Disclaimer: FX, Shawn Ryan, and crew own the goods.

Spoilers: Takes place during Season 3.

Description: When a lethal outbreak threatens the entire world, Farmington comes apart at the seams. In the midst of the chaos, Vic looks out for his blood, Ronnie gets involved with an abused neighbor, Dutch fights to get a brutal psychopath off the streets, and the rest of the Barn struggles to do their jobs without falling victim to the deadly illness.

This is an ensemble piece, but particular attention is given to Vic, Ronnie, Dutch, and Julian.

Warnings: Nothing at all.

A/N: So, writing for "The Shield" is pretty damn fun, as you can imagine. And why wouldn't it be? These characters are amazing.

I've tried to retain some of the "feel" of the show, including the title sequence. That may prove to be a misfired gimmick on my part, but I liked how it worked when I did my read-through. Thus, each chapter will be an "episode." You can tell me how it works for you as a reader.

I'm greatly appreciative of feedback, so whether you like it, hate it, or have comments, questions, or suggestions of any kind, please do leave me a review and let me know what you think. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy.


Paradise


Why do the things that we treasure most slip away in time?

'Til to the music we go grow deaf and to God's beauty blind?

Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?

'Til we fall away in our own darkness, strangers to our hearts?

And to life itself…

---

THE SHIELD

Some sights were so grizzly, you couldn't pile up enough years to make seeing them bearable.

Dutch glanced away, pressing a hand to his face to block the stench. Claudette did the same beside him, though she wasn't as theatrical about it.

"Jesus Christ," he mumbled against his knuckles.

MICHAEL CHIKLIS

"Forced entry around back," Danni said. "Neighbor says he saw a white male, twenty-five to thirty-five, milling around the area last night around ten."

Claudette snapped on her rubber gloves, glowering as she waded through a labyrinth of severed limbs. It looked like two children, both girls, and an adult male, though she wouldn't be sure until she found the heads.

CATHERINE DENT

She followed the trail of blood into a child's bedroom, where three horrified faces looked up at her from the floor beside a dresser. Her assumptions were confirmed in their vacant stares.

WALTON GOGGINS

Dutch ambled in after her, flinching as he angled around to one side. They didn't look much older than six or seven, the girls. The man was maybe forty. Though there was so much blood and brain matter scattered about that he wouldn't stand by the estimations.

"There's a special place in Hell for anyone who'd do this," Claudette said.

MICHAEL JACE

"He gets off on gore, by the looks of things. It's interesting, though, that he lined the heads up. The rest of the body parts are strewn about, but he took special care with the heads."

"He knew them?"

KENNETH JOHNSON

"Possibly," Dutch said distractedly, eyes flicking over all the defiled innocence. "He maybe felt remorse afterward. Wanted them to be together as a family."

"A little late for that."

"Not to him. He thinks they're facing God's judgment. They'll need each other's strength for that."

Claudette raised an incredulous eyebrow.

JAY KARNES

"You get all that from just the heads?" she asked.

Dutch shrugged.

"Could be wrong. It happens occasionally."

"Detectives," Julian's voice called out from the other room. "I found something."

BENITO MARTINEZ

Dutch stared at the heads a moment longer, then followed his partner into the hallway, where Julian held a blood-smeared quarter in his gloved palm. He gestured to the living room.

"I found this under the edge of the couch."

DAVID REES SNELL

Claudette saw Dutch's lips part, and spoke before he could.

"If you tell me it's symbolic that the blood's on the head and not the tail, I may have to shoot you, son."

and CCH POUNDER

"I was just going to ask for an evidence bag," he replied innocently.

Claudette glanced at the stained walls again, then sighed and turned away.

---

"Don't move! Don't fucking move!"

The two gangbangers froze, their guns lying on an end table inches away. Ronnie watched their eyes flick over it.

"Don't!" he barked.

There was a long, overwrought moment, when none of the three was certain if they'd sacrifice blood, and though seemingly in control of the situation, Ronnie's heart pounded in his chest, like a carpenter wailing on a nail when the deed was clearly done.

He caught a look in the eye of one of the bangers, and felt his finger twitch against the trigger.

He would have squeezed it if not for the sight of Shane and Lem rushing up the staircase. The bangers turned toward them on instinct, only to be belted in the face, one by Shane's fist and the other Lem's shotgun.

Ronnie let out a breath as they hit the ground, lowering his gun to his side. He watched with narrowed eyes as his partners flipped the men over, none too gently forcing their arms back to cuff them.

"God damn, you guys took your sweet time," he grumbled.

Shane looked up, instantly affronted by his friend's scathing expression.

"Hey, we had our own shit to deal with, Superstar. That cool with you?"

