Chapter 1

Sean reclined in his chair.

He had the satisfaction that he usually felt after Checkwolf had finished a particularly difficult job.  But this time, the contentment was tinged with emotion; first by his sorrow over the death of Brian Michaels, and second by his anger at the hand that Michael Belsky had had in it.  He had become thoroughly sick of Belsky after those run-ins with him back in New York.  Now, since they both had come to Kewanee, Sean had the ominous feeling that they would be seeing Belsky again.  Hopefully it would be awhile.

Sean diverted his mind from that train of thought.  He looked around the garage.  Only half of the members were active today.  Karl Dexter had returned to the group after nearly a week away.  He had dealt with his grief and was ready to move on in assisting the organization once again.  He and Tyler Spencer had gone out into the neighborhood, looking for any trouble spots.  They continually checked back with the base, every fifteen minutes.  Ruben was there to field the calls, being the only "Bishop," or communications and technology specialist, on duty.  Clayton Lee and Ryan Spencer were opposite each other at a chessboard, contemplating moves.  Ryan had the clear advantage, as usual.  And three of the members still had not reported back after Brian's death, excluding Scott's brief, emotional conversation with Sean the day after.  The remaining three had taken the day off. 

The prospect of another week of vacation from his job was appealing to Sean.  Since Checkwolf was not an organization that was run for profit (it was volunteer), all of the members needed outside jobs to support themselves for the times that they weren't crimefighting; to facilitate matters, they always took their vacations and days off at the same time.  One of the things that Sean had been working on for some time, recently with Brian's help, had been a way to get some other sort of financial support for the team.  And now that possibility loomed large, what with the offer from the mayor of direct sponsorship.

The phone rang.

"Checkwolf headquarters.  Ruben Dicéron speaking.  How may I help you?"  Ruben listened to the speaker at the other end of the line for a moment, then turned to Sean.  He took the phone away from his ear and covered the mouthpiece.  "For you, Sean."

Sean stood and walked the few paces over to the telephones.  He accepted the phone with a nod of thanks to Ruben.  Ruben wandered over to Clayton and Ryan's game.  Sean held the phone to his ear.  "Matts here."

"Mr. Matts?  This is the mayor."

"Hello, Mr. Mayor.  How are you this morning?" Sean asked, turning to look out the raised garage door at the beautiful March morning.  

"Fine, thank you," the mayor replied.  "Listen, Mr. Matts, I'm sorry I haven't called you sooner."

"That's all right."

"First of all, let me personally congratulate you on the good work you did with the Peters case."

"Thank you, sir," Sean replied.

"I'm also aware of much of the other work you've done recently and want to take this opportunity to thank you for that work, too."  The mayor paused for a moment.  "Chief Morrison filled you in on my plans, didn't he?"

"Yes," Sean replied.  "That was a few days ago."

"Well, you see," the mayor went on, "it took awhile to get the necessary approval from the council."

"I understand."

"Do you understand?" the mayor asked.

Sean paused for a beat.  "Yes." 

"Yes, well.  We ran into a little of trouble, I don't mind telling you," the mayor continued.  "The council was very hesitant to offer the sponsorship for your organization that I was seeking."

"I see," Sean responded, a flicker of disappointment in his voice.  "May I ask why?"

"Certainly," the mayor replied.  "You must understand about the shadow the OCP casts.  That had some councilmen, and women, worried a little bit."

I understand about the shadow of the OCP more than you think, Sean thought.  "Of course," he said aloud.  "But the OCP is a national agency; as long as Checkwolf remains local, it is within your discretion to exercise exclusivity rights."  Sean had done a little more research on the specifics of the OCP's range since his discussion with Morrison.

"Yes, that's the conclusion we finally came to," the mayor agreed.

"That's good to hear," Sean said, his neutral tone of voice belying the elation he was feeling inside.  "What sort of arrangements are we looking at, exactly?"

"We had decided to offer you a small office from which to work out of, near downtown Kewanee."

The tense of the verb did not escape Sean's notice.  "But?" he prompted.

"But after the close of the council meeting, a delegate from an anonymous donor approached me and offered a somewhat larger ediface for the base of your operations."

"Really?" Sean asked, his eyebrows raising.  He hadn't been expecting anything like that.  Ryan glanced over at him, a questioning look in his eyes.  Sean shook his head slightly and held up his index finger.  Ryan nodded and returned to his game.

"Yes, the delegate told us that the donor would refurbish a large building for you, also near central Kewanee, equip it with state-of-the-art equipment, and help you out in that way."

