Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: For LT on her birthday. Betaed by Kerry. As a Brit, my knowledge of guns is limited to what Google can teach me, so if I've got it wrong I apologies and while we're on the subject of what I don't know, I'm not exactly a toxicologist either - if I got it wrong, blame Google!
Falling isn't painful, it doesn't hurt at all, it's the landing that hurts. For a few tenths of a second he fell, weightless and painless, then he landed. Even then there was no pain, only when his brain overcame the shock and processed the signals his leg was sending did it hurt. Pain, white hot and blinding, lanced up his leg, it paralysed him physically and mentally. He lay there, aware of his hands flexing and unflexing in the dirt and the pain, and nothing else.
Make it stop, oh please God make it stop!
No one answered his silent plea, instead all he heard was the sound of his tormentors approaching. He had to hide and hide fast. Despite the pain, he pulled his head up and looked around. There, just ahead of him, under some scrub, was a grill. He dragged himself to it. Despite his hands trembling and feeling as if his strength was ebbing away, he managed to get the grill up and crawl under it head first. The pain, as the heavy metal fell onto his injured leg, was more than he could handle and he let the cry of pure agony escape.
Under the grill was a conduit, no more than three feet high, the bottom was full of a foul smelling sludge, nonetheless he pulled himself through it, dragging himself deeper into the dark, stinking tunnel.
"What do you make of it?" Chris asked.
Vin turned the bullet in the clear evidence bag over in his hand.
"Reckon this is custom made. Get Nate to take a look under his microscope, but I'll bet it's home made. Looks like a 44-40. If I had to take a guess I'd say this is for an antique, Winchester maybe."
"You can buy ammo for Winchesters, even old ones - right?"
"Sure, but it'll cost you and some folk, one's who are really fussy about their gun, like to make their own."
"Right, so the question remains what the hell was it doing there?"
The bullet had been found by the Denver Medical Examiner. It was found in the clothing of a murder victim. That alone wouldn't have been that unusual, the man had, after all, been shot. The question was why would someone go to the trouble of shooting a homeless man with such expensive ammunition and then apparently stand over the body and be so careless as to drop one of these shells?
Just then Buck came back into the office. "Got the crime scene report, makes interesting reading."
"He didn't die there."
"No?" Josiah asked.
"No, almost no blood on the ground, scuff marks where he'd been dropped."
"DPD got any idea who he was?" Vin asked.
"Nope, not yet."
The case stalled almost from the start. There was no way to trace homemade ammunition. All they could say, was that it was almost certainly made for a Winchester 73 rifle. In the months that followed, three more homeless men were shot dead by the same kind of bullet. They were all found, dumped close to where they had been living. How they came to be shot, where or why, remained a mystery. Only one of the three had been identified, Dominic Patuzzo, a veteran of the first Gulf war who'd fallen on hard times and lost his fight with the bottle.
That left one option, someone had to go undercover in the homeless community. Ezra was the obvious choice, but in the end it was Buck who accepted the assignment. Ezra had gone down with the flu, and although he was well on the way to recovery, Nathan advised against him spending long, cold, damp nights on the streets so soon after his illness. Ezra protested that he was fine, but was overruled by Chris.
In preparation for his assignment, Buck stopped washing and shaving a week before he was due to go undercover. At first only JD complained, but by day three they were all keeping their distance. Ezra insisted on helping, he trawled the goodwill shops to fine suitable clothing. Once acquired Buck wore it non-stop so that it would acquire the right 'bouquet'.
He would have his badge on a chain hanging from a chain around his neck, a tiny cell phone in a hidden pocket Ezra had created in his jacket. He carried a little pistol in an ankle holster, hidden by his old boots.
It was six in the morning, dawn was just rising, light October drizzle was falling.
"You ready?" Chris asked.
"As I'll ever be." With that Buck stepped out of Josiah's old Suburban and without a backward look, ambled down the alley they'd parked opposite. He'd already splashed some cheep bourbon on to his clothes, and had a bottle in his pocket, heavily watered down.
"He'll be fine," Josiah assured as he started the engine.
"Yup, he's a big boy."
Three weeks later, Buck was still living on the street under the name Ben and they knew no more about the men who had been killed or disappeared. There were rumours, a man who vanished on the far side of town, men who stalked the streets looking for someone to kidnap, but there was nothing concrete.
Vin was able to confirm what he had suspected, the ammunition was made for a Winchester 73 44-40. He and Ezra began to investigate gun clubs and associations. JD and Nathan investigated sales of antique Winchesters, and purchases of the necessary supplies to manufacture the shells at home. Chris and Josiah kept an eye on Buck. He called one of them twice a day, every day.
"You found out anything?" Josiah asked.
"I don't like living on the street."
"We know that, you keep telling us that. Anything else?"
"October in Colorado is generally cold, sadly that is not new information. Anything else?"
"Okay, there is a general..." He grasped for the word "unease among the domestically challenged of Denver."
"Domestically challenged? You been talking to Ezra?"
"Maybe, anyway they're nervous. There's this feeling someone is after them."
"Nothing you can pin down?"
"So far all I can say is the people that may - or may not - have gone missing all seem to be male, young or at least not old, and at least three were ex military. I've been letting it be known I was in the army."
"That all ties in with what we learned about them. Chris says he's reviewing the whole case, if nothing comes up by Saturday morning, he's pulling you in, at least for a few days."
"Music to my ears buddy, I'll talk to one of you guys tomorrow morning. Night."
"Good night, you take care."
Buck never knew what hit him. He had just hung up on Josiah, and switched off his phone to save battery power and concealed it again, then he stepped back out into the alley. There was a 'pop' sound and a sudden stinging sensation in his thigh, then his leg felt numb; seconds later he collapsed to the ground and his world went black.
Waking was a slow, painful process. It took him some time to overcome the nausea, and orientate himself; he was in the back of a small truck, hog-tied on his side. It was totally dark so there was no way to know if he was alone, no one answered his demand for information. Nor could he tell what time it was. With his hands and feet tied behind his back it was hard to stop his head hitting the hard metal floor every time the truck hit a pothole or a rut in the road. Every time they rounded a bend or took a corner, he slid across the floor, on one occasion he slammed into the truck wall as they rounded a particularly tight corner. The number of these painful events suggested they were not on freeway, or even a half way decent road. The truck slowed and made a sharp ninety-degree turn, it moved slowly for a few more moments then stopped.
As Buck lay there, fear knotting his stomach, he prepared to face what ever it was that was coming. He heard the truck door open and looked up. It was dark outside; he could just make out a dark figure, when a flashlight was shone in his face, effectively blinding him. He could make out two masked figures enter the truck, one placed the barrel of a gun, a rifle from what he could see, against his temple, while the second, with the flashlight beam still in his eyes, approached with a knife.
"You do anything when we cut you free and I'll kill you - got it?"
A man, disguising his voice from the sound of it, Buck did his best to stay professional.
"I asked if you understood?" the man all but shouted.
"Yeah, I got it."
The other one cut the ropes around his wrists and ankles, then, flashlight and gun still pointed at him, they retreated. The man with the gun continued to keep him covered while the other one pushed two boxes into the truck.
"It's not drugged, I'd advise you eat, you're gonna need your strength. There's a flashlight on the top of the first box." With that they stepped back and the doors were slammed shut.
"Tanner," Vin panted into his cell phone.
"Where are you?" Chris demanded.
"Running." He checked his watch, it wasn't unknown for him to lose track of time while running, but it was still only seven forty-five. "What's up?"
"Buck didn't check in."
A horrid cold feeling ran through Vin. Buck checked in with Chris or Josiah twice a day, between six and seven in the morning and between ten and eleven at night. He was never late. They had considered having him call in at the mission where Josiah did voluntary work, but over the years Buck - like the others - had helped out there, it was just too great a risk that he'd be recognised.
"I'm on my way into he office now, you want me to call any of the others?"
"Can you call Nathan and Ezra? I've got hold of Josiah already, I'm gonna call JD now."
"Good luck, see you in ten."
There was no sign of Buck, no one had seen him since before he checked in with Josiah the night before. He wasn't in any of the local hospitals, he hadn't been arrested, nor - thankfully - was he in the morgue. Previously he'd identified people who might know something and was attempting to gain their confidence, or directed to the shelter where Josiah worked, so he could work on them, but so far no one had admitted anything. As the hours ticked by, Chris lost his patience and decided they would bring in some of these men and 'question' them, Chris style.
The stories they got were contradictory, one or two men in black, or possibly a whole gang. They were tall, short, thin, fat, white, black, oriental. Driving a truck, a van, an SUV. The only thing that remained constant was the colour - black. All these suspicious characters were dressed in black and driving a black vehicle.
JD and Ezra began to scan any and all CCTV footage - though the kinds of places these characters were seen were not the kind of places covered by cameras.
