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Thanks to Ann and Nancy for their help with details of the injury used in this fic. Also thanks to Becky and Dusty for beta-reading this for me. Story added 21/10/05. Now complete.
It had been three days. Three days of anxiety while waiting for Vin to wake. Three days of wondering who had caused the man to endure yet another extended hospital stay.
Chris looked round the hospital room until his gaze returned to the bed where his injured friend lay. The blond team leader studied the man's face closely, wishing he would wake but knowing he wouldn't. Vin was in an induced coma and was likely to stay that way for a while longer. He was on life support so that his every bodily function and vital sign could be monitored minute by minute.
Vin looked gray - gray and sick. The Texan's long hair lay limply on the pillow, spread on the material under his head like a halo. A long white pad ran down the side of his face from temple to jaw. It covered a many stitched wound that had become infected. Chris winced as he remembered that the sharpshooter's face had been split open like a melon. The doctor thought it had been caused by a long blunt object, maybe a pipe, a bat, or something of the like.
Chris felt his anger growing again as he thought back to the day of Vin's attack.
Three days earlier
The blond ran across the outer office to his own room to pick up the incessantly ringing phone before it stopped. The desk was side-on to the door and he wouldn't have been able to do his next feat if it had been situated differently. He leapt to sit on the desk, sliding his backside along the polished surface of the furniture, coming to a neat halt at the far end, legs dangling, phone in hand. He deliberately kept the edge of his desk clear to allow for his acrobatics. It was a maneuver he'd perfected over the years and he couldn't help smiling.
"Larabee," he said breathlessly. He heard only silence and his smile evaporated like a puddle on a hot day. Dammit. Next time I'll leave it to ring, he thought as he started to put the phone down. Something stopped him, though, and he raised it back to his ear with a frown. He'd heard something, not a voice, but a sound of some sort on the other end. "Hello? Is anyone there?" he called slowly.
"Cow..cowboy?" a quiet, shaking voice mumbled.
Chris's mouth dried up instantly and he swayed slightly, feeling dizzy. "Vin?" he managed to say as he feverishly tried to produce some saliva.
"Mur..." Vin said incoherently, almost in a whisper.
"What? I don't understand. Vin?" Chris said frantically as he jumped down off his desk, jarring his left ankle as he did so.
Chris paced up and down trying to ease the pain in his joint. He lifted the affected limb off the floor and shook it irritably. "Vin? Vin? Talk to me, you bastard!" he called as he stood there swaying slightly on one leg. He put his foot down, shook the phone as if that would help, and put it back to his ear.
"Chris? What the hell's going on?" Buck asked as he strode into the office. The ladies' man had heard the raised voice and knew there was trouble on the horizon. When Chris got a certain tone in his voice it could only mean that he was talking to one particular special person.
The black-clad man looked up in anguish. "Vin called, but I couldn't understand a damned word he said. He sounded hurt - probably a head injury."
The tall agent plucked the phone from his friend's hand and listened, his mustache quivering anxiously. "Still connected. JD?" he yelled, making Chris wince. "Trace where Vin was calling from. He's still got an open line on Chris's phone."
"Sure," the youngest agent's disembodied voice called.
"Keep talking to him, Chris. He may hear ya, pard," Buck said as he passed the phone back and patted the man's back in encouragement.
Chris exchanged worried glances with his oldest friend and nodded. "Vin? Can you hear me? We'll be with you as soon as we can. Can you answer me, buddy?"
No reply, although Chris thought he heard a muffled groaning sound. He felt a bit stupid at the fact that he was almost talking to himself. It was rather like the feeling he had when leaving messages on an answering machine. That wasn't going to stop him, though. Vin was in need of help and he was going to keep on reassuring him that they were going to find him.
"JD's tracing the call so we can come get you," he continued. "You hear me, Vin? Don't you dare give up on me. You listening?" The black-clad man looked up at Buck and shook his head as he clenched his jaw. All he could now hear was silence, and that scared him.
Buck turned and went outside, seeing that Chris was getting upset. The blond could hear him talking, presumably to JD.
"Got it, Stud. He's somewhere near First and Main. Pat's gonna take over tracing while we set off. He can give us more detail while we travel," Buck called as he came into sight and beckoned Chris to hurry up.
Pat was a new temporary member of staff who had been working with JD on setting up a new database on the computers. He was a surveillance expert and had come in very handy over the past few weeks.
"Let's get going then." Chris put the phone back to his mouth once more. "We're coming, Vin. We won't be long. Just hang in there."
He then ran after the rest of his team. He saw that Nathan, the team's medic, had his bag of medical supplies with him. It certainly sounded as though it would be needed.
Josiah, Team 7's criminal profiler, punched the elevator button forcefully, as if power alone would make the vehicle come quicker. Ezra Standish, the undercover agent, fiddled with the ring on his finger anxiously as he stood next to the big man. Buck and JD, meanwhile, stood side by side, the younger man on the phone talking to Pat.
The elevator finally arrived and the six men piled inside. They rode down to the parking garage in silence and split up to travel in two vehicles.
They drove to First and Main at break-neck pace and pulled into a parking lot with a squealing of tires. The men leapt out of the cars and surveyed the area visually from where they stood for any sign of Vin. It was almost as if they expected him to leap out from a hiding place shouting 'April Fool!'.
"JD? Anything to add?" Chris called, seeing the phone still clamped to the dark-haired agent's ear.
JD pointed vaguely, his attention still focused on what Pat was telling him. "Pinned down to this side of the street - somewhere between the junction and that alley."
Chris nodded and watched his men begin searching the area. The blond headed straight to the alley, his gut telling him that would be where his friend would be found.
"Nathan!" he roared when his guess became fact. He knelt down and checked for a pulse with trembling fingers. He found one thumping away under his digits and he sighed loudly in relief. The rhythm was a bit erratic but at least it was there, that was all that mattered.
Buck and Josiah arrived first and threw aside bags of garbage to make more room round their fallen colleague. One bag split and the messy contents clung to Buck's jeans.
He cursed foully and tried to hold his breath at the resulting stench. "Jesus. Curry, pizza, and God alone knows what that is," he complained as he pointed to something brown and soft.
"Here ya go, Brother. Wipe it off with these," Josiah said as he passed over a handful of tissues. He then kicked the last few rubbish bags away carefully with the toe of his boot.
"Thanks, pard. Gonna stink for days," the ladies' man said as he began to gingerly get rid of the dirt from his clothes.
The medic came tearing into the alley at that point and dropped to his knees beside Vin. He turned the long-haired man over and pushed his tresses away from his face. He swore as the horrible wound down the side of Vin's head was revealed. He leaned down close and studied it as he probed it with gentle fingers. It poured blood and the skin resembled a piece of raw, cut meat. He sucked in a worried breath and swore again.
Josiah handed over a long pad without being asked and Nathan covered the wound with it.
"Hold it for me while I check the rest of him, will ya, Josiah?" he asked without looking up, his eyes already roving over the rest of his friend's body.
"Sure, Brother." Josiah took up position beside Nathan and did what was necessary.
Nathan checked every inch of Vin's body and found another large bump on the back of the man's head. He opened Vin's eyes and peered at them closely, seeing that the pupils were uneven. He sat back on his heels and pursed his lips.
"Ambulance is on its way. They wanna know what to expect, Nate," Buck called from nearby, dirty tissues adorning the asphalt round his feet.
Nathan talked as he started work again, his voice betraying his worry. He looked up briefly at Buck and grimaced. "Two head injuries. One open wound stretching from temple to jaw, and a large bump on the back of his skull. His pupils are real uneven, too."
"Shit." Buck swore before relaying the message to dispatch.
"JD? Run and get the oxygen from the Explorer, will ya?" Nathan asked as he threw the keys to the dark-haired agent.
JD caught the jangling bunch, already on the move, and then ran out of sight fast. He was back beside the medic within seconds, though, with what was required. The young agent hardly sounded out of breath after his extreme exercise.
The medic started Vin on the oxygen and then turned him on his side, the wound on Vin's face uppermost so as not to get any dirt in it. Although it was covered, Nathan preferred to be on the cautious side. He began to bandage it into place ready for the trip to the hospital.
"Brought a blanket, too," JD said as he showed it to the medic.
"Thanks. Can you deal with it?" Nathan asked as JD nodded and covered Vin with the thick material.
The medic put his hand on Vin's shoulder and gave it a rub, hoping the man could feel his touch. So far, though, Vin hadn't even groaned and his eyes remained resolutely shut.
"Guys?" Chris said as he looked round the group. "Look around. See if you can find any evidence of what happened here. Nate and I'll go to the hospital with Vin. Question the store owners, too, okay? Keep me informed of anything you find."
