Count Down

by PaBurke

*** Summary *** Five explosions, one walk-in freezer, five hostages, three wizards

*** Spoilers *** Season 2 of NUMB3RS, Book Nine of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. And my own little drabble Wiz Kid, if you want a bit of a spoiler.

*** Disclaimer *** I'm playing with someone else's toys. No Copyright infringement intended. No money made. Hopefully everyone will treat this like a plug for Jim Butcher's Dresden Files.

*** Warning *** None, little language, fight scenes.

*** Distribution *** The Nook.

***

Five arson/explosions in one night within a ten block radius -with the same initial MO- collected the interest of the FBI. All four of the individual victims were single and male. Two were Mexican. The African American and the Caucasian lived and were well known within the Mexican neighborhood. None of them had been home; their current locations were still unknown.

The fifth explosion had happened at the family restaurant of one of the victims. This one had two known fatalities, the identifications pending. It was gathering the number of missing persons that was proving to be problematic. Anywhere between five and seventeen people were missing. The youngest possible was three, the oldest confirmed was eighty-two. Where had the missing people gone and had they been taken forcibly?

Don Eppes and his team had tried to question everyone but all potential witnesses were using the language barrier as an excuse not to talk. The FBI had trucked in several translators and the results were still sketchy. Each of the four men whose apartments had been bombed worked part-time at the restaurant, but the full-time workers of the restaurant –the ones that didn't live above the building itself- had not been touched, approached or threatened. Their homes were still intact. Don had assigned protective details just in case.

The four missing men of the four burning apartments were the real mystery. No one knew where they were. No one knew how to contact them. The neighbors were reluctant to offer a sketch of the four men, let alone provide the FBI with their occupation. No one had their phone number; they kept insisting that they were out of cell phone coverage. No one would speak of the four men's main jobs. Most of them 'helped out at the restaurant when they were short-handed' and they traveled -a lot. The reactions when the agents asked if the men were part of a gang were particular as well; anywhere from laughs to stares of disbelief. The FBI would have to ask the local law enforcement for the gang rosters of the area. They needed to find the enemies of the four men and to do that, they'd have to find the four men.

At one point of the investigation, Don noticed the dog. It was huge, shaggy, grey and sitting just inside the taped yellow line. It was sitting perfectly still in the shadow and it was alone. It had a collar and a leash, but the dog was holding its leash in its mouth. Don blinked, thought about calling animal control and then got distracted by an argument between a group of Mexicans and three of his agents.

Don was approaching the fight when he saw the Mexican, 5'9"-5'10" slip under the crime scene tape and toward the blackened shell of the restaurant. Had the fight been staged? The Mexican was wearing black and combat boots. He was carrying a wooden staff and… was that a sword at his side? Why would anyone be wearing a sword in this neighborhood?

The Mexican's face was the very picture of a schooled response to inner horror, mourning, anger, shock, determination and, quite possibly, a need for revenge. Don recognized him as the man who connected the apartment bombings to the restaurant. La Senorita Bonita belonged to this man's family, Carlos Ramirez. He walked with purpose and speed, bypassing several agents and knocking others aside with a fluidity Don had only seen in Colby and other hard-core soldier-types. Colby saw it happen and started approaching the Mexican with the same driven purpose. Ramirez wanted through and it was Colby's job to not let it happen.

Blood was about to be shed. Don headed that way with the vain hope that he might mitigate the violence. He would get more information out of Ramirez if he wasn't in cuffs, casts or bloodied.

Just before Colby caught up to Ramirez outside what used to be the main restaurant door, a third person appeared from inside. He was tall, 6'6" or more, thin, angular, dark hair and eyes and wearing a black duster that belonged on a movie set. He was a civilian. How the hell had a civilian gotten into the building without Don or anyone else of the FBI knowing?

The tall man saw the approaching situation and acted. With his own battered staff, he swept Ramirez, sword, staff and all against the brick wall of the restaurant. He pinned the shorter man there and spoke a few urgent words. Ramirez didn't put up much of a struggle; paradoxically, he seemed relieved that the tall man was in control.

Don and Colby were near enough to catch the tail-end of the conversation.

"Tell me you have leads, Dresden," Ramirez growled.

"Some," shrugged Dresden. "But you have to let the kids out of the safe room before we go anywhere."

"You haven't yet?"

"I was going to give you twenty more minutes before trying to bust my way in. I wasn't looking forward to messing with your safeguards and I didn't want to scare them any more with accidents or booby traps."

"Your ugly mug is going to do that anyway," Ramirez teased.

Dresden played along. "Hey, don't talk about Mouse that way. He's very sensitive."

Ramirez snorted. "That monster you call a dog is prettier than you."

"If you sweet talk all the ladies like that, it's small wonder you're still…"

"Dresden, how many times do I have to tell you," Ramirez growled as he pushed his way past the taller-older man and into the destroyed building. "She's a liar and she's evil. She lied."

Dresden chuckled, but it never reached his eyes. There was a seriousness there, the same sense of purpose. With his size, he easily blocked the doorway for the FBI agents. He passed his staff to his leather-gloved left hand and held out his right after taking off a latex glove. The staff now diagonally crossed the open way, blocking it. "I'm Dresden."

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't arrest you for contaminating a crime scene?" Don growled.

Dresden lifted a foot. He was wearing the little booties investigators used to reduce the amount of contamination they inflicted. "I know the rules. And I was trying to calm the kiddies in the safe room."

Colby looked a little stricken. "There're still live ones in there? Why didn't you tell us? We could have had them out and in the hospital by now."

