Reality Check

by The Cohorts

+ + + + + + +

JD spent the first half of the hour's drive from the restaurant to Pottersville reading up on how to use Betsy to sniff out suspicious shoes. Then he figured Ezra wouldn't get impatient at a few more questions. "Ezra, do you know any of the other men, uh agents, Chris supervises?"

Ezra spared him a quick glance. "I really don't know any of them well. Buck dated one of the women for a while but she decided he wasn't serious and ended up married to someone else three months after she broke it off with Buck. But JD, it isn't as though you're rehearsing for some kind of undercover assignment. You don't have to memorize your life. If you don't get your memory back by next week, you're going to get professional help."

"But the more stuff you tell me, the more likely I am to remember before then. Don't you figure if I have fewer blank spots in my memory that confabulation thing won't be adding so much of that fake stuff in to fill them up?"

"An interesting theory. Certainly it can't hurt. What would you like to know?"

"Tell me the real story of how we all joined the ATF."

A half hour of interesting conversation later they reached the outskirts of town. The other two vehicles went into town while Ezra drove northwest to the reservoir and the Travis place. Ezra had told him that despite the late hour Mary Travis herself would be waiting for them and the anticipation was killing him. What would it mean if she was just like the beautiful woman in his fantasy? That his head injury had given him visions sort of like the guy on Dead Zone?

As the Mustang stopped in the gravel drive opposite the front door of rustic, cedar house with a green metal roof, Mary Travis stepped out to greet them. And JD had no doubt it was Mary Travis, the Mary Travis of his Denver fantasy. He couldn't see the color of her eyes as she held out her hand to greet Ezra who had exited the car, but he was absolutely certain that Ezra was looking into eyes virtually the same color as Ezra's own. As JD slowly got out of the car and circled around to introduce himself and Betsy, the sound and cadence of her voice was almost as familiar as Casey's had been.

JD had trouble keeping his mind on the fact that Mary Travis was a stranger. It wasn't as though they had been intimate confidants in his Denver fantasy, but in his mind they'd been more than casual acquaintances. He'd seen and talked to her at a lot of events and parties and she'd interviewed him once after a bust. He'd worked for her father-in-law and played computer games with her son for god's sake - in his head of course. He kept looking for differences that would tell him he had just seen a photo of her someplace and built a fantasy around that. But when he sat next to her at the little kitchen table after Ezra asked her to stay and share some information, she even smelled the same. Not a strong perfume but maybe shampoo or body lotion. She smelled sort of like roses and citrus and whatever it was, JD associated it with her. She and Ezra were deep in conversation before he was able to force himself to pay attention.

"Of course, the Mountain Apaches won't qualify to have gaming facilities until they get their tribal status back but I've been assured that's being handled. It's not like the casino is going to be some huge glitzy thing that will turn Pottersville into a mini Las Vegas. It will be just a small part of the convention center on the boundary between the reservation and the town, an added amenity to attract people who want a full range of activities including water sports, rock climbing, mountain biking, hunting - with cameras or firearms. We have a few people who keep vacation homes up here just so they can train in ultra-distance running. If we had sufficient facilities to house entrants, we could sponsor some events. Our goal is to make the town a viable place for people to open new businesses and support their families."

"The church that was torched, was the congregation also in favor of the casino?" Ezra asked.

"Reverend Mosely and a sizable percentage of his congregation spoke against it, against gambling in general, but they weren't considered significant opposition. In fact, there is considerable dissention within the congregation over the Reverend himself. Relations between the town and all the tribes in this area, particularly the Apaches whose land borders the town, are quite good. But the Reverend refers to all tribal members who haven't converted to his brand of Christianity as heathens. Even so, I'm sure no one on the reservation would have burned the church. That isn't the theory Josiah and the others are working on is it? And there certainly can't be any suspects among the town's casino supporters."

"If you're sure, then you're probably right," Ezra hastened to assure her. "You know all the parties involved. I believe Josiah and Nathan suspect there's a third party with some kind of interest trying to create dissension. If that's the case, their next target might well be a supporter - perhaps a building on tribal lands, perhaps even your newspaper."

"We live over the newspaper office. Do you think I should send Billy to stay with his grandparents?"

"I think perhaps you should discuss it with Josiah and the rest before you take any hasty actions. If you're worried about the newspaper office, you and Billy could stay here for a few days under our protection. I believe you said there were three bedrooms. Your reputation wouldn't suffer from sharing quarters with a gay couple."

JD spoke up for the first time. "Ezra, we're not . . . ."

"Mary is aware of that, JD. But we have to think of townspeople who might look askance at a beautiful woman in a house with two attractive bachelors unless they believe our only interest is in each other."

Mary shook her head. "Thank you for the offer but Billy refuses to return to this house; he was here with Stephen when he was killed."

Ezra immediately became solicitous. "Had we known we would have come into town to collect the keys."

"Oh, please, don't be concerned on my account. I've come back here many times, first to remove our belongings and then to have the place redecorated. We've rented it out for two seasons now and it has to be cleaned between renters. Would you like me to show you around?"

"If you just point out your son's old room, my young friend will be bunking there with his dog. I'll take the old master bedroom."


Mary seemed so surprised that JD wondered if she thought they'd be sharing a room. So he excused himself, pleading fatigue from his injuries and hastened to take his bag upstairs to the room on the left she'd indicated. If Ezra had any more questions, he wouldn't need help. JD was so tongue tied at this embodiment of his Denver fantasy Mary that he hadn't been able to think of anything intelligent to say.

The room was a pleasant surprise. No signs remained that it had been a little boy's room. It had a queen-sized bed, a comfortable chair, Ansel Adams photos on the pine paneled walls and a multi-color braided rug. A door led to an adjoining full bath that in turn had a door into a bigger room with two sets of bunk beds. Maybe Ezra had snagged a bigger room downstairs with a king-sized bed but JD had no problem letting Ezra have his little triumph. His broken wrist throbbed a little and his head ached from trying to fit too many pieces into the puzzle that had become his life. He opened a window that looked out onto the reservoir -- JD preferred to think of it as a lake -- and hoped the fresh country air would clear his head as he slept.

He was already in bed by the time he heard Mary's car drive off and drifting off to sleep when Ezra knocked and opened the door.

"JD, are you asleep?"

JD thought of just ignoring him and pretending he was asleep but perhaps Mary had thought of something important. "What is it? They'll be working at the burned church early in the morning and I have to be there. You aren't planning to go into town, are you? Did Mary tell you about some poker game or something?"

Ezra came in and sat in an overstuffed chair near the bed. JD could see him clearly in the moonlight streaming in the window.

"I believe I was hasty in consigning you to the smallest bedroom. That was hardly fair of me. I'd be willing to engage in a game of chance . . . "

JD was about to assure Ezra that he was perfectly happy in this room when it occurred to him that this kind of benevolence wasn't the Ezra he remembered. Of course, Ezra in this real world might be subject to such lapses but nothing he had seen or heard suggested this was the case. "So what's wrong with your room, Ezra?"

"Oh, it's very spacious I assure you. Large enough for half a dozen to sleep in relative comfort. But it was unkind of me to take the biggest room by virtue of seniority."

Suddenly a picture of the room connected to Billy's by way of the bathroom leapt into JD's head and he laughed. "That room can sleep six because it's full of bunk beds, isn't it?"

Ezra's sigh was sufficient confirmation. "Mary said she set up the house to accommodate groups of teens or children chaperoned by an adult or an adult couple."

"And I got the adult room. Well, I'm keeping it. There wouldn't be room for Betsy on a bunk bed."

Ezra sighed again but JD wasn't going to give in. Ezra could be such a drama queen.

"You might as well resign yourself to roughing it Ezra. You need anything else?"

"Actually, the real reason for my nocturnal visit is my shock at seeing that Mrs. Travis was the veritable embodiment of your description. Clearly you saw her photo - a color photo surely or you would have guessed her eyes were blue rather than that stunning green. Do you remember where?"

JD shook his head. "It wasn't just her looks. She talks and walks the same as I 'remember'."

"The perhaps you saw a video. She might very well have been on camera on a Phoenix station talking to a reporter about a local news event."

"She smells like how I remember too, like roses and citrus."

Ezra paused as though considering. "Yes, I believe I detected the delicate scent of a rose geranium and grapefruit shampoo. But perhaps you simply smelled it previously on the lovely Miss Wells or your mother."

