Kate O’Malley had been in the dungeon since dawn.


     The members of the emergency response group comprising the SWAT and hostage-rescue teams had been relegated to the basement of the county building during the last department reorganization. The desks were crammed together, the concrete walls needed repainting, the old case files made the room smell musty, and the hot and cold water pipes coming from the boiler room rumbled overhead.


     The team was proud of their little hovel. The location allowed for relaxed rules. The only evidence of bureaucracy was a time clock by the steel door so those not on salary could get paid for all their overtime.


     Despite the dirt on her tennis shoes, Kate had her feet propped up on the corner of her desk, her fingers steepled, her eyes half closed, as she listened to the sound of her own voice over the headphones, careful not to let the turmoil of her thoughts reflect in her expression. She was reviewing the last of four negotiation tapes. Case 2214 from last week haunted her. A domestic violence call with shots fired. It had taken six hours to negotiate a peaceful conclusion. Six agonizing hours for the mother and two children held in the house. Had there been any way to end it earlier?


     As Kate listened to the husband’s drunken threats and her own calm replies, she automatically slowed her breathing to suppress her rising emotions. She hated domestic-violence cases. They revived unwanted memories…memories Kate had buried away from the light of day.


     The cassette tape reversed sides. She sipped her hot coffee and grimaced. Graham must have made this pot. She didn’t mind strong coffee, but this was Navy coffee. Kate tugged open her middle desk drawer and pushed aside chocolate bars and two heavy silver medals for bravery to find sugar packets.


     She found it odd to be considered something of a legend on the force at the age of thirty-six, but she understood it. She was a negotiator known for one thing—being willing to walk into any situation. Domestic violence, botched robberies, kidnappings, even airline hijackings—she had worked them all.


     Kate let people see what she wanted them to see. She could sit in the middle of a crisis for hours or days if that’s what it took to negotiate a peace. She could do it with a relaxed demeanor. Detached. Most often, apparently bored.


     It worked. Her apparent boredom in a crisis kept people alive. She dealt with the emotions later, after the situation was over—and far away from work. She played a lot of basketball, using the game to cultivate her focus, let go of the tension.


     This was her fourth review of the tapes. Her case notes appeared complete. Kate didn’t hear anything she could have done differently. She stopped the tape playback, relieved to have the review done. She pushed back the headphones and ran her hand through her ruffled hair.




     She turned to see Graham holding up his phone.


     “Line three. Your brother.”


     “Which one?”


     “The paramedic.”


     She punched the blinking light. “Hi, Stephen.”


     “Let me guess, you’re screening your calls.”


     Kate grinned. She was, but it was an amusing first observation. “I’m ducking the media for a few days. Are you off duty?”


      “Just wrapping up. Had breakfast yet?”


     Kate picked up the tension in his voice. “I could go for some good coffee and a stack of pancakes.”


     “I’ll meet you across the street at Quinn’s.”




     Kate glanced at her pager, confirming she was on group call. She slid her cellular phone into her shirt pocket as she stood. “I’m heading to breakfast. Anyone want a Danish brought back?” Quinn's was a popular stopping point for all of them.


     Requests came in from all over the room. Her tally ended with three raspberry, four cherry, and two apple Danishes. “Page me if you need me.”


     The stairs out of the dungeon were concrete and hand railed so they could be traversed with speed. Security doors were located at both ends. The stairway opened into the secure access portion of the parking garage. The team's specially equipped communications vans gleamed. They'd just been polished yesterday.


     Kate slid on her sunglasses. June had begun as a month of glaring sun and little rain. It parched even the downtown Chicago concrete, coating the ground with crumbling dust. Traffic was heavy in this tight narrow corridor. She crossed against the traffic light.


     Quinn's was a mix of new interior and old building, the restaurant able to comfortably seat seventy. Kate waved to the owner, took two menus, and headed to her usual table at the back of the restaurant, choosing the chair that put her back to the wall. It was always an amusing dance when there were two or more cops coming to Quinn's. No cop liked to sit with his back to an open room.