Dresden raised an eyebrow. "I know the safe room is there. I've been looking at the safeguards. I know most of the possible safeguards Ramirez could use and I was not about to risk the possible tripwires and personal damage to hurry it up. You guys would have brought the roof down. That would not have helped anyone."

"Get out of my way," Don ordered. He was looking Dresden straight in the eye as he said it. Dresden slid his gaze to the side immediately, but he didn't change any of his other body language. "I'm Agents Eppes, this is Agent Granger. We're both FBI. Let us in."

Dresden still didn't move out of the way.

"Move." Don was reaching for his gun, as was Colby.

Don heard a cry of joy, a sob of fear and Dresden stepped back, turned on his heel and led the way to the walk-in freezer. The freezer's floor was folded back to reveal an occupied safe room below. Ramirez had been tackled by three boys between the ages of eight and thirteen. They were clinging to him and rattling off in Spanish. The words tumbled over each other. Don's tentative grasp of the language had no chance of keeping up. He doubted that even Ramirez was catching all the information. Ramirez tried to peel the kids off him as he reached for a frail, white-haired lady in the hole in the floor. The kids just weren't letting him go.

"Dresden," Ramirez growled.

Dresden was already kneeling opposite the Mexican. His long arms could reach further into the hole. Ramirez murmured some reassuring Spanish and the elder switch her grip to Dresden. When the tall stranger pulled her up, Don could see the three-year old in her lap that had complicated the issue. The old woman kissed Dresden on both cheeks and moved the toddler to Dresden's lap before standing on her own power.

Dresden flushed and looked horribly awkward. The baby sat there quietly, sucking his thumb. Dresden tried to offer the young boy to the woman, but she was moving stiffly and was distracted by haranguing Ramirez. Dresden was the only one unoccupied to notice that there were still two girls, about seven years old, in the dark hole. He reached down and pulled them up in succession. They clung to him, their rescuer, and their dark eyes glared accusingly at Don and Colby. The toddler was squished in the middle, but didn't seem to mind.

All in all, the group looked to be in pretty decent shape. Don could see some bruises and scrapes, most he assumed occurred when the kids jumped into the hole. The oldest boy had dried blood at his temple and a sling holding his right arm in place. The old woman had a handprint bruise covering most of her left arm.

"They should all go to the hospital to be checked out," Don announced.

The old woman whirled on him and chided him –in Spanish- for his stupid idea.

"Abuela," Ramirez interrupted. His hand settled on the unharmed shoulder of the boy with blood in his hair. "Por favor?"

The grandmother relented.

Colby gallantly offered his arm. "Por aquí para la ambulancia, por favor," he said.

The grandmother accepted Colby's arm and motioned that the children should follow. They didn't. They clung to the men they were nearest. Ramirez made a motion to close up the safe room, but Don held out a hand.

"There might be trace evidence down there," he said.

Ramirez looked to Dresden who nodded his assent. "Vienes niños." Dresden followed behind with the toddler in one arm and the littlest girl in the other. The older girl walked beside him, both hands tightly wrapped around Dresden's elbow. The girls trusted Dresden much more than the FBI agents; perhaps Dresden had met them before. Had he worked at the restaurant as well?

Don squatted by the hole in the freezer floor and looked inside. It was a sturdy, well-planned and well-hidden 'safe room.' A lot of forethought went into its construction. He would have to have some of the bomb squad and the computer geeks go through and find the safeguards that both Dresden and Ramirez had mentioned.

The safe room bothered Don.

The more Don noticed safety features, the more Don worried. It was so well-constructed. It was so well hidden. It was such a secret that the neighborhood hadn't known that it existed. Don knew that if any of the nosy neighbors had heard of even a whisper about the safe room, the FBI would not have been able to keep the gawkers from searching the burnt out building for survivors. He could hear the cries of joy and surprise from the onlookers now. Seven people had just walked out of the blackened restaurant with barely a soot smudge. Everyone would know about the safe room soon. They would wonder the same questions that were bothering Don now:

Who had built it? When? Why? From what Don could see, the building and this hole in the ground had existed before this family had even crossed the border to the US. Who had owned it before? Had they told the Ramirez family about the safe room, or had they found it on their own? Had the bombers known about the safe room? Had they suspected it? Don spied the board games in the corner and the canned food and bottled water stacked along one wall. The Ramirez's had prepared it in case of an emergency. Don made a note; he'd have someone check the expiration dates on the food. That would give them some sort of time frame.

Since all of the presumed-missing children had been in the safe room, had they known about it before the attack? Had they practiced, like some schools did fire drills and such? Or were they trained to be obedient in high stress and dangerous situations? Don wasn't sure which scenario scared him more.

No one was this prepared without a very dangerous enemy, one who would not pause to kill children and the elderly. Don and the FBI still didn't have a single clue as to the identity of the enemy. For someone else to be this prepared, their enemy had been on the radar for years, if not decades. It was more than a single person enemy; it was an organization or a family.

And it still hadn't pinged any old FBI cases.

Yet?

Don muttered a little prayer of thanksgiving that there was no reason to bring his brother in on this case. There wasn't even a computer around for a possible decryption. Don looked around. Not one single computer could be seen among the wreckage. He walked to what used to be the office area. There was no computer here either. The cash registers were very old-fashioned, the stoves were fuelled with gas or in some places wood or charcoal. Was there even a microwave in the place? No, there wasn't.

No microwave, even in the personal lodgings, suggested a preference to a simpler life style. Don floated the idea that the family was possibly paranoid-delusional and was into the various conspiracy theories. A cult? That could have been why they were prepared to such an extreme level, but the idea didn't jive with Don's gut. The Ramirez' had had prior knowledge of an enemy and had prepared –almost- adequately for it.

