Reality Check

by The Cohorts

+ + + + + + +

The next day JD was tagged with finding an empty conference room on their floor while Chris and Buck went to the cafeteria to get lunch for everyone. Vin had gone downstairs to check Nathan in as a visitor. Ezra had been having brunch with his mother and her friend but had promised to be there by noon. Technically JD was supposed to follow some bureaucratic procedure to reserve a room but Buck had told him they were rarely used at lunch and he saw no point in trying to find the holder of the schedules. After disrupting a Weight Watchers meeting in the south corridor, JD found an empty room at the north end of the hallway and stood in the doorway flagging down the others as they arrived.

Josiah was the last to appear and his news took their collective minds off the plans they were gathered to make. "Did any of you know there was going to be a shake up on the top floor? Reinhardt is being transferred to D.C. and his replacement is skulking through the halls, working his way down the floors, inspecting the troops. I believe the office may be in trouble; I know I am."

Chris gave a dismissive shrug of his shoulders. "Hell, Josiah, they've shuffled the top brass twice since I've been here. They make noise, gather us all into the big conference room for inspiring speeches and nothing ever changes."

"You've never met Marshall Bryce. He's infamous for taking over field offices and molding them to his no-technicality-too-small standards. He doesn't have the slightest compunction about exercising geographic mobility clauses to clean house. I've heard he reviews personnel files and even checks out office gossip before he arrives. By the time he'd finished with the field office in Omaha, two thirds of the agents had been scattered to offices from Corpus Christi to Toledo. When he was second in command of the St Paul Field Division three years ago, most of their Milwaukee Industry Operations field office ended up divided between Reading, Pennsylvania and Fargo, North Dakota. Phoenix is the first field division where he's been put in charge and you can bet he's going to want to put his stamp on it."

Vin seemed unconcerned. "This is a big place, Josiah. We all do our jobs, get things done one way or another. No reason to think he'll be gunning for us."

"Maybe not you but he'll be gunning for me." Josiah exchanged a look with Nathan. "His older brother took early retirement as a direct result of an investigation I was involved in to ferret out racism in the ATF."

"My father was an Alabama peace officer and one of the first to make an official complaint," Nathan added. "Guess I'm lucky I don't work here."

"When was that Josiah?" Vin asked. "Ten, twelve years ago. No way Bryce can single you out now. And none of the rest of us have crossed his radar."

As though to directly contradict Vin, the door to the conference room opened and a man about JD's height stood in the doorway. He had thinning reddish hair and a bland expression on his nondescript face.

"Well, well, Weight Watchers I assume. I was told they were the only group who reserved a conference room on this floor for the lunch hour."

Chris leaned back lazily in his chair. "Someone need the room?"

"It doesn't matter if anyone needs it. We have procedures to follow so that we know who is using our conference rooms."

Chris rose from his chair as lazily as he'd been sprawled in it. "Let's go to my office, boys. We wouldn't want to violate procedures."

"That's not what I've heard, Mr. Larabee. You're all about violating procedures. You tracked down the man who killed your wife and somehow he ended up dead before he could be arrested. That kind of vigilantism isn't going to be tolerated now that I'm in charge."

Buck grabbed Chris before he could confront their visitor toe to toe. Bryce didn't flinch but merely stood up straighter.

"Ah yes, Chris Larabee's right hand man, Buck Wilmington. Quite a spectacle you made of yourself getting caught having sex with your supervisor in her office - during working hours."

"She wasn't my supervisor," Buck muttered. "Chris is my supervisor and he ain't my type."

"How fortunate for Mr. Larabee." Bryce looked around the room. He eyed Josiah and took a hard look at Nathan but moved on to Ezra. "Ezra Standish. I understand you spend quite a bit of your off duty time running off to Las Vegas to play poker. Rumor has it you attend some high stakes games in Phoenix as well. Men addicted to gambling are susceptible to all manner of corruption. I don't operate on rumor but I will have my eye on you."

"How very reasonable," was all Ezra said.

"Of course, your juvenile record is more than just rumor. You and your mother cut quite a swath through Atlanta, Charlotte and Macon, leaving behind quite a few empty bank accounts - until you were caught and convicted of extortion, larceny and false pretenses."

"If you really know my record, you know I was never convicted of anything. I was 12 years old and treated as a minor. My record was expunged when I was 18 or I wouldn't have been able to get this job." Ezra appeared almost nonchalant as he answered, but JD could see his white knuckles as he grasped the arm of his chair.

"If I had been in charge at that time, you wouldn't have this job. You're a bad seed and for all I know are still helping your mother with her cons. She's barely escaped conviction in several states. Perhaps you had something to do with her luck."

Before Ezra could respond, Bryce had moved his attention to Vin. "Quite a motley crew you've gathered here, Mr. Larabee. But I suppose misfits tend to band together. Vin Tanner whose only qualification for this job was his years as a bounty hunter. Another vigilante and a scruffy one at that. I think you'll find that in New York City they enforce grooming standards more vigorously, as rigorously as I intend to enforce them here with those who remain."

Vin didn't respond, just looked Bryce straight in the eye. JD just couldn't let Bryce's contempt go unanswered. "Vin is the best shot in the whole damn ATF. They're lucky to have him. It isn't like his hair blocks his gun sight."

Bryce turned his scrutiny to JD. "Young Mr. Dunne. Your loyalty to your friends is understandable but unfortunate. I believe that once the Phoenix division is rid of its riffraff, you still have the potential to be a credible agent. I'll certainly give you the benefit of the doubt after all those who might be a bad influence have been transferred."

With that Bryce turned and walked stiffly down the hallway, perhaps to compliment the Weight Watchers' group for following procedures.

Josiah was the first to break the silence that followed Bryce's departure. "Gentlemen, I believe this is where I thank the powers that be for safety retirement. When I hit 50 two weeks ago, I told you all I planned to stay on a few more years, but it appears things have changed. Nathan, can you and Jonah use some full-time help on the construction of the clinic?"

Nathan smiled, "'Fraid it won't pay any better than the part-time help you've been giving us already."

"I'll take my reward in Heaven - and from my reasonably generous federal pension."

Nathan nodded. "Two weeks ago I might have tried to talk you out of it but it looks like the atmosphere around here has changed. You know you'd be welcome by both the tribe and the town. Rain might even talk you into joining the volunteer fire department."

The mention of the fire department brought them all back to the reason they had gathered in the first place.

Chris started. "Well, we already knew the Pottersville problem would be handled mostly on our own dime. That just clinches it. So let's share whatever we found out this morning.

Ezra went first. "I tapped an FBI source who turned me on to a member of a Russian gangster task force based in New York. If my darker suspicions have any substance Royal may be seeking control of a casino for purposes of money laundering or as a place to sell women who are smuggled into this country on the false promise of a respectable job."

"Or both," Chris said.

Ezra nodded, "Easily both. The name Guy Royal has indeed come up in their investigation but only as a low level figure. They'd be more likely to try to get something on Royal to turn him against the people higher on the food chain than because they think him worthy of their time on his own merits."

"Which means," Vin broke in, "Even if we get him for tryin' to murder that old man and burn out everyone on the lake, the Fibbies would see that he got a deal."


Buck slapped his open hand on the table, making it jitter. "Then we have to find a way to get him for a state crime that the county or state prosecutors will fight to keep local."

Josiah had a slightly different focus. "Let's clean this evil out of the lives of the good people of Pottersville and the Mountain Apache reservation. For me, the ultimate fate of the evildoers is secondary."

"Primary, secondary," responded Buck. "It's all part of the same fight and I'm itching to get at it. Might as well go all out "cause I'm probably gonna have a transfer notice on my desk by next week. I haven't been with ATF long enough to have a pension built up like Josiah there but then again, I don't have much of a pension to lose if I decide to go back to being an ordinary cop in Tucson where they'll ask the ATF to transfer Blossom too."

All this talk of retirement and transfer was coming too fast for JD. He saw his new world falling apart before he'd even had a chance to remember it. Dammit, just when there was a chance for the seven of them to work together as a team. "Hey guys, we can't give up yet. Maybe Bryce was just pulling our chain, trying to intimidate us."

JD interpreted the looks the other six men gave him as closer to pity than agreement but he was not going to give up. Maybe the Guy Royal case would turn out to be a big deal and make it impossible for Bryce to break up the team.

Buck gave him a little support. "Okay, kid. Tell them about the stuff you found in your computer search."

"Computer search?" Chris seemed only mildly surprised, but his follow-up showed why. "So you Googled Guy Royal. Don't you think the FBI has gone a little further than that?"

"Googled? You're as bad as Buck, thinking the only thing I know how to do on a computer is Google." JD stood up and leaned forward with his hands on the table. "Maybe you think I'm just a dumb kid, but you're wrong."

"No one thinks you're a dumb kid. Hell, if you weren't a damn, good arson investigator and dog handler, I would have pushed you off on Greely or Burton despite Buck's insistence that you had the right stuff. But let's face it. I've never seen you do anything on a computer but write reports and play games." Chris gestured for him to sit down. "If you found something, let's hear it."

"Well, I haven't had much time to get access to all the databases yet. I only set up my system last night."

"You should see it Chris. Kid went out and spent more on computer equipment than he did on his car."

That brought a snort from Vin. "That's no big deal. He drives a Hyundai."

Chris raised a hand for silence. "Go on. What did you find out?"

"First, I found out Royal had a reason to kill off Vanderlaan, rather than just burning his house like the others. The old man put his son on the deed as joint owner. If he dies the son takes title automatically. Royal paid the son for an option on the place to be exercised whenever it becomes his. I couldn't find anything that suggests the son had any inkling he was setting his father up for murder. He could have been simply been looking for a windfall after his 86-year-old father died of natural causes."

"Bet he's guessed now," Vin said darkly. "Probably too scared to do anythin' about it though. Good work. What else did you squeeze out of that magic box?"