Ronnie glowered, clearly unamused, and glancing down at the banger Lem's knee held in place, he delivered a brutal and unnecessary kick to the man's ribs, before stalking off without a word.

Shane glanced at Lem, brows knit together in some confection of confusion and exasperation. The blonde cop shrugged.

"Fuck! He broke my fucking rib!" the banger groaned.

Lem rolled his eyes, digging his knee into him.

"Shut up, bitch."

THE SHIELD

---

Vic grinned a little as he watched his team shove a trio of suspects into the cage.

"Looks like everything turned out all right at Big Frank's place."

"We could've used a fourth man," Ronnie replied curtly, snapping the door closed.

Vic frowned.

"Everything all right?"

"Fine. Just fine," his friend said.

He grabbed his gun from behind the desk, reholstering it as he walked off. Vic stared after him a second, then glanced at his teammates.

"What the hell was that?" he asked.

Shane shook his head.

"Who knows. Ronnie's being a dick lately."

"And you've been one forever, so give him a break," Lem quipped.

"Oh, of course. Ronnie acts like a prick, but as always, I'm the asshole here. Sweet. Thanks, Lem I appreciate it."

"I'll have a talk with him later," Vic said, glancing across the Barn at Acaveda, who though speaking with a uniformed officer, seemed to sense the detective's eyes on him and glanced back. "Right now, we've got bigger shit on our plate."

---

Dutch frowned down at the file in front of him.

"Hey, take a look at this."

He held it up for Claudette to see.

"Trask's dead wife was his brother's ex-wife," he said, pausing in thought. "That's a little bit easy."

"Easy?"

"Obvious."

Claudette blinked condescendingly.

"Dutch, not everybody's the Zodiac. Sometimes the jealous brother just kills the guy."

"And cuts off his nieces' heads?" he parried.

Her lips twisted in a smirk, and then she inclined her head in concession, hands folded in her lap where she sat on the edge of his desk.

"Good point," she acknowledged, a little sarcastically. "Why don't we go do a little detective work and see what he says?"

Dutch smiled diffusively, a little bit awkward, and then he closed the file and stood.

"Uh… sure. Yeah."

She stood too, letting out a labored huff of air that could have been exasperation, or something else entirely. He matched her stride as she began to walk, and he looked just slightly concerned.

"You okay?" he asked. "You're a little grumpy today."

Her withering look summarily silenced him.

Vic passed the pair on his way to the clubhouse, throwing a mocking look over his shoulder before stepping inside and shutting the door behind him.

Lem, reclining on the couch, sat up. Shane and Ronnie were sitting opposite each other at the table, but they bore the comportment of arranged daters, all tense and rigid and blank. Vic didn't have the energy to wonder about it.

"Dutch Boy's Treasury bitch was in Acaveda's office earlier."

"We should be cool now, though. Right?" Lem asked. "I mean, we got rid of the marked bills."

Vic glanced at Shane disparagingly.

"Sure, as long as Momma Marah doesn't start whispering sweet nothings to the Feds."

"She won't," Shane replied firmly. "I told you, I'm handling it, okay?"

"The same way you 'handled' the storage receipts, Cletus Van Damme?"

Shane glowered, but said nothing. It was Ronnie who spoke – quietly, and with not the slightest effort at concealing his contempt.

"He's right. I mean, Christ, you can't even control your own wife. We're supposed to believe you'll keep a leash on her mom too?"

"What is your deal, man?!" Shane growled.

"My deal is, ninety-five percent of the time things go sideways around here, you're the one who gave em' a push. I'm sick of cleaning up all your God damn messes."

Shane popped out of his chair, like a predator from the weeds.

"Oh, is that how it is?" he snarled. "Is that what all this shit is? Well, come on then. If you've got a beef with me, let's step outside and figure shit out."

Ronnie stood too, though slower and stoically, and the way he flexed his hand, like he was about to need it, unnerved everyone in the room.

Vic took a step toward the table, glancing between them, wearing a frustrated scowl that brooked no defiance.

"No one's stepping outside," he said sternly. "Jesus. What the hell's the matter with you two? I've got Dutch and Acaveda halfway up my ass, and you guys are tryin' to throw down in the parking lot!"

Ronnie blinked, unmoved. For his part, Shane looked sheepish.

"He started it," he mumbled after a moment.

"I don't give a shit who started it! If we're not on the same page here, we could all go to prison! Is that what you want? Are you gonna be okay getting slammed in the ass by Navarro's guys in the shower? Because that's where this is headed if we don't get our shit together."

The door swung open suddenly, much to the men's surprise, to reveal Acaveda, who looked decidedly grim. Vic knew enough to realize he wouldn't like the words which followed.

