Book One: Embers

by Sue Kelley

Part 25

He was so tired.

Sleep beckoned seductively, luring him to return to the warm embrace. But something held him back. Something was wrong. There was something he needed to know...before he could slip back into the dark mists surrounding him.

Ezra struggled to open his eyes.

Chris woke suddenly, his heart pounding until a quick glance around the room revealed nothing changed. A look at his watch told him he'd been asleep almost two hours. A measure of just how exhausted he was, that he could sleep through the nurses coming in every fifteen minutes. He hadn't had any nightmares either. The sleep had cleared his head a little bit but only reminded his body how desperately it needed more rest.

JD still slept, one leg curled underneath his body in the chair, head on the bed next to Buck's hand, which he clasped tightly in his own even in sleep. Buck slept as well, peacefully for a change. He'd been terribly restless earlier.

Chris stood up and stretched, hearing and feeling the vertebrae pop up and down his spine. A soft noise reached his ears and he turned quickly to look at Ezra. The undercover agent moved again in his sleep, moaning a little. His eyelashes fluttered against pale cheeks.

Chris glanced up above the bed. The hospital staff was so concerned about a relapse that Ezra's cardiac monitor was set to alarm at the slightest change in rhythm. It had gone off twice since he'd been moved into the ICU.

But the heartbeat stayed steady. "Ezra?" Chris said quietly, placing a hand on his shoulder.

Heavy-lidded eyes opened slowly, revealing glassy green orbs. Ezra blinked once or twice, then focused on Chris. Recognition sparked. "Chris?" Ezra's voice was faint--barely more than a whisper--and raspy. He frowned and swallowed painfully.

"Need some water?"

Ezra nodded. He tried to sit up a little but Chris gently stopped him. "Don't move around. You need to stay still." The nurses had impressed that upon both Chris and JD throughout the night.

Ezra frowned, but stopped struggling. He sipped some water through the straw, then shifted his head on the pillow. His eyes flickered around the room. Chris saw the exact moment he recognized he was in a hospital. "What happened?" The voice was still faint but not as raspy. Then Ezra's eyes widened in alarm. "Buck!" he hissed, trying to sit up again.

"Don't move!" Chris snapped. Ezra froze. Chris regretted his tone as soon as the words left his mouth, but at least Ezra stopped trying to sit up. "Buck's doin' okay," he said, more gently. "He's right over there." He moved so Ezra could see across the room.

Ezra looked and seemed to relax. Then he frowned. "JD?" His eyes returned to Chris. "What time is it? How long..."

Chris glanced at his watch. "It's six-fifteen. Friday morning," he added. "You've been in the hospital about twelve hours. You remember anything?"

Ezra's forehead creased in a frown. "I...Vin was going to the airport. To get JD," he added, looking back over at his young friend. He frowned again. "I was...feeling somewhat unwell," he admitted sheepishly.

"Yeah, I bet you were." Chris shook his head. "You passed out in Buck's pickup. Down in the parking lot."

Ezra closed his eyes. "How embarrassing," he muttered.

Of all the words Chris could think of to describe the last few days, "embarrassing" wasn't one of them. "You're damn lucky you aren't dead," he said harshly. "You were poisoned, Ezra...someone loaded your water filter with enough of an experimental heart drug to have killed off your whole neighborhood." Nathan had told him the preliminary lab results just before he and Vin had left.

"The water filter?" Ezra murmured. His eyes were blinking sleepily.

"Go back to sleep, Ez," Chris said with a sigh. He patted his agent's shoulder again, reassuringly. "We'll tell you all about it later...when you can stay awake. Everything's okay right now. Just go back to sleep."


Agents from three federal agencies, and two Denver PD cars converged upon the dark-brick and smoked-glass complex that housed Riverside Pharmaceuticals. "Nice place," Nathan said dryly as the security guard raised the gate so they could drive into the parking lot. The complex nestled up to a wooded park alongside the river.

In spite of the early hour about a dozen vehicles were scattered throughout the lot. Nathan let out a soundless whistle as he saw the two cars closest to the entrance: a brand new, bright red Mercedes convertible and a powder-blue, custom-designed Stealth. "Didn't know medical research paid so good," Vin said as Nathan parked his Blazer next to the Stealth.

"Me either."

They were obviously expected. As the two ATF agents--flanked by a trio of worried officials from the FDA and two wooden-faced FBI men-- came through the heavy glass double doors, a young woman stood up from behind the marble reception desk. "If you gentlemen would follow me?" she said as if it weren't the crack of dawn and they weren't there to discuss the attempted murder of a Federal agent. "Dr. Hastings is waiting in the conference room."