Don wrote down his observations in his notebook. He would have his investigators shift through the wreckage of the private homes for similarities. Did the private residences have 'safe rooms' too? He called Megan Reeves and the lead agents at each of the homes. He told them to keep their eyes out for the owners. Someone had tracked down Ramirez and told him of the trouble, presumably they had passed word to the three other men as well.

For some reason, Don was having a problem with cell phone reception in the restaurant skeleton. When he went outside, it got better. Megan and David Sinclair reported that the owners had not been spotted yet, but they would be vigilant. Now, Don had to join Colby in questioning Ramirez and family. Was any of the family still missing?

Don instinctively looked for Dresden first; at his height, the man should be easiest to spot. Plus, the man seemed the type to be near his friend until the perceived danger was over. Don couldn't spot Dresden. Where was he? The old lady was there as were all six of the children. They were being treated by the four paramedics that manned the pair of ambulances. Ramirez wasn't there either.

Don opened his mouth to yell for Colby and realized that the agent was missing as well. Now that was more like it. But why hadn't Colby alerted Don that he was following the victims/suspects? Colby should have reported in by now. He should have told someone.

He snagged a nearby agent. "Where's Granger?"

The agent looked around as if Don had missed the obvious. "I last saw him over there." He pointed slightly west of the ambulances and their patients.

Where the strange dog had been.

The dog was no longer there.

Don didn't let go of the agent. "You a translator?"

"Yes, sir."

"What does monstruo mean?"

"Monstruo?" The agent blinked. "Monster."

That had been Don's guess from his knowledge of the language, but he had to confirm it with a professional. "And hechicero?"

The translator was as surprised with the question as Don was with the answer: "…Wizard."

Wizard? Why had those kids in the safe room been trying to tell Ramirez about Iwizards/I? What did wizards have to do with that dog?

Who Idid/I the dog belong to? Dresden? No one had ever mentioned a dog when talking about Ramirez or the other three men, so it was possible. The owner was an assumption but would he be able to track Dresden through the dog? Don should probably find an animal artist, to draw a sketch of the dog. People would remember the dog, if by some strange chance they missed the tall guy in a Clint Eastwood coat. That might be Don's key to finding Ramirez and Colby. And he would have someone try to track down dog licenses and see what information they could dig up. Dresden and Ramirez would have to regroup somewhere. Don didn't have much to work with, with all the people he really wanted to talk with gone, so he would grasp for straws in the meantime.

Don walked down the dark alley hoping that Colby, Ramirez, et al would just be down a ways. They weren't and Don couldn't find clues from Colby as to the direction they had taken. He would give Colby an hour to contact the office before calling or trying to use some electronic way of tracking him down. Don called the office and set those there to combing the files, looking for any past cases that resembled this one. He also asked for a sketch artist/dog lover to come out and create a picture of the mutt that no one else seemed to have noticed. Before he hung up, he alerted the tech team to watch Colby's phone; the second Colby called or sent out a message, Don wanted to know where he was.

"Colby, you had better keep safe."

***

***

Colby had nearly gotten run over by a bus, a SUV and motorcycle and he hadn't been following Dresden and Ramirez for a mile yet. Already, he had noticed an odd trend; Dresden was leading, but Ramirez was using his street smarts and knowledge of the area to keep the pair of the trouble. Dresden kept his head down, literally but not figuratively. He was searching the sidewalk and moving straight ahead. He depended on his size and aura to urge people out of his way. There weren't many around, but none of them decided to challenge the mismatched pair. A monster of a dog that trotted beside them would have discouraged quite a few would be attackers. Ramirez tagged along behind, several times snagging Dresden's elbow and directing him elsewhere when something bigger –like a car or a backhoe- was in Dresden's path. The two worked well together, they had to have worked as a team before. Dresden indicated the direction –through some of the worst areas of LA Colby had ever had the misfortune of seeing- and Ramirez's situational awareness kept them out of trouble. The dog helped, growling at this or that, but never barking. Colby would have been surprised if the pair didn't know they were being followed; that first bus had urged Colby out of its way with a very loud horn.

Then Dresden stopped and knelt in the middle of the sidewalk. He pulled a white cloth out of his pocket and picked up something. He had used a handkerchief, who carried a hanky around with them these days? He showed whatever it was to Ramirez. Ramirez's jaw tightened, he nodded but he made no move to touch it. Dresden had done something that Colby had thought was impossible: track someone through the bowels of the city by using signs. Edgerton was one of the best trackers the FBI had and he wouldn't have really attempted it in the slums. Dresden hadn't lost the trail once either. He had never circled around. Yes, he had lead Ramirez and Colby in a zigzagged fashion, but that was forced due to the number of streets that didn't neatly intersect.

If Colby had been Ramirez's shoes, he'd be taking a close look at Dresden. Only someone who had been part of the kidnapping would be able to 'follow' the invisible trail so well. Betrayal was in the wind and Colby didn't know whose side he'd take when the fireworks started.

The pair turned another corner and Colby followed. To his surprise, a girl-no, a woman- was waiting in the alley. Ramirez was surprised to see her, Dresden was not. Neither was the dog.

Betrayal, surely Ramirez had considered it by now. Colby was slightly surprised that Dresden had brought in a partner; from all appearances, Dresden could take care of Ramirez on his own. And why a woman? And why this almost-familiar woman?

Colby suddenly realized why this woman seemed so familiar. He had seen her before. This was the woman, Mallory, who claimed to be a wizard, a hechicero as the Ramirez children had spoken of, and found missing kids. The missing kids had been tagged as a FBI case and the Eppes brothers had crossed paths with her. It was too much of a coincidence.