"Vic, I just got a call from the hospital," he said, sounding uncharacteristically kind. "It's about your son."

Vic paled. Pettiness melted away.

Acaveda couldn't help thinking how strong it was – the bond between man and child. Even God's most craven creatures had love for daughter and son.

He watched his cop's arrogant visage dissolve into something primal.

"Which hospital?" Vic demanded.

---

It looked more like a third-world refugee camp than a hospital. Patients and their accompanying kin spilled out of the waiting room into the near corridors, each beseeching the doctors and nurses who passed them to simply do something.

We've been waiting for hours, they'd say. My boy's sicker than that boy, they'd say. Please, I'm begging you, they'd say.

Vic and his boys shoved past them (the other three with a bit more care than their headstrong leader), and he unsuccessfully sought information from the receptionist, who had a chart in each hand and a phone pressed to her ear.

He grunted angrily and made his way down the hall, seeking out anyone with a stethoscope. The first one who fit that description didn't look much older than twenty – an intern probably – but he'd do for the moment.

"Where's my son?"

The young man looked frazzled, overwhelmed.

"I – your – I don't know sir," he stammered. "I'm not a doctor. I'm a – "

"You still work here, don't you? I just want someone to tell me where my son is!"

"Sir, if you ask at the desk – "

"I did ask at the desk!" Vic growled. "For Christ sake, my wife works here, all right? Corrine Mackey. Our son is Matthew. Could you just find her or tell me where my God damn kid is?"

The intern swallowed – Shane thought he looked pathetic – and nodded furiously.

"Uh – yeah, I'll – let me check for you."

He wasn't more than six or eight steps past them when Vic saw Corrine at the other end of the corridor, wheeling a gurney in his direction. When she caught sight of him, she handed it off in haste to another passing nurse, and raced in his direction.

"Vic!"

He hurried to meet her.

"Corrine! What's going on? They told me they brought Matthew here. What the hell happened?"

She was a little breathless, and beyond flustered, bringing a hand to her creased forehead and swaying slightly, like she wasn't far from fainting. She shook her head, too tired for tears, but looking in need of them.

"He's – he passed out, and he's got a fever. His temperature was 104 when they brought him in. God, Vic, he – he looks…"

When she trailed off, her ex-husband grabbed her arm and leaned in.

"What's wrong with him?"

She shook his hand off, her own hands thrown up helplessly.

"I don't know. They're saying it's the flu, but I've never seen a flu like this. And he's – he isn't the only one, Vic."

"Wha'do you mean?"

"There's been dozens of people with the same symptoms. More than half the patients here have the same thing. I've never seen anything like this. It's – it could be an epidemic."

Vic glanced at Ronnie, who stared back solemnly, before eyeing Corrine again.

"How bad is it?" he asked softly.

"He's in an early stage, but – " Her voice wavered a moment, and she held her head in the palm of one hand. "Vic, two people came in four days ago with the same symptoms, and they're – they died this morning. We've been getting more and more cases ever since."

Vic turned away, bracing his hands against the nearest wall, not giving a damn that people were trying to pass him. He just stood there and breathed, hoping idly that the earth beneath would crack open and claim him. It would've been easier.

He'd always prepared for karma. Always thought his day might come. But it was a fate he'd presumed to suffer alone. Taking his son was a twisted thing, collateral damage of the cosmic sort.

When he felt Lem's hand on him, he pushed himself upright again, turning to Corrine.

"Just do what you can," he said quietly. "I'll be back."

"What? Where are you going?"

"I'm going to fix this."

"How?"

Vic narrowed his eyes at her, and they were full of a frightening resolve.

"I just will," he said.

---

Dutch smiled at the old woman who answered the door.

She looked like the sort of senior who'd try to scare you into getting life insurance in the dead of the TV night. He'd almost done it once, at three a.m., when the bedroom door was ajar and he peered in at Kim sleeping. They were compelling ads, and they played on guilt, a thing he possessed in ample supply.

"Hi, ma'am. I'm Detective Wagenbach; this is Detective Wyms."

"Hello," she greeted, pleasant but frowning.

"We're looking for Paul Trask. Is he home?"

She eyed the pair suspiciously.

"There's just a few questions we need to ask him," Claudette assured her, smiling slightly. "He's not in any trouble."

The remark didn't seem to appease the woman. If anything, the crevices on her face deepened. She pursed her lips as a parochial nun would when readying her ruler.

"He isn't home right now," she said.

"That's fine," Dutch replied. "Can you tell us when he'll be back? We'd like to get this over with as soon as possible. It's just a formality, really, but we need to speak with him to close our case."

"And what case is that?"

