"Charlie." Don was deadly serious. "Put the apple down."
Eyes big and scared, Charlie did as he was told, dropping the apple onto the pile of apples, pears, and oranges, the apple rolling slightly to wedge itself back into an acceptable niche.
"David." Don was still far too calm. Inside was roiling. "David, call an ambulance."
"I need a Forensics team here immediately, with decontamination suits. Get the lab people to identify what that poison is on the package at Headquarters. It's probably something common, and easily obtainable." He paused to assess his brother. Charlie was white, but it was with fear and nothing else—Don hoped. "Tell them…Tell them that minutes may count."
He put the cell phone away, trusting in his team to be on top of things. There was a priority, and he focused on him. "Charlie." Deep breath. "Tell me about the fruit basket. Where did you find it?"
"I…" Charlie looked bewildered. "I found it here when I walked in, just a few minutes ago. I came in from Larry's office…"
"Just a few minutes ago?" Don took hold of Charlie's wrists, pulling them away from his body. "We're going to go wash your hands. You touched it? What did you touch?"
"Just the wrapper," Charlie told him, suddenly terrified, "and the apple. Don—"
"Stay with me, buddy." Don was drawing his brother along the hall, Charlie's hands held in the air in front of them, toward the men's room and faucets with running water. "You unwrapped it? Then what?"
"Nothing," Charlie stammered. "I looked at the card. It was from you, Don."
"Not me, Charlie. Not me." Almost at the men's room. Damn, this corridor was long. Don went past a classroom, one of the science labs—and stopped.
A science lab. Where people played with sometimes dangerous chemicals. Where, according to laws and safety standards and OSHA regulations, there was an emergency shower for times best described as accidents.
This was no accident. This was attempted murder and Don was going to do his best to make sure that it stayed in the category of 'attempted'.
He dragged Charlie into the science lab, barreling through the door with his shoulder. The lab was empty at the moment, but that didn't matter to Don. It could have been filled with giggling sophomores, and he would have done the same thing.
He shoved Charlie under the shower spigot and yanked.
Cold water dropped like a forty day flood compressed into five seconds. Charlie yelped with the shock of it, clothes instantly drenched, the excess water flooding over the floor and aiming for an escape down the nearby drain.
He recovered swiftly, rubbing his hands in the remainder of the downpour, trying to remove any residue that he might have picked up from the fruit basket. "Don…" Shivering set in, the cold turning him into a trembling icicle.
Don had done what he could. He pushed Charlie onto a convenient stool, looking around for something dry and warm to throw over his brother's shoulders. There was nothing.
"Don?" Larry poked his head in, alarm written clearly on his face.
Reinforcements: Larry, with Amita behind him. Don commandeered their immediate services. "Larry, close the door to Charlie's office and guard it. Don't let anyone in; absolutely no one. Be careful; it may be contaminated. Amita, evacuate this hallway now."
No backtalk from any of the professors, not even the one shivering in Don's grasp, looking like a bedraggled leprechaun bereft of his pot of gold. The thunderstorm was still going on, Don couldn't thinking. The rainbow was yet to come. He could hear the faint wail of a siren outside, joined by a second.
Minutes counted. So did seconds. "Talk," Don demanded. "Give me a time line, Charlie. When did you find the fruit basket?"
Charlie automatically looked at the clock on the wall. "I'm…I'm not sure."
"Think, dammit!" Don immediately regretted his outburst. He reined himself back in.
Charlie swallowed hard. "Ten minutes ago, maybe fifteen now. I read the card. It was from you, Don. That's what it said."
They both knew that the card was a lie. No point in wasting time on it. "You unwrapped it?"
"Yes. Plastic wrap." Charlie was starting to babble, his hands still shaking. "I threw it away in the trash."
"Did you eat any of the fruit?"
Relief rolled off of Don like the water down the drain not two feet away from his brother. He could hear Colby's voice down the hallway, Larry's voice calling to them to direct them closer to the scene and Amita's higher pitch floating above the deeper tones.