The three were standing on the sidewalk having a heated discussion, waiting for a train to clear the tracks. They were much too far away for Colby to eavesdrop, but with all the noise and movement, Colby decided to try something else. He checked to make sure the three weren't looking his way and brought up his camera phone and freeze-framed it. Not a one of the trio noticed, so Colby turned his back and sent the photo to Don. Done. Now to Meghan. Done. And…

Pain.

Blackness exploded before his eyes. Shit. Someone had snuck up…

***

***

I had been keeping my eyes on the ground, careful not to lose my connection to my tracking spell. Ramirez stiffened, so I risked a glance. He had been telling me about a rather well-used Nevernever portal that was on the other side of the tracks and stopped in mid-explanation. Elaine Mallory was waiting up ahead. Good. We would need the back-up. She was watching a train rush by. I counted twenty box cars and knew that this was going to be a long one.

"What is she doing here?" Ramirez snarled.

"Carlos, you didn't think I knew about the explosions because I'm an omniscient and all-powerful wizard, did you?" I asked with exaggerated patience. "She called me to contact you."

"How did she know?" Ramirez asked suspiciously.

"She's a detective. We detect things," I dead-panned.

Ramirez glared to let me know that my humor was not appreciated. By this time, we were close enough to talk to Elaine. She was just as not pleased to see Ramirez as Ramirez was to see her.

"He's too close to the victims," Elaine murmured. "He'll put us both into danger taking stupid risks."

Ramirez muttered in Spanish. I guessed it was something unflattering from Elaine's patented non-reaction.

"It's his family," I told Elaine. It was something neither of us truly understood, but we could pretend to. "I wouldn't be able to keep him away."

Elaine nodded, with suppressed mourning of something that she could never lose. "The portal to the Nevernever is in the abandoned switch house on the other side of the rails."

"How do you know that?" Ramirez barked suspiciously.

"Maybe I should do some introductions." I stepped in between the two. "Elaine, this is Carlos Ramirez who will forget everything that happens here tonight because you assisted in the rescue of his family." I glared at Carlos until he agreed with a sharp nod and a verbal vow. "Carlos, this is Elaine Mallory who deliberately flunked the White Council strength tests to be able to fly under the radar."

Carlos was flabbergasted. "You've known that? You knew that when you were asking me months ago?" He reverted back to Spanish for a while and then finally tried some English. "How do you know her?"

I smiled. "She was my first."

Carlos was as confused as I expected him to be. For all his exaggerated talk about the ladies, this was much too easy. "First what?"

"What are you? A virgin?" Elaine sniped.

I was laughing so hard that I barely heard Mouse growl at someone behind us. Carlos was muttering in Spanish and Elaine was connecting the dots.

Mouse barked.

Elaine, Carlos and I immediately quieted and faced the same direction as my magically-sonic dog just in time to see our federal agent tail get jumped by three thralls.

I didn't think. I ran toward the victim, pulling out my revolver. Elaine was a half step behind me, but Carlos delayed. No surprise, considering that it was his family on the other side of the fast-paced, never-ending train.

I stopped running and planted my feet. I pointed my gun at the thrall furthest from the Fed and aimed.

BANG!

The chest shot blew the thrall into the brick wall, where he stayed. He was as dead now physically as he had been mentally before.

Elaine threw some magic at the two thralls struggling with the deadweight of the Fed. They separated and the Fed dropped like a stone. Mouse was there and jumped the closest thrall that was heading back towards the Fed. I aimed at the last thrall and pulled the trigger.

BANG!

That shot hit the thrall in the upper chest and in part of the neck. All those times that Murphy had smuggled me into the shooting range definitely paid off. Elaine was taking care of the Fed, so I pulled my dog off the remains of the last dead thrall.

On top of everything else, we'd have to make three bodies disappear. I winced for the families who would never have closure.

"Any more?" I asked Mouse.

Mouse tilted his head, looked (Looked?), listened (Listened?), sniffed and finally shook his head 'no.'

"Can't even have a normal pet," Elaine chided.

"That wouldn't be nearly as useful. Or fun."

Carlos looked from the bodies littered around to the train racing by. "We can hide the thralls in the Nevernever, but we shouldn't take the Fed."

"We leave him and something happens to him, they'll come after us," I mentioned. I noticed a number of two-legged rats at the other end of the alley that were assessing our victim potential.

"The longer the vampires have my family, the worse it'll be." Carlos ground out.

I laid a hand on his shoulder. Carlos let it rest a moment before shrugging it off. "I know, Ramirez. But trust me; you do not want the Feds to get on your butt."

Elaine and Carlos both looked to the never-ending train to guesstimate the amount of time remaining. I felt something bounce off my combat boot. Mouse had pawed a silver cell phone around on the cement. "Good dog," I rewarded my pet. "Either of you know how to work one of these? If the rest of the Feds are near, we won't have to worry about leaving him behind."

Elaine shook her head. "The electronics are too sensitive for me to even hold one of those, let alone get it to work."

"Here too," Carlos commiserated. "My nephews can barely even use one in the restaurant when I'm not there; it gets worse when I am."

"Are there any payphones around here," I asked.

Elaine snorted. "Nothing that has any working parts."

"Too bad your mutt can't use the Fed's phone," Carlos muttered sarcastically.

I looked at Elaine and she looked just as startled as I felt. "Surely…"

"Hey, Mouse," I knelt before my very smart dog. "Can you open up that contraption?"

"You have got to be kidding me," Carlos breathed.

Elaine knelt at my side. "Come-on, Mouse. You can do it," she encouraged. "Gently, Gently."

Mouse looked confused and a bit put out at what we were trying to get him to do. The Fed's phone could be accidentally crushed between those massive feet and sharp teeth. In the end, he sighed, lay on his belly and placed the phone in between his front paws. He looked at the phone and then at me as if to say, 'Now what?'

