Back at his desk, JD slid a disc into the computer's CD drive and twisted the top off a cold bottle of Yoo Hoo. His only other companions were Josiah and Ezra, who manned the phones at their respective desks, running background checks and hoping for a convincing tip on the case among the many crackpots who called in to espouse their theories and ideologies.
The young agent carefully settled his headphones over his newsboy cap, a signal to the others that he didn't want to be disturbed. Though, he conceded, glancing around the quiet room, he was already disturbed by the frustrating thoughts that had been surfacing in his mind all day.
Buck had a son. May have a son, he corrected himself. In the back of his mind had always lurked the thought that someday Buck would find the woman he'd been waiting for all his life. He'd settle down and raise a family of full-blooded sons and daughters who could take their rightful place by his side, not like the simulated kinship he had with him. But now that it had happened, he wasn't going to give up that easily. If there was any truth in their relationship, it could not be denied that he would extend any effort to make his "father" proud. If he was going to keep his place in Buck's heart--and not be supplanted by this usurper--then he had to do something to insure the man's love.
He looked down at the keyboard and the files beside it. The answer was as obvious as the tie for Father's Day. He would resolve this case. No matter what Jake did, if he could discover the bomber's identity and help put him away, Buck would favor him. The New Orleans-native was constantly extolling his young teammate's achievements and JD allowed him the bragging rights, feeling fortunate that there was someone who thought that much of him. Praise from his other teammates was appreciated and held great weight, but nothing made him feel better than the pride Buck took in his successes.
So he determined he would do everything he could to stop the bombings. Contrary to the chance he never had with his own father, he would be able to prove how worthy he was. Buck couldn't abandon him then.
Waking up from his reverie, JD laughed to himself as he looked back up at the computer screen. Simple problems, his mother had often cautioned him, never seemed to be solved by simple work.
After tapping in the passwords for access, he began searching the Explosives Incidents System's various databases. Using Buck's reports, he entered the information that seemed pertinent in order to determine a possible individual or group of suspects.
But each promising lead ended in an incomplete conclusion. The young man knew there had to be no room for doubt before they went after the perpetrators. Since the tragedy at Waco, the ATF had been walking a fine line between compassion and contempt in the public's eye, and a case as sensitive as this allowed no margin of error.
Earlier, Josiah had distributed a report on recent bombings in the U.S., culling out those that might seem related to anti-abortion activity. Although showing a significant rise in domestic activity, particularly over the last year, he could draw no similarities between the events.
So JD turned to studying the bomb. The materials used in it were commonplace, and analysis had yielded an unfortunately large geographical area of purchase. Two of the pipes were from Baltimore; the third was from Kansas City. The igniter had been traced from a circuitous route through Idaho and Montana, but the report was unsure if that had truly been its origin. Duct tape used to assemble some of the poorly fit pieces could have been bought in any one of 2,347 stores in a hardware chain. There were no fingerprints, fibers, or DNA traces on any of the components. The jacks used as shrapnel had so far been untraceable.
Whoever had put them all together had done a very good job of covering their tracks.
With the physical evidence going nowhere, or, less to his liking, coming from everywhere, he called up the scanned photos of the site explosion and studied the blast patterns on the screen. He knew his forte on the team was his analytical perceptiveness, but JD recognized early on that, statistics aside, studying the fieldwork often provided a better key to unlocking the mystery's door.
Sometimes he imagined his thoughts moving around in his head like a series of cogs and wheels. He'd spin them around endlessly, re-positioning the interlocking pieces until the answer would drop into his brain like the end product off a conveyor belt.
The album ended and JD removed the headphones. He pictured tooth-edged gears ricocheting off the walls of his brain. Frustrated, he tipped back in his chair until his cap fell to the floor behind him.
"Looks like a Silly String explosion, don't it?"
JD lurched as Buck loomed up behind him. His chair pitched forward and he barely caught himself from crashing into the desk, slamming his hands against its edge. He glared up at the older agent. "That's the second time you've snuck up on me today."
Buck took no notice of his remark, pointing instead at the photo on the screen. The pink twine that connected the routes from the blast origin to where each piece of explosive or shrapnel had hit a beam or wall did resemble a fanned pattern made from the child's toy.
"D'ya think that's what they use?"
JD tsked his disgust and began a sarcastic response, but stopped when he recognized the teasing gleam in his mentor's deep blue eyes. "Yeah. And I wish they'd stop using Silly Putty to duplicate the reports."
Buck picked up the newsboy cap and dropped it on the desk, then laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "You seem a little frayed, Junior. Y'okay?"
