Book One: Embers

by Sue Kelley

Part 21
A nurse stood in Buck's doorway, barring the way. "You can't come in here right now. Please go to the waiting room," she said firmly. "Someone will be out to speak to you momentarily."

"Like hell," Chris snapped. He started forward but Ezra grabbed his arm. "Chris..."

Chris kept moving, and the nurse--apparently realizing she would move or be moved, stepped out of his way. Chris went in and Ezra followed.

The tiny room was crammed with people. Vin stood against the wall, his eyes glued to the bed.

It didn't take a medical degree to see the monitors were going wild.

Buck was fighting the staff. As Chris stepped closer, he saw his friend's hand come up and close on the respirator tube. Culver grabbed the hand. "Nurse, get some restraints!"

"NO!" Chris exploded.

"Agent Larabee," Culver started in a tone that suggested his patience was about exhausted.

"You don't tie him down," Chris insisted. He pushed between two nurses who were barring his access to his friend and cradled Buck's face in his hands. "Buck. Buck, listen to me. You need to calm down."

Buck's anguished blue eyes fixed on his. The plea for help was clear. His free hand started toward the tube and Chris barely caught him before he grabbed it. IV lines tangled with monitor wires in a hopeless snarl.

"Buck, the tube has to stay in. Just relax and let it help you breathe--"

Buck's eyes flickered wildly. Pulling Chris' hand with his, he touched the respirator tube, then looked at Chris.

Another nurse had come into the room. This one had a syringe clutched in her hand which she handed to Culver. He reached for the IV line.

Buck's eyes followed him, then looked back at Chris desperately.

"Hold up a second," Chris said.

"He has got to calm down!" Culver sounded as pissed as Chris did.

"Wait!" Chris leaned over Buck. "Buck, if you don't calm down they're going to give you sedation. You won't be able to talk to me. That's what's wrong, isn't it? You've got somethin' you have to tell me?"

Relief sparkled in Buck's exhausted eyes, smoothed the anxious lines on his face. He leaned back into the pillow, nodding slightly. Then his eyes flickered over all the faces surrounding him and he tensed up again. Chris turned, but before he could order everyone to move back Culver did it for him. Chris tossed the doctor a grateful look and turned back to Buck, wrapping the injured man's hands in both of his own. "Buck, they can't take the tube out yet, Pard. What do you need to say? Is there something you need me to do?"

Buck shook his head, wincing as the tube irritated his throat. His intent eyes never left Chris' face, as if he could communicate by sheer will power alone.

Chris wanted to scream with frustration, but he very carefully kept any sign of what he was feeling from his face.

"I have an idea." Ezra spoke up. He slipped out of the room and quickly came back with a couple of pieces of paper. Pulling a pen out of his pocket, he scribbled quickly for several seconds, then held the paper in front of Buck. "Buck, can you see this?"

He'd written the alphabet in neat lines. Buck's eyes left Chris to focus on the paper. Understanding lit his eyes and he feebly tried to pull his hand from Chris' grasp.

Chris shot a look at the surgeon, half-expecting the man would try to stop what was going on. Culver just shook his head and waved a hand. "Apparently he's not going to relax until he tells you what's on his mind."

Buck lifted his hand with an effort and touched the paper. "B?" Ezra asked. Buck nodded faintly. His whole body was tense with the effort he was expending. He hit the paper again. Ezra frowned. "P?, O?"

Vin moved closer to the foot of the bed. Chris stepped forward so he could rest his hand on Buck's shoulder. He could feel the sweat breaking out on his friend's body; felt how he was trembling. The cardiac monitor continued to beep wildly until someone reached over to silence it.

Ezra's attention was all on Buck as the patient struggled to move his hand for the third time. "L?" Ezra finally said, his voice questioning. Buck barely nodded.

"B-O-L," murmured Vin. Buck looked at him, then back at the paper. His arm was trembling so violently he couldn't seem to control the movement. He flicked a desperate glance at Chris.

Somehow knowing what was needed, Chris slipped his hand down to clasp Buck's hand in his own. "Okay, Cowboy," he coached gently. "I'm goin' to hold on to you."

With Chris stabilizing his hand, Buck moved his fingers forward again. "M," Ezra said.

"B-O-L-M?" Vin questioned. He frowned. "Bag balm" was the first thing he could think of but he somehow couldn't manage Buck getting so agitated about that stuff. "Bomb, ya think? Ya tryin' to tell us there was a bomb, Buck?"

