ATF Universe

Chapter Eight

It was time. Doug had Vin accompany him on his rounds of the warehouse district as he checked various buildings for transients squatting in the buildings illegally. After the first couple of stops, he decided that they should "divide and conquer". He sent Vin up one block and he went up another, planning to meet at the warehouse at Fourth and Front in a couple hours.

Vin was suspicious of Doug and didn't want to let him out of his sight, but complied with the decision so he wouldn't blow his cover. He would wait until Doug was out of sight, then head for the warehouse. Once he got there, he could watch for Doug to set the fire and catch him red-handed.

Doug had other plans. He made sure Vin was out of sight before he changed course. Vin would come to his side one day, Doug was certain, but the young man wasn't ready yet. Doug made his way back over to Fifth Street. He had an objective to accomplish. Coming from the dark alley, he slipped into the building through the kitchen door. He had taped the striker open earlier so the door would close but not lock. He made his way to the next room and sneered at the trash sleeping there. "Soon," he whispered, making his way to the front door. He took the stack of newspapers and spread them in front of the door, pouring gasoline from his can on them. Setting the can aside, he struck the match, smiling as the small flame flickered to life. He tossed it on the newspapers and smiled as flames immediately roared and lapped at the door.

Moving quickly, he took the gas can and another pile of papers. He hurried back to the kitchen and built a second fire in the doorway between the kitchen and the main room, making sure that they would not be able to use the kitchen door for an escape either. Watching the flames lap up the doorway, Doug whispered, "Purification by fire." Then he headed out the door. He had to find Vin and bring him back to see his glorious accomplishment.

+ + + + + + +

It was about two in the morning when Josiah woke with a start. Listening carefully, over the pounding of his heart, Josiah tried to determine what woke him. Peering into the darkness, he could see nothing. But then he smelled it. Smoke. Josiah leapt out of the bed in the staff room of the mission. He threw open the door and moved into the meeting area. Smoke stung his eyes and now he could see flames in the kitchen. He hurried to the sleeping room and began to wake the patrons. The sleeping room was already filled with thick smoke.

"JD! JD, get up! The building is on fire!" Josiah urged.

JD jolted awake at Josiah's urging, disoriented. JD began coughing violently and rubbed his eyes at the stinging smoke. It finally clicked that he needed to move and JD jumped out of bed and began to help Josiah evacuate the building.

"JD, get these men outside. I'm going back to the staff room to make sure everyone got out."

JD nodded with a cough and began to herd the men out of the building. The confused and frightened men panicked as they neared the front door and found the flames that blocked their path. JD picked up a folding chair and threw it through the window. He used another chair to clear the glass from the frame and then began sending men through the window to safety. He got all the men outside and away from the building to the other side of the street. Two of the staffers emerged from the flaming building after them.

"Where's Josiah?" asked JD frantically.

"Still inside." JD started toward the building, and the man grabbed him. "You can't go back in there."

JD could hear sirens in the distance. He pushed past the two men and made his way back into the inferno. It was hot and the smoke was so thick he could barely see. JD made his way by memory through the building to the staff area. "Josiah! Josiah! Where are you?"

"Here! Over here!" called a voice that JD didn't recognize. He moved toward the voice and found Josiah and another man pinned under a collapsed portion of a wall. With a strength he didn't know he had, JD began to throw off pieces of debris from the two men. He could see that Josiah was unconscious. The sound of the rushing flames urged the young man to move faster. As he flung the last piece of rubble off Josiah, JD asked the other man if he could move. The man, coughing heavily, nodded that he could and stumbled to his feet. JD struggled with Josiah. The agent was much taller and heavier than the kid was, making him difficult to maneuver. With great effort, JD got Josiah into a semblance of a fireman's carry and began to stumble towards the exit. The staffer helped balance Josiah as they made their way through the searing flames and heavy smoke.

JD coughed as he fought for breath. It seemed to be a lot further going out than coming in and for a moment JD feared that he had taken a wrong turn. But suddenly they were at the doorway, now flooded with water from the fire hoses. Stumbling outside, a couple of firefighters grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground, pulling Josiah away from JD. One man kept hitting him on the arm and then covered him with a blanket still swatting at his arm. "Josiah?" JD called frantically before another fit of coughing overwhelmed him.

"Easy there. He's being taken care of," answered the firefighter.

JD rolled over and tried to sit up, but started coughing again. He was pushed back down, and found an oxygen mask being placed over his face.

