Book One: Embers

by Sue Kelley

The mansion had been built in the late 1800s by a transplanted New Englander desperate to spend the fortune acquired in the silver mines of Colorado. The fortune hadn't outlived the New Englander's proliferate heirs, and the house had been sold, to first one party, then another, until it had finally come into the possession of its current owner shortly after World War II.

The house bespoke culture, elegance, tradition. And money of course, but not in a garish way. The Persian rugs, the oriental lamps, the highly polished dark wood floors, the wall of mahogany bookcases and the spare grouping of a gold brocade sofa and two complimentary armchairs in front of the fireplace--were all from another era--a time of peace and leisure and contemplation. Sitting in this gracious room with the two or three well chosen paintings and the plethora of family photographs in ornate silver or china frames, one felt a part of a more restful time, a more gracious time--a time and a place that should not be able to exist when the skyscrapers of downtown Denver were visible from the windows.

Arthur Curran owned this house. He now sat quietly behind the massive cherry desk, his eyes on the three other people in the room. Family was important to Curran and since the recent loss of his only son, these three represented all the family he had left.

He looked at them--no, studied them, maybe for the first time. What did he really know about any of them, how they thought, what they felt? He'd supported them most of their lives, educated them, set them up in whatever business their interests had taken them. All three, in some fashion, worked for one of his businesses--either legal or illegal. All three of them probably had more than a rudimentary knowledge of some of his less than legitimate sources of income. And all knew what their cousin had been doing at the time of his death.

His murder.

A legal murder, perhaps, but murder nonetheless.

His eyes settled on his nephew. David tolerated the scrutiny without a flicker of emotion crossing his perfect features. Curran knew he had been short with the boy--man--since Steven's death. David couldn't help it that not only was he not Steven, he was Steven's exact opposite--blond where Steven had been dark, reserved where Steven had been gregarious. David and Steven--their birthdates separated by a matter of mere weeks--had been best friends as well as cousins. Tightly allied. Solidly at each other's backs. David had become even more withdrawn since Steven's funeral. Did he expect to just step into Steven's shoes--Steven's position in the business and in his father's life?

David's sister sat next to him on the velvet sofa. Nina was the youngest of the three. The beautiful face, silver-blonde hair and cool emerald eyes hid a cutting intelligence and wit. Curran knew Nina enjoyed letting people underestimate her, assuming she was nothing more than a "dumb blonde" with a lot of money behind her. Hardly dumb. With an MBA from Stanford and a law degree from Harvard, Nina now worked for Curran's chief counsel, keeping the legitimate businesses legitimate and the illegal ones hidden.

Curran's eyes drifted slowly to his other niece. Monica sat to the side, alone and somewhat distant from the other two. Her blue eyes coolly studied both them and her uncle. Monica always was separate from the others. His wife's niece, not his, although Curran didn't feel he'd ever treated her differently than the others. Three years older than David, Monica had grown up as the quiet one. It was practically impossible to tell how she felt about anything. Even David and Nina's masks had slipped at their aunt's funeral the year before. Monica's mask never slipped. Sometimes her uncle wondered if it was a mask at all or if she really didn't care about anything. Except her work, of course. Monica was a research chemist and biologist. The only time her uncle could remember seeing her excited about anything since she was a child was when she had been explaining some new drug she was developing to Steven.

Three weeks before his death.

Oddly enough, Monica broke the silence in the room. "Uncle Arthur? You called us here." It was a statement, not a question. David and Nina both shot her surprised looks, then turned their attention to him.

Curran opened the center drawer of the desk and pulled out the three checks he had written that morning. He lined them neatly up on the edge of the desk. No one made a move to take them. David's eyes flickered down, once. That was it.

"Ten million dollars for each of you. Yours immediately, and without any strings." His voice cracked over the snapping of the fire.

Fleeting looks of surprise crossed David's and Nina's faces. Monica showed no change of expression, but her eyes did drift past him to the window, looking at the rain falling for a few minutes before she shifted back to him.

"Each of you is free to take your check, now, and walk out of here. Your jobs won't be affected, and I won't think any the less of you." He paused. "However, if you do so, the ten million represents your sole inheritance from my estate. You won't be mentioned in my will." He eyed each of them steadily.

All three of them nodded. Faint looks of puzzlement.

"The three of you are fairly clean," Curran went on. "You might know a lot--Nina and David possibly more than you, Monica." Even to himself he doubted that. Monica kept her mouth shut and her ears open. She probably knew a hell of a lot. "But I've never asked any of you to do anything directly illegal. You take the money now, that will never change. All I ask is that you keep what you know to yourselves. You are family. I expect that of you."

The fire crackled again. David shifted on the sofa. Nina glanced across the room at Monica. And Monica looked out the window again.

None of them made a move toward the checks.

"I gather there's an option?" David broke the silence this time.

Curran leaned back in his chair. For the first time, he felt a smile cross his face. "Oh, yes. If any of you--or all of you--are interested...I suggest we play a little game."

