The harsh ringing of the phone pulled Buck from the first restful sleep he'd had in what seemed like forever. By the time he got his eyelids unglued and his fuzzy brain sent a message to his leaden arm to move, the phone answering machine had engaged. Buck groaned as he rolled over and looked at the clock. Nine a.m. He snatched the phone anyway, but whoever it was had already disconnected.
Buck flopped back over onto his side. His stomach muscles ached from the last three days of sickness and fatigue pulled at his body. His eyes drifted closed. He wasn't asleep, but close to it.
What the paper had tritely described as "a mild form of food poisoning" was a vicious little bug that started with nausea, chills, and vomiting, and went downhill from there. At one point Buck had felt so rotten he'd even called the local minor emergency center to see if he should see a doctor or maybe just shoot himself--only to be assured his illness was behaving exactly as expected and he should "turn the corner" at any time.
And apparently he had. Buck now figured he was going to live, and he was even happy about it. The evening before he'd managed to keep down a can of Seven-Up and a handful of crackers so stale they must have been older than JD.
Then, when the unfamiliar but welcome pangs of hunger had stirred at midnight, he'd boiled an egg and made a slice of toast. The bread was molded but he cut that part off and it actually tasted good. Then he'd fallen into bed and immediately slipped into deep sleep.
Sleep beckoned seductively again. He wanted to give in to the siren call but something nibbled at the edge of his consciousness. It took him quite a while to think what it was. Then it hit him like a sudden splash of cold water. Ezra.
He forced his eyes open to look at the clock again. He'd talked to the undercover agent last at...what? Ten the night before? No, earlier...Eight-thirty, maybe nine. Whereas Buck was starting to feel better, Ezra had sounded worse than before. 'He's probably better this morning,' Buck tried to reassure himself as he fumbled for the phone and punched in the number. It rang four times and then the answering machine picked up. Oddly enough, Ezra had never replaced the computerized "Please leave a message" with a more personal greeting. "Ezra, it's Buck. Pick up the damn phone."
He waited, only to be rewarded by another beep as the message time ran out. He punched the redial with the same results. Worry shivered at his spine. No matter how sick either of them had got over the last three days, they'd both answered the phone. They'd alternated calling each other a couple of times a day. Chris called daily from Wyoming, although Buck thought he'd finally managed to convince his old friend that the worst was over.
The third time he tried to call, the phone was picked up. Buck's feeling of relief was short-lived when no one spoke. "Ezra? Ezra!"
Silence. No, not silence...something in the background...
Breathing. Erratic, tortured breathing.
"Ezra!" Buck shouted on my way. "I'm on my way. Hear me? I'll be there in fifteen...ten minutes. Just hang on. And if nothing's wrong you better tell me now!"
Buck pulled himself out of bed, grabbing the table until a wave of dizziness passed, then grabbed jeans and a sweater out of his closet.
Ezra knew he was in trouble.
After speaking with Buck the night before, he'd been certain that his illness would have to wane soon. If Wilmington--who had eaten two servings of the tainted soup as compared to his one--was on the mend, surely he'd have to feel better himself soon. With that thought in mind, he'd dragged his aching body to the kitchen and made a pot of his herbal tea. It usually quieted his nerves and his stomach. With it he tried a couple bites of some Dutch shortbread cookies one of his ex-step-sisters had sent for Christmas. The snack set off another round of violent vomiting that continued long after there was anything to bring up. Several more times during the night shooting pains in his abdomen had forced his weary body from bed to stagger to the bathroom for more bouts of relentless retching. Finally, he just dragged a blanket in there and curled up on the cold tile floor between bouts of vomiting and agonizing fiery cramps in his belly.
He must have dozed a little, to wake up before seven. All of his muscles ached from spending the night on the cold floor; when he finally managed to gain his feet shooting pains cramped his legs. His arms trembled violently when he tried to grab the side of the sink to stabilize himself. His face in the mirror was white, with harsh lines engraved around his mouth and sickly shadows under the eyes. His hair, dirty and unkempt, stood up in little spikes.
'Mother would be aghast if she saw me now.' Maude placed great stock in appearances. He'd always suspected she had prepared for his own birth by having a facial and her hair freshly done.
