Two men, one older, one younger, stood in the cab of a cherry-picker and struggled with the thick steel cable that would finish securing a canvas banner to a pair of sturdy tree trunks. The sign on the side read "Corbett and Son, A Park and A Purpose."
A similar expression of concentration reflected on their faces as the son leaned over the guard rail, the older man clutching onto both the harness and his son's belt for security. Giving one final Herculean tug on it to pull the cable's tension to its utmost, Corbett, junior, looped a crimp element around the taut wire, then flattened it. Releasing the cable, the banner hung between the trees, motionless in the still air.
7th Annual Father's Day Picnic-June 15th
Music!!! Food!!! Fun!!!
Sponsored by Chapter 34, Denver Kiwanis
Corbett, senior, patted his son's back at their success and helped him slide back into the cab. Their job completed, they picked up two coffees waiting on the floor and sipped them in satisfaction.
Beneath them, the earliest residents of City Park arrived to perform their morning rituals. Park workers indulged themselves in one final drag on their own Styrofoam coffee cups before heading out to their assigned tasks. Dog walkers circled the trees on nearby dirt paths. And a pair of runners, one older, one younger, passed through the elaborately carved columns of Thatcher Memorial Gate as they headed towards the park's large interior lake.
One was very tall, and ran with the easy, loopy grace of a natural athlete. His dark brown hair was curly, his moustache was full and dark, and his T-shirt displayed a picture of a grinning crocodile and a logo that read "Bayou Beer--Made with Real Swampwater!" The second man was also muscular, but his agility was restrained within a considerably shorter frame. His hair was straight, layered, and black, he couldn't grow a beard to save his life, and his shirt read simply "Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Run 1999." His hands scooped the air as he jogged.
"Slow down, Buck! I'm shorter than you!" JD Dunne kicked out his legs in awkward galloping leaps. At five-feet nine-inches, every morning's run was a labor to keep up with the man who was his best friend, roommate, co-worker, and unfortunately for the slight youth, lanky rival to the Jolly Green Giant.
The summer heat did nothing to help the twenty-four year-old's struggle. He tucked his long, flyaway bangs inside a backwards-set newsboy cap, then wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt.
The taller man abbreviated his stride and circled around his running companion. "It ain't the short legs, son. It's the four quesadillas ya had last night."
Pivoting gracefully, six-foot four-inch Buck Wilmington reversed the direction of his spiral. "And the plate of nachos. And the beers." Then, running backwards, he corkscrewed around the youth, causing JD's eyes to blur. "And the remainders of Tanner's enchilada and my chile rellenos."
JD forcefully swallowed down a sour memory of his dinner as Buck leaned in so close to his ear he imagined he could feel the man's thick moustache tickling his skin.
"And was that the wrapper to a package of Ho Ho's I saw in the kitchen garbage pail this morning? Great way to start the week."
JD futilely wiped at the sweat trickling down his neck, then flicked his hand at Buck. "It was Ring Dings and thanks for reminding me." The young man groaned and playfully thumped his friend in the gut. Buck quickly curled over in front of JD and lifted him in a fireman's hold, continuing their jog down the park's dirt path.
"Ow! Buck, slow down!"
"We'd better get ya home, Junior, before the next Mexican earthquake erupts!"
"Yeah, I think it's going to be an 8.3 all over your head!"
Laughing, Buck dropped the ailing man back to the ground.
With a teasing glance, he continued onward, shadow-boxing the air before him, pretending to finally knock out his opponent with a devastating uppercut. Raising his arms in a V for victory, he sprinted several yards before attempting a half-assed handspring that nearly defied his forty-two years. Then he staggered backwards to a nearby park bench and comically collapsed, clutching his hands to his chest in a mock heart attack. A dramatic death scene ensued, ending with Buck sprawled over the bench, tongue hanging out of his mouth.
JD walked over slowly, compelling his shaky legs forward. Finally arriving at his friend's side, he sat down lightly on Buck's chest, stood up, sat down on his chest again, and continued the action until the older man sat up and knocked him to the ground.
"What're ya doing?"
"CPR," JD replied, with an innocent gaze.
"Never saw that sort of CPR before."
"Yeah, well, I figure the only way to bring an asshole back to life is with another asshole."
Buck snorted in glee. "Yeah, you're an asshole. And, kid, you are soooo dead!"
"Everything all right here?"
The two runners looked up as Corbett and son approached them in concern.