Chris hadn't taken his eyes from Buck's face. "No," he said. "We've got something wrong."

Ezra held up his hand. "Buck, was the last letter 'M'?"

It was obvious Buck's scant store of strength was rapidly being exhausted. His eyes flickered and closed. With an obvious effort he opened them again. He managed to move his head slightly.

"Not 'M'," Vin stated. He frowned.

"Buck..." Chris started, worrying how this was going to affect the injured man. He was very aware of Culver behind him with the syringe.

Buck seemed to summon up his energy. His face taut with the effort, obviously trying not to fight the breathing apparatus, he pushed his and Chris' joined hands one more time.

"O," Chris said quietly.

"O?" Ezra repeated.

Buck's eyes lit up. The tension suddenly drained from his body and limply fell back into the pillows. His eyes closed.

"Buck!" Chris yelled, panicking.

"No, it's all right." Culver held up his hand, his eyes studying the monitor. The cardiac rhythm was slowing down. "I think he just wore himself out. He's asleep."

Chris sighed, suddenly feeling as limp as spaghetti. His free hand tightened around the bed rail. For a second the room swam around him.

"Bolo Orlowski!" Vin almost shouted. "Son of a bitch!"


"So who--or what--is Bolo Orlowski?" Ezra said, his voice irritated. He looked around the waiting room. "Dear Lord, what taste-impaired cretin decorated this hospital?" he muttered, half to himself.

Vin, suddenly energized, paced across the room. "Bomber, of the best in the business. Maybe the best...suspected in over a hundred attacks in the last twenty years...only brought to trial once. An' that case was declared a mistrial halfway through."

"My God, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said testily. "Do you peruse Most Wanted posters in your free time? Let a miscreant come within a hundred miles of Denver and Vin Tanner knows his entire criminal history!" He wiped his sweating forehead with the back of his hand, then snatched his travel mug off the floor and stalked out of the waiting room.

Vin ignored the southerner's sudden bad temper. He sat down next to Chris. "What I can't figure--why would Buck think Bolo was involved here?"

Chris had been slumped on one of the shapeless sofas, staring up at the ceiling. "Buck was on the bomb squad here in Denver for awhile," he said quietly.

Vin stared at him as Ezra came back in carrying his mug full of water. "I didn't know about that. He don't talk about it." Wilmington was the team demolitions expert but he'd never mentioned how his knowledge come about.

"I was under the impression you and Mr. Wilmington were partners throughout your tenure with the Denver constabulary," Ezra commented, taking a drink from his mug.

"We were. I left to join the ATF a year before he did." He saw both of the others looking at him and realized they'd never heard this part of the story before. "We both knew Travis from him bein' a judge in Denver. He'd just been tapped to take over the AD position and he already had an idea for a 'special' team. It was after--" he hesitated. "Anyway I needed a change. Buck and I--" he stopped again, then shrugged. "Buck had done some demolitions in the service. Captain Natoli--Cap'n Nate, Buck called him--knew Buck from back then. He never let up on him to join the squad. I think he knew he was goin' to be retiring soon and wanted Buck to take over." Chris shrugged again. "So Buck transferred out of Major Crimes. Stayed on the bomb squad until Travis finally got the okay from the big boys in Washington for me to form Team Seven."

Vin and Ezra both nodded. They knew Wilmington had been the first person Chris recruited.

Chris closed his eyes. "I need coffee."

"You need sleep, Cowboy," Vin responded. "Or at least somethin' to eat. Come'n, let's go down to the cafeteria. I'll call Montgomery and have him pass on about Bolo to Team Three." He stood up. "You comin', Ez?"

Ezra shook his head. "I'm not hungry. I'll keep Mr. Wilmington company until your return.

"You sure?" Vin asked, suddenly concerned. As far as he knew, Ezra hadn't eaten anything since discharging himself from the hospital. He studied the Southerner. 'He's kinda flushed.' "You feelin' okay, Ez?"

Ezra's eyes flashed. He opened his mouth, then seemed to catch himself. After a moment, he said, "I'm fine, Mr. Tanner. I just haven't yet been able to rid my system of the aftereffects of those cursed drugs they injected me with at the hospital."

Chris stood up with an effort. "If Buck wakes up again... or if anything happens--"

"I will come retrieve you immediately," Ezra said.

Before anyone could move, though, Vin's cell phone rang. He yanked it out of his pocket. "Tanner."

