Stands of hardwoods and conifers grew lush and abundant as Chris urged his truck up the trails that led to his house in the mountains above Denver. JD could understand why he chose not to live in crowded city. Bristlecone and Ponderosa pines dotted the ascension, their dark green needles shining brightly in the golden light. As Chris took the switchbacks slowly up the mountainside, the Easterner watched the Quaking Aspens that lined the road, their leaves trembling in the slight breeze. He thought he spotted a scrub jay, its bright blue head and throat contrasting with the green of the foliage, as well as seeing a small family of mule deer make its way through the trees. Even though the forty-five minute drive was a much longer commute than then ten minutes or less it took him to get from the duplex to their offices, he could easily recognize the benefits of having to pass through the tranquil forest twice a day.
He had been to Chris's ranch many times--for holidays, for weekends of riding and fishing, for recovery after injuries--but the place never failed to lose its magic. When Chris first invited his newest agent up to what he called his "cabin," fears of cold drafts of wind, splinter-inducing pitted logs, and muddy pathways leading to a smelly outhouse flashed through his mind. To his relief, the facetious name couldn't be farther from the truth.
The spread included a stable, small corral, spring-fed well, and cold storage shed, as well as a garage that contained equipment for fun in both summer and winter. The twin slopes of the house's gambrel roof gave it a barnlike appearance. Rough, hand-skinned round logs met in saddle notches at the corners, and a wide porch circled from front and back--a prime spot to sit, have a cup of coffee, and watch the antics of nature or his friends. The wide lawn at the back of the building sloped down to a chilly stream that fed into a trout-rich river.
JD knew that Chris had bought the spread many years earlier from a retiring horse rancher, before prices had gotten out of hand with the infestation of tourists upon the scenic location. The house had been built in the 1930s, its only modification coming after the murder of Chris's wife and son. While he soaked his sorrows in alcohol, hiding out most of the time in the spare bedroom of Buck's duplex, Buck had seen to the removal of the fire-scarred concrete driveway. He supervised the construction of a new garage and shell-encrusted driveway on the other side of the house, converted the original, attached garage into a woodshop for Chris's hobby of carving logs with a chainsaw, and planted a garden of pink columbine and red mountain heather on the spot of the explosion in their memory.
Chris swung onto the driveway and stopped the truck. They entered through a mud room, and were greeted by a grizzled black dog who trotted happily to his owner's side. After receiving a required greeting, the old dog moved to the visitor and stuck his slobber-encrusted muzzle into the young man's hand.
"Hey, Diablo," JD murmured, then looked up at his boss. "He's moving much better."
"I'm giving him those arthritis pills." Chris arched his back and rubbed at the muscles over his butt. "Although I think we're going to start sharing them." With a last skritch on the dog's head, both took off their boots before heading into the house proper.
The inside was as roomy as the outside suggested, with a massive river rock-faced fireplace soaring into the lofty ceiling. Weathered leather club chairs and sofas were spread around the living room, draped in Navajo blankets. This "heart" of the house was bordered by a spacious dining room on its east side, a game room to the north, and two guest rooms on the west side. Upstairs was a large master bedroom, and a small, rarely-used bedroom that had been Adam's. All was decorated in the soothing earth tones of the Southwest.
"I'm going to change. Elk steaks okay?"
JD jumped as the words echoed in the cavernous room. "Sure."
"From the bull Vin bagged on our last trip." Chris loosened his tie and started up the stairs to the master bedroom. "The blue room's clean."
Hoisting his bags onto his shoulder, JD entered the first floor bedroom. Diablo followed him, nails clicking on the pegged wood floor. He tossed his sports bag on the bed, and placed the computer bag beside a slate-blue painted cupboard. Walking to the window, he thought about changing his jeans and shirt but felt no inspiration. He glanced into a twig-framed mirror next to the cupboard, and shook his head. He hadn't brought that many changes of clothing with him, and the ones he had on had only been worn for thirty-six hours, so he decided he had plenty of time before he had to exchange them for new ones.
He fell back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, his newsboy cap falling off behind him. The room was stifling, in spite of a furiously whirling ceiling fan. The air pressure was dropping with the threat of a summer storm as much as it was building inside himself.
He heard Chris running the faucet upstairs, and the muted sounds of birds settling down as the sun set, but the overall quiet bothered him. The end of his work day usually thundered with the cacophony of the two bachelors' return to the duplex. Stereo turned on loud, phone ringing, and Buck singing in the shower as he prepared for a dinner out, or rattling pots and pans in the kitchen if they were having a dinner in. Buck's laughter throughout it all.
It was such a difference from all the dark years he spent watching his mother sink into her illness. He remembered her enjoying a good laugh, but he thought he'd never heard such a constant sound until he moved in with the garrulous, fun-loving older man.