"A game?" Nina this time.

Curran opened the drawer again and pulled out the packet of photos he'd secreted there. He tossed them on the desk, watching three sets of eyes widen as they recognized the man. "This is your cousin's killer."

David's eyes flickered and a quick look of loathing crossed his face. "The bastard," he spat. Curran nodded, surprised. For David, that was quite an emotional reaction.

"What kind of 'game' are we talking about, Uncle?" Monica again.

Curran eyed each one of them, satisfied they were with him in this. He pulled out the last item from the drawer--a thick sheaf of papers. Nina seemed to realize what it was. He couldn't tell about the other two.

"This is my new will," Curran said. "It's made out for all three of you to equally split everything. And I'll register this Will..." he tapped the face in one of the photographs. "The day one of you kills this man."

Part 2
Five weeks later

"Got everything, kid?"

JD Dunne juggled his jacket, carry-on bag, plane ticket and three magazines hastily purchased at the airport bookstall. "Yeah, I think..." JD really wasn't sure. He'd packed so fast this afternoon when the word had come down from AD Travis' office that they had the week off.

"They" being Team Seven of the Denver office of the ATF. Team Seven had wrapped up their latest assignment--the third straight without a break--two days before. The morning had been devoted to writing reports and doing all the details that went along with a successful operation. JD--the team computer whiz--had had to account for all the equipment. There had been injuries and one fatality among the gun- runners they'd been targeting. Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington had to go the extra round of reports and interviews that accompanied killing someone in the line of duty. One good thing was that the dead perp had drawn his gun and taken aim at Team Seven's undercover specialist in front of at least nine ATF agents and three members of the Denver PD. Twelve rock-solid statements tended to blunt any force there might have been to the investigations.

Then, around noon, the phone rang in Chris Larabee's office. After one of his customarily short conversations full of monosyllabic replies, Chris had called everyone in and announced they were all on vacation, beginning as soon as the last report was on his desk. Never had the seven diverse personalities that made up Team Seven so eagerly worked toward a common goal.

There had been a real feeling of "Get out of town before someone changes their minds." JD decided to go to Florida where Casey was spending her spring break. Or actually, Buck and Chris--aided and abetted by Vin and Josiah--decided for him. Airlines were called, tickets purchased, Casey notified and thrilled about JD's sudden visit--all before JD had managed to wrap his mind around the whole concept of "time off". A quick stop at the loft he shared with Buck had resulted in any item even reasonably perceived to be clean to be packed. Buck himself had braved the muddy icy streets of a Denver spring storm to purchase his roommate "appropriate" swimming attire-- JD was scared to even contemplate what that might be but anyway he wouldn't know until the plane landed.

"You got sunscreen?" Buck asked, slowing by a druggist's stall. "Sunglasses? Oh, I know, aspirin, that sun glare--"

Buck made to dart into the place but JD tripped him. "I have sunglasses," he hissed, noticing an ever-increasing number of women circumventing them with maternal looks on their faces. "And if I need sunscreen I'm sure they sell it in Florida!"

"Hey JD, wait up!" Nathan Jackson loped down the concourse. The former EMT had a well-filled pack over one shoulder and his heavy coat over another.

But it was the shirt he wore underneath that made both the others take a second look. And a third, in Buck's case. "Nathan, ain't that my shirt?"

"Nathan what are you doing here?" chimed in JD.

"Well, you see, Rain's never been to Florida and so when her roommate couldn't go--and we thought we'd still be tied up with the case--Rain went ahead and bought her ticket. I called her and she's only about five miles from where Casey is and there's room for me-- "

"And here I thought I heard you assuring Chris you were going to devote the whole seven days to advancing your paramedic studies," Buck's big grin took any sting away from the words. "You on the same flight? That's great, kid! With Nathan along you can just relax--"

"I am relaxed!" JD retorted. "Maybe you should think about relaxing, Buck. I wasn't the one undercover for the last eleven weeks--you and Ez were! Maybe you should go to Florida!"

Buck's eyes almost glazed over. "All those little college gals and just one of the Old Buck? Kid, that'd be a marathon, not a vacation-- " he broke off as the flight attendant made her "final call" for the flight to Miami and Daytona via Houston. "Oops, that's you guys. Got your cell phones, just in case, right?" although with his Midwestern accent it sounded more like "Git yer cell phones jus' ncase."

"But Buck, what're you doing to do with a week off?" JD protested as his friend physically urged them to get into the boarding line.

"Don't worry, JD, Chris and Vin and Buck got a date with those fish up there at the cabin, right, Buck?" Nathan was in a great mood, not as much about Florida but about seeing Rain in a skimpy bathing suit. Besides, the team's unofficial medic knew better than any of them how strung out they were. "Josiah's already left for Mexico--goin' to be rebuilding a church building. And Ezra--well, you know him. He'll head to some exotic resort where they'll wait on him hand and foot and offer him drinks with little umbrellas in them." Nathan's grin dimmed for a minute. 'Damn, that's what he'd better do. Eleven weeks undercover with no let up...before that another four weeks on the Munoz case and two months trying to take down Steven Curran...Ezra needs this break more than any of us do.'