As soon as they were gone Buck fumbled for his phone - it was gone.
"Oh fuck!" he cursed.
The last thing he remembered was walking with the tiny phone in his hand, he must have dropped it. He reached for his gun, but it was gone too, the clasp knife in his hip pocket as well - he'd been searched. The gun itself shouldn't have given him away, it was an old 9mm Vin had given him, he kept it in his waistband - safety on. It wasn't uncommon for the people on the street to be armed. Many a murder weapon tossed into a dumpster ended up in the hands of the city's poorest citizens. He put his hand to his neck, and was pleasantly surprised, for some reason his badge was still around his neck, maybe they hadn't been that efficient, they had made mistakes.
Groping his way over to the boxes, he tentatively felt for the light. It was tiny and sealed, the kind of disposable penlights EMT's like Nathan used. Nonetheless, it was a light source. The first box contained several bottles of water, four large bags of trail mix, a dozen cereal bars and two bars of chocolate. In the second box was a bucket with a lid and a roll of toilet tissue.
"Very considerate of them," Buck commented.
They weren't planning on leaving him in the truck to die, and judging by the amount of water he'd been given, he had about two days to wait. All the food and bottles were still factory sealed, so the claim that they weren't poisoned was probably true. Besides, what would be the point of kidnapping your victim and driving to who knew where if you were just going to poison them? Eating and drinking made sense, it would keep his strength up for when they returned.
With no watch it was hard to keep track of time, but when the sun came up, tiny holes in the truck let in pinpricks of light that illuminated his dark, cold prison with needle point shafts of light. In any other circumstance, they would have been beautiful. He packed as much of the food as he could into his pockets and kept the water close to him, eating and drinking regularly and hoarding the rest. Time seemed to have slowed to a crawl, as he waited and waited. It got colder and darker and nothing happened. Darkness returned and he kept his hand on the little flashlight, forcing himself not to put it on, knowing the battery life was limited. Dawn came again and not long after, so did his captors.
The back of the truck suddenly shot up, with what seemed like a deafening rattle. Sunlight flooded in, temporarily blinding its prisoner.
"Out!" one of the figures in black shouted.
Blinking, and knowing that in the truck he was all but trapped, Buck moved toward the light and jumped down. His captors were as he'd perceived them, dressed in black combats from head to toe, and wearing ski masks on their heads and, as Vin had predicted, both were carrying what looked like genuine antique Winchester rifles, sun glinting off the highly polished brass.
"Wondering what you're doing here?"
It was the same male voice who'd spoken to him before. From the look of it, the gunman was in fact a gungirl. In the shapeless combats it should have been hard to determine gender, but the clothes hadn't been invented that could hide a shapely feminine form from Buck Wilmington's eye. She kept back slightly and to one side.
"I assume you want to sell me this prime piece of real-estate?" Buck quipped, casting his eye over what looked like a long abandoned chemical plant.
"Well, no, not exactly. We're what you might call, extreme gun enthusiasts - perfectionists. A fine gun is nothing if it doesn't work, it was made to kill, that is its sole purpose, what use is it sitting in some display case? A gun is a living thing, it's..."
"Cut the poetic crap and get to the part I'm gonna hate, will you!" Buck snarled.
"Oh this is gonna be the best one yet, I can just feel it. This gun's finest hour was taming the west, and the principle prey of the men who owned and others like it, was man. That's what you are - prey. Let's face it, your life has no other use, does it? You're still young, you've served your country and now you live on the street, drinking cheap booze and probably shooting yourself full of drugs. This is your chance to go out with some kind of honour. It has to be better than choking on your own vomit."
Buck shook his head. "I'm meant to be grateful that your gonna hunt and kill me for fun?"
"It's better than dying for nothing." The man's voice changed, became business like. "There's a perimeter fence. If you do get past it, there's nothing but grass for fifty miles in any direction, more in some directions. Don't think about taking the truck or the RV"
Buck hadn't even seen an RV, he assumed it was where they had been living while he was in the truck. It struck him then why they had waited, why they had given him food and drink. They assumed he was drunk or high or both, and they wanted him dry and clean, they didn't want the hunt to be too easy.
"You might get into one of them, you might even be able to hot wire the engine, but with no rotor arm they aren't going any place. You have until you're out of sight or half an hour, which ever happens first, then we come after you. Oh, don't drink any water you may find out there, don't even touch it - who knows what this place is still leaking and we don't want you checking out early - do we?"
Just a little further, it was just a little further. Buck glanced behind him, no one. Ahead of him was an open space, he scanned the area which had line of sight on his escape route - nothing, no black clad gunmen, no glint of gunmetal, no barrel protruding from some hiding place.
Now or never buddy, he told himself, and with that he took off.
No one shot at him, he'd made it. Ducking into the doorway at the end of the half demolished room he lent on the closest wall, gulping in great mouthfuls of air, perspiration pouring off his forehead - despite the sub zero temperatures. He'd walked, to the furthest point where he was still visible, ducked into the maze of pipes, gantries and storage tanks and set off at a run. Buck was fit, he could run a marathon if needs be - okay he couldn't run it as fast as the damned Texan, but he could get round in just over three hours. Not bad for a man pushing forty who didn't get to train that regularly.
Think man, think!
There was no escape, he was marooned in the middle of the prairie, and even if he did get through the perimeter fence, all there was on the other side was mile upon mile of open grassland. Out there he'd be picked of like a duck in a shooting gallery. He laughed to himself.
Duck in a shooting gallery is what you are all right!
He couldn't drive out, he couldn't run or walk out.
One thing for it, attack, hunt them and get control of the transport or the guns or both.
Suddenly he heard the distinctive clang of someone crossing one of the old gantries, it sounded to be somewhere to his right, but he knew that in places like this, sound bounced all over the place - they could be anywhere. It least they sounded as if they were some distance away. Never had Buck been more thankful that he'd actually paid attention all those times Vin had shown them how to move quickly and quietly.
Trying to get over head, good plan - good but predictable.
There was another noise, the other hunter, somewhere ahead of him. Well, he'd been expecting that as well, they were attempting to get him in the crossfire. If he'd done it right, he was considerably further away from them than they thought he was. That was part of the plan, keep them moving, looking for him, leading them on one wild goose chase after another. If he could wear them down and get them frustrated, then they might make a mistake.
All day he led them through and around the old chemical works, and all the time he was learning. Apart from the fire power, his enemies greatest advantage was their knowledge of the ground - their own personal killing ground. As darkness fell the temperature dropped, but he was still free and unharmed. By his count only four shots had been fired at him. The night, however, brought new perils, he had to assume they had some kind of night vision equipment and/or thermal imagers.
God was on the side of the hunted, the sky was clear and the moon full, the price for this illumination? Temperatures that dropped like a stone, frost forming almost as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon. Keeping moving seemed the best way to keep warm so the game of cat and mouse continued. The moonlight served to throw the topography of the surrounding country into relief. What had been flat and featureless, was undulating terrain, with depressions where a man could hide, even from a night scope or a thermal imager.
Damn! Buck you're an idiot, Ma would be ashamed of you, Chris should fire you and the Texan will laugh himself stupid!
He headed back of the far side of the complex, at least what he thought of as the far side, the one furthest from where he'd seen the RV, parked behind the truck that had brought him to this place. He was careful not to make a sound, he kept his eye out for a tool, something to break open the fence with. It looked sturdy enough, heavy gauge chain link, but it was old, who knew how old it was, and with no one to maintain it through God knew how many Colorado winters, it had to have some weak points.
What he found was a satisfactorily heavy feeling section of pipe. Now he had to get across the open ground that separated the works from the fence line. He'd picked out a deep area of shadow, he just hoped it would offer sufficient cover. The fence offered little resistance to a determined man and his trusty pipe, and he quickly had enough peeled back from its support to let a lean man slip out. He then turned away, ran as far back toward the cover of the buildings as he dared, then with all his might, he hurled the pipe toward the fence. It hit it with a satisfactory dull 'ping' and rattle.
Hope you two were listening. With that he slipped back into the maze he could now navigate - to a degree - with some ease.
He was only a third of a way back when he heard them, heading in the opposite direction. They'd fallen for it. Now all he had to do was break into the RV, it was no doubt alarmed, but that didn't matter, with any luck they'd be some way beyond the fence, fruitlessly searching the prairie. The RV might not start, but it didn't need to, all he needed was their cell phone or radio. It stood to reason they had at least one or the others stored safely. When he went hunting, alone or with some of the others, they never carried all their phones. It was too easy to lose them, break them, drown them, you needed a back up in a safe place.
He reached the RV without incident and without any indication that he was being followed. He'd collected another shard of metal along the way, the small side door responded instantly to his attack and as soon as it did he was defend by a high pitched siren. Lights were no doubt flashing outside, but he didn't have time to worry about that. Desperately he searched for a phone and - miracle of miracles - found one almost instantly. He switched on, even if the keypad was locked he could still call 911. He punched the numbers and then cursed. There was no signal.