"Got something that fits in with what Ezra said about Royal's possible ties to the Russian prostitution trade." JD waited a moment for effect. "One of Bob Spikes' arson convictions was for burning down a brothel in L.A. The women there were being held prisoner. After one of them escaped and went to the police, they must have been afraid some of the other girls could identify the important customers, if not the men who had sold them or were keeping them there. I called the head investigator on the case this morning. He said the property was owned by Guy Royal's corporation but they couldn't prove he knew what was going on there. They never had enough evidence to extradite him to California."

Chris nodded with approval and was about to move on to Vin when JD added, "The Royal corporation has title to six places on the opposite side of the lake from the Travis and Vanderlaan places. A couple of them went for slightly above market value so the sellers might have been willing. The other four sold under more sinister circumstances. One of the owners, Cody Porter, died just before his widow sold the property. The other three owners, the Olsens, Burkharts and Tacketts sold for below market value last year. I called Mary Travis and she said the homes were second homes - vacation homes. The families moved their things out quickly without any explanation she'd heard. She assumed divorce or job transfer but she'll ask their neighbors."

"Maybe I should track them down and find out the reason for their hasty departure," Ezra offered. "I could look up Cody Porter's widow too."

"I'll go with you," JD broke in. "All three families still have the same primary addresses so I'm thinking there wasn't any divorce or anything like that to make them sell."

"Hold up, JD," Chris said. "You may be sorry you've made yourself so useful on the computer. Based on what you've found so far, your time would be more valuable spent at home or here at the office."

JD tried to suppress the superior tone he would have used if Buck had made the same statement. "Chris, I don't need to stay home to do computer searches and I haven't even been cleared for desk duty here yet. My laptop has a broadband access card so I can be online anywhere I go. I can also print and send faxes from the car. This is the the 21st century after all." Whoops, he'd let just a little superiority escape, but damn, what century had he been in before he got clonked in the head?

+ + + + + + +

The accuracy of Josiah's prediction was proved all too true. On Monday morning everyone but JD had a transfer notice on his desk. Nathan delayed his trip back to Pottersville to join them for lunch at the Tavern. JD wasn't even being transferred but he had the feeling he was the only one who wanted to fight Bryce.

Josiah hadn't changed the decision he'd made on Thursday when Bryce had confronted them. He'd turned in his retirement documents Friday morning and was going to burn off vacation working on the clinic in Pottersville during the 30 days it would take to process them. He looked positively serene about his decision and JD could hardly blame him.

He did blame Buck though. "Buck, I'm telling you, you should fight the transfer."

"Kid, if I thought I could win, I reckon I'd try. But Bryce would take it out on me by giving Blossom to a handler in California or Vermont or some damn place. I'm sure as hell not going to Seattle where I'd be wondering where the sun had gone, learning to drink sissy coffee and working without a dog. You know most ATF-trained dogs go to local law enforcement so Bryce would suddenly find it in the best interests of the department to ship Blossom off without me. I need to act before Bryce can stop me. I've got a friend I used to work with in Tucson who's up in the Apache County Sheriff's Office. He thinks he can get the sheriff to request an ATF K-9 and fit me in as Blossom's handler if I'm willing to work as a reserve deputy awhile until they work a full-time slot into the budget."

JD couldn't see why Nathan and Josiah were grinning and looking at each other conspiratorially until Josiah spoke up. "Brother Buck seeing as how Apache County is just over the state line from San Juan County, until they put you on full time, you could lend a hand in the construction of the clinic in Pottersville."

"I just might do that. 'Specially if they'll spot me meals and a place to sleep. Brody is willing to let me crash at his place while I'm on reserve status but he's got a baby on the way so the guest room's being converted into a nursery. I'm not too partial to pink ruffled diaper changing tables and butterfly mobiles. And there are a few fine ladies in Pottersville and on the reservation I haven't become acquainted with yet."

JD turned to Vin and Ezra. "You haven't turned in your resignations, have you?"

Vin shrugged. "Sorry kid, no way I'm going to New York City. I'm going to ride out the 30-day notice period to find me another job. I can always go back to bounty hunting if I have to. I've only got two years in here so I don't have much to lose and way too long before I turn 50 and can take safety retirement."

JD turned to Ezra. If anyone could find a way to fight the system, it was Ezra.

"Oh, I'm going to fight it. There isn't a chance in the world I'm going to an unenlightened state like Utah where they won't even let Native Americans work themselves out of poverty by running casinos. The shroud of Puritanism would smother me. I don't expect to win an appeal but I can play the game and stretch things out for months. I figure I'll have six months or so to find an agreeable position elsewhere. They don't have any way to retaliate against me."

JD looked at Chris who shook his head. "Kid, I wouldn't get as much pleasure from tweaking the system as Ezra. I'm sure as hell not going to L.A. I'd probably end up in a road rage beef and shoot someone. Already got what I wanted from the ATF. Never wanted to be a federal bureaucrat." He looked over at Vin. "Reckon I'd make a good bounty hunter?"

"Hell, Larabee, you'd ruin my business. Any bail jumper heard you were after 'em would turn themselves in without giving me a chance to collect on 'em."

"But what about our team?" JD felt like he was standing in front of a dam with leaks spouting everywhere he turned.

"JD, we're not that kind of . . . ." Buck started to remind him.

"I mean the Magnificent Seven. I only just got to be a regular and now we're splitting up."

The others smiled, probably thinking he was childish for being worried about a pretend posse. Or were they an outlaw gang? Damn, he'd never even asked. Buck and Ezra had a better idea of what the pretend team meant to him and they both tried to reassure him on that score.

"Never fear." Ezra said. "We can still compete. We might not have as much opportunity to practice together but we can practice individually. You and I can work together for six months at least."

"Sure thing." Buck added. "Just because we won't be working for the feds together don't mean we won't still be friends. I'll find a place up north where we can practice and I'll trailer Beavis down here once a month or so."

"Or maybe we can all meet in Pottersville several times a year," Nathan interjected. "They're looking for ways to attract people up to the river valley for outdoor activities. No reason it all has to be fishing and hiking. After we finish the clinic, we can start working on some OWPOG facilities for practicing, maybe even for a competition. There's already some folks getting together with the distance runners to put together a ride and tie event and they'll need corrals and stables."

JD wasn't satisfied but it was something. Pottersville was the only place the seven of them had really worked as a team and he wouldn't mind making that long drive every month if he could recapture that feeling just a little.

It wasn't until he got back home and fired up his new computer that he thought of a way to spin Pottersville into - well, into an Easter basket with one egg of each color.

+ + + + + + +

In order to implement his plan, JD had gotten a ride with Nathan and Josiah up to Pottersville on Tuesday morning. He'd been nervous as hell having to confront Judge Travis and Ko-jay at the same time, but Travis had stayed in Pottersville for the week so he had no choice. He'd almost decided to ask Ezra and Vin to drive up and go to the meeting with him but in the end he'd wanted to do it himself. He hadn't even asked Josiah or Nathan to back him up. He wasn't as persuasive as Ezra and he didn't know the Apaches as well as Vin but if it turned out his plan was a fool's errand, he didn't want to look like a silly kid in front of the others. And just maybe, if it worked, he wanted the credit. But there wasn't any credit to be given out yet. Even though both the judge and Ko-jay seemed to welcome his idea, they had cautioned there were others to consult before anything could be finalized. He wouldn't tell the others until then, but he might as well stay in Potterville as long as Nathan let him bunk with him and Josiah in the doctor's quarters, the only finished building on the site - and as long as his sick leave held out. He couldn't jeopardize his ATF paycheck with two maxed out credit cards to pay off.

+ + + + + + +

On Wednesday morning, Josiah was up at the crack of dawn to meet Nathan, Jonah and the others working on the clinic. JD got up with him but spent an hour on the computer before wandering out to the construction site to see if there was anything he could do with only one hand. He found Mary setting up a food table for the workers. He still got a tickle in his stomach when he looked at her but he was determined to overcome his false memories.

JD tucked a milk jug in the crook of his elbow and carried a carton of orange juice in his good hand, knowing he couldn't handle the long warming pans of eggs, pancakes and sausages. He trotted back and forth from Mary's SUV to the breakfast table carrying jugs of fruit juice, bottles of syrup, pots of butter and other items easily handled with one hand. Once everything had been laid out, they both stopped to look, making sure everything was in a convenient place. "Did you make all this stuff?" JD asked, determined to make rational conversation.

"Heavens no. I contribute a dish or two sometimes but mostly I just transport from the Cottage and the Firehouse." She backed away from the table as eight or nine workers trooped in for breakfast.

"Wow, they must be doing pretty good business to supply meals every day." This was a small town and even though he was reasonably sure there were only the two restaurants, other than an ice cream parlor attached to the grocery store, he didn't think they could be exactly flush.

"They get donations from people in town and some outsiders with an interest in the town, though I'm sure the money barely covers the cost of raw materials. The Cottage provides breakfast, the Firehouse lunch, the tribe dinner. There are more volunteers on weekends so usually spouses and friends make a potluck. Even those people who haven't committed to supporting the casino and recreation development recognize the need to have a local medical facility."

JD could see in this Mary Travis a combination of pride, determination and commitment that didn't quite mesh with his false memories. In his head he'd always liked Mary the ambitious big city reporter but he liked the real Mary better, the Mary who was on the ground floor of something bigger than her own career. He also bet the main outsider/contributor was Judge Travis, who'd taken up his dead son's commitment to this place.

Mary gestured toward the table. "Please, you need to eat."

"That food's for people who can work." JD waved his cast around for emphasis.

"And for people who saved my house - and my neighbor."

JD ducked his head and reached a hand over to ruffle Betsy's ears. "You can thank Betsy for saving your house and Chris and the others for saving Mr. Vanderlaan."

"I know you played an important part as well," Mary said placing a friendly hand on his shoulder.