"Sure thing," JD said.
"I'll call CSU," Josiah offered as he pulled out his cell.
Chris nodded, knowing he could rely on his team to do what was necessary without any input from him.
"Could you leave the keys to your transportation, Mr. Larabee? We'll see it safely back into your care when we've finished," Ezra asked as he moved to stand beside the blond.
"Thanks, Ez," the blond said as he tossed the keys to the undercover agent.
Ezra caught them deftly and nodded his head in thanks, putting them safely in his pocket.
Chris watched distractedly as his men began looking for evidence in the alley. Each man donned a pair of surgical gloves so that they could collect anything that they thought might be relevant. Josiah and JD wandered up to the far end and worked their way slowly back, their eagle eyes not missing anything. Ezra bravely took the task of looking through the pile of rubbish, although he did comment that Buck would be better suited, seeing as he was already covered in half the contents. He got a rude reply from the tall, dark agent and decided to keep his lips buttoned in the future.
Chris couldn't help smiling at the expected moaning from the undercover agent. The man never liked to get his hands or clothes dirty.
Chris snapped back to the matter at hand suddenly and hurried to the alley's entrance when he heard the sound of approaching sirens. He waved his arms and the vehicle pulled in nearby.
One of the paramedics got out and followed Chris into the alley. He hurried to kneel beside Nathan and asked the medic for any relevant information he had. The man then carefully looked under the pad on Vin's face and shook his head.
"Ouch," he muttered. "Has he been conscious at all?"
"Not since we've been here. He managed to call us just after he was hit, but he wasn't coherent and didn't speak for long," Chris said from behind the man.
When the second paramedic arrived, they set up an IV and double-checked that the agent hadn't got any other injuries. They moved Vin onto a gurney and took him to the ambulance with Chris and Nathan tagging along behind.
Buck stood up and stretched his back carefully. He'd been looking down a storm drain at the end of the alley hoping to find the weapon that had been used on Vin.
"Anything?" Josiah asked as he ambled to join his mustached friend. He looked speculatively down the hole at his friend's feet and then arched an enquiring eyebrow.
The dark, glossy-haired head shook negatively in reply. "No, not a damned thing. What about you?" the ladies' man asked as he rubbed his filthy hands down his pant legs. He'd given up his futile attempts to keep his clothes clean. He knew he was fighting a losing battle in that respect.
The profiler also shook his head and then shrugged unhappily. "We're all coming up empty. Maybe CSU will find something that we've overlooked."
Buck looked at his watch and narrowed his eyes in annoyance when he saw the time. "Well, they're taking their own sweet time getting here," he muttered with a scowl.
No sooner were the words spoken than he saw the CSU team draw up in a Hummer nearby. He almost growled and strode indignantly to meet them, intercepting the first man to appear in view.
"Where the hell ya been?" Buck pointed to his watch and then into the alley. "We've got a fresh crime scene, and you've been sitting in yer fancy office scratching yer asses, while we've been waiting here like idiots."
"Have trouble scratching our ass if we've been sitting on it," the unfortunate forensic agent snapped.
"Yeah, hold on a minute, bud. We've been working another site on the other side of town. We're flat out with work today," the team leader, Mal Cotton, said defensively as he climbed out of the vehicle and moved to stand between Buck and the other man.
"Yeah, yeah," Buck grumbled, not calming down at all. His crime scene involved a friend and fellow law enforcer, so he considered it a priority.
"Hey, guys. We're all on the same side here," Josiah said in a placating tone as he stepped forward. "Why don't I show you what we've done so far so you can get started?"
"Sounds like a plan," Mal said as he looked in disgust at Buck.
He waited for a few seconds but finally sighed and edged round Buck, who didn't move aside to aid his journey. Mal then followed the huge profiler as he tried to calm his frayed nerves. His job was hard enough without being treated badly by colleagues from other departments.
Josiah tried to settle the situation down with a few platitudes. "Sorry if Buck was a bit testy with you. You see it's a friend of ours that's the victim in this crime and we're more than a bit upset about it. He's badly hurt you see."
"I understand. We got here as fast as we could," Mal said with an understanding nod, his anger dissipating.
Buck, meanwhile, watched the two men walk away, listening as their voices grew softer with the growing distance. He knew he'd acted badly but he always got anxious and a bit uncontrollable when a member of the team was hurt. That type of situation tended to bring out the worst in his temperament.
"Are you well, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked as he sidled up to the man, having watched the altercation from a few feet away.
Buck winced and shook his head. "No, I ain't, Ez. I wanna catch the bastard that did this to Vin."
"We will, but patience is an attribute that we will have to employ at the moment. Shall we instigate the questioning of the locals?" Ezra said as he put a gentle hand on Buck's elbow and turned him in the direction of the street opposite. He knew that his friend needed to be occupied in a useful manner right now.
"Yeah, but I'd better apologize to that guy first. Be back in a minute." Buck headed back into the alley and moved to stand beside Mal. "Look, pard, I wanna say sorry for the way I acted earlier. I was a jerk."
Mal looked at Buck and nodded sympathetically. He could see that Buck was genuinely remorseful and Mal knew that he would have acted exactly the same way if one of his colleagues had been the one affected. "That's okay. I understand why you were so antsy. Hope yer friend will recover. You can be sure that we'll do our best for you and him."
Buck held out his hand and smiled and Mal shook it warmly putting the incident out of his mind. The tall ATF agent then hurried back to Ezra and JD and began door-to-door enquiries.
Meanwhile, Vin had reached the hospital. He was taken straight through to be examined by one of the ER doctors. Nathan and Chris were persuaded to stay in the waiting area and they spent their time filling in the usual forms that were required.
That task didn't take long, though, and Chris, as usual, began getting fidgety almost immediately. If he wasn't perched uncomfortably on a chair, he was wandering round the room annoying everyone. He'd pace up and down the aisle between the two sets of chairs, while muttering and glaring at anyone who told him to sit down. First he'd go to the building's entrance and look out, and then he'd prowl up to the desk where a nurse was working. His face clouded angrily with every passing minute and Nathan was glad when they were finally called. Chris and hospitals mixed as well as coffee and paint and it was always hard work getting the man to keep his cool.
"Mr. Larabee?" a voice called after an hour had passed.
"Yeah?" Chris said as he leapt up from his chair and hurried forward. He moved to stand beside the tall, slim doctor who had summoned him.
"I'm Dr. Parks and I've been dealing with Mr. Tanner's injuries since his admission. You can join Mr. Tanner now because he's just been moved to ICU," Dr. Parks said with a smile.
"How is he?" Nathan asked anxiously as he hurried to join the fast moving blond.
Dr. Parks turned and began walking as he talked. "Still unconscious. He's got a fractured skull and broken cheek. We've done some x-rays and a CAT scan and have found that there's some bad swelling in his brain. We'll be keeping a close eye on him to see if it gets worse or better. We've inserted a monitor, kinda like a screw, into his skull to keep an eye on the pressure."
Chris nodded and flicked a look across at his friend who was striding along beside him. He didn't really understand what he'd been told, but he knew he could ask Nathan for an explanation later. All he cared about at the moment was seeing Vin. Things didn't seem to be going too well for his friend right now from what he'd just heard.
The two agents continued following the doctor along the rabbit warren of hallways until they reached ICU. They were shown into Vin's room and they immediately took up position by the bed.
"He's on life support and in an induced coma." Dr. Parks held out his hands in a placating gesture when he saw the horrified look on Chris's face. "It is purely so that we can see everything that is happening to his body. We need to watch him intensively in the near future, so there will be a nurse with him round the clock. He's on very strong medication and attached to a ventilator, as well as all the other machines you see, to allow us to do this."
"What do you reckon he was hit with?"
The doctor pursed his lips as he contemplated options. "Maybe a pipe or bat," he said speculatively. "Something solid and cylindrical, whatever it was."
Dr. Parks nodded abruptly as his beeper summoned his attention. He then turned and left the room at a run.
Nathan moved to his right and studied the readouts on the machines and pursed his lips.
"Nate?" Chris asked, watching his friend closely. He always relied heavily on Nathan at times like this. He was grateful to have a man with such good medical knowledge on his team. At the moment he couldn't read the man's face, though, and that meant he was trying to hide something.
Nathan shrugged unhappily as he pointed to a number on the screen nearest him. He knew he had to be truthful, no matter how painful that should turn out to be. "The pressure in his skull is real high. 38 ain't good at all."
"What did the doctor mean about putting in a screw?" the blond asked, deciding now was a good time to learn something new. He knew he should have asked Dr. Parks, but he'd forgotten after hearing about Vin being in an induced coma.