The sturdiness of her voice surprised him. She clearly wasn't the type to sit back and relax, and relish her golden years. He got the sense that in her long life she'd been betrayed, and had done plenty of betraying herself, and that as she confronted her fast approaching mortality, she'd accepted at last the thing that she was – a giver and receiver of the greatest disappointment.

Dutch forced a smile.

"You know what, we'll… we'll try back later, ma'am. Thanks so much for your time."

The old woman made haste in shutting the door, uttering no goodbye.

Dutch stood there for a moment, transfixed to his spot, before finally turning and walking down the steps, Claudette just behind him.

"That was interesting," she remarked.

"I don't know who this guy is, but he's a fucking wizard. My mother-in-law would have sold me down the river for half a pack of smokes. He's got his running interference for him."

"Mine tried to run me over once."

Dutch smirked.

"How'd that work out?"

"Well, you know what they say: whatever doesn't kill you – "

" – can still be used in divorce court?"

Claudette smiled, and he thought a witty retort might follow, but instead she bent over where she was standing, about halfway down the driveway, and what spilled from her mouth was hardly whimsical. Dutch laid a hand on her back as she let out a trio of deep, hacking coughs that gripped her lungs in a vise.

He rubbed a small circle with his palm, until they subsided some seconds later.

She gingerly erected herself afterwards, sucking in a few slow breaths.

"Are you okay?"

"Fine," she said, though her smile was more of a grimace.

"How long have you been sick?"

"I said I'm fine, Dutch."

"People who are fine don't spit their lungs out of their mouths," he scoffed stubbornly. "We need to get you to a doctor."

Claudette rolled her eyes, but her heart wasn't in it.

"Don't be overdramatic," she said weakly.

"At least go home. Take the day off. I can drop you off now and check on you later."

"For God sake, it was just a cough, son," she argued, looking as tired as he'd ever seen her. "I've obviously got a little bit of a cold, but it's nothing for you to have a conniption about."

"But – "

"Look, if it will make you feel better, I'll go see my doctor before I come in tomorrow. Okay?"

Dutch glanced away, considering the offer. He hated the idea that she could play him, that the tricks she used to manipulate suspects could be so easily applied in this matter. But she was the stubborn sort, and this was the fairest offer he'd get from her. So he finally nodded.

"Good," she sighed, starting back down the driveway.

He didn't follow immediately. He watched her move instead. And it reminded him of the way his dog looked, before it crawled under the house to die.

She turned back.

"You coming?"

"Yeah," he said, smiling sadly.

---

"I'm gonna need to make a withdrawal from the Money Train cash."

"What good is that going to do?" Shane asked.

"I'm putting out a million dollar bounty for the best doctor in So Cal to come save my son."

"Look, hang on a second. Don't you think it's a little early for this? I mean, we don't even know how sick he is yet."

Vic stopped walking and stepped into him.

"You heard what Corrine said!" he barked. "Same symptoms the other two had, and they're dead! I'm not gonna sit around for four days waiting for it to happen!"

Shane sighed, running a hand through his receding crop of hair, and he angled his body away.

A million dollars was more than Vic's share would cover. Not that he had the gumption to tell him that; few possessed such courage.

"Take my share too," Lem said. "That'll give you one point four."

Shane glanced over at him. Figures, he thought. Lem always was a sucker for kicked puppies.

"Mine too," Ronnie offered.

Jesus Christ. This was turning into a telethon. It was easy for Lem and Ronnie to pony up their stakes, but Shane had his own family to worry about. That money had to last him, God willing, another forty years or so.

Vic smiled slightly, nodding his head in thanks.

"Me and Lem will go get the cash from storage," Ronnie assured him, digging some keys out of his pocket. "How are you gonna find the doctor?"

The bald cop grinned darkly.

"The same way I find anyone," he said. "Creative use of my credentials."

---

Danni and Julian started up the walkway, mindful of the booming sound of a television coming from the home next door.

"Think it's just a noise complaint?" he asked.

"Hopefully. I'm not in the mood for much else."

Julian stepped onto the porch.

"Something the matter?"

"Just not feeling great today. Think I might have caught whatever Cacuzza has."

Julian nodded sympathetically, as he raised his hand to knock on the door. A few seconds later, a heavy, middle-aged woman answered, cradling a baby in one arm. She looked relieved to see them.

"Oh, you're here. Thank you for coming," she said.

"What's the problem, ma'am?"

"It's Mr. Petris next door. His TV's been on like that since five this morning."

"You want us to tell him to turn it down?" Danni surmised.

The woman shook her head, as if offended by the inference. She stepped out onto the porch with them, rocking her child a bit.

"No, I didn't call about the noise. I called because I'm worried about him. He never listens to anything that loud, and he's usually outside in his garden this time every morning. But he's been sick lately, and he's old. He didn't look so good when I saw him last night."