"You okay? We've got a radio if you need to call an ambu--"
"No, no, everything's all right," Buck reassured them. "We were just having a little fun."
"Well, you scared ten years off my life when I saw you go down," said Corbett, senior. He pointed at the newly hung banner. "Maybe you should save your fun for the picnic."
JD looked over in the indicated direction. After reading the announcement, a scowl distorted his lips, but he quickly lowered his head to conceal it.
"Sorry that happened. But we appreciate a good citizen's concern." Buck held out a hand, which the city worker clasped. "Thank you."
Corbett, senior, shrugged. "Been real hot lately, you never know what could happen. Maybe you should both get indoors. You might have been having fun but your kid doesn't look too good."
JD took his cap off and fanned himself. "I'm fine and he's not my father."
"You wearing enough sun block? Your skin's awfully fair."
"Gets that creamy white skin from his Irish mother, he does." Buck winked at his friend. "And he's got on enough SPF 35 to grease a pig--I make sure of it every morning."
Corbett, junior, jerked his chin at JD in sympathy. "They never let up, do they? I can't go out the door without my dad making sure I've got--"
"He's not my dad," JD sniped, looking up. Measuring their bruised reactions, he blushed at the defensiveness in his voice and dropped his head once again, this time in apology.
"Just glad you're both all right." Corbett and Son both waved a final acknowledgement and headed back to their equipment.
Now Buck glanced up at the banner. A grimace played across his own lips but he shrugged it away like water off a duck's back. He turned to his roommate with a mischievous glint in his eye. "Now what was I saying, JD? Something about having to come up with nice words for your funeral?"
JD scrambled to his feet and raced away, checking behind himself as Buck easily reduced the distance between them. Ducking to the side, the former New Englander sped down a sloping hill, the intensity of his descent pounding his knees into Jello. Still Buck loped effortlessly towards him, a smirking smile evident beneath his moustache. JD knew he was dead meat for sure.
But instead of the expected tackle, Buck merely grabbed the newsboy cap off his head and flung it ahead of him like a Frisbee. Continuing the run nonchalantly, he stepped directly onto the cap with a grinding heel as it lay in his path. JD swore under his breath and picked it up, then used his friend's arm to swat off the dirt before placing the cap back on his head. Buck shook his own dripping dark curls and laughed.
"When're ya gonna get a real hat?"
JD issued no response; none was required. The topic was as old as their three-year friendship and just as constant as their devotion to each other.
Finding their way back onto their regular route around the lake, the two men jogged on silently for a while, which was not, Buck knew, his young friend's usual manner. JD and quiet were about as common a combination as a water-skiing squirrel.
"Hey, kid Ya want to head over to the Mint so I can pick up a penny for your thoughts?"
"Not thinking about anything. Just thinking."
"Uh huh. Well, don't strain yourself none."
The censure brought a smile to the younger man's lips.
JD glanced around, checking to see if the banner was still in sight, then turned back slowly. "Nothing."
Buck smiled at the transparent action. "Nothing" usually meant "something," and this time he felt he could have easily bested John Edward's psychic ability to glean the source. "You thinking about your father?"
JD snorted back his disgust. "How can you think about something that didn't exist."
"Well, he existed, or you wouldn't be here," Buck drawled. He patted the top of JD's head. "Though there's so little of ya anyway, you might have a point."
The smaller man swatted away the hand, and dismissed him with a glare.
"Your momma never told you nothing about him?" Buck asked with caution.
JD's stomach clenched. He knew he shouldn't have eaten the Ring Dings. "Nope."
"And you never asked--"
"I didn't want to bring up bad memories for her." Another twist of his stomach. Damn the quesadillas as well.
"Ya ever think what he was like?"
"Can't think about something that wasn't there." His intestines felt tighter than a bull rider's rope. Bran. That's all he was going to eat for the rest of week. Just bran, he promised himself, if he got through this run without exploding.
"Hey, I grew up without a dad, too. But I thought maybe the reason why was because he was the Lone Ranger, or a spy for the CIA, you know? Or maybe he was Superman. That would explain my amazing stamina with the ladies." Buck glanced at his friend out of the sides of his eyes and pursed his lips in a teasing smile.
But the serious youth just shook his head. "Okay, you are quite aware there is no logical way Superman could have been your father."
"No logical way? Sounds like your dad was Mr. Spock." Buck ruffled the youth's hair. "Your haircut's just as bad."