"Fuck! Where the hell am I?" he asked out loud.
With out waiting to ponder his bad luck he looked for something he could use. There in the front was a CB set. The ignition was locked by an immobiliser, effectively stopping any of the accessories from coming to life, even if he did hot wire it. In seconds he was pulling out wires and making a quick cross connection, managing to connect the radio directly to the battery. Hitting the button for the emergency channel he had time to send one May Day, giving his name, badge number and a description of his location to who ever he hoped was listening, then a shot whistled though the windscreen, forcing him to bale out.
Diving out of the far cab door he turned, not for deep shadows cast by the truck behind it, but the more open ground in front. It was a risky strategy, he was betting on his enemy assuming he'd take the safer path. He bet right, by the time he emerged from cover they had their guns pointing in the opposite direction, it gave him the extra seconds he needed to get back into the maze. Now for the first time he was genuinely running for his life, he tried to not run blind, even though every instinct told him to just run as fast and as far as he could. He tried to remember were he was going, deep into the maze of pipes in the middle, lose them, regain control - that was the plan.
There was a huge pit, Buck had nicknamed it the gorge, it ran for about fifty yards, was about six or seven yards wide and at least twenty feet deep. The bottom was full of debris and scrub vegetation. A gantry crossed it, but Buck had so far avoided it, it looked dangerously corroded. Now there was no option, to go around would have taken too much time. He thought he was going to make it, he ran as fast as he could, he could see the end and then he was dropping and tipping to one side. Instinctively he reached out to grab something, anything to save himself. For a moment he hung there, holding onto the hand rail with one hand, the gantry now swinging on its side, then there was a ripping sound and the whole hand rail pulled away and he fell.
"They found him!" Chris ran out of his office.
It was just after seven a.m. and none of them had slept much in the previous forty eight hours, or even been home. The others, as one, leapt to their feet.
"Nathan call Vin and Ezra, he's in Montana! Tell them to head for the airport, we'll meet them. JD, we need tickets to Billings."
"Montana! What the hell is he doing in Montana?" JD asked, already calling up his favourite last minute ticket website.
"Getting into trouble. Local sheriffs department picked up a message on channel 9, it was past on by some truck driver."
"Channel 9, as in CB radio? Who the hell uses CB anymore?" JD asked.
It was true that with the proliferation of cell phones the use of citizens band radio had declined.
"People who live where there's no cell coverage."
"What did he say in the message?" Nathan asked as he put the phone down on Ezra.
"Not much, his name, badge number and a description of his location. Then the transmission cut out." Chris could see the added concern in his friend's faces. "Let's not jump to any conclusions. Seems he was describing some abandoned chemical plant. Sheriff seems to think he knows where it is."
Buck's slow, painful progress into the darkness didn't last long. The pain and the shock drained his strength and resolve barely three feet beyond the grill. There was nothing he wanted more than to lie down, close his eyes and pray it was all over, but as much as he wanted it, he daren't. If he lay down he was worried he wouldn't be able to get up again. So he remained on his side, supporting himself on his hands; hands that were planted in the foul smelling sludge. He tried to listen, tried to work out where his pursuers were, but all he could hear was his own heavy breathing and the pounding of his heart.
He had no concept of how long he was down there, all he knew was his head pounded and his leg throbbed. Little by little began to feel weaker and weaker, it got harder to breathe, his hands began to burn. As hard as it was to think, some part of his brain was still working. He looked over his shoulder. Light, weak but clearly visible, marked out the grill, daylight, dawn.
They'll come, someone will come soon. he told himself. They'll come and they won't be able to find you down here.
Some part of him knew he was taking a risk, risking being shot, but even that was better than dying alone in this hellhole. People who said hell was a fiery inferno were all wrong, hell was cold and dark and smelly. Hell was dying, cold, wet, filthy and alone in unremitting agony.
It took a huge effort, his arms shook, pain like nothing he'd ever felt before shot up his leg, but he did it, he managed to get himself turned around. With one last effort he pulled himself back to the grill, but try as he might he couldn't reach it, let alone push it up or get out. Exhausted he finally gave into the pain and the shock and weakness that seemed to overcome him like a wave.
By the time Chris and the others reached the airport, Vin and Ezra were already there and Ezra was on his phone, arranging for rental cars to be waiting for them at Logan Airport.
"We're set," he announced, shutting his phone. "Is there any more news?"
Chris shook his head. "Let's get to check in."
Technically, as Federal Agents, they were permitted to carry firearms onto the aircraft, but it involved a shitload of paperwork and identification verification, all of which generally took a lot longer than they had. Chris was prepared to get very 'bad ass Larabee' if needs be. He didn't need to, the check in clerk took one look at the badges and the faces of the men and called the Federal Air Marshall on call, who recognised Team Seven instantly, after that it was plain sailing.
Having picked up two Chevy Blazers they headed east on I94. As promised, after about sixty miles, they found a Highway Patrol officer parked opposite a turn off. Once they had identified themselves they turned north on an old, pot holed road. Some thirty miles north they found the chemical plant. There were at least six police cars parked by the side of the perimeter fence an ambulance and two fire trucks. As they got closer they identified local police, Highway Patrol and police from the Big Horn reservation.
"Are we on the reservation?" Chris asked Josiah.
"Nope, it's to the south of us," he confirmed.
They pulled over as an officer flagged them down. "You Larabee?" he asked.
"Sheriff Pete Edwards. Park up and I'll fill you in."
"Where's Buck?" Chris demanded as he was getting out of the car.
"We haven't found him yet. Pretty sure this is the place, he said..." Edwards pulled out his note book. "...'I'm in this old chemical plant, there's pipes and tanks everywhere, it's in the middle of nowhere. There are...' At least according to the truck driver who picked up the call."
"Where is this truck driver?" Chris asked.
"On his way to North Dakota."
"Why the hell didn't you keep him here?" Chris demanded.
"He's name's Tony McKeith, I've known him all my life and he's one of the good guys. We're lucky he was the one picked up the message, took it seriously and wrote it down accurately."
Josiah could see Chris was about to blow, and quickly stepped in.
"We understand. What have you found so far?"
"Got everyone I can working on it, Dan White Horse brought his guys up from the res to help, Highway Patrol got more men coming. So far no sign of your man. What we did find was very recent evidence of two vehicles inside the fence and we found windshield glass. Plus the padlock on the gate is new."
"What kind of vehicles? Any idea?" Josiah asked.
Edwards shrugged. "Hard to say, ground's pretty hard. Looks like a small truck and maybe a big pick up or an RV, something with double rear tyres."
"Any sign of them?" Chris asked.
"Highway Patrol got a report of an RV with a blown windscreen, just outside Billings about two hours ago. There's an ABP out on it in Montana and Wyoming."
"Why are we still standing here?" JD demanded. "We can help search."
Vin nodded, and as one they began walking toward the gate.
"Sorry, I can't let you do that." Edwards moved to stand in front of them.
"The hell you can't!" Chris told him.
"No, this place, in case you haven't noticed, is a toxic hazard." He pointed to the ominous yellow signs on the gates, the black skull all too obvious. I can't let you go in with out protective clothing unless you know where you're going. Our local fire department and the truck crew from the reservation have worked out a search grid, most of the sections have been checked. Local volunteer posse are checking the outlying area."
Nathan looked up and the rusting structure. "What the hell is this place anyway?" he asked.
"Some federal government scheme to bring jobs to the area in the fifties, it was still in operation when I was in High School, when the wind blew in the wrong directions the whole damn town stank."
"What were they making?"
"Can't remember, if I ever knew, but they built it way out here, so it can't be anything nice, plus there are the signs. We've been trying for years to find out what went on here, all we get is the run-around, even the guys who used to work here don't know."
"Classified stuff?" Josiah asked.
"Possibly, it was the fifties, cold war, Cuban crisis, who knows what was going on?"
No one was saying it, but they were all thinking it, germ warfare, nerve gas.
Edwards continued. "No one can agree who's responsible for the clean up, so here it sits, rotting away, polluting our land, our water and probably the air we breathe."
Chris had had enough talk. "Sheriff I understand your position, but we can take our own risks."
"Sir I can't..."
Chris turned to Edwards, the glare in his eyes could have cut through steel. "I'm an ATF Agent and tactical team leader, so I outrank you. You either let us in or I'll just to take over the whole operation."
Edwards squared up to Chris, his shoulders set. "Agent Larabee, I may look like some hick cop, right out of the Dukes of Hazzard, but I was an MP for fifteen years before I came back here, so don't patronise me and don't just assume that you Feds know better! This is my home, my country, my jurisdiction and I know my job, which includes this place. If you go in there, not knowing where the hell you're going or where we've already been, all you are just going to slow up my planned, safe search - and probably get yourselves lost as well. I appreciate that you want to find him, but you can't achieve that by blundering around in there!"