     She accepted a cup of coffee, skimming the menu though she knew it by heart. Blueberry pancakes. She was a lady of habit. That decision made, she relaxed back in her seat to enjoy the coffee and tune into the conversations going on around her. The ladies by the window were talking about a baby shower. The businessmen to her left were discussing a fishing trip. Two teenagers were debating where to begin their shopping excursion.


     Kate stirred two sugar packets into her coffee. Normal life. After ten years as a negotiator, there wasn’t much normalcy left in her own life. The mundane details that most people cared about had ceased to cause the slightest blip on her radar screen. Normal people cared about clothes, vacations, holidays. Kate cared about staying alive. If it weren’t such a stark dichotomy, it would be amusing.


     Stephen arrived as she was nursing her second cup of coffee. Kate smiled when she saw the interest he attracted as he came to join her. She couldn’t blame the ladies. His sports jacket and blue jeans didn’t hide his muscles. He could walk off the cover of nearly any men’s fashion magazine. Not bad for someone who spent his days dealing with car accidents, fire victims, gang shootings, and drug overdoses.


     He wouldn’t stay in this city forever¾he talked occasionally about moving northwest to some small town with a lake, good fishing, and a job where he would finally get to treat more heart attacks then gunshot victims¾but for now he stayed. Kate knew it was primarily because of her. Stephen had designated himself her watchdog. He had never asked; he’d just taken the role. She loved him for it, even if she did tease him on occasion about it.


     He pulled out the chair across from her. “Thanks for making time, Kate.”


     “Mention food and you’ve got my attention.” She pushed over the second cup of coffee the waitress had filled, not commenting on the strain in his eyes despite his smile. That look hadn’t been there yesterday when he'd joined her for a one-on-one basketball game. She hoped it was only the aftereffects of a hard shift. He would tell her if he needed to. Within the O’Malley family, secrets were rare.


     At the orphanage—Trevor House—where family was nonexistent, the seven of them had chosen to become their own family, had chosen the last name O’Malley. Stephen was one of the three special ones in the family: a true orphan, not one of the abandoned or abused.


     They might not share a blood connection, but that didn't matter, what they did share was far stronger. They were loyal, faithful, and committed to each other. Some twenty-two years after their decision, the group was as unified and strong as ever.


     They had, in a sense, adopted each other.


     “Did you see the news?” Stephen asked once the waitress had taken their orders.


     Kate shook her head. She had left early for the gym and then gone straight to the office.


     “There was a five-car pileup on the tollway. A three-year-old was in the front seat. He died en route to County General Hospital.”


     Kids. The toughest victims for any O’Malley to deal with. “I’m sorry, Stephen.” He decompressed like she did. Slowly. After he left work.


     “So am I.” He set aside his coffee cup. “But that’s not why I called you. Jennifer’s coming to town.”


     Jennifer O’Malley was the youngest in the family, everyone’s favorite. She was a pediatrician in Dallas. “Oh?”


     “I got a call from her this morning. She’s got a Sunday flight into O’Hare.”


     Kate frowned. It wasn’t easy for any doctor to leave her practice on such short notice. “Did she say what it was about?”


     “No. Just asked which day I was off. She was trying to set up a family gathering. There’s probably a message on your answering machine.”


     Kate didn’t wait to find out. She picked up her cellular phone and called her home number.


     Their breakfasts arrived.


     Jennifer had left a message. It didn’t say much. Dinner Sunday evening at Lisa’s. “I don’t like this.”


     “It gets worse. Marcus is flying back from Washington for the gathering.”


     Kate let that information sink in as she started on her hot pancakes. Their oldest brother, a US Marshal, was interrupting his schedule to fly back to Chicago. “Jennifer is one step away from saying it’s a family emergency.” Let any member of the family say those words and the others dropped everything and came.