She led them down a hall carpeted in silver gray. Soft white walls provided a backdrop for a collection of abstract prints interspersed with framed newspaper articles about Riverside Pharmaceuticals. She knocked and then opened double doors, saying, "The gentlemen from the government, Dr. Hastings."

Vin and Nathan stepped into the room, dazzled briefly by early- morning sunshine glittering through floor-to-ceiling windows. The long mahogany conference table was spread with pots of coffee, crystal pitchers of juice and silver trays of rolls, pastries and fruit. In spite of everything, Vin's stomach reminded him just how long it had been since it had received anything more substantial than coffee.

Two women stood up at their entrance. One looked to be in her early thirties, with shoulder- length dark hair. She wore a white lab coat over a soft woolen dress that was the exact color of the Stealth outside. She came forward with her hand outstretched. "I'm Monica Hastings. Director of this facility." She took in a quick breath. Vin noted the pallor of her face and the dark circles under her eyes. "I can't tell you how shocked and appalled I am at what has happened. Thank God for Craig Baker. The thought that one of my employees could have--" her voice choked off and she sat down suddenly in a cushioned rolling chair.

The other woman touched her arm briefly and stepped forward in turn. She looked to be a few years younger, and stunning, with short blond hair and vivid green eyes in a flawlessly made-up face. Her black suit with an emerald silk blouse showed off a perfect figure and when she extended her hand, Vin saw a gold and diamond Rolex wristwatch and a diamond tennis bracelet on her arm. A huge emerald ring in an antique gold setting glittered on her ring finger. "I'm Nina Wyerly. Attorney for Riverside Pharmaceuticals, as well as Dr. Hastings' cousin. We believe we have found our thief...and your assassin."   ~+~+~+~

Sirens screamed and red and blue lights flashed demandingly as nearly a dozen law-enforcement vehicles screeched to a halt in front of a run-down olive stucco house only two blocks from Vin's apartment in the Purgatorio. Doors slammed as men poured out of the cars, weapons drawn and ready. Neighbors stared as the house was surrounded.

Nathan and Vin got there just as the first officers were giving the "all clear". "No sign of him," a uniformed Denver cop informed them, holstering his weapon and walking toward his car.

"Looks like he left in a hurry," Bobby Fewell from ATF Team Three confirmed, standing aside so Vin and Nathan could enter, and grinning at the looks on their faces.

"Cleanin' house ain't his strong suit, I guess," Vin said, taking in the squalor in the living room. He turned toward the kitchen and shook his head at the roaches crawling over the repellent collection of dirty plates in the sink. His building had roaches too, but at least the occasional one that escaped the bug bombs and roach hotels in his kitchen ran for cover when someone entered. These acted like they owned the place.

"Vin. Look at this."

Vin followed Nathan's voice into the bedroom. Clothes were piled on the unmade bed and a half-filled suitcase sat on the floor. "Interrupted while he was packin'?" Vin wondered.

"Look at this," Nathan insisted again.

"This" was a plaque hanging on the wall. Unlike the decrepit state of the rest of the house, this was carefully mounted and showed signs of being dusted regularly.

"That son of a bitch!" Vin swore as he read the engraving.

"All Saints College of Denver awards to: Kevin Michael Murine, the Marcus Hoyt Scholarship in the Field of Microbiology."


"Kevin Murine has a record. Petty stuff, mostly as a juvenile. But right after his eighteenth birthday he got picked up for B&E and did a year in prison. He seemed to pull his act together after that. Got a job when he was released, started going to City College. Transferred to All Saints when Hoyt gave him a scholarship. Graduated with honors, then went right to work for Riverside."

"Doesn't that damn place have any security?" Chris demanded. "How could someone just waltz out of there with a deadly experimental drug and no one notice?"

Nathan shrugged. "They have security, but it's more for protection from people breaking in, or industrial spies. It's a small company and the director, Dr. Hastings, seems to think they're a family. Doesn't seem to have occurred to her one of her own people might have another agenda. They do have a check in and out system, but Kevin Murine was the 'checker'. There was nobody to check him."

"Kinda felt bad for her," Vin chimed in. "The FDA was rippin' her a new one when we left. And the FBI guys were circling like sharks in the water."

"I don't," JD snapped. "Her crappy security could have got Ez killed."

"Well, you didn't see her, JD," Nathan smiled knowingly at Vin. "Neither of the ladies was exactly a strain on the eyes."