Five members of Team Seven held their collective breaths. Did this man have a death wish?
Chris continued to glare at Edwards, then - imperceptibly - he shifted his gaze to the maze of rusting pipe work. Finally, to the amazement of the others, he nodded. "Very well, what can we do to help you?"
"Come with me."
Chris had to admit he was impressed with the search, considering how few people the sheriff had to work with, and that at least half of them were volunteers. As they approached the edge of the structure they could see lines of tape.
"Blue police tape means we're searched that section," Edwards explained.
From where they stood Team Seven could only see the outer areas, all of which had been searched.
"Takes longer to search the central areas, but we're getting there. We'll get you some gloves, masks and goggles. Then if we split you guys up among the search teams you can try calling, we've been trying but, well maybe if he hears a familiar voice..."
While the others joined the search, Nathan went to look at the area where tyre tracks and glass were found,
"Hi," he greeted the officer guarding the area.
"Hi," came the reply. He was an older man from the reservation police. "You the friends of the missing ATF agent?"
"Yeah. I'm Nathan Jackson."
"Joe Snow-Sky, pleased to meet you." They shook hands.
"You find anything new?"
"There were two of them, as well as your friend. He wear old boots, probably army surplus, size 14?"
"Sounds right," Nathan told him.
"The others wore expensive boots, soft soles. One was size 12 the other was smaller maybe a 7."
"That's small, a boy maybe or a woman?"
Joe pointed across the open ground behind him. "You're friend got out of the truck and walked that way, they followed him but cut off about twenty yards short of where he went in."
"What do you think was going on?"
"Don't know, no one comes here, bad land, it even smells bad, people who used to work here got sick. Sheriff Edwards or one of his deputies does a drive every now and again, when they got the time. Couple of people have said they've seen lights, even heard sounds but... well it's old, it's falling apart, who knows what's in there, besides it's out of my jurisdiction." He turned around to take a look at the monstrosity before them. "Hell of a place for a hunt."
Nathan nodded, he'd been thinking that. If the place was safe, it would make a great training ground for snipers and SWAT teams.
"Think someone's been using it as there own personal shooting gallery?"
"Could be, but if they have they're not from around here, not Crow that's for sure, this place..." he shook his head. "Bad spirits. Don't worry, some of the best trackers in the state are in there, including my son, they'll find him."
"You're son's a cop too?"
"Nah, a fireman, but he's the best tracker you ever saw, he'll find your friend."
It was Vin who met up with Joe's son Ray, they were making their way to the area they were assigned to search, Vin calling all the time, when they passed the pit.
"They searched that yet?" Vin asked.
"Don't think so."
Vin stopped to look down in to it. There was something about the way the old gantry had fallen into it. The vegetation was flattened, none was growing up through it. "What do you think?"
Ray walked around to the side, were the gantry had broken away. He squatted down and examined the end.
"This fell recently, very recently."
"That's what I thought," Vin confirmed.
Instantly Ray pulled out his radio and requested a ladder, fifteen minutes later both men descended into the pit. At first it seemed there was nothing to find, then Ray spotted scuff marks in the dirt leading to a small, rather sickly looking bush. While Vin lifted the bush, Ray found and lifted the grill.
"Found him!" he announced.
Within seconds the grill was discarded and Vin had the bush pulled away. As he lay on his belly head in manhole, Ray called in the cavalry.
"Buck?" Vin called as he reached in. It was hard to be sure it really was in, with his head down, a full beard and covered in black mud. "Get my legs!" Vin shouted to Ray.
With his legs pinned down Vin was able to hang deeper into the hole and reach the man slumped at the bottom, desperately feeling for a pulse.
"Oh thank God."
"He's alive?" Ray asked.
"For now, how much longer?"
Ray looked over his shoulder. "I can hear them."
Getting Buck out was only half the task, and that was hard enough. They had to get a backboard down and strap him to it as best they could. Vin was thin enough to get down into the hole with him and get him strapped in, getting the black mud all over him in the process.
Once Buck was pulled to the top and transported back to the ambulance and fire trucks, Team Seven expected him to be whisked off to hospital, but he wasn't.
"What's the hold up?" Chris demanded.
"De-contamination," Ray told them, already pulling off his clothes. "Vin too."
The fire crew had set up their portable de-contamination shower, Ray was already heading for it, uncaring that everyone could see him. Vin had hesitated, but seeing the urgency of the situation, began to strip.
"What?" JD began. "We don't have time for this!"
"They have to JD, you think Buck wants people getting sick because of him?" Nathan told him, fixing Chris with his gaze, telling him firmly to back off. Chris gave an imperceptible nod.
Nathan helped the paramedics and firemen work on Buck. Decontaminating an unconscious casualty is not easy. Working in close to sub zero temperatures, outside, on someone who needs oxygen and has unknown injuries, is difficult, painstaking and frustrating work. They couldn't strip him down and shower him off, he'd get too cold, so they had to work bit by bit. As the mud came off his hands an angry red rash and raw blisters were revealed. The same rash, was evident on his arms, chest, neck and legs.
This beard is making it difficult to get him clean," one of the paramedics commented.
"Take it off, he only grew it to go undercover," Nathan told them without looking up, from his task of cutting up Buck's left trouser leg. "Shit!" he suddenly cursed.
The left lower leg was noticeably shorter than the right, it was massively swollen and deformed, even worse - the foot was set at an unnatural angle. Despite there ministrations Buck hadn't stirred, he'd shown little sign of feeling anything and that - Nathan was well aware - was bad, very bad. He forced himself to remain detached and do his job, washing what ever it was off his friend as fast as he could, getting him covered in a think blanket so he didn't freeze and get him to hospital as soon as possible. As soon as Buck was pronounced clean he was hurried into the ambulance and the doors closed.
The ambulance didn't move. "What's the hold up now?" Josiah asked.
"No hold up," Edwards told him. "Any one can see he needs to be in a full trauma centre, I called in the chopper from Billings. Should be here in less than fifteen minutes now. Best thing you guys can do is start out for the city now, some of you at least."
Chris put his hand out. "Sheriff, thanks for everything. Please thank all the others."
Edwards shook his hand. "Glad to help. Give me your cell phone number, I'll let you know how the investigation is going."
Chris nodded to JD. "JD 'll take care of all that, give you ours as well."
Even as he spoke, JD had his palm pilot out.
"Reckon we can stop and get me something to wear?" Vin asked as he joined them.
His beloved boots had been cleaned, but his jeans, jacket and padded plaid shirt were consigned to a large evidence bag until they could be washed and steam cleaned. Vin himself, now clean, his hair still wet, was dressed in a white disposable overall, complete with hood, courtesy of the fire department.
Despite the seriousness of the situation the others couldn't help but laugh. Ezra even pulled out his phone and took a picture.
"Sure thing Cinderella," Chris confirmed. "You shall go to the ball."
"Don't want to got to no ball, just don't want to freeze to death!" Vin protested.
By the time Team Seven made it to the ER department at St Vincent's, Buck had been there an hour. This wasn't Denver, the hospital staff didn't know Nathan or Team Seven, their usual special privileges wouldn't be automatically granted.
"Can I help you?" the man at the admitting desk asked.
"Buck Wilmington, he was brought here by chopper." Chris wasn't wasting time with unnecessary words.
"And you would be?"
Chris was about so say something but Josiah cut him off. "His family."
The man looked up and lifted an eyebrow. "All of you?"
"Yeah, all of us," JD told him.
The man wasn't buying it.
"I'm his brother," Chris stated firmly. "JD there is his half brother, Vin's my half brother."
"Nathan and I are cousins," Ezra added helpfully.
"By marriage," Nathan explained quickly, before anyone asked.
The man looked up at Josiah, who grinned and put his arm around Ezra's shoulders. "I'm his father, Buck's uncle."
Chris fixed the man with a withering glare. "Are you saying we're lying?"
"Um, no, no of course not. Dr Masters is handling your 'brother's' case, I'll ask him to come and speak to you as soon as he can."
Chris smiled, you couldn't call it a benevolent smile, it was more like that of a serial killer spotting his next victim. The man hastened away.
Doctor Ryan Masters was a tall black man with a goatee. My, what a big family Mr Wilmington has, he commented to himself. Resisting the urge to make such a comment out loud he addressed himself to the intimidating looking blond man in the centre of the group.
"You're here for Mr Wilmington?"
Chris nodded. "We were there when they found him, so we know what happened."
Masters nodded, the message was clear, 'cut to the chase'. "He has multiple fractures of the left tibia and fibula, in addition he as a dislocated foot with associated fractures and soft tissue damage. Other than that he his physical injures are limited to cuts and bruises."
