Rope Enough


by Brandgwen


AN: Inspired by the challenge put forward by Michelle Naylor. Background is gleaned from a number of ATF fics, in particular "How DID He Get That Car?", by Mog and "Your True Family", by Ruby. Thanks to to everyone who helped me with the background information.

Bathed in Moonlight

COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY - FORT COLLINS, CO.

The last lecture for the day was Introduction to International Politics. A dry subject at best, but, when conducted from seven to nine in the evening, it was all but unbearable. The students were more than grateful when it came time to file out of the theatre. This was their cue to move briskly through the cool April night, to their cars or the nearby bus stop, then on to their warm, comfortable homes. Tonight that was not to be.

Creak, creak. The noise was subtle; maybe one of the trees moving in the stiff breeze. Nothing to alarm, but enough to attract attention. Enough to cause the odd person to glance in its direction. It was the sight that met such a glance that caused the stir. Bathed in moonlight, his head covered by a white plastic shopping bag, a man swung. He was suspended by the neck, from the bough of the tall tree beside the social sciences building.

*****

Bailey Malone and John Grant strode purposefully through the noisy mass of onlookers. The area around the crime scene had been cordoned off the night before, when the local police had first arrived. Although the body had been cut down long before dawn, nothing attracted a crowd like police tape. Malone scanned the area, seeking the person in charge. Finally, a short, stocky man in a white shirt and tie spotted the two and approached.

"You the FBI?" he asked, louder that Malone would have liked. Several of the spectators turned their attention that way.

"Yeah. Agent Bailey Malone, Agent John Grant. You the guy in charge?"

The man nodded, but his expression betrayed how relieved he was to relinquish the duty. "We've been here most the night, taking statements, dealing with the crime scene. We thought we'd best remove the deceased before people started arriving for this morning's classes. No need to create more of a situation than we already got."

Malone nodded. Three bodies had been found in or around the university campus in the past two months, each a few weeks apart. Each had been struck unconscious on the head, then hanged by the neck, their hands tied behind their backs and their heads covered. This was the fourth and what had begun with morbid fascination and slight unrest, was quickly turning into public panic. No one needed another reminder of their own mortality.

"I assume you got crime scene photographs, bagged any evidence?" Grant was never one to trust the locals. He preferred to know who had done what, so he knew it had been done right.

"Oh, sure. We're getting pretty good at this, now. It was dark, of course, so we kept the scene in as good a condition as we could, just in case we missed something."

"And who found the body?"

"There were around twenty of `em, just got out of a lecture. We got statements all 'round, before we sent `em home."

"Okay," Bailey was ready to take over, "we'll get some of our guys to go over the scene, again. John, here will review the statements. Where's the body?"

"Local morgue, in the hospital."

"Right, we'll send our pathologist down there to have a look. I'm going to take our profiler through the scene and any existing evidence - see what she has to say."

The local detective smiled and nodded. Things were going to be done and he didn't have to do it.

*****

Sitting in the office Bailey had been allocated, John leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. Between the politics students, the lecturers and the cleaning staff, there had to have been at least thirty statements taken the night before. He had to admit, the locals had be thorough. Unfortunately, he was yet to find anything useful in any of them. Business as usual, until a man turned up dead in a tree.

John picked up the last remaining papers. Deftly, he skimmed the text, certain that if what he was looking for was there, he would pick it up. He was half way through the statement when he saw it; a man leaving the building around eight thirty. Possibly a junior lecturer or an older student, he had light brown hair, height around 5'8", build medium to slight. He had walked the path right past the corpse and glanced into the tree, before walking on. The cleaner who had observed him had thought the man saw something, but he had reacted with neither surprise nor horror. He had just continued on his way.

John hurriedly flicked through the remaining statements - nothing from a professor, nor student, fitting the description. "Hey," Grant accosted the nearest officer, "where is the statement from the guy mentioned here?"

The officer looked over the statement. "We couldn't identify him. Thought we'd ask someone from the faculty, this morning."

"So let's go."

*****

Sam and Bailey stood just outside the tape that cordoned off the crime scene. Most of the crowd that had formed around the area had dispersed. Sam was glad to have escaped the sets of eyes. She had never worked out why people found the place where a death had occurred so fascinating. She found it disturbing, even after all this time. However, if you wanted to see justice done, some things had to be dealt with.

"From the position of the body, we're guessing the guy climbed out of a window of the history building, into the tree, dragging the body with him. Not an easy task," Bailey wondered how anyone could do that, without falling to their own death.

There was a silence before Sam began. "The bodies were found in very conspicuous places. Whoever did this has no interest in hiding his crimes."

Bailey raised an eyebrow. "So he wants to get caught?"

"No," she frowned, "not get caught. He goes to great lengths to ensure he isn't disturbed in the act. He moves under the cover of night and disposes with the body almost before the victim is missed," Sam paused, trying to articulate the vague abstract feeling she got from the scene, "but there's no shame, no remorse. The way the face is covered, its as if the victim is no longer a person. If the victim is not a person, the killer is not a murderer and there's no reason to disguise the deed."

"Interesting rationale. So what are we looking at, here?"

"The usual. White male, twenties, thirties. Reasonably strong, considering he carried the victims as a dead weight, and lifted them up to a height from which he could hang them. I want to talk to Grace, see what the bodies tell us, before I go any further with the profile."

"How about you go to the hospital, I go check on John."

*****

A Material Witness

Grant began his search with the history faculty office. According to the secretary, only one person fitting the description had remained in the building after she had left. He was a postgraduate student, completing his PhD in American history. She had not known him long, as he had transferred into the school only a few months before. He had asked her how long the building would remain open, she had said until nine. The secretary had to think a moment to remember his name... Stevens. Elliot Stevens.

Stevens' supervisor, Dr. Cusack, had granted his eager student access to his office that night. There was a collection of journals, not available in the library, but which the supervisor purchased, to which Stevens needed access for his project. Cusack had rung his office a little after seven, to see how Elliot progressed. The `phone went unanswered - Stevens had left, an hour and a half before he was seen exiting the building.

Stevens seemed at ease, sitting in the police interview room. He readily admitted to being in the building that night, but, when questioned on the timing, had refused to comment. Instead, he gave John a card with a telephone number on it and requested a call be placed.