Was Ezra implying that the only women he had likely ever been close enough to smell were Casey and his ma? "Whatever, Ezra. I guess I'll remember when I remember. Could be I met her while she was visiting someone in New York and she doesn't remember because . . . ."

"Because you're more likely to remember a beautiful woman than she is to remember a college boy," Ezra filled in.

"Something like that." JD closed his eyes but he didn't hear Ezra leaving. Perhaps Ezra couldn't sleep while the moon was still up. Hell, as long as he was here, JD might as well ask some more questions. In college he'd learned that if he slept after studying something, it would stick with him better. "You told me how all of us joined the ATF but Nathan isn't a part of it. You said this morning he had a bad childhood experience with the ATF. Was his daddy a moonshiner or something?"

"Hardly. His father was a cop in Alabama."

"Buck says the ATF works with locals better than the FBI. So if his father was a cop. . .."

"Have you ever heard of the Good Ol' Boy Roundup?"

After JD shook his head, Ezra continued. "It was an annual unsanctioned gathering of law enforcement officers in Tennessee organized by an ATF officer. In 1988 Nathan's father was invited by a white friend who had not previously attended. On the dirt road leading to the festivities they were stopped at a sign reading 'Nigger Checkpoint' by white ATF officers wearing shirts displaying racist logos such as a picture of Martin Luther King inside a target. Mr. Jackson's friend was berated for bringing a 'nigger' where he wasn't wanted."

"Nathan can't think the ATF is full of people like that?"

"No, but it was somewhat damning. Despite being unsanctioned, the event was organized by an ATF officer who used his office phone number and address on the flyers. Many ATF officers attended and notwithstanding complaints about the racist overtones of the event, many ATF officers continued to participate into the mid-90's when it was finally the subject of a Senate investigation and federal officers were forbidden to attend. It's understandable that Nathan's father had negative feelings about the agency and the young Nathan would not tend to see the ATF as a career choice. However, that's how he met Josiah, who was assigned as part of the investigation team in 1995. His long-time friendship with him made him more receptive to the Bureau. Of course, it didn't hurt that Chris and Vin saved his life when his ambulance was attacked by gang members after a gang shooting."

JD was almost sorry he'd asked now. He didn't like hearing anything that tarnished his shiny bright image of the ATF even if the tarnish was not widespread and occurred a decade or two ago. But at least Nathan had achieved his dream of being a doctor and that made him think of something more cheerful. "Did Nathan marry Rain yet? Was I at the wedding?"

Even in the moonlight, JD could see the confusion in Ezra's face and his stomach did a flip flop. "Rain is just someone I imagined? But I really like her." Of course, that made no sense. How could he like someone who wasn't real? "Is Nathan dating anyone?"

"He dates but he hasn't found that certain someone if that's what you're asking."

That was what he'd been asking but he wasn't sure why. Did he think because Mary was almost exactly what he remembered from his fantasy world that Rain would magically appear too?

Ezra startled him by exhibiting a similar train of thought. "Describe the Rain woman to me. If someone matching her description suddenly appears and ensnares our good doctor, I'll be coming to you for stock market tips and Super Bowl winners.

+ + + + + + +

When JD got up at dawn the next morning Ezra was nowhere to be seen. JD got out the scent articles Buck had given him and set up some training problems so Betsy could earn a third of her daily ration. He threw some sticks in the lake for her, then killed a little time rereading the stuff in the instruction binder while eating raisin bran he found in the cupboard. The fresh milk in the refrigerator told him Mary had brought groceries with her when she opened up the house.

Ezra finally appeared, fully dressed. He eschewed JD's offer of cereal. "Quaint little towns often harbor passable breakfast establishments. While we might not be able to get eggs benedict, some French toast might be had. And at the same time we can establish our loving but secretive relationship in town."

"I'm not going to do anything loving." JD folded his arms across his chest, trying to look as resolute as he felt.

"Well, that's where the secretive part kicks in. You only have to look like you want to enfold me in a passionate embrace but are exercising restraint because our liaison must remain hidden."

"How the hell do I do that?"

"Pretend you're starving and I'm a double cheeseburger with a side of chili cheese fries."

JD grinned with relief. "I can do that. Is that all there is to your undercover investigations? Pretending?"

"Precisely. We pretend to have money to buy illegal weapons and dealers come flocking to our door. Simple as pie."

Pie. JD suddenly had a craving for Boston cream pie.

+ + + + + + +

The vaguely Victorian cottage housing the breakfast spot Ezra chose was indeed quaint although there was no Boston cream pie or French toast on the menu. However, it contained a sizeable list of ingredients for create-your-own omelets. Bemoaning the lack of French toast, Ezra was about to settle for a mushroom omelet when the waitress smiled and pointed to an item listed below the waffles.

"Ah, I should have remembered. Eggy bread." He looked up at the waitress. "I thought the hostility toward our French friends had dissipated. Would I see liberty fries on the lunch menu?"

"Our breakfast cook says we called it German toast until World War I. He figured instead of changing the name every time the public got mad at a country, why not use the description."

Ezra favored the young waitress with a friendly smile. "Most sensible of him. I'll have it with 'the best strawberry preserves this side of the Mississippi'." He looked at JD. "And what will you have, JD?" Somehow he managed to make that simple question sound more like, "I'll buy you anything you want, darling."

JD struggled to narrow his choice of omelet ingredients as the waitress patiently waited, notepad in hand. "Ham, bacon, onions, bell peppers, cheddar cheese," JD finally said as he handed her the menu. "And coffee."

"Good choice," responded the waitress as she jotted down his order. "Denver omelet with coffee."

At her words, a wave of homesickness threatened to overwhelm him. JD knew he shouldn't be homesick for a Denver he'd never lived in but that dream was still so vivid.

His loss must have been reflected on his face because Ezra noticed. "What is it, son?" When JD didn't answer, Ezra looked thoughtful. "Ah, Denver. Are there still things about your dream world lacking here?"

"That's just it. I keep getting blindsided. First, we don't all work together on one team except on a pretend one. And Nathan isn't ATF at all. Next it was Mary. Last night I found out Nathan hasn't even met anyone named Ra. . . ." JD stopped mid-sentence as the screen door slammed behind a small stream of new patrons. Chris and Buck slid into a booth up front. But it was the group behind them he couldn't take his eyes off of.

Ezra twisted in his seat to see what had caught JD's attention. He turned back as the waitress came to the table with the coffeepot. He leaned over the table and said loudly enough that she could hear as she filled their mugs, "JD, this is the first time we've been able to get away together. I can't have you checking out the local talent." He tilted his head toward Chris and Buck. "Admittedly they are quite attractive, but a little old for you."

"Ezra. Cut it out." As the waitress moved away, he added, "Check out the big table across the room from Chris and Buck."

JD listened as Ezra noted all the people seated at the biggest table in the place. "Josiah, Mary Travis, a boy who must be Billy, Vin, Jonah, a second Apache, probably Chanu, who is holding hands under the table with a lovely blonde girl, Nathan and . . . ." Ezra stopped dead and looked back at JD. "That couldn't be. . .."

"Yep, it is."

"That simply isn't possible. We're in the vicinity of several reservations. There's likely dozens of beautiful young women of mixed heritage in the area. She's probably Jonah's girlfriend?"

"Then why's she looking at Nathan like he hung the moon." JD started to rise. "Come on, let's. . .."

Ezra reached over and pulled JD back into his seat. "Remember, we're not supposed to know anyone here. If that is Rain, she must work with Nathan at the hospital and you met her there."

"But you didn't know he was dating anyone named Rain."

"I'm hardly privy to all of Nathan's private life. Perhaps he's been afraid to ask her out and she didn't notice him until they both volunteered to help Jonah with the clinic."

Just then JD's phone vibrated in his pocket.

Buck. "Men's room."

JD whispered to Ezra. "Be back in a minute. Guess Mr. Tall-and-Handsome over there doesn't think I'm too young for him."

"JD, men never think sweet young things, male or female, are too young for them. And Buck only cares if the object of his lust is of legal age."

"Hardy har har. Be back in a minute."

The bathroom was a two-seater so at least he and Buck didn't look suspicious entering together.

"Did you do a little training with Betsy this morning?"

"Yes, Buck."

