Chapter 1

Sean reached over and slapped at the annoying buzzing sound about fifteen inches from his head.  He groggily opened his eyes and looked at the clock.  The time read eleven fifteen.  At night.  It seemed like he had just gone to bed five or six hours ago.  Sean yawned and sat up, stretching.  Come to think of it, I did just go to bed five or six hours ago.  Shrugging, he stood and entered the bathroom of his apartment on the second floor of Checkwolf headquarters.  He took a shower, shaved, and prepared himself for the upcoming day.

When he exited the bathroom and began dressing, he glanced at the clock again.  It read eleven forty.  Good, Sean thought as he pulled on his shoes.  I have some time to have a little breakfast.

Sean quickly finished dressing.  He walked over to the door, opened it, and stepped out.  He reached back inside and flicked off the lights, then shut the door behind him.  He walked the fifteen feet or so to the elevator; he was feeling lazy.  The doors shut as he pressed the button for the ground floor.  The elevator hummed quietly as it worked to lower Sean down fifteen feet to the level beneath.  A chime sounded as the elevator reached the appropriate floor and the doors swished apart.  Sean stepped out of the elevator car and turned to his left.  He passed the staircase, then continued and opened the left-hand side of the double doors he came upon.

Sean stepped into the very spacious kitchen, the very seldom-used kitchen, and turned on the lights.  As he opened the refrigerator, he looked around for some milk.  He pushed aside a case of Pepsi and a twelve-pack of some kind of beer.  Shrugging, he reached for the half-empty jug of milk and brought it out of the fridge. 

He reached for the cabinet and looked around for the box he was searching for.  His eyes lit up as he took out the box of cherry Pop-Tarts.  Smiling, he took out two and placed them in the toaster.  He depressed the switch and watched as the heating coils lit up inside.  Sean then grabbed a glass out of another cabinet and filled it quickly with milk.  He checked his watch.  He still had eight minutes until he had to be on duty.

The pastries popping out of the toaster startled Sean in the dark quiet of the Checkwolf base in the middle of the night.  Then he grabbed one out, bounced it a couple of times between his hands, and took a bite.  As he ate, he let his mind drift, as it often did.

The addition of Cop six weeks before had turned out to be a real boon.  He was a brilliant strategist and would make an equally brilliant leader one day.  Beta had greatly flourished with him along in the group; they had much more confidence and influence than before.  Not to slight Alpha, of course.  They had accomplished much, as well.  They, for instance, had been the ones that had gone to the dwelling of their new allies, the Ravine Warriors, when the two organizations had had that unfortunate, and for some of the members, painful, misunderstanding.  And then there was that drug dealer on the FBI's Most Wanted List that they had brought down three weeks before.

Sean took a gulp of milk after he finished his first Pop-Tart, and then reached for the second one, letting his mind continue to wander.

At least three good things came from the encounter with the Ravine Warriors: the other Checkwolf members didn't consider themselves quite so invincible anymore; they had acquired new allies; and they had realized that not all disagreements can be resolved with fists and feet.  Sometimes it took stun weapons.

The excessive amount of fighting that had taken place could have been dispensed with had the members thought to bring their weapons with them.  Of course, Cop always had an energy weapon with him, but he hadn't had the chance to fire it.  For the rest of them, though, as far back as the Wolf Club, back when they were operating from that small garage, they hadn't ever had such high-tech equipment, and had been forced to rely more on brawn, on brute strength.  But this event had taught them a valuable lesson.  Following the fight, they had used the conference room to think out different tactics.  Basically it boiled down to this: If you have the equipment, use it.

Sean drank down the last of the milk and looked at his watch.  He was stunned to see that it was two after midnight.  He quickly washed and replaced the glass, then hurried out of the kitchen and ran across the relatively narrow corridor to the communications room.  He flung open the door to the room. 

Jesse swiveled in his seat to face Sean.  "You're late," he stated.

"I know," Sean said.

"Oversleep?" Jesse queried as Sean punched in.

