Brendan rubbed his hand over his tired eyes as a police officer led away yet another college kid who had taken political activism one home-made incendiary device too far. They had been lucky this time, with Freya catching a stray thought in the bar as they celebrated the successful end of the previous case.
"No one was going to get hurt."
Brendan sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. That was what the bad guys always said when they got caught, as if that magically made all the potential for death and mayhem acceptable somehow.
The bomb itself wasn't exactly large or powerful, but it hadn't needed to be. The smallest fire during this unusually hot and dry summer could have set the Kumbrabow State Forest on fire, destroying homes and livelihoods... and taking lives. What Brendan couldn't understand was why? Why target a forest? Perhaps they'd have their answer once they'd had a chance to interview Drayton back at the Elkins Police station. For now though, Freya had gained enough from the boy's mind to know he had not been acting alone, but rather that he had been following orders from an older man. What she hadn't been able to snatch from his mind was a name.
They got into the rental car and Brendan turned the ignition, but didn't pull away immediately. Instead he looked across at Freya, seeing the tightness around her eyes that spoke of failing mental shields. They had both been up for over thirty-six hours straight, with only a short and restless sleep the night before that, as they homed in on a suspected terrorist holed up in this area of West Virginia. Catching Ramirez had proved easy once they'd followed the money trail to a safe house just outside Elkins, and for once, the local law enforcement had backed them up without any professional jealousy. It had been a refreshing change from the usual bristling and posturing that, fortunately, Freya managed to defuse on most occasions. Local law enforcement often resented any of the alphabet agencies playing in their back yard.
"Stop thinking," Freya stated softly.
"Stop listening in," he retorted, without venom.
It was a standing joke between them now after almost a year as partners, and he saw her lips twitch as she made another effort to raise her shields while he made a valiant effort to do the same. Welles had managed to teach him the basics of how to block his thoughts, but the rest of it would only come with practice. Most days he could handle it well but the lack of sleep was seriously undermining his control. He sighed and rested his forehead on the steering wheel.
"Why don't we let the kid stew overnight in the cells? Or let the locals have their shot at the kid first. Grab a meal and catch some sleep. Pick it up in the morning once we're both rested."
Brendan knew from experience, and office memos, that a couple of hours sleep in the past five days made them a dangerous liability. Sleep deprivation would put them off their game, increasing the chance of making mistakes that could turn costly. They had already reported in and other NSA agents were handling the background research that would determine if this was an isolated incident of a kid going a step too far at the urgings of another, or if this was just the tip of a nasty iceberg.
The grateful smile was answer enough for Brendan, and he got the car rolling. They would check in at the station first, to ensure their prisoner was locked down safely for the night, and then find the closest hotel and restaurant. Not necessarily in that order.
When they arrived back at the Police station the following morning, Brendan approached the deputy manning the front desk. He flipped out his NSA credentials as this deputy hadn't been on duty yesterday so he wouldn't know who Brendan was.
"Special Agent Brendan Dean and Freya McAllister. We're here to interview Joshua Drayton."
"No can do, Agent Dean."
"He's gone," Freya stated, hearing the thoughts that the deputy was broadcasting. "He made bail last night."
"How the hell could he-"
"Look, Agent Dean. I don't know how they do this is the city... but out here, when a dad turns up to collect his kid, and all we have on his kid is an half-baked notion, then we let him go."
Brendan rubbed his forehead, feeling the start of a stress headache.
"Okay. We still need to interview the kid so can you please let us have his home address?"
"I'll just check the book."
"Yeah, why don't you," Brendan murmured under his breath, offering an apologetic smile to Freya for the nasty thoughts that swept through his mind.
"My own weren't far different," she replied, smiling back at him.
The duty deputy returned a few minutes later looking perplexed. "Strangest thing. I know this area pretty well, and I don't recall the house numbers on that street heading past forty or fifty." He passed the sheet to Brendan, and it definitely read 94, Wilson Street. "I guess it could be a mis-key."
"I don't think so." Brendan looked up. "Do you have video surveillance?"
"Yeah, but I already checked, and the guy managed to avoid all of them."
"I'd like to see the footage anyway," Brendan stated, knowing his photographic mind would pick up on things that others missed - reflections in surfaces, physical attributes such as height, age, and patterns of movement. He had once picked out a suspect in a crowd by the way the man unconsciously tapped two fingers together.
It took a lot of planning or expertise to avoid the cameras in the sheriff's office, but the man Brendan was interested in would have still needed to deal with a real person at the desk. "Who signed the release papers?"
"That would be Deputy Rowins."
"Is he still on duty?"
"Yeah. He's out on patrol. Do you want me call him back to the station?"
Brendan nodded, and waited until the deputy had moved out of earshot. "Bet you fifty, the guy claiming to be his dad is the same guy who set the kid up to plant the bomb?"
Freya wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "Don't think I'll take that bet."
Twenty minutes later, they were still waiting. Freya eased up to Brendan. "Rowins isn't responding."
"Deputy?" The deputy came over, looking a little harassed and worried. "Is his patrol car fitted with a GPS tracking signal?"
"Yeah! Why didn't I think of that?" The deputy rushed back to a computer and began tapping in commands, beckoning Brendan and Freya to follow. "That can't be right," he stated a moment later. "Rowins was supposed to head north to Leadsville but I have his car registering just off Sullivans."
Brendan glanced at the coordinates. "Let's go."
Back in their rental, he entered the coordinates on the Satnav and set off. He didn't need to tell Freya that he had a bad feeling about this because he knew she was reading it loud and clear. It took twenty minutes to reach the isolated area, and Brendan glanced at Freya to confirm no one was close by before pulling in closer to the patrol car. He checked his gun before stepping out, holding it in readiness as he approached the silent vehicle. He could see someone sitting in the driver's seat with their head bowed as if asleep, and Brendan was going to be mighty pissed if Rowins had come out here to sneak in a nap. Reaching the driver's side, Brendan went to tap on the window but stopped.