JD had already stepped to the bulkhead door and was presenting his ticket. Buck stepped away but Nathan reached out a hand and caught him. 'Shit, he looks exhausted too...' "Buck, do me a favor-- make sure Ezra gets on his way before you head up to Wyoming?"

"Why? Something wrong?"

"No. Just...he's really tired. Maybe close to burn out. I asked him but of course he didn't tell me anything..."

"Ezra isn't going to burn out," Buck scoffed. "He loves what he does. Hell, he lives for going undercover."

There were a lot of things Nathan could have said to refute that statement, but the flight attendant was holding out her hand for his ticket and her plastic smile was rapidly disappearing. Nathan handed her the boarding pass and watched her feed it into the machine. "Buck- -" he started again.

The tall agent stepped back. "Have a good vacation Nathan, and don't worry about Ez. Hell, don't worry about anything."


Ezra Standish blinked and looked around his office. He'd lost count of how long he'd been sitting in a daze at his desk--last thing he remembered was staring at the blinking cursor trying to formulate the last line of his report. Now his screen was full of whirling spaceships blinking amongst glittering stars. 'Mr. Dunne apparently changed my screen saver again.'

He touched the mouse to bring his report back on the screen, typed some words in, almost at random, and then hit the 'save' button, followed by the button that would send the report to the printer. Only after he heard the laser jet start did it slowly dawn on his exhausted mind that he had neither spell-checked the report or even read back over it.

He was so tired even his hair hurt.

He leaned back in his chair and dropped his head into his hands, stretching kinked muscles in his neck and enjoying the unaccustomed quiet in the office. JD, Nathan and Josiah were already gone; Vin and Chris were in the latter's office--he could hear the soft murmur of their voices. Buck? Ezra frowned. He vaguely remembered Buck saying something as he walked past the door--about going to the airport. But wasn't Mr. Wilmington going with Tanner and Larabee? And he distinctly remembered they were driving to Wyoming or Montana or wherever this cabin was. Then Ezra felt foolish. 'Ah, of course. He accompanied young Mr. Dunne to the airport. Good thing. That boy could find trouble in a feather bed.'

'A feather bed? Where did that come from?'

Ezra grinned. 'Feather bed. That does sound delightful...'

He opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled out the little pile of travel brochures he kept there. He still hadn't decided where to spend his unexpected down-time--as a matter of fact he had been too fatigued to even give it a thought. He'd gone to bed almost upon his arrival home the night before--skipping dinner except for a cup of hot herbal tea--and slept heavily. Upon opening his eyes even later than usual, he'd stared blankly around his bedroom for at least five minutes trying to recollect his identity and location. 'The life of an undercover agent--not only do I not know where I am, I'm not sure who I am.'

Skipping breakfast except for his usual latte from Starbucks, he'd spent the whole day fighting with this report. The fact that usually his reports flowed smoothly was just one more irritant. Now he was tired, cross, tired, hungry, frustrated--and tired.

Mostly tired.

He flipped through the brightly-colored folders as if they were one of his beloved decks of cards. 'London? Too wet. Paris? Too close to Mother. New York? Too crowded. Bali? No. New Orleans? No...'

The thought suddenly struck him. He really didn't want to go anywhere. Well, anywhere but home to his condo and his own bed. Even if it wasn't made of feathers.


Chris Larabee stood in the doorway staring at his best undercover agent in concern. The mere fact that he could stand in the doorway and not be noticed was cause for concern. One did not sneak up on Ezra Standish. Hell, one shouldn't be able to sneak up on any of his men, but especially not Ezra. Not even in the supposed safety of the Federal Building. And especially when he had not even tried to sneak up on him, but had walked quite openly into the office to find the man staring down at his desk, apparently oblivious to his surroundings. An undercover agent who was oblivious to his surroundings wasn't an undercover agent for long--he wouldn't even be alive for long.

That was bad enough. What was even worse was that when he said the man's name, Ezra still didn't respond to him. It wasn't until the third repetition--uttered loudly as he crossed the floor--that Ezra blinked and looked at him. "Mr. Larabee?" he questioned, looking mildly surprised to see his irate superior in front of him. "Is there some problem?"

"I think I should be asking you that?"

Ezra's green eyes widened. "I'm fine. Why would you think otherwise?"

"Maybe because I've been standing here for five minutes trying to get your attention!" Chris' voice rose on every word until he was yelling.

Ezra stared at him then his green eyes took on a familiar devilish twinkle. "Now, Mr. never have a problem drawing attention," he purred, his drawl deepening.