Sean shook his head.  "I stopped to have breakfast," he stated.  He then began doing the hourly manual check of the base by means of the cameras stationed throughout it.

"Uh huh," Jesse said.  "Right."

"Would I lie to you?"

"You have before," Jesse said, shrugging, as he watched the various images flicker by on the screen.

"That wasn't lying," Sean replied.  "That was hiding the truth."

"Thank you for that clarification."

Sean expertly ran through the basement, then, just as quickly through the top two floors.  He had months of practice with this and so had it down pat.  When he finished, he placed the camera check back on automatic.  He then leaned back in his chair.  "So, anything happen tonight?"

Jesse shrugged.  "Not much.  A couple of robberies and some other minor stuff."

"It's not minor to the people involved," Sean reminded Jesse.  "We are making a difference in peoples' lives."

"I know."

"But still," Sean continued, "it would be nice to liven things up a little."

"And maybe involve some of us that didn't go to New York?" Jesse asked, his voice heavily laden with sarcasm, half bitter.

"Are you ever going to give up on that?" Sean asked.  Jesse's running complaint was that he hadn't been on the Michael Davidson raid, back in May.  He had been left behind, guarding the shop.

"Probably not."

A tone went off on the board and Sean hit the appropriate button.  The screen shifted to a grid of Kewanee and centered in on the location of the crime that had been picked up by the police scanner.  It was deep in the Peoria district.  A quick check of the current location of Beta placed them just a few blocks from the base, early in their shift, still in Kewanee.  The disturbance was too far away.  

"It's too far away," Jesse pointed out.

Sean looked at him and then tapped another button, putting the computer on standby once more.  "I knew that."

One of the subsidiary screens beeped twice and Sean directed his attention there.  It was coming from the garage.  Alpha Squad was just returning.  The van came to a stop and the garage door lowered.  The members of Alpha filed out of the van.  Sean took a moment to note the choice of word for the vehicle that served as the mobile base of operations for the squads: "van".  In actuality the vehicles bore only passing resemblance to the full-sized vans that they had used in the old days.  These "vans" had been adapted from ambulances, it appeared.  A little more headroom, true, and stuffed to the gills with armor and electronics, but the original shape was discernible.  Still, no one ever thought of calling them "ambulances".

Ryan opened the door to the communications room seconds later.  "I'll have my report ready for you within half an hour," he called to Sean.

Sean nodded, and Ryan shut the door.  Sean and Jesse returned to the work at hand.

Sean yawned and took his feet off his desk, rubbing his stomach.  I just ate two hours ago.  Surely I'm not hungry again?  Maybe it's indigestion.  He stepped out of his office, having finished any real work.

On duty out in the communications room currently were Jay, in his last hour, and Ruben, in his second hour.  Sean pulled up a chair and joined them.  Evidently Ruben had just completed the camera check.

"So how are you doing today, Ruben?" Sean asked.


"That's great," Sean said.

Silence reigned for a few minutes.  Sean found Jay looking at him strangely.  Well, more strangely than usual.  He turned his head.  "What?"

"Aren't you going to ask how I'm doing today?" Jay asked.

Sean contemplated the question.  "No."


Ruben laughed.

"Nothing funny, Rube," Jay pointed out.

Ruben stopped laughing.

Suddenly, a trilling sound was heard.  

"My phone," Sean said unnecessarily.  "I'll go get it."

"You do that," Jay said.

"Good idea," Ruben said.

Sean stepped back into his office again and picked up the phone as it started its fourth ring.  "Matts here."

"Sean," came the voice over the phone.  "This is Chief Morrison."

"Yes, sir?"

"We have a favor we'd like to ask of you," Morrison said, direct, as always.

Sean frowned.  He felt the same inward flinch and sigh as always when he thought about getting a direct assignment from the police; "favor" was only a euphemism.  Well, at least it's been awhile, Sean thought.  "What kind of favor?"

"We have a woman who has information that could be enough to finally nail Rudy Jacob," the chief explained.

"The Mafia kingpin," Sean stated.