"You didn't give her all her food did you? She needs to be sharp when you send her checking shoes."

"No, Buck."

"Did . . ."

"Buck, you could have called me on your cell this morning and asked that stuff. Show me how I can direct Betsy to check people's feet."

Buck conducted a mini-demonstration on doggy deployment until an elderly man entered to use the facilities. As Buck left, he leaned over and whispered in JD's ear, "You'll do fine kid. Betsy can work on automatic pilot. Just trust your dog. And don't forget her disguise." He left then poked his head back in to whisper one last bit of information. "Folks around here know Josiah, Vin and Nathan and may be more open with them so we decided to split up." Then, before JD could ask him whether he'd met Rain, he was gone.

As he slid back into the booth across from Ezra, JD felt confident he could add something to this investigation. He still felt a little tickle in his belly when he looked at Mary and Rain but he pushed that weirdness to the back of his mind as he tackled his Denver omelet with newfound gusto.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was right about a crowd gathering to watch Blossom work the church. It hadn't been an imposing or grand building, but over the years the congregation had tripled the footprint of the original church and parsonage with a large kitchen/dining hall, a couple of meeting rooms, a storage room and a recreation room that was used as a polling place during elections. About half the building was still standing but the fire had taken all the walls on the west side so the crowd could watch Buck and Chris inside as if they were in a dollhouse. Chris was taking photos and would take samples from wherever Blossom alerted to send to the lab in Phoenix for identification. Her alerts might also disclose the accelerant pattern for purposes of matching the modus operandi with that of known arsonists. JD knew all this from the copy of the annotated building plans Vin had slipped him and the material he'd read in his training binder.

JD established his "cover" by tossing a Frisbee for the bandanna-wearing Betsy in the kiddy park across from the church. Then he wandered casually over to the crowd strung out along the street watching Buck work his dog. As JD was trying to figure where to start, Vin came over and knelt on one knee beside Betsy, making a show of petting her.

"Chanu and Mary spotted some strangers, three in suits on the far end of the crowd, a weasely guy in a gray sweatshirt about halfway down and a couple of rough types in jeans and work boots a few yards in this direction from the weasel. Course, we could be looking for somebody local but Mary, Chanu and Jonah-Eh are sure we're not." Vin gave Betsy a final ear scratch and took off.

Taking a deep breath, JD gave Betsy her search command and slowly walked behind the crowd. That was easy enough as no one particularly noticed him. He passed the three suits on the end with no alerts and wondered how to proceed down the front of the line where people were likely to notice. He nervously jangled his keys in his pocket, idly wondering why he was carrying them as he had nothing to use them for here. Suddenly, he had an idea. Buck had told him the dogs understood their names and their commands, but most other words would just translate as blah, blah, blah, taking meaning only from the tone. So it wouldn't matter to Betsy what he added to her search command.

He separated his Hyundai key from the others on the ring and walked between the crime scene barriers and the crowd, softly telling Betsy, "Seek, find my key." He occasionally explained to the onlookers as he brushed by them, "Sorry, lost my car key." They passed the weasel in the sweatshirt without interest on Betsy's part. But when they got to the two thugs, she sniffed the second one in line and immediately sat and stared at his boots. JD quickly leaned down and pretended to find the key right by the boot of the man he dubbed 'thug two', then made a big fuss over Betsy, slipping her a few bits of kibble in the process. "Good dog, you found my key." He displayed the key in his open palm to a few of the spectators. "Did you see that? She found my car key."

JD went past the rest of the crowd, whispering "seek" to Betsy but not doing anything that would warn 'thugs one and two' that he was continuing his search even after he found the 'lost' key. When he exited the crowd, he tossed the Frisbee in the direction of the grocery store where Vin was lounging on a bench, reading a newspaper. JD took a seat on the other end of the bench and looked through the sections of the paper Vin had discarded until he found the sports section. He leaned back and pretended to read it as he said, "Betsy alerted on the shoes of the big bald guy wearing the plaid shirt and the red leather vest. He's got a mustache longer than Buck's and a big scar that runs from above his left eyebrow down his left cheek. Didn't look like the eye was quite right. The guy with him is almost as big but has long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and a scorpion tattoo that runs down his neck and disappears into his denim shirt. Betsy didn't alert on him but he could have changed his clothes and shoes since yesterday."

"Good work, kid." Vin reached over and ruffled Betsy's ears. "You too, pooch."

"So now what?"

"So you go back to vacationin' with Ezra and let us check out those guys."

"No way." JD was not about to be left out now. "I'll follow them and let you guys know where they go."

"And you'll be drivin' what? Isn't Ezra's Mustang a stick shift? Assuming he'd even let you drive it." Vin tapped JD's cast. "And if they catch on to you, yer right cross ain't got a left hook to go with it."

JD appreciated Vin's implication that he could hold his own with one of those thugs if he'd had full use of both fists but he still didn't plan to sit on the sidelines. "Okay, how about if you find out where they're staying, you let Betsy sniff through their clothes. Buck's here officially so he wouldn't be able to do it without a warrant."

Vin handed JD the rest of the paper as he got up from the bench. "Tell you what, kid. You keep your phone on and we'll let you know everything that happens. If there's somethin' you can do or you get any ideas, you'll be in on it with the rest of us."

JD watched as Vin trotted back to where Chanu and Josiah were standing on the edge of the crowd. Vin whispered something to Josiah before he and Chanu headed down the street to Chris's truck. They waited in the cab until the two thugs got into an old pickup and drove south out of town. Vin waited a minute, and drove after them. JD sighed and sat back on the bench, figuring it was as good a place as any to wait for Ezra, who'd decided to see what he could find out from the locals while perusing some of the shops. He went back to the sports page and turned to the basketball scores. Damn, the Nuggets lost to the Suns yesterday. But then he realized that Denver was not really his home team. Did that mean he couldn't still root for them? Hell, had he ever rooted for them?

Buck and Chris left the ruined church before Ezra returned. JD didn't know if they were finished or Blossom just needed a break. It was another half hour before Ezra sat down next to JD and made a show of presenting him with a fancy box.

"To commemorate our lovely weekend." Ezra's eyes twinkled. "And don't worry that you have nothing for me. I know that your college expenses use up all the money you make working in the pizza joint. Just let me spoil you a little."

"I'm still not going to switch rooms with you." JD tucked the box under his arm. "Where's the car?"

Ezra didn't get up. "JD, the whole purpose of the present was for passersby to see you open it and view your delighted amazement at the good taste of your sophisticated paramour."

JD looked around. There were a few passersby in the vicinity, including the three suits who had been watching the arson investigation earlier. Sighing, he opened the box to find a silver cuff bracelet sporting a jade green, black-flecked stone.

"JD, a little overt appreciation would be appropriate now. That's green turquoise to match the green flecks in your lovely brown-hazel eyes."

What the hell. None of the guys were around. JD sat back down and threw his arms around Ezra's neck, making sure to clonk him with the wrist cast as he did. "Oh, Ezra, it's beautiful," he gushed enthusiastically enough for the several people, including the suits, to cast a glance his way. He added in a voice meant only for Ezra, "You know you won't get reimbursed for this."

Ezra broke the embrace and ruffled JD's hair with ostensible affection as he whispered, "I suspect that once I have it properly engraved with the name Felicia and present it during dinner in a romantic little jazz club, monetary reimbursement will be the furthest thing from my mind." Ezra looked thoughtful for a moment, then added, "Of course, I could have it engraved with the name Adela and present it during a gourmet picnic while we listen to a concert under the stars. Then again, I believe Inez will be having a birthday soon."

Finally a name he recognized. He slipped the bracelet on his right wrist and held it out as though in grateful admiration. "This would look great on Inez and it's just her style. High class but not flashy. I'll bet Buck will buy her something totally inappropriate."

"No doubt," Ezra responded, "but it's not Buck who is my chief rival with the lovely Inez. Mr. Tanner will almost certainly come up with something that reflects his 'aw shucks' sincerity that's difficult for a man like me to compete with, at least when the prize is a woman like Inez. I foresee something like a sculpture of a hawk carved by an Apache boy confined to a wheelchair who is putting his sister through college."

JD still had a hard time thinking of Inez with Vin or Ezra but an answer to Ezra's lament popped into his head unbidden. "But Ezra, Vin is sincere with everyone. Inez is sure to be impressed that you save your sincerity for her."