JD blushed, though not at the remark about his hair. It was uncanny how close his friend had come to revealing a hidden truth. As a kid he had put some thought to who his father might have been and Spock had rated high on his list. So had Roger Clemens, then of the Red Sox, and his fifth grade science teacher. But he later accepted, rather severely, that they had all been the romantic fantasies of a boy who'd grown up fatherless. "No, I mean, Superman didn't even sleep with Lois Lane until a few years ago. So your mom couldn't have--"
"I guess so. Superman's been around since the Forties and I wasn't born until Sixty-one. You think any father of mine could have waited that long to be with a woman?"
"Buck," JD clasped the confirmed ladies' man on the shoulder, "I'm always amazed you can make it through our morning run."
His friend laughed in glee as they headed around the large lake a final time before heading back to the duplex they shared.
The bright morning sun reflected off the water's calm surface, causing JD to blink his eyes at the glare. Looking away, he could see the mocking banner again as they passed the gate. His eyes returned to the lake, allowing the brilliance to blind out the sight.
Buck glanced at his companion and noted a return of the downward slant of his mouth. "You know, there're great advantages to not having a dad," he offered, wiping some sweat off his neck. "It's very economical, for one thing." He pointed back towards the sign. "Never have to send a Father's Day card."
JD shrugged. Economy wasn't the saving grace in elementary school when every year the teacher would mortify him by announcing that he could draw a picture or read a book while the other children made a card for their fathers.
"Never have to buy any presents."
The next response was a grunt. At Christmas, he would always secretly include a present for his father on his gift list. He'd even made a purchase when he was thirteen, storing the gift in hopes that one day he'd be able to give it to him. The flowery tie now resided in a bottom drawer alongside worn-out belts and tattered baseball caps.
"Never had to get Dad's permission to do anything, never had to be told ya couldn't borrow the car. Never had to listen to him yelling about bad grades. " Buck caught himself short and damned himself, looking away from the Mensa member running next to him. Never got praised for all the good grades, he thought. The ends of his lips curled down under his moustache as Buck took in the miserable expression on JD's face. He softened his voice, sounding like the rustle of grass in the wind. "Never had to listen to him say stupid things, like I do."
"You don't say stupid things," his roommate protested.
"Oh, never," Buck agreed. "But the wrong things, a lot. Inappropriate things on a regular basis. Then there's unthinking, obtuse, insensitive. "
"Unintentional," JD countered. "But you mean well."
"So did Typhoid Mary, when she was serving up soup." The concerned flutter of Buck's heart quieted when he saw a cheerful smile return to his friend's face.
"Well, there're other things you say that are really important," JD said. "Really smart."
"Like when I give you advice on women?" Buck suggested. "I'm good at that."
"Yeah." JD was grateful for the change in subject.
"And don't you always need it."
"That's what you say." But JD knew he was right. Raised by an extremely puritanical mother, the young man still fought an almost maidenly shyness when it came to matters of the heart and groin. Buck's open and unrestrained nature may have made him cringe at times, but he appreciated the chance it gave him to ask questions left over from an adolescence that wasn't so far away.
And truthfully there was an issue he'd been wanting to discuss. Now was as good a time as any. "Buck?"
"I could use some of that advice right now."
The ends of Buck's generous lips curled back up under his moustache. "Casey-type advice?" he said, already figuring the youth's girlfriend to be the subject matter.
"She's been talking about exclusivity."
Buck nodded with a teasing solemnity. "It's been my experience," he started, followed by a wink, "which is, of course, considerable," he continued, both men grinning at the unnecessary qualification, "that women seem to be all for it."
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" the younger man said lightly. "But she's been talking about not being exclusive." He looked up at his friend. "Doesn't that sound like she's leaving me? Like she's found someone else?"
"Now don't go rolling up your tent before the campfire's built."
Buck squeezed him affectionately on the back of his neck. "Not necessarily. Have ya asked her directly?"
"Too afraid to."
"Can't fault you there. Personally, I'd rather know right away where I stand."
"So you can move on to the next woman, right?"
He flinched as Buck cuffed him lightly on the head. "We're talking about you, son. Y'all know this old man has all the restraint of a spoilt child at a candy store where women are concerned." He licked his lips and chuckled, then beamed a soft smile down at his friend. "But tell me the truth. Have ya asked yourself if it's what you really want?"
"Of course," he blurted out, a bit too quickly for Buck.
