Too Late to Say I'm Sorry

by Carol Pahl

Part 1

Buck sat on the steps to his loft bedroom, lost in thought as his fingers unconsciously turned the small item over and over in his hand, his thumb caressing the smooth center insignia while a roar filled his ears. For an entire week, he held hope but today's phone call extinguished the tiny flame. His young partner, his best friend, JD, was gone forever. Dead. The word held finality. What could be said after a man was declared dead?

A week earlier…
"That's it, Casey! We're not going any further till you and me get this sorted out!" The young man stared straight ahead, refusing to look at the girl sitting beside him in the car.

"JD, please." Casey's voice hitched as she tried to stop sobbing though tears ran freely down her red cheeks.

With a sharp turn of the steering wheel, the small, blue Cavalier pulled into a convenience store parking lot just off Interstate 36 near Boulder, Colorado. JD's foot hit the brake pedal, bringing the car to an abrupt stop near the store's front door. Casey looked at the man sitting stoically beside her. He sat statue like, glaring out the windshield, not seeing the store ads but reliving the past couple of days.

"JD, I..."

"You ready to talk about it?" he hissed, refusing to look at the distraught young woman.

Unable to stop the tears, Casey released her seatbelt, scrambled out of the car and dashed through the rain into the store, afraid she'd say something she'd regret later. She took a second to glance back at her car before locating the restroom at the rear of the building, wanting to hide her tear stained face from prying eyes. JD still sat in the vehicle, gripping the steering wheel, his face frozen in a scowl. Her heart broke at the horrible things they said to each other and she turned to enter the women's room, determined to scrub the anger from her soul as she washed the despair from her face. She loved the young man sitting in the rain and knew she would have to give in to his request before the two of them would ever have a chance to repair the damage their hastily thrown insults inflicted on each other.

At the moment JD Dunne really hated himself. Not only had he alienated his girlfriend but earlier he locked horns with his partner and 'self-appointed' big brother, Buck Wilmington.

At the beginning of March, his life seemed so perfect. He loved his job on an elite ATF team and felt accepted as a valuable member. He cared deeply for Casey Wells, a college student that he'd met through his fellow team member, Vin Tanner. The young couple had even talked about a future together.

Unfortunately, the beginning of spring after a long, cold winter, didn't brighten his perfect world. Team 7 investigated and apprehended the perpetrators of a gun smuggling business. The case appeared open and shut, when suddenly all their legwork seemed for naught. Legally gathered evidence disappeared and the criminals received celebrity treatment. Trials dissolved into media circuses, leaving Team 7 with a dirty taste in their mouths, and JD at the receiving end of most of the criticism.

Winter lingered well into late March, until the jet stream shifted, sending a combination of moisture and southern heat north, colliding with a low pressure system out of Canada. Snow in the mountains rapidly melted.
Most Friday nights, the team unwound at an area bar, but with the failure of their latest case, each man went his own way. JD Dunne needed to escape the stale, tense air of the office and the unspoken hostility slamming him in the back. He called his girlfriend to invite her for a rare Friday night date.

Though the morning was sunny, a sudden spring rain shower ended JD and Casey's late afternoon motorcycle ride. They returned to the men's Timber Creek Road apartment to get dry. Casey took a warm shower before donning a pair of JD's sweatpants and t-shirt. She waited for JD in his bedroom, perusing his high school annual, while he showered.

Though he was only in the bathroom a few minutes, JD smiled when he returned to his room. Clean, wet hair splayed across the pillow while Casey slept on his bed. He padded barefoot across the room and covered the young woman with the denim quilt resting across the foot of the bed. Resisting the temptation to crawl under the covers too, JD returned to the living room and sat down on the couch. Rain continued to beat on the windows and the mesmerizing sound soon lulled the young Federal agent into a well-needed snooze.

An hour passed, along with the spring storm. JD woke with a start when the setting sun shone in his face. He made reservations to take Casey to a new restaurant and they needed to leave if they were to arrive in time to get their table. Looking into his bedroom door, he smiled. The young woman asleep exuded an inner beauty and a strength he admired.