JD rolled his own eyes. "Jeez. Now you sound like Buck." Then the grin vanished from his face and he shot a worried glance toward the double doors leading back into ICU.

"He'll be fine, JD," Nathan said soothingly.

"But what if he's not?" JD demanded, concern clouding his expression. "What if they take out the tube and he can't breathe on his own?"

"Then they'll wean him off gradually," Nathan said patiently. "This hospital has the best trauma team in the state, JD. And Culver's a genius. They know what they're doing."


"Shut UP, JD!" Chris exploded, flinging himself to his feet and striding across the room to stare out the windows.

Vin shook his head at the stunned and shaken JD. "He don't mean nothin' by it, JD. Chris is just way too tired right now and stressed out about Buck and Ez." Vin followed Chris across the room.

Chris knew when Vin stepped up behind him but didn't turn away from the windows. After a long moment, Vin put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "You can't keep goin' without any sleep, Cowboy."

"I slept some."

Vin rolled his eyes. "Yep. Bet ya did. With one eye on Buck and one eye on Ez."

"Damn Hoyt," Chris muttered.

"Hoyt's goin' down, Chris. That nurse is goin' ta turn states evidence, and even his own lawyer's rattin' him out. He's confessed to findin' out who Buck and Ez actually were and telling Hoyt about it. We'll find this Murine guy too. And even if we don't, we got enough that Hoyt'll probably never get out of prison."

"He'd better pray he doesn't." The feral tone of voice promised Marcus Hoyt wouldn't live too long if he did. Chris turned abruptly. "What about Bolo Orlowski?"

Vin shook his head. "Nothing there. Can't link him to Hoyt, can't even prove he was in Denver. Unless Buck knows somethin--"


Both men turned at Nathan's voice. Dr. Culver was coming through the double doors. Chris abandoned the windows and headed toward the man. Still, JD got there a half-step ahead of him.

"How is he?" the younger man asked worriedly.

Culver grinned. "Anxious to talk to you."

JD's face lit up and he bounced through the double doors. Chris took the time to stop and shake Culver's hand. "Thanks, Doc. For everything."

The smile dimmed. "Don't thank me yet, Agent Larabee. Buck's got a long way to go before he's well again. Dr. Royal from Orthopedics will be up to look at his leg later today, but I suspect he's in for at least a couple of months of physical therapy after those ribs heal up. And he may always walk with a limp." He paused. "But as you said to me, he's a fighter. I have a feeling he won't be satisfied until he's 100%." He pointed to the doors. "You'd better get in there...he was very anxious to see all of you. His throat is really irritated from the tube so try not to let him talk too much yet."


Buck wasn't talking when Chris stepped into the room. He couldn't get a chance. The release of tension had hit JD and he was chattering like a magpie. Chris smirked. He shook his head firmly at Ezra, who was showing signs of wanting to climb out of bed--cardiac monitor, IV, and all--to join the group at Buck's side. Vin patted Buck's shoulder thankfully before he joined Nathan at Ezra's bedside.

"Hey, Pard," Buck grinned at Chris. It was a pale imitation of his usual lady-killer grin, but it was enough. Relief coursed through Chris, leaving exhaustion in its wake. He dropped into the chair.

"Good to hear your voice again," he managed to say. 'I was afraid I'd never hear it again.'

"Why does no one ever say that to me?" came a plaintive voice from the other bed.

"Hell, Ez, you talk even when you're unconscious," Nathan joked.

"Can't understand you then, either," Vin added.

"How do you feel?" Chris asked Buck, concerned about the lines of pain crossing his friend's forehead.

True to form, Buck shrugged it off. "I'm doin' okay." He grinned at Chris, then transferred it to JD, who was smiling like a jack-o- lantern. "Glad to get that damn tube out of my throat."

Chris turned to look at Ezra. "What about you? You feeling better?"

"I will be fine as soon as I am disconnected from these infernal machines and back in my own abode."

Chris shook his head, an evil smile crossing his features. "Don't even think about it, Standish," he said silkily. "I know all about your little legal trick with Dr. Baker. I hope you realize it won't work this time."

Nathan had been filled in on the details of Ezra's escape from Lakewood-St. David's as well. "Yeah. You try that 'competency' bit with us around and we'll just tie you to the bed."

Ezra snorted and looked at Vin for support, then Buck. Vin just shook his head and Buck actually laughed--a dry, painful sound. Chris winced and reached for the cup of ice chips next to the bed. He offered a spoonful to Buck, who took it greedily.