"What does that have to do with us?"

Chief Morrison paused.  "We'd like you to take her in.  Temporarily, of course."

"Why us?"

"All of our safe houses have been compromised.  I think some of our officers have been, as well.  I can't trust information of this magnitude with just anybody," Morrison said.  "So you understand my predicament."

Sean considered.  "We haven't exactly been having a picnic here ourselves.  We've had, not only an infiltrator, but also our base broken into, both in just the past four months."

"Live and learn, Matts," the chief said.  "But, seriously," he continued, as if he had made some sort of joke, "that wasn't Mafia related, like this is.  The trial is in two weeks, and then she'll be out of your hair."

"But what about until then?" Sean asked.  "I've gotten used to this base.  I wouldn't especially want it destroyed in a Mafia raid."

"With all due respect, Matts," Chief Morrison continued, "the base is not exactly yours, by any stretch of the imagination."

Sean gritted his teeth.  So if I don't agree, you'll pull rank, he thought.  He repressed a sigh and rubbed his temples.   "Fine."

"Great!" Morrison said, the smile evident in his voice.  "Ella and I will be by in . . . "

"Ella is the informant?" Sean asked, interrupting.

"Yes," the chief said.  "Ella Waters.  We'll be by in an hour."

Chapter 2

"Sean," came Ruben's voice over the intercom in Sean's office.

Sean reached over and tapped the intercom button.  "Yes?"

"Come here, please."

Sean stood up, stretched, and entered the cavernous communications room.  Ruben pointed to the large monitor screen.  On it was Chief Morrison and a woman that appeared to be in her mid-to-late thirties.  Sean glanced at the clock.  It had been fifty-nine minutes since the phone call.  Well, he's nothing if not punctual.  "That must be Ella Waters with Morrison," Sean informed Ruben.  He turned and went to leave the room.  "Tell them to come on in."

Ruben nodded as the south door to the communications room was shut behind Sean.  He tabbed the intercom switch for the external speaker.  "This is Ruben Dicéron," he said to the people waiting outside the front door.  "Sean Matts says to go ahead and enter the foyer.  He'll be there momentarily."  He then toggled the switch off and leaned back in his chair.

Sean tapped the button set next to the seamless door near the end of the corridor running between the crime laboratory and the press room.  The panel slid aside and Sean stepped into the room.  He then negotiated past the set-up chairs.  He opened the door to the large foyer and stepped through.  The chief stood as Sean entered.  "Chief Morrison!  Long time, no see," Sean said as he gripped Morrison's hand.

The chief gripped Sean's hand as well.  "Good to see you, too, Matts."

"You were a minute early," Sean said, smiling.

"Less traffic than I had anticipated," Chief Morrison said apologetically.  He gestured at the woman.  "Well, this is the witness, Ella Waters.  Ella, Sean Matts, head of Checkwolf."  Ella appeared to be near forty, stood at about five feet four inches, was slim but not thin, and had her black hair pulled back.

Sean shook Ella's hand.  "Pleased to meet you."

Ella smiled.  "Likewise."  Despite the smile on her face, it didn't seem to reach all the way to her eyes, which were full of sorrow.

"She'll be here for two weeks, is all," Morrison continued.  "The D.A.'s got an airtight case, so the trial shouldn't take too long.  Jacob'll be in jail, and Ella should be able to restore some semblance of normal life."

Sean nodded.  "No problem."

The chief smiled.  "Great.  Oh, Matts."


"I've been meaning to get back to you," Chief Morrison said.  "The deputy idea?  The mayor has no problem with it.  He cleared it with the city council last week.  You're scheduled to be deputized a month from now.  We'll give you a call when the time comes closer."

Sean smiled.  "Terrific.  Thanks."

Morrison nodded.  "The mayor is who you should really thank."

"He has done a lot for us," Sean agreed.  "If he doesn't get reelected, we'll lose a good ally."

"You sure will," the chief said, agreeing.  "But you don't have to worry about that, for a couple of years, anyway."  Chief Morrison waved as he opened the door to leave.  "Well, I'll be seeing you."