"Where are they?"
"Down the hall, in the—"
"In here," Don bellowed through the door so that they could hear them. "Secure Charlie's office. Get the stretcher in here! I've got him." He kept his hands on Charlie's shoulders. "Help is on the way, buddy. You still feeling okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine…Don?" Puzzled. Starting to worry.
"Charlie?" Ice pick in the gut.
"Don, something is hurtin—" Charlie doubled over with an agonized groan. "Don!"
"Charlie!" Don grabbed his brother, kept him from falling to the floor. "Oh, god, Charlie!"
"Don—" The shaking began in earnest this time, better described as convulsions. This wasn't mere cold from the shower, and it wasn't the flu. This was poison, and Charlie was dying in sudden agony.
Don clutched his brother to him, and hung on.
Ambulance ride. Too long.
Mask over his brother's face, pushing oxygen.
Charlie crying out in pain, the convulsions coming one after another. Strapped to the gurney.
Writhing. Screaming. Gasping for breath, in between the screams. In between the convulsions.
Medic cursing when the IV wouldn't go in on the first shot.
Nothing that Don could do.
Except hang onto his brother. And pray.
Couldn't sit. Couldn't stay still.
Don paced along the hall, realizing what he was doing but unable to stop himself.
He couldn't stand to be in the ICU waiting room, either. His father was there, and all the conversations he'd ever had with the man about putting Charlie's life in danger floated through Don's mind. He's not one of your agents, Don. You can't treat him like one. There was Charlie's hunched over shoulders on the back of an ambulance, his kid brother terrified out of his wits from the time when that contractor dude—Don couldn't remember the name—shot out the window of Charlie's Prius. There was even Charlie himself, glaring at Don, ready to punch out Don's lights over putting Amita in danger.
Don would have given anything right now to have Charlie able to punch out his lights.
Amita was there, too, her hands trembling quietly in her lap. She hadn't said two words to Don since getting there. She hadn't said two words to anyone. Larry flanked her on the other side, a bundle of misery.
And, somewhere beyond those double doors, lay his brother. Fighting for his life.
Poisoned, because Don Eppes worked for the FBI.
Poisoned, because Special Agent Don Eppes couldn't leave well enough alone on a case that wasn't a case. If he hadn't stuck his nose in, then Anders would never have gone after Charlie.
"You did what you had to do, Donnie."
Don jerked his head up. He hadn't realized that his feet had taken him back inside the waiting room. He hadn't realized that he'd spoken aloud. "Dad?"
"You did what you had to do," his father repeated, a tremor in his voice. He looked gray, suddenly looking his age; looking older than his age with fear. "This is not your fault."
"Without you, Don, more people would have died," Amita added bravely, "and no one would have known that they were murdered."
Larry put the capstone on it. "Charles was proud of what you did, Don. He told me so, this morning, right after you called him to announce the discovery of the evidence that proved the murders. He was proud to be a part of your work."
It must have been an allergy to the disinfectant that the hospital used that turned Don's eyes red and watery, because FBI agents never cried.
The answer came from both directions at once.
David, followed by Megan and Colby, joined the trio in the waiting room less than an hour later.
David wasted no time. "Forensics ID'd the poison on the fruit basket addressed to you at Headquarters, Don. You called it: strychnine. It wasn't just on the fruit, but on the plastic wrapping as well. Charlie was poisoned as soon as he unwrapped the basket. Strychnine needs to be ingested. Charlie didn't eat any of the fruit, but more strychnine dust was aerosolized when he tore open the plastic wrapping. He must have inhaled it."
Dr. Bloom, whom Don had met from earlier, joined them at the same moment. "I was about to say the same thing," she said to Don. Alan joined the group, followed by Amita and Larry. "Strychnine. The symptoms are classic. Hopefully he didn't inhale too much."
"How is he?"
