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** AJ **

“Sorry about all of that, gentlemen.” The mystery man pulled the door closed behind him and sat down in the chair that had initially been occupied by Officer Russell. “I’m Agent Adams, but you can call me ‘Dave’.”

“So, what’s your deal, Dave?” I knew that I sounded obnoxious, but I didn’t care. “Are you also here to make unfair accusations?”

Agent Adams turned his squinty eyes in my direction and cracked a small smile; the corners of his mouth dragging upwards ever so slowly. “Not at all, Mr. McLean. I’m with the FBI. I don’t make accusations until I have the facts that I need to back them up.”

“The FBI?” Kevin raised his massive eyebrows. “How did you manage to get here so quickly?”

“I was in town wrapping up another investigation when I received a call concerning the situation involving Mr. Dorough.” Dave reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a package of cherry flavoured Halls. He popped one in his mouth and moved the medicated lozenge noisily between his teeth. “I came as soon as I had finished my paperwork.”

“How do you already know who we are?” Kevin challenged. “We never introduced ourselves.”

“I have a thirty-two year old daughter, Mr. Richardson. I would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to know who the Backstreet Boys are.” Dave chuckled. “You can rest assured that I will handle this case with the sensitivity that it requires. I’m based out of Los Angeles and I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time working on cases that involve celebrities … most of them who are much more famous than the five of you.”

“And dumb and dumber showed up because …?” I trailed off and looked at the swollen man in expectation.

“Officer Barry and Officer Russell were dispatched simply to ensure that the four of you didn’t leave before I arrived.” Dave leaned back in his chair and put the package of Halls back into his pocket. “I didn’t know that the two of them were going to try and play detective.”

“All we want to do is see Howie.” Kevin interrupted. “Are we going to be able to do that?”

“Of course.” Dave nodded. “I just need some information from you all first.” He looked at each of us in turn. “Do you all feel comfortable answering some questions without a lawyer being present?”

I instinctively turned my head to look at Kevin, and I was instantly reassured by the fact that Brian and Nick had done the same. Kevin was always trying to protect us when we didn’t need him to. Ever since his return, he had been trying desperately to hold on to his ‘big brother’ title. Now, it was time for him to see what it was actually like to be the ‘big brother’ to three full-grown men.

“Uhhhh …” Kevin hesitated when he saw that we were all looking at him. He tried to catch my eye, but I quickly averted my gaze. There was no way that I was letting him off the hook when it came to this decision. “What do ya’ll think?”

“It’s up to you, cuz.” Brian whispered. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Fine.” Kevin forced a sense of finality into his voice. “We’ll answer the questions. We don’t need a lawyer.”

I saw the remaining colour drain from Nick’s already pale face as I turned back towards Agent Adams. It was clear that the baby of the group felt as though his ‘guardian’ had made the wrong choice.

“I’ll get straight to the point.” Dave leaned forward and withdrew a manila file folder from the inside of his jacket. He flipped it open and studied the top page before pulling a pen out of the same pocket and clicking it into position. “Who gave Mr. Dorough the green tea?”

“What?” I shook my head in confusion. “You’re asking us about tea?”

Agent Adams nodded. “The initial blood test results have led the attending physician to believe that Mr. Dorough drank green tea that was laced with arsenic. Apparently, green tea and arsenic were the only two substances that were present in his system when he was brought in.”

“He – He hasn’t been eating.” Nick stammered. “He’s been sick for days.”

Dave nodded and made a quick note on the paper. “That would explain why there was such a high concentration of arsenic. It’s likely that Mr. Dorough has been ingesting the substance in small doses for the past several days. So, now the question remains, where did he get the tea?”

“Room service.” I shrugged and looked at the others. “And he probably brought some with him. He always has some with him when we go on tour; in case he gets sick.”

Brian and Kevin nodded their agreement, but Nick appeared to be frozen to the spot. He swallowed loudly and made a face as if he was about to be sick.

“Is there something that you would like to add, Mr. Carter?” Dave had also picked up on Nick’s anxious behaviour.

“He – he – he ran out.” Nick stammered. “He had only brought a couple of tea bags with him, so he bought a new box a couple of days ago.”