"Just relax. We'll take good care of you," said the firefighter.

"JD?" The young agent visibly relaxed when Nathan leaned over him. "You rest easy now, we're taking care of Josiah," he assured. JD nodded and laid his head back on the ground.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was livid. He and Buck had been staking out the warehouse four blocks to the south when the call came over the radio. He and Buck rushed to the scene and the DPD sergeant had ordered them to do crowd control. Crowd control! He had two, maybe three men in that building and the guy wanted him to do crowd control. Chris bit back his emotions. He had to comply or blow his cover. Because they didn't know who the arsonist was yet, he couldn't risk exposing his identity to anyone on the police force until they had ruled them out as suspects.

Chris wasn't the only one who was angry. It took all he had to control Buck who was ready to blow his cover just to get to JD. Both men breathed a sigh of relief as JD stumbled through the doorway carrying Josiah and a couple of firefighters grabbed the pair. At least they were out. They couldn’t tell how badly Josiah was injured, but JD looked like he was moving all right. Two of the three were accounted for. Where in the hell was Vin? Chris anxiously scanned the crowd of homeless people and gawkers who lined the street, trying to catch a glimpse of the missing agent.

"All right now, move on back, folks. Move back," ordered Chris. As the crowd began to move, he finally caught a glimpse of Vin. Some homeless guy had hold of the Texan by the arm and was dragging the reluctant man away from the scene. He couldn't see the bum's face, but he could see Vin's clearly as the young man looked back at him. Fear seized his heart as Vin's eyes begged Chris to help him. Chris began to push through the crowd, but there were too many people and he couldn't reach the pair. "Buck!" he called to the tall dark haired man who was closer to the fleeing duo. Chris nodded toward the alley and Buck followed his lead.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had watched and waited for Doug to show up at the warehouse for more than an hour. He had seen several police officers check the building, including Chris and Buck, so JD must have gotten word to them that the warehouse was a potential target. Vin kept hidden in the alley, trying to avoid the police officers. He didn't need the complication of getting questioned or arrested.

"Hey Vin," said Doug softly.

Vin jumped, startled by Doug's sudden appearance. 'And the guys think I'm quiet!' he thought as he calmed his racing heart. "Doug," Vin acknowledged.

"I wanna show you somethin'," said Doug. "Come on."

As Vin followed the strange man, a spike of fear chilled the Texan. 'Show me something? No. No. No. It can't be.' Vin chewed on his lip as they wove through back alleys towards Fifth Street. The feeling of dread increased the further they went. Had he guessed wrong? As he rounded the corner onto Fifth, he could see flames shooting high into the sky from the mission.

Instinctively, he started toward the burning building, but Doug grabbed his arm. "Careful, son. You don't want to get burned." The coldness of the words filled Vin with dread. The Texan stared at Doug, unsettled by the look on his face. He could see that the other man was delighted with the racing flames. Doug softly chanted "Go! Go! Go!", encouraging the flames as they licked up the walls toward the roof. Vin tugged against the vice-like grip Doug had on his arm. "No! We'll watch from here." Vin shook his head in disbelief. There was no doubt that Doug had set this fire and that the crazy man had brought him along to watch it burn.

"Purification by fire."

Vin’s gaze was pulled away from the devastation before him back to Doug as the man's odd words finally registered. "What?"

"The fire burns out the impurities and we are all better for it," said Doug hypnotically.

Vin prayed Doug would confess to setting the fires, but the insane man was puffed up and smiling as if he was a proud father at an elementary school play. As people began to stumble out of the building, his face lost some of its joy and Doug began to curse.

Hope rising, Vin strained to see two familiar faces. 'Where are they? Oh, please, let them be all right.' Vin leaned to the left to see past the crate in front of him. 'Yes!' he almost said aloud as he saw JD follow the group of men. There was no missing that red shirt that stood out in the crowd. For once, Vin was grateful for the code color policy.

"No! No! No!" growled Doug, becoming angrier by the moment as he watched JD directing the men to safety across the street. "He's ruining everything!" Doug snarled. "That little brat is destroying everything! If they don't go through the fire, they won't be purified!"

Vin gasped and tried to escape Doug's grasp as he watched JD ran back into the inferno.

"Yes!" cheered Doug. "Go back inside and die!"

"No!" yelled Vin. "You can't let them die!"