All of a sudden, he felt like sneezing. Now he understood how the quiet got in Buck's nose.
Once, when his mother had started her first chemotherapy, he had been unexpectedly picked up at school by one of her close friends. "Aunt Maida," he'd called her. Maida explained that his mother was feeling so poorly that she was going to take him home for the night and take care of him. He was probably thirteen at the time and was used to sleepovers at Maida's small apartment in Somerville, staying there over the years to give his mom a night of freedom, or simply because he enjoyed spending time with the lovable woman. They'd bake cookies or watch movies his mother didn't allow him to and she would tell him bedtime stories about the years she lived in New Mexico, working with the Native Americans.
That night he slept in the same bed in the same room with the same furnishings and the same sounds around him and yet it felt completely different because of the uncertain circumstances. He felt that same confusion now. He'd slept in the blue room a zillion times. He'd put his clothing in the cupboard, patted Diablo's head, and counted the turquoise triangles in the pinwheel quilt a zillion times. But today everything felt unfamiliar. Everything felt sad and unsafe.
Jake really was a jerk, he thought. How could he have a problem with Buck being his dad? He'd never known a more patient, compassionate, forgiving, dependable oh, shit! He sat up and helplessly hit the bed's headboard. He had to stop thinking about how great Buck was. He was supposed to be thinking about a life without him.
Diablo sprang up at the sound and with a disdainful look at the perpetrator, scrambled out of the room.
"Everything all right?" Chris peered around the door.
"Yeah," he lied. "Just crushed a spider."
"I've got the steaks on the grill. You want a beer?"
"If you don't mind." He could tell from the look in his team leader's eyes that the main entertainment after dinner would be a "talk," and he figured he should take any fortification offered to him.
Leaning back in his large, Mission-style chair, Chris took a long pull on his cigar and propped his feet up on the porch railing. Night had descended on the mountainside, shrouding the forest in a black cloak. The lights from the house behind them spilled onto the slatted deck, providing a weak illumination.
Dinner had been a quiet concern. The tender rounds of meat were quenched by cold beers; the only sounds those of crickets, frogs, and chewing. They watched fireflies glimmer over the lawn as heat lightning flashed over the mountaintop. When JD finally stood to clear the table, Chris held up a hand to stop him. "That can wait."
In reply he received a smile and a shake of black hair. "Not for Aileen's son." He waited as his boss knocked the growing ash of his cigar off onto a plate, then stacked the dirty dishes and flatware and disappeared into the kitchen.
Chris listened as the plates were rinsed and the dishwasher was loaded, then got up and passed through the room as the young man wiped down the counters.
"We going inside?" JD called out.
"Just getting something to bring outside," he answered. When he returned, he was carrying two shot glasses and an unopened bottle of good Tennessee whiskey.
JD stepped back out onto the porch as he opened the bottle and filled the small glasses to the rim. The older man took a sip and smacked his lips. "My father always said to me that a rough talk deserved a smooth drink."
His teammate smirked. "My father never said anything to me." He drained his glass and shuddered at the syrupy fire that scorched his throat.
Chris put his feet back up on the railing. "I imagine Father's Day must be really difficult for you."
"For me?" JD flushed as much with shame as from the heat of the alcohol. "I can't imagine what it's like for you!" When he didn't respond, the young man offered gently, "Hell, I would think."
Finishing his drink, the bereaved father nodded and held out his glass for a refill, JD obliging for them both.
"I have some really great memories, though." He turned his face into the shadows. "Sarah and Adam always made a big thing of it, and usually plotted some big surprise, with Buck's help." He took another sip. "You know, I think that Buck had as much trouble with Father's Day as I did after Adam died."
JD silently agreed. When Buck left the house in a strange mood the first time they spent the holiday as roommates, he had followed him. The route was a circuitous one, ending at the cemetery where Chris's family was buried. Buck had lain a small brown teddy bear on the boy's grave. Though he noticed him as he left the churchyard, they never mentioned it. JD never followed him again.
"I think Buck would make a great father. I know the way he treats me, the way he's gone out of his way to help me It's what I would have wanted in a Dad."
"The kind of relationship you have with him hasn't gone unnoticed," Chris continued. "So all this must be Hell for you."
"You can't compare the two." JD rebuked him guiltily. "No matter what happens, Buck's still alive."
"Still," Chris dropped his feet back onto the deck and leaned in towards him. "It must hurt."
"I can handle it."
"I see how you're handling it." He reached into his shirt pocket and brought out the resignation letter. Dropping the folded paper on the table, he edged it towards the young man. "You're running away."
JD reached out to pour himself another shot of whiskey but Chris stayed his hand. Jerking away, he stood up and retreated into the darkness of one of the porch's corners.