JD munched on a couple of flapjack-wrapped sausages as he patted the food pouch on his belt and headed to toward the half of the clinic that was nearly finished where Josiah had hidden some training aids for him the previous evening. He'd promised to hide them in difficult places so Betsy could get in a substantial training session.

As soon as he gave Betsy her search command, she darted through the building, entering every room in turn and snuffling like a vacuum cleaner. Her first alert was on a cupboard in what looked to be a future examination room. Josiah had placed the scent article behind some pieces of drywall in the corner of the cupboard above a sink. Betsy cleared the next few rooms and then JD opened the door of what appeared to be a supply closet though it currently contained painting not medical supplies. He didn't need Betsy to tell him there were accelerants in this closet, the fumes almost overwhelmed him. Betsy alerted, of course, and he rewarded her even though it was unlikely that Josiah had placed anything there.

He didn't like the way the fumes had built up in the closet. Although he didn't remember his arson investigation training except for what he'd read in the training binder, he knew a build-up of fumes in a closed area was trouble. He saw that at least part of the problem was that many of the containers were at least partially open. He went through the shelves putting on lids and screwing on caps, hoping Josiah would give hell to whoever had been so careless. As he worked his way to the back of the closet, he pulled out the little flashlight that was apparently part of his standard equipment. As he was putting the cap back on a can of paint thinner, he saw something familiar and malevolent in the back corner. He reached in and pulled out a device somewhat more sophisticated than those that had been planted at Mary's house. It was familiar because he'd seen something like it in the training binder. It was built to create sparks, setting off the built-up fumes like a bomb. And it was set to do it during breakfast, before one of the workers might need to retrieve something from the closet.

JD pulled the wires from the device and ran outside with it, placing it on a concrete pad. He couldn't assume this was the only one and if there was another, it would almost certainly be timed to go off at approximately the same time. He pulled out his cell phone and called Josiah who answered immediately but had to wash down whatever was in his mouth before he could talk.

"Finished already? I thought I'd given your black angel a little challenge. Want me to . . .?

"We've got trouble, Josiah. I found a real device set to blow up the supply closet during breakfast. Bring some men to help search for others. I need you so I don't waste my time having her alert on the stuff you hid. Have Nathan call the fire department for backup but no siren. Don't want to alert anyone we've found their stuff."

JD snapped his phone shut, raced back into the building and set Betsy to searching again. She alerted on one training aid in a reception area before Josiah caught up with them.

"I'll go remove the other two and take them outside."

As Josiah trotted off, Mary, Nathan, Chanu and the six other workers gathered around him. JD started giving instructions as though he remembered what being an arson investigator was all about. "The device I found is outside on the concrete pad, so that's what you're looking for. That one was in a storage closet full of paint, thinner and whatnot so it didn't need separate accelerant. If you've got anyplace else where you're storing that kind of stuff - any flammable liquid, you'd better check it now."

Chanu headed toward the current construction site, saying over his shoulder, "There's gas in the shed. I'll go check."

JD called after him, "They opened the lids of the stuff in here so the fumes would build up. Make sure you air it out and be careful. The timer could go off any minute."

"I'll run Betsy through this building and then outside. Maybe two or three of you could make a visual check around the outside. The rest of you could start searching the current construction. Any place that someone could have gotten to last night."

"Why didn't they just set it to start the fires last night?" Nathan asked.

Damn, that was a good question. Why hadn't he thought of it? He stared blankly at Nathan for a minute. "Let's think about that while we clear this building."

With Nathan's help, JD and Betsy cleared the rest of the building without finding anything until they got to the break room in the rear. The electricity wasn't hooked up yet but people had been leaving their coolers and thermos jugs on the counter that would eventually hold a microwave, coffeemaker and toaster. The device and accelerant were in one of the trash cans loosely covered with newspaper. As they took it outside, he mulled over the possible reasons for setting the time for just before work would normally start.

Nathan had obviously been thinking it over too. "Maybe whoever did this building just set the timers wrong."

They might have left it at that but while JD was giving Betsy a break, Chanu came back and handed JD another device. "Just like you said, shed was shut up tight with all those gas cans left with the tops off."

Nathan peered over JD's shoulder as he checked the timer. Set for the same time as the one JD had found. "Seems they wanted the fires to start while people were here to fight them."

"Maybe they hoped someone would get hurt," Nathan offered.

It was Josiah who came up with what turned out to be the most likely explanation. "Could be this is partially a diversion. I mean they probably wanted to burn down what we've accomplished here but that might not have been the only motive. Perhaps they wanted to get people out here in order to plant timers in places they couldn't get to last night or to start fires that people wouldn't be able put out in time because the firefighters were here."

"So who would be sure to respond to a big fire at the clinic?" JD asked.

"What buildings would Royal's gang want to burn down in order to take over the town?" Nathan asked at almost the same time.

Josiah looked toward the fire truck that was just rolling silently into the construction site. "The volunteer firefighters would be here and burning down the firehouse would be almost as demoralizing as burning the clinic. Then any buildings that contribute to the strength of the town, even something as ordinary as the only grocery store - I believe several of the volunteer firefighters work at Finney's."

"There's a second truck up at the station on the tribal land," Chanu reminded them. "They'd likely want to get both since they both respond to the big fires like last week."

Nathan looked over at Mary who was helping to search the new construction site. "Mary would be here as a reporter and to help where possible. And the newspaper office would be a logical target."

"If Royal's plan is to take over the tribe with his puppets, would he want to destroy any of the valuable buildings on the reservation?" JD asked.

"Doubt if he thinks anything's valuable unless it would serve a casino," Chanu responded. "Same goes for the town."

"Damn, sounds like we need to search the whole town and the whole reservation." JD looked down at Betsy who was resting but looked eager to go again. "Josiah, do you know if there are any accelerant dogs closer than Buck and Blossom?"

"JD, you know there aren't. You and Buck have been called to do investigations in all the counties around here in both states."

"Oh, yeah, I forgot." At least that was an honest answer. Josiah just didn't know how completely he'd forgotten. He'd figured he could get by with phoning Buck or Ezra if he needed any help. Now he wondered if maybe he needed to let Nathan and Josiah in on his secret, at least the forgetting part, probably not the weird memory part. But this wasn't the time. "We'd better call them. Maybe they can figure a faster way to get up here. 'Course we can't wait."

Josiah knew it too and immediately took charge. He sent Chanu and the other Apaches to search the buildings on the reservation, leaving two to guard the clinic. As they loaded into their pickups and SUVs, Chanu called out, "Abraham, you have your shotgun? Go up and guard the talking tree."

JD looked at his two friends. "Talking tree? Why would Royal's thugs care about trees?"

As they trotted to Nathan's truck and put Betsy in the crate secured in the back. Nathan pointed to a lone tall pine on top of the highest ridge. "Vin and Chanu started calling that the talking tree as a joke and it caught on. You can see why."

But he couldn't see why.

JD tilted his head to get a good look at the tree through the windshield as he crammed himself in the middle of the seat between the two bigger men. It was just a big, symmetrical pine tree, too far away for him to spot any ritual carvings. Trying to figure out the riddle of the talking tree was better than worrying about the fact that a whole town might be depending on the only accelerant dog likely to be available for four or five hours.

When Mary heard the town buildings might be in danger, she ran to her SUV.

She swung in their direction and called out urgently. "Follow me to the school. We'll evacuate the children. Then JD can search it while I recruit people to search the other buildings."

Josiah called Chris on the way out of the clinic site. He exchanged only a few sentences before snapping his phone shut. "He'll grab Buck and get up here, using lights and sirens where they need to get around traffic or speed limits. He'll bring Vin or Ezra if it won't slow them down. Otherwise they'll come separately. He knows Buck and Blossom are the precious cargo."

As they drove down the main street, JD fingered his cell phone, wondering if he should call Buck and get instructions. He wouldn't try to hide his secret if it would endanger lives but would it serve any purpose to distract his friends with concern about his health or his abilities? When Buck and Ezra had agreed to keep his secret, it was understood that he wouldn't go back to work until he had his memory back. But circumstances had thrown him into a critical situation without the comfort of remembering his training or his experience. He just hoped Buck's "trust your dog" litany would be enough.

They followed Mary to the town's single school, kindergarten through sixth grade, JD learned as he walked to the principal's office with Mary and Betsy. The principal's office was the only office in the school but as the principal was also a teacher, the school secretary, aka the physical education teacher, had to leave to fetch her. While she was gone, JD took the opportunity to search the office. He hoped the principal wouldn't be bothered by the fact that he was opening drawers and cupboards.

Ms. Estevez turned out to be a handsome woman with some Apache heritage, someone Buck would have managed to hit on while still proceeding efficiently with the business at hand. She decided the best way to evacuate the kids was to simply proceed as they would with any fire drill. Soon the bells were ringing and three dozen young children, at least half of them Apache, were marching out to the playground in more or less orderly lines. The older kids were safe at the district junior high and high schools, a one-hour bus trip away.

JD left the office and started with the classroom directly across the hall, which the décor suggested was for the youngest children. Finding nothing, he cleared the other two classrooms and proceeded to the kitchen and what was more a dining room than a dining hall, certainly nothing so "grand" as a cafetorium. The search of the school was concluded with a recreation room, probably for rainy day activities. There was no way a school this small would have a gym. JD made sure Betsy did a very detailed search of the rec room and the attached restrooms. He presented everything to Betsy, directing her as Buck had taught him. Even so, Betsy had completed her tour of the rec room without showing any interest. He paid careful attention to the custodian's closet even though there was no obvious buildup of fumes.

"Is this everything? Any outbuildings? How about a library? Any vehicles that would have been here overnight?"

Ms. Estevez shook her head. "I had the first vehicle here this morning. We have volunteers who pick up the children who aren't within walking distance but they don't leave their cars here." She pointed to a stone building on the lot next to the school. We use the town library." She looked at JD and his two companions in turn as though wondering who was in charge. She finally settled on Josiah. "Should we take the children home?"