"Nothing. I think he's dead."
He reached for the door handle but pulled back at the last moment and ordered Freya to move back, not sure what had kicked up his sixth sense but knowing his eyes had seen something but his mind had yet to fully interpret it. Leaning carefully so no part of him touched the car, he looked closer, eyes instantly latching onto the glint of thin wire around the deputy's neck. He followed the wire downwards, licking his lips nervously when he couldn't see where the wire ended, but it's very existence screamed at him to take care.
"Call the bomb squad."
Standing on the steps to the Longreen Snake Reserve, Emmett stretched to ease the kinks in his spine from spending too many hours hunched over his computer and lab bench. The latest set of results for the antivenin derived from Betty looked promising but he still needed to run a dozen or more trials before he took it to the next level. What he had so far would counteract the venomous bite of some of the world's deadliest snakes, but it was still not a universal antivenin.
The whole idea was to produce something that could be given no matter what snake had struck; a single antidote that would negate the need for smaller settlements and local hospitals to carry dozens of different types of perishable medicines, especially as many victims were often incapable of identifying the snake that had bitten them, eventually leading to their death. His kid sister had died for that very reason, with the snake disappearing before anyone could identify it. By the time his parents had reached a larger hospital that could try to counteract the poisoning by other means, it was too late.
He yawned widely and angled his head up to catch the rays of the sun, basking in the mid-summer heat like one of the reptiles that filled his laboratory and this reserve. Part of him wanted to curl up on the warm steps and enjoy the warmth but another part of him was eager to get back to his research. In truth, he didn't have a whole lot else in his life. His long-distance relationship with Monica had fizzled out, mostly because they were too alike, getting too caught up in their work to remember to call. Their relationship had ended up being occasional calls to apologize, and quickly posted emails until they figured out that they really were better off as friends and colleagues.
It was very disconcerting to realize that he hadn't missed her except for the times when they would brainstorm problems with their research, and he still had that whenever he wanted to pick up the phone or email. The sex had been good but not spectacular, and often they spent more time curled up in bed talking about their research than about each other. Plus, no matter how much he liked women, eventually he missed not having a second cock to play with, and being fucked by a piece of plastic was not as good as the real thing.
"Damn it, Emmett," he berated himself. he was not supposed to think about such things, mostly because he didn't have either the time nor the inclination to go hunting for a little man-on-man action. Not that there was a whole lot of choice in Elkins, just one bar that favored gays and he could bet that Rowins would be seated at the counter looking for a quick pick-up. Emmett had already turned him down earlier in the week, though at this rate, even Rowins would look good to Emmett by the end of the month. The thought of Rowins with his dark hair and lean body made his cock twitch, and Emmett just wished the man had more than a few brain cells to make it a more interesting experience. Still, Rowins could at least offer him a warm body and a very friendly hand, and Emmett could think of one good place to put that hard cock to work.
"Damn it," he cursed.
The fact that he was entertaining the idea of seeking out Rowins was proof enough that he needed to get laid... and soon.
He debated it for a moment longer, and then sighed as he drew out his cell phone. Perhaps it was a sad reflection on his sex life that he typed in Rowins' number from memory, holding the phone to his ear as he waited for Rowins to pick up. When there was no answer, Emmett hung up. Rowins was probably busy giving someone a citation for speeding or jaywalking, or whatever else he did when he wasn't sneaking off duty. After waiting for a further ten minutes with no callback or message, Emmett debated on letting it go but his desperate libido had already perked up at the mere suggestion of getting laid soon.
With an irritated sigh, he called again. After five rings, it was answered.
"Jeff? It's Emmett."
Emmett froze with the cell close to his ear. He knew Rowins voice better than most; knew what it sounded like when he was being officious, and when he was on the verge of orgasm, and this was not Rowins.
"Who is this?"
"I just asked you that, Emmett."
"And now I'm asking you. Who are you? And where's Jeff Rowins?"
There was a delay that sounded ominous, reminding Emmett that for all his irritating habits, Rowins was a cop, and it could be a dangerous profession. He felt the moisture wick from his mouth as he waited for an answer, fearing the worse.
"I'm sorry," the man on the other end replied softly, his voice sounding genuine and sincere. "Deputy Rowins is unable to take your call."
"I'm not at liberty to say."
"Is he dead?"
The pause was telling. "I'm sorry. I'm not at liberty to say."
The phone disengaged but Emmett could hear the unspoken words. He felt a tremendous amount of guilt vying with grief as he thought of all the times he'd become irritated with Jeff, and all the times he had turned Jeff down when it wasn't a convenient time to break from his research. Jeff had put up with a lot of crap from him just for the occasional sweaty hour or two between the sheets; he'd deserved better.
The thought of simply going back to his research sickened him, so Emmett locked up Longreen and headed for his car. He needed to know what had happened to Jeff, and that meant speaking to Sheriff Grainger, or whoever had picked up Jeff's cell.
The police station was a hive of activity when Emmett stepped inside, with deputies moving purposefully back and forward, their jaws tight and eyes intensely focused on their duty. He recognized Sheriff Grainger and managed to catch the man's attention, seeing the dismay that filled Grainger's pale blue eyes. Grainger had caught him and Jeff making out a few months back and knew of their on-off arrangement but he was more progressive and tolerant than most would expect of a small town sheriff. He came over and pulled Emmett aside gently.
"Is he dead?"
Grainger nodded. "I know you and he were... I'm sorry for your loss."
"How did it happen?"
"I'm sorry, Emmett. I wish I could tell you more-"
Emmett noticed a man and woman come into the station, and everything about them screamed FED. He had known enough over the past few years to recognize Federal Agents from the way they dressed and acted. To his shame, he had to admit that the guy was definitely his type with artfully messed dark hair and a lean but strong body but he tamped that thought down immediately. After the Philadelphia incident, the last thing he wanted was to get involved with the Feds again, recalling the loss of Agent Sharpe keenly, even if it hadn't been his fault.