"I really don't see what the problem is. You were in the building. We know that, you were seen. So what were you doing between seven and eight thirty?"

"Regrettably, Agent Grant, I am not in a position to answer your query. If you would contact the number I supplied, perhaps some progress might be made."

John ignored this. "Alright, so you're not going to answer that one. How about this? When you left the building, you looked up into the nearby tree. What did you see?"

The student gave a half-smile. He could play Grant's games. "A dead man, hanging by his neck."

The agent frowned. "You admit you saw that? So, why didn't you report it?"

"The telephone number, Agent Grant."

"You're not under arrest, Mr. Stevens. We don't have to allow you a `phone call, we don't have to get you a lawyer," John was losing his temper and the unshakeable serenity of the suspect was doing little for his blood pressure.

"I recommend you place the call, in any case. I am unable to answer any questions, otherwise," Stevens seemed quite prepared to sit out his holding time in complete silence.

"You know you're acting like someone with something to hide. If I were a betting man, I'd say you spent that hour and a half climbing out the window of the history building with a rope. I'd say you were stringing a man up," John kept tight control of his voice, but his anger was evident, none the less.

"I am a betting man, Agent Grant, and I'd say you're unlikely to generate solutions by throwing around ludicrous accusations."

Grant left the room, before he did something he would regret. It was fortunate he did, because, as he leant against the wall outside the interview room, Malone appeared at the end of the corridor.

"How's it goin', John?" Bailey had already read the answer in his subordinate's face.

"We got a PhD student in there. Cocky little bastard. Seen leaving the social sciences building `round eight thirty and he has a hole in his alibi a mile wide."

"Great, so what's the problem?"

"It's not enough to hold him and he's lawyering up."

"Let me have a go at him," Bailey gave John a grin and opened the door to the interview room. He took one look at the inhabitant and swore. "Shit. Standish. Why am I not surprised?"

*****

The number Ezra had supplied was a direct line to Chris Larabee's mobile. The agent had set up a base of operations in a hotel a few miles from the uni. Within half an hour the head of the ATF's infamous Team 7 sat across from Bailey Malone, mad as hell.

"You're detaining my agent why?"

"We're conducting a serial murder investigation, Agent Larabee. We were unaware of any on-going case being undertaken by your team."

"A Denver arms racket is importing hardware from the north. They've been storing them outside of city limits, until they can sell. We have information suggesting they are storing them at the university, so we need to identify their contacts."

"Do you have any other agents in the field?"

"One. He's working as a lab assistant in the biochem. building."

"Can you make do with him?"

Larabee was surprised, but kept his expression neutral. "Why should we have to? If Standish is a material witness, he'll testify. It's his job. Until then, we return him to his undercover position."

"Standish is our prime suspect."

*****

The body, lying supine on the slab, appeared all but unharmed. The neck, of course, had been broken, but Grace had aligned the head, such that that was not obvious. The blow to the head had come from behind. It had been quite vicious, fracturing the parietal bone, high and to the right. A haematoma had begun to form, putting pressure on the brain - had the man not otherwise died, the blow might have killed on its own. Faint marks marred the wrists, where they had been bound with thin cord.

"There are no signs of struggle. The killer either snuck up behind the victim, or the victim knew the killer well enough to turn his back on him. Once the blow to the head had been struck, there was no chance of the victim waking up," Grace gazed down at the body. It was rare for her to work with such a healthy looking specimen. Usually, the people she autopsied had been mutilated, or made to suffer in some way. The only violence this man had ever faced had occurred in the last half hour of his life.

"What was he struck with?"

"Blunt instrument, same as the others."

"Baseball bat, maybe?"

Grace thought a moment, then shook her head, "Smooth like a baseball bat, but thinner."

Sam nodded, then paused, picking another angle. "So, really, there was no reason for the hands to be bound or the face covered?" Sam found these acts unsettling. They were the only aspects of the crime that were not absolutely necessary. These actions meant something to the killer.

"No and that is consistent throughout the killings. Other than the cause of death, very little else is consistent. The victims are all Caucasian males, aged eighteen to forty-five. Their heights range from 6'1" to 5'5", their builds from moderate to overweight."

"That description encompasses a majority of the university. Excluding, of course, the female population."

"Yep. Sorry I couldn't be of more help."

*****

What You See

Bailey had to admire the man who paced before him. The instant Larabee had realised the gravity of his agent's situation, he had reacted. The first thing he did was call the office on his mobile.

"Hey, Vin, its me. We've got situation, down here... Yeah, I want Buck to contact Nathan. Tell him we may have to take down the whole racket from his end... I know, Ez was closer, but we have to make do... Okay, I want the rest over here, now... I don't care, drop everything... Alright, half an hour? See ya."

Bailey smiled a tight, wary smile. "I don't recall requesting assistance."

"We need Standish in the field, ASAP. The sooner he's cleared, the better."

"Fine. Shall we go have a chat, then?"

Larabee followed Malone down the corridor to the interview room where Ezra was being held. The undercover sat, calm and silent, waiting for his boss.

"Agents Larabee, Malone," he acknowledged their arrival, but did not smile. The truth of the matter was, Standish found the idea of these two men being together in the same room unnerving. He had known Bailey during his time with the FBI, even worked with him on occasion. He had always thought the older agent to be honest and fair - the type who would defend his own men to the hilt. Malone had been one of the first to condemn Standish when accusations of misconduct had begun to circulate.

"So, do you feel like answering those questions, now?" Malone didn't care if he did or not. He would get the information out the agent, regardless of how cooperative he decided to be.

"Where would you like me to begin?"

"How about around seven o'clock last night?"

Standish glanced at Larabee. The nod he received was almost imperceptible, but Bailey did not miss it. "Seven o'clock? Well, I had previously acquired information suggesting one of the members of the faculty staff was involved in the warehousing of illegal firearms."

"Where did you get this information?"

Again, Standish looked to his boss for permission. Larabee gave it. "One of my fellow agents is working undercover in the biomedical sciences faculty. He had overheard a conversation in which the liberal arts faculty was mentioned, however, no names were given. I remained in the building after hours, with the intention of searching the private offices."

"Wouldn't that evidence be inadmissible?"