It was Nathan, calling to tell him JD had managed to get a seat on the flight just leaving Dallas for Denver. Nathan himself was still stuck in Dallas but someone needed to pick up JD at the airport.

Chris and Vin went to the hospital cafeteria for a quick bite to eat, then Ezra and Vin both left in Ezra's Jag to pick up Buck's pickup. The keys had been with his belongings at the hospital. Vin would then go on to the airport.

Chris returned to the ICU to find Buck still sleeping.

Chris sank back down in the chair. He yawned and rubbed his eyes tiredly. God he was exhausted! It seemed like this ordeal had been going on for weeks instead of just a couple of days. He knew he was going to have to get some sleep soon but between being afraid to leave Buck for more than a few minutes and the nightmares he'd been having every time he closed his eyes, sleep was in rare supply.

He looked over at Buck's face, pleased to see his friend seemed to be resting more peacefully and wasn't fighting the respirator. Then he leaned back in the chair and stared up at the ceiling. Being here- - in this hospital--with his oldest friend so near death had brought memories of the dark past dangerously close.

He was painfully aware he'd lied to Vin and Ezra. Well, not lied exactly but he hadn't told them the whole truth. The truth was Buck had taken the transfer to the bomb squad before Chris had decided to leave the police department. Chris could still remember the sickening lurch in his stomach the morning Buck had told him. He'd turned on Buck with the ready anger that sent the hurtful words to his tongue. By that time Buck had heard them all many times before. He just regarded Chris quietly with those dark blue eyes that held nothing but love and loyalty, no matter what Chris did or said. But this time there had been something else in those eyes, something Chris didn't recognize. Was afraid to recognize, knowing deep inside he was the one that had put it there.

He and Buck never spoke about those dark months after Sarah and Adam's deaths. Chris had been on leave for six months. Technically Buck had been working their caseload during that time, but Buck's real assignment--with the blessing of his superiors--was to keep his best friend from completely destroying himself. To be the one person who stood between a maddened, enraged, frequently drunken Chris Larabee and the rest of the world. When Chris had stopped trying to find his solace in the bottom of a whiskey bottle every night, he'd turned with blind rage to trying to find who was responsible for the murders. Buck was there--right there--beside him, behind him, in front of him--wherever he needed to be, helping Chris track down every lead, no matter how slight. But really there were no leads--none that panned out--anyway. The murders of Sarah Larabee and Adam Larabee were still unsolved. Unsolved murders are never "closed," but they do eventually have to be considered "cold." Chris knew that, knew that the case was kept on the "active" list for months longer than it would normally have been, because of who the victims were. But eventually time and resources could no longer be devoted to it.

The day his captain had to reluctantly tell him the case was being classified as "cold," Chris had embarked on a drunken rampage unlike any he'd done since the very early days after the funerals. To this day he wasn't sure exactly where he'd gone or what he'd done--or how he'd managed to stay out of jail or the morgue, although he assumed he had Buck to thank for that. His next clear memory had been nine days later, waking up in the spare room of Buck's apartment. His stomach felt like someone had taken steel wool to it, his head throbbed and his mouth tasted like a whole herd of cows had died in it. Chris had rolled out of bed, thinking seriously about heading for the nearest bar or bottle--and had stopped dead when he saw the picture on the bedside table. His wife regarded him steadily from inside the marbled jade frame. Somehow it seemed like her eyes could see right though him--and Chris was afraid--and ashamed--of what she would be seeing. Instead of heading for another drink, he headed for a cold shower and the coffee Buck had waiting.

Chris Larabee would have dark days and weeks again, but never would he so completely surrender to his demons as he had during that nine days. He'd turned a corner on the road to healing that morning-- standing in his boxers with the filth of days and nights on his unshaven face, looking at his wife's picture.

Five days later Buck had told him about the transfer. Chris punched him. It wasn't the first time, and--unfortunately--it wasn't the last.

Three weeks after that Chris had taken Orrin Travis up on his offer.

Chris had never apologized to Buck for everything he'd put him through during those times. He knew--hell, better than anyone-- that the only reason he was still alive, much less sane--was because of Buck Wilmington. They didn't discuss it. It wasn't Chris' way. It wasn't Buck's way. Deeds spoke much louder than words to men like them. The friendship that had started in the reckless days at the Police Academy--that had blossomed through years of watching each others back on the streets and been tested through the depths of Hell- -still endured. Changed some, as they were no longer two standing alone together, but now standing with five others. Buck had ceded his place at Chris' right hand to Vin. He'd done it with an unselfishness and a love that Chris could only marvel at. Buck himself had a little brother and a best friend in young JD Dunne.