"Okay, ma'am," Julian said, smiling encouragingly. "We'll go check it out."

The woman looked relieved, and she smiled back at him before retreating into her house again, softly shutting the door behind her.

Julian and Danni crossed her yard and entered Petris'. The old man's garden was indeed robust, an eclectic spectrum of flowers that weren't natural cohabitants, but somehow worked wonderfully together. It reminded Danni of the backyard of her grandmother's house, where she'd spent so much of her youth, and she eyed the flowers melancholically, thinking of how many weeks and months and years stood between those days and that moment.

He was curious about her reaction, but let it pass unmentioned.

Danni rapped her hand against Petris' front door. She gave the man ample time to respond, but no one answered.

"Mr. Petris," she shouted over the noise, as she knocked again. "It's the police, sir."

She waited again, but still no one came. With a sick feeling, she glanced at Julian.

"Go around back."

He nodded, blading his gun as he trotted over the freshly cut grass, around the side of the house, up and over a short metal fence that didn't seem to serve a purpose, before finally arriving at the back entrance.

Pulling open the screen door, he was relieved to see no signs of forced entry, but it by no means put him at ease. Little ever did.

Back around front, Danni slowly twisted the knob, thankful when the door opened willingly, so as to save her the trouble of kicking it.

She slipped inside carefully, gun gripped in both hands and outstretched.

Ahead of her was a small hallway, which fed into the kitchen on one side and, she presumed, the living room on the other. The television was loud enough to deafen muffled ears. She frowned when she recognized the commercial – some half-attractive woman peddling Extenz.

She stepped forward, eyes and ears carefully attuned, until the hallway led her into the living room.

Three leather couches, each with a slipcover, were situated around an old oak coffee table, which was itself directly across from the television. Her first thought was to turn the damn thing down, before it permanently perforated her eardrums, but as she took one step forward on her way to do so, she saw the old man's body, lying face down on the floor beside one of the couches.

"Julian!" she shouted, racing over to Petris' still form, gently turning it so that he was facing up.

Her partner raced in from the opposite end of the house, just as she was taking a pulse. He knelt down beside her, ready to help however he could. But the look on her face told him all she needed to know.

Sliding down onto her posterior, Danni let out a long, defeated sigh, glancing down at the old man sadly. His eyes were closed, at least. That was something, she supposed. But given where he was, she knew he'd not died in sleep.

Julian spotted something wedged underneath Petris' body, and as gently as he could, pried the thing loose.

It was the television controller. Evidently, the man had fallen on it when he collapsed, and inadvertently turned the volume to its maximum.

"Hell of a way to go," Danni said, eyeing the controller.

Julian hit the power button, then set it down on the coffee table, standing up.

"He seems like he was a good man. That's all the dignity you need."

"Yeah, well, when I punch out," she replied, standing herself, "I sure as hell hope there isn't some slut talkin' about woodies in the background."

He didn't say anything to that, but he held her gaze for a moment, surprised at all the truths he could gleam from it, before turning away and walking to the front of the house, calling in the death on his radio.

---

Ronnie lifted the storage door, pushing up until it retracted into the ceiling.

A thin mist of dist wafted down from above, and he swatted it away from his eyes as he moved inside.

"If we both grab an end, we can probably move three at a time," he said.

Lem nodded, circling around to pick up one of the smallish wooden crates. As he did so, he watched his pensive friend out of the corner of his eye. Ronnie wasn't the sort of guy prone to outbursts, but he'd had several the past few days, and they seemed to be escalating as time wore on.

"How you been lately, man?" Lem asked. "Everything cool?"

Ronnie helped him lift the crate onto a second one, something flashing in his eyes briefly, before he shoved it back inside of him.

"Sure. Fine."

"Because if there's anything you wanna talk about – "

"Lem, I'm cool."

The blonde man nodded, though dubious of the claim. He went to pick up a third crate, waiting to feel it shift when Ronnie grabbed it. But it didn't. When Lem glanced up, his friend was scratching the back of his head uncomfortably.

"Ronnie?"

"Look, if I tell you…" He trailed off momentarily. "I don't usually get involved in this kind of shit, but it's getting hard not to."

Lem dropped his end of the crate.

"Get involved in what?"

Ronnie crossed arms, walking to one side of the container and leaning against the wall. His eyes were shifty, and they swept over anything and everything except the room's other occupant.

"There's this girl, lives in my building. I've seen her around a lot. We talk a little if we run into each other." He ground his shoe into the dusty floor. "A few days ago, she asked me if I could fix her air conditioner. I said 'sure,' went in to take a look."

"What happened?"

"You know how being a cop, you just sort of notice things?"