"I'm fine," he replied slowly, warming up to the nickname. "This case is pretty intense, huh?"
"No argument there." Buck stroked the ends of his moustache. "This day's been pretty intense, too."
"We got a lot of pressure coming down from the media, huh?"
"Well, we're used to that."
JD nodded sympathetically. "And Travis and the higher ups have been putting the thumb screws to us."
"Not something we can't handle." Buck shrugged it off.
"Then there's this thing with Melinda and her son?"
Buck smiled. "Oh, yeah. That's it."
"You want to talk about it?" He waited as the older man considered his question.
JD's jaw almost fell open in astonishment. "You going to talk about it with anyone?" he responded quickly. He knew he was whining, and berated himself for losing control.
Leaning in further, Buck entered a new URL. "Check this out."
"C'mon, you can always go back."
JD could already sense by the address what Buck was uploading. The silhouette of a woman appeared on the screen, her arms outstretched to her sides. The outline of a baby floated above her right hand while the space above her left hand remained empty. He re-read the URL for confirmation. www.AWomansChoice.org
"And when we go to the bio page," Buck clicked the mouse on another command, "look who we have here."
Side-by-side photos of Melinda and Jake Gardner glared out at him. The caption to Jake's portrait was labeled "The Choice." Interspersed among the text of their life stories were smaller pictures, seemingly culled from family albums but more likely from photo ops.
Buck scrolled down and placed his finger on the screen, below a portrait of a very youthful Melinda. "That was her at Tulane." He gave JD's shoulder a squeeze. "Purty thing, huh?"
Josiah and Ezra joined them. "A lovely specimen," the Southerner agreed.
"She's not a science experiment," Josiah corrected him.
"And where's the link to 'Bad Mistakes Of My Past'," Vin asked, as he and Chris entered the room and passed by the desk. "That where we find yer bio?"
Buck straightened up and peered down at his smaller teammate. "Now, Tanner, we know all you've done is surf the porn sites, so here's an opportunity for you to see a more important use of the World Wide Web."
As they debated, JD floated the cursor over several selections and clicked on a new link, bringing up the itinerary of the Gardners' current campaign. He had a nagging desire to see where they had been. And how far away they would be when they left.
"Hey, I could use that." Buck said, glancing over his shoulder at the screen in mid-debate with Vin. "Print that out for me, kid."
"No problem." He sent a copy of the page to the printer for Buck, then again for himself.
"Speaking of schedules," Buck continued, "that reminds me. I invited Mel and Jake over for dinner tonight."
JD looked up sharply, then lowered his eyes when Ezra caught his reaction.
"Seems she never gets a home-cooked meal and I thought, well, I could pick up a few steaks and we could make a party of it."
"S sure," his roommate agreed.
"Everyone's invited, okay?" Buck elbowed his way through the crowd and began to straighten up his desk. "Can someone get word to Nathan?"
Josiah left to dial up his cell number as Vin walked over and knocked on Chris's door to offer the invitation. JD could feel Ezra still standing by his shoulder, reading over the Website.
Buck winked at his partner. "If Casey's forgiven me, will she come, too?"
"I'll ask her."
"You know if we've got anything in the fridge or do I need to go shopping?"
Both men reflected upon the question seriously for a moment, then shared a grin.
"Right," Buck conceded. "I'll go shopping."
"I can bring some fresh home-grown tomatoes," offered Josiah.
"Just please remember to clean off the fertilizer this time."
"You need something to get things started?" Chris leaned out of his office. "Your forte's lighting fires under women, not charcoal."
Buck offered a one-finger response to his old friend's teasing. "I'll pick up plenty of chips and dip."
"Don't forget the Coronas."
"Do I ever?"
Adding a second finger to the first, Buck snapped off a salute and grabbed some files. "See ya later, girls."
JD swiveled around in his chair to watch him leave and found Ezra's green eyes in his line of sight. "What?"
"Why does my intuition suggest you'd rather be havin' a root canal than spendin' an evenin' at home with Father Knows Best?"
"Don't know what you're talking about, Ezra." JD absently picked up the page in the printer and stuck it in his case file. "I'm sure we're going to have a very good time."
"Yes, yes, of course. A barbecue with the family is a fine idea," Ezra mused. "I'm lookin' forward to the grilling."
JD took a longer route than usual to return home, winding through Denver's back streets without any goal except distraction. But all his thoughts kept traveling back to one word he had heard earlier in the day. "You want to talk about it?" he'd asked. And Buck,
Chatty, gabby, wordy Buck,
Garrulous, voluble, pleonastic, long-winded, and more often than not un-shut-upable Buck had responded with one word.