+ + + + + + +

JD could barely contain his excitement long enough to join Buck and the dogs outside to let the girls earn the rest of their food for the day. Ezra had used a bottle of aged whiskey he'd purchased in town to convince Chris that putting his feet up inside would be more pleasant than watching Buck and JD. That way JD could get a little more dog handling instruction from Buck. Everyone would be gathering here at the lake house after dark to share information and decide how to proceed. Not a by-the-book ATF briefing but an unsanctioned gathering that would include the full team of JD's Denver fantasy plus Mary, Chanu and Jonah.

As they were toweling off the wet dogs in the mud room - JD had learned that no self respecting Labrador retriever would get within 100 yards of a body of water larger than a water bowl without taking a swim - Ezra intercepted them.

"Some of the guests have arrived early and it's starting to look like a church supper in there."

Buck's laughter boomed out over the lake. "You been to a lot of church suppers, Ezra?"

"Mr. Wilmington, you'd be surprised at the breadth of my experience. I was happy to note, however, there's not a Jello salad in sight. And it appears the green salad on offer won't be poured out of a bag. Nathan has chopped up enough vegetables to fill a cauldron in a ploy to remain in the immediate company of a certain lovely young woman."

JD cut him off there. "Did you get her name?"

"Of course, I introduced myself. What kind of social cretin would fail to seek proper introductions? But I have to tell you, I felt as though I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone."

JD thought maybe Ezra was joking in order to hide the fact that he was really spooked. He appreciated not being treated like a freak, but he was more interested in finding out just how much of a freak he was. "Well?" he asked, not trying to hide his impatience. "Is her name Rain? Does she work with Nathan in Phoenix? Has he known her long? Is she . . . ."

"Whoa." Buck swatted him with a wet towel. "Why are you so interested in Nathan's new friend? Not that she's not interesting. Of course, out of deference to Nathan's apparent attraction, I haven't made any moves on her and you'd better not either."

Ezra quirked an eyebrow at JD. "You haven't told Buck at your new found prescience when it comes to beautiful women?"

Buck snapped the towel at him again. "You keeping things from me kid? Your head injury came with some bonus secret power over beautiful women?"

Ezra quickly explained all the details JD had known about Mary and Rain before meeting them, more matter-of-factly than JD could have managed. "Under the guise of casual socializing, I discovered Mary has never been to New York or anywhere east of the Mississippi. She hasn't been to Phoenix in three years and she's never appeared on television although her stories have been picked up by other newspapers. She has spent time in San Francisco, Sacramento, Southern California, Portland and Seattle but I don't believe JD has been that far west yet. I can't think of any way JD could have met her previously unless they were in Santa Fe at the same time. As a reporter she's had many occasions to visit the capital. But regardless of the improbability, I still believe at some point Mary Travis made an impression on JD that he has conflated into our present circumstance"

"And Rain," JD prompted impatiently

"Rain does not work in Phoenix and is in fact neither a doctor nor a nurse. She is, however, a paramedic with the local volunteer fire department and works with the county search and rescue team. Nathan met her yesterday when her unit brought in an Apache boy who had taken a serious fall while rock climbing. The clinic isn't open yet and no one else was around, so she assisted him in stabilizing the boy's broken bones and other injuries so he could be transported out of town to a hospital. I'd venture to surmise that what we saw this morning was the start of something - something . . . well for once an adequate word escapes me. But apparently it's something JD foresaw."

Buck was clearly impressed and, JD was glad to see, not obviously weirded out. "So JD, do you foresee anything developing between me and the lovely Mary Travis. I believe a forceful yet feminine woman like that could use some of the Buck Wilmington stress relief."

JD shook his head and moved out of Buck's direct view with a finger to his lips, trying to stop Ezra from spilling anything else. But Ezra ignored him.

"Sorry, Buck, our young soothsayer has envisioned the lovely news editor in a liaison with Chris."

"Ezra, I never said any such thing. All's I said was . . . ."

"Well, perhaps you only suggested that Mrs. Travis would fall for the Larabee charm not that they would necessarily become emotionally entwined. But I have to say, having watched them inhabiting the same room for less than an hour, I believe she was smitten the first time Chris disagreed with something she said and followed it up with that smartass smile of his."

Buck huffed and gave JD a little punch on the shoulder. "God dammit. Why the heck didn't you give me some warning? Lettin' Chris get the jump on me like that." He yanked open the door to the main room. As it closed behind him, JD heard him say, "I take a few minutes to give my loyal canine partner a little recreation and the two most stunning and intelligent women within a thousand miles are wasting their time with this lot of sorry characters. Never fear, it's Buck Wilmington to the rescue."

Ezra shook his head. "Did that stuff ever work in your Denver fantasy?"

"Never worked on Inez and he barely tried it on Mary and Rain. Naturally, the three of them knew he had a good heart and was someone they could count on. But seemed like he had a date any night he wanted to so I reckon a lot of women fall for it."

"Or they pretended to. An attractive man with a kind and courageous heart can make women overlook a lot of silliness." Ezra gestured toward the door. "Well son, are you ready to see if Judge Travis matches your confabulated memories? Mary said he'd be arriving in time for dinner."

JD backed away from the door, almost tripping over Betsy. "Judge Travis, you never said anything about Judge Travis. What would he be doing here? I mean, I know Billy is his grandson and all but. . .. "

"He obviously takes a special interest in this town. Remember, he's the one who got Josiah, Chris and Buck sent up here, probably on Nathan's advice. This is a pretty small place for a single fire with no fatalities to get three ATF agents instead of a rookie county arson investigator. If he had that much pull and that much interest, then it makes sense he'd want to take a close look at how he spent his political capital."

JD didn't move any closer to the door. "Ezra, you've got to cover for me in there. I don't dare have any conversations with Mary, Rain or especially A.D. Travis. I'm sure to say something that will make them think I'm crazy."

Ezra nodded. "First, you'd better not call him A.D. Travis, which I assume stands for assistant director. Just stick with me. I'll try to intercede gracefully if you make a faux pas." With that Ezra grabbed JD's uncasted wrist and pulled him through the door to meet a couple more folks from his confabulated world.

+ + + + + + +

JD let Ezra introduce him to Chanu and Rain. He prided himself on showing no reaction and making no blunders as he exchanged pleasantries with a woman who, in his faulty memory, had treated him for strep throat and an embarrassingly widespread case of poison oak, among other ailments.

The pride lasted until Buck took him aside and told him, "You can't be reacting to Judge Travis the way you did to Nathan's new flame. I thought you were going to grab your phone and call the ghostbusters."

"Aw, Buck, you're just saying that because of what Ezra told you. I talked to her just fine." JD believed it too until Nathan approached.

"Do you have some kind of problem with Rain?"

"Course, not Nathan, Rain is really cool. If you're smart, you'll marry her."

"Hold on. I just met her yesterday. How come you're getting us married off already? Especially since she makes you so nervous?"

"She doesn't ma. . . . Who said she makes me nervous?"

"Rain did. She wondered if being gay and all, girls made you nervous."

"But I'm not . . . ."

"Hell, Nathan," Buck interrupted. "When it comes to matters of the heart, I'm JD's mentor. Women interested in marriage are supposed to make him nervous."

Nathan didn't look quite convinced, but he did look mollified. "I guess she made me a little nervous at first too. Rain is one beautiful woman, smart too. But nobody said she was interested in marriage."

Buck clapped him on the shoulder. "Best you keep being nervous, Nathan. If she is looking to get married, you need to keep your wits about you and your guard up."

Nathan shook his head. "Buck, that's how you might look at it if you found the perfect woman and thoughts about marriage were sneaking into your head, making you all panicky. I hope when it comes to women, I'm looking further into the future than who's going to warm my bed in a few hours."

As Nathan walked off, Buck bent over and whispered, "Oh, he's got it bad. I guess there's something to that pressy ants stuff Ezra was talking about. Now if you could just direct some of it at Mary Travis. I've caught her looking at Chris like he's Gary Cooper in High Noon and she's Grace Kelly. Maybe you could give her your mental whammy and make her think I'm Clint Eastwood."