"Yeah."

"I saw a belt sitting on the floor in the living room. And there was a speck of red on the end."

"Blood?"

"I didn't think so, at first. I knew he was a painter, so..." Ronnie trailed off, shaking his head. "Later, she reached down to hand me a screwdriver, and her shirt came up…"

He didn't finish. He didn't need to.

Lem rubbed the back of his neck.

"Shit, man," he mumbled.

"Yeah."

"Well, did you talk to the guy? Maybe all he needs is a scare."

"I tried last night," Ronnie recounted dourly. "Guy's got one of those Superman complexes. Told me to mind my fucking business."

Lem blew out a gloomy breath, turning and walking in a small circle. He didn't have much stomach for anyone who'd be brutal to a woman.

"What are you gonna do?"

Ronnie's eyes were stormy.

"I'm gonna go home tonight and beat the shit out of him. And I'll keep doing it until he finally gets the message."

"What if he doesn't?"

"Then he'll get what he's got coming."

Lem looked down.

For a moment, Ronnie mistook his comportment. He thought Lem was going to try to talk him out of it, spew some bullshit about how it would complicate things, how it would draw undue attention to the team, how there had to be a less violent alternative that could rectify the wrong.

But Lem didn't say any of that. He just looked up with a hardened expression and nodded, gentle eyes gone cold.

"I'll back you up," he said.

Ronnie's mouth twitched up on one side, hinting at a grin that never came. He nodded after a moment, straightening out. Then he moved to grab the crate.

---

Vic stood at one of the Barn's few computer terminals, cycling through the department database, as he looked into the backgrounds of a number of doctor candidates.

"What are you even looking for?" Shane asked. "No big time doctor is gonna have a criminal record to leverage."

"I'm not looking for criminal records."

"Then what are you looking for?"

"The other kind of leverage," Vic said foully.

Shane frowned and glanced at the monitor. There was a split screen of two people's files showing. The first was a renowned immunologist in his early fifties, named Dr. David Hanson. The other was his wife, Katrina Hanson, a homemaker of forty-five. Together, they had one child: Sarah.

There weren't a lot of lines Shane wouldn't cross, but the implication took him aback.

"Wait a minute," he whispered harshly, leaning in and away from prying ears. "You're not seriously thinking about threatening this guy's family." He paused, but Vic said nothing. "Are you?"

Still, the bald cop was silent, giving him a dark look only the most troubled soul could conjure.

"Are you out of your fucking mind, Vic? I mean, shit, what good are you going to be to Matt when you go down for extortion?"

"And what good am I going to be if I just sit on my ass while the life drips out of him?" Vic gnarled. "Look, you don't like it, that's fine. You and me have history, but if you wanna bail, go ahead."

Shane sighed in frustration.

"That's not what I'm saying," he said quickly. "That's not what I'm saying, man. I just want you to think long and hard about what you're doing. Because if we go down this road, there's no going back. I want you to realize that we might have to put a whole family away if shit goes bad. And you better damn sure be okay with that."

Vic looked him square in the eye, nose wrinkled slightly, face full of a clarity most men never find. Then he glanced back at the couple on the screen.

"I'm okay with that," he said.

Across the Barn, Dutch sat beside Claudette, leaning back in his chair, eyes narrowed in thought.

"What I don't get," he said, "is 'why now?'"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Blake Trask's wife died years ago. His brother has remarried. And according to the sister, neither she nor Blake have spoken with Paul in years. She said she wasn't even planning on telling Paul that Blake died."

Claudette coughed violently into her fist. Afterward, she spoke quickly to avoid comment from Dutch.

"Well, their father died a few months back. Maybe they were fighting over the estate."

"I don't think so," Dutch said. "I think the sister would have told us. Besides, I can see him killing Blake over that, but cutting off his head? And the kids' heads too?"

"Okay, so it's not the brother."

"Well, I didn't say that. Right now, I just need more to go on."

Claudette reached for his phone, looking patient.

"Let's not keep you in suspense then," she said affectionately. "I'll call for a warrant."

Dutch smiled and leaned back again, glancing over at the administrative desk to find Danni and Julian filing some paperwork.

"Any idea what killed the guy?" the desk sergeant asked.

Julian shook his head.

"No. He was old, though, so we're thinking it was natural causes."

"Natural causes, huh? You're the tenth person today reporting one of those."

"Tenth?" Danni asked incredulously.

"I know," the sergeant said, shaking his head as he signed off on their report. "Five of them were young, too. And Williams cut up his arm, went to Mercy. When he came back, he told me the place was packed with flu patients."

Danni shared a glance with Julian.

"The flu? Are people drinking out of each other's swimming pools or what?"

