The door beside the den did lead into a small bathroom. Buck stayed there as long as felt he could with out raising suspicion. When he finally came out, Nathan had gone.
"Was it 'cause of me?" Buck asked, regretting his sharp words, he might not know these men, but they did seem to genuinely care about him.
"Pardon?" Chris as in the kitchen, preparing a meal of pasta and meatballs.
"Nathan, did he leave because of me, what I said?"
Chris frowned. "Pal, if Nate left every time one of us didn't listen to his good advice, we'd never see him, you know that."
"Yeah, I guess."
"Did you unpack? JD said he put in some old sweats, we can split them down the leg for you."
Getting trousers on over the metal work sticking out of his leg had proved a problem, until JD arrived at the hospital in Billings with a pair of running pants that had a zip all down the outside of the leg.
"I haven't looked, I'll go now."
Sometime later he returned.
Buck had found an unremarkable collection of casual clothing, underwear, a shaving kit, some shampoo, an electric toothbrush, toothpaste - which thankfully seem to be the same brand he was used to - and his wallet. That had proved interesting. Apparently he was an agent with the 'Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ', at least according to the gym pass he found. He also had a couple of credit cards, which might prove useful and a collection of other cards he didn't fully understand, plus a driving licence. There were some photos in his wallet as well. A picture of his mother, looking just as he remembered her, one of a small boy with a woman, presumably his mother. Who they were he didn't know, were they his family? Was he married? If so where were they, why hadn't they come to see him. There was also a picture of him with JD, both of them sitting on horses and one of him with the other six men.
He was on his way back to the kitchen when he spotted two familiar faces in one of the pictures on the shelves. The woman and child in his wallet looked back at him, only this time Chris was in the picture with them.
Okay, so they are Chris' family, so why do I have their picture in my wallet?
He investigated the other pictures. There were several more of the woman and the child, a boy. One of him holding the boy, both of them grinning at the camera. It was clear he was close to this family. There were various pictures of the seven of them, and a few of just himself and Larabee. If the pictures were anything to go by, they had both been policeman and, most interestingly, in the Navy together. Well at least I made into the Navy, wonder if I ever graduated college? I'm a Fed, so I guess I must have. He didn't want Chris getting suspicious so he returned to the kitchen.
He was still thinking about the pictures, and hadn't really heard Chris' question.
"Did JD forget anything?"
"Oh, well I don't seem to have any pyjamas."
Larabee frowned. "When did you start wearing anything in bed?"
When did I stop?! "Oh well, I thought ....um... sleeping downstairs, I don't want to...you know..."
"Well, not that we haven't all see everything you've got, but I guess it mightn't be a bad idea. I've probably got something that'd fit you."
Buck decided not to worry too much about that last revelation. He worked with these men, they were a team, and as far as he could tell, they were very close. Not, he decided, unlike a football team, and all the guys on his team had 'seen all he had'.
They ate and watched some TV, Buck let Chris take the remote and took mental notes on how it was used. He and his mother had never had a remote control television, but he'd seen them, and a few of his friends had had them, thought he didn't think they looked much like the slim, silver device Chris held. By ten o'clock he didn't need to fake tiredness, he was yawning.
"Think I'll turn in," he told Chris, slowly making his way up from the chair.
"I'll get you something to sleep in."
Chris produced some loose fitting soft shorts and a large tee shirt.
For next six days Buck did his best to say little and learn as much as he could. He learned to drink unsweetened black coffee, that was what Chris placed in front of him at breakfast that first morning. He'd only just learned to take it without sugar, now he had to learn to go without milk, at least when anyone was watching. He discovered he owned a horse called Beau, who, when he made it over to the barn - the day Vin was with him - seemed very pleased to see him. At least it was easy to identify him, since he was sitting on a grey in the photo in his wallet and Beau was the only grey in the barn.
He found some photo albums in the den; they had been put together with meticulous accuracy, in date order with hand written notes under each picture. He had begun to study them and learned the name of the woman and her child - Sarah and Adam. He learned that he was Adam's godfather and was known as 'Uncle Buck'. There were no pictures of Sarah and Adam with any of the other men, nor were there any pictures of Sarah or Adam for the last six years. He concluded they were dead, if there had been a divorce there would be pictures of Adam with his father, on visits, but there were none. Clearly the team had been formed after this tragedy.
He had tried to call his mother, hoping against hope that she was still living in their old home, but the number no longer existed, he wasn't surprised, it was a long shot at best.
On the seventh day he had to return to the hospital. If the swelling had gone down sufficiently, they would remove the external fixator and put in plates and pins to stabilise the fractures.
Three days later he was out, he still couldn't place any weight on his left leg but at least now he could wear normal clothes. He didn't seem to have any lingering symptoms from the poisoning; the tingling in his fingers had gone, as had the rash. He told the doctor he still couldn't really remember the events leading up to his injury or how he came to be in the drain.
"Well there was no evidence of a head injury, but it is possible you did have a concussion. With all the other symptoms, it would be easy for the doctors to miss it. You may never remember what happened," the doctor told him.