Doug grabbed Vin by both shoulders and turned the younger man to face him. "You will learn that this is for the best. You will understand in time, my son."

"No," cried Vin as he pulled away. He felt like his soul was being ripped in half. He wanted desperately to get to JD and Josiah. He had to save them. But, if he did, Doug would escape and continue to kill by fire. As he helplessly tried to will his friends to safety, the night’s quiet air was broken. Sirens. He could hear sirens. Help was here.

Doug clamped his huge hand around Vin's wrist again. "You will understand."

Vin didn't want to understand. He wanted to help his friends. Knowing that help was on the scene, he pulled against Doug's grip lamely, trying to delay Doug’s escape. He couldn’t leave until he saw that his two friends were okay. Finally, he watched in relief as JD stumbled out of the building carrying Josiah. The kid looked like he was moving okay, but what about Josiah? Josiah wasn't moving at all. Vin’s heart sank as the paramedics moved around him hurriedly. Not Josiah. 'What have I done?' he thought guiltily. 'I was so busy watching out for me and JD, I never once thought about Josiah.'

Vin was yanked out of his stupor as Doug began to pull on his arm again. Vin jerked his head up and caught a glimpse of Chris working the crowd. Their eyes connected for a brief moment. 'Help me, cowboy,' he prayed, 'I don't know what to do.' With one last look, he allowed Doug to pull him away and down the alley back into the darkness.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pushed his way through the crowd, trying to get to the alley where Vin had disappeared. Finally reaching the lane, disappointment flooded him. Buck was coming back toward him. Buck held out his arms shrugging that he didn't know where they went. Chris cursed and slammed his fist into the trash bin, instantly regretting the action. Josiah was down, no one knew how serious yet. JD was down. Now Vin had gone missing. Chris nursed his bruised hand as he moved back to the crowd whispering a silent prayer for Josiah and for Vin.

As he and Buck broke the crowd up, they could see Josiah and JD being loaded in one of the ambulances. He nodded to Nathan as the dark skinned paramedic climbed into the ambulance with them. Chris wanted to be in there, but for now he'd have to settle for Nathan being with his two agents. He and Buck surveyed the crowd and the officers and firefighters on duty, looking for someone a little too interested in the fire. But there was no one.

The hour that passed before they were allowed to leave was agonizing. As soon as they could, Buck and Chris rushed to the hospital to get word on JD and Josiah. Nathan and Ezra were waiting for them in the chairs by the emergency room. "Nathan, how are they?" asked Chris, his voice much calmer than he felt.

"JD's all right. He has a burn on the back of his arm and he ate a lot of smoke. They're going to keep him overnight just to make sure he's all right. He's being moved to a room in a few minutes." Nathan stopped and looked Chris directly in the eye. "Josiah's still unconscious. He took a pretty hard knock to the head, plus he's suffering from smoke inhalation. He's got a nasty gash across his back and he might have some broken ribs."

The four men jumped to their feet as soon as the doors opened. Buck immediately moved forward as JD was wheeled out on a gurney. He leaned over the rolling bed, touching the young man gently on the shoulder. "Hey Kid. How ya doin'?"

JD reached up to pull his oxygen mask off his nose to answer Buck only to be thwarted by the nurse who pulled his hand away and replaced the mask. "Leave it alone, Mr. Dunne." Unable to say anything, JD rolled his eyes and Buck grinned at him.

"I'll be up to your room just as soon as they get you settled, Kid," said Buck as the hospital personnel pushed him back and wheeled JD by.

+ + + + + + +

Vin paced back and forth in the warehouse. He reminded himself he needed to stay in character to catch this guy red-handed, but it was difficult to focus. JD was hurt. Josiah was... Vin didn't want to think about his friend. He hadn't been close enough to see Josiah's injuries. All he knew was that Josiah had to be carried out of the mission and that he wasn't moving at all.

Meanwhile, Doug was nearby ranting and cursing profusely. The man was lost in his own private world as he raged about the failure of his objective. It appeared that the street mission would not be a total loss. Even more irritating was the fact that little parasite who had been hanging on to Vin had screwed up his plan by getting the homeless trash and that mission worker out of the fire. Then to top things off, Vin had gotten all nervous-like on him. The young man’s pacing caught his attention, bringing an end to the personal tirade.

"No one will find us," assured Doug. "They are looking for some homeless guy."

"You are a homeless guy," snarled Vin angrily.

"Am I? Things are not always as they seem my friend."