Sean waved back.  Then he turned to Ella.  "Well, Ms. Waters, let's get you settled."

"Please, call me Ella."

"All right, Ella," Sean said, smiling.  "Right this way."  He led her back through the press conference room and through the still-open panel in the wall.  After they were through, Sean led her out of the auxiliary hall and turned left on the wide corridor.

"This is a really big place," Ella observed as she looked around.

"Yes.  Yes, it is," Sean agreed amiably as they strolled.  Just a few seconds later, they arrived in front of Ella's room, what was formerly one of the empty rooms on the first floor.  "Ah.  We've arrived here at your room."  Sean reached over and opened the door, flicked on the light, and set down Ella's sparse luggage.

"Wow," Ella breathed.  "This is one big room."

"Yes.  Yes, it is," Sean agreed amiably.  "And it's all yours for the duration of your stay."

"This should be just fine," Ella said, smiling.

"Anything else?"

"Actually, yes," Ella said.  "I'm kind of hungry.  Could you direct me to the kitchen?"

Sean nodded.  He led her down the hall.  "So what do you do, Ella?"

"I'm a computer programmer for Sahara," Ella said.

Sean bristled.  "Really?" he said conversationally, keeping his tone of voice normal.

Ella nodded as she stepped into the kitchen.  She looked around.  "Wow!  Nice kitchen."

Sean nodded.  

"Well stocked?"

"Probably.  Someone just went shopping yesterday."

Ella set to work making dinner for herself.

Chapter 3

Sean stepped into the kitchen.  Jesse and Clayton were huddled over one of the counters, eating something.  They looked up, guilty expressions on their faces.  "What are you two doing?"

"Uh, nothing," Clayton said.

"Nothing," Jesse affirmed.

Sean looked at them suspiciously.  "What are you eating?"

"Food," Jesse responded.

"Yeah, food," Clayton said.

Sean walked over and looked at what they had been devouring.  "What is this?  Some kind of roast?  Which one of you made this?"

"Clayton," Jesse said, lightning fast.

"Yeah, me," Clayton agreed.

Sean touched the meat with his index finger.  "Why are you eating it cold?"

"Uh, my recipe is better . . . cold," Clayton said.

"Much better," Jesse agreed, tearing another hunk of meat off.

Sean was going to go for a steak knife when he saw how easily Jesse and Clayton were simply tearing pieces off, as if they were almost falling off the main slab.  He did the same with a small morsel and popped it into his mouth.  His eyes widened.  "Hey, this is really good!"

Clayton smiled.  "Thank you," he said, putting another chunk in his mouth.

"Please, Clayton," Sean said.  "Don't patronize me.  You couldn't find your way around a kitchen with a map."  He followed Jesse and Clayton's lead and ripped another piece of meat off.  "So who did make this?" he asked, mouth full.

"I think it was that Ella chick," Jesse said.  "She left her meal from yesterday in the fridge, so we chowed."

"Really?" Sean said, making a connection with something Cop had mentioned on his first day.  "I think I need to have a talk with Ella about this."  He turned to leave.

"Sean!" Clayton called.


"Don't tell anyone else about this, okay?" Clayton requested.

Sean grinned.

Sean knocked at the door.  "Ella?"

"Yes?" came the response from inside.

"It's Sean.  May I come in?"


Sean entered.  Ella was seated at a small desk, working on something on her laptop.  "Can I talk to you for a sec?" he asked.

"Sure," Ella responded from behind reading glasses.

"Did you make pot roast yesterday?"


"And put the remains in the refrigerator?"


"Two of the guys are wolfing it down."  Sean paused.  "It's quite good."

"Thank you," Ella said, smiling.  "It's a hobby of mine, cooking."

"Are the rest of your dishes anything like that one?"

"Well, that one is pretty basic.  It was just something I whipped up from the overabundance of meat you have," Ella said, smiling.  "I can tell that this place is inhabited by a bunch of men."  She paused.  "Now, maybe this is just some kind of maternal instinct kicking in, but, I've noticed that you fellas don't eat too well."