"Hiding won't help you," Chris said with a smile. "I know that for a--"
"Then what will?" he exploded. "I've tried talking to him and he shuts me out! I see him spending time with them and I'm not included! He tells me he thinks Jake is a jerk, and he'd still rather be with him!"
"You're jealous and--"
"You're damn right I'm jealous! And thanks for stating the obvious!" He paced the deck. "I can't do a thing about what's happening. I can't make Buck choose me over Jake. I don't want to--because he's right! He should do everything he can to be a father to him and I respect him for making the attempt, even though the kid is bad news.
"So all I have is my jealousy." He stopped cold and glared at his boss. "And we know that's no way to live, so yeah, I'm going to leave. How can I keep working with him?"
"Buck's not leaving you!" Chris stood.
"It doesn't matter if Buck is leaving me or not. He's discounting me!" JD's furious shout bounced off the forest and echoed back. "Discarding me! He's treating me just like like. " He rushed forward and grabbed the whiskey bottle, turning his back as he chugged down the deceptive comfort.
With an equally swift movement, Chris reached around him and pulled the bottle out of his hand, flinging it across the lawn. He shoved the young man ahead of him against the railing, then clasped his shoulders and flipped him around to face him. "Just like what?"
JD crumpled in his arms, sagging for a moment before finally pulling himself up straight. He wiped away the stray drops of liquor off his chin with his shirtsleeve and ran his hands through his hair. "Not what. Who."
A hard glint appeared in JD's eyes.
"Like my father."
Chris released him and stepped back. "I thought you said you didn't know your father."
"I know who my father was," came the cold reply. "What he was."
"I thought --"
"I said I never knew my father. That was syntax. I know who he is, I just never met him."
Chris sat back down at the table. He folded his hands and waited, but his expression offered JD no other recourse than to explain. The young man perched on the porch's railing; a growl of thunder resonated in the distance.
"He came from a rich family in Ireland. Ma grew up there, you know. Outside of Dublin. She was a beauty, and they dated in high school, and she got pregnant." His fingers picked at the weather-beaten wood of the rail. "Abortion was out of the question. She was always very religious, I can swear to that. She went to church every Sunday of every week of her life until she was physically unable to do so.
"Anyway, his family wasn't thrilled with adding a Croppy girl to their family tree. So her family shipped her off to America. She'd have the baby, and come back as a 'widow' with a child. But after I was born, they didn't want her back. They cut off all ties."
"She wasn't." The young man cut him off sharply. "I think I got the feeling that her family life wasn't too happy to start with. With just the two of us I think she figured she could find that happiness." He shrugged.
"I'm sure she did, with you as her son."
"Don't paint such a rosy picture," JD grinned. "I wasn't such a delightful child. I was smart enough to figure out how to make trouble and dumb enough not to avoid it. But we had our share of good times, until she got sick. Then I was delightful, even if when killed me."
"Handling it pretty much alone must have--"
"What always bothered me was that he knew where she was. She told me she wrote him when she got here and wrote him when I was born. She sent him pictures of me when I was a baby. After a while, she stopped.
"He just discounted her. I don't understand how he could do that. And her family did, too. Didn't they want to know what happened to her?"
"We're not talking about her. This is about you."
"Oh, I obviously counted even less." He swiveled around on the railing and leaped off the side onto the lawn. Circling around the berm, he batted at the bushes and low hanging branches with furious strikes. Finally, he came back to stand in the center.
"Has my father ever, ever, thought about me? Does he look at other fathers and sons together and feel regret? Does he feel relief? Does he even remember Ma? The letter she sent when I was born--did he read it? Did he keep it? Or did he throw it away!"
Chris had no answers.
"I didn't experience my father's leaving me. I hadn't even been born yet! But now I know. This thing with Buck--I can feel my heart come apart, like being peeled."
He strode up the stairs, up to the deck. "And I want to do the same to him. I want to leave and never come back."
"No, I'm sure you--"
"Yes, I do!" Without stopping, he continued across the deck, trembling, shaking with anger. "I just want to go! I want to leave! Now!" He entered the house and hastened toward the guestroom.
Chris jumped up and followed, to find him gathering up his sports bag and computer case. He walked up to his supervisor, but Chris leaned against the doorframe, blocking the young man inside.
"Take me back to the office. My cycle's there." JD pushed at him but the older man refused to yield.
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
"Just like your father."
"What?" The smaller man stumbled backwards.
"You heard me. You're acting just like your father. You just told me how, when the going got tough or it wasn't to his liking, your father left. Gee, without even growing up with him, you're just like him. I guess that makes the argument for nature versus nurture."
"If you had accepted my resignation, I'd punch you for that." Dropping his sports bag and computer case, he pulled his arms into a defensive posture.
"Your resignation is not accepted." Chris pushed him back into the room. "And I hate being hit when what I'm saying is true."