"Do you think that Mouse could hook his bottom teeth in the space between the top and the bottom and get it to flip open?" Carlos asked even though he really didn't believe.

Mouse scrapped his teeth over the phone twice before he got them caught in the correct place. Elaine and I were cheering on my beast every step of the way. Carlos was mostly shaking his head in disbelief when Mouse had an open and turned-on phone in front of him.

"Now what?" I asked the others. "Nine-one-one?"

Elaine shook her head. "It'll take too long to get to the right people. I've heard that phone like this have an address book in them."

"An address book? In that tiny thing?" I was amazed. Maybe I shouldn't have ignored out Molly the last time she had tried to explain some modern technology to me.

Carlos was shaking his head. "That probably won't work; he could have hundreds of contacts in there."

"Hundreds?" I couldn't get over the concept. "Have they figured out a way to store things in the Nevernever to get that many in that little a space?"

Mouse snorted at my question. The three of us looked down at my patient dog that was waiting for further instruction. I noticed that the phone was black now.

"Hells bells, we broke it."

"No," Carlos tilted his head. "No, see? It's just dark; you can still see the picture in the background. It's sleeping."

"So how do we wake it up? An alarm clock?" I glanced at the train again. "That thing's gotta end soon."

"If I remember what my nephews…" Carlos' voice drifted off. "We –I mean, Mouse needs to gently touch the 'send' button twice. That does some sort of redial and calls the last number that the Fed called. He probably has reported to his superior since following us."

"If it's the same phone as your nephews," Elaine brought the dose of reality to the situation.

Redial, address books, boy there were things that wizards were missing out on. "Let's hope it's the same," I broke in before the sniping could get bad. "Mouse, press the send…" What was I thinking? Mouse couldn't read. I looked over his head to try and find the button. "Carlos, none of the buttons say 'send.'"

Carlos looked over Mouse's other shoulder and frowned. "Uhm."

"Are any of them green?" Elaine asked. "The normals like using green as an indicator to start."

"Good thinking, Elaine." There was a green button and it had a simplistic little green phone silhouetted on it. Boy, it was tiny. "Mouse? Can you use one claw and gently touch that little button with green on it?" How much did Mouse understand?

Mouse's claw hovered over the red button that was opposite of the green. Whoops. Weren't dogs colorblind? "The other green one," I said.

Mouse hovered his claw over the 'other green button.' His paw was so huge that I had my head on the ground so that I could see around it. Mouse was in the correct position. "Good boy, Mouse. Now down, down, gently. Good boy, again. Down, down. Good." Mouse put his paw to the side and all three of us hovered over the dog to check our success.

The phone read, 'Calling Don Eppes.'

"I hope Eppes is a Fed," Carlos muttered. I whole-heartedly agreed. In the back of my mind, I was pretty sure the Eppes had been the lead investigator at the restaurant.

A semi-familiar voice answered. "Nice pic, Colby. Where are you?"

Carlos rattled off our location.

A pause.

"Where's Agent Colby Granger?" Eppes demanded coldly.

"He's hurt," I answered. "So you need to come pick him up."

"What did you do to him?"

"Saved his life," Carlos sniped back. "He wasn't watching where he was going."

"Train's ending," Elaine murmured.

"We're leaving the dog," I spoke to the phone. I hoped he could hear me over the static.

Carlos grabbed my arm. "We need him."

"We're leaving the dog," I repeated as much for Carlos' benefit as for the Fed's. We three could defend ourselves; Granger didn't have that luxury at this moment. A lot could happen in the time it took for Eppes to find Granger. "Don't shoot him."

"Don't hang up," another male voice asked. "We'll be able to find Agent Granger with the phone."

Carlos and Elaine were already running for the tracks, each carrying a dead thrall. They had left the biggest one for me. I saw no reason to stop and turn off the phone, especially if they didn't want me to. "Stay," I told my dog. "Protect him and lead the other Feds to him."

Mouse whimpered once –he hated to be left behind while I went on a mission- but he stood protectively over Colby.

I ran after the other two wizards and caught up with them as they were jumping over the last of the railroad tracks. Elaine and Carlos led the way to the abandoned switchyard building. I just concentrated on powering up and not being seen. The other two stopped at a flimsy wooden door to catch their breath and to prepare their magic.

"Any reason why I can't kick the door in," I asked.

Carlos laughed. "If you feel the need to make a Dresden entrance, be my guest." He looked at Elaine and the two of them were laughing at me.

I shrugged and blasted the door open, taking out three more thralls in one blow.

Whatever works.

***

***

"Megan? Tell me you have something," Don ordered his lead agent.

She cocked her head. "I'm not sure. We couldn't find any of the same electrical stuff that you couldn't find at the restaurant. No microwaves, no toasters, no answering machines. Before the fire, we're pretty sure that all the lights in the sockets were dead; at least that's what the arson investigator said. The electrical company didn't believe that anyone lived there. No one paid any electrical bills. The insurance company for the electrical company is compiling evidence that this could be in no way the electrical company's fault."

Don grunted. "Make sure they weren't siphoning it off from somewhere. If nothing else it will give us an indicator of their character."

Megan nodded.

"What about phones?"

"They had them." She looked a bit confused now. "Each man had only one and it was one of those old rotary phones. You remember the kind? They can't be portable and they can't be touch tone."

"You mean…" Don pantomimed the motion of circling around with one finger and waiting.

Megan nodded.

"I didn't know they made those anymore."

"They don't."

Don made a note of it; he would have someone check the restaurant for similarities. "No cell phones?"