"Yes, but the intention was to find a lead, not prove any connection. The question of admissibility was never to come up."

Malone shook his head. With Standish, an act was only wrong if you were caught.

"It took me a little over an hour, I suppose, to go through all the rooms," Ezra continued.

"Find anything?" this time it was Larabee who interrupted.

"Nothing directly incriminating. However, Booker, a geography professor, did have a list of Denver telephone numbers noted down, that seemed somewhat familiar to me."

"Worth looking at," Larabee agreed.

"Alright, so that places you in the building during the time the murder would have taken place," Bailey returned the conversation to his own investigation, "yet you saw nothing, heard nothing?"

"The staff offices are all located on the fifth floor. I restricted my movements to that area."

A humourless smile flashed across Malone's face. "How can we know that?"

"You can't. The question is, can you prove otherwise?"

Larabee frowned. The last thing he needed was for Standish to get defensive, yet Malone seemed intent upon provoking him. "Unless you have any other questions, I think that's enough."

"Just a few more," Malone's gaze never left the former FBI agent, "you told Agent Grant that you saw the body in the tree, but wouldn't say why you didn't report it."

"I was working undercover. I knew there was a lecture finishing in half an hour and the students leaving that class would report the crime. I saw no reason to call attention to the fact I had remained in the building longer than I should have."

"Uh huh. When you looked in the tree, you must have been shocked. Yet, the man who saw you do it said you didn't even look surprised."

Standish actually smiled. "Well, you know me, Agent Malone. What you see is rarely what you get."

*****

The Mutual Admiration Society

Sam entered the police station and wandered through to Bailey's office. Finding no one there, she checked around the coffee room and filing area, until finally she thought to check the interview rooms. The first thing she noticed when she entered the corridor was John Grant standing, back to the wall, staring down three unusual looking men. She stood there a moment, waiting to be acknowledged, but found herself completely ignored.

"John? Care to introduce me?"

Grant's head snapped around and he looked at the psychologist, as if registering her presence for the first time. "Sam, hi."

"Hi, John..." she waited, again, to be introduced, but seeing it would not be forthcoming, did it herself. "Hello, I'm Samantha Waters."

This caught the attention of one of the three. "Samantha Waters? Not Doctor Samantha Waters, forensic psychologist and profiler?"

"Ah... yes, actually," she extended her hand to the giant of a man who had addressed her, "and you are...?"

"Right, sorry. Sanchez, Josiah Sanchez. Its just that I've heard so much about you. I really admired your work on post-traumatic stress syndrome."

"Thank you, thank you so much," Sam couldn't help but blush, "so, you work in the field, then."

Josiah shook his head. "No, I'm an anthropologist, actually."

"I remember, you're with the ATF, right? The anthropologist profiler. Wow. So, what are you doing, here?"

"They're friends of the suspect," John decided it was time to break up the meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society.

Surprise flashed clearly across the doctor's face. "We have a suspect? I haven't even given Bailey my profile, yet."

"Looks like you might not have to. Old fashioned police work might have taken care of this one."

One of Josiah's companions scowled at this remark. "Or maybe half-arsed police work has lead you to the wrong man."

Josiah half smiled, then remembered his manners. "Sorry, Dr Waters..."

"Call me Sam."

"Okay, Sam," Josiah's grin made him look even more like an overgrown teddy bear, "these two are co-workers of mine. Vin Tanner," he indicated the man who had spoken, "and JD Dunne."

At this moment, the door to the interview room swung open. Malone and Larabee both emerged, leaving a restless Standish in side. They closed the door behind them.

"He had means and opportunity," Malone began. He knew full well he was in for a fight, if he wanted to detain this man. "He'd be more than capable of carrying the victim up the stairs and into the tree and he was in the building."

"Maybe, but where's your motive? Why would anyone, let alone one of my team, turn up at a uni and, within a month of arriving, suddenly start killing people?"

Sam cut in, "Actually, there could be any number of reasons. It's possible for a person to carry the propensity to kill for many years, but not act upon it until triggered. A new situation could certainly provide such a trigger."

Vin spoke up, before his boss had a chance to express his opinion on that. "Chris, this is Dr Samantha Waters, profiler. Dr Waters, Agent Chris Larabee."

Chris scowled, then nodded to Sam. She was a profiler, just doing her job. He would have to wear it. Turning to his men, he spoke, "Okay, here's the deal. We're not officially on this case. We will, however, be keeping an eye on Ez."

The three nodded: they were on the case, they just weren't allowed to tell anybody.

"John, keep an eye on the suspect, while we have a word with Sam," Malone began to lead the profiler toward the office. Chris threw a glance at Tanner. The sharpshooter nodded and followed Grant into the interview room. The remaining ATF agents joined Malone.

*****

"The crime seems very impersonal. I don't think the killer derives his satisfaction from the act, itself, but, somehow, from the outcome. The victims are hit on the head and are dead long before they have the opportunity to regain consciousness. There's no evidence of torture..." Sam paused. There was something tugging at the back of her mind.

"So it has a clinical feel?" Josiah decided he might as well be of use.

"Not clinical, exactly, but the killer has an almost Spartan approach."

"An execution?"

Some of the pieces clicked together. "Yes, an execution. That would explain the hands being tied and the hood. It's as if the killer is re-enacting a death by hanging."

"Death by hanging? It must have been a fair while ago, no one does hangings, anymore," Bailey hoped they wouldn't end up researching every case of capital punishment for the last twenty years.

"Actually, some states do," it was the first time the youngest of the ATF agents had spoken, intimidated by the FBIs as he was, "but only at the request of the inmate. Montana and Washington, I think."

Larabee had no interest in any of this. He had his own case to worry about. "So how does this tie in with Standish?"

"It should be easy enough to rule him out. Serial killers tend to have a fairly distinctive profile," Sam noticed Josiah cringe.

"Such as?" Larabee prodded.

It was Sanchez who filled his boss in. "They tend to be loners. Highly intelligent and resourceful, but somehow out of sync with their peers. They often have unhappy childhoods. Maybe an over-dominating parent."

"Except for the over-dominating parent bit - there's not real evidence for that, here - I would say that was a pretty fair description," Sam wondered why this came as such bad news.

"I think, Sam," Bailey explained, "we've just been given a fairly accurate description of Ezra Standish."