Vin stopped pacing and turned to stare at Doug.

"Do you want out of this life?" asked Doug. Vin nodded. "Then come with me."

Vin fought to suppress the shudder that threatened to run through him at the chilling invitation. The Texan wished desperately for a way to contact any of the team. Hell, he even wished that he had let Ezra go in first. Ezra was far more experienced with undercover work. Vin violently shoved that last thought away. No. No matter what, he wouldn't, couldn’t wish street life on anybody, especially the southerner. Vin pushed aside his fear and followed Doug out of the warehouse. He had to stick close to get this guy.

Chapter Nine

To say Vin was surprised would have been an understatement. He knew something was not quite right about Doug, but he had no clue that Doug was Douglas Randall, wealthy entrepreneur and owner of Randall Enterprises. Things were beginning to fall into place. Vin had felt that Doug was the arsonist all along, but it didn't match with Josiah's profile. Now seeing who Doug really was, Vin realized Doug did fit the profile. They both had been right.

Vin looked in the mirror as he straightened his tie. Ezra would love this. The transformation was unbelievable. After a very long, hot shower, scrubbing repeatedly with anti-lice shampoo and soap, Vin had metamorphosed from a street bum in filthy rags to Mr. GQ in a gray silk Armani suit. He had to admit, he cleaned up pretty well. The bruise on his cheek from the altercation with the bum who stole his blanket was fading. He smiled wryly. Doug had just about had a fit when Vin had refused to allow his hair to be cut, but Doug had relented.

Vin reverently picked up the cigar box, trying to push aside the emotions he felt as he opened it. Hell, it wasn't even the same box he had as a kid, yet it still inundated him with bittersweet memories. 'Bury it, Tanner. You have a job to do.' Vin scolded himself. He pulled out the small handgun and strapped on his ankle holster. He felt naked without his normal arsenal, but at least he had some defense. He stuffed the now empty box into the garbage can, symbolically stuffing his memories back inside his heart. He was going to take Douglas Randall down. Vin snugged up the tie once more and remembered exactly why he hated suits. They were too confining.

There was a quick knock at the door of the private washroom, followed by Douglas pushing it open and sticking his head in. "Are you ready?" Vin nodded and followed Randall to his office.

"Marla, this is Vin Taylor," Douglas smiled at Marla's lingering stare at Vin. She smiled, trying to cover her embarrassment at being caught ogling.

"Good morning, Mr. Taylor," she said lightly.

Douglas glanced at Vin. The poor guy was blushing. Douglas chuckled and led Vin to the safety of his office.

+ + + + + + +

Buck brushed the unruly black hair out of JD's eyes and off his forehead. "Ya need a haircut, Kid."

JD laughed, and started coughing.

"Easy there," said Buck, checking JD's nasal canula. "You gettin' enough air?"

JD nodded. "I'm fine, Buck." His voice was scratchy from the smoke. "How's Josiah?"

Buck frowned. "He's still out, Kid."

"Do you remember what happened, JD?" asked Chris.

JD looked at his boss. He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I was asleep. I didn't know what was happening until Josiah woke me up. Then I helped get everyone out. I'm real sorry, Chris."

"Nothing to be sorry for, JD. You did a good job," assured Chris. "You got the victims out and you got Josiah to safety."

"Yeah," Buck chuckled. "That was quite a picture. I could'a sworn Josiah's hands were draggin' on the ground. Ya need to get a little taller, Kid," teased Buck.

JD smiled, finding it hard to believe that he had managed to carry Josiah out of the burning building on his own. Pain shot through his injured arm as he shifted in the bed, seeking a more comfortable position. He closed his eyes tightly trying to shut out the discomfort.

"You all right?" asked Chris softly.

JD nodded. "It hurts a little."

Chris smiled. "Liar."

JD's eyes popped open and he stared in surprise at his boss.

"It hurts a lot and you know it," said Chris with a grin.

"Yeah. Yeah, it does," agreed JD.

Chris squeezed JD's shin, offering his support. "Since you're in good hands, I'm going to check on Josiah."

"Okay," replied JD as Chris went out the door, leaving Team 7's youngest agent under Buck's care.

He walked down the hall and around the corner to Josiah's room. Nathan was seated on one side of the bed, Ezra on the other, with his sore ankle propped on the bed and his crutches by his chair. A little bit of relief settled on Chris when he saw Nathan grin as he came in the small room.