"Hmm," Sean said after a moment.  "That sounds very attractive.  How long are we looking at until the project is finished?"

"Well," the mayor said, "the donor's delegate said to expect it to be up and running in six to eight weeks."

So it must already be laid out in a design that would be conducive to our operations.  "That seems quick."


"How large will this building be?" Sean asked, frowning.

"I'm sorry," the mayor said.  "That information I don't have."

"All right."  Sean paused again.  "Another question, sir."

"Go right ahead."

"Since we're looking at city sponsorship, who will we report to?"

"Nobody," the mayor responded quickly.  "You will have complete autonomy, with no interference from the city.  You will be able to set your own policy and focus on your own objectives.  You'll be a sort of 'elite police force'."

" 'Elite police force'?" Sean asked dubiously.

"Yes," the mayor responded enthusiastically.  "That's a term that I devised to help the council envision the concept."

"All right," Sean said.  "This is what I'd hoped for," he continued truthfully.  He shifted gears slightly.  "What type of salary did the city have in mind?"

"Oh, you'll be paid in full for your work," the mayor said hastily, not exactly answering the question.  "You'll have about a half a million dollars to cover expenses and distribute among your members."

"And will the new building be large enough to also provide living quarters?"

"I believe so, yes."

Sean frowned.  "But aren't you worried about public opinion if you do this?" he asked.  "That's an awful lot of money you're throwing at us."

"Oh, no.  Not at all," the mayor said dismissively.  "Maybe in a world without viges . . . but no.  Of course, this is also a sort of trial run, subject to annual renewal."

"That's certainly more than fair."

"And, too, Mr. Matts," the mayor continued, "let's be realistic.  That amount of money is just a drop in the bucket for a budget the size of Kewanee's.  And how many are there in your group, anyway?  Six, seven?"

"Twelve," Sean corrected.

"Still," the mayor continued, almost dismissively, "it's not as if your group will be able to cover the entire city in force.  Most people still won't be aware of your existence.  We can afford to experiment."

"I see," Sean said, nodding.  "Thank you very much, sir.  Is there anything else?"

"Not at this time," the mayor replied.  "Thank you, and good day."  Sean heard a click on the other end of the line, and so hung up his own phone.  He stepped up to the raised podium where his desk sat, and then sat down behind it. 

Ruben walked over to the phones.  Ryan and Clayton were putting away the chess board and pieces.  "What's the deal?" Ruben asked.

Sean turned his chair and faced Ruben.  "Well, the sponsorship has been approved by city council."

A cheer went up from the few members in the garage.

"So does that mean we get paid?" Clayton asked.

Sean nodded.  "And even better than that.  They're supposed to be fixing up a new building for us to use as a new base.  We're looking at a time frame of six to eight weeks."

Ruben whistled.  "That's fast."

"Very fast."

"And so that'll be room and board along with pay?" Clayton asked.

"Right," Sean replied.

"Oh, great," Ruben said in mock dismay.  "Now I've gotta live with this guy," he said, jacking a thumb in Clayton's direction.  Clayton grinned back.

Karl and Tyler returned to the garage, laughing and joking.  

"Anything happen?" Sean asked.

Karl shrugged expansively.  "We just broke up a gang fight, that's all."  Karl was one of the younger Checkwolf members.  He had just turned twenty-two a few months before but he had been with the organization since within a year of its inception.  He was small, but very quick, and had put on some muscle in the last couple of years.  He was unique among the Checkwolf members in that he was the only black person in the organization, his skin black almost to a blue color.

"No problems, though?" Sean asked, glancing first at Karl, then Tyler.

Tyler shook his head.  "Everything went well."

Sean nodded.  "Good."  He then briefed them on his conversation with the mayor, which was exciting to them as well.  Then he stepped up to the raised platform on which his desk sat, sat down in the chair, and reached to the lower drawer.  He took a key out of his pocket and unlocked it.  He pulled it open a few inches, then twisted the combination on a lock.  After that, he opened it the rest of the way and took out an odd-looking piece of machinery, setting it on the desk.

"Could I have your attention, please?" Sean requested to quiet down the others.  They looked up at him and instantly shut up.  Sean looked at the five expectant faces.  "It'll still be some weeks before our new HQ is ready, and in the meantime, we need to keep busy, doing what we've been doing all along.  To that end, it's time to move forward on our most recent project: the Insanes."  Sean didn't mention it, but he was anxious to have this matter taken care of.  It was a bit touchy and it was happening in a part of the city that went more or less without police interference, the very definition of a Checkwolf op.  Furthermore, he had wanted to get to this a few days earlier, but other things had come up.