JD was more than willing to let Josiah take the lead. Even if his own memory were intact, Josiah had years more experience in arson investigation.

"Ma'am, at this point there's no specific threats. But with four houses on the lake targeted last week and the clinic today, we can't take any chances. We don't know which buildings are safe. This is the only one that's been searched. This recreation room looks like the safest room in the school. Three exits, including double doors directly outside and windows on two sides. Even if we've missed something somewhere in the building, evacuation would be easy. Bring all the fire extinguishers in the school in here and make each adult responsible for at least one."

"I'm just letting Betsy rest up a little," JD offered. She didn't look the slightest bit tired but Buck had told him that her work was comparable to walking around while reading a science journal. "We'll be checking around the outside now before we go on to the Clarion."

"JD, let's check the library next," Nathan said.

JD looked at him sharply. "You got some reason?"

"Just a hunch. Those guys want to demoralize the town, get people to sell out cheap."

"And what could be more demoralizing than burning the only school or the newspaper?"

"What could get more publicity and outside law enforcement swarming all over than burning a school and maybe injuring young children? I'm thinking they'll go for other important buildings. This place doesn't have its own police department or courthouse. Bet lots of civic pride went into that library."

Nathan's hunch and the fact that it was right next door, made the library as good a place as any to search after they cleared the outside of the school. The Stephen Travis Memorial Library was a stone building but JD remembered from his reading that stone and brick buildings weren't immune from fire. And this one was full of flammable materials, in this case including books, magazines and newspapers. The fact that Josiah didn't offer any objection added to his confidence.

When the librarian saw three men and a dog entering her sanctuary, she was understandably perturbed. However, that didn't disguise the fact that she was also a woman in her mid-forties who looked a lot like Marian the Librarian as played by Shirley Jones after she fell for the Music Man and let down her hair. They obviously wouldn't have to draw straws to decide who would explain their purpose. JD didn't wait for Josiah to make his explanations but trusted he'd see the dozen or so patrons safely evacuated.

JD went first into what appeared to be a large children's section separated from the main library by a soundproof glass wall that embodied the old adage about children being seen but not heard. Nathan started to go in with him but JD stopped him.

"If they set something to go off while everyone was over at the clinic, we don't have much time. You'd better start over in the adult stacks." He gave Nathan a wry smile as he looked him up and down. "You could concentrate on the high shelves, especially those near any newspaper reading area. The accelerant isn't likely to be something that you'll be able to smell easily so you'll have to get it by sight."

JD tried to work Betsy with the best compromise between thoroughness and speed. He completed the children's section and quickly went through both the small computer rooms, one apparently for children with the screens all visible through a glass wall, and the other with the screens arranged to give more privacy. There didn't seem to be any obvious places to plant an arson device in either room but that might be a good reason for them to have been chosen. But in the end, imagination didn't seem to have been the arsonists' strong suit.

"In here, JD," Nathan shouted.

By the time JD found Nathan in the reference section, Nathan had separated the device and the accelerant. JD could see from the books Nathan had displaced that it had been placed on one of the highest shelves. He also saw that it was right above the table set aside for newspaper reading with racks of newspapers on either side. Nathan showed him the timer. It would have gone off in 20 minutes.

Josiah and the lady librarian were searching the other shelves, the lady using a little step stool. Josiah came over and glanced at the device Nathan held as though he'd already examined it. "JD, time is short, why don't you do a quick search up and down the aisles and then head over to the newspaper office with Nathan." He looked over at the librarian who gave him a quick smile before turning her attention back to the task at hand. "Georgia and I will do a detailed search here. This is her domain so we can do a thorough job. There are several fire extinguishers here so if there is a second device, we should be able to take care of it. You two go on."

JD had Betsy do a hasty search down all the aisles, hoping that unburned accelerant stood out in an untouched building and was easier to find than burned accelerant in a burnt building. He'd meant to ask Buck - so many things he needed to ask Buck. When he'd finished, he saluted Josiah and Georgia and got into Nathan's waiting truck. It was only a couple of blocks to the Clarion but JD wanted to save Betsy any exertion. Too much depended on her. Just as they were about to pull out, Josiah ran up to the driver's window waving his cell phone.

"Chris and Buck just got on a helicopter with Blossom. Ezra and Vin too. Should be here in half an hour. There's a spot to land on the reservation up behind the talking tree."

Nathan nodded and accelerated; JD knew they were thinking the same thing. They'd be ten minutes too late.

When he looked back, Josiah was entering the library, cell phone in hand. He turned around and through the windshield he could see the talking tree and suddenly he realized what it was. The thing was so tall, standing there above all the scrub trees on the ridge and more symmetrical than any tree formed by the whims of nature had a right to be. He of all people should have wondered how out here in the middle of nowhere he had crystal clear cell service and high speed internet. He felt so foolish. Talking tree indeed.

The Clarion was situated amidst the bulk of the businesses in town. Mary had gotten everyone out in force. Many of them were carrying the fire extinguishers that had undoubtedly been hanging unused and uninspected in their homes or places of business for years. JD wondered just how many would work. But at least everyone was alert to the danger. When they saw JD get out of the truck, many of them followed Mary as she came over to greet him. Damn, he should have left Nathan with Madam Librarian and brought Josiah with him. Was he still thinking of Nathan as his ATF teammate? He was a doctor, not an arson investigator. But then he remembered Buck saying Nathan was also a reserve deputy. And he was the one who realized first that it was buildings that were a source of civic pride or necessity that would be the most likely targets.

"Nathan, I'll start with the Clarion. You tell folks what we're looking for and get them spread out. Warn them about the time and have at least one person on each search team with an extinguisher they know will work. And let everyone know the kids are all safe."

As he headed for the newspaper office, he heard some of the townspeople behind him grumble a little. Even Mary questioned his priorities.

"I can afford to rebuild; anyway I did a thorough search. You should start with. . .."

JD kept walking toward the small Clarion building, wanting to get out of hearing of the crowd. "Mrs. Travis, they've already gone after your house. They might figure they could force you to sell out if they burned the newspaper. Anyway, I think a town newspaper is a darn important thing. And look where you're located. If this building goes up it could easily spread to the grocery store. I'll work as quickly as I can and move on. Now tell me, what have you searched?

The entire office, I opened filing cabinets, desk drawers, cupboards, the storeroom . . . "

"And upstairs where you and Billy live?"

She shook her head.

JD took the staircase up to the living quarters and quickly set Betsy to searching. She headed directly for the kitchen and alerted a door that turned out to be to a broom closet. The fumes from a mixture of cleaning products hit him as he opened it. He quickly removed and disabled the timing device. He gave Betsy some of her kibble and headed for the archway that separated the kitchen from the rest of the living quarters.

"Open all the windows and put the caps on that stuff while I search the rest of the house."

He wondered if the fumes from the broom closet would prevent Betsy from finding anything else. There was so much he didn't remember. They quickly moved through the room that served as a combined dining and living room and on to the two small bedrooms. He was glad they were able to clear Mary's room before she joined them. It made him uncomfortable enough to open her closet and dresser drawers without her hovering over him. He moved quickly to Billy's room and found nothing despite supplementing Betsy's sniff test with a quick visual search. He didn't really think they'd missed anything. The accelerants in that broom closet would have been plenty to start a healthy fire in this small building, especially as, had things gone as planned, Mary would have been out at the building site and no one would have noticed the fire until it was too late.

"The grocery store next."

As he hurried downstairs and out the door to the street, he knew he couldn't have even ten minutes before any remaining timers would be going off. Nathan met him near the two cash registers as he looked around the store with the eye of an arson investigator rather than a customer looking for beef jerky or a carton of milk.

"We haven't found anything here. Could be they were waiting until the employees here rushed out to the clinic fire."

"Found one upstairs at Mary's."

"Everyone knows she delivers breakfast to the clinic workers every morning."

"Everyone? Sounds to me like there's a traitor around here. A stranger wouldn't know that." JD started down one of the aisles as he talked. He noticed two young men with fire extinguishers stationed at the back of the store.

"Don't think we should assume the worst. Wouldn't be hard for someone asking seemingly innocent questions to get that kind of information. And the sign on the library said it didn't open until nine. They had plenty of time to set up something there before anyone came in. Most of these other places either have someone living above the business or people who come in early to start setting up for the day."

JD had taken Betsy down three aisles when he heard a siren. He rushed outside with Nathan in time to see the fire truck rushing toward the school. He started to run in that direction but the truck roared past the school and down the road they'd taken into town.

"What's out there, Nathan?"

"Not much, a few houses."

"You think that's another distraction? Did someone check the firehouse?"

"After the crew came back from the clinic, they thoroughly checked the firehouse. All the volunteers were called in so there wouldn't be any delay if they were called to a fire. They've been searching the buildings near the firehouse so they'd be there in minutes if there was a call. The owner of the grocery called in other workers to take the place of the volunteer firefighters."

"You think we got everything?" JD looked in the direction the fire engine had gone. "In town I mean. Would they only target the library, the clinic and the Clarion?"

Nathan shrugged. "The searchers may have found setups in some of the other buildings. There hasn't been time for them to report back. We'll be ready to get to any fire in town before it has a chance to take hold."

JD decided the best thing he could do for the moment was continue the search of the grocery. By the time he finished, Buck and Blossom would be here and they could decide where to go from there. The grocery was hardly as large as a Wal-Mart superstore but it wasn't Apu's Quiki-mart either. It reminded him of Trader Joe's with more dry goods, a smaller wine selection and a wider variety of unhealthy snacks.

He was going through the dairy section when he heard Nathan get a phone call. He mentally crossed his fingers that it was Chris or Buck but the news was even better. Nathan snapped his phone shut and jogged over to JD.