JD pressed his lips together, swallowing whatever response was being formulated in his mind. Lightning flashed outside the window and the sharp crack of the storm sounded overhead, splitting the silence in the room as Chris kept walking forward.
"You've told me how good it feels to have Buck backing you up," he continued smoothly. "How Buck gives you what your real father didn't. How he's everything you would have wanted. Then you go and act like the asshole who abandoned you."
The young man retreated before him, sidling around the bed.
"What do you think about when you think about how your father left you?" Chris didn't stop moving, driving him into a corner of the room. "Have you talked about it with anyone? Have you resolved anything in your mind? In your heart? I don't think you've ever dealt with it."
"What's there to deal with? It's a fact."
"It's not a fact." Chris's eyes flickered with a blaze similar to the lighting outside. "It's your fortune. How you have or have not resolved your feelings about him affects everything else, especially your relationship with Buck.
"So maybe it's not Buck you're having a problem with. Maybe it's you. How do you think he's going to feel if you leave? Jesus Christ, JD! Do you think people trade their affections so easily?"
Another thunderclap broke the ensuing silence.
"I've seen it happen," JD finally whispered.
"Not by Buck."
He closed his eyes at the truth.
"So now you get the chance your father never gave you."
He felt the movement of air as Chris withdrew but refused to look at him.
"Who do you want to be like, JD? The father that left you? Or Buck?"
JD slid down into the corner after Chris left and didn't move throughout the night. He heard the rain spattering loudly on the tin roof of the nearby garbage, smelled the heavy, loamy scent of the drenched earth. He felt the air cool down as the storm passed overhead and shivered in the chill. He stared at the floor.
Bastard. He remembered hearing it for the first time when Tony Dossiano said it behind his back when he was standing in the cafeteria line in fourth grade. He asked his mother what it meant when he got home that day. She lowered her eyes and told him that it didn't make a difference. But she didn't say it wasn't true.
They said it on the playground and in gym class. Cindy Campbell said it when he asked her to go steady. He'd actually heard the principal say it when he was brought in to be disciplined for a prank gone wrong.
He remembered how intense he had perceived the word when he first rolled it around in his mouth and head in his youth. It felt like handling lightning, the charge was so strong. Later on, in his teen years, it had become almost mundane.
When he was a child, it was an explosive word to reveal that he had no father. Through the years, it had become boring. It just was. It was a fact. It was like a childhood friend who had moved away. You thought about them from time to time, but the hurt didn't remain. Which, of course, was a lie.
With the Seven, they didn't think "bastard" every time they looked at him. With the Seven, he had stopped hearing it. Now with the reminder of Buck's son, he was hearing it again in his head.
And Chris was right--he hadn't truly dealt with the person who had given him that name.
The real bastard.
He thought about what Chris had said and what Buck had done. He couldn't decide what to do.
The thunderstorm faded away towards dawn.
Chris turned around from the stove as JD walked into the kitchen with a stiff gait. Wordlessly he handed him a cup of coffee, and the young man slid into a chair. The heat had returned in the still, empty air of the morning, and after he took a sip, a sheen of sweat beaded on his forehead. He wiped it off with a listless hand.
Coming over to the table, Chris set a plate of flapjacks in front of his friend. He brought his own coffee, then sat down and poured a stream of syrup over the stack on his plate. The syrup bottle was offered, but JD didn't take it.
"You're right. It is the truth. I am acting like my father."
Chris shoveled a pancake into his mouth and spoke around it. "What are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know. I thought about it all night, and I still don't know." He took another sip of coffee and pushed away his plate.
"You can't seriously be thinking about leaving."
JD shook his head. "It's all fucked up, Chris. I'm all fucked up, you know? You voiced something last night that I've been trying to deny. But it's true. When the going gets tough, I get going." He looked up. "You can't have someone like that on your team."
"Sure you do. I worked like a dog during school so I could get out of it as soon as possible. I left the Boston PD when I didn't like the assignment. I even left my Ma the night she died; I was out at a party because I couldn't face seeing her like that one more day. I needed to get away. You know that after my first big fuck up on the team, I was packed and ready to go."
"What stopped you?"
"I don't know. Buck kept talking about it being a part of the job. That I needed to deal with it and move on."
"Move on, but not out. Buck taught you that, huh?"
"Oh, yeah." The young man almost smiled as he easily followed the direction of his friend's remark. "That and how to piss and brush my teeth at the same time."
Chris picked up his empty plate and brought it to the sink. He replenished both coffee cups, then leaned against the counter. "I marvel at the extent of his teachings."
JD stood and brought his own plate over, scraping the uneaten breakfast into the garbage. "I think, no matter the outcome of this case, I've caused a rift that would take an awful lot to be mended. I'm not worth all that effort." His eyes glistened with held-back tears.