*****

A Level of Proficiency

Grant sat across from Standish, a wicked smile on his face. Standish's gaze wandered toward the door, where Vin Tanner had positioned himself, and then back to his captor. They could well be in for a long night.

"So, you're the infamous Standish. I've heard a lot about you."

The undercover did not move - he barely even drew breath - and his face remained an impassive mask.

"You know what I've heard? I've heard that you were passing information to a narcotics dealer. The name Lagraven ring any bells?"

Again, no response. This is one cold bastard.

"Hear you drive a real pretty car. That's what people say, anyway. You know what else they say?" John leaned forward, toward Standish, "They say your information got some good agents killed."

Standish raised an eyebrow. "They also say Elvis is alive and living in Florida."

John almost smiled. The man was undoubtedly slick, but he had been unable to let that comment go. John glanced at Tanner. He had not moved a muscle during the whole exchange, but the FBI agent got the impression that, one false move and he would be facing one very angry watch-dog. Damned ATF. Assuming, of course, they're not serial killers, they're my kind of people.

The door opened and the two profilers entered. Josiah grinned at the suspect, then turned to Vin. He kept his voice low, "Chris wants to talk to you. Looks like we might be on this a while." Vin nodded and left. John took the hint and followed.

"Ezra, this is Doctor Sam Waters. She's a profiler."

Ezra stood and extended his hand, along with is most endearing smile. He did, however, refrain from outright flirtation. This woman's impressions would dictate the amount of trouble he really faced. He judged her too astute to fall for petty charm tactics.

"Agent Standish, please, sit. I've just got a few questions for you. After that, you're free to go."

"I'm free to go, now. I've not been arrested," Ezra made sure she knew he was cooperating of his own volition.

They spoke for almost an hour, before Sam opened a folder of notes she had placed on the table. Ezra recognised his FBI record and suddenly wished Josiah would leave.

"I only have your FBI papers, here, but, from what I can see, you're very good at your job."

"Working undercover, one has no option but to develop a level of proficiency."

"Proficiency doesn't explain this good a record, but you also have a number of reprimands against you. Why is that?"

"Ability to do one's job and ability to put up with bureaucracy are traits with little in common." Ezra knew where this was going.

"But any law enforcement agency is, by nature, a hierarchical organisation. Why the problem with authority figures?"

"I don't have a problem with authority. I have a problem with ineptitude. I have generally found that my superiors believe they know how to do my job, even though they have never undertaken so much as a day's undercover work. They are incorrect."

Josiah glanced down the list of reprimands his friend had accumulated during his relatively short career with the FBI. He whistled. "Quite a list. I've known you a while, now, and I've never seen you act like this."

Standish shrugged. "Agent Larabee has undertaken more than a day's undercover work and he rarely tells me how to do my job."

Sam noticed a change in the agent's manner, while speaking of his boss. "You seem to have a lot of respect for Agent Larabee."

"He's an excellent detective and a skilled leader. Additionally, he has given me several opportunities to prove myself, even though I probably didn't deserve one."

Sam nodded and closed the file. Rising, she offered her hand to the man before her. "Thank you, Agent Standish. We appreciate your cooperation. That will be all, for now."

He shook her hand, accepting the dismissal. He was glad to get out of there.

*****

I Know That Guy

The database information took a good two minutes to spill out across the computer screen. Listed were all inmates condemned to death in the US in the last fifty years. JD tapped on a few keys, narrowing down the list such that only those who already executed remained. Better. Finally, he selected white males who had been hanged. Fifteen, most of them early in the time frame.

The names listed then had to be cross-referenced with police records. This was not an easy task; the executions had been conducted in five different states. The initial arrest reports were filed according to the place of arrest and the legal files were all sealed for confidentiality. Tired, but persistent, JD hacked his way through each barrier.

This would be so much easier if I knew what I was looking for.

Bit by bit, JD built up information stores on each of the criminals. He found physical descriptions and mug shots, as well as details of their immediate family and known associates. He followed the paper trail each had left, from their various arrests right through to their autopsy and burial. Tales of men doing terrible things and being punished for them in terrible ways. A lot for a kid to deal with in one night but JD persevered.

It was hours before JD reached the last name. Alexander Sutter, born 1938, died 1975, in Montana. Exhausted, he read the arrest report and the physical description - 6'1", medium build, brown hair, etc... JD chuckled, give him a moustache and a sneaky grin and I know that guy. Casually, as he called up the prison files, he wondered what Buck was up to. No good, no doubt.

Finally, the postmortem report downloaded onto the screen. What he read made JD's stomach turn. The body displayed bruising around the neck and wrists. The eyes were red and bulging and the lips blue. The man had bitten right through his tongue. The cause of death was asphyxiation. The drop had been insufficient to break the man's neck. He had strangled to death and it had taken ten minutes.

*****

Grace carefully closed the abdominal incision, using temporary sutures. She would finish the job, properly, once she had completed the postmortem. Apart from what had been superficially evident, nothing had been amiss, so far. The victim had actually been quite fit. All she had left to do was examine the internal structures of the neck.

The line left by the rope extended from under the chin, just above the adam's apple, to just below the hair line; consistent with a hanging. The hyoid bone, which formed the adam's apple, was fractured and the cartilage of the trachea crushed. The oesophagus and blood vessels also showed signs of severe bruising. All to be expected. Finally, Grace looked at the spine. Working her way up from the fourth vertebra, she searched for any signs of trauma, finding none, until she reached the second vertebra.

"Well, what do we have here? Well, well, son-of-a-bitch."

*****

Malone, Grant and Waters sat in their borrowed office, eating Chinese take-away. Once Standish had been released, the ATF agents had gone off in their own little huddle, seeking instruction from their leader. The FBIs had left them to it.

"So you don't think he's our guy, huh?" Malone didn't sound too disappointed.

Sam finished her mouthful of noodles, before she answered. "I don't know. He fits the serial killer profile. A lot of people do, of course, but Standish has a very serious persecution complex. Even when Josiah questioned him, his answers were defensive."

"But...?" Bailey prodded.