Nathan pointed to the top of Vin's skull and Chris really rather wished he hadn't looked at the indicated place.
The medic said, "They drill a small hole through the skull and put in a screw, called an ICP, which stands for Intra-cranial pressure monitor. It rests against the brain and uses a transducer to check the pressure inside his skull and sends the readouts here."
"What will happen if the pressure gets too high?" Chris asked worriedly with a frown.
"Well, whatever happens they will probably remove any cerebrospinal fluid that collects round his brain. That might help a bit, but if the brain keeps swelling, they'll perform a craniotomy. That's removing a part of the skull to allow the brain to swell into the space. They should be able to replace the piece of skull once the swelling's gone down. If they don't replace the piece of skull, the operation is called a craniectomy instead."
Chris felt his face drain of color. He hated head injuries and this one in particular sounded bad. "Shit."
"Hopefully it won't come to that," Nathan said, trying to sound reassuring but not knowing if he'd succeeded. The look on Chris's face told him that he probably hadn't. There was nothing else he could say, though, so he moved to perch on the windowsill and turned to stare out the window.
Chris sat down by the bed and took Vin's hand in both of his as he digested all he'd learned. He studied the limp, warm appendage for a while, tracing one of the prominent veins with an outstretched finger. He then looked up and sighed. "What the hell happened to you, Cowboy?"
This was to be a question that would be repeated many times in the future. At the moment, though, there was no answer forthcoming.
"I'll go call the others," Nathan said suddenly as he stood up and left the room hurriedly. He felt the need for the feel of fresh air blowing on his face. He went out to the parking lot and pulled his cell off his belt and punched in a number. "Buck? What news?" he asked when his call was answered.
"Not a lot. We ain't had any luck at all. Nobody saw nothing. CSU are here and have filled bags galore with stuff, so we can leave them to do their job. We've also called in a few cops who can continue with questioning the store owners and residents." Buck sighed at their lack of results. He couldn't believe that no one had seen anything of use. "How's Vin doin'?"
"His brain's got swelling. Things ain't looking too good right now," the medic informed his friend sadly. "The doc seems to think he was hit with a bat or a pipe."
"Damn. Well, we haven't found anything like that." The ladies' man clenched his jaw and looked round at the continuing activity nearby. "We'll be with you soon, okay? We're doing no damned good here."
"Okay," Nathan said as he disconnected the call and replaced his cell.
The medic took a moment to calm his nerves. He always felt the pressure in these situations. All his friends looked to him for encouragement and guidance, but he sometimes felt that there was no one to give him any support. Nathan didn't always have the answers, and quite often what he had to say wasn't what the others wanted to hear. He found it lonely and although Josiah always offered a shoulder to lean on and a sympathetic ear, even he couldn't always help placate or support the medic.
Nathan wandered back through the bustling hallways of the hospital, taking his time.
"Nate?" Chris said as soon as he saw the medic take up position at the window again.
Nathan turned round and shrugged. "Buck says they haven't had any success. They're coming to join us here. CSU may find something of use, but they've got a lot of things to look through first, so it's gonna take time."
"You okay?" the blond asked the subdued man.
Nathan shifted on the thin sill and shrugged. "Yeah, just worried."
"I know, but there's nothing we can do. It's up to Vin," Chris said, in turn trying to sound encouraging.
Silence eventually descended as the two men watched over their injured friend and waited for the rest of the team to arrive.
The nurse that had been assigned to care for Vin came to check on their friend's condition. Both men watched her movements anxiously but she gave them no cause to think that Vin was deteriorating in any way. The woman detected the anxious glances she was receiving and smiled encouragingly to Chris and Nathan before leaving to collect some more medication.
Chris then looked up as he heard Buck's booming voice in the hallway outside.
"Yes, ma'am, I understand, but we are going to see our friend. 'Scuse me," the disembodied voice said.
The ladies' man and his companions then came striding into the room with the nurse following quickly behind. She looked rattled and rather worried.
"It's okay, nurse," Dr. Parks said as he appeared out of nowhere. "Mr. Larabee? Can I ask that just two of you stay at any one time? I'm happy for you all to be here for a short time now, but..." he said meaningfully, coming to a halt.
Chris held up his hand in acknowledgement and smiled apologetically. "Yes, Doctor. You know we'll cut down on visitors later. Just need to be here now."
The doctor nodded and escorted the nurse outside, satisfied with the answer. He turned to face the nurse and smiled at her encouragingly. "Marion? Mr. Larabee and his team are well known here. We let them bend the rules a bit at times like this. They'll toe the line later. They're a very close group."
"Yes, Doctor," she said before continuing on her previously interrupted errand.
Back inside Vin's room, the rest of his friends looked down at him in the bed. Nathan had updated them all and they were taking their time taking in the news.
Slowly, one by one, they moved to take up positions around the room. They sat on the floor, perched on the windowsill with Nathan or just lounged against the wall. It was a familiar scene that had unfortunately been endured many times in the past, and would inevitably be repeated again in the future.
For the next couple of hours no one left the room.
Dr. Parks shook his head and bit his lip as he studied the readouts on the monitor screens the following day. Marion had paged him because she'd become increasingly worried about Vin's condition overnight. The doctor sighed and turned to face Chris with hands on hips.
"Mr. Larabee? I think we need to take Mr. Tanner for surgery. The pressure in his skull is getting worse so we need to act now rather than later. We've drawn off quite a lot of cerebrospinal fluid since his admission, but it doesn't seem to be helping. I'll see if a theater's free and take him up as soon as I can."
"Are you gonna do a cran..crane..?" Chris stuttered, shocked. He remained sitting in the chair, feeling unable to move even a finger. He looked up at the doctor with pleading eyes, needing some reassurance.
Dr. Parks nodded as he looked at his watch distractedly. "A craniotomy, yes. If we give his brain a bit of space, it may be all that is needed."
Chris nodded and shivered, not wanting to hold the doctor up any longer. He'd hoped that Vin would escape surgery this time, but it was not to be. He watched the doctor leave the room and then turned his attention back to Vin.
He ran gentle fingers over Vin's arm and ended the movement by clasping his hand tightly. "Everything's gonna be just fine, Vin. You're gonna get through this, I know it, okay?"
"Chris? What's wrong?" Josiah said as he hurried into the room after hearing Chris's voice and seeing the doctor striding urgently away.
The blond looked up but didn't speak - couldn't speak.
"What's happened?" the profiler asked insistently, his hands suddenly sweaty in fear as he waited for an answer from his terrified-looking boss.
"He's gotta have a bit of skull removed 'cause his brain is still swelling. The doctor's trying to get him taken up now. He got worse overnight."
Josiah rocked from side to side gently as he took in the unwelcome news. "Damn. You stay with him and I'll go call the others. They'll wanna be here," the profiler said as he went back outside.
The rest of the team were hard at work trying to get a lead of any sort from the crime scene. So far they had been unsuccessful and they were becoming frustrated. They'd keep at it, though, not willing to give up for even a second when one of their own was involved.
Josiah got through to Ezra. "Ez? Get over to the hospital, will ya? Vin's gotta have surgery and Chris is real worried. His brain's still swelling so they gotta remove a piece of his skull like Nate said."
"Understood, Mr. Sanchez. We will be with you expeditiously. Try to reassure Mr. Larabee, won't you? I'm sure Mr. Tanner will pull through."
"I hope yer right, son," the profiler said before ending the call and hurrying back inside the medical facility.
Within twenty minutes the whole team was congregated in Vin's ICU room. Dr. Parks had been back to update them and had said that the theater would be free very soon. The men talked in hushed voices to one another, even though there was no chance of them waking Vin. It just seemed the right thing to do, like whispering in a church or a library.
Half an hour later, Vin was wheeled out of his room after being prepared for surgery. His friends stayed in his room, anxiously waiting for his return. Silence reigned for a while, but Chris could see that JD was thinking long and hard about something.
Finally the dark-haired agent said, "What happens to the piece of skull they take out?"
The men looked at one another in worried amusement.
JD looked round the room at his friends and saw the looks on their faces. He pursed his lips and started to justify his question. "I mean is he gonna be left with a hole or does it get put back in?" he asked with a shrug.
"It can be put back in when the swelling's gone down. Even if they don't replace it, the hole will eventually close over on its own," Nathan said in explanation and accompanying the reply with a smile.
The young agent shivered. He sat quietly for a moment but the men could tell he was still thinking about things. Finally, after a great deal of deliberation, the next question was aired.
"How do they store it? I mean, do they have something like a plate rack to store all these little bits of skull?"
The ladies' man guffawed with laughter. "Jeez, Louise, you think too much, kid," Buck said although he looked at Nathan with interest to hear the answer.