It wasn't a word JD often heard from his best friend, especially during bad times. When one of them was troubled, or confused, or unfocused, the other would suggest they talk it though. At best, they would brew a pot of coffee and sink down into the worn, plush couch in the living room, only ending the conversation when the sun glowed through the curtains or one of them fell asleep, whichever came first. At worst, they would offer a smile of support and table the issue until a better time. Big issues, small issues, nasty issues, nothing had been taboo. Buck knew that JD had accidentally used a spray deodorant on his hair the morning of his first interview with Chris and JD knew when Buck had discovered his first gray pubic hair. They had discussed mothers, sex, cold sores, urination, farting, love handles, and loneliness. Buck had shown him his secret cigar box of childhood treasures and JD had revealed his embarrassing middle name a year before his team members had unearthed it. And Buck had kept the secret the entire time.
So what was it about Buck's situation with Melinda and Jake that he refused to discuss? For he had seen by the look in Buck's eyes that the door was closed on that conversation.
It was over, JD thought. What we had has changed completely. Was it that easy to shut someone out?
He'd never seen Buck act like this. Buck was unfailing, constant. He may appear flighty, but he was rock-solid. When you looked in the dictionary next to the word "loyal," there was a picture of Buck. But like a stone, JD had been dropped. "No." How was he supposed to deal with him now? Like a friend? Like a co-worker?
No longer like a son, he thought.
"Hey," JD called out and dropped his backpack in the hallway. Heading for the kitchen, he found his roommate tending to several steaks marinating in a large ceramic bowl.
"Hey yourself," Buck replied, without turning around to face him.
JD opened the refrigerator and took out the marked quart of milk. When no more words from the older man seemed imminent, he brought it to his lips and took a long drink. He couldn't find any words himself. He watched as Buck continued to work with his back to him.
"The guys're coming soon." The taller man reached up to the top shelf of the cabinet in front of him and began bringing down a set of thick china plates. "You wanna get out the steak knives?"
"Sure." JD started forwards, then realized that Buck was standing in front of the very drawer he needed to open. He pointed at his goal, affecting a light tone. "Pardonnez-moi, s'il vous plait."
"What?" The anger that flared in Buck's eyes sent JD stumbling backwards with the force of its heat. "Why'd ya say that?"
"I I was just. "
"Since when do ya speak French?"
"I don't I mean, I took it in high school, but. "
Buck regarded him with a seething glare. "Then why would ya all of a sudden choose to speak it now?" He yanked open the silverware drawer and grabbed a handful of knives, slamming them down on the counter.
JD couldn't think of a single reason. "I'm sorry, Buck."
"Sure ya don't want to say that in French?"
"No, but there are a few other words I learned outside the classroom that I might find appropriate." Reinforced by the shot of calcium or his frustration or whatever spine he might have developed in the last minute, JD couldn't keep his feelings inside any longer. "What is wrong? You've said maybe five words to me in the last day."
Buck's gaze hadn't wavered. "What was that scene in the hallway with Mel and Jake earlier?
"You practically tore Melinda's head off when she mentioned lunch. And Jake couldn't keep himself from commenting on how unprofessional you seemed."
JD's stomach felt like it had been dropped as hard and quick as a seesaw hitting the ground when the other person steps off too quickly.
He couldn't think of a single thing to say that he wouldn't regret. Even when he responded again with, "I'm sorry, Buck." His voice cracked and he cleared the queasy tang in his throat with a dispirited effort.
"I'm not the only one you should apologize to."
Buck finally averted his eyes as he accepted the apology. "Well, maybe you'll tell Melinda that later."
JD nodded mechanically. "Sure." He turned towards the door.
Now the younger man refused to turn around. He felt the tentative touch of Buck's hand on his shoulder and wanted to shrug it off, but restrained himself from the childish urge.
"You don't hafta say anything to her. You didn't do anything wrong."
"Can you talk about it now?" JD asked hopefully.
"Don't think so. Not until I get some things sorted out."
JD twisted around and faced his friend. "What things?"
Buck just pressed his lips together.
"You can't even tell me?" He tried not to sound like he was pleading. "You can tell me anything."
"It's a family thing," Buck answered flatly.
JD felt a wave of heat suffuse his face and remembered that he had just learned that he wasn't Buck's family any longer and he couldn't act like it anymore. So this shouldn't be troubling him. Not much.
"Okay," he replied. "Sorry to bother you." He could barely hear himself over the roaring in his ears.
The front bell rang and JD backed away, disappearing behind the swinging door.
