In the meantime, I have a telephone call to make. Don’t kill Tiff while I’m not looking, okay?”

 

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

 

He ruffled her hair and closed the door behind him. A few moments later, the phone on the nightstand chirped softly, then began a low-pitched pulse. A smile spread across Sydney’s face as she looked at the phone, then very gently lifted the receiver.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Hey, boss. It’s Perdiz.”

 

“Just the man I wanted to hear from.” The other man’s voice was strained as he tried to control his anger. “what the hell is going on out there?”

 

“They pulled a surprise raid.”

 

“Really? And I thought you had an insider.”

 

“She didn’t know.”

 

“Sure. How bad is it?”

 

“They got all of our equipment and most of the workers.”

 

“Computer files?”

 

“Severely encoded – it’ll take them awhile, at the very least. And there’s nothing vital there.”

 

“Can any of your people tell them anything?”

 

“The workers know nothing. Most of my men got away – except two, but they won’t say anything.”

 

“This is a mess, Perdiz. I can’t believe you let this happen,” he fumed.

 

“I know; I’m sorry. It’s these damned Texas Rangers.”

 

“I warned you about them.”

 

“Yes, boss.”

 

The other man sighed. “How long will you be down?”

 

“I think we can be back up sometime next week.”

 

“You’d’ better be. I put my faith in you, Perdiz. Don’t let me down again.”

 

“I won’t.”

 

“Keep me updated.”

 

The phone clicked again as one of them hung up. “Mr. Parnelli,” a muffled voice in the background said, “there’s a package –“

 

The line went dead. Sydney quickly replaced the receiver and sprawled out on the bed, taking a few moments to collect her thoughts before her brother reentered. “Whatcha doing?” he asked.

 

“Daydreaming, I guess.”

 

“You should come see this – Tiff says the news has an article on us. We’re famous.”

 

She grudgingly got up and followed him to the living room.

 

“And our top story tonight – more information has been released about yesterday’s drug bust on the West Side. The officers estimate that no more than ten men escaped, though there were many more people in the warehouse than they had expected. The Rangers also explained in a statement this afternoon that they were forced to form the raid team quickly to ensure that any possible mole couldn’t leak information.

 

“Channel Six has just discovered that the ‘mole’ is Sydney Cooke, a former Texas Ranger. She supposedly has been giving inside information to her brother, Leandro Perdiz, the ringleader of the operation. A reward is being offered for any information that leads to her arrest.” Sydney’s picture and a phone number flashed across the screen.

 

“Ew, that’s a terrible picture of you,” Tiffany said.

 

Sydney bit back a retort.

 

“I think I should be insulted,” Perdiz said.

 

“Why?”

 

“They didn’t even put up a picture of me. They made it sound like I was your sidekick.”

 

“They know better, dear,” Sydney soothed. “It’s not your fault – they’re just pissed off at me.”

 

Tiffany raised an eyebrow. “Really? Interesting…”

 

~/~

 

“Baby, let’s go get some dinner,” Tiffany cooed.

 

“There’s food here.”

 

“Yes, I know there’s food here, but I think you and I should… spend some time together.” She cast a look at Sydney. “We have a lot to catch up on.”

 

“But, Tiffany, baby, I need to keep a low profile. I can’t be out and about.”

 

“We’ll go to Jimmy’s. He won’t say a word.”

 

Perdiz cast an uncertain look at his sister. “Oh, go,” she said. “There’s plenty of food in the fridge – unless you ate it all.”

 

“Goodie! I just have to go get my coat.” Tiffany hurried to her room and grabbed her cell phone. “Yes, this is… a concerned citizen. Did you say there’s a reward out for information on that Ranger? The mole… Yes, that’s her… I think I know where she is…”

 

~/~

 

Sydney grabbed an apple off the counter and buffed it on her shirt quickly before taking a bite. On the third bite, a beam of red light streamed through the kitchen. She ran to the front window – sure enough, a squad car was pulling up outside. She dropped the apple and ran for the back door as the front entrance exploded inward.

 

“Texas Rangers!” a voice announced.

 

She took off down the alley at full speed, checking in all directions before pulling out her gun to check the magazine. She didn’t want to use it, but it was comforting to know that it was available. She ducked into an alley off to the right as officers flooded out of the house. Hoping to evade them without further incident, she continued in a zigzag pattern for a mile or so before stopping to rest in a small opening surrounded by old factories. Bent over and breathing hard, she silently berated herself as her mind reeled. Had they already caught Leandro? Where was he? Was he safe? How had they found her location?

 

“Surprise,” a soft, familiar voice behind her said. “Drop the weapon.”

 

She slowly stood up and tossed her gun away before turning to face Gage with her hands in the air. He watched her intently for a moment, his gun trained on her face. “Okay, you caught me. I’m unarmed – you can lower your gun now. Really,” she said.