He twisted the faucet and cold water gushed from the tap. Still hanging on to the sink with one hand for balance, he used the other to scoop handfuls of water over his face and into his hair. The cold water felt wonderful to his clammy skin. He eyed the shower longingly, but knew he didn't have enough energy to stay upright for any amount of time.
Pain struck again--sudden and fierce and deadly. Ezra crumpled, his forehead striking the sink a glancing blow as he fell. He curled in a fetal position as the agony twisted through his guts. Nausea tore through him. Anything he could bring up long since gone, he succumbed helplessly to dry heaves. It seemed to last forever. His body was out of control. All Ezra could do was try to endure it.
Finally, as suddenly as it had attacked him, the pain was gone again. Ezra went limp, clouds of blackness swirling around him. Something was in his mouth and he tried to spit it out, feeling wetness dribble over his chin. Unable to open his eyes, he drifted away, face pressed against the cold tile floor.
How long he was out he didn't know. Finally cold chills dragged him from the relative peace of unconsciousness and he blinked awake, trying to clear his vision. The room swam into focus around him. Moving cautiously--afraid to rouse the dragon of fiery pain that seemed to have taken permanent residence in his stomach--he shifted back a few inches.
His eyes locked on the crimson splatters on the floor.
He convulsed again, angry claws of pain tearing deep inside, twisting him helplessly before the onslaught. He gagged and choked, his mouth filling with the metallic taste of blood. Something wet and sticky dribbled over his chin and more crimson drops joined the others on the floor.
This time when it stopped he stayed conscious, but barely. He gasped for breath. One thought forced itself into his mind.
Buck. Buck would help him.
Unable to rise, he dragged himself--inch by painful inch--into his bedroom. He had to stop three times to force back the cloying blackness that threatened to overwhelm him. Every bit of carpet conquered a triumph between him and the enemy trying to destroy him from inside.
Finally--it could have been minutes or hours later--he reached his bed. Exhausted--unable now to even lift his head--he summoned up the strength to reach up and yank the cordless phone down to the floor.
Ice cold and shaking fingers punched in the numbers. He couldn't see. Couldn't think. Could only hope he dialed the right number.
No answer. Defeated, Ezra dropped the phone.
The pain struck. Ezra had nothing left to fight it. He rolled over as his stomach twisted again. The tearing claws raked upward through his stomach and throat, burning pain in the wake. This time he embraced the darkness with a sob of relief.
He moaned. Something was trying to drag him from the safety of blackness. 'No.' He didn't want to wake up again. Waking brought pain. Darkness was better.
But whatever it was kept on. A familiar sound. Urgent. A sound that demanded an answer.
Unable to open his eyes, his hand felt around, fingers touching the cold plastic. Bringing it to his face he clicked the "on" button. He tried to find words but it was too difficult. He couldn't seem to catch his breath...
"Ezra!" Buck's voice, harsh and full of panic. "I'm on my way- -"
Buck. Buck knew he was in trouble. Buck was coming. Buck could take care of it.
Ezra dropped the phone and let everything slip away
Buck ignored his own limbs shaking, the pounding of his head, as he careened around corners and broke every speed law between his loft and Ezra's condo. He screeched his battered pickup truck to a stop at the curb. Forest Glen Condominiums was built in a crescent pattern, with the units on the inside of the crescent facing the pool and tennis courts, the ones on the outside looking onto wooded grounds and a small, man-made lake with an ornamental bridge and fountains. Ezra lived in 1-F, the last unit on the outside loop, farthest from the road. Buck ignored the tastefully rustic pathway and plunged directly across the velvet grass to Ezra's door. He banged on the door with one fist while punching the doorbell with the index finger of the other hand.
No response. Buck hadn't really expected one, but he was too well- trained in survival to go busting into someone's apartment without warning. Ezra was a damn good shot.
He had a key. Thank God for that. For months after his assignment to Team Seven, Ezra had kept himself separate from his teammates. Slowly the cool, uncaring persona had crumbled slightly as his friends learned more about what had happened to him in Atlanta and about the demons that haunted the suave undercover agent's past. Somehow, at some point, Chris had acquired a key from Ezra and secretly made copies for the others. "Just in case," he'd said. In their line of work such precautions never hurt.