"You can always change your mind."
"It's better this way. After this case, you'll accept my resignation?"
Chris conceded the request. After JD left the kitchen, the older man poured out the coffee cups, but didn't move away from the sink, watching the liquid swirl around and down the drain.
Something had to happen to change his mind. Because this wasn't like just losing a team member. This was losing his family again.
Upon his request, Chris set JD up in a private office the next day. He watched from the door of his own office as the young agent gathered what he needed to continue his remailer investigation. He didn't raise a hand to help, and cautioned his other agents against offering any assistance. If the man wanted to be go it alone, he'd better get used to it, he rationalized. Two could play that game.
JD needed to make three trips up and down the hall. On his last foray, he walked back into the room to find Buck standing beside their desks. Steeling himself, he strode in and nodded indifferently at the older agent as he collected the remaining necessary materials. Buck nodded back and sat down in his chair. Only a slight shaking of his hands betrayed his casual demeanor.
"I'm at extension 5804 if if you need me."
"Okay, then. Let us know when you find something." Chris pivoted on his heels and disappeared into his office.
JD looked around slowly, his eyes connecting with each of the other agents, until they landed on the broad back of his former roommate. Buck hadn't moved. Frowning, he left the room.
The remaining members of Team Seven sat in stunned silence. Not one had ever voluntarily distanced themselves, except when undercover or ill. It was inconceivable that JD would want to work away from them. As each sought out the other for understanding, it became apparent that none had recognized how grave the situation had become.
Glances to each other for comfort all converged upon the lone agent who was refusing to make contact. Ultimately, as if aware of their scrutiny, Buck stood and faced the group. A raw anger suffused his face as he regarded them with a flinty stare.
"Don't look at me like that, I'm not the one who's making false accusations! I'm not the one who's been snooping around, requesting DNA tests without permission Making background checks or unfounded assumptions. "
Evoking no sympathy, his features softened and he cast a pleading look at his teammates. "I didn't tell him to leave. Y'all know me better than that."
"You might not have told him," Nathan accused, "but something you said or did sure made him want to go."
"I didn't do anything!"
Josiah stood up. "I think that's the point."
"What? I don't know what you're talking about."
"No?" Ezra chimed in. "Well, of course you don't. You haven't paid JD any attention since your 'real' son showed up."
"Now you don't know what you're talking about," Buck warned him.
Vin glided to the corner of the room and knocked on Chris's door. "You'd better get out here, Larabee," he said in a low voice.
"Boy's been wandering around in a daze ever since the Gardners arrived," their oldest member said. "You've been so absorbed in Jake, you dropped JD like a bad penny. How do you think that made him feel?"
"You really should stop now, Josiah, before you say something you're going to regret." Buck's body trembled as he spoke, preparing to fight or fly. "I'll admit that there's been some problems between us since I met Jake, but it's nothing that I thought JD couldn't handle. If I'm wrong, it's not my fault."
"Not your fault!" Nathan bellowed.
Returning to his office for one last, forgotten item, JD heard the loud voices. He stopped just outside the doorway, frozen in his shock, and prayed the deafening pounding of his heart didn't give away his presence.
"Not my fault!" Buck snapped back. "I didn't go looking for this kid. I never knew about him and then, suddenly, I have a son. And everything's supposed to stay the same? You think any of you could have handled things better?"
"You have an obligation to JD, Buck. You can't deny that," Josiah persisted.
"An obligation he seems to be able to dismiss very easily, leaving and going with Chris!"
"Cut it out!" Chris shouted from his doorway. "They can probably hear us all the way to Travis's office."
"That's right, Larabee. Charge in on your high horse and save the day!" Color flushed in his cheeks as Buck loosened his choking tie. "Tell me what I'm doing wrong, and make everything all right."
His former partner whipped off the tie and threw it on his desk. "Stick me with my worst mistake and take away the one good thing in my life since Adam died." He stormed out the doorway, unexpectedly bumping into JD.
Speechless, the young man stared up at his friend, then glanced inside the office to check Chris's expression.
"Don't worry," Buck's voice cracked. "You don't have to go. I'm the one who isn't wanted here."
JD watched his best friend withdraw down the hall and disappear out of sight. No, you're wrong, he reminded himself. I'm the one who isn't wanted.
Vin leaned back on the couch after lunch in Chris's office as the team tried to recover from the morning's events. "Were you hoping that absence was going to make their hearts grow fonder? S'that why ya separated them?"
"That wasn't my plan, no." The team leader dropped his chin into his hands. "I wanted to give JD a taste of what he thought he wanted." Chris looked up at the Texan. "He handed in his resignation yesterday."
"What?" Vin sprang up. "You didn't take it, did you?"
"Of course not," Chris scowled. "No one's going to resign from this team. They're going to have to blow us up first."
