Don nervously shifted his weight as he stood in front of the brightly colored door, waiting for the occupant inside to answer his knock. After a moment the knob began turning and Don slowly expelled the breath he hadn't realize he'd been holding. Once the door had swung open, the agent was standing face to face with someone who was less than pleased to see him.
"Agent Eppes." Cool and even, controlled anger simmering just below the surface.
"Barbara," he nodded. "I know I'm probably the last person you want to see-"
"Good guess," she told him as she rested a hand on her hip.
"I just wanted you to know that we got him – the man who killed your husband."
"As far as I can tell that man is standing in front of me." Barbara let out a deep sigh and shook her head as Don remained silent. "Look, maybe I shouldn't have said that, but it's how I feel." As if noticing the bandage on Don's neck for the first time, she pointed. "He do that to you?"
"You're okay, though?"
"I'm going to be fine," he answered, not sure if the news would disappoint her or not.
"That's good," the widow replied. "I still hold you responsible but I'm not some blood thirsty monster." A child's voice called to her from inside the house. "Mommy will be there in a minute, sweetie."
"How are the kids doing?" Don inquired with concern.
"Their uncle came out to help me with them."
"That's good," Don nodded uncomfortably. "This might help, too." He handed her a letter and watched as she read it.
"You got Bobby's death benefits to go through this quickly?" Barbara asked in shock as she scanned the letter.
"I knew you needed it."
"Eases your guilty conscience a bit?" she inquired sarcastically.
"Of course not," he replied as he stepped back and held his hands up in surrender. "Look, I just wanted to give you that and let you know we got the guy – that's it. You never have to see me again."
"That's a good idea," she spoke evenly as she calmly shut the door in his face.
Don shook his head as he followed the walkway back to his SUV. He had known that seeing Bobby's widow again wouldn't be pleasant, but he was pleased that she was no longer overtly hostile. However, the agent had also thought that he would be experiencing wave after wave of guilt after their conversation, but he wasn't. I wonder why that is?
Of course – Dad. A small smile played over his mouth as he thought back to the talk he'd had with his father the night before. What do you know – Dad was right. Hmm… maybe I should see if Charlie's free. Who knows? I might actually understand one of his theorems now.
Charlie was in his office working on his Cognitive Emergence Theory when a soft chuckle from the doorway drew his attention. "Don!" he greeted happily. His face bunched in confusion. "What are you laughing at? Do I have chalk on my back or something?" The professor twisted his head as far around as he could, searching the length of his shirt for any telltale dust. This prompted Don to laugh even harder.
"Stop, Charlie!" the agent said through his laughter. "It wasn't that. It's just, well… Let's just say I don't think I'll ever understand your work."
"Okay," Charlie replied as he studied his brother, thinking for all the world he must have gone mad. "So what brings you here?"
"I wanted to visit. Maybe go to lunch?"
"Oops, I already ate earlier," the professor apologized.
"No problem," Don said amiably as he settled into the spare chair in his brother's office. "I had some news I wanted to share, too."
"Oh?" the younger man replied, abandoning his work to give Don his full attention. "Good news?"
"Maybe," Don answered. "Megan did some digging – turns out Gardenia had his own personal dentist, a man named Salazar. She tracked him down and got hold of Gardenia's dental records to identify the remains they found in that burned-out vehicle."
Remembering the two unidentified bodies that had been found, Charlie perked up. "And?"
"Positive ID," Don announced with a triumphant grin. He paused a moment while the information registered. "He's not going to bother you or Dad or me any more."
"That's wonderful!" the professor exclaimed.
"I thought you'd be relieved to know."
"Nowhere near as relieved as you, Don. I know this case has been particularly hard for you."
"No kidding," the agent replied softly. "I think I'm going to be sleeping the sleep of the… really, really tired these next few days before I go back to work."
"At Casa de Eppes, I hope?"
"Nah," Don shook his head. "I've been crashing there too much. Don't want to wear out my welcome."
"Don't be so stubborn," Charlie sighed in exasperation. "You don't have a welcome to wear out because it's your home, too. Besides, Dad and I missed you a lot while we were gone. We want you there."
The older man just smiled in amusement and shook his head. "Alright, Buddy, you convinced me. But I am starting to wonder why I pay rent for my apartment."