The woman stared at him, frowning, so Emmett turned back to Grainger.
"They have anything to do with Jeff's death?" He hooked a thumb over his shoulder towards the two new arrivals.
"You know I can't tell you anything about an ongoing investigation."
Frustrated by the lack of answers, Emmett sighed and walked away. He had barely reached his car when someone spoke behind him.
"Doctor Emmett?" Emmett recognized the voice from Jeff's cell phone earlier and turned to find himself facing the handsome Fed. "Special Agent Brendan Dean... and Freya McAllister."
Emmett flicked a glance at the I.D., noticing that Dean even took a flattering photo.
"I heard you knew Deputy Rowins."
"In the biblical sense," Emmett stated, not ashamed to have that knowledge out in the open. "And as a friend," he added, recalling the times when Jeff had managed to drag him from his research for more than just a quick fuck. He'd always known Jeff wanted more from him than sex but that spark had not been there for Emmett. He'd enjoyed watching the occasional ball game with Jeff, or an evening that any normal person might have considered a date - a shared meal, drinks at the local bar, or taking in the latest blockbuster showing at the theater before they tumbled into bed together - but had never let it mean more than simply scratching an itch.
"Can we talk somewhere more private?" Agent Dean asked as his eyes slid to the people who had stopped to see what was going on.
Emmett sighed but realized that this was a chance for him to find out what had happened to Jeff. "Sure. There's a bar just down the street, or if you want somewhere even more private, we can go back to my office at Longreen."
"Your office sounds good." Dean glanced at his partner. "We'll follow you."
Emmett nodded and waited until the agents were in their car before pulling away. It didn't take long to reach Longreen and he unlocked the door as he waited for Dean and McAllister to catch up, leading them through the corridor to the office that he only used for guests. His real work was down in his laboratory, with Betty.
He saw a shudder go through McAllister but decided it was likely caused by the pictures of snakes and other reptiles on the walls.
"I'm not too keen on snakes," she stated, holding out her small hand. "And my name's Freya."
"Emmett," he replied, taking her hand. "No one uses my first name. Not even my parents." He glanced between them. "So what can you tell me about what happened to Deputy Rowins?"
"Actually, we were hoping you might be able to help us," Dean replied.
"Unlikely. Jeff and I were not... exclusive."
"But he wanted to be," Freya stated, as if reading his mind. Or maybe she was simply good at body language. "When was the last time you saw him?"
"A few days ago, when he came in to follow up on a report I made. Someone had tried to break in." Emmett shrugged. "I wasn't too concerned. It was probably local kids looking to see the snakes, and I have top-of-the-line security to stop them."
"But Jeff took his job serious... in that respect at least." Emmett smiled softly, recalling Grainger having a few words to say about that time they were caught making out. Emmett hadn't realized Jeff was still on duty, and Jeff wasn't averse to grabbing a little nap in his patrol car on a slow day.
"Did Rowins often go out past Sullivan Road to grab a nap?" Freya asked, and Emmett tilted his head because her question was uncannily close to his own thoughts.
"Is that where you found him?" When neither answered, he sighed. "No. He preferred to hide out back here. That's how we got to know each other. I caught him a few times, and then I stopped checking." Except for when he wanted to see him, he added silently, feeling a wave of regret flow over him.
Freya reached out and placed her small hand on his. "I'm sorry."
"So what was he doing out there?" Dean murmured but Emmett could see it wasn't a question aimed at him. Dean looked back at Emmett. "Tell me about the attempted break in?"
Emmett spread his hands wide. "Not much to say. It happens. Every couple of months the silent alarm sounds, and I come in to check, usually with the on-call deputy. Sometimes the kids get as far as this office and exhibition area, but all the deadly snakes and reptiles are more securely locked away. The snakes in this area could give you a nasty bite but none of them are poisonous."
"And your research?"
"Oh, that's more secure than the local bank vault. Even if they took out my eye and lopped off my hand to get through the biometrics, they'd still need three levels of pass-codes and the encryption key."
Dean looked confused. "I thought you were researching a universal antivenin?"
"I am," And Emmett couldn't help but smile and think of Betty, knowing he had to feed her soon. "But it could cost the Pharmaceutical companies millions."
Freya gasped. "Giant snake!" It was Emmett's turn to look confused but Freya carried on. "The Philadelphia incident. I just recalled where I'd heard your name before." She glanced at Dean, giving him an undecipherable look.
"Yeah, well it's the last time I lend Betty to you people."
"I'd still like to see the break-in report," Dean stated with a smile that made Emmett feel incredibly guilty, as if he was betraying Jeff's memory by finding Agent Dean so attractive.
Freya cleared her throat, hiding what Emmett thought was a smile behind her hand, and he tried not to flush with embarrassment at being read so easily. She was definitely well trained in body language. He just hoped Dean wasn't as good as her, as that would be really embarrassing. However, the way Dean shifted uncomfortably in his seat threw that hope out of the window and Emmett tried to look apologetic without revealing too much more. Damn but he needed to get laid soon if this was how he was going to react around a good looking guy, and even thoughts of Jeff couldn't shake that need.
"How did he die?"
"He was garroted," Dean stated softly.
Emmett sat back in shock. He had thought it would be a brawl with a violent drunk, or a lucky shot from an armed robber, or even something like a previously unknown congenital heart defect. Not this. In the past, Emmett would have wondered who could do such a thing to another human being, before he met Broddick and his hunting party.
"Do you get a lot of visitors here?" Dean asked.
"A slow trickle. We're not exactly a main tourist attraction. My research is funded by one of the Pharmaceutical companies."
"How about a father and son, recently?"
"I have staff who deal with that side of things. I spend most of my time on my research."
"Um. Yes. I only have four people on staff and as Longreen isn't open today, none of them will be back until around five, when its time to make the daily rounds. Feeding, cleaning the habitats. But I guess I could take you to the security office."