     Stephen reached for his orange juice. “That’s how I would read it.”


     “Any ideas?”


     “None. I talked to Jennifer last Friday. She didn’t say anything.”


     Kate’s pager went off. She glanced at the return number and grimaced. One of these days she was actually going to get to finish a meal. She set down her linen napkin as she got to her feet. “Work is calling. Can you join me for dinner? I’m off at six. I was planning to grill steaks.”


     “Glad to. Stay safe, Kate.”


     She grinned. “Always, Stephen. Put breakfast on my tab.”


     “I’ve got it covered.”


     She didn’t have time to protest. It was an old debate. She smiled and let him win this round. “See you at six.”




FBI special agent Dave Richman dealt with crises every day of his life. However, being a customer when a bank holdup went down was not one he would recommend.


     His heart pounding, he rested his back against the reception desk and prayed the gunman stayed on the other side of the room.


     The man had come in through the front door, shot four holes in the ceiling with a handgun, and ordered some of the customers and staff to leave, specific others to stay.


     Dave had nearly shot him in the first few seconds of the assault, but the dynamite around the man’s chest had halted that idea. The FBI playbook was simple: when facing dynamite, a loaded gun, and a lot of frightened people—don’t get anyone killed.


     In the initial commotion, Dave had managed to drop to the floor and get out of sight. He had about six feet of customer counter space that ended in an L that made up the reception desk he was hiding behind. So far, it was sufficient. The gunman had the hostages clustered together on the other side of the open room. He hadn’t bothered to search the offices or the rest of the room. That most likely meant he was proceeding on emotion—and that, Dave knew, made him more dangerous than ever.


     Dave would give anything to have his FBI team on-site. When the local cops surrounding the building ran the license plates for the cars in the parking lot, the trace on his own blue sedan would raise a flag at the FBI office. His team would be deployed because he was present. He had trusted his life to their actions in the past; it looked like he would be doing so again. The sound of sirens and the commotion outside had died down; by now he was sure they had the perimeter formed.


     He leaned his head back. This was not exactly how he had planned to spend his birthday. His sister, Sara, was expecting him for lunch. When he didn’t show up, she was going to start to worry.


     There would be no simple solution to this crisis.


     He was grateful God was sovereign.


     From the tirade going on behind him, it was obvious this man had not come to rob the bank.





They had a bank robber that had not bothered to get any money. Kate was already assuming the worst.

     The security camera video feeds had just been tapped and routed to the communications van. Four different camera angles. Two were static pictures of empty areas, the front glass doors, and the teller area for the drive up. One was focused high, covering the front windows, but it did show the hostages. Five men and four women seated against the wall.


     The fourth camera held Kate’s attention. The man paced the center of the room. He was big and burly, his stride impatient.


     The dynamite trigger held in his right hand worried her. It looked like a compression switch. Let go, and the bomb went off. There was no audio, but he was clearly in a tirade about something. His focus seemed to be on one of the nine hostages in particular, the third man from the end.


     This man had come with a purpose. Since it apparently wasn’t to rob the bank, that left more ugly possibilities.


     He wasn’t answering the phone.


     Kate looked over at her boss, Jim Walker. She had worked for him for eight years. He trusted her judgment; she trusted him to keep her alive if things went south. “Jim, we’ve got to calm this situation down quickly. If he won’t answer the phone, then we’ll have to talk the old-fashioned way.”


     He studied the monitors. “Agreed.”


     Kate looked at the building blueprints. The entrance was a double set of glass doors with about six feet between them. They were designed to be energy efficient in both winter and summer. Kate wished the architects had thought about security first. She had already marked those double doors and those six feet of open space as her worst headache. A no man’s land. Six feet without cover.


     “Graham, if I stay here—” she pointed—“just inside the double-glass doors, can you keep me in line of sight?” He was one of the few people she would trust to take a shot over her shoulder if it were required.