"He woke up a few minutes ago," said Nathan, "but he's sleeping now."

Chris rubbed his hand across his face and blew out his breath. "He say anything?"

"Not really. He wanted us to get Mr. Dunne out of the mission," said Ezra.

"What the hell happened?" asked Chris to no one in particular. "Why'd he change his M.O.?" he asked, speaking of the arsonist. "He's been going for abandoned buildings and empty warehouses. Why'd he burn a mission full of people?"

"I take it you didn't see anyone suspicious?" asked the southerner.

Chris shook his head. "Only the guy who dragged Vin away from the scene." The team leader closed his eyes briefly and rubbed the back of his neck. After a couple of moments, he refocused his attention to the matter at hand. "You haven't heard from Vin, have you?" he asked hopefully.

"Not a peep," replied Ezra flipping open his cell phone and checking the battery level. It was fine.

Chris swore. Vin was out there alone with no contacts, no backup, with some guy the Texan didn't look too happy about.

+ + + + + + +

Vin spent the morning with Douglas in his office as Douglas briefed him on the business operation and then Vin sat observing in the background while Douglas conducted business. The guy was ruthless in his dealings. There was nothing illegal, but Douglas certainly didn't care who he trampled along the way.

Vin had not had any opportunity to try to check in with the team all morning. Whether intending to or not, Douglas hadn't let Vin out of his sight. Vin sat through lunch in the posh restaurant, barely nibbling at his food. With the gnawing worry in his stomach over Josiah and JD, Vin had lost his appetite. Josiah was hurt, maybe dead, and it was his fault. He should have been at the mission. He should have left Doug and gone in to the building to help them.

"Something wrong with your food?"

Vin shook his head. "Nah. I just ain't used to all this rich stuff." Silence fell over the table, causing Vin to feel uncomfortable. When he looked up, he saw that his benefactor had a disapproving look on his face. "Okay," said Vin submissively, "I'm not used to all this rich food."

"Better," said Douglas with a smile. "Appearances are everything, son."

Ezra. That was something the southerner would say. He had to get in contact with the wily undercover agent. He had to know about Josiah, and he had to get help bringing down Douglas Randall. Vin sighed.

"Tired, son?" asked Douglas.

Vin was seething inside. He really hated it when Douglas called him "son". He had no desire to be associated with this psycho. He had liked it when Joe Donlan had called him "son." He didn't mind when Josiah called him "son" or Buck called him "Junior." They were men he respected.

"Yes, sir. I guess I am."

"Me too. Let's take the afternoon off and get some sleep. We had a busy night last night and I have something in mind for tonight."

Vin looked up. 'Oh no,' he thought. 'Somehow, I've got to make contact with the others.'

+ + + + + + +

JD had been released from the hospital just before noon but he hadn't gone far. He had made it all the way down the corridor and around the corner to Josiah's room. The youngest agent of Team 7 sat in the corner in a chair watching Josiah sleep. Nathan had told him that Josiah hadn't awakened since that first time. JD settled into his seat and carefully stretched his arm. The burns hurt a lot, even with the ointment. He had been lucky that he hadn't been hurt worse.

Team 7's profiler had been positioned on his left side, to relieve pressure on his injured back and ribs. Pillows were placed around him to keep him from rolling over onto his injuries. A bandage adorned the right side of his forehead. Bruising peeked out from the edges of the bandage, contrasting the pale skin. A mask covered his nose and mouth, giving him the extra oxygen he needed and an IV flowed into Josiah's arm. "I should'a stayed with you," said JD softly.

"Ain't your fault, JD," said Buck as he stood up and walked over to the young man.

"Aw, Buck. I know. I just wish, I wish I could have done something."

"You did do something, Mr. Dunne," said Ezra. "You saved his life."

JD shrugged off their encouragement. He wouldn't be happy until he heard Josiah's voice himself and knew his friend was really all right.

Chris and Nathan came back into the room with coffee and sandwiches. Nathan passed Buck and JD sandwiches.

"Any change?" asked Chris as he handed Ezra a sandwich.

"Not yet," the southerner replied.

"What about Vin?" asked Chris.

Ezra sighed and shook his head. They all were worried about their missing teammate. Not knowing where he was or who he was with was eating away at all of them.

"What about Vin?" asked JD. The words were the same as Chris's, but the question wasn’t. JD hadn’t been told that Vin was missing.