"None that we could find. We're having people look through the wreckage for the accessories, but so far, no joy. If they really didn't have electricity in their apartments, they would have had to charge the phones elsewhere."

"Doesn't everyone in LA have a cell phone," Don asked rhetorically. Speaking of cell phones, he glanced at the data tech assigned to his team. He and this Asian had worked together before. The man was sitting there, not doing anything but waiting for Colby Granger to use his phone. He caught Don's eye and shook his head.

Nothing from Granger yet.

Don really didn't like the fact that Granger had no back up and no one knew where he was, but to call him and ask would put the ex-Ranger in a very precarious position. The techie looked confused and then waved Don to his desk. As Don rushed over there, he could feel his phone vibrating. He flipped it open and immediately realized that there was a photo and no vocal. He wordlessly showed the photo to the tech.

The tech winced, knowing what Don wanted of him. "You'd do better to send it to your brother. You know he has that program of his –normally used for video games- to improve picture quality as you increase the size."

Don obediently sent the photo out, with a quick text message stressing its urgency. He also sent the picture to the phone tech's e-mail. Maybe they could glean a clue or two without stressing Charlie's genius. The techie opened the e-mail. Don leaned over the man's shoulder to get a closer look. Three people were in the middle of the photo. The background was blurred with movement but recognizable as a moving train. Dresden and Ramirez were easy to identify. It was the girl they were talking to that surprised Don. Who was she and what did she have to do with the explosions?

Don quickly abandoned that thought for longer and tried to identify where Colby was with no back up near-by. "Too much to hope that I've been there recently," he muttered. "Or that he'd take a picture of some road sign."

"He held it low, so that no one would see him aiming," the technician mentioned. "He must have thought that he wouldn't have been seen to take any chances."

"A long train then," Don agreed. He yelled over to David Sinclair. "I want the train schedule today, especially the number of cars on each one. Concentrate on the west side."

David nodded even as he cradled his phone between his head and shoulder. He was calling information to get someone who could –and would- answer questions.

"Megan?"

The agent looked up from her desk and quit biting her fingernails. She was already opening maps and trying to line them up with the Ramirez's café. Presumably –acknowledgeably an assumption, Dresden and Ramirez were still on foot and never took a cab anywhere. They hadn't been missing for long. They should be within a twenty mile radius of the restaurant and that's only if they started running.

"Yes?"

"When the police officer from the gang division shows up, show him the picture. Hopefully he'll recognize it."

"Sure thing."

Sinclair had finally connected to someone from the train yards who could give him answers. He was writing them down and Megan was referencing them on her map.

Don turned to the technician. "Do you see anything that can help narrow this down for us?"

The technician started to shake his head and then Don felt his phone vibrate. With a sigh of relief, he saw that Colby was calling. "Nice pic, Colby. Where are you?" he asked.

A location was rattled off by an unfamiliar voice. The voice had a slight Latino accent. Don guessed that it was Ramirez on the phone. It took a moment to digest the information. Luckily, the technician had transcribed the information while he was waiting for the computer to track the phone's location. Don accepted the scrap of paper and handed it over to Megan. "Where's Agent Colby Granger?" he demanded coldly.

"He's hurt," someone else answered matter-of-factly. "So you need to come pick him up."

"What did you do to him?" Perhaps, being antagonistic in this set of circumstances was wrong, but Don had to ask.

"Saved his life," Ramirez sniped back. "He wasn't watching where he was going."

A girl murmured. Don hoped the techie could pick up the words in a replay. There was a lot of static and the train was loud in the background.

"We're leaving the dog," a man spoke to the phone. Don guessed that it was Dresden. It was a nice gesture. Wait. Where were Ramirez and the others going to be? Why couldn't they stay with Colby?

"We need him," Ramirez argued.

"We're leaving the dog," Dresden repeated. "Don't shoot him."

"Don't hang up," the techie interrupted. "We'll be able to find Agent Granger with the phone." Don was surprised that he didn't already have the address. Normally they only needed a couple of seconds.

No immediate answer. The FBI agents heard some scrapping and grunting.

"Stay," Dresden told the dog. "Protect him and lead the other Fed's to him."

Silence. But the line was still open. They hadn't hung up. Don could hear the train fading in the background. The techie finally breathed in relief. "Got it." He copied the address from identified by the computer onto another scrap of paper.

Megan shoved a map in front of Don's face. "It matches. The address they gave us and the address from the phone's GPS. It fits all the other criteria and David said that a very long train just passed that way."

"Let's go," Don ordered. "It's not in a nice part of town. Tell SWAT and two ambulances to meet us there. Be prepared for anything."

The FBI agents all grabbed their guns and ran after Don. They jumped into the FBI's SUV and raced to the scene. The alley was disturbingly empty of any bodies; there were several puddles of blood. Don called forensics to come and analyze.

"Sir," the SWAT leader appeared at Don's side. "What's the SITREP?"

"An FBI agent is missing and someone called from this location to say that the agent was hurt and here. Our current investigation concerns five building explosions and eight missing persons." Don slowly spun around, looking for clues. "According to the child witnesses, five of those were taken hostage before the last explosion. The other three are confirmed fatalities."

The SWAT officer looked relieved that the FBI hadn't called them out for nothing. He was annoyed at the lack of specifics but brushed that aside.

"Which agent?" the officer asked.

"Colby Granger."

He nodded with recognition; Colby was a well-liked guy around town. "Anything else?"

"Supposedly a very large, grey dog belonging to…" A suspect? A witness? A private investigator? "A civilian is guarding him. Emphasis on very large."

"Will it respond to its name?"

"I don't know, but I believe the dog's name is Mouse."