Sean smiled.  "I don't know that you're old enough to feel maternal toward me."

Ella cocked her head to one side and smiled differently.  "I suppose you're right."

"But you're right about us not eating well."

Ella nodded.  "And I've been trying to think of a way to repay you for putting me up," she continued.  "How about if I design a program with all of my best dishes for you?"

Sean smiled.  "That would be nice."  He paused.  "But not many of us can cook."

"Well, I tell you what.  I know a good roboticist, name of Jon Stollen."

"Ah, yes.  Dr. Stollen."

"You know him, too?" Ella asked, eyebrows raised.

Sean nodded.

"How about I get him to design a cooking robot for you?  With my recipes and style hardwired in?"

Sean's former smile returned, even wider.  "Could you?"

Ella grinned.  "Be happy to.  It'll give me something to do for the next couple of weeks."

Chapter 4
Three weeks later

"She's destroyed us!"

"I know," the big man said.  "I'm going up the river for sure.  But you can make sure that she never does anything again.  You get my drift?" he asked, glaring at his subordinate through the glass dividing them.

"Sure, boss.  But we don't know where she's stayin'!"

The big man groaned.  "Checkwolf headquarters."

"We can't bust in there!  That place is like a vault."

"Here's what you'll do, then . . . ."

"Our top story tonight.  Rudy Jacob, long assumed to be a leading Mafia figure in Kewanee, was finally sent to prison, for fifty years to life with no hope of parole.  The jury deliberated for only thirty-five minutes before turning up the guilty verdict on this extremely short case, only two weeks passing from opening to closing statements.  The prosecution's star witness was one Ella Waters, who . . . "

Jesse glanced at his watch.  "When are Wil and Ryan supposed to be checking in, anyway?"

Ruben shrugged.  "I dunno.  What time is it?"

"A little after six," Jesse said slowly, gesturing at the television and the local evening news, doing everything but actually saying, "Duh."

Ruben frowned.  "They were supposed to check in ten minutes ago."

"You think they forgot?"

"Yeah, I'm sure Ryan forgot," Ruben said, equally as slowly as Jesse had just spoken.  "Duh," he said aloud.

"How about I give them a call?" Jesse said, more of a statement of intent than a request for permission.

Ruben nodded, the trace of sarcasm on his face being replaced by concern, for the simple truth was that Ryan would not have forgotten to check in; he was extremely diligent and punctual.

"Alpha team, this is HQ.  Do you copy?" Jesse asked for the second time.  He glanced over at Ruben, a worried look on his face.  "Where are they?" he asked, gesturing at the map.

Ruben tapped a couple of keys on the console in front of him and brought up the position of the Alpha van.  "The 9900 block of NE 93rd Avenue."

Jesse leaned forward.  "That's practically in Osceola.  What are they doing over there?"

"Well, Sean did say to make sure they lost any possible tails," Ruben offered by way of possible explanation.

"Isn't that going a little bit out of the way?"

"There's that," Ruben acknowledged.

"Alpha team, come in," Jesse said into the mic again.  He shook his head.  "There's no answer.  I've tried five times."

Ruben nodded.  "We'd better scramble Beta."

"Fine.  But you get to wake up Cop."

"Don't worry, Ella," Wil said reassuringly.  "Everything's under control."

Ryan wrenched the steering wheel to the right and careened around another corner, practically putting the van up on two wheels.

"If you're trying to be inconspicuous," Wil said, turning back around in his chair and doublechecking to make sure that his seatbelt was secure, "this isn't the best way to go about things."

Ryan ignored Wil's running commentary as he blazed down 112th Avenue in eastern Kewanee.  He was going just a few miles per hour over the speed limit, but since there was rush hour traffic it seemed like he was actually travelling much faster.  The big problem was that the black town car that was following him was having little difficulty in keeping up.

"Turn left up here," Wil urged, pointing forward.