But now, sitting next to his friend--only able to wait and pray that he would live--Chris felt he had to say the words. "Don't leave, Buck," he murmured, feeling tears choking his throat and spilling down his cheeks. "Please don't leave. I'm not ready for you to go. Hell, Buck, I'm never going to be ready for you to go. And I don't think you're ready to go, either. You've got JD to worry about, remember? Hope you don't think you can leave me alone to finish raisin' that one!" He paused, searching the still face for some sign he was being heard. "Y'know Buck--there were a lot of times I told you to get out--before. You never left then no matter what I did. And you know--I never really wanted you to, not really, not inside where it counted.

"So don't think you're going to leave now."


There was a slight change in plans when they got to Ezra's. Watching Vin wince as his abused muscles had stiffened even during the drive from the hospital, Ezra suggested Vin take the Jag to the airport while he himself drove Buck's battered old truck to the hospital.

Vin stared at him. "You're goin' t' let me drive your car?"

"You've driven it before," Ezra pointed out.

"Not when you've been around to stop me," Vin volleyed back.

Ezra sighed. "I am willing to trust your driving skills under these circumstances." He tossed Vin the key, then gave him a little grin. "You could let Mr. Dunne drive back from the airport."

Vin had to laugh. For some reason, JD was the only one of the team Ezra really trusted to drive his car. Vin would never admit it--he was stubbornly loyal to his ancient Jeep even if more and more he rode his motorcycle--but he did love to drive the Jag. It drove like silk.


Ezra made a point of turning away when Vin pulled out into the street--half afraid Tanner would run the stop sign just to spite him- - and then glanced over at Buck's pickup. Instead of getting in, though, he waved at the police officer on guard duty and headed up the walkway to his apartment.

It felt overly warm inside and he shoved the thermostat down as he walked past on his way to the kitchen. Usually he found springtime in Denver to be unbearably chilly, but today he'd been warm in the hospital, hot in the car driving home and now he was sweltering. He peeled off his jacket and uncharacteristically left it on the arm of a chair. Then he went to the sink and turned on the cold water, scooping handfuls of it over his hair and sweaty face before dampening a towel to hold to the back of his neck.

The burning in his throat hadn't lessened as the day went on. Ezra opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. It was less than a third full and he gulped it down then looked for more. That, however, appeared to be the last bottle.

'Oh well, I've got the filtered water.' Two months before Ezra had purchased a "water purifier" for the kitchen tap. The salesman had sworn it would pay for itself in a week by eliminating the need to buy bottled water, but Ezra still did. He liked the filtered water for making tea and other beverages though. It was better than tasting the minerals and chemicals in the city water supply even if it didn't compare to his favorite brand of bottled water. The other guys had made fun of the purchase and Vin especially took a point to flip the cartridge "off" when he got water from Ezra's sink.

Ezra filled the bottle and then, carrying it with him, went to his bedroom to see if he could find something cooler to wear. They kept that hospital so overheated...must be what was causing his headache. He'd take some ibuprofen before he left to go back to the hospital.

Part 22

Craig Baker tumbled heavily into bed and slept like the dead for five hours. But then, just like clicking on a light switch, he was awake again. He sat upright in the bed, exclaiming aloud, "Tee Twenty Seven! How the hell would he manage to get hold of that?"

Denver International Airport

Vin leaned against the wall and watched the passengers disembarking from the Dallas flight. He expected JD to be one of the first people off--having flown with him before. Vin and JD usually knocked each other over trying to get off the plane, Vin because small spaces made him itchy, and JD because sitting still had the same effect on him.

Vin pushed himself away from the wall when he got a glimpse of the slight figure hovering impatiently behind an elderly woman who stopped in the middle of the path to embrace a couple of toddlers who acted as if they weren't too sure who she was. Muttering, "'Scuse me," JD sidled around her, his dark eyes searching the crowd until he spotted Vin. Fear crossed his face and he appeared to be holding his breath as he blurted out, "How is he?"

'He's scared to death,' Vin realized. He pulled the kid close in an uncharacteristic hug. "He's goin' t' be okay, JD," he said in the younger man's ear. "Buck won't leave us. Hell, today he even told us who the bomber was."

JD pushed away, his face alight. Vin misunderstood the reason until the kid breathed, "He's off the respirator?"