"It's just that you're very young, you haven't had all that much experience, and it hasn't escaped my notice that your desire for a java refill every morning seems to coincide with the coffee break of that delectable young damsel from the DNA lab."
JD's jaw dropped in shock as Buck leered. "Busted!"
"Well, at least I haven't--" His response was interrupted by a ringing sound.
"What's that, your cell?" Buck shook his head and slowed to a stop. "Well, no wonder you had trouble running. That adds about half your weight!" He sprawled down on the grass as JD reached into the pocket of his running shorts and brought out the phone.
"Agent Dunne Hey, Chris. "
JD held out his palm for silence. "Yeah We'll need to go home and change, but Sure, give me the address We'll be there." He clicked the phone off and offered his hand to pull Buck back to his feet.
His friend arched a questioning eyebrow. "Bad?"
JD bit his lip and nodded. "Bomb went off at the Women's Freedom Health Clinic."
The wheels of Buck's Chevy truck jumped the curb as he turned abruptly into the clinic's parking lot. Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, and the vehicles of various emergency response teams were scattered over the concrete with all the symmetry of a powered-down bumper car ride. Included in the muddled assortment were the cars and trucks of their own Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms teammates.
JD gasped softly at the sight before them.
The front of the ranch-style clinic was draped with a perverted curtain of twisted steel beams and frayed electrical wires that snaked precariously through empty, blackened window frames. They could see heat-blistered walls through the gaping openings, scratched by charred timbers from the building's destroyed structure. Scorched cushions lay in haphazard piles among the skeletal corpses of mangled furniture. Glass shards and the gleaming metal remains of medical equipment glistened in the morning sun.
"Can't you put any hat on the right way?"
JD threw up his hands in defense as his partner attempted to turn his backwards-set ATF cap around so the bill was in front. Joining in the tension-relieving gesture, he pushed Buck's hands away in a teasing struggle, managing to successfully parry the attack. "You're the last person I'd take fashion advice from."
"What'd I tell ya about respecting your elders, boy?"
"I'd respect 'em if I ever found one." JD's eyes widened in jest.
With lightning reflexes, Buck pulled the hat off and ruffled the younger man's hair, then jammed the cap back on his head. "You know, there're good reasons why that faces forwards. Like not getting shot by your friends." He grabbed his own cap from the dashboard. "All right. Let's do it."
Exiting the truck cab, Buck pulled on his identifying jacket and ducked his tall frame under the yellow crime scene tape before settling his own cap on his head. Rubble crunched under their feet as JD followed close by. They were stopped by a nearby policeman almost immediately. "Where're you going, gentlemen?"
JD looked up at his partner smugly, pointing at the frontwards bill of his cap. "Oh, yeah. I want to be next to him when the shooting starts."
Buck rolled his eyes while cuffing him on the head. "Don't sass me, boy."
They brought out their shields and waited patiently while the cop inspected their identification. "We're on Team Seven." Buck pointed towards a man standing in front of the bombed-out building. He nodded back soberly as team leader Chris Larabee caught his eye.
"The Magnificent Seven?"
JD smiled proudly, wondering if he'd ever lose the small thrill that surged through his chest whenever he thought about his job and his friends. He touched the brim of his cap in salute.
Satisfied, and not a little awestruck, the policeman waved them on.
In existence for only a little over three years, the ATF Bureau's Regional Mobile Enforcement program, REMTEF for short, was similar to the task forces developed by other government agencies in plan and philosophy. Ready to mobilize within their designated territories inside twenty-four hours or less, each of the regional teams consisted of a handful of agents with specialized training, led by a group supervisor. The selection process had been tedious and long, subject to endless approvals, to ensure that only the most exemplary and impeccable men were chosen for this dangerous and unique assignment.
Team Seven shattered the mold. Its group supervisor had been given carte blanche to select its members, most of who had come from unusual sources with questionable backgrounds. One had been suspected of being on the take, one had been only two days past the minimum required age for enlistment, one could barely read. Most had been subjected to being tested on the most basic of training as they arrived, just to satisfy the required and endless paperwork as the team came together. All were considered mavericks, unable to be branded by government standards. The men of Team Seven considered themselves family, with a bond that seemed indestructible.
They also held an unparalleled success rate in their investigation of arms smuggling and terrorist activities, due in no small part to Larabee's astute assemblage of skilled, dedicated agents. Thus the well-deserved appellation, "The Magnificent Seven."