Buck didn't know when Ezra had found out about the spare keys. Hell, maybe he'd known all along. Buck suspected Ezra liked the fact his friends--family--had the access even if he was unable to lower his personal walls enough to give it to them. One night while they were undercover on the Hoyt case Ezra had requested Buck go to his condo to pick something up, saying simply "Use your key." Then he'd grinned at the stunned look on Wilmington's face before writing down the code to disarm the security system.
Now Buck fitted the key into the lock and eased the door open, calling out "Ezra! It's me!" The security system was armed and he quickly neutralized it before speeding past the living room and kitchen toward the bedrooms at the back. A quick glance around the expensively furnished master bedroom didn't reveal his friend. The bathroom door was closed and he tapped on it before opening it cautiously and reaching for the light switch.
He blinked, his tired eyes at first refusing to interpret what they were seeing. Bright red blood spattered the glistening white tile and the rim of the toilet.
"Oh, God," Buck whispered as he finally realized what that meant. "Ezra!" He turned to search the other rooms. His eyes fell on the antique mahogany four poster bed--with the top of the mattress a good four feet from the floor. Instinct told him where his friend was. He rounded the bed to find Ezra crumpled on the far side, the phone near his limp hand. "Ez!"
He knelt beside his friend. Ezra wore only dark silk pajama bottoms. His face was turned away, but he stirred at Buck's touch and the other man could see the trickle of blood coming from his mouth, the dark splatters on the carpet.
Buck lunged across his friend's body and snatched up the phone, punching in 911. In a voice he barely recognized as his own, he snapped out his ATF identification number to the operator before demanding an ambulance and paramedics to Ezra's address ASAP. Barely hearing her confirmation, he dropped the phone and leaned back over Standish. He gently patted his cheek. "Ezra? You with me?"
Dazed green eyes slid open and then just as quickly closed again. "Come on, Ezra," Buck pleaded. "The ambulance is on the way...you just hang in there, okay?"
He moved his hand to Ezra's bare shoulder. The skin was cold to the touch and Buck frowned, snaking one arm over to pull the quilted emerald satin spread from where it was crumpled at the foot of the bed. He tucked the folds warmly around him. "Everything's going to be okay, Ez," he told the still figure, making his voice as calm as possible given his racing heart.
The eyelashes fluttered again, then the eyes blinked open. Cracked, dry lips tried to form words but there was no air behind them. Buck placed a reassuring hand on Ezra's forehead. "Don't try to talk right now, okay?" He forced a grin. "I know that's not gonna be easy for you."
Buck's head came up as he heard the wail of a siren in the distance. "Sounds like they're almost here, pard--"
Buck didn't exactly know what happened next. Ezra moved--just barely shifting his weight--and then suddenly his body was convulsing, twisting in and on itself. Terrified at seeing fresh blood coat Ezra's lips, Buck rolled him onto his side and dug through the folds of satin to find his hand, which he gripped tightly. "Ride it out, Pard," he coached. "Easy...easy..."
The siren got closer, stopped outside. Buck heard a crash and a voice yelling "Hello? Paramedics!" just as Ezra's body went limp.
"In here!" the agent yelled. "Bedroom. Hurry!"
Two young men in dark-blue uniforms raced in, pulling a gurney laden with equipment behind them. They swarmed over Ezra, yanking away the satin coverlet to take his vitals. Buck quickly explained about the food poisoning and Ezra's symptoms, then reluctantly moved back to allow them room. He clambered shakily to his feet. A wave of dizziness staggered him.
"Hey, man, are you all right?" One of the paramedics looked like he was going to transfer his ministrations to Buck. Wilmington waved him off and perched heavily on the carved oak chest in the corner, his eyes on Ezra's white face. His friend didn't move or make a sound as the two paramedics worked on him. Buck took a deep breath. He felt strangely lightheaded and closed his eyes.
"We got a problem, Derry."
Buck opened his eyes. The younger and heavier-set of the paramedics held an IV set-up in one hand and with the other was pinching a fold of skin at Ezra's wrist. The other paramedic--whom Buck assumed was Derry--made a face. "Damn."
"What's wrong?" Buck snapped.
"Looks like your friend is pretty dehydrated." The older man reached for the radio.
"Well, yeah, he's dehydrated," Buck pointed out. "He's been throwing up for three days."