Vin could have kicked himself. He shook his head, hating the way JD's face fell and the lines of fear and anxiety dropped back into place. He touched JD's arm and started to lead him toward Baggage Claim. "The doc is wantin' to be cautious about that," he said. "Buck hates the thing, but it's givin' his body a rest."

"I know," JD sighed. "Nathan said that, too." He followed a half- step behind Vin, backpack slung over one shoulder, dark circles of fatigue marking his pale face. Suddenly he stopped. "Wait. You said he knew who planted the bomb?"

Vin turned to face him. "Seems like. Spelled out a name."

"Who? What name?" JD's voice was a feral snarl and Vin was suddenly, forcefully reminded that even a young wolf would fight to protect his pack. Still, he'd never slight JD by lying to him. "He spelled out Bolo. I'm guessin' it's Bolo Orlowski. You ever heard of him?"

JD frowned thoughtfully. "The name's familiar...oh, I know. Some guy was over not too long ago. I don't know his name, Buck just called him Cap'n Nate." In spite of everything JD grinned at the nickname. "Right before Buck and Ezra went under on the Hoyt case, like the Sunday before. I remember cause we were gonna go out to Chris' place and ride the horses, and then this guy called that morning and Buck said he had to talk to him. He told me to go on but I hung around for while. But it was really obvious Buck didn't want me to hear too much. They ended up goin' out for a beer together. I asked Buck later what was so hush-hush and he said it was just something about an old case. I didn't hear too much of what they said but I did hear that name. Bolo Orlowski. I remembered 'cause I had a friend in high school, his last name was Orlow but everybody kidded around and called him Orlowski."

Vin frowned. Something weird was going on. He'd always thought Buck to be the most open of them, the one with no secrets--save maybe some of Chris' he held as a sacred trust. Buck--incorrigible flirt, prankster, class clown, loyal brother, devoted friend. That was Buck. Now lately it seemed Vin was finding out things that Buck hid from him, even from Chris, and now JD too. 'Buck when you can talk again you're goin to talk to me.' Vin made a mental note to track down this Cap'n Nate. And hell, why hadn't he thought to ask Ezra what was bothering Buck so much about Hoyt's niece or whatever she was? He'd do that as soon as they got back to the hospital. And then he'd go ten rounds with that stubborn SOB Larabee, until the team leader finally agreed to leave the watching of Buck to JD for awhile and get some sleep.

Baggage retrieval at Denver International Airport was never easy. Ezra had once irritably commented that as long as off-loading the luggage took it'd be faster to ship the bags to Salt Lake City and have them bused the rest of the way. (That particular occasion Ezra had been waiting on his mother's bags. Maude Standish Whatever Her Last Name Was This Month always traveled with at least a half dozen bags when she dropped in to visit her son--even though Vin had never known her to stay longer than two days.)

But finally JD's lone duffel appeared and they could get away from the terminal. JD still carried his backpack and Vin hefted the duffel, which was so light he suspected the younger man had left half his clothes in Florida. Probably wouldn't have checked a bag at all had there been any other way to get his weapon on the plane.

JD finally broke his silence when he realized Vin had brought the Jag to the airport. "Ezra let you drive his car?" he said in something like astonishment.

Vin pulled the keys out of his pocket. He thought about handing them to JD, but took a second look at the kid's pale face and exhausted, fearful eyes and thought better of it. Vin actually had slept pretty good on Ezra's couch. The way JD looked, Vin was sure he hadn't closed his eyes since Nathan had told him Buck was hurt.

"We got t' make a stop on the way back," he said as JD, without protest, plunked himself into the passenger seat and buckled his seat belt.

"Will it take long?" JD wanted to get to the hospital.

"You eat recently?"

JD just stared at him.

"Yeah, well, neither's Ez. And Chris took maybe two bites of a sandwich in the cafeteria. I was thinkin' we could go by that deli Ez likes and get some real food. Only, I'm not real sure where it is."

After a minute, JD nodded. "Meyers," he said softly. "It's in the Stone Gate."

University Medical Center, Denver

He woke with a sore head, throbbing jaw, and a bandage around skinned and bruised knuckles. He looked around, recognizing his own room. Sarah's room. He'd changed it around--put her wicker rocker on the sun porch, packed away the periwinkle blue and white afghan she'd crocheted when she was pregnant, given away her clothes and makeup and her antique silver perfume bottles; a plain blue brown spread now covered the bed instead of her prized antique double wedding ring quilt--but it was still Sarah's room. Even after all these months of missing her, he couldn't be in this room and not see her, not hear her laughing voice.