Emmett led them through the security doors and into the section housing the more dangerous snakes and other reptiles. He keyed in another security sequence to gain access to the office where the security video feed recorded all activity outside of Emmett's laboratory. Dean settled down in front of the sole computer and began to work through the footage at an amazing speed. Emmett wondered how he could possibly take in everything at that speed but Dean stopped suddenly.
"That's Drayton," he pointed to a teenage boy. "And the older man with him has the same characteristics as the guy almost caught on video at the station."
"So they were here," Freya murmured. "It can't be a coincidence."
Brendan cursed when none of the security footage revealed the older man's face. It had to have been a conscious act, making Brendan wonder if the man had already cased Longreen before or had seen the security schematics in advance. He said as much to Freya but it was Emmett who spoke.
"There is one camera that's not on the security schematics... but we'd need to access that from my lab."
"The lab with the giant snake," Freya asked with an edge of worry to her voice.
"Don't worry. Betty's in a secured habitat within the lab."
Brendan was impressed when he saw the level of security, and once through the first set of doors, he followed Emmett down a flight of stairs into the main lab area. Emmett went straight over to a computer and began to tap in pass-codes. Moments later, Brendan pulled back when a snake appeared on the monitor close up.
"From the security footage, your man passed this enclosure just after eleven."
"11:04 and twenty-two seconds."
This time it was Emmett he looked impressed. "You have a good memory."
"You could say that."
Emmett fast-forwarded the recording to just after eleven. He smiled as the older man turned his head away from the security camera only to be caught full on by the camera monitoring the progress of one of Emmett's snakes.
"Gotcha!" He grinned at Brendan, and if Brendan hadn't been interested in Emmett before this moment, then that brilliant smile and the sparkling blue eyes sealed his fate. For once, he didn't even have to guess if Emmett could be interested in him in return as the man had been flirting with him unknowingly since the moment they met. He'd seen it in the way his eyes had dilated and his color heightened, and in the way Emmett had wet his lips when he flicked his gaze
He shot a warning glance towards Freya when she made a soft but undignified snort. It took only a few seconds to upload the image for a search through the N.S.A.'s facial recognition database. Even with the full power of the N.S.A. servers behind it, Brendan knew it could take some time to go through first the known terrorists and then through and ever-increasing list of other suspects both foreign and national but at least he now had an image to circulate around Elkins' Police department.
After leaving Longreen, Brendan glanced back over his shoulder in concern as Emmett gave them a half-hearted wave goodbye, holding the small business card with Brendan's cell number tightly in the other hand. They climbed into their rental and drove off slowly.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking," Freya asked.
"That the bomb was just meant as a distraction. Small town police force... and everyone's attention on a potential forest fire. All this guy would need to do then is make sure the officers left behind are kept busy elsewhere while he breaks in here to... do whatever."
"You don't think he'd be foolish enough to steal the giant snake?"
"No. He's more likely to steal the research and the trial drug. It would give some Pharmaceutical company a big step forward in their own research program if they didn't have to recreate all that work from scratch. That or he's been paid to destroy it all."
"Either way they might consider him a liability," Brendan replied, feeling tense at the thought of losing a man he'd only just met, but there was definitely something about Emmett that drew him in. "My gut tells me this guy isn't finished yet. He's not got what he came for... yet."
Freya reached out, laying her hand on his arm. "Then we'd better make sure Emmett's protected." She smiled. "Of course that gives us a perfect excuse for asking him to join us for lunch?" her smile widened to a grin. "And by us, I mean you."
"Are you matchmaking again?"
She raised an eyebrow in affronted innocence, but the twitch of her lips proved her true intent.
"You know what happened last time." He broadcast a vivid depictions of his disastrous date with her sister.
"Eww!" She hit him, shaking her head as he laughed softly.
Brendan turned the car around and headed back to Longreen, and smiled wryly as Freya's other eyebrow rose to join the first. "Personal feelings aside, it's a good bet that he's the target. Having him with us will make it harder for our unsub to get to him."
Emmett made sure the door was securely locked and the alarm set before he headed back towards his laboratory. Attuned to sounds in Longreen after spending so many long nights alone, he heard the clink of glass and froze. With everything that had happened, he couldn't be blamed for feeling a little on edge even though he rationalized that there was probably a very good and safe reason for that sound. One of the staff could have left an enclosure unlatched. It had happened before when someone got distracted while feeding the reptiles, which is why he only let the more experienced and attentive of his staff feed the poisonous snakes.
The sound was coming from one of the display rooms at the back of the building and he headed towards it, stepping carefully when he reached the room in question. A quick glance showed nothing amiss with the enclosures, until a glint caught his eye and he saw a shard of glass by the leg of an enclosure near a window.
A chilling thought brought the small hairs rising at the back of his neck, suddenly aware that he might not be alone in the building after all. He remained perfectly still, letting his senses and his eyes ghost around the room seeking any other disturbance that could herald danger. he couldn't see anything but his sixth sense for danger was screaming at him, just as it had in the sewers underneath Philadelphia. Very slowly and deliberately, he pulled his cell phone from his pocket and once it was in his peripheral vision, he pressed the keys one-handed for the number on the card Agent Dean had given to him when he left, thankful that Dean wasn't the only one with a good memory. He was halfway through the sequence when a voice spoke behind him.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Dr. Emmett."
Emmett turned slowly, instantly recognizing the older man from the hidden video feed; his eyes dropped to the gun pointed straight at him.
"What do you want?"
"It's not what I want, Doctor. It's what my client wants." He smiled and shrugged. "My client wants everything related to your antivenin research... including you."
"Your client is welcome to help fund my research."
"Ah, but my client doesn't want to share."
"Then that's going to be a problem."
"Not for me, Doctor." The man waved the gun, indicating for Emmett to move.
"You can't get into the laboratory without me and the pass-codes."
"Which is why you're going to open it for me." The man sighed. "Look, Doctor, this doesn't have to be a painful experience for either of us. My client gets what he wants, and you get to continue with your research... Just some place else."