"Over the past couple of weeks, we've done the research we've needed to in order to get at the head of this gang," Sean continued.  "However, there is one final factor that I haven't mentioned before."  He lifted up the device, the weapon, that he had taken out of his desk.  "What's this?" he asked suddenly, holding it in the air.

"A switchblade," Tyler responded instantly.  "Easy enough to handle.  What's the big deal?"

Sean pressed the button and the blade flipped out.  "Where did the blade come from?" he asked, seemingly ignoring Tyler's question.  "Other than inside," he said, stilling Ruben's response with a half-smile.  Ruben just grinned.

The members looked puzzled.  "Where did it come from?" Sean asked again.

"The top," Ryan said.

"Right," Sean replied.  "What's special about that?"

"On switchblades," Clayton said, speaking up, "doesn't the blade usually come from the side and flip out?"

"Yes.  Exactly.  So why bring this up?" Sean asked as he pointed the tip of the knife at a point somewhere in the rafters, above the others' heads.  He pressed the button again.  The blade shot out of the end of the handle and lodged itself in the ceiling.  "Because of that."

"I didn't know they made stuff like that," Karl commented, looking into the ceiling, where the blade had lodged itself.

"There aren't very many," Sean admitted.  "But the Insanes have gotten ahold of a few of them and have been going on something of a rampage.  You can see the inherent danger in these things."

"All they have to do is lie in wait for you, and then nail you with one of those things," Ryan said.  "It's a lot quieter than a gun, even one with a silencer."

"Basically, yes," Sean said.  "But we do have a thing or two in our favor.  First, these things are not exactly terrific for accuracy.  If you shot at somebody ten or twenty feet away, chances are pretty good you'd hit them.  And kill them if you shot them in the right place.  But get up to fifty, seventy-five, a hundred feet away, and your chances of hitting what you aim for are much lower, require much more precision.  And your odds continue to decrease the further away you get.  At a hundred feet you have about a one in eighty chance of hitting somebody."

"Well that sounds a little better," Ruben said.

"What else do we have in our favor?" Ryan asked.

"The factory that all of the knife guns came out of was in Los Angeles."

Ryan grinned.  "That sounds a lot better.  They have a limited supply, then."

Sean nodded.  "That doesn't mean that they wouldn't mind shooting off their limited supply at us, though.  But that shouldn't be a problem.  You've all prepared for this; we know what we're doing and we should get it done without a shot being fired."

"When is this happening?" Tyler asked.

"Tonight," Sean responded.  "Ten o'clock.  Be here."  He looked around.  "All of you."  Then he stood.  "Until then, you all have the rest of the day off."

Chapter 2

The half dozen Checkwolf members slowly crept along the darkened streets.  They were in an extremely bad area of Kewanee, the Toulon district.  Very few streetlights still worked in the area; they had a tendency to intrude on the belowboard activities that generally went on in this area.  All of the Checkwolf members wore heavily padded clothing and each one carried a tranquilizer gun, or tranq, the nonlethal weapon that Sean preferred to use.

On the way over, Sean had filled the rest of the group in on the history of the knife guns, after a little prompting from Ryan.  Only one batch, less than one hundred knife guns, had been manufactured in that LA plant before it abruptly went offline.  At least half of the weapons were circulating on the East Coast, which was evidently where Sean had picked his up, though he hadn't said so, and about a quarter of them were still out on the West Coast, in what was left of Los Angeles.  In other words, the most knives that the Insanes could possibly have was twenty-five, if Sean's information was accurate.  From the investigation that Checkwolf had done, the gang numbered over one hundred, so at the most one in four might have a knife gun.  Sean hoped, though, that they could get to the ringleader and solve this problem before the situation got out of hand. 

Sean made a motion with his hand.  They had arrived at the apartment building where the leader of the Insanes had set up shop.  With his index and middle fingers together, Sean made short, forceful gestures at the front door of the building which was hanging from its hinges.  As silently as possible, the other five Checkwolf members moved into the building, bypassing the front stairs in favor of the rear stairwell they knew existed at the end of the hall, Sean close behind.  All the while the occasional gunshot cracked from out in the neighborhood somewhere.

Sean followed Ryan into the stairwell.  Karl shut the door behind him as he entered.  The six men stood at the bottom of the stairs, breathing slightly faster than normal.  Sean listened intently for any sound that would indicate they'd already been discovered, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart.  All was quiet.  Sean pointed upward and the group set in motion again, coming to a stop three stories up.  Sean, bringing up the rear of the group, was impressed yet again at how silently and professionally they moved.