He staggered out of the room, unconscious of the reek of his unwashed body, the sour liquor on his breath. His head pounded. He needed whiskey. There was a half-full bottle on the coffee table in the living room. He grabbed it and put it to his lips, welcoming the burn of the harsh liquor.


The country/western music Sarah loved. Coming from her kitchen.


Unsteadily he walked toward the music. He heard other things now, the clink of silverware as a drawer was pulled out, the opening and closing of the refrigerator door. Eggs being cracked into a bowl. He could smell frying bacon.

Sarah was fixing him breakfast.

His step lighter even as the whiskey rose up and clouded his vision, Chris rushed forward and flung open the swinging door.

For just a moment he could see them. Sarah standing at the stove and Adam sitting at the table devouring a bowl of the high-sugar cereal Buck had introduced him to one weekend when Sarah and Chris were on a "romantic" getaway, and Buck was playing Uncle Buck.

He blinked.

And they were gone. Gone the way they were gone, forever.

Alcohol-fueled rage rose up as reality crashed in on Larabee and the ache of being alone, being without them, shredded the last bit of his heart. Unable to think, he grabbed something--one of Sarah's good knives from the wooden block--and rushed against the person who was left. He snatched Buck away from the stove, whirled him around and slammed him up against the wall, holding the sharp edge of the knife to his vulnerable throat. Buck dropped the phone he'd been holding between his shoulder and ear and grabbed Chris' hand, not trying to force the knife away but just keeping it in place. His face was swollen with ugly black bruises. "Chris--"

"Shut up!" Chris roared. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

"I'm fixin' breakfast," Buck said calmly. "You wanna put that knife down now before the bacon burns?"

'SOB thinks I won't do it...' suddenly Buck's face vanished, replaced by the dark faceless unknown evil that had taken away all that made Chris' life good. He tightened his grip, paying no attention to the warm sticky blood that oozed over his hands. "You bastard! You killed my wife and son..."

Chris woke suddenly and as cold as if doused with ice water. 'Oh, God--'

The hospital. ICU. Buck's room. Buck in the bed, monitors and wires and tubes. The hated horribly rhythmic pumping of the respirator-- hated because it was needed, but valued for the same reason--it meant Buck was alive...


The dream... Oh God, it was a dream, right? A nightmare. He couldn't...he wouldn't have done that to Buck. Couldn't have.

He stared at the still figure in the bed. Stepped forward, not wanting to know, but having to know. Gentle fingers touched Buck's throat, pulling down the hospital gown to reveal that thin white scar. He'd asked Buck once, what the hell did you do to yourself? and Buck just laughed it off. Laughed but there was something in his eyes...

The thin white scar across one side of his neck.

He tightened his grip. Warm sticky blood on his fingers...

Buck's blood. Not some unknown mystery man, not a nightmare.


His friend.

Chris Larabee had held a knife to the throat of his oldest and dearest friend.

More than that. Chris Larabee had used the knife on his oldest and dearest friend.

"Oh, God, Buck..."

Panic chewed Chris' guts. He had to get away. He had to think. This couldn't be true. It had to be a dream. Just a dream.

But the sick feeling in his gut knew it was more.


Ava Sanchez took another nervous glance at the big clock over the nurse's station. Less than an hour left of her shift and she hadn't yet been able to do her job. This was her only chance. She'd had to do quite a bit of finagling to get herself assigned to ICU today. The next two days were her regular days off and after that the nurse she was covering for would be back from vacation and Ava would be sent back to the outpatient clinic. She couldn't offer to work her days off; she never had before and it might cause too much suspicion to do so now.

This was the third time in two years she'd received a middle-of- the- night phone call. Never any greeting, never a threat, just a name, a room number, and the crisp instruction, "Take care of it."

The first time she'd sat in bed, stunned, for hours until the sun came up. She couldn't believe it. It had to be a crank. No matter what he'd said, surely he couldn't think...

Her junior year in college, Ava needed money. Badly. She'd cut herself off from her family years before but that didn't mean they didn't come back to haunt her. Desperate, she fell back on a remembered way to make money.

And her first trick turned out to be an undercover vice cop. Once her fingerprints were taken she knew the charade was up. It wouldn't take too long to find out that Ava Sanchez was Yvette Morales. When the sweaty, middle-aged cop came into the interrogation room she braced herself for the worst.