The younger paramedic nodded at him. "Yeah...but the problem is, I can't get a vein for the IV."
Derry put down the radio. "Hospital says to transport STAT."
In a short time the two paramedics had Ezra packaged up and loaded into the gurney. Buck stood up to follow them from the room, only to sway under another wave of dizziness. He had to sit back down.
"Hey, I think you'd better come with us." The younger paramedic-- his name tag read "E. Griffiths" had seen Buck's weakness
Buck nodded; that had been his intention all along. "Is he going to be okay?"
"He'll be better once the hospital can get some fluid into him." The paramedic took a quick step into the bathroom to look around. "Bright red blood," he said, almost to himself.
"What about it?" Buck asked sharply.
The paramedic took one end of the gurney. "Hospital will want to know. Did he throw up anything that looked like coffee grounds?"
Confused, Buck shook his head. "Not since I've been here. Why? Is that important?"
"We've got to get going," the other paramedic broke in. "Can you make it on your own, or do we need to come back for you?"
Buck shook his head again and motioned for them to move. "I'll make it on my own."
Vin stood over the stove frying fish. They had hauled in a good catch again that morning. Vin was starting to believe no one ever fished the lake when Chris or Buck wasn't using the cabin. He hadn't seen another human being besides Larabee in the three days they'd been here.
Chris came in bearing another armload of wood. A cold front was moving in. Heavy clouds--streaked with angry lightning--blocked the sun.
Vin watched his best friend out of the corner of his eye. He couldn't believe how relaxed Chris looked. Buck had finally managed to convince him the day before that he and Ezra were going to survive their bouts with food poisoning, and with that last worry eased Larabee seemed to have dropped ten years. He'd even stopped worrying about what had happened to Buck during his time undercover.
Vin still wondered if Buck had chosen not to come along on the trip because he himself had. That bothered him, but not as much as it had. The peace and relaxation of the trip was helping him, too. Chris insisted Buck had some other--unknown-- reason, and Chris knew Buck--
"Smells good," Chris said suddenly, coming into the kitchen area with his cell phone in his hand.
"Thanks." Vin nodded at the phone. "You check in with the sickies?"
Chris tossed the phone on the counter. "Tried. Got both of their machines."
Vin raised his eyebrows and glanced at his watch. "Little early for Ez to be out and about...'specially when he don't have to work today."
"Yeah. On the other hand his machine picked up right away--if he's sleeping he might not even have heard the ring. And Buck must be feeling better if he's not at home."
Vin nodded. Chris started to say something else, only to be cut off by the ringing of the phone. He took the two steps needed to snatch it off the counter. "Larabee," he barked.
Vin, watching, knew the exact second that Chris realized the call was bad news. Larabee's eyes widened and his jaw set. He said "uh- huh" and "no" a few times, and then exploded "What kind of an idiot did that!" More silence. Then "Okay, Judge, thanks for calling. We're on our way back. You'll let me know if--ok, thanks."
He clicked off the phone and looked at Vin worriedly. "We've got a problem."
"What?" Vin asked quietly, removing the skillet from the fire.
"Some idiot judge released Hoyt ROR." Larabee spat out the words. "Hoyt promptly bailed out all of his scumbag associates."
"Shit!" Tanner swore. "ROR? The DA said it'd be at least a million if they granted bail at all!"
"Yeah, well, Travis is looking into it--sounds like something funny is going on at the courthouse. But in the meantime Travis wants Buck and Ezra in protective custody. Hoyt knows who they are, made some pretty strong threats against them after he was released. Strong enough to scare a reporter who overheard and tipped off the office..."
Somehow Vin knew the worst was yet to come. "Did Travis find Buck and Ezra?"
Chris shook his head. Vin could see the anxiety clouding his eyes. "He thought Buck was with us...but he's been trying to call Ezra since last night--at home and on his cell. No answer."
Vin stared at him. "I'll start packing the gear."