"They caught the guy with the scorpion tattoos setting fires at the reservation. Chanu says they've got him locked up. They called the county sheriff but they won't get there for a while. I figured Chris would be there any minute so I suggested they let Chris question him."

"That'll do it." The real Chris Larabee might not glare at his friends but according to Buck, he used it to good effect on his enemies. That guy was going to be a scorpion-shaped puddle before someone from the sheriff's office arrived to collect him.

"Yep." Nathan looked around the store. "Can you handle things here while I go up and pick up Buck? Josiah should be finished in the library by now."

JD waved him off, trying to look more confident than he felt. The time shown on the devices set in the library and the Clarion had passed. Maybe there were no more devices or maybe the other searchers had disabled the rest. The buildings were full of people on the lookout for fires, many armed with fire extinguishers.

When he and Betsy finished in the grocery store without finding anything, JD went outside to figure where to go next. As he headed for the hardware store, he heard the sound of a helicopter. Sure enough, there in the direction of the talking tree, a helicopter was spiraling down for a landing someplace below the ridge. What a relief not to have everything on his shoulders.

As he poured some water into his cupped hand for Betsy, out of the corner of his eye he saw someone, someone big, disappear behind the back of the fire station across the street. Damn, that was one of the primary targets. It had been cleared by the firefighters but now they were all gone fighting a fire.

JD ran across the street, patting his side to reassure himself he was armed. He put Betsy on a stay in front of the firehouse and went cautiously inside. He heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs. As quietly as he could he followed, gun drawn. The footsteps went past the second floor that held the tiny kitchen, locker room and showers. As far as he knew, the only thing above that was the tower used to practice evacuation with ropes and ladders.

He moved slowly until he heard splashing and smelled gasoline. He ran up the last half flight and stopped at the doorway. Bob Spikes stood there with two empty gas cans at his feet. He had his back to JD and but turned as he heard him reach the top landing. He had pulled out a a box of kitchen matches, obviously intending to start the fire and get down the stairs before it took over the building.

Spikes looked at JD's gun and smiled. "You want to start the fire with that gun, go ahead. I don't mind sharing the credit."

JD froze, realizing he couldn't fire.

Spikes saw his hesitation and shrugged. "Well, if you're sure." He brought a match close to the striker plate.

In that moment, JD felt nothing but frustration and anger. It exploded inside him and pushed him forward as though he were rocket propelled. He threw himself at Spikes and pushed him toward the open window that took up most of the west wall. There was no glass or grillwork to slow their momentum as they tumbled out. As they went down, JD's only thought was to try to remember what was at the bottom.

He felt nothing when they hit and little enough afterwards. Crazy things went through his mind. He'd landed on something soft that smelled like road kill, blood and gasoline. Just before he blacked out, he felt Betsy's tongue on his face and heard her whimper. He wanted to whimper himself but didn't have the strength.

+ + + + + + +

JD wouldn't open his eyes. He was vaguely aware of Buck's voice in the distance coaxing him to wake up but he liked that wall of cotton wool between his throbbing brain and reality.

"How's he doin', Buck?"

Vin. That was Vin's voice, sounding kind of distant and tired. JD chanced opening his eyes and the first thing he saw was what he'd expected, Buck sitting on a chair by the bed. But in the next bed, looking very much the worse for wear, was Vin. His right leg was elevated in a cast. He had a bandage around his head and his casted right arm was across his chest.

"Hell, Vin. I guess compared to you, I'm doing fine. How'd you get hurt?"

"Kid, my problem is I ain't learned to fly or even hover. When that bomb exploded, I hit the concrete floor and pretty much went splat."

JD cringed. Vin hadn't even gotten into town when he and Bob Spikes exited the firehouse by way of the third story tower. Damn, an explosion; the town must be in ruins. He was about to ask if anyone else had been hurt when suddenly the room seemed a lot smaller with the entrance of four of the anyone elses he'd been most worried about. Chris, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra all sported a collection of cuts and bruises but nothing requiring casts or stitches, just a few butterfly bandages. They were carrying a collection of fast food bags, bakery boxes and small coolers. Josiah was toting some plastic chairs, probably liberated from a waiting room.

Buck moved the bedside table to a more central location between the two beds. "Good news, guys. We don't need the smell of food to wake him. The persuasive voice of Buck Wilmington brought him back from Neverland."

From the other bed JD heard Vin protest. "Hell, Buck, he slept through at least two hours of your monotonous droning. He didn't open his eyes 'til I asked about him. Probably once he knew I was here, his subconscious took pity on me and figured to shut you up."

"Boys, boys. You can decide who gets credit later." Chris opened one of the coolers and distributed Cokes all around.

Just as Nathan grabbed the two intended for Vin and JD and substituted plastic bottles of orange juice from a second cooler, Chris went on. "Let's drink to JD Dunne, the man of the hour."

Everyone else raised their cans in salute while Vin feebly raised his juice bottle. JD had absolutely no idea what they thought he'd done. All he remembered was falling out the window and landing on Bob Spikes. Did they think he'd somehow beaten that brute in a fight?

"I don't know what you guys think I did, but it's Vin you should be drinking to. He's the one who got hurt bad."

"That's just it, JD." Chris gestured toward Vin with his soda can. "He'd be dead but for your quick thinking, probably the rest of us too." He sat on the chair Buck had vacated. "I know you've always hated having to stay in the com van when the rest of us are meeting the bad guys face to face on an op. But you didn't get lazy or resentful and start doing a half-assed job. If you hadn't been monitoring all those other frequencies, figured out there were bombs about to go off and warned us, it's not likely any of us would've have made it out."

"Damn straight, JD," Vin chimed in. "'Cause of you I was halfway down when that first explosion knocked me the rest of the way. If I'd still been in the rafters when it came, Chris and Josiah might have died wasting time trying to scrape my splattered carcass off the floor."

Josiah came closer to his bed. "He's right, John Dunne. Don't you ever again downplay your role on our team. Thanks to you, in those horrific moments after Vin fell, the expression 'where there's life there's hope' meant something."

"Meant everything," Nathan added. "We had the smart guy looking out for us. Thanks to JD, we got out. Thanks to their dumbass backups, the charges went off in the wrong order and their front men got themselves blown up. Most likely there weren't any guns; they just wanted the money."

"And thanks to our boy genius here, they didn't get it," Chris concluded.

Ezra approached carrying a bakery box, not an ordinary pink one, but a white one with fancy green and gold printing on it. "I'm a man who knows the value of words but I think in this case our young hero would prefer some of his favorite delicacies. It appears everything that's gone into his system lately has gone through that needle in his arm."

As he started to open the box, JD said eagerly, "Jalapeno quiche. My first meal's gonna be jalapeno quiche. Bring it on."

Buck looked at him strangely, while Ezra seemed rather taken aback. "I'm not sure where one would obtain that kind of item in Denver, but had I known you fancied it, I certainly would have attempted to secure it."

Buck had his own assessment of the situation. "Hell, JD, real men don't eat quiche."

"I don't know, Brother Buck. I think the addition of jalapeno peppers to any food gives it a manly character." Josiah turned to JD with a grin. "If you would really like some, I'm sure the lady I buy homemade tamales from could figure out how to make it. It might take a few days though. I'll make sure to bring you some up at the ranch while you're recuperating."

Ranch? Did he mean Nettie's ranch? Then he realized that Ezra had mentioned the difficulty of finding jalapeno quiche in Denver. And Chris had spoken of his heroism in the com van. He hardly dared believe it. He was back. Phoenix was a dream, not Denver. But how to test it for sure without sounding crazy?"

"Ezra, what'd you bring me? My stomach probably isn't ready for jalapenos anyway."

Ezra came up next to the bed and extended the box. "Chocolate cream filled chocolate donuts with mocha frosting and chocolate sprinkles. The Blue Goose doesn't lower itself to something as mundane as sprinkles so I had to supply my own."

JD reverently lifted the weighty masterpiece out of the box and settled back in the pillows before taking a bite just big enough to get through to the chocolate cream inside. Oh yes, he was back in the real world, the world of chocolate donuts with sprinkles.

From the other bed he heard Vin complain, "Hey, broken sharpshooter over here. JD deserves all the honors but you'd better have a donut in there for me."

Ezra gave Vin his pick from the fancy box then closed it up and carefully placed it on JD's bed on the side away from the rest of the team. Then he spread an embossed paper napkin on JD's tray table and set down a ham and Swiss croissant.

Nathan, of all people, placed a bag of McDonalds fries on JD's tray before letting the bags get passed from hand to hand among the rest of the men, except Ezra of course. He had retreated to a seat near the foot of the bed and started on what appeared to be his favorite, a croissant filled with orange tomatoes and basil topped with fresh Mozzarella cheese from goats raised in fields of lavender and thyme, or maybe rosemary and spearmint. JD watched Nathan closely to see if he took anything from a MacDonald's bag. He didn't know if today was Friday, but he had to wonder if the part of his dream about Nathan's weekly Big Mac attacks was something he had suspected subconsciously or just something odd his mind had made up. Nathan caught him watching and winked as he dripped a couple of packets of ketchup on a batch of fries and started to empty the cardboard container two fries at a time.

The party went on for fifteen minutes before they were discovered by a nurse. Buck went into overdrive, alternately charming her with his own natural attributes and bribing her with a fancy donut JD contributed from Ezra's special gift box. That won them another 25 minutes before the shift change brought in a nurse immune to both junk food and Buck.

'Gentlemen, I'll have to ask all but two of you to leave. And take your mess with you." As she looked around the room, JD made sure his special donut box was hidden by his bedclothes. That turned out to be a clever bit of foresight because when she spotted a pink box containing ordinary pastries, she grabbed it and shook it in Chris's face. JD didn't even wonder how she'd picked Chris out so quickly as the leader of this motley crew. Most people figured that out with no problem even though he wasn't the oldest or the tallest.