"Head trauma?" Nathan asked.
"Non that we can find."
"Has he regained consciousness?"
Masters turned his attention to Nathan. "Are you a doctor?"
"I'm an EMT. It wasn't much more than three, four at best."
"He's up to a five, that isn't as bad as it seems, he was exposed to a hell of a lot of Benzene, prolonged unconsciousness isn't uncommon."
"So it was Benzene?" Chris asked.
"Mostly, since Benzene is heavier than air that drain he was in must have been full of it, the mud too. If it hadn't been so cold..." The doctor shook his head.
"Cold?" Chris asked.
"Benzene freezes at few degrees above water," JD supplied.
"Probably saved his life," Maters continued. "He's still having breathing difficulties, some arrhythmia, a couple of seizures - all that is consistent with acute Benzene poisoning. However, we're still having the stuff analysed, Benzene wasn't the only thing in that mud. He's got chemical burns where ever it touched him for anytime."
"That's also consistent with Benzene," Nathan pointed out.
"Yes it is, but they are worse than the concentration we found should have produced."
"So what happens now?" Chris asked.
"He needs surgery to reduce the fractures and he needs it soon or he's going to lose what little circulation he's got in that foot. Now we have one of the best orthopaedic centres in the country right here - but..."
"But?" JD asked.
"They can't anaesthetise him while he's having breathing and heart rhythm problems," Nathan explained.
"We're going to give him an epidural, it's not perfect, there are still risks, but it's the best option we have."
Buck began to be aware of voices, they were distant and indistinct. There were hands on him, but they felt wrong, not like real hands, one of them had hold of his finger. Why was someone holding his finger? He tried to open his eyes but they didn't seem to want to open. Then he tried to lift his hand, to see who had hold of his finger, but his arm wouldn't respond. He was so tired, maybe if he just slept a little longer he'd be able to move his arm.
"Doctor, I think he's waking up," the anaesthetist informed the surgeon.
"Damn, well talk to him Mike, make him feel safe. If he's gonna puke try to give me some warning." With that she turned back to the mangled leg before her and the very expensive 'Erector' set that was going to put it all back together.
Buck 'woke' again, this time his eyes did open, but he couldn't get them to focus. A green blob hovered over him. He didn't like it.
"Go away," his told it.
Mike frowned, the patient had said something, but it made no sense. "It's alright Mr Wilmington, you're safe in the hospital, just lay still." Which since you're effectively paralysed from the waist down, is your only option.
Don't like hospitals. Buck put his arm up to push the green fuzzy thing out of the way. Unfortunately his arm didn't move, he got it about six inches off the bed before it fell back. Get up, lying down is bad. He tried to move, he tried to lift his legs off the table - nothing. Panic set in, he looked down at his legs and saw only green.
A surgical screen had been placed across his chest, blocking is view. I've got no legs! They cut my legs off! Now the panic really did set in. As weak as he was, as disorientated as he was, Buck began to fight, to try and get away. His shoulders moved enough to rock his whole body.
"Hold him still!" the surgeon barked.
"I can't get him to calm down."
"Okay, get someone in here he knows, and do it fast."
When a nurse in scrubs came in asking for one of Mr Wilmington's relatives to come into the operating room. Chris and JD both shot to their feet, or they would have, if Josiah hadn't stopped JD. Even as Chris was leaving, JD was angrily pulling his arm out of Josiah's iron grip.
"Take it easy JD, we know you want to be with him, we all do, but Chris needs to do this," Vin explained.
"I'm the one lives with Buck, he's my brother, in every way that counts, him and Chris, they're not..."
"Not friends anymore?" Nathan challenged.
"That's not what I mean, its just different now, Chris and Vin...."
"JD calm down and listen," Josiah began. "What you two have, they have. It's been nearly fifteen years; they were 'brothers' for a good ten years before they met any of us. It may have changed over the years, Sarah and then Adam came and were taken away. The team was formed, Vin came into Chris' life, you came into Buck's, but underneath it all, it's always been the two of them - a pair of crusaders facing an ugly world and fighting the good fight."
"Buck hates ugly," JD remembered quietly.
"Yes he does, so he's going to need help to fight this, help from all of us, in time. But right now, he needs a friendly face, he needs to hear a voice he trusts tell him it's going to be okay and Chris needs to see him, to touch him, to know he's still with us, still part of his life."
"You're time will come," Ezra assured softly.
"It's not about what you want, it's what they need, both of them," Vin told him.
As far as Chris was concerned it took a frustratingly long time to get him changed and scrubbed. As he was escorted in, he tried not to look at what the surgeon was doing. The anaesthetist looked up; he was still trying to get Buck to lie still, and had resorted to holding him down. It didn't take much, he was in no state to fight, but that didn't stop him trying.
"Hey there, lay still." Chris took up his place on the stool that had been place by the patient's head.
Buck moved his head; unfocused, terrified eyes found Chris. "Come on Buck, it's me - Chris. Stop fighting the doctors, they're trying to help."
Buck shook his head, he tried to speak. Even allowing for the oxygen mask, Chris couldn't understand what he was trying to say.
"Don't worry," Mike told him. "Incomprehensible speech is a symptom of acute benzene poisoning."
Chris glanced at him and then pulled his attention back to his friend. "You have to listen to me, you're going to be okay, it'll be over soon, just lie still."
Buck still couldn't focus, and now a second green blob had appeared beside him. He had worked out that these blobs were people. People wore green in operating rooms, but you weren't meant to be awake in the operating room - none of it made any sense. The new blob spoke to him, used his name, told him firmly to lie still. He didn't recognise the voice, but there was something in the tone that he trusted, something that he felt he should obey. The pressure on his arms was lifted as he relaxed.
"There you go," Chris praised. "Just lie still and it'll all be over sooner than you think. The others are all here, wanting to see you again; and you should see the nurses in this place, pretty as a picture and not one of them has ever heard any of your bull before."
The surgeon chuckled as she worked.
"There, you hear that, you've even got a lady doctor, can't see more than her eyes, but she looks pretty enough from here, of course I know they're all beautiful to you - right?"
Chris wasn't even sure what he was saying, he just wanted his oldest friend to feel safe, to take his mind off what was happening. The trouble was that the look of sheer panic hadn't left Buck's eyes once.
"It really is going to be okay. Looks to me..." He risked a look over the screen at the gruesome sight beyond it, relived to find that it didn't look as bad as he'd feared. "As if she's all but done?" He looked up at her.
"Indeed." Doctor Miranda Finn wiped her bloody hands on her scrubs as she stepped back from her work and came into Buck's eye line. "Doctor Khan is going to close for me, then, when you're feeling stronger and settled in your room, I'll come and talk to you, explain what I've done and were we go from here."
No, tell me now, tell me what happened! That was what he thought, but as hard as he could Buck couldn't make himself understood, though at least now he knew he was talking gibberish.
"Don't worry, the worst effects of the poisoning will wear off soon, at least that's what the toxicologist tells me. You relax and I'll see you in a few hours."
It took a while for the doctors to finish closing and dressing his leg and get him settled in his own room. The epidural was going to be left in place, it would give him continued pain relief, without depressing his respiration or causing any of the mental confusion associated with the kind of strong, narcotic based pain killers he would otherwise need. This was very important, since his breathing was still compromised and his mental state already somewhat confused.
He was hooked up to various monitors and the oxygen mask was removed and replaced with a nasal cannula. This revealed something neither Chris or Nathan had noticed before.
"What happened to your moustache?" JD blurted out as he entered the room.
Buck just frowned at him.
"Oh well done Mr Dunne, wonderful opening address to your injured best friend. No 'how are you, or good to see you awake Buck'?" Ezra shook his head as he walked around the bed. "Mr Wilmington, it really is good to see you awake and looking so much better the last time I saw you."
One by one the others greeted him, told him how pleased they were he was feeling better. No one mentioned the naked state of his upper lip, no one except Nathan.
"I, um, I am sorry about the..." He waved his finger over his own upper lip. "The beard was contaminated, it was hard to clean, so I told them to cut it off, I forgot to tell them to leave the moustache, sorry."
"'S 'kay," Buck assured him.
"Hey you're talking again," JD exclaimed.
Vin shook his head. "JD you're impossible."
"What? Oh, um sorry." He turned back to his stricken best friend. "I really was worried about you, I'm just glad you're okay."
While JD was speaking Josiah had been watching Buck's face, there was something not right.
"Buck?" he began softly. "Do you remember what happened?"
Buck looked around the room and then back to Josiah. "No," he admitted.
"Do you remember going undercover?"
Buck shook his head.