"And if I don't cooperate?"
"Then things will become a little more unpleasant for both of us."
The sound of the entrance buzzer drifted through the hallways, seemingly louder in the silence of the almost deserted building; Emmett looked through the door of this room automatically even though he could not see the entrance from where he stood. The other man tensed, tightening his grip on his gun.
"Don't make a sound or a move, or I will kill whoever it is out there."
Emmett swallowed hard, not needing to hear the menace in his voice to know he meant it. He already knew what this man was capable of, thinking of Jeff. He just hoped it wasn't one of his younger staff wanting to put in a few extra hours. The buzzer sounded again and Emmett had to bite into his lower lip to remain silent.
The man took a few purposeful steps towards Emmett and the hallway, the gun raised in his hand ready to fire.
"Please," Emmett begged, raising his hands with palms facing outward in a placating gesture. "Most people who know me will try a few times, and wait a little longer in case I'm in the main laboratory. And most know if I don't answer after a while then I'm probably in the middle of something so they'll give up and come back later. Just give them time."
Longreen fell silent again and after another few minutes had passed, the gunman released some of the tension in his frame and indicated with the gun for Emmett to start moving towards the more secure area of the Longreen Snake Reserve. When they reached the security door, Emmett started towards the keypad but the man stopped him.
"Allow me," he smirked, pressing the correct sequence; the door locking bolts sounded and when the man reached for the handle, it opened easily. "Surely you didn't think a simple security system like this could stop me?"
Only one other person knew the access codes to the secure parts of Longreen - Stan Carpenter, his longtime assistant who fed Betty and ran Longreen when Emmett was out in the field. Emmett hadn't thought to mention that to the NSA agents but he had a terrible feeling now that twisted in his gut.
"Where did you get the access code?"
The gunman smiled. "Mr. Carpenter was very forthcoming." His eyes flicked to the shoulder pack that Emmett had not paid much attention to until now, and Emmett's words to Dean about cutting out his eye and lopping off his hand came back to haunt him. "See, I really don't need you to be that cooperative."
He shoved Emmett forward. "We need to move a little faster. I have a minor distraction set to go off in three minutes, and a very large containment vehicle will be arriving soon after to transport you and your valuable research to a new location."
"Who are you?" Emmett demanded, wanting to know the name of the man who had killed two people that he cared about.
"You can call me Mr. Ross."
Ross moved them unerringly towards the entrance to Emmett's main laboratory, the gun at his back giving Emmett no choice but to do as he was told.
On returning to Longreen, Brendan pressed the buzzer and was mildly concerned when there was no answer after a full minute had passed. Emmett's car was still in the parking lot, and he had given no indication that he intended to go back to his research after they left but Brendan didn't know the herpetologist well enough to know that for sure. Certainly, Emmett came across as a man dedicated to his research and his quest for a universal antivenin but he had seemed too distracted to focus at this time. Freya had casually confirmed that distraction by mentioning Emmett's obvious attraction to him that was partly overshadowed by feelings of guilt for his occasional - and recently murdered - lover, Rowins.
He saw Freya tip her head to the side, knowing she was stretching out her telepathic abilities to see if she could sense Emmett inside. She pulled back sharply.
"Someone's with him. He's too far away for me to hear his thoughts, just his emotions, but I sense fear from Emmett.
Following standard procedures, he quickly called for back up but knew immediately that he couldn't wait for the local police unit to arrive.
"Look's like this guy had a back up plan for us taking down Drayton. There's a forest fire raging out of control and all units are helping with the evacuation. "We're on our own... for now."
It took Brendan only a moment to override the security on the main door and head in, gun in hand as they edged into the silent interior. When they reached the area containing the more dangerous reptiles, he was not surprised to see the main security door standing wide open. They moved in slowly, with Brendan recalling the way towards Emmett's private research laboratory with perfect clarity, stopping every few feet for Freya to feel ahead for any danger.
"Whoever has him is very sure of himself," she whispered. "But he doesn't expect to be alone for much longer."
Reaching the corner to the final corridor, Brendan paused and glanced round carefully. Up ahead he could see the man from the video footage holding a gun on Emmett. He was close enough to hear the exchange.
"Well, doctor? Are you going to do the honors or shall I pull out the pieces of Mr. Carpenter?"
Brendan saw Emmett pull back in revulsion when the gunman pulled something bloody from a plastic bag in his backpack and press it against the biometric reader. Recalling how Emmett had gained access to his lab earlier, Brendan knew it had to be a thumb from someone close to Emmett. Most likely it was his assistant, which meant there was a strong possibility that there was another body waiting to be found after this was all over. The gunman keyed in the access codes that he had likely tortured out of the owner of that thumb, and the door slid open. He shoved Emmett inside ahead of him, and as soon as they were both inside, Brendan crept forward, ordering Freya to stay back.
Slipping inside the laboratory, Brendan clung to the shadows as he watched the gunman push Emmett none too gently down the flight of stairs to the main floor of the laboratory.
"Start gathering your research together, doctor." Emmett made to switch on the computer but the gunman pressed the gun into his back. "Not the computer. I wouldn't want you to... accidentally erase all your work."
Emmett straightened instead of doing as ordered. "Stan didn't have full access to Betty."
"Betty?" Ross queried with a smirk, but his lips tightened. "I am aware of that, Doctor Emmett. I am also aware that he had access only to the feeding slot, and that only you have the pass-codes to access the habitat so I'm going to give you a choice. You provide my men with the access they require to move Betty to my client's facility, or I will feed her a firebomb and completely destroy her."
Brendan knew that would be a hard decision, especially when it was obvious that Emmett was passionate about his work. Seeing all his research destroyed when he was so close to finding his universal antivenin could easily destroy Emmett too, and Brendan wasn't about to let that happen. As soon as the opportunity arose, he stepped out of the shadows.
"Federal Agents! Drop your weapon and put your hands where I can see them."