"We haven't heard from him since the fire last night," said Buck. "He ran off with some bum. Didn’t look too happy about it."

"Doug," said JD.

"You know this guy?" pressed Chris.

"Not really. Just that his name is Doug and Vin is convinced he's the arsonist. The guy's really strange."

"Could you ID him?" asked Chris.

"The bottle!" shouted JD. "No! I forgot! In all the confusion, I forgot!"

"Calm down, Kid," said Buck. He glanced at the bed and saw Josiah stirring at the noise. "Calm down. You don't want to get us tossed out."

"Buck, you don't get it. Vin," JD groped for words. "He gave me an empty whiskey bottle with Doug's prints on it. I was going to get it to Ezra this morning, but the fire, and..."

"Where's the bottle now?" asked Chris.

JD closed his eyes and shook his head. "In all the confusion, I left it in the mission." JD started to get up. "I gotta find it. Maybe it's still there."

Buck pushed him back into the chair. "No, Kid. There's barely anything left standing."

"But we gotta find Vin and this bottle may be the key to where he is. This Doug guy is crazy."

"Okay, Kid. We'll find him," said Buck. "But you, you're going to stay here with Ezra and Josiah."

"I'm fine, Buck."

"Yep. I know you are Kid," said Buck as he ruffled JD's hair. "But you're still staying here. We'll find Vin."

"JD?" a low raspy rumble sounded from the bed. "Get JD out of the mission."

"Josiah?" asked Nathan, moving to the side of the bed. "It's okay. JD is safe."

"Get JD out," mumbled Josiah.

JD moved next to Nathan. "Josiah, I'm okay. See? I'm right here."

"JD?" asked Josiah.

"Yeah, it's me."

"Okay," mumbled Josiah as he began to drift off again.

"See, Kid?" said Buck. "Josiah needs you here when he wakes up."

JD nodded. He would stay for now, but if they didn't find Vin in the next few hours, he was going to head for the streets again.

Chapter Ten

Vin catnapped in the plush guestroom of Douglas Randall's multi-million-dollar home in the outskirts of the city. As exhausted as he was, he found it impossible to sleep longer than a few minutes at a time. The memories of Josiah helping him as a teen in the mission rolled through his mind, accenting his failure to help save his friend. In frustration, Vin pounded his fist on the bed. Josiah had to be all right. He just had to be. Vin got up and went into the adjoining bathroom. He splashed cold water on his face. What was he going to do now? How would he get the goods on Douglas? If Josiah were dead, Randall would pay.

Someone knocked on the bedroom door.

"Yeah?" said Vin.

"Dinner in thirty minutes, Mr. Taylor," said the butler.

"Thank you," said Vin. He walked to the closet that held a variety of clothing, all of which were mysteriously in his size. Vin couldn't help but wonder if Douglas had been staking him out. Vin pulled on a pair of black pants and a red sweater. He replaced his ankle holster and left the room, walking down the hallway toward the dining room.

"Vin!" called Douglas as the Texan passed the den, "In here."

Vin joined Douglas in the den where he was watching the evening news.

"And in local news, an arsonist has struck again in the warehouse district." Douglas perked up at the story’s introduction as Vin stepped closer to the TV. Footage was shown of the mission burning as the reporter droned on. The next words took Vin's breath away. "One man was fatally injured while another remains hospitalized in stable condition." Vin dropped bonelessly into the chair in utter shock. It was his worst nightmare. Josiah was dead. He buried his face in his hands, covering the tears that threatened.

"Don't take it so hard, son. It wasn't a total failure. At least we got one of them," said Douglas as he tried to console the distressed man. "We'll just have to work harder next time."

Vin sucked in his breath and swallowed the fury that welled inside him as he reminded himself that being brought up on murder charges would not bring Josiah back.

"Let's eat, and then I have some business to take care of," said Douglas as he steered Vin toward the dining room. "I had Jennifer prepare a simple meal, something your stomach will handle."

The thought of food was revolting to his already churning belly. Vin bolted from Doug's grasp and made it to the bathroom just in time to lose the contents of his stomach.

Ten days worth of struggling on the streets, battling his memories, and his overwhelming grief took its toll. His protesting stomach heaved repeatedly until there was nothing left, and then the dry heaves took control. Muscles clenched and spasmed again and again, until Vin weakly curled up on the floor with tears in his eyes.