The corners of the officer's eyes crinkled with humor and then his eyes got impossibly large. Don whirled to see what was behind him and felt the back of his knee brush against something strong and furry.

The dog didn't move.

Don lost his balance, overcorrected and fell to his hands and knees. In this position, Mouse was taller than he was. The dog snuffed at Don. Don wrinkled his nose at the dog breath. The Fed could hear the safeties being released and felt the hackles on the dog begin to rise.

"No, no," he waved at the SWAT team. "Point them elsewhere."

The dog stilled didn't relax and backed away from Don. Don watched him go. A dozen steps away, the dog stopped and cocked his head at Don.

"It… it doesn't want us to follow it, does it?" Megan asked at his side. Her gun was very carefully pointed at the ground.

David was on Don's other side, helping him to his feet.

"Let's follow," Don ordered. Hadn't Dresden commanded Mouse to lead the FBI to Colby? If so and if that was what the dog was doing, it had some exceptional training. "Spread out and keep your eyes open."

The SWAT team and the other Feds followed the orders. The canvassed the street and followed to dog at a safe interval. Don was the only one that the dog let within ten feet. It growled at all others. To Don's mind, it wasn't a mean-growl, more of a warning-growl. Either way, this case was taxing Don's psyche more than he had expected if he was translating a strange dog's sounds.

Mouse led them through the alleys and abandoned buildings of the rail yard. It stopped at one and pushed in the door. It walked in, expecting Don to follow it. Don followed and was soon thankful that he had. Colby was in the corner. Don hurried to check the agent's vitals. He sighed with relief when he felt the strong pulse and steady breathing.

When he turned to yell for a medic, one was already at his side. The SWAT team was already spreading out and securing the building and all near-by buildings. They were very careful to keep an eye out for booby traps.

Megan was overseeing the medic's efforts.

David.

Where the hell was David?

Don growled into his walkie-talkie, "Sinclair."

"Following the dog," he answered back.

"Tell me you have someone with you," Don ordered.

A long pause and Don knew what the answer would be. "Which way are you?" He jogged out of the building.

"Turn left," David said.

Don obeyed and kept on jogging.

"Turn right at the first set of tracks."

Don had to back-track a bit but then he was headed in the correct direction. He could see David up ahead. He couldn't see the dog, but assumed that it was further along. A grey blur caught his attention; the dog was running now. David broke into a run, and Don followed suit. The dog was headed to yet another seemingly-abandoned building. This one Ramirez stumbled out of, followed by a girl- no, a woman. Both were dragging an injured person. An old man, one of the presumed hostages, limped out. Dresden was right on his heels. He was carrying two bodies, one over his shoulder and the smaller one under his arm. Dresden –somehow- slammed the door shut behind him. The burdened trio and the old man dove for the far side of another building as the one they had escaped from exploded.

The fireball momentarily blinded Don as he dove for the ground, the sound nearly deafened him. He blinked away the yellow and black spots from his vision. He was on his walkie-talkie demanding fire and medical assistance before he was even back on his feet. David, of course, got to Ramirez and the others first. Each one was administering first aid to a victim.

Victim.

Don had heard the term used in many circumstances, but never was it as apt as now. Only by his training was Don able to look straight at the horror. Broken bones, disfigured skin, bruises and artistic cuts decorated the skin of the five victims. They had been missing for less than a day, how had anyone managed to inflict so much harm?

Torture.

They had been tortured. Don stopped by the body of one. It was the one that Dresden had slung over his shoulder. Don rolled the man over and realized that he was already dead. By the pale skin, the rigor mortis and the glassy eyes, it had been a while. All other victims were less dead. The woman was administering CPR to hers. The old man that had walked out, had his eyes closed. Don touched his shoulder and he opened his eyes. He looked tired and a bit confused, but Don attributed that to shock and the fact that the man had never seen him before. David took over CPR for the woman.

Don took a step back to eye the burning building. It looked a lot like the news pictures of the restaurant fire, vicious and fast. He was no expert, but he wondered if it was the same accelerant. Dresden walked to his side. The man looked like hell.

"How's the Fed," he asked.

"He'll be good."

"Good." Dresden tilted his head back and breathed deep. Those were the signs of someone who had lived when he had fully expected to die. "Mouse didn't cause any concern?" The dog in question had attached himself to his master's leg and didn't look like he'd let Dresden out of his sight for a while. The dog and the master were a matched pair in more ways than one.

"Define 'concern,'" Don answered. "That is one big dog and he toppled me."

Dresden jerked his head Don's way and eyed him carefully. "You don't look the worse for wear."

"It was nothing, just brought me to my knees."

"He does have the tendency to sweep a guy off his feet."

By then, the cavalry had arrived. Don was the Agent-in-Charge so he had to coordinate with the lead fire officer and the medical emergency personal. The SWAT team checked all the remaining buildings in the area. One was occupied by suspects who committed suicide by exploding their building. One SWAT member was severely injured during the confrontation. That building burned as ferociously as the others.

In the eternity that lasted a mere moment, a stream of ambulances with patients had raced to the nearest hospital and the fires were nearly under control. Don looked around and spotted David but none of the eye-witnesses. He waved the agent over. "You sent Dresden and the woman to the office?"

David's eyes got big. "No. I thought you did."

Don cursed. He'd track down all the people around, but he knew in his gut that Dresden and the girl were long gone. "Get to the hospital now. Meet Megan there. Nab Ramirez before he disappears."

David took off at a run. Don turned back to the pair of smoldering buildings.

"Who's responsible?"

***

***

"So who's responsible?" Don asked his team. Charlie stood at his side, a whiteboard marker in hand.