Casey dug her hand deep into the bag of blue corn chips and took out a handful, cramming them forcefully into her mouth. "I don't know why you didn't want to serve these, JD," she crunched around them. "They taste good to me."
"Buck decided they didn't seem manly enough to impress Melinda," her boyfriend snapped. "Of course, that doesn't stop him from using them in his 'Jalapeno Hell' nachos recipe."
"God, you sound like you're back in grade school." The young woman rhythmically banged her heels against the cabinet door as she perched on the kitchen countertop, watching as JD mixed up another bowl of onion dip. "I mean, you're certainly acting like it, playing 'Hide and Seek' back here."
With a grunted response, he tossed the sour cream container back into the refrigerator.
From the moment Melinda and Jake Gardner entered their apartment earlier that evening, JD had found numerous tasks that had taken him far away from the centers of attention. Coats needed to be placed in bedrooms, beers needed to be fetched, and now the kitchen offered sanctuary with its numerous chores. Through the door, he had heard Buck give them the requisite tour of their duplex and regale them with several stories of his more impressive ATF captures, which were not surprisingly interspersed with the loud cries of his teammates protesting the truth of the matter. Now he was attempting to stun them with his charcoal-lighting expertise on the terrace.
Try as he might, JD couldn't bring himself to join the party. For the first time in years, he felt as if he didn't belong, and he couldn't decide which was worse--the sick quiver in his gut or his disgust at the puerile self-pity manifesting itself in his behavior. Screw putting on a brave front. Screw acting like an adult. If the tomatoes hadn't been needed for their supper, he would have been hard-pressed not to put them to a different use involving a well-muscled throwing arm and a large dry-cleaning bill.
"I'm not hiding, I'm working." He stared at her pointedly. "Unlike some people."
"I'm providing emotional support to you. And believe me, that's harder than anything you're working on right now."
JD laughed at her candor; it was one of the reasons he'd fallen in love with the tough tomboy. Casey never blew smoke up any available orifice and he appreciated her honesty and concern for him, although at times he wished she tempered it with a little tact. Scooping up a glob of dip on his index finger, he offered it up to her.
"I'm going crazy lately, Case, and I don't know why. One minute I'm the mature government agent, interacting with my fellow adults, and then the next, it's like I'm back in elementary school, I'm acting like a child."
Casey swirled her tongue around his fingertip and licked off the hors d'oeuvres. "And what makes that behavior different from the average male?"
His scathing glance and upcoming stinging retort were interrupted when Ezra sauntered through the swinging kitchen door and set an empty ice bucket down on the counter next to the refrigerator. "Sorry to interrupt this charmin' scene of domestic bliss."
He quickly stepped out of the way as Casey jumped onto the floor. "Nothing to be sorry about, Ezra. Now you can keep the party pooper company. I'm going back to have a good time," she announced and grabbed the bowl of dip from JD's hands. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she plopped a small blob of it on her boyfriend's upturned nose. "Tag--you're it," she laughed, and sashayed out the door.
Blushing at her provocation, JD self-consciously wiped away the creamy mixture, then rinsed his hands in the sink.
Ezra waited, staring at the ice bucket. Years of experience had taught him that, when assigned a task, if he feigned just enough of a helplessly-lost-yet-ingenuously-determined air about himself, it would be only a short time before someone in his immediate vicinity would come to his assistance and take on the work themselves. True to form, JD turned back and smiled. "What can I do you for, Ez?"
"More ice?" he beseeched with artless sincerity.
"Let me get it."
"If it's not too much trouble."
JD wiped his hands on the cotton towel tucked into his pants and retrieved a fresh bag out of the freezer. "No problem."
Ezra stepped back from the area and looked around the small room as JD slit open the bag and dumped its contents into the bucket. A colander overflowing with freshly washed tomatoes sat draining in the sink. A sack of onions and a bowl of newly scrubbed potatoes rested on the counter, next in line to be peeled and cut. Several other plastic bags on the table bulged out with assorted pale roots or feathery tips. The Southerner leaned against the dishwasher and regarded his teammate. "What the hell did you do to deserve KP duty?"
JD's eyes shifted to the cornucopia of food and he shrugged. "Someone has to do it."
"I feel compelled to advise you that your absence from the general festivities has been noted."
The young man adjusted the backwards-set newsboy cap on his head for a moment before facing his friend. "You offering help?"
Ezra's amused laughter filled the room, then stopped suddenly. "No," he replied quickly. "Just information."
"Then you'd better go before the ice melts." JD strode over to the sink and lifted out the colander, spilling its contents into a clean bowl and replacing it with an assortment of green, yellow, and red bell peppers.