Instead he let her go. Said, "You've got a friend, Ava. You'll be hearing from him," escorted her to the door and hailed her a cab. The next day she found her problems had literally disappeared. Her tuition was paid. Her rent was paid. Creditors no longer hounded her. Three weeks later she was notified she'd won a Hoyt Scholarship for her senior year.

Ava went on to finish nursing school with flying colors. Two weeks before graduation she went to the annual luncheon Marcus Hoyt hosted for his scholarship recipients. It was held in the private dining room on the top floor of the First National Bank of Denver. Three walls of floor to ceiling windows gave a stunning view over the city. The tables were covered with Irish linen, Waterford crystal, Lenox china and heavy, ornate silverware from Hoyt's own collection. Hoyt had been wonderful to talk to. But, as she was leaving, as he shook her hand, she thanked him fervently for what he had done for her. His eyes had a peculiar light in them as he bent over her hand, his lips barely touching the skin, then stood up and said quietly, "I am a big believer in helping people. I'm sure you will help me when you can." He paused, then smiled. "Miss Morales."

It wasn't a nice smile.

But still, she hadn't realized the truth until the first of the phone calls. Hoyt had done more than just get her out of a jam (for she was sure he was the "friend" the vice cop had referred to) or pay for her education.

He had bought and paid for her soul.

Ava looked up as the door to Mr. Wilmington's room banged open and the intense, dark-clad man who'd been there all day strode out. His eyes flicked over her without seeing, then he quickly raced down the hall to the double doors leading out of the unit.

His face looked as if all the demons in Hell were behind him. It was a feeling Ava knew well.

'He left him alone.'

The other two men who had been in and out of the room had been absent for a couple of hours. Lucy, the nurse assigned to Wilmington, was on her break. It was the short quiet period that preceded the organized chaos of shift change.

The perfect time.

She stepped into the treatment room and took a large syringe from one of the drawers. She'd spent most of the morning trying to think of the best way to do it and finally decided an air embolism would be best. It was quick. Essentially indiscernible. No one would be surprised if a patient with such severe injuries suffered an embolism.

Slipping the syringe into her jacket pocket, she started toward the door.


Ava jumped. She whirled around to see a middle aged woman beckoning her from the door of cubicle. "Something's wrong with Mother," the woman said nervously.

Ava hesitated, but she had no choice. She moved down the hall toward the woman.


Chris stormed down the hall, not even noticing the way people scrambled to get out of his way. He had to get out, he had to get some air...he had to think.

'I cut him. My best friend for years and I cut him. Slashed his throat.'

There was no doubt in his mind his dream had actually been a memory. From when? Right after Sarah and Adam died? Later? That nine days after the PD closed the investigation?

When had he first noticed that scar on Buck's neck?

'Damnit Buck...why didn't you...' What? Tell him? Kill him? Leave?


Buck had transferred to the bomb squad. Away from Chris.

'Guess I know why now...'

The elevator door opened and he let the crowd push him out. The open lobby and the doors outside beckoned like manna from heaven. Chris needed to get out. He needed to get away. He couldn't breathe--


He stopped. He was on the second floor, not the ground floor. A skybridge led from the second floor to the enclosed parking garage. The crowd of people all moved in that direction. Chris turned around, to go back to the elevators. Where the Hell were stairs around elevator door was closing as he came up. He caught the eyes of a woman just as the door slid closed.


Chris stood stock still, then turned and jumped into the next elevator. He was the first person out on the lobby floor, running a few steps and looking around. There! He could see the back of her head as she disappeared down a hall. Chris ran after her, then skidded to a stop. The corridor ended in a plate glass door. Fire exit? He pushed it open and found himself in a little garden. Three wings of the hospital touched, forming a small, enclosed area. There were flowering plants and a few benches and a tinkling fountain. Doors led into the other two wings of the hospital.

Sarah would have liked this garden.

Chris shook his head. What the hell was he doing? Chasing a couldn't be Sarah. Couldn't be.

Sarah was dead. Sarah was...


Oh God.


He jerked the door open and barreled back inside.


JD stared out the windshield of the Jag as Vin cruised up and down the parking lot looking for a spot. JD knew Vin wouldn't drive into the enclosed garage unless he had to, no matter how much Ezra might have preferred his "baby" be under a roof. Apparently Ezra wasn't so picky about Buck's vehicle though; JD saw the familiar pickup through a sudden sparkle of tears as they drove past it and exited the parking lot. Vin made a left turn and pulled into the overflow lot across the street.