Chris wanted to strangle him--unfortunately, not an unfamiliar phenomenon. Half the time he wanted to murder Standish. The rest of his waking hours he worried that someone else was trying to kill him. Sometimes--such as when Ezra did something even more radical and reckless than his normal behavior--Chris felt both at the same time. That frequently led to a headache. And it wasn't just Standish. Sometimes Chris Larabee felt more like a kindergarten teacher than the head of the most successful ATF team west of the Mississippi.

Familiarity breeds contempt; it also breeds certain skills. Chris knew Ezra was trying to redirect his attention by baiting him into one of their verbal battles. Although Chris usually enjoyed them as much as Ezra apparently did, he wasn't going to let the other man get away with it this time.

Without being invited--he was the boss of this outfit, after all-- he lowered himself into the chair in front of Ezra's desk and fixed his agent with the infamous Larabee Death Glare. The Glare--and the accompanying brooding silence--never worked quite as well with Ezra as it did with, say, JD, but it was still one of the most powerful weapons in Chris' personal Arsenal for Dealing With Smart Ass Agents. And it worked this time. The silence lasted fully two minutes before Ezra blinked and broke the gaze. "Shouldn't you and your two companions be departing for your homes to prepare for your vacation destination?" he offered.

Victorious, Chris grinned ferally and then decided to let Standish off the hook. "Just waiting on your report," he pointed out. Standish actually looked flustered. For all of one second.

"I just printed it out," he responded, gathering his cool persona around him like a cloak as he stood. Chris waved him back down.

"Where are you going?" Chris asked.

"To get the report."

Chris sighed. 'Damn, I walked into that one.' "Ezra," he said, with far more patience than he actually felt, "I meant, where are you going on vacation?"

"Oh. I have decided to use my unexpected leisure time to acquaint myself with my current city of residence."

Chris ran that through his translator of "Ezra speak" and frowned. "You mean you're staying in Denver? Why?"

Ezra shrugged. "Why not?" he asked helpfully.

"Ezra," Chris growled. This time he used his "don't-bother- bullshitting-me-because-I-want-the-truth-now! " voice.

Ezra heard the tone and surrendered. "Mr. Larabee, I am fatigued to the point where all I have any desire to do for the next week is sleep. It seems inane to spend money and time travelling somewhere to sleep in a hotel room when I have a perfectly good domicile to sleep in here." He sighed, then added with seeming reluctance, "I believe I am coming down with a cold."

Chris stared at him, not sure to believe him. But then, looking across the desk at the unusually pale face and tired eyes, he had to admit it made sense. Ezra looked tired, and it was quite possible he was coming down with something. Unusual for Ezra to admit it, but then, the last several months hadn't been easy on any of them. 'Too many assignments, too close together,' Chris mused. The Agency, after all, did have guidelines about duration and frequency of missions, especially when those dealt with undercover work. The ATF didn't have that many good undercover agents that they could afford to have any flipping out or turning into gibbering idiots or, even worse, forgetting what side they were actually on. Unfortunately, the guidelines frequently got tossed out the window, at least where Team Seven was concerned. They had worked three major, critical cases over the last six months, with only a few days between, and all of them had required Ezra to play some undercover role. Chris did the best he could to protect him. Ezra had gone "inside" alone the first case, with Vin the second, and Buck had posed as his bodyguard on the third. There wasn't much Chris' longtime friend hated more than playing a role, but he managed quite nicely to look lethal and menacing.

In addition to the big cases there were all the so-called small, bread and butter cases of smuggled cigarettes and bars giving short weight that were investigated as a matter of course.

All of this resulted in seven tired--exhausted--men. And if Ezra wanted to stay in the relative calm of Denver instead of heading off for some glittering resort, his boss shouldn't have a problem with it. Rest and relaxation after all was the key. But Chris still hesitated. "Why don't you come with Vin an' Buck an' me?"

Under other circumstances Chris would have burst into laughter at the look on Ezra's face. The Southerner somehow managed to look flattered, appalled and shocked all at once.

Part 3

Buck parked his battered old Chevy pickup in between Vin's equally battered old Jeep and Ezra's glittering Jag. As usual, the Jag was parked in the corner spot, as close to the wall as possible in an attempt to preclude dings.

He sat quietly in the driver's seat, summoning up his energy for the trip upstairs. His mind kept frantically searching for an excuse as it had all day, with no luck. Oh, he could think of plenty of reasons not to go on this trip to Wyoming with Chris and Vin, but none that were likely to satisfy either one of the others, for various reasons.

The cabin was half his--shared with Chris--a legacy of a more lighthearted time in their lives. A time before Chris was married, before he was a father--before he'd lost both wife and son to an assassin. Before he'd turned into a bitter man, bent on destroying himself or anyone in his path.

And Buck had been in his path. Not once, not twice but hundreds of times. Keeping Chris alive and sane when everything in Larabee prayed for death, or at least oblivion.

Those days were over, for the most part. Chris had an interest in life again. More than one, actually. The six other men that made up his hand-picked team, and Mary Travis and her young son Billy. Not to say the demons of Chris Larabee's soul were completely exorcised, but Buck no longer said good-bye to him at the end of an evening wondering if he'd still be alive the next morning.