"I don't believe that young man . . ." she waved the box in JD's direction, "has been cleared for solid food much less something like this." She fixed Chris with a glare that was but a pale imitation of what Chris could do when pressed. She'd better hope that Chris didn't feel pressed.

Good old Nathan attempted to smooth the troubled waters. "I'm sure it's okay, Ma'am. JD has a head wound and a fractured wrist. No internal injuries."

Nurse Ratched turned her glare on Nathan and shoved the pink box into his midsection. "And what medical school did you graduate from?"

Although Nathan didn't answer, JD suddenly felt a great sadness for his altruistic friend. In the Phoenix dream world Nathan had realized his aspiration of becoming a doctor and yet had joined them in dangerous situations when his help was needed. In real life he'd missed out on his dream of healing people other than occasionally doling out first aid.

Out of the corner of his eye, JD saw Ezra had taken advantage of the nurse's focus on Chris and Nathan to slip into the bathroom. Although he might have actually needed to use the facilities, JD bet he'd still be there when the room had cleared to the requisite two visitors. He turned toward Vin who winked at him, though he wasn't sure if it was to indicate he'd seen Ezra's maneuver or because the bag of onion rings and curly fries Buck had parked on Vin's stomach was no longer visible for ready confiscation.

Nathan and Josiah took their leave -- and what little remained of the unconsumed food Vin and JD hadn't secreted away. The humorless nurse left shortly thereafter but not before giving Chris and Buck detailed directions to the mop closet in the event that either of the patients vomited before visiting hours were over. Buck liberated Ezra from his bathroom hideout once the coast was clear and JD figured maybe they'd sit around watching a game on TV or something. However, it quickly became clear that Chris had something else in mind.

"You feel well enough to answer a few questions? Even if you can't answer them now, maybe you'll remember something by morning."

JD nodded. "Hell, Chris, sounds like I've been doing nothing but resting. I should be up to a couple of questions."

"Good." Chris moved his chair close to JD's bed while Buck and Ezra spread out a little so that they formed a little circle that included Vin. "While you were monitoring the frequency where you heard them talking about the bombs, did you hear any names?"

JD thought hard but his Phoenix dreams were still so vivid, he had a hard time recalling details of something he'd experienced what was apparently a short time ago. In his mind, it seemed like two weeks had passed; all those false memories from that alternate life were crowding his mind. Finally he shook his head. "Sorry, I can't remember them calling each other by any names."

"That's all right. Just tell me what you heard them say." Chris was looking so hopeful, yet so patient, it killed JD to disappoint him.

"Damn, it's all such a jumble. There was a lot of static and isolated words before I got it tuned properly and then someone was giving directions on setting the charges off and I couldn't listen any more because I had to get you all out of there. I'm sorry, guys."

Ezra came into JD's line of sight with the same hopeful, patient look in his eyes. JD couldn't remember another time when he'd seen Chris and Ezra actually wearing the same expression. "You can't be sorry for directing your efforts to saving our lives rather than gathering evidence for a future investigation. Perhaps if you could repeat some of the words you heard, they might mean something to one of us."

"I remember at first I thought I was listening in on some loan sharks. They were talking about a collector and I heard the words royal and payment. Someone said something about guns and spikes. Then another guy laughed and said something like "those guns will buy a lot of firepower." Sorry, I don't remember anything else. Maybe something will come to me overnight like Chris said."

"That mean anything to you, Ezra?" When Ezra shook his head, Chris turned to Buck and Vin. "You?"

Buck ventured the first guess. "Could be those guys JD heard weren't connected with the ones Ezra made contact with. They were there to steal the guns not sell them. Could be the charges went off in that order on purpose. Maybe the truck they drove off with really did have guns in it and wasn't part of a rip off."

"But why'd they say the guns would buy a lot of firepower?" Vin interjected. "The guns are firepower. Wouldn't they have been smarter to kill us and take the money?"

"Unless they guessed we were ATF and that the money would be marked." Chris looked thoughtful. "So who would dare cross both the ATF and Bronson's outfit?"

JD closed his eyes, willing himself to come up with some forgotten words that would make sense of everything. Someplace in his brain he must have stored snatches of conversation that would help them catch the men who had almost succeeded in murdering Team Seven. If only he could clear his mind of all those memories of Phoenix and Pottersville. Trouble was, even if they weren't real, he liked some of them. They'd put a real bad bunch out of business. Bob Spikes was dead and the Scorpion would have given up Guy . . .

"I've got it!" JD was so excited he didn't even think of how he was going to explain where the knowledge came from. "Guy Royal is involved in this. And Bob Spikes. When they mentioned firepower, they meant it literally - fire power. Guy Royal is going to trade the guns to someone who will supply arsonists. He's trying to drive people off their property. I don't know where or why." He looked at Chris hopefully. "Is that any help?"

Chris looked a little doubtful. "Where's all this coming from, JD? I've never heard of Guy Royal."

Ezra snapped his fingers. "I have. Not in connection with this case but it fits what JD remembered. He started his career keeping within the law but just barely. He ran sleazy investment deals, got people to overextend and put valuable property up as collateral. Then he'd foreclose. They call him the Collector because he has a wall of souvenirs. He calls it his 'stupid wall'. It holds memorabilia from all the stupid people whose property he's taken. Rumor has it he's stopped worrying about walking that thin line that kept him just within the law. "

"Moving on to stealing arms shipments and blowing up federal agents?" Chris stood up and walked around the room. "And who's Bob Spikes?"

JD spoke up without hesitation. "A no good, murdering arsonist."

All four of his friends stared at him. Chris was the first one to speak. "How do you know that?"

But JD had no explanation that wouldn't sound crazy so he mumbled vaguely, "Must be something I overheard from one of the arson investigators and when I remembered the guy at the explosion talking about spikes, my brain just made the connection."

Chris turned to Ezra who shook his head. He then turned to Buck. "You have your cell phone on you?"

"Well, Chris you know it's against the rules to use a cell phone in a hospital."

"I didn't ask about the rules; I asked if you had it with you."

Buck pulled his phone from his pocket and flashed it at Chris. "See, it's off."

"Find the nearest exit and turn it on. Call dispatch and get MacKenzie's home number. See if he's heard of Bob Spikes or Guy Royal. If not, have him check with the rest of his arson squad. If they come up dry, ask him to contact some of the arson boys in other offices. Call Josiah and Nathan and get them back to the office to run a computer check."

Buck jumped to his feet and snapped a salute. "Sure thing, boss. But I don't need to call dispatch. Mac's sister is visiting him for a few weeks and I have her number."

As Buck reached the door, JD called out, "Have them check in Arizona and New Mexico first." Buck favored him with a little salute and didn't even give him the peculiar look he'd expected. His friend appeared to recognize he was on a roll.

By the time Buck came back, more than two hours had passed, Vin had fallen asleep and JD had nothing more than a trace of adrenaline keeping him from following suit while listening to Chris and Ezra quietly run through various scenarios. Buck glanced over at Vin and then crouched briefly next to JD's bed. He whispered in a voice that would carry only to JD, Chris still sitting beside him and Ezra who had come up to stand close to his shoulder.

"You done good, kid. The dominoes are falling. Lots of little dead end investigations are coming together into one, big, kickass bring-the-bad-guys-down operation. I don't know how you knew the center of the storm would be near the Arizona-New Mexico border but it is."

Buck looked up at Ezra and over to Chris. "I think we're gonna be pulling an all-nighter. We'd best let JD get some sleep. Appears he does his best work in his sleep anyway."

Chris patted JD on the shoulder as he rose from the bedside chair while Ezra gave him an imaginary tip of the hat as he turned to precede Chris out the door. Buck slid briefly into the chair Chris had been warming and reached up to turn off the light above JD's bed. "You think of anything else, you know my cell number. "

JD was fading fast but he was afraid to go back to sleep. He had an image of Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter trying desperately to stay awake because if they fell asleep the body snatchers would take over their bodies. What if he woke up in that other world? It was a pretty good place, even a pretty great place, but it wasn't his safe haven. He grabbed Buck's forearm as he rose to leave and managed to avoid the slide into sleep long enough to say, "Buck, I like the Easter Bunny ATF. Promise me I'll wake up in our every-color basket."

+ + + + + + +

JD sank gratefully into the familiar recliner in Chris's living room as Buck helped situate Vin on the couch. Vin fidgeted some, obviously trying to find a comfortable position for his leg and arm cast. Just as Buck got the pillows piled behind Vin so he could sit up, Chris came in bearing a tray with two mugs of soup and some sandwiches. Shortly thereafter, JD heard Vin quietly inform Chris that if he just left the tray on the table next to the couch, he could handle his own damn lunch and no, Chris didn't have to cut his sandwich into smaller pieces. JD basked in the warmth of normality.

Buck grabbed a napkin off the tray and tried to tuck it into the front of JD's shirt.

"Damn it Buck. I can handle my own napkin. I'm not five."

Buck backed off, hands raised in surrender. "Okay, okay. Just didn't want you to slop soup on the shirt Casey gave you."

Both their would-be nursemaids retreated to the kitchen but Buck was back a moment later to place the TV remote on the lunch tray. "Let me know if you need anything else."

JD snorted. "Sure, Da, if I need to pee, I'll send you for the bedpan."

After Buck left for the second time, JD turned to grab a tuna sandwich and saw Vin staring at him.


"Why did you call Buck, Da?" Vin sounded oddly intense, as though the question had some importance.

"That's Irish. It's what my ma called my grandfather."

"Oh." Vin was still staring at him. "You never called him that before. Leastways not where I heard."

"Sarcasm, Vin. Ain't you ever heard of sarcasm?"

Vin nodded but kept staring. It was starting to make him uncomfortable.

"Do I have soup on my chin or something?"

"No, it ain't that. It's . . . Oh, never mind." Vin took a sip of his soup and then seemed to find something fascinating floating in it as he didn't take his eyes away from the Broncos mug.

JD was curious now. "Spit it out, Vin."