"It'll be touch and go," she told them. This was not the time for sugar-coating. This was the time for honesty. "Supportive treatment for the moment. We've sedated him, and we're hoping that we don't have to hook him up to a vent—a breathing machine," she clarified. "If he makes it through the night, he'll have a good chance." She gave them all a sympathetic look. "We'll do our best," she added before leaving.
Strychnine. Rat poison. No longer used popularly as such, but still available. Used to be an accepted medication back in the 1930's, a stimulant, before better alternatives were developed. Don, like the rest of them, had gone to the mandatory anti-terrorist training courses that the FBI had developed, and one of those courses was bio-terrorism. It wasn't only things like anthrax and plague that were threats, but poisons such as ricin—and strychnine. A miniscule amount of strychnine could break a man's spine with muscular convulsions too violent to imagine. A tiny grain of the stuff was all that was needed to kill a man in a few agonized hours. How much had Charlie inhaled? Don swallowed hard.
He needed to turn his attention elsewhere, in order to remain sane. "Any sign of Anders?" he asked harshly, not expecting a positive response.
"He was there, Don," Colby told him.
"He was? Where? At CalSci?" Don couldn't believe the gall of the man.
"Megan's idea," Colby offered.
"Profiling," Megan told him. "Anders is angry, and angry people do foolish things. He's sticking around when the safest thing for him to do would be to disappear, maybe flee to another country. That's why he sent," she paused, "the baskets of fruit."
"Yeah." Something to shoot at the moment would have been good. A punching bag would also have fit the bill.
Amita was thinking the most clearly of the civilians. She latched onto the important parts of Megan's words. "Wait a minute; you said that this man Anders is sticking around? Are you saying that he's here now? Observing us?"
"He may be," Megan had to admit. "He's getting a lot of satisfaction watching us react to what he's done."
Colby took over. "We looked around, Don, and we showed some pictures of Anders to students in the area." He too was unhappy. "We found traces of him in the building across the quad. We picked up some field glasses in one of the classrooms with windows looking over the Math Building where Charlie's office is; we think that Anders hung around to enjoy the whole spectacle. All the squad cars, all the sirens. He must have been getting a real kick out of it,' Colby added bitterly. "He was so close, and we never knew it."
"Is Charles in any further danger?" Larry asked, then waved helplessly at the ICU doors, realizing what he had said. "I mean, beyond the obvious."
"Probably not at the moment," Megan said. "Right now Anders is getting what he wants: retribution. He'll wait to see what happens, then he'll decide whether to go after Don again or simply move on."
"You mean, if Charlie…" Amita couldn't finish the sentence.
No one could. Colby covered up the silence by changing the subject. "There's a manhunt going on, Don. Not only is every FBI field agent out working the streets, but all three shifts of the LAPD have volunteered to work overtime to try to find this guy. Even the NSA is contributing computer time, trying to find electronic traces of him."
"Makes you realize just how well respected Charlie is," David said quietly, "and how well-liked."
It was a long night. Don took turns with the others keeping vigil, the nurses bending the rules by allowing them to continually remain at Charlie's bedside instead of forcing them out and Charlie's family demonstrated their appreciation by staying out the way when necessary.
Textbook medical knowledge from the mandatory anti-terrorist course kept trudging through Don's brain: convulsions. Tremors. Anti-convulsants to stop the tremors, and prevent death from simple exhaustion. A heart monitor racing to keep up, showing how the heart was beating too fast for a man who routinely jogged until his normal heart rate was a slow sixty beats per minute. There was the oxygen mask, delivering oxygen to lungs that threatened to quit at any moment—there was an alarm for that, too. Alarms for this, alarms for that. Don wondered how Charlie could sleep through the racket.
He knew how: sedation. Slow everything down as much as possible until the poison worked its way out of his brother's body. Keep him asleep, instead of screaming in agony.
This is my fault. I went after Anders, so Anders went after Charlie.