Tyler, leading the group, held his hand up for absolute silence as he pressed his ear against the door.  He closed it into a fist and Karl eased the door open, tranq at the ready.  Tyler poked his head out, looked both ways, then ducked back into the stairwell.  He held up two fingers, pointing to his left.  Clayton stepped up to the door while Tyler knelt.  Karl slowly opened the door again into the darkened corridor, long enough for both men to snipe a shot and return. 

Karl counted slowly to five, then opened the door wide, Tyler again taking the point, leading the way up to the door that the two now-unconscious men had been guarding.  The six Checkwolf members took up position around the door, Ryan and Sean creating the rearguard.  Sean then glanced at Ryan, who nodded, and took a deep breath, walking up to the door.

Karl put his hand on the knob, testing it quietly, then stood back, gesturing at Clayton.  Clayton stepped up, grasped the doorknob, and rammed the door open.

"Everybody, freeze!" Sean yelled out, quickly finding Lazotti, the Insanes' leader, and putting a tranq to his head, while the other five put tranq shots into the remaining three people in the room before shutting the door and heavily guarding it.  Two others quickly searched the apartment and returned an "all clear."

"To what do we owe the pleasure?" Lazotti asked, seemingly unconcerned about the state of affairs.  He was a short man, about five feet six inches, and was a little on the overweight side.  His brown hair was combed over, poorly concealing a bald spot, and he wore dark sunglasses, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night.

"You've been causing trouble, Lazotti," Sean informed him.

Lazotti shrugged expansively as he whipped out a switchblade, or more accurately, a knife gun, pointing it at Ruben's head.  "You made a mistake coming here."

Sean dropped the tranq and pulled out an actual gun, a forty-four Magnum Desert Eagle.  "Just hand over all of your knife guns," he commanded.  The Checkwolf members were surprised that Sean would even have an actual gun, much less use it; what happened to nonlethal enforcement?  But they were all professional enough not to show their discomfort at the turn of events.

"Knife gun?" Lazotti asked, feigning ignorance, still pointing the weapon unswervingly at Ruben, who, to his credit, didn't seem concerned.  

"I'm not an idiot, Lazotti.  Give me the weapons or die."  Sean flipped the safety off and placed the gun directly against Lazotti's temple.  "It's your choice."

Lazotti tossed the knife gun, almost carelessly, onto the floor.

"Where are the rest of them?"

Lazotti glared at Sean, looking less carefree than before.  "I don't know who you think you are--"

He shut up as Sean shoved the gun a little harder against his head.  "Where, Lazotti?"

He gestured across the room at a small cabinet.  Tyler quickly checked it out, recovering nearly a dozen of the weapons.

"Is that all?"

"Yeah, that's all of 'em."

"It had better be.  I don't want to have to come back here," Sean said as menacingly as possible.  He then nodded to Ryan, who shot a tranq dart into Lazotti's arm, who passed out quickly.

Chapter 3

"Good job, Matts," the mayor said, shaking Sean's hand. 

Sean inclined his head.  "Thank you, Mr. Mayor."

"Yes, good work again, Sean," the chief of police said.  "We've been aware of that problem but haven't had the time to take care of it, since it's such a gang-ridden area."

"Yes, I know," Sean replied.  "That's why we took care of it for you."

Chief Morrison nodded.  "If that's how things are going to work between us, then I am really looking forward to you getting your new headquarters."

"But I don't understand why you didn't just bring Lazotti in," the mayor said.

Sean raised an eyebrow.  He looked askance at Morrison.  The chief smiled and turned to the mayor.  "We have no evidence against them," Chief Morrison explained.

"I can't very well bring somebody in without hard proof that they actually did something," Sean continued.  "We may not be police, but there are still procedures to be followed."

"I . . . see.  Well, good job."

"Let me see that gun, Sean," Ryan said.

Sean looked over at Ryan with an innocent expression.  Ruben wordlessly drove the van back to the garage, Checkwolf headquarters.  The other four looked at the ensuing exchange with curiosity.  "What gun?"

"The one you were going to shoot Lazotti with," Ryan explained.  

"Ah.  That gun."  Sean pulled the Magnum out of his shoulder holster and handed it, butt first, to Ryan.  

Ryan accepted it, looking suspiciously at Sean.  He then opened the chamber.  It was empty.  "No bullets," he said, smiling.

Sean accepted the gun back and smiled as well.  Ryan really was very perceptive.  "Right," Sean agreed.

"You bluffed him?" Clayton asked.

Sean just smiled.