"Because you want the one luxury I can never have," the professor informed him.
"Oh? And what's that?"
"A place to go when Dad starts to grate on your nerves." Charlie gave a long suffering sigh and shook his head in frustration. "I love him to death, but sometimes… Sometimes I just want to scream. Especially when he brings that woman home."
"Right," Don nodded in understanding. "Well any time you need to, come on over. I promise you that my apartment will always be a Millie-free zone, just for you."
"I don't think I say this enough, but you're the best big brother a guy could have."
Hector Gardenia hurt. The physical pain was horrible, but the emotional pain was excruciating. And he knew who he had to blame for both. Sure, the bullet that had slammed through his chest might not have come from Eppes' gun, but Eppes was the reason the other agents had been there. And Eppes was the reason he'd lost his second in command – both of them – as well as his operation. And Eppes was the reason that he was going to have to relocate, recuperate, and then start all over in another city. But when that day finally arrived – the day when he was leading another powerful organization – he would see to it that he paid a visit to Don Eppes. It might be years, but he was very eager to see if revenge really was a dish best served cold.
"How are you, sir?"
Oh, the young ones were so annoying with their formalities.
"Not sir," he snapped with as much strength as he could muster.
"Sorry," the young man by his bed apologized. "Won't happen again."
Gardenia nodded weakly. "Have you made our arrangements?"
"Yes. I've booked a private jet for us. We'll be in Miami by tomorrow evening." He hesitated as he studied his boss's complexion. "Are you sure you're ready to travel?"
"I'm ready to put this chapter of my life behind me. For now, at least." Gardenia winced as he shifted in his bed. "You know we have a lot of work ahead of us in Miami, Roberto."
"Yes. My cousin has already started recruiting some men for us. You'll be pleased, I promise."
"I don't doubt it, Roberto," the crime boss smiled. "Now, I must ask – have you taken care of that one last errand I gave you?"
"Delivery went exactly as ordered."
"Excellent," the injured man smiled. "Now let me get some sleep. Wake me tomorrow when the time comes." He watched as Roberto moved to the other bed in the hotel room, not to sleep but to keep watch by the door. He's definitely a keeper.
Gardenia's thoughts drifted back to their narrow escape. After the second agent arrived on the scene, he'd barely had time to blink before he was falling through his beloved picture window and landing hard on the ground below. The air had been knocked from his lungs and his bleeding chest burned as he tried to catch his breath. Certain that his life was over, he'd been relieved when Roberto had appeared and dragged him off to the getaway SUV. There had been two other men waiting for them inside – a driver and another badly injured man – and the foursome took off through the hidden tunnel Gardenia had had the foresight to build. The incompetent driver had lost control and sent them down the side of the hill, killing himself instantly. Roberto had leaped from the wrecked vehicle and pulled his boss from it to safety before returning to the twisted heap of metal.
"He's been shot, too," Roberto had explained as he gestured to the front passenger seat. "Perhaps the Feds will think you died in this accident." This last was said as the young man doused the SUV with gasoline.
Gardenia tried to gather his scattered thoughts. "Make sure…" he panted. "Make sure it burns… completely." Roberto looked up, puzzled. "No identification," he clarified.
"How are they going to know it's you, then?"
"Salazar," the crime boss replied as he felt his strength evaporate. "Make… the call…"
Gardenia's thoughts returned to the present just as his breathing evened out and sleep began to claim him. His only regret at the moment was that he wouldn't be able to see the look on Eppes' face when he discovered this last… surprise.
"You call this stretching your legs?"
Don looked up at the sound of his uncle's laughing voice and sheepishly shrugged. "I needed some air?"
The other man's face immediately creased into a frown. "Don, are you alright?"
"I'm fine, Uncle Ernesto. Just thinking about all the stuff waiting for me at the office on Monday."
"You don't fool me for a second," his uncle winked. "I know you've been dying to get back to work. Even if I couldn't see it in your eyes, I hear it enough from your father. He considers it a personal victory that he's managed to keep you here for the full duration of your sick leave."
"Early Father's Day gift," Don smiled, although the expression didn't quite reach his eyes.
"Right," Ernesto rolled his eyes. "I'll be sure to tell him that. Say, you're still nursing that beer? It's got to be warm by now."