Time to trade places with his father. Time to take his turn at Charlie's bedside, watch the man take breath after breath, hoping against hope that each one would not be the last that his brother ever took. Watch the lines of pain on his face grow deeper even through the sedation. Watch the muscles twitch uncontrollably, knowing that without that sedation those twitches would be convulsions.
His father emerged from the doors of the ICU and leaned heavily against the wall, shoulders heaving.
Don's heart stopped. "Dad? Is he—?"
Alan Eppes' eyes were red, but dry. The tears were still waiting to take over. "He talked to your mother, Donnie. I think he saw her." Deep, shuddering breath. "He asked her to take him home."
Now the tears did come.
The sun seeped up from the east, turning the horizon a bright pink. How could I have ever thought that yesterday was a beautiful day?
I could have prevented this. I parked too far away. I stopped to smell the flowers, walking into Charlie's office. If I'd hurried, I could have stopped him from touching the damn thing. It was only a few minutes. Just a few minutes sooner…
"Don?" Weak. But coherent.
"Charlie!" Don jumped to his feet, almost afraid to touch his brother. "Charlie?"
"Tired," his brother muttered.
Don didn't care. It was morning. Charlie had lived through the night. He would be okay.
They would all be okay.
"Did you get any sleep last night?" David wanted to know.
"What do you think?" Don's haggard face said it all. The uncomfortable plastic chairs in the waiting room, muddy water passing for coffee with its only benefit the high caffeine content; no, sleep had not been part of his night.
"Right." David indicated Megan. "Megan's going to stay here with your family, Amita and Larry. Director's orders: you're going to Headquarters with me. There's statements to be written, Don, and you're the only one who can write them."
"We need the details, Don." David was sympathetic, but firm. "We need to find Anders. The manhunt is still in progress, and we need your input to focus on where to hunt."
"You know where to hunt," Don told him, trying not to sound petulant. The thought of standing up, of going back into action, even though the plastic chair was about as comfortable as a nest of thistles, was abhorrent. The idea of leaving Charlie here was even worse.
It was Alan who settled it. "Donnie," he said, "go. Charlie is going to be all right; that's what Dr. Bloom said last night, and again this morning. Go and make sure that that madman doesn't try again."
Don sighed. He couldn't fight them all, and he didn't think that he ought to. He was so tired; not just exhausted, but bone weary. Inactivity gets to us all, he thought.
At least Charlie will be all right.
Nothing else mattered.
David and Colby escorted him down the hall from the ICU waiting room, each one holding onto an arm as if he were somehow going to squirm away. No, but there's a even chance of falling over onto my nose, Don thought wryly, recognizing that he was so tired that he was on the verge of hysteria. Wouldn't Anders like to see that? Megan was right; Don knew it in his gut. Anders was around here somewhere, watching. Laughing, perhaps, to see the antics that he'd put everyone through, maybe even thinking up more ways to get back at the man who had pursued him from one city to another.
The hospital had woken up long before, with white coated attendants pushing stretchers past them, nurses in a variety of scrubs hurrying this way and that. Here and there the occasional doctor leaned onto a counter and scribbled something barely comprehensible to mere mortals.
"Don?" Colby tugged gently.
"Wait." Don turned around. Something bugged him. There was something here, something…
"You!" Sharp and clear. Directed at one of the attendants, pushing a stretcher. An attendant who had ducked his face while passing the FBI trio, but hadn't been able to cover himself sufficiently to escape Don's exhausted gaze.
Someone who broke and ran.
"Go!" Adrenalin kicked Don into high gear. Exhaustion forgotten, he took off at a full out run, legs pumping. "David, down the stairs!" he yelled. "Colby, to the left!"
They split, to encircle Anders, Don taking the most direct route straight at the suspect. Carts were slammed into his path, Anders throwing everything he could to slow the FBI agent down. Anders plummeted down the staircase at the end of the hall, dashing out onto the floor below only mere seconds ahead of Don.