"But these murders aren't his style. If Ezra were the killer, I would expect to see blood. It would be about the release of anger. He would never execute a helpless man; where's the rush? Besides which, loner though he is, he's desperate to gain acceptance from the team. He would see his actions as counter-productive and he would try to hide them."

"You know what?" John didn't bother finishing his mouthful, "I'm not sure I even buy this bribery thing."

"Really?" Malone had not realised John even knew about that.

"Yeah, I mean, when I was talking to him today, he kinda seemed to have a sore spot when it came to that. I was really having a go at him, but he never even bothered to defend himself, until I accused him of getting some agents killed."

"I think most people would react to that, John."

"Sure, but most people would have objected before it came to that. The man is the most cold-blooded individual I've ever met, but he couldn't let that one slide."

"I agree with John," Sam was surprised anyone would ever suspect the ATF agent of such a thing, "he defines himself according to his work. For Standish to take bribes, he would have to abandon all sense of self-worth. He's not that far gone."

Malone nodded. "You know, when Larabee and I were interviewing him, I kind of got that impression, too. Back when he was in the FBI, I worked with him once or twice. He was very good, but had a well-earned reputation as a maverick. I always figured he was just another rookie with a death-wish. Today, though, he really seemed to be playing it straight."

"I've got a feeling that has a lot to do with Larabee. Standish really seems to respect his command."

"Of course, if he weren't on the take, how'd he get the car?" Malone chuckled, remembering the first time the agent turned up to work in the Jag. Most people would have looked smug. Standish had looked embarrassed.

"What car?"

"The man drives a luxury car and wears Armani suits, all on an ATF pay-packet."

"That's how I know he wasn't on the take," John scoffed.

"Why's that?"

"Way too slippery. If he were into bribery, he be wearing no-brand jeans and driving a ten year old Toyota."

"Still, how does a man on a federal agent's salary get a Jag?"

"His mother."

None of the FBI agents had heard the young ATF approach the doorway, but there Tanner stood, a half smile on his face.

"How long have you been standing there?" Malone enquired, calmly.

"Pretty much the whole time."

John chuckled. "Want some Chinese?"

"Sure, thanks."

Van took a seat on the desk, next to John.

"So, Tanner, what's this about the car?"

"Don't tell him I told you this, but his mother bought it for him."

"His mother?"

"Well, actually, step-father number seven-or-eight. He owns a dealership. They nabbed Ezra's old car and sold it out from under him, so he had to take the Jag."

"He could'a' sold it and bought a less expensive one," Malone suggested, not sure how you could make a person who was given that kind of gift into a victim.

Tanner chuckled. "Have you seen the car? I'm not sure I would'a' sold it."

John grinned, then asked, "if you're not supposed to tell anybody, why tell us?"

"Its better than letting you think he's crooked, no matter what Ezra says."

JD wandered, bleary eyed, into the office. "Do I smell food?"

Sam chuckled and handed a small carton of chow mien to the young agent.

"Thanks, Dr Waters. Hey, Vin, where'd everyone go?"

"Josiah took Ezra home. He's got a long day, tomorrow, following up that Booker lead. Chris is picking Buck up from the hotel and they're gonna check on Nate."

"Kinda late to be going to the uni, don't ya think?"

"It's the only time they can go and not get noticed."

"Find anything, Kid?" Malone had been monitoring JD's progress through the police files.

"Maybe. I mean, there's a lotta stuff out there, but I don't know if its the right stuff."

They all nodded and returned their attention to the food. It was obvious that they were still pretty close to square one - something the ATF agents had always known, but which the FBI agents had hoped was not the case. They had wasted valuable time on Standish.

The hurried clacking of shoes on the linoleum could be heard long before Grace appeared.

"I've found something."

*****

Something Here to Find

It had not been difficult for Nathan to get permission to stay in the biochemistry building after hours. There had been an immunology practical class late that afternoon and no one wanted to clean up after it. Nate really didn't mind this kind of work. While he was happy with the career he had chosen, there were still times he thought of what might have been, so he enjoyed the opportunity to play scientist.

By the time Chris and Buck entered the lab, everything had been cleaned, straightened and readied for the next day. Nathan sat on one of the bench stools, waiting. He really wasn't sure what Chris wanted to do. There was no way they could find the gun traffickers that night - he had no leads, whatsoever.

"Hey, Nate, is it okay to come in?" Wilmington looked around the lab, as if expecting something to jump up and give him a terrible disease, any second.

"Just try not to lick anything and you should be fine," Nate knew his delivery was deadpan, but he was surprised as Buck apparently took the warning to heart.

"Hey, Nate, any luck?" Chris, on the other hand, walked into the lab as if he owned it.

"Nope, nothing. How's Ezra doin'?"

"Okay. Apparently he's not as homicidal as we first thought."

Jackson chuckled. "Always good to know. So, he'll be back, tomorrow?"

"Should be, but this whole operation is becoming a bit drawn out. We should have been back in Denver last week."

"I know. So what do we do?"

"Ezra found the `phone numbers of a few of our gun runners hidden in one of the history lecturer's offices. Booker, heard of him?" Nate shook his head, "Well, we're going to go through the offices, here, and see if there's a connection."

"You're sure its one of the staff? It could have been a student."

Larabee nodded. "True, but we have to start somewhere. This waiting around for evidence is not working."

Nathan doubted the comment was intended as a reprimand, but took it as such, anyway. Larabee was right, they had been at this case too long. If there was something here to find, they would find it, if it took all night.

*****

Grace took a few deep breaths, before explaining her find. She had been running around for an hour, now, and knew she would have to collect herself, to make herself understood. Carefully, she placed the textbook she had been carrying on the newly vacated desk and flicked to a dog-eared page.

With a huge grin, Grace announced, "The transverse ligament of the atlas was snapped!"

Blank stares greeted her, but the pathologist had expected this. She directed their attention to the textbook. "Alright, the first two vertebrae, closest to the skull, are very specialised. The first one, called the atlas, is the one that holds up the skull. It has a central hole, or foramen, so it's shaped like a ring. The second vertebra, the axis, has a lump, called the dens, which sticks up into the centre of the atlas. This way, the joint between the atlas and the axis can pivot, allowing us to shake our heads. The transverse ligament of the atlas goes across the foramen of the atlas, holding the dens in place."