And Chris had Vin Tanner now, too. Theirs had been an instant kinship, an instant friendship. Vin could reach the part of Chris that Buck no longer could. And instead of regretting that, Buck thanked God every day for it.

For a few minutes he was content to sit, eyes closed, letting his mind empty of thoughts. Gradually the sharp little spikes of tension circling his forehead eased their relentless throbbing.

He felt himself drifting off, remembering...

Buck sat at the picnic table, staring ahead of him at the slow- rolling creek, the grassy meadow studded with early spring wildflowers, the snow capped mountains rising above. He rubbed one hand aimlessly on the picnic basket. The hotel kitchen had selected the food and wine, but he'd provided the picnic basket, sneaking out to Chris' tack room late the night before. Chris hadn't used the thing since Sarah's death. Buck seriously doubted he even remembered where it was. It had been important to Buck to use something that in some way connected to the person he really was.

Buck Wilmington, not Brian Jakes.

'Damn Wilmington, get out of here. Now. Before she gets here. This is a bad idea...'

He heard a car in the distance and looked up to see her little red sports car crossing the bridge. She pulled up next to the borrowed Jag and slipped out, waving her hand enthusiastically. "Brian!" She ran up to him and he caught her in his arms.

Her mouth was warm and spicy under his, her perfume--that light fruity scent--filling his nostrils, his senses.

She pulled back, her eyes shining as she looked at him. "I'm not late, am I? I kinda got lost," she confessed, giggling. "Can you believe that? I spent last summer hiking in the Alps and never got lost once, then I can't find a place twenty miles from my home?" She whirled around. "Oh Brian, it's so beautiful!"

"Only the best for my favorite lady." He could barely recognize his own voice. He coughed. "Had to celebrate our last day in style!"

She put her arms around his neck, nestled her cheek against his chest. "I don't want to go back to Paris," she said softly. "I don't want to leave you."

Buck closed his eyes in pain. "Sarah--"

She reached up to place two fingers on his lips. "Don't Brian, don't say anything. I know I have to go back. I'm so close to finishing now...I just--you'll be here when I get back in June, won't you? Uncle Marc is so impressed with Edward, I know he's going to keep him on when this deal is over. So you'll stay too, right? You'll still have a job with Edward--"

Buck had to say something. Hating himself, he answered, "Can't see myself leavin' Eddie--that's a fact."

Her eyes were burning into his, staring into his soul. He imagined she could see the truth. "Sarah--"

She cut him off again, pressing those fingers against his lips. "No, Brian, don't say anything. Not today. Let's just...have this day together. Let me believe it will be forever..."

Her lips closed over his again. Buck felt himself responding. 'One more day of pretense, you bastard,' he thought bitterly.

It was full night when he parked the Jag in the parking lot underneath the hotel. He left the picnic basket where it was and took the elevator directly up to the penthouse. Walking into the living room, he spotted Ezra immediately out on the balcony. The Southerner was cradling a snifter of brandy in his hand as he stared out over the lights of Denver. Buck grabbed a bottle of whiskey off the wet- bar and joined him.

Silence stretched between the two of them. "How did it go?" Ezra asked finally.

"Don't make any difference how it went," Buck answered roughly. "Twelve hours and she'll be on a plane back to Paris. Two more days and 'Brian Jakes' won't exist anymore." Uncapping the whiskey, he took a long drink straight from the bottle.

Ezra's eyes studied him. There was sympathy there. "I'm sorry, Buck."

"Nothin' for you to be sorry 'bout. You warned me about gettin' 'personally involved'." He laughed bitterly. Another long swig. "Shoulda listened to you."

"You obtained valuable information--"

"I used a beautiful, sweet, innocent girl for my own purposes, you mean."

Ezra sighed. "I don't believe that for one minute, Buck. You aren't a user."

"Hell I'm not." Buck stared out over the city in turn, feeling the warmth of the whiskey hit his gut. "Damn, Ezra, I don't know how you do this, time after time."

"I don't fall in love with the niece of the miscreant I'm attemptin' to take down."

Silence stretched between them. Finally, Ezra broke it. "Chris called. We've got enough information. We're taking down Hoyt's operation."

Buck's heart stopped. "When?" His throat was tight.

Ezra reached out for the bottle Buck held and poured a healthy amount into his empty snifter. "Tomorrow night." His eyes met Buck's. "She'll be out of the country, Buck. She'll be safe. There's no evidence against her, no charges pending." His voice softened. "You did the best you could for her, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck stared at the bottle. He snatched it up suddenly and whipped around to send it flying to shatter against the flagstone. "Yeah. I'm a really great guy. Bet that'll be some comfort to her when she finds out her only relative is goin' to prison for life, and that the man she thinks she loves doesn't even exist. Yeah, Ezra--I'm one damn fine guy."