Hunter vision narrowed to one thing: the suspect. Don's gun arrived in his hand, and Don would never be able to remember pulling it out of his holster. Anders toppled a tall linen cart to try to halt the pursuit; Don leaped a full six feet to clear the obstacle. Fury lent him speed.
They cornered Anders in a small room with all sorts of medical tools in it, bloody gauze pads left heaped on silver trays awaiting proper disposal. The window behind Anders was large but screened in. Anders would never be able to crash through it.
He was trapped.
Anders snatched up a bloody scalpel. He held it in front of him. "I'll use this!"
Scalpel versus three guns. No contest, and Anders realized it. He tried a new tactic: he raised the scalpel to his own throat. "I'll kill myself!" he threatened.
Don kept his gun trained on the suspect, as did David and Colby.
"Be my guest," Don invited. "Kill yourself. It'll be the only real suicide you've been involved with."
"An egotistical personality," Megan diagnosed. "I'm not surprised at Anders' action, there at the end before you took him into custody. In his mind, he was the only one who mattered. He expected you to want to keep him alive; that was why he threatened himself. He thought that you would cave, and he could escape."
"Right," Don grunted. "He was wrong." It felt good to say that; that and an interceding twenty four hours, including some twelve spent on sleep, had done wonders for his mental state.
Don's father looked the worst of them all, and that included Charlie himself, lying in the hospital bed with the head raised just enough for him to keep track of the conversation. Alan hadn't yet gone home to clean up, had refused to leave while insisting that the others take their turn. "I just need a little more time with my son," he had told them. "I'll go later this afternoon."
It was almost evening, and Alan still hadn't gone. Don anticipated a battle, and had come prepared with the rest of his team if force was necessary. "Hey, Charlie," he said, walking into the room. Amita was back, he noted, although Larry was absent.
"Preparing to cover my freshman calc class," Charlie told Don and the others.
"Larry hates freshman calc," Amita put in with a grin.
"Really? Then why aren't you teaching it?" Megan wanted to know. "I thought you loved it, Amita."
"Oh, I do," she said, "but Larry lost the coin toss, fair and square. It wouldn't be right to deprive him of the chance to live up to his end of the bet."
Megan grimaced. "That means that tomorrow night I'll be subjected to three hours of a lecture on how luck is actually a quantifiable part of the universe and what it means for the revelation of some theory."
"Spend it here with me, instead," Alan invited her. "Charlie is lousy company. He keeps falling asleep on me."
"Hey." Not enough energy to justify an exclamation point, but Don didn't care. Charlie was going to be all right. Pale as a ghost? Didn't matter. Sucking oxygen through a plastic mask? Good enough. Not even able to raise a hand to spoon in wiggling blue jello that moved faster than he did? That was luck enough for Don.
Speaking of which…Don pulled out the lottery ticket from his wallet. "Anyone know the winning numbers?" he asked.
Charlie's face fell. "Don, you didn't. You do realize that investing a dollar each week instead of wasting it on a several million to one shot will net you—"
"Charlie," Don interrupted, "I figure I spent my luck by being able to talk to you here and now." His brother was weak, but could still work up indignation over something like this? Don leaned over. "Do you think I care about a stupid lottery ticket?"
"Don—" Don could see that Charlie really wanted to argue with him, exhaustion or no. Okay; the one and only good thing about Charlie lying in that bed: Don automatically won the argument just by being able to stand up and loom over his brother.
"Don…" There was an odd note in Alan Eppes' voice. Alan held the newspaper in his hand, the paper that he'd gotten to while away the time with Charlie sleeping through the day.
"Don, the lottery ticket."
"You're kidding." His father had to be kidding. It was a million to one shot. Don had used up all of his luck on the Anders case. "I won?"
"Right here." Alan indicated the spot in the newspaper that listed the winning numbers. "You won."
"I won?" Don repeated. "I won?"
Alan whacked his son over the head with the paper. "Yes, you won, Don. You won ten bucks."
The room broke up into laughter.
But looking at his brother, and his friends and his team around him, Don knew that he'd won a lot more than money.