By this time, John and Vin had stopped following. Bailey stood, watching, hoping that Sam would explain it to him, later. JD was enthralled. "So the transverse ligament was snapped? What's so strange about that? I've been reading autopsy reports on people executed by hanging all night. Nine out of ten of them said the ligament was snapped."

"Right, because that's what's supposed to happen. The ligament snaps and the joint dislocates, forcing the dens back into the spinal cord, resulting in death. However, regardless of what the reports say, its actually pretty rare. What usually happens is the whole dens snaps off. It results in pretty much the same injury, so no one worries about it."

"Except the killer," Sam was beginning to see where Grace was going, "the killer wanted the execution to be perfect. Completely by the book. Could it have been a chance thing?"

"I considered that, but then I reviewed the autopsies on the previous victims. The first actually died of strangulation - the fall had been insufficient to break the neck. Had he not already been unconscious, he would have had a very hard time of it. The second had complete dissociation of the bones - his fall had been too far. The third was your usual hanging, with the breaking of the dens. This one was perfect."

"So, he's getting better."

"I'd say he's got it. What's more, while each of the victims were of different height and build, they were all of a similar weight. The length of rope would have been the same for each," Grace noticed more questioning glances being thrown her way. "A certain amount of force is required to effectively break a person's neck. In a hanging, this force is produced by the subject's acceleration toward the ground. The length of rope needed to produce this force depends on the weight of the subject."

"The killer has been trying to work out how much is enough rope, for a given weight. He's practising, getting ready for the real murder. Would he know that he got it right?"

"Maybe. Its possible that he could tell by palpating the back of the neck."

"If he knows that he can do the perfect hanging, there might not have as much time before the next one as we thought."

"We had been counting on a few weeks," back to a topic he was familiar with, Bailey re-entered the conversation.

"I doubt he'll be able to wait that long. He's gone to so much trouble, already."

Something Grace had said nagged at JD's mind. "Um, when I was looking in the database, I found a record of a guy who didn't fall far enough. He strangled to death."

"How long ago," Sam's interest piqued.

"Over twenty years."

"That sort of thing could represent the initial trauma. Imagine your father, or brother was tried and convicted of some terrible crime. Then, as if that weren't enough, the execution goes wrong. Such a horror, placed on the background of an already emotional time..."

Bailey turned to the young ATF agent, "Do you think you could find some information on close relations, all that?"

"Done. He had two brothers, one currently in prison for manslaughter, and a son."

"Okay, Dunne, you get back to the computer and follow them up."

JD scooted off toward the computer room, newly inspired. Not only had he been of use in the investigation, he had been ahead of the FBI's game and Malone had referred to him as "Dunne", rather than "Kid". Not bad, considering he wasn't even officially on the case.

"We should look at the son, first. The younger the killer was at time, the more likely he would be to sustain permanent emotional damage," Sam's mind ticked over. A child who had witnesses his father's disgrace might still want to save him from it. Alternatively, he might be so embittered by the experience that any compassion he felt is overshadowed by hatred. But this child - man, now - seemed to be looking for neither an opportunity for redemption nor revenge. He wanted closure. He sought the resolution he had been robbed of, because of the botched execution. To that end, what would he be looking for, now?

The quietly spoken ATF looked up from his own musing. "So, if this guy is gonna try and kill his father, again, shouldn't we find out what his father looked like? I mean, the next victim would look like that, right?"

*****

A Swift, Well-Practised Movement

Buck was glad to get away from the labs. Rationally, he knew that, if those places were really that dangerous, they wouldn't let students near them. He also knew Nathan would run a tight ship, with no safety precaution neglected. Buck just disliked being around things he didn't know how to control. He didn't know the first thing about chemistry and suspected that, in a fight, the molecules would win.

The three agents split up to search the offices. Unlike Ezra, who had gone through the social science offices alone, Buck had only to look at a third of the offices. He still thought it was a pretty shitty job. Careful to cover his tracks, the ATF agent rifled through the personal belongings of the various lecturers and assistants. Dull was the only word to describe it. The bookshelves were lined with thick volumes bearing titles such as "Annual Review of Neuropharmacology" and "An Immunologist's Guide to Antibody Assays". Ordering forms littered the desks and posters adorned the walls, demonstrating "The Induction of Apoptosis by the TNF Ligand Superfamily". Buck smiled to himself. He didn't know what the posters were talking about and he didn't care. Thank God you don't need this crap to join the ATF.

A man stood in the shadows, watching the tall agent. He did not recognise Buck right away. Buck was not one of the regulars to the university, certainly not a regular to that time of night, but there he was, picking though the faculty staff rooms. Maybe he was a thief, looking for the marijuana the watcher knew was hidden in the graduate student's lounge. Then, after a few minutes of staring, a shadow passed across the watcher's gaze and settled over the thief's form. He saw, clearly, a figure from his past. A person who had ruined his childhood and made his adult life a confusion of fragmented memories and troubled dreams. At the same time, he saw the man who had held him, played with him. This person could make him believe everything was alright, everything would turn out for the best.

It had to end. The watcher knew that. This time, though, it would be done right. He smiled to think that, after all his work, there would finally be a conclusion.

*****

"Sutter, Michael, born 1969, son of Alexander and Lydia, in the state of Montana..." JD sent the document to the printer, before moving on to the next piece of information.

"That would make him around thirty years old - around the same age as many of the PhD students," Bailey suggested.

"I doubt he would have bothered with higher education," Sam shook her head, "he probably considers himself an outcast. Initially, he would have been ostracised because of his family history, then, later, because of his poor social skills. He would have rejected that kind of institution long ago."

"Says here he never graduated high school," JD sent Sutter's school record to the printer.

Bailey could feel time slipping away from them "Who is around the uni at night? Cleaners, certainly. The library staff, perhaps? Would he be using his own name, or an assumed one?"

"I've looked for uni employees named Sutter, already," JD didn't look up from the screen, but follow the conversation, closely, "nothing."

"He wouldn't have changed it when he began work at the uni. He may have earlier, to distance himself from his father, or if his mother remarried," Sam suggested.

"Okay, JD, look up the records for Montana, then Denver. See if Sutter is still Sutter, then cross-reference it with the uni records, again," Bailey wandered back to the office where Grant and Tanner poured over the father's police and prison records. "You two getting anywhere?"