JD was saved from protesting that he hadn't even gotten back his everyday mental powers much less acquired any super ones, when A.D. - Judge -- Travis arrived. And once again JD got the weird tingle in his stomach because Judge Travis looked and sounded exactly as he did in JD's false memory. JD let himself be introduced as part of the crowd and tried to blend into it. However, the judge was familiar enough with the town to know Chanu, Nathan, Josiah and even Vin, who always stayed out at the reservation, so JD was only one of four unknowns. That made blending in a little difficult. He felt under scrutiny as the judge took the measure of the four strangers who had come to help out the town.

Luckily, Jonah arrived shortly thereafter with his father Ko-jay and temporarily took the judge's attention away from JD and his friends. The assemblage treated both Ko-jay and Judge Travis as though they were village elders, which seemed to confirm Ezra's theory that despite living and working elsewhere most of the year, Judge Travis retained very close contacts with the town his son had put his heart into and ultimately his life.

They all sat down to eat shortly after Ko-jay's arrival so JD had another excuse for not talking. Ezra was wrong. It wasn't like a church supper minus Jello salad. It was more like a noodle party with a big kettle of spaghetti noodles and a lineup of four crockpots of different sauces set off by the big salad Nathan had helped Rain build. JD didn't know people even used crockpots any more but he was happy to see Nathan acting like the Nathan he remembered, contributing healthy food - even if he did it to impress a woman. The crockpots were full of wonderful things from Josiah's chunky venison, hot pepper concoction to Mary's marinated artichoke heart and mushroom Alfredo through something that tasted like beef stroganoff. One even looked like regular spaghetti sauce. JD avoided that one. He wanted to save room for the four or five dessert breads made out of fruits and vegetables - apricot and banana through pumpkin and zucchini.

Despite the abundance of interesting food, the participants did not treat this like a social event to be followed by a business meeting. As soon as everyone had served themselves, they got right down to the matter at hand. Vin had, as promised, let JD know they'd followed the thugs to a motel in Fawndale about 65 miles away. An hour later the thugs met up with the three suits who had been in Pottersville earlier. Vin had taken photos during their surveillance, written down license plate numbers and even used his badge to get check-in information. Unfortunately, only the two thugs were staying at the motel.

Vin and Chanu had followed the suits who had driven to a private office building another 30 miles south. They'd had to satisfy themselves with only the address as the place had the security of a prison. After that they'd had to wait until Chris could get someone to go into the office on a weekend to follow up information in the databases. JD was sure that with a decent laptop, internet access and the right passwords, he could have easily acquired all the information they needed but Ezra and Buck wouldn't hear of him making that claim so he'd had to wait. Chris had taken a phone call from the office just before they sat down to eat.

After Vin told his tale, including a credit to JD and Betsy, Chris picked it up. "Bob Spikes - the one JD referred to as thug two - has a record as a serial arsonist. His buddy with the scorpion tattoo is a known associate who's done his own prison time. We won't get anything back from the lab until next week at the earliest but I'll be real surprised if the pattern we found at the church doesn't match their M.O. Nothing sophisticated in any event. The office building Vin and Chanu followed the suits to is owned by a man named Guy Royal. He doesn't have a record but he's been under investigation by the FBI for racketeering. We're working on getting a warrant for the motel room based on Betsy's alert despite the fact that JD wasn't officially deployed. I told them he was just running a training exercise while on sick leave and the alert was a bonus. There are some locals watching Spikes and Scorpion now."

Josiah passed around blow-ups of the photos Vin had taken of the suits when they met up with the thugs and a few Chris had surreptitiously taken of the crowd at the church. Ko-jay recognized someone the rest of them had almost overlooked - the weasel.

"This one is of the group trying to prevent our tribe from recovering its tribal status. He and eight or nine others are being used by some lawyers and lobbyists to support a claim that they represent the tribe. As you know the power of even small tribes to open casinos has led to much corruption."

"Damn straight," Buck said. "Can anyone say Abramoff?"

Ko-jay shook his head sadly. "It would be misleading to blame only white men. Abramoff was hired by one tribe to prevent other tribes from building competing casinos. And casino money has caused many tribes to abandon their historical tribal lands to seek land convenient to white and Asian gamblers on freeway interchanges."

Chanu picked up the thread. "But we're seeking only to be recognized as a tribe again and to build only on the land we were forced onto by white men in Washington more than a century ago. It's always been hard for our people to keep even these lands after gold or oil was discovered. Now casinos are a way to exploit the weakest among us instead of having to face our warriors. I've seen a few of that sorry little group and would be ashamed to call them brother, but I didn't recognize that weasel."

JD spoke up without thinking. "I saw him close up and he didn't look Apache to me."

Ko-jay answered quickly. "I believe his father is white. Under the law, being of only half-blood would not disqualify him from claiming tribal membership. Not that he would be clever enough to even fill out the paperwork. These two . . ." Ko-jay pointed to the photos of two of the suits. ". . . are lawyers who came to convince me that we should join forces. But what they have in mind for a casino is not something to make sure we have medical care and can earn a living but something that would destroy the life of our tribe and the town. And those are the plans they were open about, the ones they thought would appeal to my greed. I sensed something darker."

When they got to him, Judge Travis put the photos of the three suits on the table. "I've seen the two lawyers Ko-jay recognized in my courtroom and other courtrooms in our district. One of their specialties is representing tribal splinter groups trying to gain control of casino rights. I've also seen this one," he said pointing to the oldest of the three men. He's the founding partner of Burgess, Bancroft and Kellerman, the law firm that represents Guy Royal in all manner of questionable legal matters."

Hearing that, Mary grabbed the photo and scrutinized it carefully. "He doesn't look familiar in that photo and I didn't recognize him today when we were pointing out strangers for JD to check with his dog. But someone from that law firm has approached several of us in town claiming to represent a buyer who is willing to pay top dollar for our land. I still have his card back at the office."

"This buyer wanted your newspaper?" Chris asked.

Mary looked at Chris before she answered and it appeared to JD that Ezra might be right about her interest in Chris. That is, Ezra might be right in thinking JD was right about his memory of Mary liking Chris, only in the future or the other past. Or something like that.

"No, he was interested in lake property . He approached the Langstons and the Warners who live on the west side of this house and Harlan Vanderlaan on the east. None of us were interested in selling; all of us are excited about things looking up here, even Harlan who's 86. I don't know if they acquired any land elsewhere. I was going to ask some of the others with property bordering the reservoir but I got distracted by the fire. I recall there have been a few house sales on the other side of the reservoir where there's a higher percentage of vacation homes. I'll see what I can find out about them."

Chris mulled over the information. "Could be they also think things are looking up here. If they can put the weasel and his friends into a position to control the rights to build a casino and also control the lake property, they could build this place into something none of you would recognize."

"But something very profitable," Ezra filled in. "With the right management, lots of slot machines, high stakes poker and blackjack, big name entertainment, good restaurants, luxury hotels, showgirls, perhaps some private not quite legal diversions . . . ."

"Ezra," Chris interrupted sharply. "Don't turn this into your private daydream. There are tribes all over this country who've tried to parlay casinos into cash cows. Some of them do but they're a little isolated up here to recreate Las Vegas."

Ezra shrugged. "Some of the darker diversions benefit from isolation."

JD observed the reaction of the others around the table and figured most of them had taken the same sinister meaning from Ezra's words as he had. Chris's answer showed he certainly did.

"You may have something there, Ezra. You can you use some of your connections to find out just what kind of illegal interests Guy Royal might be involved in - especially ones he might want to import up here." He turned to Mary, "You have the resources for checking on Royal's operations too and you can also find out who else has been approached to sell their property. Vin, you have any old bounty hunter contacts you can hit up for information about Royal and Spikes?"

JD's fingers were itching for a keyboard. He couldn't keep silent any longer. But when he started to offer to conduct a computer search, Ezra reached out and clamped down on his wrist. On his other side, Buck poked him in the ribs.

"Unfortunately, unless Judge Travis has some more strings to pull, almost everything we do from now on will be off the books unless we find something that proves this is more than an isolated incident. I can give Buck and JD the leeway to call in some favors but Josiah, Ezra and Vin will have to work around their regular assignments and their own supervisors."

JD couldn't help but think that Judge Travis would indeed have some strings to pull - if he was as much like A.D. Travis as Mary and Rain seemed to be like their fantasy counterparts. JD couldn't help but think how much easier this would be if Chris was everyone's supervisor and A.D. Travis was who Chris answered to. Real life was so inconvenient.