Buck pulled his long legs in closer to his body, flashing an apologetic smile at the nurse he'd almost tripped up. He took another swig from the paper cup of orange juice a pink-smocked hospital volunteer had handed him earlier. For some reason it hadn't seemed to occur to anyone to separate him from Ezra and send him off to a remote waiting room. He'd followed the gurney right into the ER and into a small cubicle where Ezra--still unconscious--was transferred to an exam bed. A doctor and two nurses had come in almost immediately. 'Must be pretty bad if he gets seen right away,' Buck worried silently, being more acquainted than he would like to be with modern health care methodology.
Buck had answered questions about the food poisoning, his symptoms, Ezra's symptoms, and Ezra's overall health, while the hospital staff tried fruitlessly to find an adequate vein to start the IV. Finally the doctor--a tanned blond young man who looked like an extra on "Baywatch"--announced they needed to do a "cut down". He'd nicely suggested Buck wait outside. An orderly directed him to a tiny corner set up as a waiting area--a couple of chairs, an ice machine--and left him there. The curtain around Ezra's bed was pulled but Buck could hear what was going on, heard when Ezra regained consciousness and almost immediately suffered another one of those agonizing seizures. Buck stood up to go to him. The room did a sickening 180- degree turn and for a second he felt sure he was going to end up on his butt. Someone grabbed his arm and guided him back to his seat. "Hey, Mr. Wilmington, easy there."
Buck looked up to see Derry, one of the paramedics who had treated Ezra. He had a paper bag in one hand and he held onto Buck's arm with the other. "Hey, why don't I get a doctor to take a look at you while you're here?"
Buck shook his head, wishing he didn't feel so much like a day- old pup. "Nah...I'm okay. Just tired an' worried." He pointed at the closed curtain. "What's goin' on in there?"
"Dr. Baker did a cut-down to get an IV established in his foot," the paramedic replied. Buck winced. He wasn't sure exactly what all that entailed but it sounded painful. "I'm sure he'll start doing much better when they can get some fluid into him." The paramedic studied Buck's face. "Bet some fluids would help you too...I'll get one of the volunteers to bring you something."
That had been over half an hour ago. The volunteer had turned up with the orange juice and a little later, another woman--in a suit this time--came to give him a clipboard full of forms. Buck flashed her a modified version of the Wilmington Lady Killer Smile--too modified apparently, because she didn't give him a second glance-- merely told him in a bored voice to give the clipboard to one of the ER staff when he was done. Then she turned on her heel and swished away, leaving Buck with the paperwork. He glanced at them with distaste and then pulled the pen free from the clip and started filling them out. He'd done this plenty of times in the past--for Chris, when they were partners in the Denver PD, and more recently for JD--but never for Ezra before. Offhand he didn't know who might have completed them in Ezra's case. Now, looking down at the familiar questions, Buck was struck by just how little he knew about his friend's past. For so long Ezra had floated at the edges of the tightly-knit little group that was Team Seven. He seemed content to be there; happy to keep his teammates at a distance. It was only within the last year or so that the walls around the aloof southerner had started to crumble. Buck and the others now knew the truth about what had happened to Ezra in Atlanta; the truth about the vicious rumors of him being on the take that had almost destroyed the younger man. Ezra had been set up as a scapegoat by one of the few people he trusted--a man who later tried to kill him. 'Hell, no wonder Ez wanted to keep us all at arm's length.'
Buck stared at the blank next to the question, "Birthplace". He didn't have a clue. Somewhere in the South, he imagined. He knew, from things Ezra had let slip, that he'd moved around a lot as a child, lived with various family members interspersed with short, traumatic times with his mother. Later he'd gone to a series of high- dollar boarding schools, mostly in Europe, financed by one or the other of Maude's rich ex-husbands.
He skipped the birthplace question. How important could that be? He knew Ezra's birth date and he printed it carefully in the space provided. Some flicker of intelligence had led him to grab Ezra's wallet off the bedside table just before following the paramedics out of the bedroom, and fortunately Ezra's ATF ID, drivers license and insurance card were all in it. On the medical history page he glanced down the long list of "Has the patient ever had ____?" questions, shrugged, and wrote neatly in the margin "Contact Dr. Murray at Four Corners General". Lauren Murray was an old friend of Chris' and also head of ER at the hospital where various members of Team Seven seemed to end up periodically. Buck figured she had a medical file on each of them tucked in her desk somewhere.