"So did you know that Bolo Orlowski set the bomb?" JD asked excitedly, completely ignoring the glares shot at him by his teammates.

Buck's happy expression changed, darkened. He swallowed and coughed. Chris stood up anxiously and Nathan started over, but Buck waved his hand. After several seconds of breathing deeply from the oxygen tube in his nose, he looked back at JD. "Don't know what you're talkin' about, kid. Bolo Orlowski set that bomb? Hell, he's a big name bomber. Cost a mint to hire him. Kinda doubt I'd be worth that much to Hoyt...or anyone else."

Dead silence.

"You said his name," Chris said quietly.

"Actually, you spelled his name," Ezra clarified.

"You remember anything?" Vin asked.

Buck leaned back against the pillows. He looked tired and the lines of pain on his face deepened. "Not much..."

"But--" Ezra started, trying to sit up again.

"Okay, that's enough." Nathan took charge. "Buck needs to rest. And you," pointing at Ezra, "need to stay still. That drug is still in your system, and your heart got a powerful workout last night. You need to rest too."

Chris was staring at Buck with narrowed eyes. Buck met the glare. "Hell, look like shit."

"What an excellent observation, Mr. Wilmington."

"Shut up, Ezra."

"Think that's your cue to go home and get some sleep, Cowboy." Vin put his hand on Chris' shoulder.

Chris continued to look at Buck. 'You're lying, Buck. I know it, and you know I know it. But why?'

Part 26
Saturday morning

Chris sleepily blinked his eyes and looked around the room. His room.

"Shit!" Chris sat up fast, flinging the blanket back before memory caught up with him and he sagged back against the pillows in relief. He glanced at the bedside clock and groaned. After ten. He'd slept for fifteen hours straight. 'Never meant to be gone from the hospital this long,' he reprimanded himself. There was no denying, though, that he'd needed the rest and that he felt better for it. He vaguely remembered Vin driving him home in Ezra's Jag. Chris had stumbled into bed, not even bothering to take off his clothes. He'd slept deeply, without any dreams.

He rubbed his hand along his chin, feeling two day's worth of stubble. Definitely time for a shower and a shave.

Chris padded barefoot into the kitchen, hair still damp from his shower. He set about making coffee, and--feeling lightheaded from hunger--rummaged through the refrigerator for breakfast. There were eggs, cheese, some onions and a bell pepper. Just what was needed for an omelet. Chris pulled Sarah's omelet pan from the cupboard and put it on the stove. Then he carried the onion and pepper to the sink and put them on the chopping block. He reached for a knife.

And froze.

Pressing the knife more and more tightly against Buck's neck until the flesh parted and the blood trickled over the blade

Chris pulled the knife free of the marble block. Funny how he knew exactly which one he'd used that day. Which one he'd used to cut his partner.

His friend.

The handle of the knife clenched in his hand, he walked to the back door, fumbled with the lock and the chain, then flung the door open. Cool, fresh morning air, heavy with the scent of approaching rain, rushed to greet him. He walked through the dew-soaked grass--not even noticing the cold on his bare feet--circled around the barn and up a shallow rise overlooking the pond.

He drew back his arm and flung the knife away from him with all of his strength.

He was on his way back to the house before the knife hit the water.


Vin stepped into the ICU room and stopped dead in surprise. With the exception of Buck--who appeared to be asleep--the room was empty. Not only were Ezra, JD and Nathan--all of whom were supposed to be here-- missing, so was Ezra's bed.

"It's okay," Buck said faintly. Vin hadn't noticed his eyes open. "They took Ez down for some tests...and Nate and JD went to the cafeteria."

Vin let out the breath he wasn't aware he'd been holding. "Couldn't see Ez escapin' with his bed," he said, trying to cover up how concerned he'd been. He held up the vase of flowers the nurse had asked him to bring in. "Where do you want these?"


Vin pulled the card loose and handed it to him, then looked around for some place to put the flowers. There were already three other arrangements and a stuffed teddy bear holding a bright purple Mylar balloon in the room, and there wasn't any space to spare. Finally, Vin shrugged and put the vase next to the teddy bear on the floor. Then he dropped into the chair by Buck's bed. "So? Who are they from?"

Buck hadn't even opened the envelope. He handed it back to Vin. "Got a bad headache," he murmured. "Can you read it?"