As one of its resident explosives experts, it fell on Buck to coordinate and analyze the findings in bomb cases. And, in his unofficial role as mentor, the experienced agent dutifully tried to pass on his knowledge to his young teammate. Both were responsibilities he often reminded JD he would've preferred to be phased out through lack of need.
"Jeez, it's quiet. Lousy way to start a Monday morning. You happen to recall the last time we worked a bomb site?"
JD considered the question as he reversed the direction of his cap to his own preference. "At least a year and half, I think."
"I hate the quiet." A shiver racked Buck's body. "Gets up my nose."
"How could--" He suspended his question to follow as his partner quickly made his way through the maze of cars onto the clinic's lawn to catch up with their teammates.
They spotted Vin Tanner at one side of the building, checking over a property map with a Hazmat team. Shaggy, dirty-blond hair spilled over his collar and the black color of his team jacket made him appear even slighter and scrawnier than his normal scarecrow-like appearance.
The quiet Texan was regarded as the de facto second-in-command of Team Seven, though not from his years; at twenty-seven, he was the second youngest on the team. Although he'd already survived careers as an Army Ranger, bounty hunter, and U.S. Marshal, his unofficial rank came from a solid and unflappable demeanor, a strong sense of honor, and an almost mystical connection with their team leader. Private and unpretentious, Vin was the team's sharpshooter, with a sense of humor as deadly as his aim.
Buck glanced at his companion and tilted his head towards Vin, who was pointing towards the voltage boxes on the lopsided structure, then at various areas on the ground.
JD scrutinized the property. "Secure all gas and electric lines. Check all trash cans, window boxes, signs, sewers, and manholes. Overlap teams for better coverage."
"And?" Buck nudged him.
"Huh? Oh, check for hazardous materials on the perimeter."
"A-plus, as usual." Buck started forwards, then stopped for JD to catch up to him. "You waiting for an extra-credit question?"
"No, I just--"
"No time for 'just', son."
Moving up the walkway, they passed another team member, Nathan Jackson, who also held a map.
"Sorry we had to interrupt your morning run." The former Army medic greeted them soberly. "Good thing one of you always carries his cell."
"You saying we're predictable?" Buck squinted in the morning sun.
"Reliable," Nathan soothed. A big man but not a heavy one, he was well-regarded as the peacemaker of the team, through his teammates did well to remember that his normally gentle nature complemented a fearless and fierce belief in equity and fair play. Self-possessed until provoked, his solemn brown eyes could comfort or cut with a single glance, just as the knives he carried as a Federally-trained Tactical Medic could cure or kill.
Hunching his shoulders, Buck stared at a spot on the ground. "Any casualties?"
The black man shook his head. "We were lucky. Bombs went off before the clinic opened."
JD felt a chill rise up his spine, despite the growing heat of the day.
"Bombs, plural?" Buck removed a small pad and pen from his pocket and scribbled down some notes.
"Near as we can tell, there were several, all placed in the lobby." Nathan gestured at the floor plans in his hand. "Dogs are already walking a third sweep for duds."
"Pipes. Filled with shrapnel of some kind."
"They knew what they were doing." Nathan shrugged. "We haven't found any identification to known groups yet but it's still early. Haven't found the timing devices, either."
"Okay. I'm sure Chris'll get JD on the EXIS as soon as we get back to the office." Buck jammed the pad back into his pocket and affectionately patted their computer expert's shoulder. "Let's give him as much as we can to work with."
Nathan concurred. "Do you want me to go work the muckpile or? "
"Think I'll spare you that fun. Can ya see if they've found any secondary devices? And get a report on barriers, just in case, okay?"
"Sure thing, Buck." Jackson left for the large van that served as the investigation's center of operations.
Scanning the approach to the building, Buck popped off his cap and ran his hands through his still-damp hair, trying to make sense of the few known facts he'd already learned, asking himself, Why here? Why now? He glanced over to JD and spoke his thoughts aloud.
"Size and location of the blast seem to indicate the attack was meant to be deadly, but why set it off so early?" He regarded his roommate with an unwavering stare as the young man seemed to concentrate on the activities taking place around them.
"Did the timing device malfunction? Did the bomber simply get the opening time of the clinic wrong? Or is this just a tease to something bigger?" Buck waited patiently for a contribution to his tutorial. "Well?"
"Your ears," JD finally said.