The medic couldn't help laughing either at JD's last question. "Sorry, JD. You've just given me a great vision of rows of plate racks filled with skull fragments." He took a breath and said, "They can either freeze it, with Vin's name attached somehow of course, or I have heard that it can be placed in a pocket made in the muscle of the stomach. It gets nourishment from the patient's body before being replaced. Kinda keeps it alive if you understand. I think the magician Roy Bolt had that done when he was mauled by a tiger."
"Wish I hadn't asked now," JD said, looking rather green as he rubbed his stomach gently and clenched his jaw.
"So do I, kid," Buck agreed as he put a hand over his mouth and swallowed slowly.
The sound of movement could be heard out in the corridor and Vin was wheeled in. He was settled and reattached to all the machines and made as comfortable as possible.
"How did it go?" Chris asked as he surveyed the large bandage encasing Vin's head.
"It went fine," Dr. Parks said with a smile. "We'll just have to see if it helps, though. I'll be checking on him frequently over the next twenty-four hours just to see how he's progressing. Marion will be in here all the time, too."
"Thanks, doc. We really appreciate what you're doing for him."
The men took some time just studying Vin minutely, as if to make sure that they really believed that he was still with them. Chris sat beside the bed and again held the injured man's hand. Buck took up position on the other side and did the same. The team was a very tactile bunch of men, no more so then when in the hospital.
Chris finally cleared his throat and got back to business. "Okay, guys. Josiah? Have you heard anything from CSU?"
"They're working on a boot print that they found in the alley. They've discounted all of us including Vin, so it could be Vin's attacker."
Chris nodded, his eyes still fixed on Vin's bandaged head. "Any luck with a witness?"
"No. We've been going back through all the statements that were taken, but there's nothing there."
The blond nodded, disappointed but reconciled to the fact. "Josiah? Go and sit in with CSU. Pressure them to get us the results on the print as soon as they can. It may narrow the field." Chris looked at Buck. "Any CCTV cameras in the area?"
"Not that we saw. I'll check it out though."
"Was anything found on the recording of Vin's phone call?" Chris's phone automatically taped every call he had and he was very pleased in this case that it did.
"Pat's still analyzing it, but the attacker would have been long gone or he'd have stopped Vin from calling," Nathan said seriously.
"Maybe, but you never know. Why don't the rest of you get some sleep? Ezra, can you spell me here next?" the blond asked.
"With pleasure, Mr. Larabee," the undercover agent said. He'd not wanted to suggest that Chris should go home, but he'd been glad that the blond had now decided to share caring duties.
Dead-end after dead-end followed. The team had been scuppered at every turn. There had been no CCTV footage, or what there had been was almost useless, and even the boot print came to nothing.
Josiah put down the phone and shook his head in exasperation. "Dammit."
"What's up, big fella?" Buck asked when he heard the despair in his colleague's tone. He put down his pen and gave his full attention to the older man.
"That was CSU. The boot print is from a boot that is one of the most popular purchases. It has a few distinguishing features on the sole, but unless we wanna check half the male population in Denver we're outta luck."
"Great. Just great," Buck grumbled. "Why can't we get one good lead?"
"I get the distinct impression that our good Lord doesn't want to aid our cause," Ezra said quietly as he swiveled gently from side to side in his chair.
"Have to agree with you there, Ezra. He ain't being too cooperative despite all my pleadings," the profiler said sadly.
The men hated being unable to get any nearer to what had happened to their friend. Fate had worked against them and it seemed there was absolutely nothing more they could do at this point. It was a hopeless situation. The only thing they could cling to was that Vin might remember something important if he ever woke up.
With the investigation at a halt, Chris went to see AD Travis. He knocked on his boss's door and was called in almost immediately.
Chris walked to the desk and sat in the seat opposite Travis when invited to do so. "Sir, we've reached an impasse with Vin's case. We've done all we can but there's nothing to work with now. We've come up empty."
The older man sat and looked at the dynamic Team 7 leader. Larabee was a good man and Travis had headhunted him when he'd set up the team. He only worked with the best and Chris was certainly that.
Although Chris hadn't voiced a specific question, Travis knew exactly what he wanted to ask. He'd come to know the man well over the years and he counted him as a friend as well as a colleague.
Travis cleared his throat and smiled his lopsided smile. "I'll give you all a week to spend with Vin. Team 6 can take over your outstanding cases. There's not a lot going on at the moment anywhere else."
Chris nodded, pleased that the man had read his mind so completely. "Thanks, sir. We appreciate it. Nate's with him now, but it'd be good if we can all have free time to spend with him."
"I know. Keep me up to date with his condition." Travis paused as he thought on things. "Why don't you come over for dinner tonight? Evie would love to see you." He added the final carrot. "Mary and Billy will be there, too."
"Thanks, sir, I'd like that," Chris said with a twinkle in his eye.
Travis was doing his damndest to get Mary and him together as a couple. He'd seen that they had a connection, but had become frustrated when they seemed to dance around one another instead of doing something about it. So he had taken the matter into his own hands and whenever he could he threw then together. Chris certainly wasn't going to complain about Mary's company but he still wasn't ready for a full-on relationship. He'd humor his boss, though, and enjoy himself a bit along the way.
Chris wandered back to his men, taking his time. There seemed no reason to hurry for anything anymore. Everything was irrelevant except for Vin's welfare now.
As he continued his journey, a few other agents greeted him as they passed him in the hallway and he nodded curtly in reply. He was on good terms with everyone he worked with, but he knew he had the best assembled ATF team. There was no other group of men he'd rather work with and was justifiably proud of that. He'd handpicked every one and he was grateful that they'd all consented to join him.
He turned the last corner thoughtfully and heard his team's voices long before he reached the room.
"Hey, guys. Travis has given us a week's leave so that we can be with Vin," he said as he entered the office to find his men in deep discussion about the Super Bowl.
"Great, I'll work out a rota for visits to the hospital, shall I?" Josiah offered.
"Yeah, thanks, but make sure you give me plenty," Chris ordered quietly. He wanted to spend as much time with his best friend as he could.
"Sure, Chris," Josiah said. He wouldn't have done it any other way, but knew that Chris needed to voice his thoughts.
Within half an hour Josiah had pinned a list on the notice-board and the rest of the team was writing down the sessions allocated to them. Everything was in order, so with a final check of the office the men went home or to the hospital.
Two days later Dr. Parks came back with the results of Vin's latest CAT scan.
JD was currently sitting with the unconscious sharpshooter. The young agent leapt up from his seat and stood awkwardly, one hand tucking itself without thought into the back pocket of his pants. The digits of his other hand were drawn anxiously through his thick, dark hair.
"Doc? What..." he stuttered, trying to read the man's face to see if he should be concerned or not about what he was going to hear.
Dr. Parks smiled. "Well, I have some good news, Mr. Dunne. His brain is as it should be. The swelling has reduced considerably. Look at these scans."
The doctor showed JD the images and explained what he was looking at.
"Terrific. What happens now?" JD asked in anticipation, his eyes still lingering on the pictures.
"We'll probably operate tomorrow to put back the removed section of skull. I'd just like to see that the swelling doesn't recur before doing that."
JD nodded in understanding. "When will he wake up?"
"When he's been to surgery we'll start weaning him off the medication he's been on that's kept him comatose. When that's out of his system a bit he should begin to stir. Maybe a day or so, because I'd rather he woke gradually and not suddenly."
"Will he be okay...you now...mentally?" JD asked apprehensively, voicing a question he knew his colleagues had been concerned about.
The doctor studied him silently for a minute and then tried to be reassuring. Head injuries were always a lottery so he couldn't be really sure of his answer. "We won't know until he wakes," he said truthfully. "He may have some memory problems surrounding the actual attack, but maybe he'll have an intact memory." Dr. Parks shrugged. "It's very much down to the individual, but we won't know anything until he wakes."
Three days after the operation to replace Vin's section of skull, Chris started awake in the chair beside the bed. He sat up and rubbed his eyes as he let out a loud yawn and stretched his arms high above his head. His mouth gaped open excessively, the corners aching with the enforced wideness. He heard the rattle of a trolley outside in the hallway and looked at his watch. Eleven in the morning and he was feeling hungry.
The blond looked quickly at the bed. "Vin? Was that you, buddy?" Chris asked, wondering if his ears had deceived him.
He watched as Vin's eyes moved restlessly behind the closed lids. They didn't open but another soft groan escaped the slack mouth.
"Vin? Can you hear me? Can you open your eyes?" he called again, leaning forward expectantly in his chair.