"Why're you hidin', son?"
JD dropped the bowl of potatoes onto a small butcher block table. "I'm not! I'm just giving Buck space to spend time with Jake." Dragging over the garbage pail, he began to peel off the potato skins. "I mean, c'mon. I spend almost twenty-four/seven with the guy. Jake's just getting to know him. It's hard enough doing that one-on-one, much less with an audience."
"True magnanimity, my friend. How honorable that you're concerned for the boy's feelins'." Ezra took a beer from the refrigerator, opened it and handed it off before taking another for himself. "But that's really a lot of rah di da hoo ha, isn't it?"
JD took a long swallow, then smiled. "There you go, confusing me with those five dollar words, Ez."
"Allow me to make myself clearer. You wouldn't piss on this guy if his head was on fire."
The young man shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know where you got that idea."
"No? Well, you can fool some of the team some of the time, but you can't fool me, my friend." the Southerner crowed. "Now, I'm well-trained in keepin' a mask on when necessary but you, on the other hand, couldn't fool a crowd of children a hundred yards away who were blind, deaf, and in a coma."
"Tell me something," JD pointed the utensil at him. "We all know how you feel when your mother pays a visit. What would you do if your father suddenly showed up?"
"I'd ask him for the money he owes me," Ezra shot back quickly.
JD shook his head in disgust. "Too easy."
"This isn't regardin' Jake."
"Then if you're so smart, you tell me what it's regarding. Because obviously I can't figure it out and I'm the one it's happening to!"
"I'd be delighted to--"
The swinging door suddenly opened and Chris poked his head in. "This a private party or can anyone join in the shouting?" He entered the room slowly, narrowing his eyes at JD's reddened face. "Everything all right, kid?"
Ezra stepped forward and picked up the ice bucket. "Of course, Mr. Larabee. We were just about to rejoin the revelry without."
"Without what?" Chris responded. He hefted two cold six-packs from the fridge and kicked the kitchen door back open with his foot.
"Not without me," JD said lightly. He yanked the towel from around his waist and tossed it into the sink.
Ezra paused at the door as the youth preceded him into the living room. He suddenly regretted offering his observations. If he revealed his impression on the situation with Jake, would it really help his teammate, or deepen a slowly widening rift? "Sympathy doesn't come cheap," Josiah had admonished him. As he watched JD step tentatively into the gathering, he wondered uneasily what the cost could be.
"It's about time!" Josiah proclaimed. "The prodigal son returns."
A cheer rose from the boisterous crowd and JD blushed at the fanfare. Someone patted him on the back and before he knew it, he was thrust into the middle of the assembly. If he hadn't been staring so intently at his feet in order to avoid Buck's eyes, he might have noticed the silent message of concern that passed among the faces of the other men like a game of "Telephone".
"Have a beer, kid."
"No thanks, already have one." JD clinked his bottle with Vin's.
"Then pull up a rug and set a spell," Buck called from across the room. He perched on one arm of the room's massive easy chair as Jake perched on the other, two brunette towers guarding the petite Melinda between them.
Chris placed the six-packs on the wet bar and grabbed a handful of yellow corn chips from a bowl atop the TV. "What'd we miss?"
Vin filled them in. "Well, after Melinda told us what he said when they first met, we've been recollecting Buck's worst pick-up lines."
"Best pick-up lines," his teammate sniped. Buck waved his hand in front of Jake's face to catch his attention. "You might want to take notes, son. These are gold," he drawled with a smile.
"You really think that's something to talk about, in front of her and Jake?" JD said quietly to the Vin, as he watched the pair. "I mean, it doesn't seem very considerate."
"Aw, hell," the Texan laughed. "If she knows him t'all, she shouldn't be surprised he ain't no saint." He gazed at the younger man circumspectly and murmured. "There's only one of those in this room."
"I heard one at Inez's once," Nathan offered, from his place next to his girlfriend, Rain, on the love seat. "He moseys up to some redhead and says 'Do ya have a name, or can I call ya mine?'"
"I've got one," Chris shouted. He waited until the laughter dissipated and he had their attention. "Do ya believe in love at first sight, or should I walk by again?"
Buck faked an embarrassed cringe at the teasing insults, but to all who knew him, his enjoyment at his own behavior was obvious.
"All right, all right," Josiah pounded on the back of the couch. "Here's my absolute favorite." He leaned in towards Casey and attempted his best Buck Wilmington imitation, keeping his voice rich and raspy. "There's you with all those curves and me with no brakes."