     He studied the blueprint. “Yes.”


     “Have Olsen and Franklin set up to cover here and here.” She marked two sweeps of the interior. It would be enough. If they had to take the gunman down, there would be limited ways to do it without blowing up a city block in the process.


     Kate turned up the sleeves of her flannel shirt. Her working wardrobe at a scene was casual. She did not wear a bulletproof vest; she didn’t even carry a gun. The last thing she wanted was to look or sound like a cop. Her gender, size, and clothing were designed to keep her from being perceived as one more threat. In reality, she was the worst threat the gunman had. The snipers were under her control. To save lives, she would take one if necessary.


     Kate glanced again at the security monitors. There was a lot of the bank floor plan not covered by the cameras. There might be another gunman, more hostages—both were slim but potential realities. The risks were inevitable.


     “Ian, try the phones one more time.”


     Kate watched the gunman’s reaction. He turned to glare at the ringing phone, paced toward it, but didn’t answer. Okay. It wouldn’t get him to answer, but it did capture his attention. That might be useful.


     It was time to go.


     “Stay safe, Kate.”


     She smiled. “Always, Jim.”


     The parking lot had been paved recently; spots on the asphalt were sticky under her tennis shoes. Kate assessed the cops in the perimeter as she walked around the squad cars toward the bank entrance. Some of the rookies looked nervous. A few veterans she recognized had been through this with her before.


     Her focus turned to the glass doors. The bank name was done in a bold white stencil on the clear glass; a smaller sign below listed the lobby and drive-up teller hours. Kate put her hand on the glass door and smoothly pulled it open, prepared sometime in the next six feet to get shot.




Dave saw the lady as she reached the front doors of the bank and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. She came in, no bulletproof vest, apparently no gun, not even a radio. She just walked in.


     God, have mercy. He had never prayed so intently for someone in his life, not counting his sister. Absolutely nothing was preventing that gunman from shooting her.


     He pulled back from the end of the desk, knowing that if she saw him her surprise would give away his presence. He moved rapidly toward the other end of the counter, his hand tight around his gun, knowing he was likely going to have to intervene.


     “Stay there!” The gunman’s voice had just jumped an octave.


     She had certainly gotten the gunman’s attention.


     If she had followed protocol and worn a vest, Dave could have taken the gunman down while his attention was diverted. Instead, she had walked in without following the basic rules of safety, and his opportunity filtered away in the process. He silently chewed out the local scene commander. The city cops should have waited for the professional negotiators to arrive instead of overreacting and sending in a plainclothes cop, creating more of a problem than they solved.


     Lady, don’t you dare make things worse! Listen, say little, and at the first opportunity: get out of here!


     “You didn’t answer the phone. Jim Walker would like to know what it is you want.”


     She had a calm, unhurried, Southern voice. Not what Dave was expecting. His initial assessment had certainly not fit his image of a hostage negotiator, but that calmness didn’t sound forced. His attention sharpened. The negotiators he had worked with in the past had been focused, intense, purposeful men. This lady looked like everything about her was fluid. Tall. Slender. A nice tan. Long auburn hair. Casual clothes. Too exotically beautiful to ever make it in undercover work, she wasn’t someone you would forget meeting. She even stood  relaxed. That convinced him. She had to be a negotiator; either that or a fool. Since his life was in her hands, he preferred to be optimistic.


     “I’ve got exactly what I want. You can turn around and go back the way you came.”


     “Of course. But would you mind if I just sat right here for a few minutes first? If I come right back out, my boss will get ticked off.”


     It was how she said it. She actually made the guy laugh. “Sit down but shut up.”


     “Glad to.”


     Dave breathed a silent sigh of relief and eased his finger off the trigger. They wouldn’t send a rookie into a situation like this, after all, but who was she? Not FBI, that much was certain.