"Mr. Larabee? Is everything all right?" Dr. Parks said as he diverted from his original course after hearing Chris talking.
"He moaned and seems to be waking up a bit," the black-clad man said, unable to hide his excited tone.
The doctor leaned over Vin and opened his eyes to shine a mini torch into them. "Well, his pupils are reacting nicely and they're both equal again. I think it will be a little while longer before he's back with us properly. He's on his way, though."
Chris smiled and clasped Vin's hand gently. This was the news he'd been longing to hear. Although he knew that Vin was improving from what JD had told him a few days ago, he hadn't quite believed it. Now, though, he could.
"Buck," Chris greeted enthusiastically as he turned to face the door. Buck was leaning against the door frame, arms crossed and one leg bent slightly. "Vin started to wake up."
The tall ladies' man stood upright and ambled to the bed. "Great," he said, knowing that Chris had been getting increasingly worried, as had they all. "I was gonna take over from you, but do you wanna stay a bit longer?"
"No, thanks, I'm hungry and the doc didn't think Vin'd wake properly for a while longer. I'll come back tomorrow for my arranged shift."
"Whatever you want, pard. You know I'll call if he stirs before that," Buck said as he sat in the chair on the other side of the bed. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and made himself as comfortable as he could. He sat staring out the door instead of looking at Vin.
"No rude magazine then?" Chris asked, knowing that his best friend liked adult magazines with lots of pictures of naked ladies in them.
Buck grinned widely and almost purred. "Who needs one when I've got all these lovely nurses in uniform to feast my eyes on?"
"Jeez, you're incorrigible," Chris said as he laughed out loud and left the room.
Another forty-eight hours passed and Vin began to fidget in the bed. He seemed quite distressed and the blond knew that he needed to reassure his friend, and do it quickly. Chris reached out a hand and laid it on the man's right arm.
"Hey, buddy. Calm down. There's nothing gonna happen to you. You're safe."
Vin tossed and turned some more, his head moving from side to side on the pillow. Chris hoped he wasn't doing himself any damage with the movement.
"Mur..mu," the injured man mumbled continually.
Chris frowned and leaned forward even more. He touched Vin's face, stroking his cheek gently to try and calm him down. "What? What are you trying to say, Vin?" he asked, willing his friend to speak again.
"Mu..." Vin muttered before losing consciousness totally.
The blond shook his head in despair as he wondered what Vin had been mumbling about. He went through a few possibilities in his head, but it could have been so many things. He was shaken from his thoughts when he heard the sound of numerous feet stomping down the hallway. He knew exactly who was causing the noise.
"Chris?" JD called as he hurried into the hospital room. The rest of the team followed him in, almost falling over themselves in their haste to give their news.
"Yeah?" Chris asked expectantly as he turned to face them.
The computer expert could hardly contain himself. He blurted out, "A body was found near the parking lot where Vin was attacked. It was stuffed in a dumpster and was only found 'cause the dumpster was emptied today. The police reckon it's been there for about a week, since the last collection day. They found lots of fingerprints on the dumpster so they're processing those for us as a priority."
Chris was silent, his brow deeply furrowed. He thought back on the word that Vin seemed to be trying to say earlier. He also considered the very short, incoherent message when Vin phoned the day he was attacked.
"Chris?" Nate queried when he saw the look on the man's face.
He looked across briefly at Vin curiously while chewing his lip thoughtfully. "When I spoke to Vin during his phone call, he said 'Mur..d'. He was saying something similar just now when he was semi-conscious. Maybe he was trying to say 'murder'. Perhaps he saw this person killed and the attacker turned on him, too, when he realized he'd been seen."
"That's an awful lot of maybes, pard," Buck said wryly as he leaned against the window and crossed his arms.
"Maybe," Chris said with a smile, knowing he could be adding two and two together to make five. "Reckon I'm right, though," he said boldly.
The blond looked round the rest of his team and saw the agreeing looks on their faces.
"This is one time that I won't offer you odds on the truth of your statement, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said thoughtfully as he nodded slowly when Chris looked at him. It seemed a very plausible explanation for what had happened.
"Very wise, Ez."
"Why didn't the murderer kill Vin?" JD asked reasonably with a frown. His mind had quickly analyzed all the data he'd got tucked away in his brain and he'd come up with a very good question.
"Thought he had, or maybe," Chris exchanged amused looks with Buck, "he was disturbed and couldn't finish the job." Chris paused slightly and then said, "We could tell the media that Vin's alive and bait a trap to catch the killer."
"Don't like using Vin in that way," Josiah said. He was a cautious man and liked to work on other, safer angles rather than drastic plans like this.
The blond shrugged in understanding. "Well, I'm not suggesting that we use Vin for real. We'd have a stunt double," Chris said. "May not have to go down that route, anyway. If Vin wakes and can tell us something of use we won't need to. Or maybe CSU will get a match on one of those prints they found. Things seem to be happening at last, thank God."
"Amen to that, brother. I'll go back and pester CSU and I'll call with any news they get," Josiah offered as he turned round and hurried off to do the task he'd set himself.
"What do you want the rest of us to do, Chris?" Buck asked.
"Well, JD, you're due to take over from me now. The rest of us might as well wait until we get word from Josiah." Chris paused and shook his head negatively. "Do we know who the murder victim was?"
"No, but we do know that he was hit in a similar way to Vin," Nathan said.
Chris now got the bit between his teeth. It seemed that they had something to run with now and he wasn't going to let time get away from them this time. "Okay, in that case, Nate go and check with the police that are dealing with this new crime. See what other similarities there are with Vin's case, or see if this fella had been having trouble of any sort recently that might throw up a possible suspect. Buck? Recheck the CCTV footage to see if you can trace the guy's movements on it. The parking lot was on there, I think. We were only looking for Vin on it before, weren't we?"
"Sure thing, pard."
"And what would you like me to do, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked, not wanting to be left out.
The blond fixed him with a serious stare. "You and I are going to bed so we can spell the others later on."
Ezra looked appalled and turned red. "I beg our pardon? Would you clarify that statement, please?"
"Jeez, Ez. Go to bed *separately*. You'd be the last person I'd wanna spend the night with - no offense," Chris said as he held up his hands.
"None taken. I thought you were propositioning me for a minute," the undercover agent said in relief with a startled, sheepish grin as he got up to leave.
Chris laughed and walked out of the room with him.
It appeared that fate was still not letting them get ahead, though. None of the fingerprints matched known felons on the police database. It was a case of find a suspect and they could match it that way, but that was all. The CCTV footage didn't bring anything new to light either. The dumpster they'd been interested in was just out of frame in each shot. It was almost as if the murderer knew.
As for the murder victim, his body was still waiting to be processed. The autopsy would probably be done the next day because there was a serious backlog of work at the Medical Examiner's office.
Chris couldn't believe it when he heard the news but he decided to be philosophical about it. At least things were moving again, albeit at a snail's pace. He was sure in his own mind that they would eventually get a result. He hoped it would be this side of Christmas, though.
It was another day before Vin was alert enough to communicate. Chris was again with him, and the younger man had been propped up on pillows in a semi-reclined position after waking properly during the night.
"Cowboy?" the injured man drawled quietly.
Chris smiled happily in greeting. At least Vin seemed to remember who he was. That was a damned good start if nothing else. "Hey, Vin, it's good to see you. How ya doin'?" he asked.
"Tired. Head hurts real bad," Vin replied as he lifted a hand to his brow and rubbed it gently.
"I know." Chris explained how they had come to find Vin and what injuries he'd had. "Can you remember what happened?" he asked tentatively. He held his breath as he waited for an answer.
Vin frowned and closed his eyes briefly. He finally opened them with a sigh and nodded. "Saw a murder. Guy hit another man from behind with a bit of pipe. Fella never stood a chance. Hit him over and over even though he must been dead after the first blow."
Chris almost smiled at the answer. He now, finally, had the truth. "The murderer saw you?" he prompted gently as he took a seat and held his friend's hand.
Vin nodded gently so as not to hurt his head too much. He felt a bit shivery and sick and any excessive movement seemed to let itself be known in his brain. "Yeah, I tried to arrest him. Didn't have my gun, but I figured I could handle him 'cause he'd dropped the pipe. He had another bit up his sleeve, though, and as I went toward him he shook the other bit down into his hand. He hit me before I could protect myself. Don't know much after that."
"Would you recognize him?" Chris asked hopefully, unintentionally squeezing Vin's hand, which let the injured man know how much Chris wanted to hear a positive answer.
"Yeah, I'd know him again."
Chris tried to still his hastily beating heart. Now he might catch the perp who had hurt his friend. "If I get in a sketch artist, can you give him a real good description?" he asked eagerly, his mind working overtime. "We can then show it round the stores near to where you were hurt. We might hit the mother-load then and get a name."