Casey's own shriek of disbelief rang above the din.
"Works every time!" Buck roared. He tapped Jake's shoulder. "You want to get out your laptop?" He pointed at the ubiquitous case at the boy's feet. "You really should be getting these down."
Jake looked towards his mother despairingly. "Let's not and say we didn't."
"Perhaps his young roommate would care to elucidate on this most imperative of topics."
"Hear, hear!" Vin raised his bottle.
"Yeah, JD's heard 'em all." Buck held out his hands for quiet. "Listen up, pards. G'on, JD. Ya'll tell 'em my most effective line."
"I know it, it's 'Here's twenty dollars!'" Nathan called out.
The medic was quickly shushed down. JD pondered the question for a moment, then raised his beer bottle in salute to his roommate.
"Okay The best the most effective the only thing he needs to say to a woman is. " he paused for effect. "Hello, I'm Buck Wilmington."
A loud chorus of raspberries and boos rewarded his contribution.
He smiled as his roommate saluted him from across the room. A reciprocal smile spread across Buck's face, and for a moment JD felt that the last forty-eight hours had been a bad dream. Then the older man turned to look at Jake, and gave him the same smile.
JD took a long drag on his beer as Casey slid in next to him and greeted him with a hug. "Told you your place was out here."
He kissed her lightly on the lips. "As long as you're next to me."
"Was I a good influence on him or what?"
A shadow eclipsed the ceiling light and JD took an inadvertent step backwards as Buck and his new-found family approached them.
"Ya see how good things can happen when you listen to my expertise?"
"Oh, please!" Casey responded, with a hair flip and a heel stomp. "You had nothing to do with our getting together, Buck. In fact, JD told me you--"
JD quickly muffled her mouth with his hand as his roommate's eyes narrowed. "I only told her how you encouraged me to pursue her in my own way Ow!" He jumped slightly as Casey's fingers found purchase on his ribs.
"And I'm sure all you had to do to get her attention was say 'Hello, I'm JD Dunne.'" Melinda purred.
JD's cheeks reddened at her artful statement. "Well, perhaps a little more than that, but thanks."
"Buck tells me you went to college in Boston," Melinda declared loudly, capturing the attention of the entire room. "Jake's going to Harvard there in the fall, to major in computer science."
"That's my degree. Congratulations. That's a good school." JD clinked his beer bottle against Jake's in toast.
"Good school?" the younger man sneered. "And you went to? "
"Um, Boston University."
"On a full scholarship," Casey added.
"Well, Harvard's going to cost me a pretty penny." Melinda sighed dramatically. "There are no scholarships available with my tax base!"
"I got in early decision." Jake flashed an oily smile at Casey. "That means I got in ahead of the other applicants."
"Oh, I know what it means, Jake," she answered sweetly, "as that's how JD was accepted."
"You must have done very well on your SATs then." Melinda placed an arm around her son's shoulders. "Jake got a 1530. Nearly perfect."
"Ya put your old man to shame with that," Buck said proudly. "I was lucky to get a 780."
"Would've done better if you'd spelled your name right," Nathan teased.
"Then how did you ever get into Tulane?" Jake regarded the agent with amazement.
Josiah laughed out loud. "Well, son, ain't it obvious? The dean of admissions must have been female."
"Hey, JD, didn't you get, like, a 2000 on yours?" Vin called out.
"You don't get 2000 on the SATs," Jake scoffed. "It only goes up to 1600."
"Uh huh. So, what'd'ya get, JD?"
JD shrugged as he took a long pull on his beer, refusing to answer the question.
"Well, remember he was only sixteen when he graduated high school." Now it was Casey's turn to put a proud arm around her boyfriend. "Which coincidentally just happens to be the first two digits of his score of 1600."
The young agent cleared his throat. "Charcoal ready yet?"
Jake shook his head in disbelief. "Geez, Jed, if you're such a genius, why don't you have, like, your own Internet company or something? Why be a glorified cop?"
"Now, son, I asked you not to call him Jed." Buck cuffed Jake lightly on the back of the head.
The boy whirled around quickly and grabbed Buck by the wrist. "And I asked you not to touch me! Or call me 'son,'" he yelled, shoving Buck's arm away. "Why don't you buy a vowel and solve the puzzle?"
JD fought the desire to deck the kid, grasping Casey's hand tightly with his own in order to temper the urge. He glanced around the room as Vin stood up slowly from the couch, obviously fighting a similar impulse. Chris set his beer bottle on the coffee table and crossed his arms, while Josiah fingered the cross around his neck.