“I see.” Agent Adams pressed his fingers together and peered into Nick’s face. “Did Mr. Dorough purchase the new box on his own?”

Nick shook his head and once again swallowed unnecessarily loudly. “He was too sick to go shopping. I – I went out and bought the box of tea for him.”

“Did you go alone?” Dave pressed. “Where did you buy the box of tea, Mr. Carter? On what day did you go shopping?”

“He bought it from Publix two days ago.” Brian’s face had gone as pale as Nick’s and the two of them exchanged a knowing look. “I was with him when he bought it.”

“Did anyone else go with you to the store?” Dave looked back and forth between Nick and Brian.

Brian shook his head. I could practically feel him shaking in the chair next to me. “It was only the two of us.”

“What about security?” Kevin interjected. “Didn’t Justin go with you?”

Nick still looked as though he wanted to vomit. “We went on our own. It was a short trip … we decided not to bother Justin … there was nobody around … it was early in the morning.”

I was getting a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t like the way that Agent Adams was looking at Brian and Nick. I didn’t like the fact that he was busy scribbling a whole bunch of notes on the paper in front of him. I didn’t like anything about the entire situation.

“Mr. McLean and Mr. Richardson, you two are free to go and visit with Mr. Dorough. The nurse at the desk just outside of the door will be able to tell you where to find him.” Agent Adams smiled tersely at me and Kevin. “I’d like to speak with Mr. Littrell and Mr. Carter for just a little bit longer.”

“I don’t know if that’s …” I cut myself off when I saw that Kevin was already in the process of standing up. “Kevin? Where are you going?”

“Let’s go and see how Howie’s doing.” Kevin gave me a look that I wasn’t able to decipher. “Brian and Nick will be able to join us when they’re done.”

I stared at Nick and Brian, well aware of the fact that my mouth was hanging open in confusion. Why was Kevin so eager to leave? Why wasn’t he screaming in a fit of rage over the fact that Nick and Brian were clearly being treated like a couple of criminals? Why wasn’t he doing something?

“We’re fine, AJ.” Brian forced the words from his mouth. Now he looked like he wanted to vomit. “We’ll see you guys in a little bit.”

“What the fuck just happened in there?!” I tore into Kevin as soon as the two of us were alone in the hallway. “Why are we leaving Brian and Nick to be interrogated for something that they didn’t do?!”

“Because they didn’t do it.” Kevin answered simply, striding towards the nurses’ station. He spoke briefly to the young nurse behind the desk before returning his attention to me. “Howie is on the third floor, room 302.”

“Are you even processing what’s going on?” I hustled after Kevin as his long legs crossed the short distance to the elevator in a matter of steps. I could feel the anger threatening to seep out of my pores at any moment. “We shouldn’t have left them!”

“Listen …” Kevin ran a hand down his face as the two of us stepped into the waiting elevator. He hit the button for the third floor before he continued. “If the two of us had refused to leave, it would have made the situation worse. Brian and Nick have nothing to hide. All they have to do is answer the questions honestly and they’ll be fine. The two of them are more than capable of doing that without us breathing down their necks.”

I stared at Kevin; dumbfounded. It wasn’t until the elevator doors slid open on the third floor that the realization finally hit me. “You’re scared.” I challenged. “You had no idea how to handle the situation down there, so you chose to walk away. You’re always going on and on about how you need to protect us and when a situation finally arises in which we actually need protecting you can’t handle it!”

“They’re grown men, AJ!” Kevin paused just outside of Howie’s room, his eyes flashing as he stared down at me. It was obvious that I had struck a nerve. “The rest of you are always telling me that I need to stand down, that I need to keep my distance from your problems, so that’s what I’ve done. I’ve left Nick and Brian to sort this mess out on their own.”

I shook my head. Kevin wasn’t admitting to everything that was going on in his head, and I didn’t like where my own mind was going. I could barely bring myself to utter the words, but I knew that I had to ask. I had to know if my suspicions were correct.

“Kev, please tell me that you don’t think that they did it. Tell me that you know that there’s no way that Brian and Nick are involved.”

“Let’s see how Howie’s feeling.” Kevin dropped his hand to the doorknob. He wouldn’t look me in the face. “I bet that he’ll be happy to see us.”