"Got me," the older man said, handing Danni her copy of the form. "Here you go."

Danni took it, forcing a smile.

Ronnie and Lem brushed past her without so much as a glance, hurrying to the clubhouse, where they found Vic and Shane seated around the table, computer printouts spread out before them.

"Did you get it?" Vic asked.

"Stashed it at Lem's house," Ronnie said. "Any luck with a doctor?"

Vic nodded at one of the printouts, which Lem picked up from the table. He and Ronnie looked over it. Nothing out of the ordinary, they thought, and the man certainly had the credentials the situation required.

"He's only an hour away," Lem said optimistically. "When are we going?"

Vic shook his head.

"I appreciate it, but you guys are gonna have to sit this one out. I'm gonna take a personal day, but I need you all to stay to keep up appearances. I don't wanna give Acaveda any extra incentive to go digging."

"Are you sure, man? I mean, two people isn't that suspicious. You take a personal day and one of us can just say we're chasing down a lead."

Vic considered the offer, eyes turned up at the ceiling. There was no way in hell he'd take Lem. He wasn't even sure he planned to tell him the full extent of the plan. And while Ronnie would do what needed to be done, he'd probably never forgive Vic for it. That only left one person.

"I'll take Shane," he said. "Can you two handle stuff here?"

Ronnie opened his mouth to answer in the affirmative, but for the second time that day, the door opened announced. This time it was Danni.

Vic faked a smile.

"Hey, what's up?"

"Acaveda called a meeting."

"A meeting?" Shane asked. "About what?"

"Didn't say, but I'm betting it's about all the deaths today. There's been fifteen reported by us, and the hospitals are packed."

Vic frowned deeply, sharing a look with his teammates, before nodding his acknowledgement at Danni, who bristled a little at being dismissed, but quietly departed, leaving the door ajar behind her.

Ronnie looked at Vic sullenly.

"This flu's starting to look pretty serious," he said. "And if it keeps spreading…"

"Then Dr. Hanson is gonna be a little harder to convince."

---

Detectives and uniformed officers crowded around the press area, where Acaveda stood waiting to address the congregation. Vic had watched the Hispanic man enough the past two years to know when he was out of his depth. This was such an occasion.

"All right, I won't waste your time. Let me get to the point," Acaveda began, speaking louder when chatter persisted. "I just got off the phone with the Chief. He updated me on a developing situation."

Everyone was silent then.

"A number of you reported widespread illness throughout the community – including congested hospitals, and even deaths. The Chief has been on the line with Mercy, County, and spokespeople for the CDC. It seems there's been an outbreak of an extremely potent strand of flu, effecting quite a large area."

"How large an area?" Danni asked.

Acaveda wiped some imaginary speck off the edge of his brow, mouth pursed tightly.

"There's evidence that this is a worldwide phenomenon," he said.

The group erupted in shocked exclamations, and the chatter of moments earlier sounded as the wind whispering compared to the incredulous roar which now swept through the Barn. Acaveda looked helpless as he tried to maintain order.

"Please, everyone! Just remain calm. Remain calm, please."

The unrest persisted, though, until Vic shoved his way to the front of the pack and turned on them with scolding eyes.

"Shut up!" he shouted, voice full of gravel. "Shut your fucking mouths!"

Stunned palaver turned to stunned silence.

Julian shared an uncomfortable look with Danni; Lem glanced at Shane with confusion; Dutch looked on Claudette worriedly; and Ronnie smiled awkwardly at a young female uni whose name he couldn't recall.

Vic turned to Acaveda.

"Now," he said, voice calm but dark, "explain to us what the hell is going on. How serious is this thing?"

Acaveda took a deep breath, hands out in front of him in a placating gesture. He looked like he was hanging by a thread.

"They're not fully certain of the severity yet. They're working to isolate – "

"Cut the bullshit. How many people are going to die?" Vic demanded.

"As I said, they aren't certain. But early indications are that…" He looked down. "So far, about three million cases have been reported in the industrialized world."

"Is it… fatal?" Danni asked shakily.

Acaveda looked away.

She ran a hand through her hair, fingers trembling as she pushed it away from her face. Couldn't be right, she thought. Things like this didn't happen. It was a joke – the cruel kind that you can't forgive.

"Jesus," she mumbled.

Vic met her eyes for a moment, his – unlike hers – having already accepted the grim reality, and full of abject terror. He glanced at Acaveda again, then down at the ground, and then he took off, walking briskly and then breaking into a jog.

His colleagues stared after him, nursing their shock.

Shane was the first to snap out of it.

"Vic? Vic!"

When the beseeched man didn't answer, Shane shot off in pursuit, Ronnie and Lem right behind him.