+ + + + + + +

By 10 p.m. everyone had gone except Buck and Ezra. Apparently Buck had decided to join forces with Ezra to lecture him on the folly of claiming to be a computer genius.

"Damn it, you guys. It's all here in my head. Don't know how it got there but it's there so I might as well use it."

Buck raised his hands in a placating gesture. "I'm not calling you a liar. Maybe I think you're deluded but I'm not going to stop you from trying to do what you think you can do when we get back to the office. There's just no need to broadcast it until you have some results."

"Buck's right. Prove us wrong with actions; don't attempt to persuade us with words. You do not excel at the art of persuasion."

"Maybe more like, neither of you would understand anything I said." JD couldn't wait to prove both of them wrong, wrong, wrong. "Buck, can we go back first thing in the morning? No way Ezra's gonna get up before noon and it's not like we need to keep up this gay thing now."

"I disagree. We have our cover established. I already have the week off. That fractured wrist alone will guarantee you more sick leave or at best desk duty. Just because we can't foresee how the investigation might be able to utilize our cover doesn't mean we should forsake it already. If you recall, you were the one who wanted to come up here, to be part of the team. We might as well relax up here, do a little hiking and fishing, take in the scen . . . ."

"Geez, Ezra. Fishing? You must want to get out of helping your mother fleece her boyfriend real bad. Everyone's going back to Phoenix except Vin and Nathan. I can help more if I get back to the office." He turned to Buck. "If Ezra is so hell bent on fishing and hiking, I'll go back with you, Chris and Josiah."

Buck shook his head. "If you go back, that blows his cover too. Even if you pretend to have a lover's quarrel, what would be his reason for sticking around if you leave? It isn't like he can pass himself off as a nature lover or one of those ultra marathon runners."

"I'll have you know Mr. Wilmington, I'm in superb shape. I could very easily convince people I'm a rough terrain runner. However . . .," Ezra leaned back in his chair and picked up a glass of the whiskey he had bribed Chris with earlier, "I think it might involve too much sweat for a negligible payoff. I surmise as we've established ourselves here, we could return if necessary and pick up where we left off." He took an appreciative sip of the whiskey and sighed. "And having my mother owe me a favor is better than having her disappointed over my failure to entertain her friend. So if you insist, we'll leave at first light - say 10 tomorrow morning."

+ + + + + + +

They didn't quite make it to first light or any light at all. At 4 a.m., JD was awakened by the refrain from a Toby Keith song coming from downstairs. "And we'll raise up our glasses, against evil forces, singing whiskey for my men . . . ." His first thought was that Buck had come back because there was no way Ezra would have a country song as his ringtone.

However, as he got to the top of the open stairway, he saw Ezra rush into the main room, grab the phone off the table and without looking at it, say, "Something wrong, Chris?"

Ah, Ezra must have a separate ringtone for each of them. Before JD could hear Ezra's response to whatever Chris said, he heard the strains of the Magnificent Seven and went back to grab his own phone off the nightstand in the bedroom. He glanced at the name before answering, "Hey, Buck."

+ + + + + + +

JD felt the small hairs rise on his arms and the back of his neck. "Whoa, Buck. Slow down. What fire? Where?" He clenched the cell phone so tightly it gouged his hand. He took a deep breath and consciously relaxed his fingers.

He thought he heard Buck say something about a fire, but couldn't make out much more than that. The wail of a siren cut through the night air but it was Betsy's howl next to him that made hearing Buck almost impossible. JD cursed silently when he tried to jab his finger in his ear to shut off the noise, but was hampered by his casted forearm. "Buck, did you call the firefighters? Are they coming here?" He carried his cell phone along with him, as he hurried to the window, sniffing the air as he moved. He didn't see anything or smell smoke, so why were fire engines racing in his direction, and how would Buck know the house was on fire anyway?

He left the bedroom and hurried to join Ezra in the main room with Betsy padding along at his heels. He saw Ezra at a window, still talking to Chris on his cell. JD struggled to make out Buck's words through the din, now enhanced by Ezra's shouts to Chris.

"Listen," Buck's voice was hoarse, making it harder to hear. "Grab Betsy and a flashlight. You've gotta get out of that house now. It ain't Mary's house that's on fire, but two of her neighbors' places on the west are. You could be next."

JD was already sprinting back to the bedroom for his gear, the phone still held to his ear. He knew Ezra was right behind him, his conversation with Chris already over.

"JD, you still there? Make sure you grab your gun, got it? We don't know what's going on yet, but they're making a big play and you're right in the middle of it. You're gonna have to work Betsy, make sure Mary's house is in the clear." Then Buck was gone and JD snapped the phone shut, automatically shoving it into his pocket.

He whistled for Betsy, fumbled in the nightstand where he'd seen a flashlight, and made sure his gun was strapped in place. Not that he'd have an easy time drawing it with that damned cast on one wrist and a flashlight in his good hand. His heart leaped to his throat and he struggled to swallow. Buck had told him to work Betsy. A couple of training exercises didn't make an arson dog handler and JD knew it. It was one thing to put Betsy through her paces with Buck standing by to offer suggestions and tell him what commands to use. But now he was on his own. He'd read the manual twice and had worked with Betsy enough to trust her nose, but if they missed something? The lump in his throat seemed to grow bigger, and JD gave up the attempt to swallow it down. If they missed something, Mary Travis could lose her house to an arsonist. He firmed up his shoulders and headed for the front door. Well then, he'd just have to make sure that didn't happen.

When they reached the yard, Ezra peeled off to the left, heading around the house, flashlight on and beamed at any place an arsonist could hide a timing device and accelerant. He'd signaled for JD to head in the opposite direction, obviously intending to join up with him around back. Now that they were outside, the acrid tang of smoke drifted in the air, and they could hear distant shouts, thought the wail of the sirens had stopped. JD closed his mind to the distractions, and concentrated on the manual he'd read. Where should he start?

His phone vibrated urgently in his pocket, and he juggled the flashlight, dropping it to the ground as he grabbed the cell.

"JD? You all right there?" Buck's voice was over-loud as he tried to compensate for the background noise and JD pulled the phone away from his ear.

"Buck, you gotta help me? Where do I start?" JD hated himself for the squeak in his voice.

He listened intently to Buck's instructions, and took a deep breath. He could do this. He snapped the phone shut, and gave Betsy her command. The dog took off like a shot, moving briskly from one area to the next, needing little direction as she did her job like the professional she was. JD was calming down, breathing a little easier when suddenly she alerted next to one of the posts supporting the back deck. JD quickly pulled the wires on a crude timing device and moved an open can that must be the accelerant though it didn't smell as strong as gasoline. Maybe acetone. The arsonist had apparently counted on the dark of night to disguise his construct because it was crude even to his memory-deficient eyes and hidden only from a casual look. JD could have found it himself in a concentrated search with his flashlight, but time was of the essence and it seemed likely there was more than one device. Betsy would make sure everything was found and dispatched before a fire started.

Betsy was staring at him and he realized he didn't have her food pouch. "Sorry girl, could you maybe let me have tonight on credit?" She cocked her head and although she didn't nod, he thought she'd decided to forgive him this once. He directed her to continue to search under the porch and around the side of the house. She alerted on two more devices even though her only reward was a quick but heartfelt "good dog" and a silent promise of a thick steak in her future. The most dangerous one had been hidden in a stack of wood piled next to a propane tank. JD remembered reading that liquid propane wasn't dangerous but if the tank was heated in a fire the expansion of the fumes would cause the tank to explode and feed an ongoing fire.

As they worked their way around to the front of the house, JD saw the bouncing beam of Ezra's flashlight. When he came closer, Ezra held up the remains of a device that matched those he had just disconnected. "This was the only one I found. Although I'm relatively sure I would have noticed another can, you'd best let Betsy check my work. This one was under the front steps, not particularly hard to see if one was looking. Easy to set up in a hurry too."

"The ones Betsy found weren't very well hidden either," JD answered. "They must have set them up after everyone left tonight, probably just a couple of hours ago." JD directed Betsy to search the area Ezra just finished but they completed the circuit of the house without finding anything.

"I think we should search inside the house," JD said as he turned toward the front door.

"Surely Betsy would have alerted us to intruders inside the house." Ezra sounded skeptical but accompanied JD back into the house nevertheless.