 

“Haven’t you ever heard that you’re not supposed to smart off to cops?” he growled.

 

“I have, actually… Come on, Gage, arrest me. But get that gun out of my face. Please.”

 

“I don’t see that you have any room to be making demands here. Besides, I should shoot you where you stand.”

 

“What?”

 

“Wouldn’t you? If the situation were reversed? But then again, I wouldn’t do that,” he spat. “I wouldn’t betray you and everything that I stand for. Did you even think twice before you helped him? Did you even consider the people that you were hurting?”

“Gage, wait. Take it easy. Maybe everything’s not what you think.”

 

“Funny… your father said the same thing.” After a moment, Gage tossed his gun aside as well.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Arresting you. In a while.” He took a few menacing steps toward her.

 

She countered back. “What, after you bash my face in? Gage, what the hell is your problem?”

 

“You. My problem is you. I have problems with people who toy with other people’s feelings.”

 

“Really? I didn’t know you had feelings, Gage.”

 

“Probably because you’ve never seen me get really, really mad. But you will. Very shortly.”

 

“I won’t fight you, Gage.”

 

“Then I hope you have a very high tolerance for pain.” He took a wild swing at her.

 

“Fine. Let me put it this way – I don’t want to fight you. But if the alternative is getting my face bashed in, I will.”

 

“Good luck.” He took a series of wild swings at her, which she easily deflected before landing a solid blow to his solar plexus. He stumbled back, then came after her again.

 

“Are you crazy?”

 

“You know what? Yes. Yes, I am crazy. Or I was – crazy about you. I loved you, Sydney! For once in my life, I opened my heart to someone, and you stomped all over it. You betrayed me. You might as well have killed me, Sydney. Go ahead – finish the job.”

 

“Gage, stop this!”

 

“Why should I?”

 

“Because maybe I’m not the only one going against Ranger policy. Ever heard of police brutality?” she yelled.

 

“I like to call it detaining a dangerous suspect.” He caught her arm and shoved her to the ground, pinning her on her back. He raised a hand, but she wrapped her legs firmly around his shoulders and flipped him over. He attempted to pin her again with his legs, but she rolled out of the way. As she started to her feet, he grabbed her shoulder and pulled her off balance again, knocking her to the ground. A hand wrapped itself firmly around her throat, but she managed to plant an elbow firmly in his ribs. As he came after her again, she spun him around and quickly wrapped him into a chokehold.

 

“Now, will you listen to me?”

 

“Let him go, Sydney.”

 

She looked up to see Walker and a contingent of Rangers, all heavily armed. “I suppose this looks bad, huh?” she asked.

Walker nodded.

 

“Well, at least I know there’s one person here who’s not trying to take my head off.” She slowly released the chokehold and stood up, both hands in the air. “I surrender.”

 

Gage struggled to his feet, then twisted one of her arms behind her and shoved her against the nearest wall. She cried out in pain as her cheek scraped the rough brick, but he didn’t seem to notice. He whipped out a pair of handcuffs and tightened them around her wrists, then hauled her away to the nearest squad car.

 

~/~

 

Walker entered the interrogation room and closed the door behind him. “Why’d you do it, Sydney?”

 

“I wish I could tell you, but I can’t. I need to talk to Agent Reece.”

 

“Fine.” He left, and Agent Reece took his place a few minutes later.

 

“I came as soon as I heard they’d brought you in,” he said.

 

“Good. This is, after all, your fault. Care to uncuff me?”

 

“Yeah.” He pulled out a key and gently removed the cuffs. She stood up, rubbing her wrists. “What the hell happened to your face?”

 

She put a hand to her face, gently touching the bloody scraped cheek. “One very pissed off Texas Ranger,” she answered. “My partner. Which reminds me of something else. I thought you were going to tell them if it came down to this.”

 

“I… planned on it.”

 

She slapped him quickly across the face. Two guards ran in from the observation area, but he waved them out again. “What was that for?”

 

“Gee, I don’t know… ruining my life? Or let’s be vain for a second – ruining my face.”

 

He sighed. “Look, it didn’t go down as planned, okay? I didn’t know about the second bust any more than you did. Once they saw you, what was I supposed to do?”

 

“Spill? Tell them what’s going on? I don’t like getting shot at and attacked by my friends.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

She put her head in her hands. “I knew the Feds could botch operations, but I had no idea just how well. Who turned in my location, anyway? And did they catch my brother?”

 

“It was some girl… heavy Southern accent. And no, they haven’t caught your brother.”

 

“Tiffany,” she fumed. “I knew there was something strange about her.”

 

“I am sorry for the hits you took.” He handed her a handkerchief, and she pressed it to the wound on her cheek.