The quiet in the truck was shattered by a shrill ringing. Buck's eyes snapped open; he stared unseeingly into the gloom of the parking garage before fumbling for his cell phone. "Wilmington."

"JD's plane was supposed to take off hours ago. Where the hell are you?"

"Hey, Chris. I'm downstairs in the garage." Buck made a face. "Guess I kinda dozed off."

Silence. Finally, Larabee's voice, equal parts concern and irritation. "You fell asleep? Are you all right?" Buck heard Chris sigh over the phone. "Never mind. You'll feel better after we get out of town."

Buck took a deep breath, let it out, then took another. "Chris, I'm not going." There. He'd said it.

Chris' voice was icily calm. "Yes, you are. Just come upstairs and we'll talk about it."

Without answering, Buck clicked off the phone.


Chris Larabee leafed through Buck's report on the recently- concluded undercover mission, then slammed it down on his desk. "Damn it, Buck," he growled out loud, "I know something happened while you were under that's eatin' at you..."

His best friend sat on the leather sofa along one wall. Vin Tanner had heard enough of Chris' side of the phone conversation with Buck to draw his own conclusions. "Chris," he started.

Larabee held up his hand to stop anything Vin might have said. "No. You aren't skipping this trip either. Because you going is not the reason Buck's not wanting to go."

After all this time, Vin should no longer be surprised that Chris could seemingly read his mind. He hesitated. "You sure 'bout that? Because--"

"I'm sure," Chris interrupted. He tossed the file aside. "Somethin's been botherin' him about this last assignment; it doesn't have anything to do with you." He touched the spur on his desk, reminding Vin when Buck had given one to each of them. The last few months had reminded Chris of what he should have known all along--Buck Wilmington wasn't a bitter man...his mind just didn't work that way.

Anything Vin might have said was halted as they both heard the corridor door open. "In here, Buck," Chris called.

In a few seconds the tall man appeared in the doorway.

'Shit you look terrible,' Chris mentally chastised his friend. 'What the devil happened to you out there? And why won't you tell me?'

Part 4

After an awkward silence, Vin cleared his throat. "So, cowboy, what's this about you not comin' with us?"

Buck forced a grin which didn't reach his eyes. "Hell, pard...I'm doin' you a favor. This way you'll catch some fish! If ole' Buck went up there...the two of you wouldn't catch a thing 'cept a cold."

Vin snorted. "Right," he drawled.

Chris studied Buck carefully. The tone was right, but the facial expression and posture were all wrong. The taller agent stood stiffly, holding his arms close to his body--not at all his usual relaxed posture. "Buck," he started.

"Chris...just let it go. Please." The last word was added almost in a whisper. That, more than anything else, convinced Chris something was really wrong. He caught Vin's gaze and indicated the door. There was a small chance, not much, that Buck would talk a little more freely if it were just he and his old partner and friend in the room.

Vin hesitated, then slid to the edge of the couch. Before he could leave the room though, a new voice joined in the conversation. Ezra stood behind Buck in the doorway with a newspaper clutched in his hand. "Mr. Wilmington, I'm afraid I have gleaned some most unwelcome information from my perusal of this periodical."

His voice startled all three of the others. Chris recovered first. "What?" he demanded, feeling his shoulders tighten even more with tension.

Ezra glanced at him, but then directed most of his attention to Buck. "You remember that delightful little eatery we patronized the night before last?"

Buck frowned. "The place with the funny name? Yeah, I remember. They didn't cook the steak long enough. So?"

"Not everyone thinks beef should be charred until it resembles leather," the undercover agent retorted. Then a rather chagrined look crossed his face. "However, in this instance, it does seem that your opinion was more correct than my own." He waved the paper in the air. "Unfortunately, it appears that we were exposed to a mild form of food poisoning."

"What?" Chris exclaimed, rising from his desk. Vin snatched the paper from Ezra's hand and handed it to the team leader. "Downtown Restaurant Warns Customers of Food Poisoning Outbreak."

Chris' gimlet eyes quickly scanned the article, then looked up at his two agents. "Says here seafood was tainted," he pointed out. The leader frowned. In the time he'd known Ezra, he'd never seen him eat cooked fish. "Buck, you let him drag you into a sushi bar?"

"Hell, no," his old friend growled.

Ezra sighed. "It wasn't sushi. It was bouillabaisse. We both had it for the first course."

"Buck ordered fish soup?" Chris asked in astonishment.

"No, Ezra ordered it for both of us. I just ate it." Buck shrugged at the look on Chris's face. "I was hungry," he said defensively. "Hell, it was almost ten before we even got there!"

"Either of you feel sick?" Vin questioned.

Buck and Ezra exchanged glances. Ezra shrugged, and Buck nodded. "Kind of," he admitted.

"We'd better take both of you to the E.R." Chris said.

"I hardly think that's necessary," Ezra interjected quickly. He indicated the paper still clenched in Larabee's hand. "The newspaper typifies it as a mild illness. The symptoms don't sound pleasant, but the indicated treatment--rest, fluids--is available in my own condominium."