"We have been investigating the murder of some transients. Friday morning you didn't check in. Some how you managed to put out a call for help Saturday night and we found you this morning - Sunday. We don't know what happened, but we - well Vin and a local fire fighter - found you in an underground culvert at an abandoned chemical plant. It was full of Benzene gas and contaminated mud. You have Benzene poisoning and a badly broken leg." That much Buck knew, he'd seen the metal work protruding from it, even if he couldn't feel it.
Buck smiled and opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again as the door opened and two doctors came in. One was a rather plain woman in her forties and the other was a rather plump man, somewhat older.
"Hello again, I don't think we've been properly introduced, I'm your surgeon Doctor Finn, this is Doctor Cooke, he's a toxicology specialist." She smiled at Buck and then turned to the others. "Gentlemen, we need to speak to our patient, so if you could leave us for a while?"
"We'll stay, if that's okay by Buck?" Chris looked at his friend expectantly and was surprised when he shook his head.
"You want the others to go?"
Buck nodded. "You too."
As great as it was to hear him speak clearly again, Chris was surprised and even a little hurt, though he'd never admit that to anyone, that Buck didn't want him there. He had held Buck's medical power of attorney ever since they were in the Navy together, Buck had had his since Sarah died, they didn't hide things from each other, not things like this.
"We'll just be outside, okay?" he assured.
Buck nodded. With that Chris patted his shoulder and turned and followed the others out.
Dr Finn explained about the epidural and, that all being well, they would wean him off it, and onto intravenous pain medication, in the next twenty four hours.
"I'm a specialist in poisons," Cooke explained. "Your shortness of breath, skin rash, irregular heartbeat and speech problems are as a result of your exposure to Benzene. There is no antidote for Benzene, but that shouldn't worry you, in acute cases the body is able to clean itself - so to speak. You may have heard about cases of Benzene exposure causing cancer, but I don't want you to worry, that only really happens when someone is exposed to a low dose over a long period of time, you were exposed to a high dose over a relatively short time span. Given supportive care and time, you should make a full recovery. Some symptoms, insomnia, headache, tingling in the joints, may last a while, couple of weeks at most. There were some other substances in the mud, but they were in such small quantities that we don't think they should be a problem."
"What ab...out?" he pointed to his leg.
"It's a bad set of injures," Finn admitted. "I'm not going to kid you about that, but there was no open wound, and the breaks were clean. I'm confident you should - barring complications - make a full recovery. And from the look of things you have plenty of family to help you."
Buck glanced at the closed door and yawned.
"Looks like we should be leaving you in peace to get some sleep. I'll send your family back in"
"I'm tired." With that Buck closed his eyes and rested back into the pillows.
As he lay there, with his eyes closed, Buck could hear the doctors talking to the men outside. Though he couldn't make out any words, the tone was clear. The doctors - calm and polite, the others, concerned and surprised, even angry. That anger scared him, who where those men? He didn't know them, yet they acted as if he did. They knew his name, they said they were his friends, the doctors called them his family. Why did they act as if they knew him? Why did they talk about him being undercover? What was all that about the moustache? He'd never have a moustache. Who did they think he was - Magnum? Maybe he was having a bad - well weird - dream? Sure that's what it was, a dream, soon he'd wake up and every thing would be okay.
He looked over at the window, the drapes were open, even thought it was almost dark outside. There was nothing he recognised, there were lights, here and there, but they were just lights, no neon, no multi coloured flashing sighs, no shimmering, sparkling light show, this wasn't home. His dream theory, which had given him a brief moment of calm, collapsed. How could you dream about some place you didn't know? He looked down at his leg, he'd never seen anything like the cage like contraption around and embedded in his ankle. This was no dream.
He was helpless and dependent, he couldn't even feel his legs. Whatever the hell was going on he had no power to stop it, get way or defend himself, so he'd have to go along with it. Listen a lot, speak only when needed - that was his plan. Don't antagonise these men, don't let them know he wasn't who they thought he was. He'd learnt young how to make sure bullies and powerful men saw him as a friend and not a threat, no matter how much he didn't like or trust them, he could make them think he was on their side and so they trusted him. Never was that skill going to be more important.
He'd continue to play the game, until he was able walk even if that was on crutches, then he'd get out, get home, away from this madness. He just wished he could think straight and say awake. He lay back and closes his eyes, though that did nothing to stem the flow of tears. All he really wanted, was for his mother to be with him, there had to be really good reason she wasn't and that scared him more than anything else.
Chris was none too happy that Buck had asked them to step out while he spoke with his doctors, he was even less happy they were not to be let back in.
"What did you say to him?" he accused.
"Chris, take it easy," Josiah warned.
"Nothing." Finn frowned, "look, I appreciate you're worried, it's clear that you, all of you, care very much about Mr Wilmington, but I assure you we did nothing to dissuade him from having visitors," the frown deepened, "and I resent the implication."
Chris stared at him for a moment, the others all but holding their breath. "Sorry," he said finally.
"You have to understand," Ezra moved to stand in front of the doctors, "this behaviour is not typical of Mr Wilmington. Buck is...a people person, he is the very heart of this family."
"Well none of us is at our best in hospital."
"Oh how true, but this is not his first stay in such an establishment and he has always welcomed visitors before. Indeed, in the past he has positively needed to have his family close when things are at there darkest - as demonstrated by Chris' timely intervention during surgery."
"I know about that, and we are grateful, but..."
Dr Cooke, the toxicologist, cut in. "You have to understand how disorientated he still is, not to mention nauseous. You were in there; he doesn't remember what happened. They did a scan; he doesn't have any significant head injury, so this loss of memory is almost certainly down to the Benzene and the traces of Ketamine we found."
"Ketamine?" Nathan asked.
"Minute traces, but it was there. It's normally used as an animal tranquilliser."
"I know." Nathan turned to Chris. "That must have been how they got him."
Chris nodded his understanding.
Cooke continued. "Give him time, let him dictate the pace, the majority of the symptoms should have dissipated in the next two or three days, but some may last up to two weeks."
There really was nothing that they could do to help Buck until he was ready. Accepting this, however reluctantly, his six friends retired to a local diner for a meal, then booked themselves into the motel closest to the hospital. They were back at the diner eating breakfast when Chris' phone rang.
With an epidural in place blocking any pain from his broken leg, and a cocktail of drugs counteracting the effects of the poison in his system, Buck was fighting sleep even before the men outside his door stopped talking. He saw this as a blessing, if he was asleep when - and it presumed it was when not if - the strange men who claimed they knew him came back, he wouldn't have to pretend to know them or talk to them.
He had rationalised his failure to understand or remember what had happened as an effect of this poisoned, Benze...what ever they called it. Still, he wasn't going to tell anyone. Ma's friend Trudy lost her memory and they locked her up in the hospital, on the psyche floor. Of course Trudy was a user, big time, so it wasn't the same, whatever he may have done that he didn't remember, he didn't do drugs.
Unless someone shot me full of shit - they said there was a trace of a sedative in my system, something called Ketamine? What the hell is that? Not something they sell on the street anyway.
What he couldn't rationalise was the men saying he was working undercover. Cops didn't use civilians undercover, or if they did - and he guessed it might be possible - they didn't use the likes of Buck Wilmington, he was on the other side, one of the ones the cops watched, not one of the ones doing the watching.
Maybe amnesia was side effect of the drug? Maybe he didn't have amnesia, maybe this was a nightmare, or worse, maybe he was hallucinating? Drugs could do that to you, he'd see in it up close. Drugs could make a person wear their own fingers down to the bone, make a person kill their best friend or even gouge out their own eyes. It was that more than anything that made him vow to never even try drugs, not once. Of course his Ma made him promise every day to Sunday not to try drugs, it was one of the promises he had made to her that was easy to keep, like his promise not to steal, not to get involved with gangs and not to get any girl pregnant. He always tried to keep his promises to mother, her life was hard enough as it was, without him adding to her worries. Of course other promises were harder, not drinking and not riding in cars his friends boosted were the toughest ones to keep.
Thinking about all this and trying to make sense of it just gave him a headache and increased the ever present feeling of nausea. Finally, he just switched off and let the drugs do their job of allowing him to drift off to sleep.
Chris snapped the phone shut. "They have located the RV with the broken windshield," he told the others.
"Where?" Vin asked.
"On a dirt road off I90, on the reservation. It's a burnt out wreck." Chris took a deep breath. "Vin, you and Nathan head down there, make sure the locals don't overlook anything."
"You sure you want me to go?" Nathan asked.
"That RV is a our only lead, I want the best forensics guy on it - that's you, Nate."
"Okay, but you have to promise to listen to Buck and the doctors while I'm gone," he fixed Larabee with a glare that would rival their leader's own. "You understand me?"
Chris glared right back, then nodded. "Josiah, you and Ezra better head back to Denver, there has to be something there, that's where all this started."
"Of course," Ezra agreed.