No longer able to resist the urge to join the young woman on his bed, JD slipped under the quilt and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her close. His fingers found their way under the t-shirt and he started to tickle her waistline. Casey awoke and took up the challenge. Soon a tender wrestling match, filled with lots of giggling and playful tickling, engaged the young couple. Neither heard a key enter the apartment door or the footsteps approaching.

"You two practicing or are you doing some serious fooling around?" Big brother Buck Wilmington stood in the doorway, amused by the disheveled hairdos and messed up blankets."

"Get out of here, Buck!" a shirtless JD yelled as a fully-dressed Casey hid under the blanket.

The older man smirked as he learned against the doorframe. "Thought I might offer a little coaching, share some of my ardor expertise. 'Sides kid, once you try it you won't be so fast to criticize my methods or frequency of participation."

JD jumped off the bed and stood face to face with the taller man. "Get out of here, now," he growled into the other man's face. "You were wrong last week, and you sure as hell ain't right now! So, back off."

Buck's jovial smile morphed into a matching scowl. "Kid, I know a hell of a lot more than you do. I ain't going anywhere. You can't have it one way for yourself and preach to me that my way is wrong." He pushed the smaller man into the room. "Now, I think maybe you'd better take your little girlfriend home and then you and me need to do some serious talking."

"I don't need you telling me what I should or shouldn't do. You give advice like it's your job, but if I mention something I'm treated like I'm stupid. Well, I'm not stupid, Buck Wilmington. You want to keep on sharing your 'wealth', fine go ahead. It ain't my responsibility if there are little Wilmington's living in a homeless shelter somewhere. Or if their mothers can barely put food on the table."

Turning his back on the larger man, he offered his hand to his girlfriend. "Come on Casey, I'll take you home."

JD grabbed his duffle out of the corner and started stuffing his clothes into the bag. He grabbed the annual and two photographs of his mother off the dresser and shoved them in the bag also.

Casey's wide eyes pleaded with Buck to do something but he left the room and she listened to him stomp up the stairs to his bedroom loft before the door slammed shut.

-- M - 7 --

For the last two days JD tried to forget, or at least justify, his own argument with Buck. Casey spent Saturday trying to break through his defenses but only succeeding in receiving his ire. The next day she suggested they go for a drive in the mountains and get away from the busy city. The diversion failed.

Now he had hurt Casey. JD slammed his fist into the center of the steering wheel and jumped when the horn sounded. Like any epiphany, JD realized he was wrong, wrong about Buck and wrong to treat Casey Wells the way he had.

As soon as he got home, he needed to apologize to Buck and set things straight. He'd been out of line to talk to the other man like he had. Before the sun set tonight, JD Dunne would admit his shortcomings and apologize.

JD's leather jacket dripped on the store's floor but the young man ignored his wet shoes and jeans. He stood next to the magazine rack, waiting for Casey to exit the restroom, to set things right with her first.

Two teenage girls stood near the door, starring at the young agent and trying to catch his eye. Giggling between themselves, they commented on his handsome attributes and wondered what dark secret haunted his features.

All three turned toward the cash register at the sound of two men yelling. JD set down the truck magazine and stepped toward the cashier when he heard the ominous click of a gun and the high-pitched sound of a female teenage voice. "Stupid."

Before JD could react a burning fire engulfed his side, traveling from his back, around his side and ending as pain exploded in his left arm. The bullet hit his left scapula, digging a serious furrow across his back before bedding itself deep in the muscle next to his humerus. A second bullet struck the magazines beside his head with a sickening thud. He grabbed a shelf, preventing his knees from collapsing.

Wetness ran down the inside of his shirt, soaking it, front and back. Seconds later, two more gunshots reverberated in the small store building and screaming assaulted his ears. He swallowed and looked for Casey, praying she stayed away from the carnage surrounding him. Black spots dotted his vision as he saw the woman he loved come from behind the closed door.

"No! Go back!" he tried to yell but his mouth suddenly seemed full of cotton. Fire shot through his chest as he tried to inhale. His legs felt like rubber as his eyes locked with Casey's. "I'm sorry," he whispered just before a heavy object struck him on his wounded shoulder. The darkness grew as he stared at her.