"Or my place," Buck hastily agreed.

"Alone?" Vin broke in. He shook his head.

 "The average case isn't serious," Chris pointed out. "Says here it could be a lot worse. And I know both of you--you wouldn't go to a doctor on your own until you were half-dead, and by then you might not be able to get there."

Ezra sighed. "Mr. Larabee, it is food poisoning, not the bubonic plague."

"With you, it might well be," Chris fired back.

"Chris, you're as bad as a mother hen with her chicks." Buck shook his head. "Would you two just get goin'? Those fish are waitin' for you."

Ezra groaned. "Please don't mention the word, 'fish' again, Mr. Wilmington."

"I told you that soup was disgusting!"

"You consumed two servings!"

"Shut up, both of you," Chris ordered, stopping the bickering. He hesitated. He could hardly subject either or both of them to a six- hour drive to the cabin in Wyoming--but he didn't feel comfortable leaving them either. He slowly met Vin's eyes and saw his own resolution confirmed there. "Vin and I'll--"

"No!" Buck broke in fiercely. "There ain't no reason you two should miss your vacation. You've been looking forward to this trip for-- "

"You were looking forward to it, too," Vin muttered softly. "At one point, at least."

Buck shot him a glance, then met Chris's eyes. "Look, Ezra and I live, what? Five miles from each other? We can keep an eye on each other. I'll call him every day...a couple of times a day."

"I will likewise telephone Mr. Wilmington...and if he doesn't answer I can always dispatch paramedics to his abode...providing they could find him in that unqualified disaster he calls his home," Ezra chimed in.

Buck kicked his ankle. "You ain't helping," he muttered.

Chris wasn't convinced, but he could sense he'd pushed as far as a friend could. To go any further would move from the "friend" standing into the "boss" standing, and would lead to a much longer argument. Chris didn't have the energy for it and from the looks of him, neither did Buck. Ezra, on the other hand, would fight him tooth and nail just to be obnoxious--he was in that kind of mood. Sooner or later Chris would lose his temper with him and that would inevitably lead to Standish stalking out. 'They're grown men.' "All right," he surrendered. "But I want a promise from both of you--if you get too sick you get your asses to a doctor ASAP."

"Chris," Vin started.

"You have my word, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said quickly.

"Me, too," Buck added, relief flitting across his face.

"By the time you return from your wilderness adventure, both Mr. Wilmington and myself will be fully recovered from any indisposition we might develop."

"We'll be all ready to have a fish fry with all that trout you bring back," Buck grinned.

Ezra groaned again. "I really wish you would stop talking about fish."


Juggling a bag of groceries, Ezra let himself into the condo. Flipping both locks behind him, he took the bag into the immaculate kitchen. He put away the soup, crackers, and ginger ale he'd purchased, then ran fresh water into the teakettle and put it on the stove. He opened the canister where he kept the special herbal tea he'd found at the specialty shop near the Federal Building. He frowned, seeing only about a dozen bags were left. 'That's odd...I thought I had more than that.'

The phone rang. Shrugging, Ezra dug out one teabag and left it on the counter while he went to answer. He was so sure he knew who it was that he answered "Yes, Mr. Wilmington, I arrived home safely. How are you feeling?"

"Well, I'm not puking yet." His friend's voice sounded tired. "I'm going to take a shower and go to bed."

"And what fortunate--or unfortunate--lady is joining you there?" Ezra laughed.

Buck snorted. "I'm too tired to even think about a lady." A pause. "And if youever tell anybody I said that I'll --"

"Shoot me?"

"No, worse...I'll shaving cream your Jag!"

"You wouldn't!" The laughter disappeared from Ezra's voice. "You would desecrate a custom paint job?"

Buck chuckled. "Or worse. I might even beat you to work next week-- hell, I always beat you to work--and park in that corner spot. How do you think the Jag would look after a couple days snuggled up to Josiah's Suburban?"

Ezra shuddered. "I'm weak at the mere thought. Your secret is safe with me, Sir. So--since we both gave our word as gentlemen to Mr. Larabee about staying in contact--should we establish a check-in system to our mutual agreement?"

"Meanin', I s'pose, that you don't want me callin' you before a civilized hour--eight a.m.?" The evil glee Wilmington was feeling practically crawled through the receiver.

Ezra closed his eyes. "You're enjoyin' this," he accused.

"Hey, you ordered that God-awful soup in the first place!" Then Buck's voice changed, became more sober and serious. "And I guess I owe you one at that."

Ezra didn't understand why Buck had so seemingly changed his mind about accompanying his friends to Wyoming. 'Or maybe I do know," he thought uneasily. "Buck," he said suddenly, dropping the last name so the other man would know he was serious, "You could come stay over here. I recently purchased a bed for that small back bedroom--and there are two bathrooms."