Kate sat down where she stood in one graceful move and rested her head against the glass doors. Her heart rate slowly decelerated. She hadn’t gotten herself shot in the first minute. That was always a good sign.


     She scanned the faces of the hostages. They were all nervous, three of the women crying. The gunman was probably not enjoying that. The man the gunman was focused on looked about ready to have a coronary.


     At least there were no heroics going on here. These nine folks were scared, nervous, ordinary people. Seeing it on the monitor had been one thing, confirming it directly was a relief. No athletes. No military types. She had lost hostages before who acted on their own.


     She wished she could tell them to stay put, but the only communication she could make with them was in her actions. The more bored she appeared with the situation, the better. The goal was to get the gunman to relax a little. His barked humor had been a minor, very good sign. She would take it and every other one she could get.


     Kate studied the bomb as the gunman paced. It was everything she had feared. Manning, her counterpart on the bomb squad, was going to have a challenge.


     It was a pity God didn't exist. Someone, God if no one else, should have solved this man’s problems before he decided to walk into this bank with dynamite and a gun. The gunman wouldn’t agree with her, but options now were limited—he would end up in jail or dead. Not exactly happy alternatives. She had to make sure he didn’t take nine innocent lives along with him.


     Ten, counting hers.


     She couldn’t have the guy shot; his hand would come off the bomb trigger. She couldn’t rush the guy; she would get herself shot. If she got shot, her family would descend on her like a ton of bricks for being so stupid. As she knew from firsthand experience, it was difficult enough recovering from an injury without having the entire O’Malley clan breathing down her neck as she did so.


     Negotiating to get the hostages released was going to be a challenge. He didn’t appear to want anything beyond control of the bank manager’s fate—and he had that. Releasing hostages took something to exchange. She could go for sympathy for the crying women, but that would probably get her tossed out as well.

     As time wore on, bargaining chips would appear she could use—food, water, the practical reality of how he would handle controlling this many people when faced with the need for restroom visits.

     She could wait the situation out indefinitely, and slowly it would turn in her favor. But would he let that much time pass? Or would he escalate before then?



Dave had a difficult decision to make. Did he alert the cop of his presence and risk her giving away his position with her expression, or did he stay silent and watch the situation develop? He finally accepted that he had no choice. It would take more than one person to end this standoff. That was the reality. He eased his badge out of his pocket and flipped it open.


     He moved forward, leaning around the end of the desk.


     There was not even a twitch to indicate her surprise. No emotion across her face, no movement of her head, no quick glance in his direction. She flicked her index finger at him, just like she would strike an agate in a game of marbles.


     An irritated flick at that, ordering him back.


     Dave sat back on his heels. He would have been amused at her reaction had the situation been different. That total control of her emotions, her facial expression, her demeanor was a two-edged sword—it would keep his location safe, but it also meant it would be very hard to judge what she was thinking.


     Her response told him a lot about her, though. That silent flick of her finger had conveyed a definite order—one she expected to be obeyed without question. She knew how to get her point across. He felt sorry for anyone who would ever question her in a court of law. She must give defense attorneys fits.


     He had to find some way to talk to her.


     He opened the receptionist’s desk drawer a fraction at a time and peered inside. He found what he hoped for—paper. He silently slid out several sheets and took out his pen. He had to make the message simple and the letters large and dark enough so she could read them with a mere glance.


     What did he say first?


     4 SHOTS. 2 LEFT.


     She adjusted her sunglasses.


     Okay, message received.


     The best way to take this gunman down was from behind, by surprise. But the gunman would need to be close so that Dave could put his hand around that bomb trigger.




     She read the message. Several moments passed. When the gunman paced away from her, she shook her head ever so slightly.


     Why not? His frustration was acute. There was no way for her to answer that.




     She gave no response.


     Dave grimaced. This was the equivalent of passing notes in high school, and he had done all of that he would ever like to do when he was a teen. Why had she not even tried to start a dialogue with the man?