“I’m not so worried about that… I’m just wondering how many friends I’ve lost. You have a lot of explaining to do – and they’re going to hate you for not being honest with them. Heck, I hate you.”

 

“I figured.” He sighed. “Did you find out anything… or is this all for naught anyway?”

 

“Parnelli.”

 

“What?”

 

“The big man in charge. His name’s Parnelli – I think.”

 

“You think?”

 

“Yeah, well, I was kind of stressed at the time.”

 

“We’ll check it out and see what we find.”

 

“And when you get that taken care of… I have a plan to find my brother.”

 

~/~

 

   Perdiz noticed the open front door and ran into the house, Tiffany at his heels. “Sydney? Sydney!” He hurried from room to room, searching for his sister. “Where is she?”

 

“Gone,” Tiffany said simply.

 

He stared at her for a minute, then flipped on the television. “And our follow-up story for this evening… Ranger Sydney Cooke was arrested this evening after an anonymous caller told police her location-“

 

He turned off the TV. “What did you do?” he growled.

 

“Me? Nothing.”

 

“What did you do?” he shouted, grabbing her arm.

 

“Well, Baby, she was stealin’ your glory. You don’t need her.”

 

“So you turned her in? You idiot!” He shoved her onto the couch in rage. “She’s my sister, do you understand that? I should kill you!” He paced back and forth angrily before turning back to her. “If I ever hear another word from you or about you, it will be the last. Understand?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned and stormed out.

 

~/~

 

   “Find anything?”

 

“Yeah, actually.” Reece waited for the guard to unlock the cell door, then stepped inside. “Vince Parnelli – big dealer in Louisiana in the eighties, then dropped off the radar completely. Guess we found him.”

 

“You’re going to take him down?” Syd asked.

 

“Yeah. We’ve already got that set up; we’re just waiting for the word from you.”

 

“He should be here soon. After all, I’ve been here overnight. And I’m getting really sick of prison orange.” She tugged at her jumpsuit. “Why am I wearing this, anyway? I haven’t even been arraigned yet.”

 

“It completes the setup. Come on, go with me on this.”

 

“Sure, fine, whatever.”

 

“You’re prepared if he tries anything?”

 

“He won’t. But if he does… yeah. I just don’t want anybody else to get hurt.”

 

“I know. You’re running this. Keep us informed.”

 

~/~

 

Perdiz stepped out of his car and pulled his hat low over his eyes. It completed the bailiff disguise perfectly. Straightening his papers, he strolled to the front desk of the jail. “I’m transportin’ a prisoner,” he said in a thick Southern accent.

 

The guard checked out the paperwork. “They’re arraigning her already?”

 

“Yep. Guess they see her as a traitor or somethin’. Want her through the system right quick.”

 

“Go ahead.” The guard buzzed him through the security gates. Perdiz and another guard made their way to Sydney’s cell, and the guard quickly unlocked the gate. Pretending not to recognize her brother, Syd let him haul her out of her cell and down the hall. They got out of the building without incident.

 

“Stick with me, okay?” Perdiz whispered as they reached his car and he inconspicuously uncuffed her.

 

“Actually, I can’t do that this time, little brother.”

 

“What?”

 

She pulled her gun from its hiding place at the small of her back and leveled it at him. The two were instantly surrounded by a group of Rangers. Perdiz looked at her in shock for a few moments, then smiled. “It figures.”

 

She shrugged. “I know you’re packing, Leandro. Put it on the ground.”

 

Shaking his head, he slowly unholstered his weapon and tossed it away. “I should have known better, Sydney. You played it well. Very well.”

 

“Thank you.” She kept her gun trained on him as Gage handcuffed him, then lowered the weapon. “Regardless of what you think, I still love you, little brother.”

 

“Back at you.” He laughed softly, then leaned forward to give her a kiss on the cheek. “You know, I feel a lot like a turtle right now. A little like the scorpion, but a lot like the turtle.”

She sighed. “Polar opposites, as usual.”

 

Reece stepped forward. “So do we have the okay to go after Parnelli?”

 

She nodded.

 

“Parnelli? How’d you know about Parnelli?” Perdiz asked. “I never mentioned his name.”

 

“I know. I really thought you’d be smarter than to use a landline with pulse dialing, though. One of his guys mentioned it right after you hung up.”

 

“My bad.”

 

“I hate that phrase.”

 

“I know.” He grinned. “Have a good life, big sister.”

 

“You, too. I’ll come and see you. Don’t let the man get you down.”

 

“I hate that phrase.”

 

“I know. See ya.” She hugged him quickly before the Rangers hauled him away.

 

“So can I send them after Parnelli?” Reece asked again.

 

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”

 

The agent whipped out his cell phone and spoke softly into it. Within a few minutes, he thanked his contact and hung up. “They have him.”