Casey saw the pained look on JD's face just before a tall girl, dressed in a ragged denim barn coat, swung a bottle of cheap wine against him. Before he crumbled to the floor, Casey saw the ominous business end of a pistol aimed at her head.

"Tough it out, sister. He ain't beddin' you t'night."

Knowing Casey was in trouble, JD struggled to stand, grabbing the shelving with his uninjured arm. "Stop!" His voice whispered the command. More gunshots crackled through the air from two members of the gang.

Kicking JD's feet out from under him, the shorter boy repeatedly struck brutal blows with the pointed cowboy boots he wore. The dark haired agent made an effort to stand but the teenager delighted in inflicting injury to the wounded man.

Brushing her stringy, dirty hair from her face, the girl waved her gun toward the two teenagers. "Get over there!" she yelled, pointing with her gun at Casey. The two girls followed Casey towards the restroom hallway. She turned to glance at her fallen boyfriend and a fist struck her in the face.

"Forget about him, sister. Neither one of you's gonna want the other after you roast." The female thug spit out the last word.

"Clean out their pockets. We gotta roll. Who's got wheels?" barked the gang's leader, holding a bulging moneybag.

The boy standing over JD searched his pockets and held up a prize, Casey's key chain. The boys looked out the store window and saw only one vehicle parked by the door, a compact blue car. Not giving up he yanked JD's wallet with his ATF badge attached from the front jeans pocket.

"Dammit, Bones. He's a cop!"

"No way." The leader looked at the three hostages and saw defiance in the eyes of one while the other two cowered and refused to make eye contact. "You a pig, too, bitch?" He grabbed Casey's chin, digging his greasy fingers into the skin. Without waiting for an answer, he shoved her to the floor. "Tape them up. We'll take the body and dump it in the mountains."

The boys' guns remained aimed at the three women and the girl roughly pulled Casey's arms behind her back. The screech of duct tape filled the silent room as it was wound around her wrists, effectively restraining her movement. The girl grabbed the next girl's arm and shoved it under Casey's right arm. Moments later all three girls' arms were interlocked and wrists taped.

After the women were restrained, the leader opened cans of lighter fluid and sprayed the merchandise, thoroughly soaking the reading material. The third boy carried the moneybag and several cases of beer out to Casey's car. He opened the trunk, threw out the small duffle bag and returned to help his buddy drag the comatose agent's body into the rain. The larger one pulled JD's leather jacket off the young man slipping his arms into the sleeves before stuffing JD into the small trunk and closed the lid, not noticing the hem of JD's sweatshirt snagged in the latch.

"Comin', Heat?" the smaller boy asked the girl.

"Soon as the bar-b-que is lit." She sneered at the three survivors, "Enjoy your trip to hell!" Grabbing a cigarette lighter off the counter she flicked the flame toward the soaked magazines. Flames soon leaped from the fuel-laden paper to the wood shelving, filling the small building with smoke.

The girl called Heat, left the smoky building, flipped the door locks and used the cashier's key to secure the door. Casey sat unmoving, watching in horror as the young thieves climbed into her car. Tears ran down her face and time seemed frozen as the car disappeared around the corner, shattering her heart and soul.

Piercing screams broke through to her shocked mind and she realized the danger surrounding them. "Shut up!" she yelled. "We gotta work together to get out of here."

"Nobody's going to save us," one moaned.

"We're going to die! I don't want to die!" the other bawled.

Casey tried to stand but was held down by the other victims. "Get up! We've gotta work together. We aren't dead yet!"

"We're going to die, we're going to die."

Casey jerked her left arm, stopping the panic mantra. "Get UP," she repeated.

Flames rapidly consumed the store's merchandise, filling the enclosed space with deadly black smoke, depleting the oxygen, and starving the victims' lungs.

Though awkward with the way they were restrained, Casey and the two teenagers finally stood, their shoulders touching. The college coed led the trio to the cashier's desk where she hoped to find a working telephone. The body of the store clerk sprawled across the counter, a desk phone sat beside his hand.

Flames engulfed the room and the roof began to smolder. Casey used her elbow to knock the receiver off the cradle. She groped for the right buttons, praying that she pushed 9-1-1 as electrical circuits overloaded and sparks exploded around the girls.