"Why?" Ryan asked, nonetheless following Wil's direction and executing a sharp left onto 91st Street, eliciting the blare of a horn from the car he had turned in front of.

"Seems like a good idea," Wil said, checking the passenger side rearview mirror to confirm that the black car had managed to continue following them.

Ryan checked his mirror, too.  "Not really," he said.

"Shouldn't you be turning more if you want to lose them?" Wil asked.

Ryan shook his head.  "The van has a wider turning circle than that car does.  The best way to lose them is to weave through traffic on a straightaway.  Maybe dump them off at a red light," he finished, seeing a traffic light ahead of them change from green to yellow.  He pressed the accelerator into the floor and swerved into the right turn lane, dodging traffic as the light changed to red.

"Nice try," Wil said a moment later, "but our buddy doesn't have any problem running a red light, it would appear."

Ryan glanced in his mirror at the third occupant of the van.  "You okay, Ella?" he asked.

Ella Waters was strapped into the gunner's chair, her hands clenching the arms of the chair, knuckles white.  She nodded, barely.

Ryan and Wil had been assigned to escort Ella from the courthouse back to Checkwolf HQ.  Sean had instructed them to ensure they didn't have anybody tailing them before coming back home.  To that end, Ryan had followed a meandering path to the northeast of the courthouse.  After about ten minutes, he had been up onto Northeast 46th Avenue and was ready to head back.

That was when Wil had confirmed that they had somebody on their tail.  Since then, Ryan had been unable to shake him and was finding himself further and further from homebase, leading him to take more and more drastic measures as the minutes and the miles wore on.

"I have an idea," Ryan said to Wil, glancing at him quickly.

Wil was able to discern from Ryan's glance that it was something that Ryan considered to be risky.  "I don't like it," Wil said.

"You haven't even heard it yet."

Wil shrugged.

"Here's the deal: I can't lose them."

"Yeah, well if Rube was here . . . ."

"But he's not," Ryan interrupted.  "And I can't lose them.  So I'm gonna lead them off of the main streets and we'll try to take 'em out with the guns."

Wil shot Ryan a look of disbelief.  "Are you crazy?"

Ryan threw his hands up into the air.  "Any better ideas?"

Wil was silent.

"We know they're after Ella," Ryan said as he decided at the last moment to turn right on 95th Avenue, a decidedly residential street.  The black car tailing them had no trouble following.  "That means they must be Mafia guys sent out by Jacob."


"I don't think we have to worry about the occupants of that car being innocent bystanders."

Wil nodded reluctantly.  He unbuckled his seatbelt.  "Keep this thing going straight, okay?"  He got out of his seat and stepped back to where Ella was seated.  "Ella, I'm going to have to ask you to move over here, okay?" he said, gesturing to one of the side seats.

Ella nodded, letting Wil unbuckle her, help her over to the side, and rebuckle her.  As soon as he finished doing that, there was a loud thump and the van rocked forward, knocking Wil to the floor.

"What are you doing?" Wil asked, pulling himself off of the floor.

"They've gotten more aggressive," Ryan said through gritted teeth.

Wil quickly slid into the gunner's seat.  "What are you planning on using?" he asked as he buckled himself in.

"The cannon."

Wil raised an eyebrow as he set about activating the rooftop cannon.  "Isn't that overdoing it a little bit?" he asked as a panel slid away on the roof of the van and the barrel of the cannon raised itself out of the overhead compartment.  The cannon was three feet long with a muzzle six inches wide; it was capable of a variety of different things, from firing a pulse just a little stronger than a stun pistol to punching a hole in a cement wall.

"There's no way to use the head lasers," Ryan said, "what with them being behind us."

Wil nodded as he swiveled the cannon apparatus through one hundred eighty degrees, targeting the car behind them.  "What am I using here?"

Ryan was noticing that the houses were thinning out considerably; he was only passing one every once in a while as he cruised along at fifty miles per hour.  He plowed through his third stop sign since he had turned onto 95th.  As he went through the intersection, the car rearended them again.  This seemed as good of a place as any for his plan.  "Can you take out their tires?"