"The quiet. It should get in your ears, not up your nose."
"My ears?" Buck eyed him as if he'd just grown another head. "I spend the last five minutes imparting my illustrious knowledge and all you say to me is 'My ears?'" The lanky agent strode up the walkway, flapping his arms like a goose about to attempt flight. "Sometimes I don't know why the hell I bother."
JD scrambled to catch up. "Buck slow down. I listen to you, really, I do!"
"Watch it! This is raw silk."
JD smiled at the familiar patronizing tones. Heading towards the location of the voice, the partners watched as Ezra Standish, Team Seven's resident undercover as well as fashion expert delicately brushed a smudge of ash off his jacket sleeve.
"Mr. Wilmington. Perhaps you would care to assist our friend Josiah here," Ezra pleaded, gesturing to the kneeling agent beside him, "as you are more aptly attired for the vexatious task of siftin' through this sullying debris."
"I'd've thought you wouldn't object to wearing our company uniform, Ez," Buck chided. "After all, it's basic black."
Known for his sartorial splendor, and great aversion to manual labor, the former Atlanta FBI agent raised an eyebrow in icy sufferance. But the rude gesture caused no offense. The other members of the team knew that just as his silk suit hid a lithe, muscular frame, his distant and defensive postures hid a compassionate, soft-hearted nature that was slowly but surely coming to the surface with the support of his patient teammates. Ezra's behavior just needed to be taken with a grain of salt--unless and until the smooth-talker managed to finagle the salt away from you, then sell it for a profit.
To his side, Josiah Sanchez raised himself up to his full, mountainous height "You deliberately thwart your assignment by wearing that, leaving more work for the rest of us."
Though imposing in size and strength, the team's oldest member at fifty was surprisingly soft-spoken. Well-traveled and well-educated, his thoughtfully chosen words could illuminate any state of affairs with the same clarity as his piercing blue eyes. The Vietnam veteran brushed his own sleeves clear of soot, purposefully sprinkling it upon his more compact teammate, to Ezra's dismay. "Not very charitable, I'd say."
"If I had returned home from last night's romantic rendezvous I might have had an opportunity to change." Ezra scowled back disdainfully. "Such was not the case when I received the call beckonin' me to this slag pile. And, unlike you, I did not come from an education that encouraged field work."
"Josiah minored in anthropology, not archaeology." JD piped up.
His salt-and-pepper-haired teammate flashed a toothy grin, off-setting Ezra's smoldering glare.
"I've got an extra pair of sweats in the truck, Ez." Buck tossed him the keys. "We sure could use your keen eyesight."
The Southerner rolled his indicated eyeballs in response. "Those aren't the same garments you employ for your morning jog?"
"Nah. You know I put those aside for twenty-four hours. That lets the sweat on them crystallize so's I can bottle it for the pheromone-deprived."
Ezra blanched at the thought. "Just, please assure me that the apparel in question has been washed in the last century."
"Of course." He waited as the man left for the parking lot, continuing to mutter various objections under his breath. Only then did Buck turn to his friends and grin. "We're talking anytime over the last hundred years here, right?"
"No, I don't need any more ADCs and we still don't have a CFI or a complete forensics team on site." Standing motionless amidst the frenzied activity in front of the building's blown-out door, Group Supervisor Chris Larabee indicated for Buck and JD to join him as he helped coordinate the response teams' operations. The authoritative calm he exuded always fascinated the two agents, who found the lack of movement more unnerving than the dramatic, agitated gestures of most lawmen in the same situation.
Chris placed his cell phone against his chest and spoke in a low tone to his former partner on the Denver Homicide Department. "Do you want Mason or Pietowski's group? I can never remember the one you owe money to."
"I owe less to Pietowski." Buck petitioned.
"Get Mason " Chris stifled a laugh as Buck groaned, then returned to his conversation. " and tell the Mayor we're not going to make a statement until we're damn good and ready."
Ex-Navy as well as a former homicide detective, Team Seven's lean, blond-haired leader was a man driven by an insatiable need for justice. A hell-raiser before being happily married, his world had been effectively destroyed by a car bomb that took the lives of his beloved wife and young son, instead of its intended targets of Chris and Buck.
After a black period of drink and self-pity, the Indiana-native joined the ATF and was soon selected to head one of the newly created special operations teams. Though he was once again allowing himself a small measure of optimism, he remained a tortured dark knight, unrelenting in a battle to prevent what happened to him from happening to anyone else.