"This guy was in for multiple rape and homicide. The sorta person we might have been looking at, if we'd been around back then. I guess this kinda thing runs in the family. Other than that, the only remarkable thing about him was the way he died. No help, at all," Grant pulled a frustrated face.

"Maybe we should go down to the uni, check things out," Tanner hated sitting in small rooms and loathed trying to read paperwork.

"And look for what? No, stay here and keep at it, until we have something to look for," something will turn up, Malone kept telling himself.

*****

Buck could feel someone watching him. He would never be able to pinpoint what it was that had alerted him - perhaps a noise too faint to register on a conscious level, but enough to arm his more basic defences. Still, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and a shiver ran down his spine. Slowly, the ATF agent turned from the bookshelves he had been inspecting to face the room. No one stood in the office, no one in the doorway. Buck had not expected them to show themselves. Cautiously, Buck pulled his gun from its holster and moved about the room.

The watcher should have known. This man, the one for whom he had waited so long, would sense his presence. He moved farther down the hall, where he awaited quarry. His hand grasped his truncheon a little tighter.

Buck moved out into the hall, his firearm at the ready. He looked left, then right. All of the doors in the corridor were closed, there was no one in sight. A movement caught Buck's eye. A security guard turned the corner and, spotting the intruder, unholstered his own gun.

"Hey, you! Drop your weapon!" the security guard demanded.

Buck raised his hands above his head, his gun hooked over his little finger. "It's alright, Buddy, I'm with the ATF," Buck made sure the guard knew he was cooperating. With all these murders hanging over the campus, security would be jumpy.

"Let's see some ID. Why wasn't I told that you guys would be here?"

Buck flashed his badge and shrugged. Because this is an illegal search, just didn't seem like a good response. "There's someone else in here. I was being watched while I searched this office, but whoever it was snuck out, before I could catch a look."

"No kidding. I didn't see anyone," the guard frowned.

"I guess he must have gone the other way," Buck turned and started down the corridor.

As he turned, the guard saw his chance. With a swift, well-practised movement, he brought his truncheon down upon his victim's skull.

*****

Fury and Frustration

"Michael Louis! He's a security guard at the university," JD bounded into the office, a colour printout of Mr Louis' university ID photo crumpled in his hand.

"This is Sutter's son?" Sam asked, looking into the eyes that stared out at her.

Grace glanced over her shoulder. "Oh, yeah, he could definitely carry an unconscious man into a tree."

Louis was 5"10" tall, his build muscular and stocky. The veins that protruded from his neck suggested he worked out a lot, but his hair style and clothing suggested a bookworm, rather than a gym-freak. Sam sighed, wondering if this man ever did anything other than plan and prepare for his day of reckoning.

"Come on, you two, time to do your thing," Bailey didn't even have time to finish the sentence before Grant and Tanner were out of the office and headed for the door.

"Finally," John commented on his way out.

*****

Chris was half way through his allotment of offices when he heard it; a howl borne of fury and frustration. The ATF agent would have thought it originated from an animal, but for the small tortured note of humanity that rang through the noise. He scrambled out into the corridor, where Nathan already stood, trying to discern the original sound from the echoes.

"I think it came from that way," Nathan indicated the east side of the building.

"Oh, Jesus, Buck!" the two sprinted through the building, in search of their third.

Mickey Louis stood over the fallen ATF agent and bellowed, the truncheon falling from his hand. Just as he had landed his blow, the prey had turned his head back toward his attacker. Unable to divert the course of the truncheon, Mickey had hit the man, not on the back of the head, but the side. All his research, all his trial runs had told him never hit them on the temple. He gazed at the prostrate form at his feet, blood oozing from a wound two inches back from the eye, and knew the man was dead.

The sound of footsteps, hard and fast on the linoleum tiles, alerted Mickey to the men soon to reach his position. Glancing around, he remembered a nearby office with a balcony outside its window and a tree down which Mickey could escape. Using the security keys, he slipped into the office and locked the door behind him.

*****

The four agents piled into one car, ATF in the back, John in the front and Bailey driving. Two cars worth of backup followed them.

"I don't suppose there's any chance of you staying here?" Tanner glanced at the agent beside him.

"Not a hope in hell," JD agreed, as he unholstered his well cared for gun and checked the bullets.

Tanner grimaced, then, seeing JD was done with this inspection, tossed him a mobile `phone. "Dial Chris for me, then, will ya?"

John looked over his seat as Tanner checked his own weaponry. It took him significantly longer than JD, due to the number of firearms he carried. It occurred to John that Vin had been carrying these guns all day. He had gone to the ATF office that morning, having no idea he would be called on to participate in any kind of confrontation, armed to the teeth.

Tanner glanced up at the FBI agent, down at the gun in his hand, then back to John. "You got a problem with these?"

"Who, me?" John asked, all innocence, "I've never met a gun I didn't like." He turned back to the front mumbling, "I just hope you're a good shot."

Before Vin could reply, JD cut in, "No answer. I've got the message bank."

Annoyed, Tanner took the mobile. He waited as Larabee's short introduction played through, then growled, "This is not a social call, Cowboy. Get back to me."

*****

"Buck? Buck are you okay?" Chris knelt beside the unconscious man, unsure of what to do.

Nathan moved to Buck's other side, frowning as he noted the head injury. He noted the man's shallow, but steady, breathing and checked his pulse. So far, so good. "Buck!" Nate gently slapped his face, trying to get some response. Never looking up, he instructed, "Ambulance. Now."

Chris already had his mobile out. He dialed 911 and waited for the operator to take the call. Hearing the voice, he gave his name, location and badge number, before describing Buck's condition. Larabee was no medic, but years of experience had told him which details were important. "We have an ATF officer, male, late thirties. He's been struck on the side of the head. He's breathing and has a steady pulse, but is unresponsive... uh, I guess the injury must have occurred within the last five minutes... some bleeding, not much... right, okay." He hung up and returned his attention to Buck and Nathan, "They'll be about ten minutes."

Nathan nodded, folding his jacket and placing it under Buck's head. There was little more they could do, without perhaps exacerbating the injury.

In his pocket, Chris' phone made a noise, indicating there was a message in its message bank. Chris ignored it.