Finally gaining control of her panic, one of the girls helped Casey grab the dead man's shirt, pulling him toward the door. The locked glass doors blocked their escape. Coughing stopped any conversation the girls might have shared. Casey's lungs hurt and her eyes burned. Needing to lash out in her anger and frustration, she kicked at the door, first with her toe and secondly with her heel. The other girl realized what Casey was attempting and soon both girls thrashed at the unbreakable glass. Unwilling to give up trying to escape, Casey leaned into her fellow prisoners and shoved both booted feet into the door in a last ditch attempt to get away from the sure death awaiting them if she failed.

The force of the final kick shattered the glass and left a jagged opening. Fresh air rushed into the smoke-filled space, offering relief to the oxygen-starved lungs of the trapped victims but also adding fuel to the all-consuming fire devouring the building.

Casey continued to kick the broken shards of glass from the opening. Tied together the three girls wouldn't be able to exit through the small space. She grabbed a piece of glass and started sawing the duct tape holding her captive while the two teenage girls tried to climb out the broken door.

"Wait!" Casey screamed. She could feel the tape giving away but the pull of the other victims was pulling her off balance. With a final tug the tape released and she pulled her arms loose from the others. Having her hands free, she made quick order of removing the tape from the other girls' wrists. Liberated, they quickly scampered through the opening.

Casey pushed the clerk's body toward the opening and the others pulled him to safety.

As she pulled herself from the smoke and flames, Casey heard the approaching sirens. She laid her burned face on the wet blacktop and felt the cooling rain pound on her sore back. Her arm snaked around JD's duffle bag and she pulled it to her chest. Knowing their rescue was arriving soon, she succumbed to the grief held at bay. For the rest of her life, she would remember the look of pain, and then sorrow, on JD's face before he fell to the robber's blows. Her tears mingled with the raindrops and sobs wracked her aching body. Would she ever have the chance to tell him how very sorry she was, how much he meant to her? The pain of her heart breaking hurt as much as the squeezing pain in her chest and she surrendered to the darkness beckoning her.

The small car sped out of the town, taking curves and corners at the same speed as the straight roadway. The rain continued to fall but the car's occupants ignored the steady pounding on the roof.
"Hey, Heat. Give me anothe; this one's bottomed." The driver chugged down the state's recognized brew as he drove up the winding road without decelerating. Tossing the empties out the windows, the occupants left a trail to their demise.

The small car ate up the miles as the teens consumed the stolen beer. Ignoring the heavy rainfall, the driver challenged the switchbacks and continued to accelerate.

High in the mountains the bare poplar trees swayed in the wind, hypnotizing the girl in the back seat. Realizing she consumed more than she could hold, she screamed, "STOP!"

Bones slammed on the brakes; too drunk to realize the car would only hydroplane on the rain-covered blacktop. The Cavalier smashed through the roadside brush and became airborne across the narrow ravine. Slamming hood first into the opposite bank, the car teetered before falling to the driver's side.

The poorly latched trunk lid sprung open and spilled its cargo onto a small ledge seconds before the car careened down the steep embankment and came to a sudden halt in the middle of the tight passageway. Sparks snapped through the air just before the fuel exploded, lighting the valley in a ghostly glow. The flames consumed the vehicle and its occupants, melting plastic and rubber, and sent a poisonous, black cloud into the rain soaked air.

Raising his throbbing head from the muddy ledge, JD watched in horror as his girlfriend's car became a flaming torch. Dragging his injured body towards the edge, his only thought centered on Casey and rescuing her from the inevitable. He reached out his uninjured arm and grabbed a large rock jutting from the edge, hoping to crawl down the slope and reach the car. The stone shifted in the sodden ground and separated from the earth as his weight pulled on it. JD lost his balance, falling several feet before becoming tangled in the small shrubbery growing in the poor, rocky soil. His head slammed into another rock and the young agent succumbed to a dark void, his injured body unable to withstand any more punishment, his spirit unable to accept the loss of his girlfriend.


Index | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

I'd love to know what you think. Carol