A tap on the door announced someone's presence. "Mr. Taylor?" The butler set his tray on counter. "May I be of assistance, sir?" He took Vin's arm and helped him sit up. When he was sure that Vin could sit up on his own, he reached for the glass of water and the two tablets that were on the tray. "Mr. Randall sent this for you. He said it would help you feel better."

Vin didn't know what the pills were and right now, he didn't care. He took them from the butler and quickly washed them down with the water. "Thank you," he mumbled.

"Perhaps you should lie down, sir?" suggested the butler.

Vin nodded and the man helped him up, steadying him as he walked to the bed. Vin slipped off his shoes, crawled into bed fully clothed and closed his eyes. He felt the comforter being pulled up over him. Vin sighed, trying to relax. He could hear the butler moving around in his bathroom, cleaning up his mess. That was one job he wouldn't want. Vin felt very sleepy and found that he couldn’t open his eyes. As he started to drift off, he realized it was probably sleeping pills that he had taken. His last thought was hoping that Douglas didn't do anything tonight.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah opened his eyes. Blinking a few times, he looked around, realizing he was in a hospital. JD was slumped in a chair next to the bed, sleeping. Noting the bandage on JD's arm, he wondered how the young man had been injured. Josiah took a deep breath, which was stopped short by pain in his ribs and back. The throbbing in his head told him he had hurt his head as well. Lying on his side, he couldn't see the other side of the room, but he knew someone was there when he heard the pages of a book turning.

"Hello?" he said softly. JD shifted but didn't wake.

"Mr. Sanchez?" said Ezra, laying aside his book and picking up his crutches. He hobbled around the bed so he could see Josiah's face.

"How are you feeling?" asked Ezra.

"I feel like I should lie still for awhile."

"Yes, well, you have a concussion as well as a nasty gash on your back and some bruised ribs." Ezra leaned his hip on the bed, shifting his weight off the crutches.

"What happened to JD?" asked Josiah.

"Mr. Dunne has a first degree burn on his arm," answered Ezra.

"How did he get it?" asked Josiah, figuring the kid probably did something heroic.

"He carried you out of the mission."

"I figured it was something like that." Josiah shifted slightly, grimacing at the pain the movement caused. "Is everyone else all right? Did they all get out?"

Ezra sighed. "I'm sorry, Josiah. The mission worker you went back to rescue didn't make it. He was able to walk out under his own power when Mr. Dunne was rescuing you, but apparently his lungs were severely damaged. The doctors couldn't save him."

Josiah nodded sadly as the news sank in. "Did they catch the arsonist?"

"Not yet, I'm afraid."

"Where is everyone?" Josiah grimaced as his back spasmed.

"The rest of the team is out looking for Mr. Tanner. He hasn't been seen or heard from since the fire last night."

"Josiah!" JD sat up and stifled a yawn.

"I hear I owe you thanks, son," said Josiah.

"Nah. You would've done the same for me." JD shrugged, wincing with the pain in his upper arm. He grasped Josiah's hand, reassuring himself through the physical contact that the older man was all right.

"Mr. Dunne...JD," Ezra corrected himself, "I believe it is time to have that dressing changed." JD nodded and headed out the door.

+ + + + + + +

Chris kicked the door of the cruiser closed. They had nothing. He and Buck had searched all the places they had met with Vin in the past ten days and came up empty-handed. The sharpshooter was nowhere to be found. Vin was a good agent, more than capable at his job, but as the hours passed and there was no word from him, Chris's fear for Vin's safety grew. He leaned against the car and blew out his breath. They had been searching since noon and it was now nearing midnight. Chris washed his hand over his face anxiously.

"We'll find him," said Buck softly.

"How?" snapped Chris. "We don't have a clue where he is." Buck didn't say anything. Chris turned to look at his oldest friend. Gone was Buck's gregarious smile and in its place were lines of worry that were etched around his somber eyes. But there was more than worry on that face, there was hurt lingering there as well. Chris reached across the distance between them allowing his closed fist to fall and bounce off Buck's shoulder. "I'm sorry."

Buck nodded acceptance of the apology. "Maybe we should try digging through the mission. Maybe that bottle survived somehow." Chris looked at Buck, shaking his head. Both men knew there was little hope of that, but it was something to do and that was better than doing nothing.