"It's fine," the agent assured him.
"Nonsense," his uncle chided. "I'll get you a fresh one. I trust you'll still be stretching your legs here when I get back?"
"Sure," Don nodded with a grin. As he watched his uncle retreat to the house, Don stared back at his mother's flower garden. She's been so proud of it, cultivating it and dedicating so much time to it every year. The couple of years after her death the garden had been allowed to thin out, weeds taking up residence and robbing the flowers of nutrients. Then one day, for no apparent reason, his father had marched outside with a gardening book in one hand and a spade in the other. The next thing Don knew the garden was back up to his mother's standards and his father was the one dedicating so much time to maintaining its beauty.
Don let his eyes drift over the flowers, not seeing the garden but rather the image of a small greeting card with a single white flower pictured on the front. It had been inside a plain white envelope, adorned only with the words 'Agent Eppes', and stuck in the crack of his front door where he was sure to find it. He'd studied the words for a few brief moments as he made his way inside but soon realized the handwriting didn't belong to anyone he was familiar with. With an unconscious shrug, he'd carefully lifted the flap and pulled out the card.
As the flower on the printed on the front became visible, Don's stomach turned and he felt a shiver race down his spine. He knew this flower. With lightly trembling fingers, the agent opened the front and saw one simple phrase written on the inside, "To Our Future". He'd dropped the card as if he'd been burned and sank onto his couch.
Charlie's voice cut into the unpleasant memory, jarring Don's thoughts back to the present. He spotted the fresh beer that the younger man was offering to him and gladly accepted it. "Thanks."
"No problem. Uncle Ernesto mentioned you needed a cold one. You know Dad and I didn't even realize that you'd slipped outside."
"Sorry about that," Don mumbled as he popped the top of the new bottle. "I just needed a minute."
Don smiled at the concern in his brother's voice. "I'm fine, Buddy. Really."
"Okay," Charlie replied doubtfully. "If you say so." He hesitated a moment before reaching out and awkwardly patting the agent on his shoulder. "You're going to be up for eating in a minute, right? Dad's prepared just about all of your favorites. A going back to work feast, I think he called it."
"Only Dad," Don shook his head as he smiled. "But I am starving. When the food's ready, you'd better not be in my way."
"I learned that lesson when we were kids," Charlie teased him. "You want to come in now or do you need another moment out here?"
"Another minute or two."
"With or without company?"
Surprised and touched by his little brother's thoughtfulness, Don patted the hand resting on his shoulder. "Thanks for the offer, but I need to be alone for a minute."
"Sure thing, bro. But you know where to find me." The last was more of a question than a statement.
"I do, Buddy."
The professor beamed at his brother before returning to the house. Don watched him disappear with a renewed sense of guilt creeping into his mind. He hadn't told them – nor had Megan, true to her word – about the incident in the house. Now Don was left to wonder if the card he'd found outside his apartment would lead to anything else he'd have to keep secret.
No, he's dead, the agent told himself. Dental records don't lie. But… dentists might. No, Gardenia's dead. The height and weight of the body, the bullet from Granger's gun… he's dead, Eppes. The card is just someone's idea of a sick joke. Maybe a disgruntled former gang member?
Don had taken the card into work, confiding only in Megan about the new discovery. She'd mentioned it to Merrick who had reminded them both that Gardenia's body had been positively identified and that his gang effectively destroyed – meaning the case was closed. Megan had insisted on one last move which involved calling in a favor to one of the crime scene techs. Once they'd heard back from him though – no DNA and no fingerprints – she and Don had had no choice but to stash the card away and assume it was a terrible, cruel joke.
But the lingering doubt still plagued Don, at night when he tried to sleep and during the day when things were too quiet.
Not quiet now, he thought dryly as his father poked his head through the back door. "Yeah, Dad?"
"Dinner's served! I don't know about you, but the rest of us are starving."
Don crossed the backyard and climbed up the steps on the back stoop, welcoming his father's quick embrace as he stepped through the door.
"I made all your favorites, you know," Alan told him.
"Charlie mentioned that," Don nodded. "Thanks."
"Anything for you, Donny. I'm just so glad you're better and life is back to normal."
"Yeah," Don said with a confidence he didn't feel. "Normal."
I certainly hope you're right, Dad.