Vin nodded wearily, lacking the energy to speak again.
Chris patted his arm and then went outside to put in the call. He couldn't wait to get started after such a long time of continuous frustration. Once he'd arranged for an artist to come, he called the rest of the team to update them. After they heard that Vin had woken and given some information about what had happened, they insisted on visiting him that minute.
The sketch artist arrived an hour later to find Vin asleep surrounded by his friends. The injured man had gone to sleep as soon as Chris had left the room earlier, so Buck and the others had yet to speak to him, too.
Four hours passed before the injured man stirred again. He opened his eyes slowly and came face to face with Josiah who was sitting beside him.
"Hello, son. Real good to see you're back in the land of the living. I was beginning to worry that you didn't wanna join us," the profiler said softly.
Vin smiled gently as he blinked a couple of times rapidly. "Just been resting, big fella."
The rest of the team greeted the man and Vin frowned when he saw a stranger in the room. He didn't look like a doctor and Vin wondered what he was doing there. The man was tall, thin and middle aged.
The stranger moved to sit by the bed and pulled a pad of paper and various colored pencils out if the bag he had with him. He smiled at Vin when he saw the uncertainty on his face.
"Hello, my name's Pete and I'm a sketch artist. Do you remember that I was coming to do a drawing of your attacker?"
Vin nodded and smiled as the conversation with Chris returned to his mind. Thank God for that. I thought I was losing my mind and that he was someone I shoulda known, Vin thought to himself in relief. His musings were brought to an abrupt halt, though, when Pete started talking again.
"I'll ask you questions to help me build up a likeness of your suspect. If you don't know something just say so. Don't guess, okay?"
The sharpshooter nodded and smiled again. He just wondered how long he was going to able to stay awake. Even now he could feel his eyes start to feel heavy.
The blond patted Vin's arm. "Take your time, Cowboy, and tell me if you've had enough. We can always do it another day. We're used to delays by now," he said with a grin.
The blond then nodded at Pete and indicated for him to start.
"Okay, Vin. What color was your assailant?" the man asked, pencil poised above the paper on his lap.
Pete nodded. "Right, let's start with the shape of his face. Can you describe it? Was it round, oval, square?"
Vin pursed his lips and looked round his friends. He studied their faces and tried to match one of theirs to the man he'd seen. This task was going to prove more difficult than he thought.
"Kinda like Josiah's, I s'pose," he said with an uncertain shrug. He had the murderer's face in his head, but it was difficult to describe.
The profiler waved his hand when Pete looked round in confusion.
"I'm Josiah," the big man then said with a smile.
"Oh, I see." Pete put his head on one side and studied Josiah in detail. He then drew the general shape of a human face on his pad. He did a few adjustments and showed it to Vin. "Like that?"
Vin was quiet as he compared the drawing with the image in his mind. He then nodded as he tilted his head on one side in contemplation. "Yeah, but maybe a bigger jaw. Now I think of it he had a jaw like Desperate Dan."
Chris laughed at the vivid description. "Jeez, like that goon in the film with Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell? What was it called?" Chris screwed his eyes up as he tried to remember. He then clicked his fingers together as it came to mind. "Tango and Cash."
"Yeah, that guy was unreal. I found his face fascinating," Vin said with a quiet grin and a chuckle.
Pete nodded and smiled. "I know the man you mean." He erased the jaw-line on his drawing and started again. After a minute or so he held the pad up for Vin again. "How about that?"
Vin sat up a bit, movig the pillows at his back to be more comfortable. "Yeah, that's perfect."
"Okay, what about his eyes? What color? Were they round, almond shaped, narrow? Close together or far apart?" Pete asked with interest.
Vin took his time as he considered each option. He finally closed his eyes to get a clearer picture in his mind. "Close together and kinda piggy-looking. Weird color, too, almost purple," he decided as he opened his eyes once more.
Pete nodded again as he listened to the characteristics while drawing. He picked up another pencil and added some color. He again showed Vin what he had added.
Vin chewed his bottom lip and frowned as he again conjured up a picture in his mind to see if the drawing matched.
"His left eye was a bit higher than the right," he eventually said slowly. "He had thick, bushy eyebrows, too. The kind that meet in the middle, you know?"
Buck chortled at the small details that Vin remembered. "Jeez, he sounds a right hoodlum, Vin. I know I shouldn't be laughing, 'cause of what he's done, but the picture I'm getting is truly amazing. Real comic-book villain."
Vin smiled and nodded, feeling exhausted.
"Okay to carry on?" Pete asked when he saw the worn out look on Vin's face. He stopped drawing and looked at Vin in concern.
"Don't lie, Vin," Chris said, cursing himself that Pete had noticed before he had that Vin looked pale. The man had literally wilted before his eyes in the past few seconds.
"I wanna do this, Chris," Vin said insistently, but weakly. He rubbed his eyes in a lame attempt at staving off his exhaustion.
"Yeah, but not to the point where you make yourself worse, bud."
Pete put aside his pad and pencils decisively, putting an end to the discussion. "Let's take a break. I culd do with strteching my legs so I'll go for a walk and come back in a couple of hours. That sound okay?" he asked as he stood and stretched.
"Thanks, Pete. Appreciate it," Chris agreed.
Once the man had gone, Chris turned back to the bed. He studied Vin closely and then reached out to pat his hand. "Get some sleep. If you ain't awake when Pete comes back he'll have to wait. I don't want you overdoing it."
"Yes, Papa," Vin said sarcastically as he let his eyes close. He was asleep in a heartbeat.
The men reconvened and Pete retook his position by the bed. Vin was awake and looked a bit better than he had before.
"Feeling better?" Pete asked as he smiled at Vin kindly. He collected his pad and pencils from the nightstand in readiness to continue.
Vin nodded. He rubbed his brow roughly and then yawned slightly. "Yeah, a bit. I'm okay to go on. I'm awake anyway," he said with a grin. "What's next then?"
Pete picked up his pencil and got settled in the chair again. "His ears. Were they big or small? Did they have big or small lobes? Were they stuck out or laid back against his head?"
"Kinda stuck out and pointed," Vin said with a nod.
Buck chuckled softly as he continued building up the picture of the suspect in his mind's eye. "Desperate Dan of Vulcan," he muttered to JD, who laughed out loud.
"Buck!" Chris snarled. "If you don't got nothing constructive to say then get out. Vin could do without your interruptions. This is hard enough for him to handle already."
The ladies' man looked suitably chastized and pulled his mouth into a straight line. "Sorry pard. Can't help it."
The blond scowled. "No, there's a lot of things that you *can't help*, aren't there? Just rein yourself in."
"Yes, pard. Sorry, Vin," Buck apologized as he flicked a quick look at his injured friend.
"'S'okay." The sharpshooter turned his attention back to Pete and answered his question now it was quiet again. "Big lobes and he had an earring or two, I think," he continued.
"Left. One was a stud with a diamond and the other was a ring. Both silver and small."
Pete nodded as the pencil raced over the page in front of him. The scratching of the lead against the paper was the only sound in the room for a while. "Does that look right?" he finally asked.
"Yeah, that's him...nearly."
"Nose, next, then."
"Straight, long and with flared nostrils," Vin said before Pete could continue. The sharpshooter was getting to know the sort of information that was required.
Those details were added and then Pete looked up for the next bit. "Mouth?" he queried.
"Um...wide." Vin rubbed his brow and took a deep breath. "His lips were just average. Not thick or thin. He had a small scar on the right side under his bottom lip. Kinda zig-zag shaped."
"Good, you're doing real well, Vin. You took a lot of detail in."
The sharpshooter was rather pleased with the compliment, so he gave some more details in the hope of getting another one. "He had dimples, too. In his cheeks and one on his chin."
"Great, let me add those in. My Grandmother always used to say to me never trust a man with a dimple in his chin," he said with a smile as the stray thought entered his mind. "It's surprising how true that statement is as well." He paused and scribbled a bit more. "This is gonna be real good, I reckon, Vin." Pete paused as he considered the picture. "Now, what color hair?"
"Dark. Dark brown - not black."
"Long or short?"
"Real short. About quarter inch all over with long sideburns. They were down below his ears," Vin said as he shifted slightly on the mattress. His buttocks were beginning to ache from sitting up for so long.
"Okay, Vin?" Buck asked.
"Yeah, just a bit stiff, bud."
Pete continued scribbling away on the page as the two men talked and finally turned it around for all to see.
"This him, Vin?"
Vin stared and nodded. He couldn't suppress the shiver that wracked his body as he looked at the spitting image of his attacker. "Jesus. That's amazing. That's him to a T, the bastard."