Once the paperwork was more or less completed Buck alternated between staring at the curtain shielding Ezra's cubicle and gazing unseeingly at the organized chaos of the rest of the emergency room. He drank half a cup of coffee from the machine, but dumped the rest when his uneasy stomach warned him off. A glance at his bare wrist belatedly reminded him he'd forgotten both his watch and his cell phone in his mad dash to get to Ezra's condo. The clock above the nursing station indicated the time was four-thirty. Over three hours since they'd arrived at the hospital. 'I should call Chris,' Buck thought, but there were no pay phones in the ER and he didn't want to leave to go out to the waiting room.'I'll call when I know something,' he decided. Finally, his body aching with fatigue from his own three-day bout with illness, he leaned his head against the wall, tried to find some way to stretch his legs out comfortably without tripping anyone, and closed his eyes."Good Lord," Ezra groaned as the car came to a stop in the long driveway. "What a perfectly awful example of abhorrent architecture and extravagant expenditure our host resides in."
Buck laughed as he took in the modernistic white villa. "Looks like an overgrown igloo," he quipped as he got out of the car. Playing his part, he went around and opened the back passenger door for his "boss." Ezra got out and straightened the seams of his Armani jacket. Ever mindful of unseen eyes watching, Buck casually parted his own jacket so that his sidearm could be seen, before shadowing the smaller man up the walkway and to the glass front doors. The left- hand one opened before they'd reached the first step. A balding, slightly overweight man stood there. "Ah, Mr. Steen, you're here. And right on time." He extended a hand on which were several garish rings.
"Mr. Hoyt," Ezra purred back. "I've been lookin' forward to our meeting. And might I compliment you on your charming home?"
Buck kept a straight face as he smoothly stepped in front of Ezra to enter the door first. Hoyt stood aside for him. Buck checked the entry hall and walked the few steps to a balcony overlooking a sunken living room. Late afternoon sunlight flooded the room from one whole wall of glass. Waiting until his eyes adjusted, Buck surveyed the room and its occupants--two women and half a dozen men--before stepping back and nodding to Ezra. Taking up his position at Ezra's back, he followed the other two men down a glass staircase into the living room. Hoyt was introducing the others in the room to "Edward Steen" and Ezra was murmuring vague pleasantries.
Buck stiffened, his eyes fixed on the younger of the two women in the room. Young...JD's age or maybe even younger. Her slender figure moved with unconscious grace as she approached, one hand going up to push back the light brown, curly hair that framed her oval face.
Buck couldn't breathe. He felt, rather than saw, Ezra's concerned glance as Hoyt stepped forward to take the young woman's hand. "Edward, I'd like you to meet my niece. She's here on a short break from school in France."
'Niece?' Buck thought dizzily. 'I don't remember Hoyt having a niece...' Hoyt must have said her name at some point, for Ezra took her extended hand and bowed over it. "Miss Bryant, I'm delighted to make your acquaintance."
Buck could have cried as her rosebud lips curved into a perfect smile that lit up her eyes. "Please, Mr. Steen...call me Sarah."
The world rocked crazily around Buck.
Buck blinked, realizing he'd been paying no attention as he drove toward the hotel. Fortunately traffic was light at this hour.
He met Ezra's concerned gaze in the rear-view mirror. "Did you say somethin', Pard?"
"I would say so. I have been attempting to attract your attention for at least five minutes," the younger man responded huffily. Studying his friend's face, he said, "Would you care to elucidate what is occupying your mind this evening?"
"Since when does Hoyt have a niece? I don't remember anything about a niece in the background stuff we got." 'And I should know,' Buck added silently. He had done most of the background check personally.
Ezra's brow furrowed. "Miss Bryant? She's his wife's niece actually. His first wife, that is."
Buck nodded, remembering Hoyt's first wife had been killed ten years before in a light-plane crash. Ezra went on, "Miss Bryant was educated in Europe...she's attending the Sorbonne now." His concerned look deepened. Dropping his polished persona like a drape, he said gently, "What's wrong, Buck?"
"Her name's Sarah--"
Ezra frowned, then his face lightened with understanding. "She has the same name as Mr. Larabee's wife--"
Buck laughed without humor. "Oh, it's more than her name, Pard. She's the spittin' image of Sarah. She could be her twin!"