"I appreciate that, pard. More than you know. And if I thought you'd come near my place without calling in a cleanin' service and a HazMat team, I'd return the invitation. But we've been cooped up with each other for eleven weeks now...betcha want to drink that fancy tea without me saying how much it looks like cat piss."

Ezra smiled. "There is that. And you can blast your lamentably devoid of talent CD collection as loudly as your stereo speakers and your neighbors can tolerate it."

"I'll call you tomorrow morning at ten. And you call me if you need to, no matter what time, you hear?

"Please reserve that anxious tigress tone in your voice for those more in need of your considerable motherin' abilities." In spite of his tone, a little warm feeling kindled in the loner agent's uneasy stomach at the thought that someone cared enough to worry. Josiah Sanchez was always proclaiming Team Seven was a family, a family not of blood, but of choice and destiny. It had taken a long time for the other six members to convince Ezra that he was a part of that, and still there were times--his thoughts were interrupted by the shrill whistle of the teakettle.

Buck could hear it too. "Must be time for more cat piss?" The older agent laughed, albeit tiredly. "Each man to his own poison. You just answer that damn phone at ten a.m.!"

The Next Day

Vin blinked his eyes and lazily rolled over. Early-morning sunshine streamed through the shuttered windows, making bars of light and shadow on the bare wood floors. Chill air bit his nose but the rest of him was warm in the sleeping bag. He could hear deep, rhythmic breathing from the bunk above him and figured Chris was still asleep. It had been well after two a.m. and raining violently when they had arrived at the cabin. Too tired to even build a fire in the fireplace, they'd unloaded the truck by flashlight and thrown sleeping bags onto the bunks before collapsing to sleep.

Not wanting to wake Chris, Vin eased out of his sleeping bag, wincing as his bare feet touched the cold floor. Grabbing his clothes, he tiptoed out of the tiny bedroom into the main room of the cabin, quietly shutting the door behind him. The hinges squeaked slightly but apparently the noise wasn't enough to wake Chris.

He found the tiny, primitive bathroom and took care of business. There wasn't any water yet--no one had primed the pump--so he dressed quickly and drew on his jacket before going out into the crisp morning air.

For a few moments he stood on the porch and admired the beauty around him. The cabin sat on a small rise overlooking the sparkling lake. Massive trees surrounded it, the only break in the forest the path to the lake and the twisting road they'd come in on. Vin had been here once before, after the McPherson case, but that had been such a desperate race against time--first to find Buck and then to get him to a doctor--that he hadn't noticed much. Now he followed the path around the cabin, finding the well.

Smoke was coming from the stone chimney before he finished priming the pump. Going back inside, Vin found a crackling fire in the fireplace. Chris was in the kitchen area. He'd lit a fire in the old woodstove as well, and an old speckled coffee pot was on one burner.

"Hey, Cowboy," he greeted Vin. "Figure out the pump?"

Tanner shrugged. "Not too much to it." He leaned against the wall, watching as Chris pulled a cast iron skillet out of a cupboard. His eyes wandered around the sparsely furnished but comfortable space, noticing the kerosene lamps on the mantel. He remembered Chris telling him about the cabin that last time, as they raced through the darkness hoping they'd get there in time to save Buck's life. Chris had talked more on that trip than in the whole time Vin had known him- -trying desperately to stave off the fear they'd be too late. "We never got around to getting a generator for the place. We talk about it every time we go up there, but we never do it." He'd also mentioned that no one had ever been there besides he and Wilmington. "We were going to bring Adam up, when he was older--" but Chris's son hadn't lived long enough to make the trip with his father and "uncle".

"It's a great place," Vin commented now. "How'd you ever find it?" The cabin was nearly ten miles from a main road.

Chris glanced at him, then back at the stove. "Buck found the spot...never did tell me the story how. We built the cabin ourselves." Chris grinned. "Took a couple of years worth of vacations to get it the way we wanted it."

Vin studied his friend. Larabee's face was relaxed and good memories lit up his greenish eyes. "Sorry Buck wouldn't come along," he said quietly.

Chris' face changed. "Told you that wasn't your fault."

"You sure? No one's ever been up here but the two of you--"

"Buck invited you, remember?"

"He was out of his head at the time."

Chris shook his head. "No, he knew what he was saying. I don't know what's botherin' him, but it isn't you coming up here. He wanted you to. And he was looking forward to the trip, too. Something happened while he was under on the Hoyt case--I don't know what. Tore his report and Ezra's apart trying to figure out what, but--" he shrugged.

Vin frowned. "Ezra didn't say anything. You think he knows what it is?"

"Imagine he does." Chris gave a short bark of laughter. "I wouldn't have put it past him to come up with that food-poisoning story just to get Buck off the hook--'cept I don't think even Ezra could orchestrate a front-page article in the Clarion that quick."

Vin smiled in turn. "So you gonna call and check on 'em?"

"Every day." Chris' face relaxed again and a devilish gleam sparked in his eyes. "Have to wake up Ezra at least a couple of mornings. That's why the government gives us cell phones!"


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