"Okay, Last detail for your notes. What height and weight?"
Vin was quiet as he looked round his friends again for help. He really couldn't decide who was nearest in build, though, so he said vaguely, "Tall, I s'pose. Maybe bigger than me. Skinny but strong - muscular. I ain't very good at guessing weights."
Josiah waved his hand again. "Same height as me?"
Vin considered the question. "Yeah, I reckon, but Buck's build and weight, maybe."
"Great that's all I need, then. I'll get this printed off and send a batch off to you," Pete said to Chris as he rose and shook hands with each man.
"Thanks, Pete. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this today. I know you're busy," the blond said gratefully.
"No problem. I'll get back to you later today. Bye, Vin. Hope you get well soon."
Chris turned to Vin. "Well done, bud. That was a terrific likeness. It was amazing to see the face come to life like that."
"Yeah, well, he wasn't particularly forgettable. I ain't never gonna forget him. Gave me the shivers just to see his face on paper. Seemed real to me for a moment or two."
"Yeah, I can sure understand that," JD said as he smiled at Vin.
"Get some more rest, you look shattered," Josiah said kindly as he tucked the sheet in the side of the bed gently.
Vin snuggled down under the covers a bit more and yawned loudly. He had never felt so tired in all his life and he couldn't understand it. "Feel it. Even though I wasn't doing anything other than lying here, I feel like I've run a marathon."
"Yeah, well your brain's been working real hard. It's mental, rather than physical, exhaustion that you're suffering from," Nathan said. "Go to sleep and recuperate."
Vin smiled as he did just that.
As soon as Pete's picture was printed, Team 7 got busy again. They took copies and began showing it around the area where Vin had been attacked.
Buck ambled into the general store and spoke to someone who was packing the shelves. The young man he'd approached turned to face him, looking nervous. He was about twenty, suffering from raging acne and an unfortunate lisp.
"Hey there. My name is Agent Wilmington." Buck showed his badge after studying the youngster for a few seconds. "Can you tell me if you've seen this fella recently?"
The young man frowned and studied the picture closely. He held it close to his eyes and lifted the thick glasses he wore away from his eyes. He squinted, but eventually nodded and looked up at Buck. "He used to come in regularly but I ain't seen him for a while," he said shyly, very aware of the severity of his vocal impairment.
"Do you know his name, or where he works?" Buck asked with a kind smile to try and put his companion at ease.
The man shrugged and shook his head negatively. "No, but I think he must be a construction or road worker. He always came in with one of those bright yellow tabards on and a hard hat."
"When you say you haven't seen him in a while, how long do you mean?" As Buck spoke, he was also thinking to himself, Well, there haven't been any road works in this area lately so I'd vote for construction worker.
"Not for about ten days, I s'pose. Can't really say. He used to come in every day to buy his lunch, but maybe he's finished the job he was on," the youngster said with a shrug.
Yeah, that'd be right. The job of murder and attempted murder, Buck scoffed to himself. "Great, that's real helpful," he said to the store-worker.
Buck went back onto the sidewalk. He pulled out his cell phone and called JD who was at the office with Pat.
"Hey, kid. Do me a favor, would ya? Our suspect is possibly a construction worker. Check how many sites are in the area round here, will ya? Check back two weeks to include any places that have been completed."
"Sure. I'll call you back," the computer expert agreed.
Buck saw Ezra exit a liquor store up the street and he hurried to meet him while waving to attract his attention.
"I may have a lead, pard. Just waiting to hear back from JD about something," he said as he came to a halt beside his friend.
"Well, what is your information? Don't keep me in suspense," Ezra said eagerly. He was glad that one of them had struck it lucky. He'd had no success at all.
"Our suspect probably works on a construction site."
"That's interesting," Ezra said thoughtfully as his eyes got a far away look in them. "Mr. Sanchez has just informed me that forensics have found brick dust on our murder victim."
Josiah was at CSU making sure he got the news hot off the press from them. This was the first vital detail and he'd passed it onto his colleagues quickly.
"The victim was a suit, though, wasn't he?" Buck said with a frown as he wandered along the sidewalk to his truck. He lounged against the fender and looked at Ezra as he shrugged.
Ezra shook his head in despair at Buck's lack of understanding. "Exactly, so the brick dust was probably transferred from the murderer. If we find the site he was working on at the time, they can probably match the brick dust to it, and our villain."
Buck's cell rang and he answered it eagerly. It was indeed JD on the other end with lots of information for him. The computer expert reeled off a list of all the construction sites that he'd found. Buck wrote them down and compared them to a map that he retrieved from his truck. He studied each address in detail and nodded in satisfaction.
"Okay, kid. Meet Ez and me at the site on Fifty-first street. That's the nearest one to the parking lot," he instructed as he kept a finger glued to the place on the map.
"Okay," JD agreed as he disconnected.
Buck and Ezra, meanwhile, climbed into the truck, Buck reaching over to replace the map in the glove compartment. He then drove round to the large construction site where a new hotel was being erected. JD arrived soon after, having beaten the traffic by riding his motorbike.
"Right let's find the foreman." Buck looked around, picked out the likeliest suspect and walked over as he attracted the man's attention. "Hey, you the foreman?"
"Yeah, what can I do for you?" the tall, slim man asked suspiciously.
"This fella work here?" JD asked as he held out the picture.
The man nodded as he studied it for a minute. "Did up until about a little over a week ago. Justin Pearce is his name. I had to let him go, though."
"Can I ask why?" Ezra enquired with interest.
"Stealing supplies and selling them on to other sites," the foreman said in disgust. "Lost a fortune."
"Don't suppose you know where we might find him?"
"I've got his address in my office. I'll go get it for you." The man disappeared but soon came back with a piece of paper in his hand. "There ya go."
"Thank you. Is it at all possible that he's been employed by another site without references?" Ezra asked on the off-chance.
The foreman shrugged. "Maybe. I sure ain't been asked for one for him. You might try the site up on The Esplanade. They ain't fussy about who they hire so I've heard. George, one of my men, said he thought he saw Justin up that way yesterday now I think about it. Why do you want him? What's he done?"
"We need to ask him some questions regarding an ongoing investigation," Buck said, bringing the discussion to a halt as he turned and walked back to his truck.
"Thank you for your time," Ezra said politely as he moved to follow along behind his friend.
Before doing anything else, Buck phoned Josiah. "Hey, big guy. Can you get round to this address? The man we're looking for in connection with Vin's attack lives there. His name's Justin Pearce. Take Nate with ya for safety."
"Sure thing. I'll call you back if we catch him," the profiler said.
"Appreciate it - we'll do the same. We're just on our way to The Esplanade where he might be working."
"Speak to you soon."
Josiah made hasty arrangements for a warrant and found an obliging judge to sign it. He then drove back to the office to collect Nathan and update JD about current events.
After the profiler had finished his speech, JD caught his attention. "I've been busy, too. I've checked all our criminal databases and I haven't traced him on them. He's either a first time criminal or he's hidden his crimes well so far."
"Thanks, kid, that's interesting." Josiah looked at his watch, wanting to get on with the job in hand. "We'll call in with any news we get, okay? See ya later."
The two older agents then drove to the address that Buck had supplied and found that it was a well cared for townhouse. The area was quiet and seemed an ideal place to reside.
Josiah knocked on the door and it was opened by an elderly, gray-haired lady. She looked like the grandmother he'd never had - all rosy cheeks and happy smiles.
He showed his ID and smiled kindly. "Sorry to disturb you, ma'am, but does Justin Pearce live here?" he asked, expecting a negative answer.
"Yes, but he's not in at the moment, my dear. He's at work," the woman replied.
"Can I ask who you are?" Nathan asked. "Are you his landlady?"
The woman laughed. "No, I'm his mother, Martha Pearce."
"When is he likely to be back, ma'am?" Josiah asked, hating that this woman may have to learn a few home truths about her beloved son.
"Not until later. He works hard and usually goes for a drink after work with his friends. He doesn't want to come home and stay in with his old mother, does he?" she asked with a grin that had Josiah smiling in reply.
"Well, we need to speak to him in regard to a case we're currently investigating. It would be really helpful if we could just take a look at his room," the profiler said quietly as he held out the warrant. "In fact we have to look at his room."
Mrs. Pearce studied Josiah and took the warrant he handed to her. She read it and then stepped back to let them in. "You'd better come in then, but I can assure you that you have the wrong person. My Justin wouldn't be involved in anything underhanded."
"I'm sure he wouldn't, ma'am, but it's our duty to check all leads that we get," Nathan said.