'He really has to be hurting if he asks me to do it,' Vin thought. Although he had worked valiantly for years at overcoming his dyslexia, his teammates tried never to put him in situations that might embarrass him. It was never mentioned but very appreciated. Vin squinted at the flowing, feminine handwriting. "Get well soon, dinner's on me," he read. "Love, Lori." He frowned. "Who's Lori? Oh, that secretary on the fifth floor?"

"Nah, that's Marla." Buck pointed to the teddy bear. "That's from Marla. Lori is Communications."

"I don't remember a blonde in Communications. There's that redhead--"

"Melinda. She sent the yellow roses."

Vin couldn't help it; he laughed. "That ol' animal maggotism at work again, huh, Bucklin?"

Buck smiled--no doubt remembering his efforts to explain his "animal magnetism" to JD--and his roommate's stubborn refusal to call it anything but "maggotism". The smile quickly faded and he closed his eyes and swallowed hard.

"You're hurtin' purty bad." It wasn't a question. "They give you anything?"

"Yeah. Just 'fore you came in...guess it hasn't kicked in yet." Buck breathed deeply and then winced. "Damn. Keep forgettin' the ribs."

Vin felt helpless. He got up and retrieved a washcloth, dampened it in cold water and returned to run it over Buck's sweaty face. "Thanks," the mustached agent murmured.

"No problem."

Buck opened his eyes with difficulty. "Vin...thanks for goin' with JD today. It's...gonna be rough on the kid...seein' the loft like that."

"Yeah, but there's nothin' broken that can't be fixed." Vin squeezed his shoulder. "Includin' you."

"Yeah." Buck shifted uneasily in the bed. "Humpty Dumpty, that's me." He made eye contact with Vin. "Can you do me a favor?"

"Name it."

"In that...desk, in the living room. By the door?" Vin nodded, knowing the piece of furniture he was referring to. "The bottom file drawer--on the right. There's some files in and the mortgage papers, bank stuff...important papers. Can you...bring them here?"

Vin frowned. "I'll get 'em, but why don't I just take them over to Chris' place? Or hold on to them myself? You don't need to be messin' around with all that right now."

"Gotta deal...with the insurance. Sooner the claim gets...settled, the sooner they can get started fixin' the mess."

"Okay," Vin conceded reluctantly.

"Something else..."


"The bottom of that drawer...false bottom." Sweat was beading on Buck's forehead and Vin took the washcloth and sponged it away. "Push down on the back corners. It comes up...there's a file there...accordion file..." his voice was strained.

"I'll bring it," Vin said quickly. "You just rest now."

Buck nodded, then tightened his grip on Vin's hand. "Don't tell...anyone 'bout it. Not JD. And...especially not Chris."


Chris saw Ezra's doctor as he was coming into the ICU. Dr. Howard closed the chart he was writing in and greeted Chris with the words "I think he's out of danger."

"You think?" Chris raised his eyebrows.

"Well, all the tests we've run have come back normal. And his heartbeat has stayed steady for eight hours now. But, since it was an experimental drug, I'm going to err on the side of caution. I've dismissed him from ICU but I want to keep him in the hospital at least one more night." He grinned. "He wasn't very pleased about that when I told him, but Agent Jackson assured me he would stay."

Chris rolled his eyes. "He'll stay," he confirmed. "He won't like it much, but he'll stay."

"Do I even want to know how you'll manage that?" the doctor kidded.

"Probably not."

Buck opened his eyes as Chris came into the room. "Hey, Pard," he greeted him. "You look better."

"Wish I could say the same about you." Chris sat down in the chair by the bed and studied his friend.

"Hell...Chris, you know it's plumb impossible for me to look bad."

"Really," Chris said sarcastically. "Heard you lost your bunkmate."

"Ez? Oh yeah. And did he rub it in." Buck managed a smile. "JD and Vin went to look at the loft--see what they could salvage of JD's stuff."

Chris hadn't gone by the apartment. He didn't want to see it-- his imagination was bad enough. But he had read the reports. "JD's room didn't have much damage at all. Your room, though..."

Buck nodded. "I know." He sighed. "Guess I should count my blessings it wasn't worse. All my important papers were downstairs in the desk. But...I keep thinking about things...stuff that was upstairs. My mom's photo album. And her gold locket was in a box in the dresser. And all the pictures of..." he stopped.