JD grabbed his jacket with the food pouch in the pocket and gave Betsy her search command as they began a methodical search of the downstairs rooms. "I would think she'd have alerted us to those guys setting things up outside the house. I don't know why she didn't hear them. She should have made a fuss."

Ezra kept pace with JD and used his flashlight to illuminate areas that lent themselves to a visual search. "She's a search dog, not a guard dog. Wasn't her job."

"She's a dog. All dogs bark at strangers in the night - or even during the day." JD didn't want to think his dog was defective.

"Does she do a lot of barking at home? There must be other tenants walking by in the parking lot. She and Blossom didn't bark at me when I came for brunch until I rang the bell and then I felt it was more of a greeting than a warning."

"Hell if I know. Or maybe I know and don't remember. Buck did say the dogs would bark at a stranger coming to the door. Could be they're trained not to bark at things outside."

"Perhaps there was nothing to alert Betsy to wrongdoing outside. My guess would be that whoever planted these devices had the spots mapped out beforehand and were familiar with the area. They moved from house to house quietly and swiftly. It's unlikely they would risk coming inside when fires started outside would serve their purpose. The devices were all crude timers set to go about half an hour after placement. So the fires probably started in the order in the devices were planted. We were fortunate enough to be the last so we were warned." Ezra directed his flashlight around the kitchen. "It was also most providential that Rain is not a stickler for the third date rule. If Nathan hadn't been with her when she received the emergency call, we might not have been warned in time to save this house - or ourselves."

JD and Ezra had the next thought at the same time though Ezra voiced it first. "Damn, there's no reason to think we were the last."

"Vanderlaan," JD said. He headed for the door, calling Betsy to follow. "Let's hope you're right about the inside of this house."

They gathered up their equipment and picked their way through the darkness, using their flashlights and the moonlight to guide them over tangled roots and protruding rocks. It was maddening to move so slowly, and yet rushing through the darkness without thought would be a sure way to break a leg or sprain an ankle. Although the houses were close neighbors on the lake, the terrain had placed their driveways far apart and driving wouldn't have gained them any time.

They'd almost gotten to the Vanderlaan house when JD spotted headlights from a car starting its ascent of the steep, winding driveway. He and Ezra drew their firearms and ducked behind one of the boulders that lined the edge of the driveway. JD rested his firearm on his knee for a moment while he yanked out his cell phone. With a calmness he was far from feeling, he apprised Buck of their situation. He could barely hear him over the din of the firefighters and equipment on Buck's end of the phone.

"Don't worry, kid. That's probably Judge Travis coming up the driveway. He volunteered to evacuate Vanderlaan. I assured him you two were safe and would take care of Mary's house."

It was indeed Judge Travis, and Mary as well. JD and Ezra holstered their handguns and joined forces with them as they ran to the house.

Vanderlaan's house was built on a steep slope, two stories when viewed from the road, but three stories on the lakeside. The windows were dark, and there was no sign of life. Then something caught JD's attention. "Damn," he breathed. "Look there."

He pointed to the far corner of the house, where the flicker of a lone flame shone bright in the darkness. Even as he spoke there was a small explosion and a second fire broke out on the opposite corner of the house.

Ezra had his cell out and was crisply reporting the situation to whoever was on the other end. JD and Judge Travis bolted for the front door together, and were frustrated to find it locked. JD banged as hard as he could with his good fist while Travis rang the doorbell and yelled out. "Harlan. Harlan, can you hear us? Are you in there?"

There was no answer, and JD sprinted from the front porch to a window while Travis continued to shout and ring the bell. Ezra and Mary checked for another door. JD found the window blocked by something solid that cut his hand when he tried to move it aside. "What the hell? What the hell is this?" he called frantically.

He backed up and eyed the windows. Every single window on the ground floor was covered by an ornate metal sculpture. Each one represented a different animal, beautiful to look at and a deterrent to anyone trying to break into the house. They were also a deterrent to JD, who pried at the elk barring the front window, but was unable to budge it an inch.

Judge Travis gave up his futile efforts at the front door and joined JD at the window. "I warned him that these things would be a hazard in a fire or a medical emergency. They can be opened from the inside but that isn't going to help him now. He's nearly deaf. Not likely to get up in time to open them. One of us will have to find another way in."

Ezra and Mary had turned their attention to the fires. Mary had grabbed blankets from the car and both were beating at the flames with frantic intensity. Travis found a garden hose but the length and pressure made it good for little else than wetting the blankets.

JD, handicapped by the cast on his wrist, left the others to their firefighting efforts and headed for the back of the house with Betsy. He had a bad moment when he slipped on the steep steps, almost landing on his casted forearm. He managed to stay on his feet long enough to reach the posts that supported the house on the slope facing the lake. He'd expected the rear windows to be blocked by the metal sculptures but he'd hoped for a back staircase or something that would get him close enough for the old man to hear him. Nothing. But even though he'd neither given her a command nor paid up his debt for her three previous finds, Betsy alerted on one of the posts.

JD cursed himself for letting down his guard even as he checked the post and gave Betsy a handful of kibble with a "good dog" thrown in for good measure. He disconnected a device that was a clone of the others they had found. What had he been thinking? They'd found four at Mary's house and he'd only seen the fire start in two places here. Even as he was looking for other likely places to hide devices, there was another small explosion, this time inside the house. The fire was visible in a back window. JD grabbed the can that had been connected to the device he'd found and ran up the steep stairs to the driveway.

Just as he reached the top, he was blinded as the glare of headlights replaced the darkness. There was noise and confusion as cars pulled up, and men piled out of them. JD couldn't help the whoop of joy when he saw Chris and Buck sprinting to help Ezra, Mary and A.D. - Judge Travis extinguish the fire. Josiah and Nathan were right behind them, with Vin stopping only long enough to shout into his cell phone. Either calling for backup or letting the overtaxed firefighters at the other scenes know they had arrived.

They were all soot streaked and mud spattered from their work on the other houses, but it didn't slow them down. Everyone grabbed blankets and spread out to attack the two outside fires. Ezra wasted no time in reporting on the situation to Chris. Going into a no nonsense emergency mode, his words were clipped and to the point, his southern drawl almost nonexistent.

As he finished up, JD displayed the device he had removed. "This is what they've been using. Betsy found this one on a support post in the back. One went off inside just before you got here. "There are damn metal grills on every single ground level window, all around. Judge Travis says Vanderlaan's hard of hearing so we can't assume he's not home even though he didn't answer."

"You're right," Chris replied, then shouted over to Buck. "Buck, grab some cables from the car and we'll yank one of these grills off."

"I don't think that's going to help," JD said. "I don't know what's holding them onto those windows, but they're stuck tight."

"We'll tie them to the trailer hitch on my truck. Might take half the house along with it, but better than . . . . Let's get moving."

Chris's eyes were hidden in the shadows, but JD heard the strain in his voice. Of course, he should have realized Chris of all people would react badly to the idea of anyone dying this way.

It didn't take long to yank the grill away from one of the front windows. Flames were leaping up from the three separate fires. The arsonists had done their work well. JD tried to follow Vin and Chris inside the house, but Buck yanked him back.

"Don't need more than two able-bodied men in there. We're close by in case they need help. JD watched as his two friends moved cautiously through a dining room into the front hall. JD swore when Chris called back that the front door was blockaded from the inside. He'd bet a look at the back would show the same situation there. Clearly they hadn't wanted the old man to escape the fire alive. And they'd been bolder here than they had been at the Travis house.

The heat intensified and the smoke thickened. JD could hear the crackle of the flames and knew they were overtaking the house. He saw Chris signal Vin to follow him to the window. As Buck helped them out, Vin reported, "Didn't see any sign of him in the ground floor bedroom. Maybe he ain't home."

Judge Travis stepped up next to Chris. "Harlan insists on sleeping on the second floor, because he read in some health magazine that people who use stairs all their lives live longer. And he rarely wears his hearing aid even during day. Probably hasn't heard any of this . . ." The judge waved at the chaos that surrounded them.

"There's no way up to the second floor. That last fire started on the stairs and they're blocked with furniture, probably there as fuel and to block escape." Chris's face was grim.

An image of the back of the house popped into JD's mind, and he snapped his fingers. "There's a toolshed attached to the back of the house. If I could get up to its roof, I could get in through an upstairs window."