*****

Mickey Louis reached the ground and began to run from the biochemistry building. He got a few steps, before he realised this was where he was supposed to be. He was just an average security guard. Someone had been killed on his watch and he would have to take some flack for that, but a person couldn't be everywhere at once. He continued on his rounds, his heartbeat slowly returning to its normal pace.

*****

A Small Pool of Blood

The agents donned bullet proof jackets and split into pairs. The security guard roster had placed Louis in the biomedical sciences area, but that was a large place. Aware that they might run into Larabee, Wilmington and Jackson, the ATF agents moved off toward the biochemistry building, accompanied by Malone and Grant. Bailey and JD went to look inside the facility, while John and Vin searched the grounds.

Floor after floor the agents searched. Most of the rooms were locked, the corridors silent. JD was surprised the place was deserted. He had expected to see Chris there, somewhere. Why would he and Buck go to the uni, if not to look around?

They reached the top floor, where the lecturers had their offices. The doors to the offices were closed and locked. All except two at the western end of the building, which had apparently been flung open. Bailey briefly checked inside the two rooms, while motioning JD to move further up the corridor. They stood empty, if somewhat disordered. No security guard, so Bailey moved on.

As they reached the eastern end of the building, Bailey had resigned himself to the fact that no one was there. It had been a long shot. All they could do was hope that someone else had better luck.

"Uh, Agent Malone?"

"Yeah?" Bailey caught up to the young agent, who had scouted ahead down the corridor.

"I think we have something."

The something JD referred to was a small pool of blood, drying on the tiled floor. More importantly, next to it lay a bloodied truncheon.

*****

Larabee and Jackson sat, side by side, in the hospital waiting room. As he looked around, Nathan found he missed the old, familiar room they had left in Denver. The staff there knew who they were. The nurses didn't try and chase them away from their fallen companions and the doctors didn't trifle them when it came to bad news. Most important to Jackson, they didn't patronise him by simplifying medical jargon. They played it straight with the team and he made a mental note to appreciate that, next time one of them was injured.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but could someone please tell me the status of the patient who just came through here?" Nate was willing to talk to anyone, but was having little success.

"Are you immediate family?" the triage nurse enquired. Nathan blinked at her. Stupid question.

"I'm a friend, that, there," he indicated Chris, "is his boss."

"I'm afraid we can't give that kind of information out to anyone but immediate family," she turned and stalked off, pleased in the knowledge she had upheld the rule.

Jackson shook his head and returned to his friend. "Do you think we should call someone?"

Larabee shrugged. "We should probably leave Josiah and Ez alone, let them get some rest," he paused, "but JD should know."

As he removed his mobile from his pocket, he remembered the message he had neglected to retrieve. He knew he was deliberately putting off his original `phone call, even as he dialled the message bank number. No one liked giving the kid bad news.

This is not a social call, Cowboy. Get back to me. in his message, Vin sounded agitated. Larabee dialled the agent's number from memory and waited for him to answer. The `phone rang a few times, then was replaced by a pleasant voice informing him that Vin's mobile was turned off.

Odd, thought Larabee, who then tried dialling JD's number. No response there, either. Larabee tapped his mobile a few times, on the coffee table in front of him. He hated not knowing what everyone was doing, especially those two. Oh, well. Malone can handle it.

*****

Tanner and Grant circled the building, moving slowly and deftly through the trees. Tanner was acutely aware of just how many bushes there were behind which a murderer could hide. Why did he have to be a security guard? Why not a librarian? They don't get given guns.

"Hey," John kept his voice low, just above a whisper, "he look familiar?" The man he indicated walked brusquely down the path beside the biochemistry building. He wore an air of authority to match his sharply pressed uniform.

"He's the right height, right build," Tanner agreed. "We can most likely take him before he even draws his gun."

John grinned. "Yeah, but maybe we'd better wait until he gets closer. We want to know it's him before we go announcing ourselves."

Tanner nodded and the two slipped back into the shadows of the trees.

*****

Louis was kicking himself. How could he have forgotten his truncheon? If someone found it he was done for. Not only was the weapon covered in his fingerprints and the dead man's blood, it had been signed out from the security office under his name. Damn.

Chrip, chirp. The sound cut through the still night. It came from the stand of trees beside the biochemistry building. It almost sounded like a cricket, but it was too cold for crickets and the noise sounded too artificial.

Chrip, chirp. There is was again. Louis looked into the trees, but could see no one. A tiny movement was all. Hypersensitised as the security guard was, that was enough.

*****

Chirp, chirp. For a moment Tanner didn't know what the sound was. All he knew was that is was coming from him. Then it struck him and he cursed himself for an idiot. Leaving you mobile `phone turned on was a rookie mistake of the worst kind. Chrip, chirp. Tanner fumbled with the on/off switch, finally turning it off.

He looked up to see John turn and glance at him. That small movement set up a slightly larger one in the leaves of the tree John hid behind. Michael Louis drew is gun and aimed it at Grant. To Tanner, it felt like an eternity before he, himself, drew, but, in reality, he and Louis fired almost simultaneously.

Bang, bang, bang. Tanner's gun sounded three times. Head, throat, heart. His bullets found their marks. As the fire of his own bullet wound filled his shoulder, Grant couldn't help thinking, Wow. He really is a good shot.

*****

Wilmington and Grant were both out of hospital and recuperating within the week. The blow to Wilmington's head had missed the most vulnerable part of the skull by a centimetre. The bone had been fractured, but there was little internal damage. John had sustained only a flesh wound and was thus quite capable of harassing Tanner over the mobile 'phone incident the whole week.

Ezra had gone after the Booker lead with little success. The telephone numbers may well have been connected with the gun runners, but, by the time the ATF took a good look at them, the lines had been disconnected. Larabee, being somewhat fed up with the whole mess, decided to leave the uni to the local police.

Malone, at least, was pleased with events.

"Ah, Chris. It's been nice to have some intelligent assistance the past few days," he said, grinning at the scowls directed at him by his own team.

Larabee half smiled. "Yeah, well, next time one our targets can come after your agents with a club."

"Done. By the way, if you ever want to get rid of the kid, we'll take him."

"Nice try, but I don't think so."

Malone chuckled. "Well, I had to ask."

*****


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