Chris knew what he was thinking about. "All the pictures you had of Sarah and Adam," he said evenly. At one time, Buck had framed every photo of his Godson; everything Adam had made him--from his crayoned scribbles to a candle made out of old newspaper and Fruit Loops-- had been on proud display in Buck's home. Afterwards, though, the things had disappeared. It had been months, maybe years before Chris had wondered why. Then it dawned on him: Buck had done it for his sake-- trying to protect him from the memories. When Chris had spent the night--and during the dark times there had been plenty of nights when Buck had scraped him up from whatever bar he was haunting and taken him home--he'd stayed in the smaller bedroom downstairs, the one that was now JD's room.

Now Chris gripped Buck's hand tightly. "You don't know what they'll find when they start cleaning the place up."

"I know." Buck stared at the ceiling. He wasn't making any effort to cover his feelings, which told Chris just how tired and depressed he was. He was in pain too; Chris could tell by the tight lines around his mouth and the shallow way he was breathing.

"Feel so bad for JD, y'know?" Buck said quietly. "I was his home. Mine, too." The last was barely a whisper.

Chris remembered when Buck had bought the place. "It's my first real home," he'd commented.

"It'll be home, again," Chris said firmly. "Besides, long as I have a home, you have one. Don't you know that?"

Dark blue eyes came up to focus on his. "Thanks, Pard," Buck said softly.

Chris cleared his throat and broke the gaze. "When you get out of here, we'll go through my pictures. Time I sorted through them anyway. Bet I've got copies of most of the ones you lost. Of Sarah and Adam, anyway." He smiled. "I even have our old Academy pictures in a box in the spare room."

Buck snorted, then grabbed his ribcage. "Ow. God, Chris, I'm not sure I want to have copies of some of those. Remember that blue leisure suit I had? Ezra or JD ever see that picture, and they'll never let me hear the end of it." His voice was weakening. Chris squeezed his hand.

"You need to get some sleep. Need anything for the pain?"

Buck shook his head. "Not yet. It makes me so...groggy."

"You've been taking it, haven't you?" Sharpness edged Chris' words.

Buck sighed. "Yeah. When they give it to me. I just...don't like to ask for it more than I have to."

"Damn it, Buck..." Chris cut himself off. He wasn't going to argue with Buck about this--it wouldn't do any good. He'd just mention to the doctor that Buck probably wasn't the best informant as to his own pain threshold.

"You want some water?" he asked instead. Buck nodded. Chris stood up to get the cup and as he did, he saw again the fine white scar on Buck's throat. He took a deep breath. "Buck. Somethin' I need to talk to you about."

Buck looked at him, worried. "What is it?"

Chris gently touched his neck with one finger. "This."


The closer they got to the apartment, the less sure JD was he really wanted to see it. But he didn't say anything--well, that wasn't exactly true--he'd been chattering nervously ever since they left the hospital parking lot in Vin's old Jeep. But as they exited the freeway and turned onto the street, he fell silent, unconsciously gripping his hands tightly together.

Vin glanced over at him. "We don't have to do this." His voice was understanding.

JD shook his head. "No. I do. I need to get some clothes and stuff and...and I need to see it. I need..."

Vin pulled the Jeep to the curb. "Look up."

JD hesitated, then looked out his window. He gasped, feeling a sick churning in his stomach at the sight of the huge, gaping hole right where Buck's bedroom should be, and at the sheets of plywood covering what used to be the living room windows. His eyes sought the smaller windows in his bedroom, noticing that only one of them was broken. Then his attention was drawn back to that gaping hole in the brick: mute evidence of the force of the blast.


He didn't look at Vin. "What?"

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Vin turned him around so he could see his face. "You remember, no matter how bad it could have been so much worse. Nobody was killed, JD. Not the neighbors, not me. And not Buck."

"But he could--"

"He wasn't." Vin's voice was firm. "Buck's goin' to be okay, boy. It might take awhile, but he'll be good as new...and you will get your home back."

JD took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. "You're right." He opened the door. "Let's do this."


Chris couldn't stay still; he had to move, to try to expel some of this fury building inside. "Why the hell didn't you ever tell me?" he demanded.

"Wasn't nothin' to tell." Buck's voice was very quiet. "It was an accident."

"An accident!" Chris exploded. "Damn it Buck, I cut your throat with a fucking knife! How could that be an accident?"

"Chris...I don't know what all you remember..."

"I remember cutting your throat! What more should I remember?"

Buck sighed, shifted in the bed, and bit back a curse as every part of his throbbing body protested the movement. When he could talk again, he said, "You didn't know what you were doin'." His fists clenched tightly as he fought the pain. "And you didn't really--"

The door flew open and Nathan stalked in. "Chris! I'm glad you're here. We've got a problem with Ezra. That stubborn southern know-it- all SOB is trying to discharge himself AMA, again!"