He clicked off the phone and shoved it into his jacket pocket. "Sorry to interrupt your run."
"One hell of an interruption, huh, pard?" Buck responded softly, peering inside the building.
Chris scowled. "Never worked an abortion clinic bombing before."
"Why not?" JD asked.
His roommate twisted around. "Never been one in Colorado, kid."
"I'm counting on you, Buck. We need answers and quickly." Chris nodded towards the assorted teams deeply involved in gathering evidence. "You're point man, with Vin backing you up. All directs will report to you. Whatever you need, you just let me know."
JD smiled proudly as Buck acknowledged his leader's trust. He could tell the seasoned agent welcomed the opportunity to utilize his training in something other than his customary back-up position. This was one of the few times the older agent took a supervisory position on their cases and JD knew, in spite of his casual outward behavior, Buck was more than up to the task.
"So now will ya listen to me?" the older man gently needled him.
"With both my ears," JD apologized.
"I know you will, son." Buck looked away and nodded to himself as if an important conclusion had been made. "You always make me proud."
"Aw, shit almighty."
At the low exclamation, their gaze was directed towards a horde of news reporters descending upon the bombsite, clearly heading in their direction.
"Only a matter of time before the vultures started circling," Chris muttered.
They were surrounded in a matter of moments, microphones and video cameras thrust into their faces with all the finesse of a cannibal attack.
"Caren Coleman, Channel Four News. Do you know the bomber's identity?"
"Fred Hunter here, Action Five. Can you confirm the number injured?"
"Tara Padilla, News Twelve. Can you tell us the type of bomb and where the materials were acquired?"
Buck and JD edged away from the crowd, leaving a grim and frustrated Chris to fend off his assailants. They watched as he sternly refused to answer any questions directly, adding only that statements would be issued at the appropriate time and could they please leave the site to stop further contamination. Despite a peremptory glare his teammates swore cut through steel, his requests were ignored.
"Was it one disenfranchised loner or a right-wing group?"
"In light of the ATF's failure at Waco, do you feel competent enough to handle this?"
"What are you doing to prevent an attack during next week's rally?"
"I'd really like an answer to that question." A clear voice rose over the buzz of the swarm and JD stood on his toes, trying to locate the speaker.
A path opened through the group and a svelte, blonde woman in a silk business suit walked forcefully towards Chris. Walking closely beside her was a tall teenager, who clutched a laptop computer case in his large hands. The blonde woman introduced herself to the ATF team's leader with an obvious awareness of the cameras trained upon her.
"I'm Melinda Gardner, Agent? "
" Larabee," he mumbled.
"As some of you may know, I'm president of 'A Woman's Choice,' and this is my choice, Jake," indicating the brown-haired youth beside her. "I'm speaking this Sunday at the Women's Care Clinic." She gestured at the carnage behind them dramatically. "In light of this terrible event, what are you going to do to ensure my safety?"
JD looked up at Buck, about to ask a question, but hesitated at the strange expression on his mentor's face. "Buck? You all right? You've gone kinda white."
No response came as the older man just stared at the latest arrival.
"Buck?" JD playfully pinched him on the arm to get his attention. "You got something up your nose?"
His friend turned his head towards him slowly. "In my ears, kid." An enigmatic smile appeared on his face. "I know that voice. " he trailed off.
Before he could inquire further, they were interrupted by Ezra.
"I was wonderin' when she'd show up," the Southerner intoned dryly.
"Who is she?" Buck murmured.
"The lowest common denominator." Josiah grunted as he and Vin joined up with them.
"She heads a group that attempts to appeal to both Pro-Choice and Pro-Lifers. Very controversial." Ezra glanced at his teammate. "If you'd deign to occasionally watch the news instead of Magnum P.I. reruns, you might have been aware that she's in town to address the women's rights convocation next weekend." He snorted ungraciously. "On Father's Day, no less."
"How can she appeal to both groups?" JD asked.
"She takes a Pro-Choice stance, but the choice she advocates is to have the child." Nathan arrived, pointing to the young man at her side. "Uses her son as the example. She's glad she had the right to an abortion though she chose to have her child instead."
Vin shifted uneasily. "Sorta takes Mommie Dearest to a whole new level, don't it."
JD looked around at his teammates, trying to gauge their opinions on the subject and wondering if his expression revealed his own. Some women, he knew, didn't get the luxury of having a choice, no matter its availability.