"Well, pard, I think we had big warning volley earlier."
Chris gritted his teeth.
Ezra hung up on another background check and looked around. His gaze rested on the empty pair of desks in the opposite corner, then cast dispirited eyes away. Josiah noticed the action and walked over.
"Come to offer some words of comfort, Mr. Sanchez?"
Josiah shook his head. "I'd like to. But these are the times I question my God, Ezra. This heavy sadness adds to my doubt. These sharp events are thorns along my path to bliss."
"There has to be some wisdom that could be imparted to convey solace. 'As ye sow, so shall ye reap?' Or maybe, 'Blessed are the meek, as they shall inherit the earth.'"
"JD once gave me a line that would sum up the situation."
"And his pearls were? "
The Southerner smiled.
"Sorry, Casey. JD's not picking up his line " Nathan bit his lip. " I can't yell over to him Because he's not here He's working in another office No, not for someone else. He just needed the privacy You want his voice mail? Okay, I'll tell him you called No, really, I'll see him soon Okay " Nathan hung up.
"Someone want to tell me what I'm supposed to say?" he called out to no one in particular.
"This is like the crap I went through when my parents separated." Chris came out of his office, followed by Vin.
"Only this is for a what is it they call it?" Josiah grasped for the words. "An emancipated minor."
"JD ain't no minor. He'll handle this."
"Anybody look in on him lately?"
"I passed by about half an hour ago," Ezra said. "Brought him something to drink A bottle of water, Mr. Jackson," he established quickly, before Nathan could ask.
"Don't like the way the spark's just flickered out of him," Vin stated, "Normally you can read by the light of his smile."
"Cruel circumstance will do that to you." Ezra brushed the silk sleeve of his jacket as if he could brush away his melancholy. "Who else can disappoint us more than our parents?"
Almost as a group, they agreed, with Chris the only dissenter. "Don't talk for me, Ez. My dad may have been strict, but he was always there. I like to think I would have been the same for Adam."
Josiah placed a hand on Chris's shoulder. "I think you can be sure of that."
Their leader dipped his head in thanks. "Still, I didn't handle this very well."
"This wasn't for you ta handle," Vin reasoned. "I mean, beyond keeping it from exploding in the office, this is between Buck and JD.
Chris looked at him with awe. "Where were you four hours ago? It did explode."
"Not like it will when they get to jawing on it."
"Mr. Sanchez," Ezra implored, "perhaps you could put in a prayer that they are in a soundproof, heat-resistant bomb shelter when it happens."
"How about the war room," JD announced without emotion as he stood in the entrance. "Somebody get Buck. I've linked the bombings to Jake Gardner."
Waiting for the team to assemble in the conference room, JD bounced like a pinball between the charts and pictures from all the related bombings that Buck had pinned up on the walls. His boots heels clicked loudly on the tile floor. He'd finally changed his tee shirt, stopping for a quick pit wash in the bathroom after Buck had been called, but still wore the same jeans.
No one knew where Buck had gone and no one asked. When he answered his cell phone and heard the news, all he said was that it would take him thirty minutes to return. They should not start without him.
Now that time was drawing closer. The agent looked at the wall clock and checked his watch. His stomach was turning faster than the second hand, and he thought about returning to his desk and getting the bottle of Pepto Bismol, but before he could act upon it, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra appeared in the doorway. They were joined moments later by Vin and Chris.
As all seated themselves in the leather chairs, Buck walked in. JD thought his face looked puffy, and his hair was a mess. He noticed grass stains on the bottoms of his khakis as he sat down. Where had he gone?
"You ready, JD?" Chris brought him out of his reverie.
The young agent took a deep breath and began, his fingers tingling in nervousness. "Okay. I've been throwing out a lot of technical terms about remailers and encryptions and pseudo-anonymous servers. Lots of complicated stuff that probably makes as much sense to you as the scoring system in figure skating." He paused as the men laughed to relieve the tension. "I'm not going to bore you with that. Suffice it to say that I was trying everything I could think of to trace the bomb threats back to their source, but at the rate it was going, the chance of another bombing before I cracked it was a sure thing. Someone reminded me that we didn't have that kind of time."
Vin smiled with encouragement when JD glanced at him.
"I had a suspect in mind ," out of the corner of his eye, he saw Buck lower his head, "but the only way I was going to get a faster answer was to get into his computer. I could install a program that would capture the information I needed. But even Judge Travis wouldn't think we have enough evidence to order a subpoena, and I I couldn't I wouldn't. " he faltered.
"Perhaps," suggested Ezra, "you were not in a position to access said machine covertly. Nor would you ask anyone else to do the same."
"No, I would never do that." He shook his head vehemently. "But I could do it remotely if I could get on the suspect's server."