 

“Good. Now… I just want to get out of this jumpsuit…”

 

~/~

 

“So this was planned the whole time?” Alex asked.

 

“Yeah. And for reference, I wanted to tell you guys. He wouldn’t let me.” Sydney gestured to Reece, who had pulled up a chair to the end of the booth.

 

“I knew there had to be something else going on,” she answered as Walker put his arm around her.

 

“Yeah, right,” her husband said.

 

“Walker was on your side the whole time,” Alex said.

 

He nodded. “Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”

 

“You got that right,” Trivette put in.

 

Sydney nodded agreement.

 

“How’s your cheek?” Alex asked.

“Oh, it’ll be fine. The doctor says it should heal, no problem. And if it doesn’t… well, I’ll consider it a battle scar. The first and last time I try to help the Feds.”

 

“Hey, that one’s not my fault!” Reece batted at her shoulder.

 

“Uh… yeah. It is,” she answered.

 

“You made a damn good agent, though,” he replied. “You should think about joining us.”

 

“No thanks. I’m happy where I am. I think,” she added as her partner walked in. He spotted the full booth and took a seat at the bar. “I’m debating if he’ll ever forgive me.”

 

Reece examined the wound on her face for a moment. “Looks to me like he’s the one who should be asking for forgiveness.”

 

She shook her head. “You wouldn’t understand. I’m not sure I understand.” She glanced over at the bar again.

 

“Well, honey, we should go,” Alex announced, shooting him a knowing look. She and Walker stood. “Get some rest – you’ve earned it.”

 

“I should go, too.” Sydney stood to let Trivette out of the booth. “Early morning tomorrow.”

 

“Yeah, me, too.” Reece pushed his chair back to a table.

 

“Guys, you don’t have to—“

 

“Goodnight, Sydney,” Walker said, leading the pack out of the bar.

 

Sydney watched them go, then sank back into the booth with her drink. A few minutes later, Gage appeared at the end of the booth. “Mind if I join you?”

 

“Not if you don’t mind sitting with me.”

 

He slid into the booth across from her and sipped his drink. Neither spoke for a long time.

 

“Gage… I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you right from the beginning, but Reece and his superiors… had leverage. On both of us. I couldn’t risk it… but I hated lying to you. I love my brother, but I would never, ever betray you. When it went badly, Reece was supposed to tell you, but I guess the higher-ups came down on him. Later that night, talking to Leandro… I wanted to kill myself for what I’d done. I never meant to hurt you. Please believe me.”

 

“You don’t have to apologize. I automatically thought the worst of you, and I should have given you the benefit of the doubt. I just… I was jealous, I guess. But I was way out of line.” He reached up to gently caress the wound that he had given her. “Way out of line. I just… I went crazy. I thought that you had betrayed me, and I was giving you a taste of your own medicine. I just lost it. I’m so sorry.”

 

Sydney gently took his hand in hers. “This was so screwed up,” she murmured.

 

“That’s quite an understatement.”

 

“I know… Neither of us helped the situation, either. We make a really bad pair when we’re both angry. It escalated out of control.”

 

“And we both said and did a lot of things we didn’t mean,” he added.

 

“A lot of things,” she agreed. “Listen… I know this is hard, but… why don’t we just forget about it?”

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing good came out of this. Let’s just forget it and move on, huh? Pretend that it never even happened. I didn’t betray you, and… and you didn’t hurt me… and everything’s okay, right?”

 

He was silent for a moment.

 

“Right?” she whispered.

 

“Well… I’m willing to give it a try if you are.”

 

She smiled.

 

“Before we just wipe this week from our memory, though, I have to ask you something.”

 

“Sure.”

 

“What did Perdiz mean about the turtle and the scorpion? I don’t get it. He felt like a turtle? What the heck is that?”

 

“You’ve never heard the fable?”

 

“What fable?”

 

“A scorpion needed to get across a river, but he couldn’t swim. He found a turtle and asked him for passage across the river, but the turtle refused, saying, ‘I can’t take you across the river. If I let you on my back, you’ll sting me.’ The scorpion replied, ‘Why would I do that? If I sting you, I’ll never get across the river.’ The turtle found this to be pretty sound logic, so he agreed, and the scorpion climbed onto his back. Halfway across the river, though, the scorpion stung the turtle. As his limbs started to go numb, the turtle cried, ‘Why did you do that? Now we’ll both die!’ The scorpion answered, ‘I can’t help it. It’s my nature.’ ”

 

Gage watched her for a moment, deep in thought, then pressed his lips gently to her hand and stood to get his coat. “Come on. I’ll take you home.”

 

“Okay.” She put on her jacket and started for the door. He slipped an arm around her waist and she rested her head on his shoulder as they walked out into the night.