"I'd hate to have to pay those kid's therapy bills," added Josiah.
They watched Chris attempt to placate the woman to no avail. He brusquely ended the news conference with a dismissive hand and headed towards his team.
"I'm going to grab some coffee and a smoke, then we'll assemble in, say, twenty for a briefing."
"Agent Larabee, you didn't answer my question."
He turned to see Melinda Gardner and her son dogging his heels. "Mrs. Gardner--"
She looked ready to take a step back at his glare, but then defiantly held her ground. "Ms."
Chris stalked away, shaking his head in frustration at the unwarranted attention.
Ezra stepped into the conversation, dripping with so much Southern charm that JD wished he had a mop. "Miz Gardner. Of course we'll do our best to insure this doesn't happen at the rally. If you let us do our work unimpeded, I'm sure you'll feel confident in your safety."
Melinda Gardner regarded the wall of Federal agents surrounding her, doubt in that confidence apparent in her eyes. She was met with the stony countenance of the hard-pressed gentlemen and was about to walk away when her gaze stopped on one of the team members.
"Buck? Buck Wilmington? Oh, my God!" Her hand flew to her mouth in surprise. "I don't believe it."
JD easily sensed relief in his friend's manner as his suspicion was confirmed that Buck did, indeed, have some history with this woman. But he also saw desperation in his friend's eyes as the inveterate playboy tried to locate her place in his amorous past.
"Yeah, it's me."
She pointed at his face. "The cookie duster is new."
"Yeah?" Buck nervously stroked at its sides, mentally searching his pre-moustache timeline, trying to narrow down the possibilities.
"To me, anyway. I like it."
Failing to make a connection, Buck went for his tried and true method with women--honesty. "I'm sorry, darlin'. Your sweet voice is awfully familiar but uh just where is it we met before?"
"I knew this was going to happen someday," Vin whispered to Nathan.
"The number of incidents couldn't fail to catch up with him," Nathan whispered back.
"And I'm proud ta say I was here when it did," the Texan finished.
Melinda couldn't hide her delight at his bewilderment. "Don't be upset, Buck. I'm not surprised you don't recognize me. I've done a bit of re-decoration myself. I had my nose fixed, had my teeth fixed." She adjusted her sheer summer jacket over an impressive bosom. "Had other things fixed. And I have a different last name. Would Melinda June Corey work better?"
"Oh, my Lord! Melinda June!" He grabbed her in an embrace and spun her around, hooting victory. "Melinda! Ya look great!" Releasing her, he sashayed the woman in front of him to address his friends. "Mel and I went to Tulane together."
"Went?" she chided him. "It's not like we just attended classes. If I recall correctly, we were quite an item."
Buck hushed her. "Now you know I don't kiss and tell, darlin'."
"He'd get laryngitis if he did," Nathan murmured.
"And this is your son?" The naturally physical Buck clamped his arm around the teenager's shoulder and brought him into the embrace.
"What an honor to meet you, sir." Jake slipped out of his hold and pulled away with disdainful care.
JD glanced over to his teammates to see if he was the only one who'd picked up a derisive insincerity to the boy's tone, because Buck surely hadn't. When Vin's look met his, the sharpshooter raised his shoulders in a "what can you do?" shrug. JD jerked his chin in agreement.
"It's not 'sir', kid, it's Buck. And this is Vin, Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and JD."
Melinda shook hands with each agent in turn, then paused at the last in line. "But you have to be too young to be an ATF agent."
Switching his cap from back to front, he shook his head. "'Fraid not, Ma'am."
Buck pulled the cap down over his eyes. "We brought him in on a grade school exchange program."
"Stop it!" JD forced the cap back up and crossed his arms in a huff.
Buck mirrored the move quickly. "Stop it," he imitated JD's whine.
Melinda studied the pair and tilted her head in thought. "If you didn't say otherwise, Buck, I'd swear he was your son."
"Oh, n--no, Ma'am." JD blushed.
"Close enough," Buck said with a laugh, and squeezed his friend's shoulder.
"We'll have to get together while I'm in town," Melinda smiled. "You and me especially, Buck. I'll check my schedule."
He returned the smile and casually brushed back an errant curl of hair that had fallen over her eyes. "That'd be fine. We have a lot to talk about."
"Oh, yes. We certainly do." She held his gaze for a moment, her expression sobering inscrutably. "We certainly do."