The gunman whipped round in shock, face hardening in realization as he raised his gun towards the new threat - Brendan. With only a split second decision, Brendan fired and dove at the same time. The gunman's shots were scarily accurate, sparking off the metal wall of the laboratory exactly where Brendan had been standing, and catching him with a ricochet. He hissed at the burn from the bullet cutting a groove in his arm as it passed. His own shot missed the center mass as the gunman also dove for cover, but he had the grim satisfaction of knowing it had hit flesh from the sharp cry of pain.
Emmett had dived in the other direction, placing a laboratory table between him and the gunman, and Brendan hoped Emmett had the good sense to stay down and keep on moving as far away as possible. However, the gunman knew he had only one easy way out of this situation, and that was with a hostage. He started edging across the main lab floor towards Emmett, keeping under cover so Brendan had no clear shot. By now Emmett was against the far wall near the hatchway to the enclosure housing the giant Scarlet Boa. He saw Emmett's hand reach up to key in the access code and the door began to slide open. Emmett leaped inside and began to close the outer hatch but the gunman was too fast, diving through the hatchway before it sealed while Brendan's shots ricocheted harmlessly off the wall and metal close to the man.
The inner door opened and Emmett stumbled inside the habitat with the gunman following. Brendan took the stairs three or four at a time as he raced after them but the door slid shut before he could reach it, leaving him banging on the outside uselessly. He rushed to the observation portal and looked inside, seeing Emmett backing away from the enraged gunman. Movement caught Brendan's eyes, along with the realization that 'giant snake' came nowhere close to describing what he was seeing. No wonder Freya had looked shocked when she had pulled that image from Emmett's mind.
The gunman seemed to realize the danger he was in, slowly moving backwards towards the entrance as the ground seemed to move around him. He froze when the snake reared up, its dark head almost as big as the man's entire torso. Its tongue flicked out, scenting the blood dripping from the flesh wound, and with a shocking suddenness, it struck, coiling around the man tighter and tighter, squeezing the breath out of the gunman's body and crushing bones until the man was beyond all help. A single shot went wild before the gun fell from the stricken man's hand, and the snake only loosened its tight hold on its victim once the gunman was dead.
Brendan watched Emmett move slowly towards the access hatchway as the snake - Betty - unhinged her jaws and began to swallow her human meal head first, finding it both fascinating and horrifying to watch in equal measure. He jumped when he heard a sound behind him, and saw Freya heading down.
"We have company," she stated urgently.
Brendan nodded, trying to block the sight of the gunman being swallowed whole from Freya, but from the way her face paled, he knew she had already seen too much either for real or second hand from his thoughts. By now, Emmett had made his way out, securing the enclosure behind him, and Brendan could tell from the haunted look on his face that he'd taken no pleasure in seeing the man die in such a way, even if the gunman had deserved it.
As they reached the top of the laboratory stairs, Brendan heard the distinct sound of police sirens and relaxed back against the wall. By the time they reached the entrance to Longreen, the Sheriff had three men in custody.
"Sheriff," Brendan called, and the Sheriff shoved his prisoner towards one of his deputies and headed towards them.
"We got your message, Agent Dean, and came right away." He looked around, lips pressed tight with anger barely held in check. "You get the bastard that killed my deputy?"
Emmett stepped forward. "Betty got him."
The Sheriff nodded, some of his anger dissipating. "A snake gets eaten by a snake. Poetic justice, Emmett."
"More than you know. I think he killed Stan too."
The Sheriff reached out and gripped Emmett's shoulder. "We'll go find him."
In the aftermath, Brendan lost track of Emmett while he dealt with all the fallout and paperwork. Eventually, he left Freya settling into her room at the local hotel, but he felt too strung out to sleep. Instead, he changed into casual clothes consisting of a t-shirt and faded jeans before making his way towards a local bar, and was not surprised to see Emmett in a corner table, leaning heavily on the wooden top as he nursed a beer.
"Mind if I join you?"
Emmett looked up in surprise but indicated towards a vacant seat. Neither of them spoke for a long time, too caught up in memories of the day, and for Emmett, in the loss of people he cared about.
"How's the arm?" Emmett indicated towards Brendan's left arm, where the bandage was visible beneath the short sleeve of his t-shirt.
"Just a scratch. I've had worse." Brendan glanced at Emmett askance. "You know they might try again," he mentioned softly.
"I know." Emmett took a deep breath and sighed. "I was never in this for the money, or the accolades. I was in this to save the countless lives of snakebite victims lost from not having the right antivenin on hand."
"Like your sister," Brendan stated having read Emmett's file earlier that evening, finally understanding what drove Emmett in his research. He also learned about the Philadelphia incident, and how Emmett had been prepared to sacrifice his main research tool - Betty - to save lives.
Emmett glanced up and nodded. "Yeah. Like my sister."
An hour passed mostly in companionable silence until the bar owner announced the bar was closing. Brendan followed Emmett outside and they stood close in the dark shadows as the lights inside the bar turned off. Tomorrow he and Freya would head out, back to the city and the NSA main office where another terrorist case would be waiting for them. At this moment though, all he could think about was the man standing before him with hands buried deep into the pockets of his cargo pants.
Brendan leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss against Emmett's mouth, feeling the warm lips move under his fleetingly before Brendan pulled back. He relaxed when Emmett returned the kiss, savoring the taste and feel as arms slid around him, drawing him closer, but knew this was all he would have of this man tonight. The day was still too raw in both of their minds, and Brendan knew Emmett was already carrying too heavy a burden from losing two friends - Rowins and Carpenter - to want to add guilt to the mix.
"If you're ever in New York, look me up."
Emmett nodded, his crooked mouth curving up in a soft smile. "I think I will."
Four Months Later:
Emmett hadn't been to New York in years, not since the last time he had needed to find someone willing to help fund his research, ending up as a performer for the usual circus of conferences and lectures. His appearances had brought him to the attention of one of the pharmaceutical companies looking for exclusivity should he accomplish his goal and produce a universal antivenin.