Ezra watched Melinda, who eyed the confrontation unblinkingly. A small smile twitched across her mouth.
With a weak laugh, Buck stepped back and waggled a teasing finger. "You keep that up, Jake, and you're going to go to bed without supper."
"If you don't get that charcoal heated, Mr. Wilmington, we all will." Ezra spoke up.
JD had never seen Buck back away from a confrontation so quickly. He'd seen the older man face bullets, torture, and Chris's temper, and never bat an eyelash. But a disrespectful jerk had pulled his chain and Buck had cowered down like an abused dog. What the hell was going on?
Melinda took her son's hand and stroked it lightly. "A good point, Mr. Standish. I suppose Jake's just cranky from hunger, aren't you sweetheart?" She pulled his arm around her waist, jerking him at the shoulder. "What do you say, Jake?"
"Yeah, I'm hungry," the boy mumbled. "Sorry."
"Then, ya'll excuse me." Buck ducked his head around awkwardly and left for the terrace, followed by Josiah.
"I'll join you, brother." He shrugged at the assembly. "Anyone as acquainted with Hell as I am might help the fire along."
JD let go of Casey's hand as the tension in the room dissolved. Melinda released Jake's as well, as the chastised youth stared at a spot on the floor. JD almost felt sorry for him, just enough to unexpectedly find himself saying, "Hey, Jake, you want to help me in the kitchen? I've still got a lot of onions to slice."
"Go on, Jake," Melinda advised her son. "Just bring plenty of Kleenex."
"Oh, does Jake cry when he slices onions? JD doesn't," Casey stated. "It's about the only time he doesn't!" She nudged him affectionately. "Remember when we went to see Titanic? I swear, if the iceberg hadn't gotten them, they woulda drowned in JD's tears!"
He muffled her mouth again. "Okay, Case, I think you've done enough cheerleading tonight." With a sigh of resignation at his friends' muffled laughter, he waited as Jake picked up his laptop and they headed out of the room.
The soft hiss of the refrigerator door opening caught his attention as JD stood at the counter halving the tomatoes for grilling. Jake had been sitting quietly cutting the red peppers into strips for a salad and with an obvious lack of love between them, few words had been spoken. Now JD turned around to see him holding a beer.
"You got an opener?"
"You got an I.D. that says you're twenty-one?" He put his knife down and motioned for Jake to put the bottle back.
"C'mon! One beer." He tested to see if the cap screwed off.
JD shook his head and, placing a hand on the bottle, gently pulled it out of his grasp. "There's an 'A' in 'ATF.'"
Jake screwed up his face in disgust and sat down, mumbling. "Yeah, and it doesn't stand for what you think it stands for."
The young agent smiled and opened the beer bottle. He took a long swallow, enjoying the pissed expression it provoked.
"Where'd you get that stupid hat?"
Placing the beer bottle on the counter, he pushed his bangs up under the newsboy cap. "A friend," he answered tightly.
"Not from Buck?"
A snort of laughter began the explanation. "Not hardly. He's been trying to get me to wear a Stetson for years. 'You're in the Wild West, son,' he says. 'An' you're still dressin' like an Eastern college boy.'"
JD picked up his knife again and returned to slicing up more vegetables, gesturing for Jake to do the same. Instead, he picked up a red pepper and started chewing on it.
"You sure wouldn't mistake Buck for a college material," he said between bites. "He must have gotten left back a few times."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the math doesn't add up. If he's forty-two now, and I'm eighteen, and he dated my Mom when he was a junior, he would've been, like, twenty-five."
"He was twenty-three," JD corrected him.
Jake grabbed the bag of scallions, and began using two of them to beat out a drum roll on the butcher block. "Whatever. That's still way older than most juniors. What is he, a dummy?"
"No," came the slow reply. "He didn't go four straight years in a row. He had to take some time off."
"Ahhh." Jake's eyebrows raised in an epiphany. "Couldn't afford it, huh? His mom didn't make the kinda bucks my mom makes," he said with a proud jerk of his chin.
JD swept the finished tomatoes into a large bowl, and grabbed the scallions out of Jake's hands. "Partially," came another unhurried answer. "Though he'd raised pretty much all the money before he'd entered by working." He pointed at the colander of uncut green peppers. "And speaking of work. "
Jake finally took the hint.
"He had some assistance, lots of loans, worked his way all the way through, and still graduated with a 3.5 average," he concluded.
"So? What was the delay? Another chick?"
JD regarded him with cold eyes. "His mother's murder and the trial," he answered, hoping to shut him up.