+ + + + + + +

Douglas spent the day at the office conducting business. Vin had been out cold when he left in the morning, and was still sleeping when he came home for lunch. Either the kid must have been exhausted or he was very sensitive to sleeping pills. He left orders to let the young man sleep undisturbed, then returned to the office to plan his next move. The failure at the mission gnawed at him. He would make up for it tonight. And Vin would help him. He had to draw Vin in while he was still vulnerable. If he could get the kid to help him start a fire, he would see how great it was, how right it was, and he would be hooked.

+ + + + + + +

JD left Josiah's room and went to get his dressing changed as Ezra suggested. When the nurse was finished, JD did not return to his teammate's room. Instead, he caught a cab and headed for home. When he reached the apartment, he changed his clothes and grabbed a pair of work gloves. He lifted the keys to Buck's truck and headed out the door, hoping Buck had a shovel in the junker.

JD drove to the mission going over the last few days, trying to figure out what he could have done different. He had left Vin hung out to dry. Vin had trusted him to get the bottle to Ezra to be tested for fingerprints. It was their first piece of solid evidence and he had lost it. He had to find the bottle. JD knew there wasn't much hope, but he had to try. Vin was out there with a psycho and the fingerprints were the only clue to the bum's identity. JD parked Buck's truck in the alley by what was left of the mission. JD grabbed the flashlight out of the glove box, pulled the shovel from the truck bed, and entered the burned out structure.

+ + + + + + +

Doug couldn't believe his luck. It was that annoying kid. He was picking through the rubble at the mission, digging for anything of value. This was too perfect. He knew that Vin had said that he would fight his own battles and take care of the kid himself, but presenting Vin with the opportunity to get rid of the kid would be just the ticket to prove that Vin was ready to join his efforts.

The young agent was so caught up in digging through the rubble that he never knew what was coming. Doug crept up behind him and struck him on the back of the head with a two-by-four, smiling as the kid collapsed at his feet. The bum dragged the limp body through the rubble, and out into the alley. He struggled a bit with JD's dead weight as he roughly deposited the kid into his shopping cart. He carefully covered the body with a tarp, making sure to hide the legs that were hanging over the front of the basket. When the tarp was secure, he pushed his cart through the streets headed for tonight's target, humming to himself.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra sat in the chair JD had vacated, watching over Josiah as he slept. He checked his gold watch for the third time in the past twenty minutes. 'JD should be back soon. It couldn't take that long to change a dressing. Maybe he went to get a bite to eat.' Ezra hated sitting around, waiting. He felt like he wasn't helping at all. Shaking his head, he reminded himself that he was the team's main phone contact, and he was supporting Josiah so he was doing something. After pulling up the blanket that Josiah had just shrugged off, Ezra picked up the newspaper and began reading the business section.

About a half hour later, a nurse came in the room and changed Josiah's IV, unintentionally waking him. After she left, he lay quietly for a few moments looking at the backside of the page Ezra was reading. He furrowed his brow, trying to make out the picture that was cut in half by the fold in the paper. After concentrating on the paper for a few more minutes, he asked excitedly, "Ezra! Do you have a pen?"

"Excuse me?" asked Ezra in surprise.

"A pen, Ezra. A pen," repeated Josiah as he tried to sit up, grimacing as his back protested the abrupt movement.

"Easy, Josiah. You don't want to pull your stitches," said Ezra, dropping the paper and hobbling over to the bed. He put a calming hand on Josiah's arm, waiting for the man to regain a comfortable position. "What is it?"

"The newspaper. There's a picture on the back of the page you were reading."

Ezra balanced carefully on his good foot then stooped to pick up the paper off the floor. He flipped to the back page and held it up. "This one?" he asked.

"Draw in some stubble and a stocking cap," instructed Josiah.

Ezra raised his eyebrows, but didn't question Josiah. He pulled his Mont Blanc pen from his pocket and scratched in the cap and a beard as requested. When he finished, he held it up for Josiah to see.

"It's him, Ezra. That's Doug."

"The bum Vin has been with?" asked Ezra. "It can't be. This is Douglas Randall of Randall Enterprises." Ezra paused, thinking for a moment. "Which would make him fit the profile perfectly."

"Exactly, brother," said Josiah. "Someone in a position to help others, taking their power to help to an extreme."

"Josiah, will you be all right here alone for a few minutes? JD should be back soon," said Ezra. "I need to go to the office and dig up everything I can find on this guy."

"Go. Hurry, " said Josiah, waving Ezra away with his hand. "Keep me informed?"

"Count on it," said Ezra, grabbing his crutches before hobbling out the door as quickly as he could.


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