He wasn't there yet but he was close enough to offer them something that could counteract the venom from several dangerous species in Central America. Once the human trials were completed, and if successful, his antivenin would replace five other products currently on the market, making it a cheaper alternative for some of the small local clinics in the area. His sister had died because they couldn't identify the snake that bit her, and even if they had, the likelihood of them having that particular antivenin on hand was remote. Most antivenin were expensive and went out of date quickly so stocks were kept very low. This particular antivenin on trial could have saved his sister's life had it been available at the time.
Since the attack on his laboratory, and the murder of Jeff and Stan, Emmett had made his research more accessible, inviting other biochemists and herpetologists to study his progress. The pharmaceutical company already owned a share of the patent for the trial drug so they were less resistant to the idea than Emmett had expected - as long as they could have a say in who saw the research.
It made Emmett and his research less valuable to a competing manufacturer, and certainly not worth risking lives and reputations over.
However, it wasn't his research that had brought him to New York in late-November.
Since the incident, he had kept in touch with Brendan Dean. First it was out of necessity, to write statements and to help the NSA and FBI investigate Taylor Ross to see if they could find any clues to lead back to his client. The FBI made a few inroads, and several arrests but, finally, they decided to close the case. Even though Brendan had handed over the investigation to the FBI, as commercial espionage did not come under his purview, he and Emmett had continued to exchange weekly calls.
Those calls had stopped being about the case some time ago.
As he glanced out the cab window, grateful for the car's heater to keep him warm, he remembered their call during the week....
"Agent Brendan Dean."
"Hey Emmett." Brendan's voice dropped, becoming soft, and Emmett could hear the pleasure in his tone. "How's Betty?"
"She's doing fine. How's Freya?"
They always seemed to start their calls the same way.
"She's wondering when you're going to pay us a visit here in the city."
"About that..." He felt nervous. "I was thinking of flying in this week, and I hoped I might get to see you."
So here he was three days later, looking out of the window as the cab made its way through the Holland Tunnel into lower Manhattan. The city was busy with yellow cabs everywhere but eventually it pulled to the curb outside a plain apartment building in Greenwich Village. Emmett paid the driver and carried his single carry-on bag towards the entrance. He spotted Brendan's name on one of the buzzers and pressed it.
"Come on in!"
The door buzzed open with an audible click of the releasing lock, and Emmett made his way inside, smiling when Brendan bounded down the flights of stairs to greet him. They walked up the three flights together to a surprisingly spacious and comfortable apartment that looked well lived in. It was a typical bachelor apartment with very few feminine touches, and Emmett suspected those had come from some of the women in Brendan's life - like Freya and Brendan's mother, or perhaps the occasional girlfriend as Brendan had never denied his bisexuality. It was part of what made him more interesting to Emmett, knowing they both enjoyed the company of either sex but preferred their own gender.
Brendan started to set up the pull-out bed as Emmett set down his bag, and Emmett decided to take his courage in his hands.
"Are we going to need that?" He asked softly.
The way Brendan's eyes darkened immediately was all the answer Emmett needed, and moments later they had moved into each other's arms, mouths meeting hungrily in a kiss. It really shouldn't have been this easy but they'd spent months talking to each other over the phone, gradually getting to know each other, and Emmett still recalled that first and last kiss so clearly. This time Brendan tasted of coffee rather than beer, but beneath that was something else that his senses craved, that sent his body tingling with pleasure.
They pulled back slowly, foreheads resting together and breath mingling.
"That's quite some welcome, Bren."
"Oh, I think I can do even better than that," Brendan murmured, voice husky with desire. He grabbed Emmett's hand and led him through the apartment to the bedroom.
Once there, Brendan waited. He'd made it clear to Emmett what he wanted but now he was giving Emmett the chance to say yes or no. Emmett answered by stepping back and kicking off his shoes before shrugging out of his jacket. He smiled when Brendan flashed a grin before stripping off his t-shirt, revealing a firm chest covered in dark, curly hair. The hair looked so soft and Emmett couldn't resist reaching out to touch it, letting the dark curls slip through his fingers as they slid across the lean, strong chest. He could tell Brendan worked out regularly, seeing the definition of muscle all the way down to his jeans. Emmett wasn't quite as energetic, but he knew his field work kept him in reasonably good shape.
Pulling back, he stripped off his own t-shirt, sighing with pleasure when Brendan reached out to touch him in return, feeling hands stroking up and down his sides until fingers tightened at his waist to draw him in. They sank into another kiss, deeper and more wanton this time, with neither of them holding back from expressing what they wanted with mouth and tongue.
Brendan's deft fingers made short work of Emmett's cargo pants, and he groaned as both of Brendan's hands slipped down to grab his ass, kneading at the flesh before grabbing the edge of pants and boxers to push them down. Emmett felt his pants drop to his ankles, followed by his boxers, arching into the hands that were now freely running over bared flesh.
Sharp teeth nipped at his lower lip, and a sense of falling came to an abrupt halt as he felt the firm mattress beneath him. Brendan stood over him, watching him intently until Emmett was caught by his gaze. His eyes lowered, and Emmett followed, eyes moving down Brendan's chest and abdomen to watch those clever fingers pull open his jeans and shove them down. Emmett wondered if it should be so hot that Brendan had nothing on underneath - no boxers or socks. Instead, he stood before Emmett, letting Emmett take a long hard look at everything he had to offer, as if giving Emmett one final chance to walk away.
It wasn't going to happen. He wanted this so badly now that his hand was shaking as he reached out to Brendan.
When Brendan grabbed his hand, Emmett dragged him onto the bed on top of him, gasping at the heat of flesh on flesh, feeling his whole body arch to get closer, legs half-wrapping around Brendan to hold him. Teeth grazed at his throat and Emmett ran his fingers behind one elfin ear through the dark messy hair, gripping a little harder to force Brendan to pull back slightly so Emmett could crush their mouths together once more.