The hospital insisted they wouldn't even ask Buck about them visiting until after two o'clock. Unfortunately by then Vin and Nathan were long gone. Ezra and Josiah had to catch a flight back to Denver just after eleven.
"Can we rely on you to convey our good wishes to Buck?"
"I'll tell him you said hi," Chris told him.
"JD," Josiah turned to their youngest.
"Give Buck some time and some space, he'll be fine, you'll see."
In typical Chris fashion they didn't wait to ask if they had been granted leave to enter, and just walked on in, right on the dot of two o'clock.
"Hi Buck," JD greeted breezily.
Buck had been watching TV, he seemed surprised to see them, and for a second Chris saw a look in his old friend's eyes not unlike a rabbit in the headlights.
"Hi," Buck responded guardedly.
"How are you doing?"
"How may nurses phone numbers have you got already?" JD asked.
Buck just frowned and turned his attention back to the television. JD, at a lost as how to deal with his new version of his 'big brother', looked to Chris for some sort of lead.
Larabee was reading the chart hanging at the end of Buck's bed. "They found the RV we think was involved," he began, "I sent Nate and Vin to investigate. Now I'm not Nate, but if I'm reading this thing right ...looks like they'll have you weaned off the epidural by the end of today?" He looked up.
"That's what the doc said this morning," Buck confirmed.
"Does it hurt?" JD asked, looking down at the ugly metal work sticking out of his friend's lower leg, from ankle to just below his knee.
"They're giving me morphine." Buck glanced up at the drip. The truth was his leg ached, hell he ached all over and the morphine wasn't doing as good a job as the spinal block, not that he was going to tell anyone that, the less there was wrong with you the faster you got out.
"What ya watching?" JD asked breezily, trying to start some kind of conversation.
JD glanced up, CNN was on, the volume turned down to almost nothing.
"So, what's going on in the world?"
"Nothing." Buck switched the set off, let his headrest back and closed his eyes.
JD looked over at Chris, not sure how to deal with this, quiet, uncommunicative Buck.
"Hey pal, we're gonna go get coffee, you want us to bring you some back? There's a Starbucks around the corner."
Buck liked coffee. "Sure, if you want," he admitted without opening his eyes.
Once they were gone, he reached out for the morphine dispenser again. As much as his ankle ached, his head was pounding, the pain seemed to be growing by the minute.
Vin and Nathan had arrived at the crime scene just before lunch. Sheriff Edwards and Dan White Horse, from the reservation police met them. As Edwards had told Chris, the RV was a burnt out shell.
"What ya got?" Vin asked.
"Got a chassis number, running it though DMV now, Dan found the bullet hole." He nodded to the tall Native American to his left.
"My I see?" Nathan asked.
"Sure, this way." Dan led him away, leaving Vin and Edwards alone.
"The plates were false," Edwards began, "the garage where they got their windshield fixed caught it on CCTV, but when we ran it, it came back as a Honda in Nebraska, owned by a school teacher."
"I don't get it, why have the glass fixed, if you're gonna trash it?" Vin asked out loud.
"Reckon they found this." Edwards held up a blackened object in an evidence bag.
Vin examined it. "From the chain, and the shape, I'd say that's Buck's badge, he must had dropped in the RV."
"That's what I assumed, once they knew who they'd been after, they panicked."
"Hey Vin!" Nathan called. "Take a look at this."
Nathan showed them the small hole in what was left of the dashboard and the corresponding hole in the driver's door. Vin examined them.
"By my eye, the shot came from high up. Must have come though the glass, hit the dash here and exited there," Nathan explained.
Vin nodded his agreement.
Edwards' phone rang.
"Well?" Vin asked.
"It's registered to one Jack Miller, lives just north of Denver, I'll give you the address."
The doctors kept telling Chris and JD that Buck's unusually withdrawn demeanour was almost certainly due to the drugs in his system. Yet neither of them could shake off the feeling that there was more to it than that. It was clear he really didn't want them around, almost every time they looked in on him he was asleep, or at least he seemed to be asleep.
As the day moved in to night they left the hospital, both worried, neither able to articulate their worries.
Buck had been feigning sleep, just as they suspected. He let a silent sigh of relief escape, now he knew they were gone for the day. As he'd lain there, he'd listened to their quiet conversation. He'd worked out that his memory loss was extensive, years had passed, his adult life was missing, what should have been the best years of his life were now just an empty void. He'd worked out that the men were not his relatives as they had told the doctor, but apparently he worked with them and lived with the one called JD.
As he lay there, the pain in his head was so bad it blocked all and any pain from his leg, yet, now that he needed it, sleep wouldn't come. Try as he might, he couldn't retrieve any memory after a night in Las Vegas. He was eighteen, his birthday had been three weeks ago. He was at home, he and his mother had moved into a new apartment only a few months before. The day they moved in was a day of celebration. It was their first real home, an apartment, not a trailer, not a motel room, not a rented slum apartment, but a real, new - well newish - apartment, with air conditioning, two bedrooms, a built in kitchen, a phone line and a front door to the outside. The apartment was on the first floor of a two storey block, built around a courtyard. In the centre was a communal swimming pool, there was a staircase in the centre of each side leading down. All this had been possible because his mother had finally got a chance to get regular work in the big hotels. This was where the real money was. Cindy had never been a streetwalker, but she had never managed to break into the high end of the market. All that had changed after she met a man, whose name Buck never knew, but who proved to be her passport to the big hotels.
Buck remembered the day well, school was out, and in September he was going to join the Navy, not for long, just long enough to pay for a collage education. He knew his mother regretted that her new found wealth had come too late to pay for his education, but he assured her he wanted to go to sea, and would enjoy his time in the Navy. That day he'd been working, bussing tables in a steak house on The Strip. He remembered there was thunder in the distance. He had returned home and practically fell into bed some time after midnight. The next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital, this hospital. Going by the television and by the reflection in the mirror when the orderly came to help him shave, he'd lost about twenty years.
He wondered if the pain in his head was related to the amnesia. It was getting worse, it drilled into his head, daggers of pain that turned into hot pokers with each passing hour. If he told them about the pain and the amnesia would they be able to help him or would he end up like Trudy? Not admitting when you were hurt was something that was so much apart of him that it was a hard habit to break. If he was too sick or too hurt to go to school and too young or too sick to be left, then his mother couldn't work, and if she didn't work there was no money. Sometime no money didn't matter, sometimes there was plenty of money, but not often, mostly there was only enough money for one or two days. Mostly there wasn't even the next week's rent in reserve. Buck learned young not to ask for things and not to complain, more than once he'd set out for school, only to sneak back into wherever they were living once his mother had left for the day. He learned to take care of himself, to drink lemonade when his stomach was upset, to drink water and lie in a cool room when he had a fever and to read the instructions on the Tylenol bottle. He had never been in so much pain as he was now, he'd never been so scared that something was seriously wrong with him - at least he didn't think he had.
Josiah and Ezra were not hopeful that Jack Miller was going to be of any help to them. He had moved from the address supplied. After what amounted to a door to door search, Josiah had found a neighbour who remembered where he'd gone.
"The Haven of Rest for Seniors," he reported.
"Sounds like a funeral home," Ezra commented.
"One step removed."
Jack was a wizened old man of nearly eighty. "I remember, nice young woman brought it from me, last year, just before I came in here," he told them.
"You are still the owner of record," Josiah informed him.
"I don't move so good, she offered to post the papers for me, guess she forgot."
Jack couldn't remember much else, the woman had been slim and pretty, that as all he remembered. "She was wearing one of those scarves on her head, like they used to when I was young, and she had sun glasses."
"She was hiding her identity," Ezra commented as they exited the building.
"Planning ahead," Josiah agreed.
Vin and Nathan headed back to Denver with what information they had gathered, which wasn't much. All they could think to do now was continue their investigations into gun clubs and companies that supplied the necessary parts and more importantly, the powder, to make cartridges. Vin moved out the ranch to take care of the stock.
The first thing they did when they met in the office the next morning was call their friends in Wyoming.
"Hi JD," Vin greeted. "How's Buck?"
JD sighed. "He's like he was before you left." Vin could almost see JD shrug. "Just not Buck, you know?"
"You need to give him time," Nathan advised.
"I know, but, hell I've been with Buck when he was really badly hurt, that time he got shot and we were waiting for the ambulance, he was in pain, a lot of pain, losing blood, but he was still Buck. He was joking, and telling me how much women love a man on crutches, you remember don't you?"
"I remember," Nathan agreed.
"He's always like that when he's hurt, but not now. Now he just sleeps."
"JD, Buck always sleeps when he's been in surgery, you know that," Nathan reminded, referring to Buck's normal reaction to anaesthetics.
"Indeed, it's better than Mr Tanner's reactions," Ezra commented.
"Hey it's not my fault! I can't help how my guts react to the damned drugs," Vin snapped.