Startled, Buck opened his eyes. A man stood in front of him, thick blond hair damp with sweat. "I'm Dr. Baker. I'm taking care of your friend."
Chris shifted in the passenger seat of his Dodge Ram and made a conscious effort to ease muscles too tight with tension. The rain had started just as they reached the main road and in a matter of minutes the fat, gentle raindrops had escalated into a deluge as the skies seemingly opened and cascaded water onto the land. What Buck would call a "toad-strangler".
Chris's half smile vanished. Buck...
The digital clock on the dash said five fifty-seven, yet it was as black as midnight outside the truck. Vin fought to keep the big vehicle on the road. He had forestalled Chris driving by simply grabbing the keys and swinging up into the driver's seat. Chris didn't argue. His foot pressed to the floorboard as if he could make the truck go faster, but logically he knew Vin was driving as fast as he could, probably even faster than he should given the weather conditions. It would help no one if they ended up in a ditch.
A six-hour drive back to Denver. Six hours in good weather conditions. More like seven or eight with this rain.
Anything could happen in eight hours. Anything could happen in six hours.
Something could have happened already.
'Please let them be okay. Both of them.'
Staring out into the inky blackness, his thoughts were inevitably drawn back to another night years before.It had rained all the way to Colorado Springs that morning. Buck kept complaining he couldn't see. The truck really did need new windshield wipers. After the all-day training session finally let out around four-thirty, they found an auto-parts store and got a new set. There was a Mexican restaurant nearby--brightly lit and cheerful against the gloom of early evening.
Buck grinned as a couple of young women--office workers from the looks of them--giggled coyly at the big agent as they sashayed into the cantina. "Hey, Pard," he grinned. "How 'bout an early dinner?"
"Ought to be gettin' back," Chris drawled. He barely managed to restrain his grin at the downcast look on his friend's face. Poor Buck looked so forlorn standing in the rain. Chris turned the screws a little deeper. "Ya know Sarah will be keepin' dinner warm. Think she was goin' to make liver and onions, just for you."
Buck looked horrified. The very first time Sarah'd made dinner for him-- before she and Chris were married--she'd made liver and onions. Buck hated liver. But he didn't know Sarah all that well yet and he didn't want to hurt her feelings, so he'd extravagantly praised the meal. That sealed his fate. Convinced that Buck loved liver and onions, Sarah "treated" him to the meal on special occasions. Buck didn't realize how much of a sacrifice it really was because Sarah hated the smell of cooking liver. Chris loved liver and onions so he never told either of them the truth about how the other one felt. Sarah doggedly continued to make liver and onions for Buck, and Buck continued to choke it down and come up with compliments about it.
"Oh, Chris," Buck almost yodeled. "It's a long drive back in the rain and a man needs somethin' under his belt..." Buck's eyes lost focus as another bevy of beauties trotted into the restaurant.
"Yeah, you're thinkin' about under your belt all right," Chris returned. He clapped his partner on the back. "Come on, Cowboy...can't have you wasting away, can I?"
The food was great, the atmosphere cheerful. The specialty of the bar was a sangria punch. Buck--the designated driver--only drank one (it was never a good idea for a cop to get caught DUI in another town) but he had a good time flirting and dancing with the ladies. Chris enjoyed the food and wine but was more than ready to drag Buck out of there about seven-thirty. The smoke and noise--on top of the fluorescent lighting in the conference room all day--was giving him a headache.
He dozed off on the way back to Denver. Half-aware, he vaguely realized when Buck made the turn off the highway to the ranch. A few minutes later he was yanked rudely from sleep when Buck stomped on the brakes. "Jesus, Buck, what the hell--"
It was the look on his friend's face that stopped him. Buck's eyes were huge and he looked like a man who'd just seen his worst nightmare come true. "God no, God, no," he kept whispering, staring ahead.
Chris didn't want to see. He didn't want to know what could make his friend look like that. Buck turned to him. "Chris--" he said brokenly.
Chris looked out the window. Flashing lights, police cars. An ambulance. Fire truck, the firemen attending to a burned-out vehicle.
Oh, God, no....
A tiny body on a stretcher, being raced to the waiting ambulance.
A sealed black body bag awaiting transport into the Coroners wagon...
Chris' eyes traveled back to the smoking ruined truck. His truck.
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