He could feel Brendan rocking on top of him, hips jerking as their cocks aligned, grinding against each other's belly as the sensations sparked through him, and he was coming hard. With a few more hard jerks, he felt Brendan tense, back arching as he sucked in a harsh breath and let it out slowly, raggedly as he slumped down on top of Emmett.
Their hearts were racing, bodies crushed together from Brendan's boneless weight, and as much as Emmett loved the feel of his slick body covering him, he needed to breathe. He shoved at Brendan gently, urging him to slide to his side, one arm and leg still casually thrown across Emmett's heavily panting body.
"Fuck, that was good," Brendan murmured, voice muffled against Emmett's throat, and Emmett began to laugh softly.
It was good. In fact it hadn't been this good for a long, long time.
Somehow he managed to tilt Brendan's face so he could kiss him again, though this time the intensity of lust was gone, but it was no less passionate.
They stayed in bed for the rest of the day, only getting up to eat or clean up, enjoying the intimacy as they talked of inconsequential matters as well as revealing small moments of their lives to each other.
"I could get used to this."
Emmett stretched out, enjoying the pleasant ache of his sated body as they slid apart for the second time that evening. He hadn't had this much sex in such a short space of time since Monica, but she could never give him the pleasure of another man's cock driving hard into him. He felt the pleasant burn as he wiggled his ass, feeling the loss even as his senses still thrummed with pleasure. He grinned as he glanced over to watch Brendan dispose of the used condom, finding it amusing that they had fought for the chance to bottom rather than top. Usually, it seemed that it was the other way around. He reached out and stroked Brendan's firm ass.
"I want this next time," and gained no argument but a happy grin from Brendan.
"It's all yours."
Two Days Later:
Brendan stared across the check-in area as he watched Emmett talk to the airline representative. Having dealt with the practicalities and gained his boarding pass, Emmett walked back to Brendan and together they headed towards the security checkpoint. A flash of his I.D. gained Brendan immediate access and he waited for Emmett to come through behind him. By silent agreement, they walked towards one of several coffee shops in the departures area. It was crowded but they managed to find a small table for two in a far corner.
Reaching across the table, Brendan took Emmett's hand and rubbed his thumb over the knuckles.
He smiled at his memories of the past few days. They'd barely left his apartment the whole time Emmett was in New York, except for a stroll around the interesting parts of Greenwich Village. He looked into blue eyes, seeing the striations of gray and blue that were etched into his mind with more than just visual memory but with every sense too. After just a few days, he knew this face and this body as well as his own and he ached to touch Emmett again in all those places even though they had spent most of the morning in bed together.
Sipping at their coffee, they talked and laughed softly, sharing moments from their pasts and plans for the future. Brendan cocked his head slightly and licked his lower lip nervously.
"I'm due some vacation time, and I was thinking it might be good to get out of the city for a while."
Emmett smiled shyly. "I've heard about this small town in West Virginia. Quiet, not a lot goes on there... usually, and there's this guy who has a great view of the valley from his balcony... and a big bed."
Brendan was smiling wide as he leaned in and kissed Emmett, groaning in dismay when he heard Emmett's flight called for the final time. He pulled back with a heavy sigh, pushing up from the table and accompanying Emmett to the departure gate. The other passengers were already filing through but Emmett waited almost until the last moment.
Giving in to the urge, Brendan kissed Emmett softly. "Call me as soon as you get back."
Emmett nodded and Brendan could see the reluctance to leave in his expressive eyes.
"Sir? You need to board now."
Emmett acknowledged the airline official with a quiet nod.
Brendan waved when Emmett looked back one final time before passing through the boarding gate, waiting until the plane had taken off before heading back home. It took a while to negotiate the early evening commuter traffic but he was used to it. When he reached home he noticed the green light flicking on his answering machine and hit the play button.
"Only got a minute before they want all cells switched off." It was Emmett. "Is it crazy to say I'm missing you already?" In the background Brendan heard the plane announcement to switch off all mobile devices. "Got to go. I'll call you when I get back to Elkins." There was an almost uncomfortable moment of silence before Emmett spoke again where Brendan could imagine Emmett holding back words that were too sentimental to be said in public and perhaps too soon in their new relationship, even though Brendan felt the same way. "See you soon, I hope."
Brendan sat by the phone for a long time, hearing Emmett's voice while his memory replayed some of those amazing moments from this weekend, capturing Emmett's smile and the light sparkling in his eyes. Lifting the phone, he called his boss, not surprised when he answered.
"If there's nothing major coming up, I'd like to take a week's vacation."
The other end remained silent for a moment. "Well. Those are words I've been trying to get you to say for months, Dean. Take a week. Better yet, take two weeks."
Dialing another number, he smiled when Freya picked up.
"Freya? I'm.... taking a two week vacation... to Elkins."
"About time!" He could hear the smile in her voice. "And that just happens to coincide with my own plans to head upstate and work on some... issues with Michael."
He laughed softly, well aware that he didn't need to read minds to know his partner had a crush on Dr. Welles. They had both worked nonstop for the past eight months and deserved a break. They talked a while longer, promising to keep in touch over the new two weeks. Brendan had one more call to make, and he contacted the airline to book his flight.
When the phone rang later, Brendan was already packed and ready to head back to the airport. He picked it up, smiling when he heard Emmett's voice.
"This place is lonely without you. Which is crazy seeing's how you've never even been here."
"How about I fix that?"
"This evening too soon?"
The silence worried him for a moment as he wondered if he had misread this thing between them.
"Still not soon enough." And the warmth and pleasure in Emmett's voice was all the reassurance he needed as he gave Emmett the flight details and ended the call.
Brendan wasn't sure where this thing between them was headed, or if it could even stand the weeks, possibly months when they would be apart due to their respective career choices. But for now, he was more than willing to take a chance on them.
Locking up his apartment, he headed out to see what the future might hold for him and Emmett.