Vin turned to him with a grin. "Too late. Already swallowed. I'm pretty sure it came from a can so it's probably safe."

JD smiled but kept his eyes locked on Vin's, willing him to go on.

"Oh, it's just crazy stuff. I had some weird dreams while I was in the hospital. The way you were talking to Buck just made them come back for a minute."

JD's stomach lurched. "Tell me."

Vin stalled a little, but finally said, "Did you ever have a dream that was so real you felt like you were trapped in it, that maybe your real life was just something you'd imagined?"

JD nodded. He absolutely knew Vin's next words would reveal they'd shared the same dream. But what would that mean? That in some way it was real? He held his breath as Vin seemed to be deciding how much of his dream to share.

"It was the weirdest thing. Afterwards I thought maybe it was some kind of near death thing, almost like I was being shown what my next life would be like."

"Or maybe what your life could have been like." That's what it felt like to JD now that he was thinking back on it. "Why did what I said to Buck remind you of it?"

"'Cause in my dream you were five years old. Buck was your pa and you called him Da."

JD felt dreadfully let down. No shared visions here. "You all treat me like a kid sometimes. So you dreamed I really was a kid. No big deal."

"Weren't just that, JD. I was a kid too, 'round seven."

"And Buck was your pa too?"

"No, Chris was. And he kept calling me Cowboy and for some reason my hair was blond. Buck called you Little Bit."

"Ewwww. That's gross. It's bad enough Buck thinks he has to give me advice all the time. Can you imagine if he really could tell me what to eat, when to go to bed and what I could watch on TV? Yikes."

Vin nodded. "Yeah, they were doin' all that and I sure as hell wasn't going along with it - at least I tried not to. I was me in my head but I was in a little kid's body. I acted so weird they sent me to a child psychologist. I'll bet he writes some kind of case study and gets it published."

"But he ain't real, Vin."

"Oh, yeah. See, I almost forgot."

"I'll bet you were relieved when you woke up."

Vin nodded. "Bein' a man shrunk into a little kid is just plain creepy." Then he added quietly. "But you know, if I'd really been a kid, it would have been a pretty good deal. They really loved us. You had your Ma who loved you 'til you were grown so I reckon you wouldn't be too different if Buck had been your father instead. But my life sure would have been a lot easier if someone like Chris had been my pa after Ma died. Maybe I'd be a better man."

"Naw, Vin. You might dress better but you're about the best man I know. One of the best six anyway. Surviving hard times probably made you that way. Gave you the edge you need to keep the rest of us safe."

Vin leaned back on the couch, sandwich in hand. "Thanks, kid." He took a bite then mumbled through a mouthful of peanut butter. "Hey, what's the matter with the way I dress?"


A Year Later: Pottersville, New Mexico

Watching Stargate on the bank of TVs in the communications center wasn't exactly by the book, but the night shift at the Pottersville - Mountain Apache Joint Law Enforcement Complex rarely took one man's full attention. Two men and two dogs were overkill, especially after JD discovered his newly honed computer skills allowed him to pretty much run the place through the com center.

How a head injury opened up the door to becoming a grade A hacker, he still didn't know. But waking up - rewaking up - after a week or two of walking around with amnesia to find he'd maxed out his credit cards buying computer equipment had provided a big incentive to figure out how to use it. It had taken him more than ten months of classes, internet tutorials and IMing with an assortment of computer geeks to get himself to the skill level Buck claimed he'd had during those lost days.

"Hey, what episode is this?" Buck slipped into the chair beside him and pushed over a couple of habanero sausages on French rolls with all the fixings, still warm in their foil wrapping from Inez's new Tavern.

They'd all been happy that Inez had taken Josiah up on his invitation to build her a place she could own instead of manage. He had transformed the remains of the burned church into a family restaurant that shared a wall with a kids rec center. The partnership between the small town and the newly reestablished Mountain Apache tribe had resulted in sufficient attractions for those interested in outdoor sports or high stakes poker to support a new restaurant.

JD ignored Buck's question until he'd finished his first exquisite bite, letting the juicy, spicy crunch of the sausages wake his taste buds.

"It's the one where a whole horde of Stargate One teams come through the gate from a bunch of alternate realities. It's a pretty good one even though it's after McGyver left the show."

JD munched his sandwich while Buck dipped his curly fries in a mixture of mustard, mayo, ketchup and Tabasco. When Stargate was interrupted by a commercial for Chuck Norris's Total Gym, JD muted the sound and spun his chair around. "You think that's possible?" He grabbed a dangling mass of curly fries and stuffed them in his mouth.

"What's possible?"

JD, his mouth full, pointed to the screen.

"You mean if you work out 20 minutes a day on the Total Gym, you'll start looking like Walker Texas Ranger?"

JD washed the fries down with a gulp from his milk carton. "No, that maybe there are alternate worlds out there that are almost like ours but - you know - a little different."

"What makes you ask? You been having those ATF Easter basket dreams again?"

"Not exactly. I never did remember those dreams. But if you and Ezra were right, they were all wishful thinking anyway. I guess I ended up with what I wanted so I don't need to have some fantasy about an ATF where we'd all be on the same team. We got that here -- all of us working together, catching bad guys, watching each other's backs. . . ."

"Watching Stargate reruns and eating curly fries when I should be out with Sheila. Her silk underwear modeling assignment for that outdoorsy catalog will be over in a couple of days. Time's a wasting."

"Aw, Buck, you know nothing can be exciting all the time. I bet even lawmen back in the Old West had lots of downtime in between bank robberies and shootouts. But it's great to be here when, as Josiah says, 'all Hell breaks loose and we beat back the Devil and save the day.' And we get all those mutual aid calls - 'cause we're the Magnificent Seven. You aren't sorry we left ATF are you?"

"Haven't looked back yet." Buck leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the desk. "If you hadn't maneuvered us all into this cozy little Easter basket, we'd have left the ATF anyway and gone our separate ways. Serving as chief of police in a place like this is right up Chris's alley, leaves him lots of time to work with his horses. And Josiah has it real good. Being retired and all, he misses this boring stuff and only comes around for the action. Ezra's happy as a clam arranging those high stakes poker games for the casino but you know, I think he's just as happy when his part-time peace officer status kicks in and he gets his adrenalin up kicking ass. Vin seems content even though he and Chanu spend more time dealing with fish and game violations than real crime, but he's still got his edge. And who would have thought Nathan would be as good a coroner as he is a doctor? Living or dead, he diagnoses them both, that's our Nathan. Our reserve status in Apache and Montezuma Counties gave us a way to keep the dogs and gets us called out enough to keep our hands and paws in big city doin's. And when we beat the Devil in this town - even this county, we get credit for it instead of those Fibbies the reporters think are the only federal agents who take a bite out of crime. No kid, you did good, real good."

JD thought so too. He just wished he remembered doing it.

A Year Later: Denver, Colorado

He'd been playing the Stargate episode on his iPod in a loop - there was something both comforting and disconcerting about it so he had it keep him company while he searched the databases for his quarry. They'd caught Cletus Fowler and Ella Gaines in his Arizona universe and if they existed here, he was going to find them. He'd spent a little time looking every day since he'd come back to work. He wished he'd asked Ezra - the dream world Ezra - for more details. Today was the first time he'd gotten a decent lead. He was going to follow it even if it took all weekend. Hell, even if it took every weekend.

"Hey, what episode is that?" Vin grabbed Buck's chair and rolled it over beside JD. He pushed a couple of chilidogs, a cardboard container of nachos and a can of Coke toward JD as he slipped into the chair and started on his own identical late night snack.

"It's the one where a horde of Stargate One teams come through the gate from a bunch of alternate realities. It's a pretty good one even though it's after Richard Dean Anderson left the show."

"Yeah, I remember that one. But don't it hit a mite too close to home? Kinda gives me the creeps."

JD munched one of his dogs while carefully snapping off a good-sized chunk of the other and slipping it to Betsy under his desk. "I guess that's sort of why I downloaded it. You think it's possible?" Vin was the only one he'd shared the whole of his Phoenix dream with because only Vin understood just how real it had seemed.

Vin shrugged. "What kind of alternate world would have two grown men running around in kids' bodies being raised by two of their best friends?"

"But in the alternate world wouldn't the kids really be kids? You know, kind of a time slip thing."

Vin washed down a mouthful of nachos with a long swallow of Coke. "I'm thinkin' even Josiah would have some trouble figuring out all the possibilities. Can't think of anything my dream was good for unless somewhere down the line the team rescues a couple of orphans and it's my job to convince Chris and Buck to adopt them. Your dream was a damn mother lode of useful stuff."

"You mean 'cause Guy Royal and Bob Spikes ended up in prison?"

Vin nodded. "That's the most obvious thing I guess. But maybe it was so you'd latch onto those two guide dog rejects and use what you learned about arson training in dreamland to train them up to find firearms in the real world."

"Hey, watch who you're calling a reject. Betsy and Blossom just liked to chase rabbits too much to be guide dogs." At the sound of her name, Betsy emerged from under JD's desk and wriggled her way over to Vin for a little quality ear scratching and a stray nacho. "Calling them rejects is like saying you're a rock singer reject who found he was good with a rifle."

"I never tried out for a rock band, JD. Ain't the same thing at all."

"Betsy and Blossom never signed up to be guide dogs either. They just got drafted and it didn't suit them."

"However they got liberated from the guide dog job, you wouldn't've ended up training 'em to find guns and ammo without you havin' that dream where you learned to train arson dogs."

JD gave Betsy another chunk of chilidog. She hadn't been allowed unearned snacks in his Phoenix dream but he and Buck had decided to train with tug toys like the local drug dogs in Denver. "It's more than that. It was like Betsy and Blossom were in that dream world too because they sure acted especially attached to me and Buck. There's a big waiting list for change of career dogs who fail the initial training and we never would have gotten them if the California Guide Dog gals hadn't seen how they acted like we'd raised 'em."