Mrs. Pearce led the way to a dark and dingy room at the back of the house. "There you are, but as you see he has nothing to hide. I clean his room every day and it's spotless."
"I can see that it is," Nathan said as he smiled. "Thank you for your cooperation, we won't be here long."
The two agents checked the room thoroughly, but as his mother had said, Justin hadn't hidden any incriminating evidence. He wouldnt have been able to with a mother who seemed to be a domestic goddess. She would have noticed anything out of place in an instant.
"All his clothes are here and I found his passport. Doesn't look as though he's gonna bolt anytime soon," Nathan said as he held the document up.
"Good because I want to nail this bastard," Josiah said.
Josiah went back out to the living room with Nathan when they had finished. "We're all done. Thank you for allowing us access. It was nice meeting you."
"And you, dear. Is everything alright? You did what you wanted?"
"Yes, but we would still like to talk to Justin, so we may come back later on when he's at home."
"I'll let him know to expect you," she said, which was exactly what Josiah didn't want.
"Thank you, ma'am. We'll let ourselves out."
As soon as they got on the sidewalk, Josiah turned to Nathan. "I think we need to stake this place out. The last thing we need is Mrs. Pearce to tip-off her son. I'll take first watch, but can you relieve me later on?"
"Sure, I'll go back to the office and update JD and call Chris at the hospital. I'll let Buck know that we've come up empty, too," Nathan agreed.
Meanwhile, Buck, Ezra and JD had set off to The Esplanade. On arrival, JD took off his helmet and while his gaze was upwards he saw their suspect on the scaffolding.
"Buck? There he is, up there," he said as he pointed skywards.
Ezra looked up and paled. "I hope we're going to wait until he comes down to terra firma before tackling him. The last thing I desire is a fight at that height."
"Can't guarantee that, Ez. Let's go and see if we can entice him down first, though."
"Can I help?" a small man called as he caught sight of the strangers.
"Need to speak to Justin Pearce."
Buck showed his ID. "That's our business. Don't spook him, but call him down here with some work-based query. You understand?" the ladies' man said forcefully.
He had read the small man's type instantly. A weasel, a cheat and a person who cut corners no matter the possible outcome. Even without the other foreman's warning about the lax standards here, the small man had confirmed that fact just by his appearance.
"Yeah, I get it." The man pulled out a walkie-talkie. "Justin, you hear me, bud?"
"Got a job for you. Need it doing now."
"On my way," the disembodied voice agreed.
"Thanks," Buck said. "Can you get him over toward that truck?"
Their quarry appeared a few minutes later and walked to meet the foreman. The three agents closed in on the pair from different directions. Ezra and JD had their guns drawn for safety.
The foreman must have given Justin some sort of signal because the big man suddenly looked at Buck and the others. The only way he'd have known they were there was to have been told. Justin bolted back into the building, detecting that the three men were the law.
"Dammit," Buck cursed as he set off in hot pursuit with JD.
Ezra watched where Justin was heading and turned to the foreman. "That was very stupid." The undercover agent handcuffed the man to the truck and said, "Now help me out. How many exits are there to this hovel?"
The foreman scowled. "One other round back. That's the only other one we're using right now. The rest are blocked."
"Thank you. I'll be back for you later so you better not have lied to me," Ezra said as he hurried off.
Inside the building, the three running men were leaping over piles of wood, dodging other construction workers and ducking through doors. JD tripped over a bag of cement and sprawled head first along the floor. His jeans ripped and he could feel the skin being scraped off his hands and knees.
"Shit," he swore as he struggled to his feet and stumbled onward.
Buck continued his headlong flight after Justin, but didn't seem to be gaining on him. At least he doesn't seem to be heading upwards, which will please Ezra no end, he thought to himself.
Buck could see an open door at the back of the building and he knew that if the man got through there he'd lose him.
The ladies' man heard a yell and when he exited into daylight he found Justin on the ground with Ezra sitting on him, cuffing him. Buck bent over with hands on knees as he tried to catch his breath,
"Good catch, pard."
"A well placed foot often works wonders, Mr. Wilmington. He had a very nice trip indeed."
Buck laughed. "Why did you think he'd be here?"
"I asked the foreman how many other exits there were and this was it. I had also detected that our friend here wasn't very foot-sure when it came to climbing scaffolding. He walked very gingerly on his way down to meet his boss. I took the chance that he wouldn't want to run along the wobbly construction either."
"Well, who'd have thought it. A construction worker who ain't happy on scaffolding. That has to be a first."
JD came piling out the door and came to an astonished halt.
"Are you in one piece, Mr. Dunne? You seem to have suffered some damage," Ezra asked from where he still sat on his prisoner.
"Fell over, didn't I? See you ain't even dirty," the young agent said in disgust.
"Well, a man of my distinction lets you ruffians do all the hard, dirty work. I just take all the credit."
"Crap," Buck said as he helped Ezra haul Justin upright.
The three men and their prisoner made their way back to collect the handcuffed foreman.
Ezra approached the man and released him from the truck, but secured his hands behind his back instead. "I think you need to assist us with our enquiries. Aiding a felon to escape was not the smartest idea you've ever had. I also wonder if I went over the supplies you have received whether I would find any stolen goods. Mr Pearce was apparently selling on stolen good from other sites, Would you know anything about that?"
"I bought some things off him, but I didn't know they were stolen, I swear."
"Well, you'd better cone with us just the same. I expect the police would be interested in talking to you after we've questioned you. In the meantime, your construction site will be closed for forensic examination."
JD went off to close down the site and he also arranged for CSU to visit and compare the brick dust they had found. He also asked them to visit the previous site, too, because it seemed more than likely that the brick dust had come from there.
When the youngest agent arrived back, Ezra had thought of something else that needed doing before they left the site.
"Mr. Dunne, would you mind checking Mr Pearce's locker. We might find something incriminating. Mr. Pearce happily handed over his key, and the locker is located in the foreman's office."
"Sure, I won't be long."
JD hurried off on his next task. He found the locker he required and unlocked it. He put on gloves and bagged it all up ready for forensics to look at. He was just about to close the door when he saw something at the very bottom. He reached in and pulled out a section of bloody pipe. He put it in another bag and took it back to the others.
As he approached his team-mates he held the bag up. "Hey, guys look what I've found. The weapon he used to hurt Vin. He kept this as a trophy I reckon."
"Well, this proves what an idiot you are, Justin. How stupid was that?" Buck said as he made the man get in his truck.
They then took their two prisoners back to base for questioning. Inevitably, both men called for lawyers so they were taken to the cells rather than an interview room.
Buck was taking Justin to be locked up when his cell rang. "Wilmington," he said.
"It's Nate. We haven't had any luck with Justin. We're gonna stake out his house."
Buck smiled as he watched Justin being locked up. "No need, pard. We caught him and he's being put behind bars as we speak. Do you wanna go to the hospital and we'll meet you there. Justin's asked for a lawyer and he won't be here for ages yet."
"Yeah, okay. Well done for catching him. At least Vin can sleep easy now. We all can."
After Nathan had told Josiah that their search was at an end, the two men headed to the hospital to see their injured friend. They arrived in reception just as Buck and the others did. The men walked through the hallways to Vin's room, laughing and talking excitedly at the news they had to tell.
"Hey, pard. How ya feeling?" Buck asked, seeing that Vin was awake and alert.
"Yeah, I'm getting there. Still getting real bad headaches, though."
Buck smiled sympathetically as he sat on the bed facing Vin. "Well, we've got some news to cheer you up. We caught your attacker."
Vin smiled and noticeably relaxed. "Great. Where did you find him?"
"On a construction site." Buck updated the sharpshooter and blond with as much detail as he could. Josiah then chipped in to say what they had been up to in the intervening time.
"Well done, guys. This is one case I'm really glad to solve," Chris said as he stood and shook each man's hand.
"Yeah, but I feel kinda sorry for Justin's mother," Josiah said, when Chris shook his. "She's quite elderly and I'm not sure she could live with the knowledge of her son's crimes. She was a lovely lady."
"Sure took a shine to you, too, Josiah," Nathan teased as he thought back to the look in the woman's eye on catching sight of Josiah.
Ezra snorted. "What is it with you and older women? First Maude and now this lady. Can't you find someone of your own age to admire?" the undercover agent asked, trying to cheer the profiler up.
Josiah laughed. "I think I've caught Buck's animal magnetism. I just attract the more mature woman."
"Is that because you can't handle a nubile, agile youngster? Ezra asked cheekily. "They must wear an old-timer like you out in the bedroom. You've got one foot in the grave after all."
Josiah chased Ez out of the room shouting, "I'll show you agile."
They left behind a group of men in hysterics.