Wil peered through the targeting scope.  "They're too close.  I can't get a good angle."

"Try a couple of light warning shots, into their headlights or something," Ryan suggested.

Wil punched in the appropriate power rating into the system and targeted the driver's side headlight.  "Target acquired."

"Fire," Ryan commanded.

Instantly, Wil hit the firing switch.  A narrow, nearly invisible laser beam lanced out from the cannon and destroyed the driver's side headlight assembly.  The car swerved slightly and lost some speed, dropping back about five seconds' distance from the van immediately, but continuing to lose ground.

"Good shot, Wil," Ryan said, glancing at the view in his rear mirror.  He then looked ahead of him and saw an oncoming vehicle suddenly slew across the road, blocking it across its width.  "Hold on!" was all Ryan had time to say before he stomped on the brake.  The tires squealed in protest as Ryan locked them up with the brakes, laying a long trail of rubber behind before coming to a stop about twenty-five feet from the car, a near-duplicate of the one that had been tailing them.  The original tail came to a stop nose to bumper with the van.

"What now?" Wil asked.

As soon as all three vehicles had come to a stop, the occupants came out of the black cars, four from each.    Each had a gun.  The first thing they did was to shoot out all four tires; those four then covered the exits of the van.  Two from the second car stood at the perimeter; the final two, from the first car, were doing something behind the van. 

"They picked a good spot to do this," Ryan said.  They had evidently come up with an idea similar to Ryan's: take out the target in a less-congested area of the city.  Ryan was a little disturbed at how quickly things had turned against them.  "Pick 'em off," he said as he got out of the driver's seat and headed for the overhead hatch that held their weaponry.

Wil grinned, then swiveled the cannon to aim at one of the men on the perimeter.  He tapped the necessary keys on the control pad to change the weapon over from laser to taser, then targeted and fired.  The electrical discharge that came from the cannon was about equal in strength to a handheld stun rifle; it was more than enough to temporarily shut down the hitman's nervous system.

The shot from Wil elicited an immediate reaction from the other mobsters.  The four guarding the doors each fired several shots at the windows while the fifth man, the only remaining one on the perimeter, shot at the windshield.  The glass, of course, shrugged off the bullets as if they were nothing.  The van rocked slightly again as the two in the back evidently started climbing on the van.

Wil turned the cannon slightly, targeting the other man on the perimeter.  He seemed to realize what was happening and dove to the ground.  Wil simply made a minor adjustment and, smiling, shot the man while he was down.  "That's two," he told Ryan.

Ryan nodded as he checked the charge on a stun pistol and tucked it into a holster, then reached for a rifle.  "What do you think they're doing on the roof?" he asked.

Wil spun the cannon, sparing a wry smile for the attempts of a couple of the hitmen to try to actually open the doors to the van, then sighted the two men on the roof.  The smile abruptly dropped from his face as he realized what they were doing.  "Hey!" he yelled, quickly firing at one of the men.  The man convulsed and tumbled from the van, hitting heavily on the pavement outside.  As Wil went to target the second one, he suddenly lost all control of the mechanism.  "We've lost our gun!" Wil said, angry.

Ryan nodded, having assumed that's what they had been doing.  He tossed a rifle to Wil.  Wil caught it.  "Front lasers?"

"Shot out."

Ryan glanced at Ella as he shut the compartment.  "It's going to be okay, Ms. Waters."

"How long before they break in?" she asked in a quiet voice, frightened.

"Quite awhile," Ryan said, a glance at Wil betraying the confidence his voice was meant to inspire.  Wil met his glance with his face expressionless.   They both knew that the van was much like a tank and could resist intruders for much longer than any normal vehicle could.  But a determined person would get through eventually.  It was up to Ryan and Wil to ensure that when they did, they didn't get to Ella, whatever the cost.

Wil then turned to Ella and grinned.  "Yeah, there's nothing to worry about, Ella.  This thing's like a tank."