"That idiot!" Chris swore. He grinned his icy, feral grin. "Guess he didn't believe me when I told him what would happen if he tried that. Got your handcuffs, Nathan?" He started out the door, then whirled and looked back at Buck. "This isn't over, understand?"

Buck waited until the door had closed behind them both before he said aloud "No, Chris. It's not over. Hell, it'll never be over."

Epilogue 1
Monday afternoon

"Good God, Monica. You're supposed to be the brainy one! To use your own drug to poison the man..."

"It should have been foolproof," Monica Hastings protested. "What are the odds that the physician treating him once worked in my lab!"

"You'd never make a gambler, Cuz," David Wyerly retorted. "Because, obviously, the odds were pretty good. Or bad, as it turned out."

Monica paced around her uncle's tastefully-decorated library. "This is not good." She was more animated--and agitated--than either of her cousins had ever seen her. "I had FDA inspectors and those auditors in the lab all weekend. And what if those ATF people start looking into my background? If they find out I'm related to Uncle Arthur..."

"Stop worrying," Nina counseled. "There is no reason for them to look into your background. We gave them a suspect. As far as the Feds are concerned, Kevin Murine stole the T-27 and poisoned Standish, acting on orders from Marcus Hoyt. Riverside Pharmaceuticals will probably get a slap on the wrist from the FDA for lax security, but that won't amount to anything. We covered your tracks." She paused. "And by the way, good acting job when the Feds were there. Those fake tears even impressed me."

"She has a point, though," David mused. "It wouldn't take much to link her to Uncle Arthur. Or Steven. Hell, Riverside was started with Uncle's money."

Nina raised her eyebrows. "So? She's related to Arthur Curran. She can hardly help that. No one is convicted of a crime just because of whom they happen to be related to. Monica is least to the uneducated eye."

"But what if they find Murine?" Monica finally sat down in one of the soft velvet wing chairs in front of the fireplace.

"They won't," David grinned. "And if by some miracle they ever do, they'll be lucky if they can identify him."

Monica dropped her hands in her lap and stared at him. "You didn't kill him?"

"Well, shit, Monica, of course I killed him. What did you expect me to do with him?" David shook his head.

"I thought we were going to pay him off--"

"That's enough," Nina broke in. "Monica, I don't think you--or I-- really need to know any more about what David did. Just suffice to say he adequately covered your tracks." She leaned forward in her chair. "Next time there won't have to be a cover-up. We'll anticipate problems and plan accordingly."

"Not if Monica is around," David muttered. "Of all the stupid-- "

"That's enough!" His sister's voice snapped like a whip. "You and I are just as much to blame for this contretemps as Monica is. We sent her out there on her own. We all need to get it into our heads that we aren't competitors in Uncle's little 'game'--we're allies. A team. It's not as if the one who kills Standish scoops the pot--we all share equally. The risks as well as the benefits." She regarded them both through cool green eyes. "Make no mistake--if one of us falls, we will all go down. And Uncle's entire enterprise will go down with us."

There was silence in the room except for the crackling of the fire.

Finally, Monica spoke. "So, what's our next move in the game?"

Nina smiled. "I have a few ideas. Monica--you work too hard, dear. You need a social life. A dating life."

Monica had regained some of her self-possession. She lifted her eyebrows and tilted her head on the side. "Surely you're not going to suggest I make a play for Ezra Standish, Nina. That's so...cliche."

"Well, it's better than me making a play for him," David grinned.

Nina shook her head as she regarded the other two fondly. "Ordinary minds. That's what's wrong with the two of you. Monica, I couldn't help but notice that one of the two ATF gentlemen who visited us appeared somewhat taken by you. Especially," she added, her tone changing from honey-sweet to waspish, "when you started crying those fake tears. I think you and Mr. Tanner would make quite the lovely couple."

Epilogue 2
Tuesday morning

Sarah Bryant wrestled her car into a parking space on a side street. Needing money--her uncle's accounts were all frozen as Federal auditors worked their way through his business dealings--she'd sold her sports car and bought a ten year old Ford. Perfectly acceptable form of transportation, even if the stubborn steering did make her arms ache.

She glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror, finger-combing a few strands of her newly short, newly blonde hair. Bad luck that that picture of her with her uncle had appeared in the paper, but she was satisfied she'd changed her appearance enough. Uncle had always insisted she keep fake ID just in case. This would be the first time she'd ever had to use it.