Acaveda reasserted himself as the quartet disappeared, desperate to exert some control over a deteriorating circumstance. He stepped forward, arms out again, imploring.

"Listen, it's important for all of us to keep our cool. The community needs us now more than ever. If everyone will just – "

"You expect us to go knocking on doors with a city full of lepers out there?!" a middle-aged uni groused. "Bullshit! I'm not bringing this thing home to my kids!"

Acaveda swallowed.

"Officer, I understand the sentiment, believe me. And I advise any of you who are ill to go to the hospital, and any of you who have ill family to see to them. But I need bodies out there. As news disseminates to the general public, there's going to be civil unrest, and we desperately need you all to act as our first responders."

Those words did little to quell the widening fracture between the subdued faction, of which Julian and Danni and Dutch were a part, and those angry and afraid and unwilling to listen.

The middle-aged uni laughed sardonically.

"Yeah, well, you know what? I'm not itching to make house calls to diseased gangbangers. You can find somebody else," he said.

"Oh, just be quiet!"

Heads turned at the sound of a booming voice. It belonged to Claudette, who lifted her face out of her palm and regarded the complaining man with the sort of eyes that were fit to topple buildings.

"For God sake, have some self-respect!" she bellowed. "Man up, son! This isn't just your job when you happen to feel like doing it! It's always your job. Now I'm sorry that you don't like what's going on out there, but it's the shit we've got right now, and if you think for one second that you get to just walk out of here without any consequences, then you're wrong.

If you don't get your ass out on that street and do your job, I swear to all that's holy I will track you down myself and shoot you between your beady little eyes! So wipe up the piss dripping out of your vagina and be a God damn man!"

The tension was palpable in the hush that followed.

At one edge of the crowd, the shamed uni glared, but said nothing. At the other, Claudette tried to hide the panting breaths she breathed, though Dutch wasn't fooled.

Acaveda cleared his throat timidly, and he begrudgingly reclaimed the wavered attentions of the men and women before him.

"We're all on edge right now. Understandably. I can't force any of you to do your jobs. And if you choose to abandon us, I'm not going to waste resources hauling you in or writing up sanctions," he said, shoving one hand into his pocket, gesturing with the other one. "But know this. There is a God, and a day will come when he will judge you."

He glanced down, letting out a long, deep sigh. When he looked up again, there was a hint of something in his eyes, and his voice was hardly above a whisper.

"I need you. All of you," he said. "But it's up to you."

---

"Change of plans," Vic muttered cryptically as he hurried toward his car.

Shane was still right on his heels.

"Vic, slow down! Where are you going?"

"I'm gonna scoop up Hanson before he goes off the grid."

"How do you plan on doing that?" Lem asked.

Vic slipped his key into the lock, throwing the door open when it clicked.

"I was thinking about sticking a gun in his face," he said casually.

Shane shook his head vehemently.

"Hey, hold up, man! This isn't – at least let one of us – "

Vic slammed the door shut before he could even finish, starting the engine. His teammates were forced to disperse to either side as the truck jerked forward, just barely missing Shane as it sped out of the parking lot, leaving a dumbstruck trio to stare after it.

Shane looked between his two friends blankly, before shaking his head again and letting out a humorless laugh, pacing a few feet. Lem ran a hand through his hair, and there was a charming naivety shining in his eyes.

"He didn't even take the money," he said, brow furrowed.

"That's because he's not giving the guy a choice, dumbass," Shane quipped tiredly, scrubbing his face with a calloused palm.

Ronnie leaned back against one of the patrol cars, feeling an invisible heaviness sinking down from up high, and as the blithely warm sun shone on his face, he remembered a lecture he'd only half-listened to in college – something about how if the sun died, it would be ten or fifteen minutes before anyone knew it.

He scraped the bottom of his shoe over the pavement.

"Things are about to get pretty shitty," he said.

Lem and Shane turned sharply, as if they'd forgotten him, and both worse quizzical expressions.

"Three million cases in – what? – four days, tops?" Ronnie expounded. "It's not gonna stop there. It's just gonna keep coming harder. And the sicker people get, the worse the streets are gonna be. In a couple days, Farmington's gonna make the Riots look like a fucking carnival."

"You don't know that," Lem argued weakly.

"Don't kid yourself, man. People are fine, as long as 911 picks up and the stock market's open. But you turn off the switchboards and give them something to be scared of?" He shook his head cynically. "You do that and it all hits the fan."

Shane wiped his face again, looking up at the sun. It was so fucking bright today. Not a cloud to be spoken for. He slowly nodded, as the light burned his eyes.

"Yeah," he said quietly, finally lifting a hand to protect himself. "Yeah, that's about it."

---

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER

SHAWN RYAN

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