"Oh yeah, his mom. The Betty Page-wannabe." Jake blithely continued slicing the peppers. "Sad story." He put down the knife and began tearing the peppers into strips with his bare hands. "He told us about yours."
"My mom?" JD's already pale face blanched even whiter. "Why would he do that?"
"Other than the fact that all he talks about is you, Mom happened to mention one of my sponsors at Harvard and Buck recognized the name. Said your mom was working for them right before you were born."
"The, uh, Fitzgeralds?" All of a sudden he felt entirely betrayed by his best friend. Buck had kept all his secrets before. Why had this one been revealed?
"Uh huh. Told us how your mom was fired when they found out she was pregnant."
JD tried to continue his work with newly trembling hands. "That's pretty personal information."
Jake shrugged. "Not out of context when we're talking about unmarried women who chose to keep their kids. Personally," he continued, "my take on it's that she was knocked up by one of the sons who'd be disowned if he married beneath himself." He looked up. "You look kinda like my backer. I wonder if your mom ever tried to get money outta them."
If his hands were shaky, at least he wasn't betrayed by his voice. "You've got the wrong story, my friend. And my mom worked for every penny we had her whole life."
"Yeah. Like Buck's?"
"She was a cleaning lady." He glanced over to check on Jake's reaction and started to feel the same cringe of embarrassment he thought he'd gotten over years earlier. This kid was like all the kids he'd gone to school with in Boston, teasing the hell out of him because of what his mom did. A teasing made that much more hurtful because she cleaned most of their houses. But Jake's expression remained unreadable.
"Now I understand why this place is such a mess."
"Yeah." JD forced a grin. "I try but, you know, but it's like that old phrase--the shoemaker's children get no shoes."
"That's not the case with Buck."
"Oh no, he does his share."
"I'm not talking about cleaning. I'm talking about a kid not doing the opposite of his parent's profession." Jake laughed. "I mean, c'mon! His mother was a stripper!" He stopped, noticing the irritated expression on the other man's face. "Uh, excuse me, 'Exotic Dancer.' Now that's the kind of mom I'd like to have. Talk about an Electra complex!"
"She was a good mother. And what does her being what she was have anything to do with the way Buck is?"
"My mom and I talked about him. She knew he had a bit of the eye for the ladies. That's why she was dating other guys when she was dating him. Didn't trust him to stick. Looks like she was right."
JD put down his knife and faced him. "You mean about you? But she never told him."
"You think he would have stayed around?"
At first the agent thought that Jake was posturing with a youthful bravado. But the expression on his face was rawer, more honest than he'd seen before and he recognized it. He'd seen it in his own mirror--the fear and hope any fatherless boy in his position would have. What did JD think? Did he think Buck would have stayed around?
It's a family thing.
"Yeah. He woulda stayed." For a moment, he thought he saw an incredible relief light up Jake's eyes. A light that darkened quickly.
"Doesn't matter," Jake continued with a bitter edge. "She ended up doing all right. I'm a real asset to her cause. I'm sure you saw the website--I'm not a person, I'm a position. 'The Choice.' My ass. You want to know the truth? It was my grandfather's choice. He wouldn't let her get an abortion.
"But she makes me out as the poster child for pro-choice. Except that now I think the poster child's about to be replaced by you."
"Mom already told me she wants you to come to her next meeting and 'testify.'" Jake raised his hands skyward. "Saint JD Dunne! All the awards and medals he has. All the good he's done. All the people he's saved who would have died instead." He lowered his voice to a threatening tone. "That would never have happened if his mother had had an abortion! If she hadn't had the right to choose! To choose to have her child!"
"My mother didn't have a choice."
"You were born after Roe v. Wade. It's not like she had to worry about a coat hangar. What else is there?"
What else? JD thought. Religion. Poverty. Abuse. "There were other factors."
"Though I'm not sure Mom's really that glad you are alive."
"Well, these bombings are great for her cause. A chick who's knocked up is going to think twice about going into a clinic and have her kid instead, just like my Mom. If you solve this and the clinics are safe again she's outta business."
The subject was putting a very foul taste in his mouth and JD could see no way out but to change it. "You need to finish slicing the peppers."
"This knife isn't worth shit." Jake tossed it towards the sink, narrowly missing the agent.
"Let me get you a better one."
The kitchen door banged heavily against the pine cabinets as six ATF agents rushed in at the sound of Jake's scream and crowded into the small kitchen.
JD stood back against the dishwasher, arms across his chest, and an inscrutable look on his face that made Ezra proud.
He really shouldn't have goaded him like that. He really should have tried to help the boy. And he really shouldn't have stabbed him with the paring knife.