"Say his name, JD." Buck drawled dispassionately from the end of the table. "We all know you're talking about Jake Gardner."
"If I could get on Jake Gardner's mail network," he parroted, a little too loudly, "I could run the snooping protocol. I sat there today, thinking about a thousand complicated ways to do it. And then I realized what an idiot I was. Buck had already shown me the simplest path three days ago."
Murmurs of surprise sounded among the team.
"Buck showed you?" Nathan splayed his hands. "Mister 'I've got better things to do with my fingers than type' Wilmington? Why, he--"
"Hold it, Nate." Chris cut him off. "Explain," he demanded of his expert.
"The website for A Woman's Choice. There's an e-mail address you can send comments to."
"To their regional offices, yes," Buck's voice quavered as he spoke.
"The offices e-mail them to Ms. Gardner for her answers. She has her son's e-mail on her computer. Three degrees of separation. That's a cakewalk."
He tried not to enjoy the impressed expressions of the better part of his team. Buck's face had remained unreadable through the entire lecture, except for a brief flare of anger when JD intimated that he had given him the answer to his problem. It was clear he didn't like the direction the discussion was taking.
"So what did you find?"
"Pretty much everything. I'm still gathering the messages, but it seems that Jake's been coordinating a very ingenious operation. I don't think we've seen domestic terrorism like this. Usually it's one guy--a self-starter like McVeigh or Rudolph."
"How is it being done?"
The young man stuck his hands in his pockets. "An organization like A Woman's Choice is going to get a lot of hangers-on, willing to do anything for the cause. From a lot of different areas. That's why the MO of the bombings kept changing."
He gestured at the various pictures set up on the walls. "Jake finds someone in the area where he wants to plant a bomb, like a guy in Kansas City who'll be willing to make pipe bombs. The he e-mails someone in Alaska to send the pipes, another guy in New Jersey to send the black powder. A lot of first-timers with no records to trace. That's why the Feebs have been stumbling around. Really quite clever."
"That's my boy," Buck whispered.
"I'm sorry, Buck. I am so sorry." He came around the table and placed his hand on his friend's arm, but the older man jerked it away. JD felt as though he'd been struck.
"Yesterday's bombing felt real last minute," he continued, struggling to remain unemotional. "It was easy to find the instructions for it on Jake's remailer with only a twenty-four hour period to search through." He stood up and walked back to the end of the room. Reaching into a jeans pocket, he took out a large Post-It note and held it up. "I've got the address of the guys right here in Denver who did it."
"Good work, Agent Dunne." Chris grinned broadly. "Nathan, you take those names and start putting together a warrant. Josiah, you and I are going to give Travis a call. I'm tired of being toyed with."
Ezra groaned. "I was really hopin' we could get through this without anyone sayin' that."
"Wait a minute." JD challenged Chris's instructions. "Don't go just yet."
The team leader slowly sat back down in his seat, and waited. JD blanched at the unhappy look on his face.
"What I did was wrong six ways to Sunday. Not only did I do an illegal search, even if we could get a subpoena, we'd have to deal with the laws of each and every state these communications went to. It could take months, maybe longer, before we could put together warrants. If we're lucky."
"Damn!" The room vibrated with the sound of swears and cries of frustration.
"It's worse that that." JD clasped his hands around the back of his neck and retreated into a corner of the room for refuge. Five pairs of eyes watched him and waited. Buck stared at the table in front of him, barely breathing.
"The latest e-mail sent out " the young man whispered. " talks about the placement of bombs to go off tomorrow. But not all the instructions have been given out yet. It doesn't say what time or where this is going to happen. Just that it's going to be big."
As the swearing in the room became louder, Chris leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his blond hair. "God, what I'd give for a smoke right now."
Nathan clucked his tongue and Ezra restrained a smile.
"A whiskey," Vin proposed.
"A miracle," Josiah recommended.
After one moment's more reflection, their leader came forward and clasped his hands on the table. "Okay. We have to intercept the next message. JD," he twisted around to address him directly. "Can you do that?"
"Sure, but it's still illegal."
"I'm going worry less about that and more about nobody getting hurt. If we can get confirmation on the location it's going to happen "
"We know what the location will be. It couldn't be any other."
Chris turned back at Josiah's tone. "You mean the Women's Care Clinic?"
"He's right." Vin stood up. "No better place."
"But he's supposed to be there," Nathan argued. "He's not going to kill himself."
"We don't that for sure," Chris loosened his tie in frustration. "But that hasn't been the MO of others. I keep going back to McVeigh and Rudolph. It's all about the message."
JD stood back and watched the discussion. Each of the men had distinct personalities. Each approached a problem with their own methods and style, and yet, time after time, all the elements combined to offer up a worthy solution. They would examine the options, reason all the possibilities, and, enhanced by their experience, come together in the end. This is what his team was the best at, and a tingle of pride ran up his spine.