"Guys," JD cut in. "They didn't anaesthetise him, he was awake - remember?"
There was a pause. "So he was," Nathan finally admitted.
"I'm telling you, something's not right," JD sounded very lonely and worried.
"What does Chris think?" Josiah asked.
"No idea, he's saying less than Buck."
The others felt for JD, trapped between a moody Buck and Chris in a bad mood, not an easy place for anyone to be.
"Hang in there kid," Vin advised.
"They should let Buck out soon," Nathan assured him.
"We'll be here when you all get back," Ezra reminded him.
"We'll figure it out together, we're all here for you and Buck," Josiah added reassuringly.
"I know, thanks guys, I'll keep you updated."
Buck tried to hide the pain from the doctors and nurses, but it was getting more and more difficult. By the time is 'friends' returned, he was desperate, he was hitting the button on the morphine dispenser more and more often. They had told him he couldn't overdose on it, the machine wouldn't let him, but deep down he didn't want to believe it, he needed the pain to stop, if that meant dying, well it might be worth that.
He hit the button, over and over again, knowing nothing would happen.
"Hey, are you meant to do that?" Chris asked.
Buck turned angry, pain filled, tired eyes at him, his finger still on the button. Then after a second he closed his eyes, his finger still on the button.
"Come on pal, if it's that bad, I'll get someone."
"Ain't that bad," Buck mumbled.
"The hell it isn't. You know you can take this 'I'm fine, I don't need any help' thing to far, I'm calling the nurse."
"No!" Buck's eyes shot open.
Chris turned back. "Yes, I don't know what's going on in that head of yours, but any fool can see you're in pain, and you shouldn't be. Maybe that thing is broken?" He looked up at the auto dispenser hanging on the IV pole. "Did you think about that?"
Buck had to admit he hadn't, so shook his head and instantly wished he hadn't because it hurt like hell. The pain must have shown on his face, because that was all it took to send Chris to the nurse's station.
Some one came back with him and checked the machine, which was working perfectly.
"Mr Wilmington, is your leg giving you trouble?" the nurse asked, though it looked okay to her.
"Not so much," he told her.
"Do you have a headache?"
His eyes looked into hers, did he admit it, could he stand it any longer? "Yes ma'am."
The doctors did some tests, but these were mostly to eliminate other reasons for the headache.
"I'm afraid it looks like you're going to need a blood patch," the doctor told him.
Too tired and in too much pain to really notice or even care who was in the room, Buck hadn't sent Chris or JD away.
"A what?" JD asked a little to loudly and with a little too much alarm in his voice.
"Don't panic, let me explain," Dr Finn addressed Buck. "When we took out the epidural needle, the hole in to your spine should have closed spontaneously. Sometimes it doesn't and spinal fluid leaks out. In some cases this causes a 'spinal headache'. For most people it's just annoying and it goes away in a week or so. In some folk it lasts much longer and in others its so bad painkillers are of no use, in these cases we have to do something about it. That involves taking some of your blood, not much, we'll take it out of our arm, and injecting it into the cavity were the epidural was. The blood clots and patches the hole."
"Kinda like breaking an egg into a leaky radiator?" Chris asked, search of an analogy he, and hopefully Buck, understood.
"That's it exactly and because we use your own blood, there is no issue with rejection or allergic reaction."
"How fast?" Buck asked.
"How fast can we do it, or how fast will it work?" The doctor didn't wait for a response. "I'll draw the blood now and then we can get on with the procedure as soon as the anaesthetist gets here - they are the specialists at spinal injections. Once in, you should feel the effects in minutes, most people say the headache is gone within half an hour."
The doctor was as good as his word, in less than an hour Buck was feeling better and, now all but pain free, was finally able to get some real sleep.
"I'm fairly confident you can go ahead and make reservations for tomorrow," Finn told Chris. "I've made arrangements for him to be treated at Denver Memorial from now on, they'll want him in for a couple of days, then he should be able to go home."
Four days later, just after noon, Chris pulled up outside his ranch house.
"JD packed some things for you and put them in the den. He'll bring over anything he's forgotten this evening, just give him a call."
Even as he was speaking, Chris opened the door of the Ram and held out the crutches. Buck looked up at the traditional looking house, he had gathered that it should be familiar to him, but it wasn't. There was a covered porch than ran the width of the house and seemed to wrap around at both ends, there were three big windows on the upper story. Below, to the left of the front door, were three pairs of French doors and to the right one long window. Smoke rose lazily from the chimney into the clear blue sky.
"Buck?" Chris prompted. "You ready?"
"Okay, take it easy, let your self down gently," Chris coached as he watched his oldest friend ease himself down from the high cab.
He managed to navigate the three steps up to the porch with little difficulty and moved into the house. Inside there was a wide, open corridor that led back to the staircase at the far end. To the left a wide open arch opened on to a large living room, there were two long leather couches, a pair of recliners and a big rocking chair arranged around a fireplace and the biggest, thinnest TV Buck had ever seen, at least that's what he assumed it was. Damn he must be seriously rich, he thought to himself as he gazed at the room. On the other side of the corridor he could see a big kitchen through an open door. He could see some traditional looking units and what looked like a pine table and chairs.
"I'll put these in your room," Chris announced, carrying in the gifts Buck had received in the hospital and his few personal possessions.
"Oh, um, thanks." Buck sighed a silent sigh of relief, he could follow Larabee and find out where he was to sleep.
The den proved to be at the end of a corridor that ran behind the family room, on the way they passed another door, which he hoped was some kind of bathroom. The room was a good size, under the window was a single size bed, with a small wardrobe and bureau beside it. On the bed was a rather battered looking grip and a very modern looking rucksack. Against the opposite wall was a desk with what looked a little like a personal computer on it, except it didn't much look like the few he'd seen. There was an expensive looking black leather and chrome swivel chair at the desk and on the wall opposite the big window were shelves, packed with books, trophies, momentos and pictures. Buck also noted there was a second door, it led out to the wrap around porch - a way to get in and out without being seen.
"Okay, you're all set." Chris put the small bag he was carrying down on the bed. "Nate's on his way over, someone's gonna stay here with you, for the first week or so at least. I need to get back to work."
"I'm okay," Buck stated almost automatically.
"Why did I know you were gonna say that? Well the hospital only let you out on the basis that someone was with you twenty four seven, at least until your next appointment."
Buck knew that was in a week's time.
Chris watched as Buck eased himself down into the recliner with the best view of the TV. "Here." He handed over the remote. "What do you want for lunch?"
"What ever you're having."
Chris shrugged. "Grilled cheese sandwich with bacon?"
"Yeah, that's my favourite," Buck admitted with a smile.
"I know that, why do you think I suggested it?" With a shake of his head, Chris disappeared into the kitchen.
When he came back some ten minutes later, carrying a try of food, Buck was still sitting there staring at the blank TV screen.
"Nothing on?" Chris asked.
"I was thinking."
"We're gonna get them."
"The ones who did this." Chris suddenly seemed to realise something. "We need to talk."
"Just how much do you remember?"
"I told you - nothing."
"I know, and the docs said that might be permanent, even though they can't find any head injury, but just how far back does this memory loss go?"
Buck frowned, he wasn't about to admit he'd lost twenty years. "I'm not sure," he stated guardedly.
"So you still don't remember being taken?"
"What is the last thing you do remember?"
Oh shit, now what do I say? "That I'm hungry." Buck picked up his sandwich.
Chris wasn't about to let it drop. "Buck?"
"Look it's all kinda fuzzy, I can't remember the case at all."
"Damn, I was afraid of that, bastards." Outside a car rolled up. "Looks like Nathan's here."
By feigning tiredness, Buck managed to fend off any questions or attention from Nathan, in the end he did doze off in the comfortable chair, only waking when he needed the bathroom.
He started to push himself up out of the chair.
"Need any help?" Nathan asked.
"I've got it covered."
"Sure?" Nathan was now hovering.
"I said so didn't I?"
"You need to be careful."
Now up and leaning on his crutches he glared at Nathan. "I know that!" he snapped. "Don't you think the 'Erector' set," he lifted his leg, complete with its external fixator, a little higher, "is enough of a reminder? You don't need to be here, I can look after myself."
"Doctors orders, though you know as well as I do we wouldn't leave you on your own like this."
"I don't need any help."
"What about washing? You're going to need help bathing."
"What! NO I WON'T!" Buck responded, genuinely alarmed.
"Won't what?" Chris asked coming in.
"Buck reckons he doesn't need any help," Nathan explained.
"Well that's normal, we've never believed him before, so this time isn't going to be any different." He grinned at Buck. "Right pal?"
"I'm going to the bathroom - on my own!" Buck manoeuvred himself past the two men as fast as he could. And I hope to God that room next to mine really is a bathroom.
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