"I figured Buck just laid on the Wilmington charm," Vin responded. As I recall, you had to lay on plenty of the JD Dunne charm to sell Buck on the idea of adding dogs to the CDC in the first place. However it happened, it saved Buck's bacon. That gal might have gotten the drop on him if Blossom hadn't warned him she was packing. "

"Buck said he would have charmed her into letting him check out the contents of her bra long before she thought to use that Derringer on him."

"Maybe, but seeing as how we didn't find out until yesterday that she'd killed two DEA agents and a Fibbie with that same Derringer, I think Buck would have been caught off guard. He thought she was an innocent witness not a pistol packing assassin. It just ain't in Buck to be suspicious of a pretty girl who's acting like she's overwhelmed by his animal magnetism. I'm thinking maybe Buck better take Blossom on all his dates."

Vin reached over to the credenza next to JD's desk and picked up the newly framed photo of the seven men wearing their Old West costumes. "There could be lots of reasons for your dream and we don't even know 'em all yet. Like this." He waved the photo in JD's direction.

JD nodded. "I never would have thought to look for cowboy shooting on the internet if I hadn't had that dream. Now if I can just hold off Casey from beating my time in the mounted shooting. Who would have thought she'd be so good?"

Vin grinned and tapped JD's figure in the photo he was holding. "Well, at least she likes your hat. And I gotta tell you kid, that piece of your dream is fun even if it didn't save anyone's life or close any cases. It's pretty relaxin' shooting at targets that don't shoot back and ain't threatenin' people I care about. And I look damn fine in buckskin. So have you figured anything else that might dribble over to the real world from your dream?"

"Don't you think we ought to be looking to see if there's anything in your dream we can use? Doesn't seem logical for my dream to have so much useful stuff and not yours."

"JD there ain't nuthin' logical about this whole damn thing. Anyways, they were treatin' me like a kid. Didn't talk about cases in front of me. And it got real confusing just before I woke up."

"Still there must have been some reason for you to have a dream like mine - you know so impossible to wake up from. You must have overheard something. Tell me everything that happened."

Vin shook his head again. "It was just too creepy the way Chris was holding me on his lap all the time and making me wear pajamas with little cowboys on 'em. I think about it too much and it's gonna change the way I feel about Chris - maybe you and Buck too. Hell, even Ezra was giving me the 'I'm the cool uncle you can turn to when Chris doesn't understand' treatment. But I wasn't about to start acting seven no matter how much they tried to cuddle me into it. You tell me what you've been workin' so hard on the last few nights and if somethin' rings a bell, I'll let you know."

JD shuddered a little at the mention of cuddling. He had studiously avoided asking Vin anything about his own relationship with Buck in Vin's dreamworld. He didn't want to hear anything about Flintstones vitamins or feety pajamas or being read Dr. Seuss before being tucked into bed.

Vin wheeled the chair next to JD's and peered at the computer. "Who's Joseph Petrie?"

"Promise you won't tell. I can't let Chris or Buck know until I find something solid."

"JD, we both got secrets here. And even if I didn't have one, this is up to you to tell." Vin grinned as he crossed his heart with his right hand.

"In my dream they found out who killed Sarah and Adam."

All the humor drained out of Vin's face. He didn't say anything but all his attention was on JD.

"Joseph Petrie is the dead husband of the woman who hired Cletus Fowler to kill Chris's family. She was an old girlfriend of Chris's who wanted him back enough to commit murder. In my dream Chris and Buck tracked down Fowler by his M.O. as an arsonist but he died before he could tell Chris who'd hired him. So when the woman came around later Chris treated her like an old lover until you and Buck caught on to her. In the end she was only convicted of the murder of her husband and the attempted murder of all of us."

Vin leaned back in the chair and was quiet for a long moment. "Petrie. Don't remember any woman named Petrie in this world or in my dream. Leastways nobody I took notice of. What's her first name?"

"Ella. Chris knew her as Ella Gaines."

Vin sat up with a jerk. "Hell. I reckon my dream meant something after all. Show me what you've got." As he shuffled through JD's printouts, JD heard him mutter, "Everybody just thought I was a jealous, little kid."

He finally looked up at JD. "The whole team went to some kind of law enforcement Olympics. Ella Gaines arranged to have the competition on her ranch, contributed a shitload of money to the organizers to make sure. She had the guesthouse built just in time to invite the team. She probably figured out Chris wouldn't stay there without me and she made sure there'd be four 'uncles' to take me off his hands."

"How'd you find out that stuff?"

Vin grinned. "I went through her office. She caught me too but since I was a seven-year-old kid with a reading problem, it never occurred to her I might have actually been going through private stuff on her computer. I told her I was looking for computer games 'cause you and I were bored. She was all sickly sweet, like she'd be so happy if maybe I'd like to live there." Vin snorted. "Funny thing, her favorites on the computer included the web sites for a bunch of boarding schools that took little kids."

"So did you find anything that would connect her to the murders?"

"Not the murders of Chris's family. But I think maybe the bomb found in the guesthouse was a little incriminating."

"Wow. In my dream Ezra said she hired men to burn up the guesthouse and shoot anyone who tried to get out. It was just lucky for us you decided to sleep outside. So did the bomb go off? How did you get out?"

"She had big parties for the adults in the main house and some activities for kids outside where we wouldn't be in the way. Chris stayed in the house pretty late every night but Buck always came back in time to put us to bed."

"Yuck." JD definitely did not want to hear anything else about Buck putting him to bed. "In my Phoenix dream, Ezra said Chris was sleeping with her."

"Yeah, well I reckon he was here too, though he came back before dawn every morning, before he figured we'd be up. It was kind of sweet the way he went out of his way to reassure me he was just having some grown-up time and it wouldn't change anything between us. He got mad at Buck when I told him a grown man had to get his rocks off sometimes. He figured I must be repeating something I heard Buck say."

JD could barely stop laughing at the thought of Chris dealing with a 7-year-old orphan with Vin's 29-year-old mouth. But then he remembered why Vin was opening up about his dream. "So what about the bomb?"

"Me and mini-you were sleeping in bunk beds with Buck in a single. I went snooping around after you guys were asleep. Josiah and Nathan were sleepin' in the other bedroom. Ezra had just come back from a poker game in the main house and crashed on the good sofa in the main room. When Chris came back, he would sleep on the other sofa. I'm thinkin' that was part of her plan - not leavin' Chris a comfortable place to sleep in the guesthouse. Anyway, I was waitin' to be sure Ezra was asleep before tryin' to sneak into the main house.

I had a bad feeling about that woman and I intended to find somethin' Chris would believe. I wasn't really thinkin' there'd be anything useful in the guesthouse but I looked around anyway to kill some time until I was sure about Ezra being asleep. I almost didn't check the top shelf of the linen closet in the bathroom 'cause it was real weird havin' to stand on a chair to reach to it. Good thing I did though 'cause that's where I found it, blinking away right next the wall where the bunk beds were set up. I knew enough to see it needed someone with a remote trigger to set it off, but not enough to disarm it. All's I could think was to get everyone out of the place."

"And you did? You saved us all?" JD wasn't sure why he was worried about imaginary people in Vin's dream world but he was.

"Well, I managed to drag mini-you out of bed half asleep but I had to sock Buck in the nose as hard as I could to get him movin'."

"Damn, you must have broken his nose. Bet he was pissed."

"He was pissed all right but remember I only had a seven-year-old fist so I reckon it hurt but nuthin' got broke."

"But that seven-year-old fist had at least ten years of martial arts training behind it."

"I reckon that's why he was so pissed, but I think it hurt me as much as it did him." Vin flexed his fingers as though in remembrance. "He had to go look before he believed me but he got us all out of there fast enough after that. I reckon whoever had the remote was told to blow the place after Ezra got back but before Chris returned 'cause we'd hardly got out the back and around to the barn when it blew."

JD thought for a moment, looking for all the parallels between Vin's dream and what Ezra had told him." So it looks like you were the key to saving everyone both times. Did they arrest her?"

"I told you it all got crazy before I woke up so I don't know if they arrested her but they knew she was guilty. Chris came running out of the house right after the first explosion and . . . "

"First explosion?"

"Yeah, Buck made us all keep moving back because he thought the first explosion came from the side of the guesthouse opposite where we found the bomb. But Chris ran out and headed straight for it. I reckon to him it was like his whole life had been shattered a second time. Buck screamed at him to stop but he was carrying mini-you. By the time he'd handed you --him -- off to Josiah, I was racing to cut Chris off, screaming at him, cursing my seven-year-old lungs and especially my seven-year-old legs. He was more than three quarters of the way to the guesthouse porch when I threw myself at him just as the second bomb went off. It knocked us both to the ground and something hit me in the head. "Last thing I remember before I woke up next to you in the hospital was hearin' Chris tell Buck, "She had Sarah's locket."

+ + + + + + +

They were still in the office late the next morning when Buck came in looking for JD. There were phone calls to be made on Monday, lots of loose ends to tie up and hard evidence to gather, but JD thought they had enough to share with the rest of the team, except maybe Chris. They'd already decided to try their information out on Buck first so his appearance saved them from having to track him down. He was the best one to know if their theory was plausible in this world.

"Buck, we need to run something by you . . . "

Buck interrupted with characteristic impatience. "Better be important. I couldn't find you anywhere last night. Figured you were with Casey until she called looking for you. Said your cell went right to voice mail. You missed out on a great Nuggets game. I had courtside tickets."

"You were going with Chris."

"Yeah, well an old girlfriend of his came into town and . . . "

"Ella Gaines?" JD and Vin said almost simultaneously.

The look on Buck's face told JD they were right. When Worlds Collide was more than the title of an old science fiction movie. They were in the middle of a reality crosscheck that would bring a murderer to justice in three universes - even if two of them were imaginary.

Sequel: Reality Crosscheck

The Cohorts