Ryan stepped over to the gunner's chair and looked out the sight.  He could just make out the man standing on the roof of the van.  Ryan heard something clink in the overhead area beneath the cannon, then saw the Mafia man jump off of the van.  He smiled and stepped away from the scope.

"Tear gas?" Wil asked with a smile.

"Or something like that," Ryan said with a shrug of one shoulder.

Wil looked to Ella again.  "You see, the van is a sealed system; if we want to, we can run off of our own oxygen stores.  They're not getting to us."

Ryan listened to Wil's reassurances with one ear as he moved back toward the front of the van.  Three of the five remaining hitmen had been unloading something from the trunk of the car in front of them.  "Wil, come here."

Wil stepped up next to Ryan.  "What's up?"

Ryan pointed at the item that the hitmen were setting up in front of the van.

Wil swore.  "A rocket launcher," he said quietly.

Ryan nodded.  "Can the van take that?"

"I seriously doubt it."

"We may need to get Ella out the back," Ryan said.

"I think the other two guys are back there," Wil objected.

Ryan nodded.  "I'll go first."

"Ryan, no.  I'll-"

"Wil," Ryan said in a flat, commanding voice.  He turned and looked at Wil.  "I'll go first.  You'll protect Ella."

"Ryan, that's suicide."

"Not necessarily."

"You can't-"

"Wil.  That's an order."

Wil took a deep breath, staring back into Ryan's hardset gaze, then looked away, accepting the order resignedly.  "If we're going to do this thing, it had better be soon," he said, pointing.  They had set up the launcher and were loading the rocket into it.

Ryan nodded.  "We have to get out of this thing, Ella," he said as he brushed past her, letting Wil unstrap her and help her to her feet.

"I thought you said it was like a tank," Ella said.

"It is," Ryan said, preparing to unlock the back door.

Suddenly, an explosion rocked the van, knocking all three occupants to the floor.

"What happened?" Ryan demanded, struggling to get to his feet.

"Beta to Alpha," came Karl's voice over the speaker.  "Anybody awake over there?"

Ryan stood and looked out the windshield as Wil went to the comm board.  Outside, the scene was much different than it had been the last time he'd looked.  The launcher and the car in front of them were in flames.  The Beta van drove by slowly as Ryan watched, picking off the remaining hitmen with its own weapons.

"Alpha, Wil here.  Great to see you guys."

Cop jumped out of the passenger side door and ran along the right side of the Alpha van, firing from his hand taser at something behind the Alpha van as he ran.  Ryan turned and saw the two men in the back fall to the ground next to the car, knocked unconscious by Cop.

"Yeah, we figured you needed somebody to save your sorry behinds," Karl said, a grin evident in his voice.

"Thanks for the assist."

"You did a good job," Morrison said.  "Thanks for all your help."

"No problem," Sean said, settling himself in the chair across the desk from the chief of police.  "We ran into a little bit of trouble there at the end, but everything turned out all right."

"I was told that nobody was injured," Chief Morrison said.  "Is that true?"

Sean smiled.  "Well, no Checkwolf members, anyway.  Plus, we managed to round up eight Mafia hitmen.  Not a bad night's work."

Morrison nodded.  "That's exactly why I wanted you to handle this."

"Thank you for the opportunity," Sean replied.  He paused.  "So where's Ella now?"

"Honestly, I don't know," the chief replied.  "I'm not supplied with that information.  That's all handled by the Witness Protection Department.  Why do you ask?"

"I just wanted to . . . never mind," Sean said with an awkward smile.

Chief Morrison nodded.  "Thanks for stopping in, Sean.  I just wanted to express my appreciation in person."

"Yeah, it was no problem," Sean said.  "I had to drop off that paperwork, anyway."  Sean stood, then shook Morrison's hand.  "I'd better get going."

The chief nodded, then turned back to his work.

Sean left Chief Morrison's office.  The way that Checkwolf had handled this situation with Ella had certainly gained them more respect, not only with Morrison, but also with the police department in general and even the city council.  And even though he couldn't shake a certain sense of sadness, he was proud that his group had once again proven itself.