She was early for her appointment but that was all right. She had deliberately parked a few blocks away. She wanted to walk by the Federal Building.

She slowed her pace as she approached it. She'd read in a magazine that since the Oklahoma City bombing, there was heightened security around federal office buildings. If so, there wasn't much sign of it here. She looked through the doors. A bored security guard was checking ID before allowing people on the elevators. She made herself keep moving before anyone noticed her. She couldn't resist, though, taking one last look over her shoulder at the tall building.

The ATF offices, she'd learned, were on the fourth, seventh and eighth floors.

She continued down the street, around the corner. Here were small shops, restaurants. A bar called "The Saloon" was across the street from her destination. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door of Hansen's Art Gallery.

"Hi," she said to the college-age girl that came bustling over to her. "I have a ten o'clock appointment with Ms. Hansen?"

"Can I tell her your name?"

"Christina Barrows," Sarah said, smoothly trying out her new name. She smiled. "I'm here about the job."

Epilogue 3
University Medical Center Room 2206, Tuesday night

Buck shifted in his bed, relieving one group of pains as another set to complaining.

He glanced around the room he'd been moved into earlier that day. The room that would be his "home" for the next few weeks at least. At least it was larger and lighter than that ICU cubicle and had a window looking over the street. Well, Vin said it overlooked the street. Chris had cackled it had enough floor space to house Buck's rapidly growing collection of flowers, plants, and stuffed animals-- more of which arrived daily.

He glanced over at the cot in the corner. Vin slumbered peacefully, his back to Buck. It had taken Vin, Nathan and Josiah all teaming with Buck to get Chris and JD both to leave and get a decent night's sleep at the ranch. Ezra had actually offered to spend the night in Buck's room--which was kind of ironic when you thought about how he'd fought staying in the hospital when he was the patient. Nathan had nixed that idea and sent Ezra home with Josiah, who still felt guilty because they'd been unable to reach him in Mexico. Nobody had listened to Buck saying he didn't need anybody to stay, and so Vin ended up occupying the cot.

Satisfied Vin was truly asleep, Buck reached over with his good arm and pulled the accordion folder from the bedside table. True to his word, Vin had smuggled it in with no one being the wiser. Tanner hadn't asked what it contained although it was obvious he was curious. Buck wasn't worried. Vin was an intensely private person, he wouldn't violate Buck's privacy either because of his curiosity, or in the guise of it being for Buck's own good.

He steeled himself for what was to come and opened the folder.

Every section was tightly packed full of file folders, manila envelopes, cassette tapes, photographs. With clumsy fingers he sorted through until he found the folder he was looking for. Held together with a rubber band, it was crammed full of newspaper articles, faxes, and more photographs. The label on the folder read simply "Bolo".

It was written in smudgy blue. Buck smiled a little, remembering the night he labeled the folder and couldn't find a pen anywhere that had ink, so he'd ended up using an eyeliner pencil a date had left in the bathroom.

He looked at the photographs. They were pictures of detonators, or pieces of detonators, all with a common factor. Red, black and yellow wire to the fuse, the strands twisted around each other into a loop. "Bolo's signature" Cap'n Nate had called it.

The same "signature" he'd seen the instant before his bedroom blew up around him.

The same as he'd seen years before...

Shooting another glance at Vin, who had turned over so he was facing Buck but still seemed to be asleep, Buck pulled the top layer of files out. These were all labeled the same. "Larabee, Sarah. Larabee, Adam." Then followed the word Buck had longed to erase for almost ten years.


He opened one of the files. He knew these files so well. So many nights he poured over them, desperately looking for a clue, something he'd missed.

He pulled out a glossy photograph. A close-up, of the detonator that had been rigged to Chris' truck that fatal night. The detonator that had miraculously survived the explosion and had been found the next day by an exhausted Buck Wilmington, who couldn't make himself leave the scene.

Red, black and yellow wire. Twisted around each other into a loop.

Bolo's signature.

Buck closed the file. He leaned back into the pillows. God, he was tired. And he hurt.

Hurt like hell.

But he was alive. Sarah and Adam weren't.

Because he'd wanted to stop for dinner that night, they'd died.

He reached up to touch the scar on his neck. Chris kept trying to talk about it, he kept changing the subject. No reason to talk. Chris might have been out of his mind that day, but a scar on the neck was nothing compared to the scars on Chris' soul.

On Buck's too.

He whispered it, again. "This will never be over."

Across the room, Vin Tanner watched his friend through wide-awake blue eyes.

To be continued in
Trinity Book 2: Flames

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