Only, he reminded himself, it wouldn't be his team for too much longer.
The pride was replaced by a stab of fear.
He would never find this again. He could join another team, but it would never be the same. He would continue in this line of work, he knew that much, but he also knew he'd never be part of the magnificence this team possessed. Separately, they were all highly skilled, highly committed, with a code of honor that was rarely seen in this day and age. Together, they were nothing less than heroes.
Except that, now, he had injured another member. Not intentionally but the damage had been done. He had worked hard at this case, hoping that by solving the crime, he would insure Buck's love. Instead, he had broken the man's heart.
How could he have every considered himself worthy of that love?
" can you do that, kid?"
"Sorry, I wasn't uh What?" He snapped back to attention. If he was going to go out, it was going to be as professional and mature as anyone else on the team.
"Keep monitoring the communications," Chris chided. "Jake's got to send the word out pretty soon."
He nodded back assent. "Sure, that's what I thought I'd be doing."
"Sorry that the job isn't always running around like James Bond. Sometimes it just takes sitting in a dark room pressing buttons."
"Still getting the bad guys." He allowed a small smile on his lips. "That's what counts."
"We need to stake out the Care Clinic and maybe a few others. Maybe all the others." Josiah insisted. "We'd be fools not to."
"On what grounds?" Nathan shrugged. "We're just going to have to wait until the message comes in."
A sharp hiss sounded from Chris. "Waiting could get someone killed."
"We don't have probable cause."
"Someone's been bombing abortion clinics!" Chris banged the table. "We have plenty of cause!"
"None that will stand up in court, pard."
"I'm not going to stand back and do squat about the safety of the people who're attending that rally." The team leader stood up and stalked across the room, brushing by JD, who cringed slightly as he swept by.
"Denver PD's gonna be there with their SWAT guys. Plus our TAC squad and the bomb squad are doing a sweep tomorrow morning." Vin stood up to join his friend. "Dogs'll be there at six a.m."
"And you yourself know how arduous it was to get authorization for just that assembly." Ezra flexed his hands. "I know my own fingers are still cramped from helpin' you fill out all the necessary forms."
Chris shook his head. "We need to catch them in the act. What legal evidence we have so far is so flimsy it wouldn't hold up a feather. People's lives could be at stake." He spun a chair around in frustration and then headed for the door. "We need to get there now."
Vin raced after him. "Ya can't, Chris. We're already going to catch it for what JD did. You don't need ta make it worse."
The objections piled up quickly as their leader reluctantly paused in the doorway.
"You know what a hard sell Travis is."
"We've never gone in without concrete evidence."
"We're not even sure if that's the place."
"Oh." The small noise from their youngest member caught everyone's attention.
"Well, Chris already said it. Or actually, Ms. Gardner said it."
For the first time since the discussion started, Buck turned his head and looked directly at him. "Melinda said what?"
JD did not meet his eyes, but instead stared at his supervisor. "Remember at the press conference, at the first bombing? She asked Chris what he was going to do to ensure her safety at the rally."
The youngest agent paused as he sought the right words. "So shouldn't you be making sure the area is safe?"
Nathan slapped his hands together in glee. "It's on tape, Chris."
"And if you happen to be there when a threat of harm occurs. "
"With back-up, of course."
Chris pounded JD on the back in congratulations for his cunning. "Ezra, call Travis. We're getting into the clinic tonight. I'll make sure we get into all the clinics tonight. Vin, set up a tail." He turned to Nathan. "Now I'm going to have that smoke." Gesturing for the rest of the team to get up, he waved them out of the room, giving each instruction as they passed.
Buck remained in his seat, as if in a trance. JD looked over his shoulder as he was pressed out of the room, torn between a profound need to go and comfort the man, and the knowledge that he had broken their trust so acutely, his efforts would hurt his friend more deeply.
Just as the young man had so often turned to his mentor for comfort during troubled times, so had Buck relied on him for a strong shoulder to lean upon. He'd never seen him look more alone.
Suddenly he looked up directly at him and JD felt a wrench in his gut at the defeated cast in his eyes. They were dull and lifeless, unlike anything he'd seen before in the man. The shadow and grief in his gaze scared him and made him feel more ashamed than ever. It had taken nothing less than the death of his wife and child to put that look in Chris's eyes.
He had done it to Buck with only a few words.
He knew he wasn't deserving of forgiveness but those who craved it cared little whether it was possible to obtain.
"Buck. " JD started for the door but suddenly his path was blocked. Chris slipped in front of him, cutting off his view.
"Where were you?" Chris asked of his oldest friend, and then quietly closed the door.
Behind him, JD heard a lilting voice.
"Greetings, Shang Li. I have the answers to the questions you seek."