'Dear God, please let him be okay...'

Now that he was here, almost to his brother's side, JD was gripped with an irrational terror. What if Buck had died while Vin was picking him up from the airport? What if he never got off the respirator? How long would Chris let him stay on life support? JD knew how Buck felt about that. He had always been so grateful that he was not Buck's POA. He'd made that decision once, for his mother. He couldn't do it again.

Not for his brother.

Vin parked the Jag and killed the engine. He touched JD's arm. "You okay?"

JD knew he could see the tears. He wiped them away impatiently. "Yeah." He reached down to gather the fragrant deli bags. Knowing how finicky Ezra was when he didn't feel well, and with the memory of how little any of them had eaten lately, Vin had purchased several sandwiches, a couple of containers of Meyer's famous chicken soup, and a Caesar salad.

JD thought of Buck calling Ezra's ever-present salads "rabbit food" and the tears stung his eyes again. 'Get it together!' he yelled at himself. "Buck needs you to be strong, not a sniveling kid."

"You are strong, JD," Vin said quietly.

Startled, JD looked up at his friend. He hadn't realized he'd said the words aloud. Vin's clear blue eyes met his evenly. "There's no shame in carin' enough to cry."

"You don't cry." It was the first thing JD could think to say and he winced as the words came from his lips.

Vin smiled sadly. "Just cause you don't see it, don't mean I don't do it." He ruffled JD's hair fondly, much as Buck would have done. "Come on. Let's go deal with some stubborn mules."

"Mules?" JD repeated as he scrambled out of the car.

"Yeah." Vin shot him a grin. "Not-sleepin' mule Chris, not- eatin' mule Ezra, not-breathin' mule Buck. I got plenty to say to all of 'em!"


Ava slipped inside the door and closed it quietly behind her. It had taken precious minutes to calm down anxious relatives sure their mother was having another coronary. But the man in black hadn't returned. Wilmington still slept, alone, in his room.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped close to the bed. She didn't look at the man. She'd learned not to look the first time. She pulled the syringe from her pocket and pulled back the plunger.

Her left hand reached for the IV line. A few seconds more....

Chris slammed through the double doors. His boots pounding on the tile floor, he raced down the hall and flung open the door.

A nurse whirled from the bedside. She had a syringe inserted into the IV line and her thumb was on the plunger, ready to depress the contents into the line.

One look at the terrified, guilty expression on her face and Chris' eyes raced to the syringe.



He made a flying leap and caught her hand, jerking the syringe free. He shoved her back with his elbow. "Did any air get in the line?" He roared at her.

Tears spilled down her face. She buried her head in her hands.

He couldn't take the risk. Grabbing Buck's wrist, Chris yanked the IV needle free from his flesh, closing his fingers over the puncture to stop the bleeding.

Buck's midnight blue eyes flickered and opened. He looked at Chris in puzzled recognition.

"What the hell?"

Chris looked up at the familiar voice. Vin was standing in the doorway, a brown paper bag in his hand. JD hovered at his elbow, his eyes glued on Buck.

The letdown of adrenaline hit then and Chris' knees trembled at how close it had been. He sank down in the chair, keeping his fingers tightly on Buck's wrist. "Get the doctor in here," he said tiredly. He jerked his head in the direction of the cowering nurse on the floor. "And arrest her."

Vin started forward. "Arrest her for what? What's goin' on?"

Chris looked into Buck's eyes. "Arrest her for attempted murder of a federal agent." He swung around to look at Vin. "And do it by the book." His gimlet gaze moved to the woman. "I just bet she has a story to tell us, and I want every word to be admissible as evidence."

"Attempted murder?" JD broke from his paralysis and stepped forward, taking the steps to Buck's side, his eyes glued on Buck's face. The older man looked at him and his eyes lit up. JD grabbed Buck's free hand. "Damn, Buck..." His voice failed.

"It's okay, JD," Chris said quietly, his fingers tightening around Buck's wrist. "He's okay." He closed his eyes in weariness and blessed relief.

'Thank you, Sarah. I was too late for you...but thanks to you I made it in time for Buck.'

Sarah Bryant sat behind the wheel of her car in the hospital parking garage for a long time before she could start it. Tears streamed down her face. "Coward coward coward..." she jeered at her reflection in the mirror. 'Too cowardly to go in there and look at the man who betrayed you. Too cowardly to tell him what you think of him.'

What do I think of him?

Do I hate him?

Or do I love him?


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