     Her fingers curled into a fist.


     Dave backed off. Whatever she was considering, at the moment she didn’t want to take suggestions. Frustration and annoyance competed for dominance within him. She had better have a great plan in mind. His life was in her hands.


     He had no choice but to settle back and wait.




Kate flexed her fingers, forced to bury all her emotions into that one gesture. She would give her next paycheck to be able to go outside for about ten minutes and pound something. She not only had a cop in her midst, she had a would-be hero who wanted to give her backseat advice!


     Someone had a federal badge, they thought they understood how to deal with any crisis they faced. That suggestion she move the gunman toward him had been truly stupid: before any negotiations had been tried, he wanted to force a tactical conclusion. There was one word that defined her job: patience. This cop didn’t have any, and he was going to get them all killed.


     She had two people to keep calm: the gunman and the Fed. Right now it looked like the FBI agent was going to be the bigger problem. If he got it in his head to act, some innocent person was going to get killed, and she was the one sitting in the direct line of fire.


     She should have never gotten up this morning.


     Deal with it. Do the job.


     Kate drew a quiet breath and turned her full attention to the man pacing away from her.




Dave shifted to ease a leg cramp as he listened to the conversation between the negotiator and the gunman. He knew her name now. Kate O’Malley. A nice Irish name for someone who didn’t sound Irish.


     The conversation had begun slowly, but over the last hour it had become a running dialogue. So far the topics had touched on nothing of significance to the situation. It was all small talk, and she had that down to an art form. It was too well controlled for it to be an accident. Dave wondered how long she could talk about nothing before she drove herself crazy. He knew very few cops who could tolerate such small talk. They were too factual, cut to the bottom line, take-charge people.


     The gunman was still pacing, but his stride had slowed. Her constant soft cadence was beginning to work. Dave knew what she was doing, but he could still feel himself responding to that calm, quiet voice as well, his own tension easing. He no longer wondered if she was the right person for this task; she had convinced him. She had a voice that could mesmerize a man. Soft, Southern, smooth. Dave enjoyed the sound. It conjured up images of candlelight dinners and intimate conversations.


     This lady was controlling events with just her voice; it was something impressive to observe. Part of her plan was obvious. Wear the other side down, remove the sense of threat, build some equity that could be used later when it would matter.


     He was learning a lot of minor information about her. She loved the Cubs. Disliked sitcoms. Thought the potholes in the neighborhood were atrocious. When she went for takeout, her first choice was spicy Chinese.


     The topic shifted to which local restaurant made the best pizza. Dave knew what she was doing, trying to convince the gunman to request food be sent in. It would probably be laced with something designed to calm the man down. He reached for his pen again. She was making him hungry, if not the gunman. He had been trying to figure out what he could do to help her out. This kind of negotiation was tiring work. He might as well make this a three-way conversation.




     She never dropped the conversational ball as she smoothly mentioned what exactly was inside a mushroom cap, if anyone wanted to know.


     Dave smiled.


     Since her plan was to sit there and talk, he could think of a few more questions for her. She had to be running out of topics. He was more than a little curious to learn about Kate O’Malley. She had him fascinated. She was sitting in the midst of a stressful situation, accomplishing a nearly impossible task, and yet looking and sounding like she didn’t have a care in the world. Her conversation was casual, her smile quick to appear. If this was what she was like on the job, what was she like off duty?




     His query was met with the glimmer of a smile. Minutes later, she smoothly changed the subject of the conversation to movies.


     He had to stifle a laugh when she said her favorite movie was Bugs Bunny’s Great Adventure. It didn’t matter if she actually meant it or was simply showing an exquisitely refined sense of humor. It was the perfect answer.




     High Noon.


     Dave leaned his head back, not sure how to top that one. Kate O’Malley was apparently a movie buff. It was nice to know they had something in common. If she could get them out of this safely, he would buy the tickets and popcorn to whatever movie she wanted to see.