David tossed a file to the side. "We don't have anything. Nada. Ramirez wasn't at the hospital. His family said that he's off helping people and won't be back for a while. The other occupants of the apartments haven't returned. They haven't been contacted by any official. We still can't find them. No one is telling us where we can find them. I genuinely believe that they don't know where they are. They might know how to contact them, but they aren't telling us."

Megan sighed. "The victims don't know who kidnapped them. They did submit to sitting with an artist. And a polygraph."

"A polygraph?" Charlie blurted out.

Megan shrugged tiredly. "All the pictures matched, which normally would have made our job easier, but theirs were of monsters. The kidnappers might have been wearing a mask of some kind. It's odd that the shock of the torture would have given them all similar mental visuals of their captors otherwise. They said that the kidnappers never asked questions. Supposedly, they didn't want any information from their captives."

"What could be the motive for that?" Don asked.

"Systematic destruction of anything or one that Ramirez held dear," guessed Megan. "Which would explain why Ramirez dropped off the grid. He's trying to protect his family."

David raised a hand. "Do we know who Dresden is?"

"No. Not yet. We know that he's not in the California system," Megan answered. "Any other state and Dresden had been given a clue that the arsons would happen before they did to get here so fast."

Colby snorted and winced when it exacerbated his headache. "I think Dresden did know. He's playing both sides. He followed the trail to the rail yard much too easily. No one's that good."

"I don't know about that," Don argued. "Dresden took the most dangerous position coming out of that building. He was the most burdened. I saw him after. I think he genuinely cares for Ramirez."

"He could care," Colby conceded. "But he could still be a betrayer."

Don shrugged. "A triple agent?" he proposed to the one person who would know.

Colby shrugged but with a nod, acknowledged that it was possible.

"The DNA from the blood spatters from where Colby was attacked has been matched to three open missing persons' cases. And the one picture Colby and the sketch artist drew matched one of those. We never found any more evidence of those three. The SWAT team ran into a different set of missing persons. All the missing persons were from the same general area. We're trying to run down where they connected, but other than geography, we haven't found anything."

It was a question that would have to be investigated further and hopefully asked in person to someone who knew someday. Then Don drew all attention to his brother. "I called Charlie in to see what the probabilities that all the fires were set by the same person, or persons."

Charlie took the floor. "Short answer: Yes, within an eighty-eight percentile. The fires for the restaurant, one of the residents and the last building burned at the rail yard can't get much more similar, and we can tell that even though the building materials used differed. The others are still very similar. We don't know what the fuel is yet, it's not normal to our arson reference files, despite how well it obviously works. We haven't developed a heat signature from a known accelerant that matches yet. There is one interesting thing though," he continued. "The heat signature between the sites match, as does the un-uniformity." Charlie grinned at his audience.

The team was waiting for the punch line. Don was the one who finally asked, "Charlie, what are you trying to say?"

"When you have an explosion, it normally goes out equally in all directions, like waves when you drop a pebble into a pond," the professor glanced around to see if everyone understood the analogy. "But if you have a stick in the water, the waves will continue on past it, but the stick will affect the wave pattern. Eventually, the waves on one side of the stick will interfere with the waves on the other side of the stick. When we were analyzing the explosions we noticed that there were some anomalies."

"So you're saying that there was something in some of the explosions that interfere with how they… exploded?" asked Don.

"Exactly." Charlie opened a computer file on the projector screen. "In every explosion in this case, the explosion was not uniform in every direction. At the restaurant the south-east corner is barely singed whereas the wall on both sides is demolished. At Ramirez's apartment, the door should not be standing, but again, it's just singed. Same with the other two apartments. In the first explosion at the rail yard, the back wall-the one opposite the only door-, there is a merely singed portion of wall. Both corners were demolished with the size and intensity of the blast."

David Sinclair, the resident expert on explosives, spoke. "Couldn't that indicate a shape charge?"

Charlie shook his head. "No. That leaves an entirely different explosive signature and in each case it was ten to twelve feet away from the ignition site. Larry and I are pretty sure that Isomething/I was there. Something absorbed the energy and blast. Something that disappeared before we could investigate the evidence."

"Okay," Don nodded. "So what can do this?"

Charlie threw up his hands. "We have absolutely no idea. Though if you ask Larry, he'll start talking about pocket dimensions."

"Keep working on it, Chuck." Don addressed the rest of the group. "This case is going to be pushed back for a while, but Charlie here is going to go through suspicious fires in other states –and whatever information we can get him from Mexico- for similarities. As we can see, there are several identifying characteristics for him to look for. As soon as he has something solid, we'll jump on it. If we get a lead on Ramirez, Dresden or the Wizard-girl Mallory, who also vanished, we'll chase it. Anything else?"

All shook their heads.

"Go home. We'll have something new tomorrow."

The FBI agents filed out, one by one. Charlie and Don sat there and looked at Charlie's computer generated explosion simulations. "Think you'll find anything?" the older brother asked.

"Something. Whether or not it's of use, will be your call."

"Thanks."

"Welcome."

"Let's go home." Don grabbed his keys. "I really hate when people disappear like that. What if the masterminds of the arson did end up getting their hands on Ramirez? What if he's already dead?"

"What if he disappeared with magic like that Mallory-woman claimed she could?" Charlie added with a wry grin.

Don glared at his brother and dragged him out of the conference room. "I am your ride home," he reminded. "I don't need you-who hates all mention of magic- to start hinting that magic might be at work. And I don't need to hear it on the whole ride home."

Charlie shrugged. "I could call dad and you get to explain why I needed a ride home."

Don rolled his eyes and pushed Charlie into the elevator. Some things never change. Charlie was still a tattletale when he chose.

***

***

IFinI/