Buck was already shaking his head. "No way you're climbing up a roof with that arm. I'll check it out." He made off down the slope with the others following like a pack of dogs on the scent.

Instinctively, they swung into action. Nathan and Josiah linked hands, forming a natural first step. Buck was almost tossed to the top of the roof by their combined efforts. Chris followed, while Ezra and Vin, joined by Josiah and Nathan, fought back the flames that were hampering their efforts. Mary and Judge Travis continued to work on beating back the flames around the corner of the house. JD fairly danced with impatience until he saw Buck smash a window and dive in.

The other four were losing their battle against the flames, and JD was frustrated at how little he was able to add to the effort with his single strong arm. They had to keep the escape route open as long as the others were inside the house. A roar from Josiah jerked JD's attention back to the house.

"Halleluiah. Old Man Death is leaving town empty handed tonight." Josiah's face was alight and his grin split his face. He and Nathan were already in place, reaching to relieve Chris and Buck of the bundle they had slung between them.

Nathan moved in, helping Josiah move the man away from the flames and smoke and examine him once they reached a place of safety. JD had been watching the tableau and missed seeing Chris and Buck swing themselves down from the roof. The wail of sirens overwhelmed the scene as a small fire truck and an ambulance arrived in the yard.

With a sigh of relief, JD directed Rain and a male paramedic to Vanderlaan. He turned just in time to see Vin reaching to answer his cell phone.

Vin's whoop was almost as loud as Josiah's. "They got one of 'em. Set fire to the meeting hall on the reservation and stayed around to watch the results." He plugged his free ear with his finger against the noise. "What was that, Chanu, didn't catch it?"

His grin faded, and a grim look hardened his face. No one spoke as Vin ended the call.

"They got him. Sounds like the one JD called 'the weasel'."

"But that's good isn't it?" JD was baffled.

"He's dead, JD. Tried to run when they spotted him. Trapped by falling debris in his own fire. He won't be talkin' 'bout who set him up to do the job."

+ + + + + + +

It was well into the morning when everyone gathered in the Firehouse restaurant. Owned by the mother of one of the firefighters, it was apparently where they gathered to let the adrenalin subside before going home to sleep. The restaurant's decor was appropriate, walls done in fire engine red, with red and white gingham tablecloths and shiny red leather booths. Pictures of antique fire trucks adorned the walls, and over the door to the kitchen hung a coiled fire hose.

"They serve the best chili in New Mexico here," Nathan said. "The manly version is hot enough to set off at least four alarms. Who's brave enough to try it?"

The excitement faded, replaced by tired satisfaction as the chili and cold beer washed away the aches and pains of the night. Based on his newfound love of habanero peppers, JD had ordered the hottest version and found to his dismay that it put the sausages and Inez's JD special to shame. While he was surreptitiously stirring some sour cream into the blistering chili, JD heard the strains of Madonna's 'Material Girl' emanating from Ezra's pocket at the next table. JD grinned as Ezra answered his cell.

"I can't talk now, Mother. I'm in a meeting. No, Mother, I can't just excuse myself. I'll be certain to call you later, Mother." Ezra winked at JD as he snapped the cell shut.

JD grinned. Chris had a song, and so did Ezra's mother. A sudden curiosity had him pulling out his own cell phone. He dialed a number and waited.

Across the aisle, Ezra's phone began a chorus of "Let's Hear it for the Boy", and JD winced. Ezra cocked an eyebrow at him, the question apparent. JD shook his head. "Just wondered," he mouthed. Dawning comprehension had Ezra grinning.

Was he upset that his ringtone called him a boy? JD mulled it over, then smiled in Ezra's direction. No, it didn't. It was kind of flattering that Ezra even had a special song programmed in for him. But now his curiosity was really peaked. He put his phone in his pocket and leaned across the table where Nathan was sitting with Rain. "Can I borrow your phone?"

Nathan didn't ask any questions or take his eyes off Rain as he unclipped the phone from his belt and handed it over. JD grabbed it and dialed Ezra's number. He grinned as he heard Robert Palmer singing, "Doctor, doctor, give me the news." Ezra shook his head with a grin and made a display of turning his phone off.

They all went back to the Travis lake house to get some sleep. They alternated watches and when he took his turn outside with Betsy, he whiled away the time trying to figure out which songs Ezra had chosen for Buck, Josiah and Vin. And then he picked out the songs he would choose for each of the others when he got himself a phone that would play personalized ringtones.

+ + + + + + +

JD bit his lip as he juggled cables and computer components one-handed. Damn cast. They'd gotten back from the lake only that morning, but he had to admit, he'd made efficient use of the time since they'd returned. He'd been working for only an hour when Betsy barked and bounded toward the door as it swung open. Buck edged in past the excited dog balancing a box loaded with Chinese takeout and a six-pack of beer and followed closely by Blossom.

"Whoa, Betsy. Settle down. You too, Blossom." Buck commanded. He dumped his packages on the table and whistled softly. "What the hell you doing, kid? I leave you alone and you go off your rocker."

JD grinned and swept a proud hand over an array of computer equipment. "I bought myself a state of the art system. Now you'll see what I can do. You and Ezra are gonna eat your words."

"We only got home a few hours ago, JD. When did you have time to do all this? And how much did all this set you back? You're gonna be eatin' nothin' but SpaghettiO's for months before you pay off your credit cards." Buck edged closer, peering intently at the laptop, printer, wireless modem and a host of other items that JD was tinkering with.

JD snorted in disgust. "I couldn't use that crappy setup we've got down at the office. Who picked out that stuff anyway? It's useless. This is just what we need." He patted the laptop fondly. "This baby is mobile, linked to the internet no matter where I go, and it's got printing and faxing capability. Just think about the benefits of that when we're out on a case somewhere. This system is worth every penny I put into it." He winced a little at the dent he'd put in his credit card, but figured Buck didn't need to know the dollar amount.

Buck had been puttering around, dishing out food and piling a couple of plates high with a variety of entrees. "Here, I got all your favorites." He handed JD the plate, then popped the tops on a couple of the beers and passed over one of those as well.

JD took a moment to boot the laptop up before he accepted Buck's offering. He raised a skeptical eyebrow at the plate. If some of these were his favorites, it was yet another part of his life he'd forgotten. He gave a mental shrug. He'd loved jalapeno quiche, why not . . . well, whatever this was. It wasn't any of the usual stuff like mu chu pork, broccoli beef, fried rice or sweet and sour anything. But one mound had lots of fat shrimp with honeyed walnuts and another had four kinds of mushrooms with scallions and thin noodles and another . . . it all looked delightfully edible, He dug in hungrily, glad he hadn't stopped for a Whopper or tacos in his rush to get home with his new equipment.

The food was mostly gone before JD finished installing all the software he deemed necessary for his new setup. Buck used the dog-friendly portion of the leftovers in a quick training session out back for the two drooling dogs. By the time Buck got back in, he was done. With a happy sigh, he dove in, clicking on the internet and letting his fingers dance a familiar path across the keyboard. Buck had arrayed himself on the couch, Blossom curled up at his feet, his skeptical expression testimony to his feelings about this venture. He was flipping through the TV channels when JD hit pay dirt. His crow of delight startled Betsy from under the desk and brought Buck to his feet.

"Gotcha, you bastard." JD pointed in delight. "Look at this Buck. Vanderlaan's son's got some kind of shady deal going with Guy Royal."

Buck shook his head. "C'mon, JD. You can't get that kind of stuff on the internet. I've played with Google. Sure, you can bring up someone's address and maybe a web page or two they've been mentioned on, but no one's gonna post anything that says they've got shady deals going on."

JD laughed. "There's more to getting information than Googling someone, Buck. I know backdoors to a lot of places most people don't know exist. And options on property are often recorded. Here look." He punched a few keys and pages spewed from the new printer.

Buck grabbed the sheets as they emerged, whistling as he read them. "Jesus, JD. If this stuff is legit, you've stumbled onto a gold mine. Get whatever you can find to back this up and we'll spring it on the boys tomorrow."

"Stumbled? Hardly." JD manfully suppressed his smug smile, but that didn't stop him from thinking, I told you so. And he'd only just begun. He was still on sick leave. He could stay up all night. The internet never slept.


The Cohorts