Buck wanted to ask if he would ever remember any of his adult life, but he didn't. He'd worked out enough to know that losing twenty years wasn't normal. They would think he'd lost his mind, they might even lock him up with the crazies. The trouble was, as good as he had been at hiding his problem from the others, he knew he couldn't do it at work, and sooner or later, they were going to expect him to go back to work. What did he know about being an ATF agent? Answer - nothing, not a damned thing. He was still coming to terms with the idea that he had been a cop, how the hell did that happen? He's spent most of his life avoiding the long arm of the law.
Little did he know that when it came to deceiving six men, who knew him so well, he wasn't as good as he thought it was. While he was at the hospital having a post operative check up, his friends were gathering in the conference room back at Team Seven's offices.
"Okay guys," Chris began. "It's Friday, we said we'd give it until today, then review what we've seen. I'll start; the most obvious thing is that he hasn't let his moustache grow back. He's been putting milk in his coffee - when he thinks no one is looking, he hasn't done that since we were in the Navy. He didn't recognise our old CO when his obit was in the paper, he doesn't seem to remember where anything is in the kitchen and last Sunday the Broncos lost, he didn't say anything, didn't yell at the screen once."
As telling as that all was, there was more, and one by one they all shared their observations.
Finally Nathan shared one last piece of telling information. "When I was at the hospital the doctor mentioned an old ankle fracture, same leg - it isn't listed in the medical history I have - apparently it's still visible on the x-ray, which means it must have been a serious injury. I asked him about it but he had no explanation as to how he got it or when. He just changed the subject."
"Well he's never broke his ankle since I've known him, and that's nearly eighteen years," Chris admitted. "And if it was that bad it can't have happened just before he joined the Navy, he'd never have passed the medical. He had only been in a year when we met, I reckon I'd have known if he'd had a serious injury, so..."
"It must have happened at least a year before he joined the Navy," Vin finished.
"He told me he'd been 'bumming around' for a year after he graduated high school," Chris remembered.
Nathan made some quick mental calculations. "So this injury happened at least twenty years ago, and he can't remember it."
Chris looked at Josiah. "What do you think?"
"It's not total memory loss, he clearly knows who he is, but he seems to have lost most or all of his adult life. The question is why?"
"Could it be as a result of a head injury?" Chris asked.
Nathan shook his head. "A minor concussion might have been overlooked, but to cause this degree of memory loss there would have to have been a substantial injury, and they did scans, there was nothing."
"Ketamine and Benzene, can both effect memory, but not to this degree," Nathan informed them.
All eyes went back to Josiah. "In that case it is most likely to be emotional."
"What do we do?" Chris asked.
"Get him to admit he has a problem and then get him some help."
"Official help?" Ezra asked.
"If we do, it'll go on his permanent record," Nathan reminded them.
"Can we keep it quiet?" Chris asked Josiah.
"I'll talk to him - tomorrow?" Chris nodded. "I'll do my best, but it's not my field, if needs be I know someone who could help - privately, he'll reduce his normal rate, but he won't do it for free."
"I'll pay," Ezra offered.
"We'll all pay," Vin corrected.
The others nodded their agreement.
Buck was reading a book, it was called 'The Hunt for Red October' he was enjoying it, the only thing was he had the distinct feeling he had read it before, there was something very familiar about the plot. He looked up when Chris came back in form the barn, and was surprised to see Sanchez behind him.
"Morning Buck, how are you doing?"
"I'm fine," he responded automatically.
"I've got to go out and get some feed, see you later," Chris told them both, putting down his work gloves and picking up his keys. "See you two later."
He was gone before Buck had even opened his mouth.
"I'm gonna have some coffee, you want some?" Josiah asked.
Five minuets later they both had a mug of coffee and a couple of cookies. Josiah waited until they were both finished before he broached the subject of his friend's apparent memory loss.
"Can we talk?"
"Sure, about what?"
"We've all noticed some changes, since the accident, changes in your behaviour."
A flutter of alarm ran though Buck's stomach. "Changes?"
"You seem to have forgotten some things."
"Well the doctor said that can happen, he said I may never remember what happened, so..."
Josiah shook his head. "No, this is more than that."
Buck decided attack was the best form of defence, he reckoned he'd been doing okay. "Like what?" he challenged.
"Nicknames, you haven't used them once." Buck frowned. "You have nicknames for all of us, you haven't called anyone, not even Chris or JD by a their nickname once since the hospital in Billings."
Buck shrugged. "So, I don't have to use them if I don't want to - do I?"
"No you don't, all I want you to do is tell me what they are?"
"What they are?"
"Come on Buck, what do you call Chris? You've been using it for years."
"This is stupid, you know what it is, I don't need to tell you."
Josiah took a deep breath, he'd suspected this was the way Buck would react. "Okay, the other day you were in the barn, Peso almost bit you."
"Damned horse is a liability."
"True, but you approached him from the side, if you approach him head on he doesn't bite - well he usually doesn't bite."
Buck almost said 'how was I meant to know this?', then he realised that was the whole point, he should know.
"So I forgot, moving on them things isn't easy!" He pointed to the crutches lying beside his chair.
"True," Josiah admitted. "What's e-mail?"
"E-mail, what is it? Chris tells me he's told you can use the computer any time you like, but you never do. JD brought over your credit card bill and you gave him a cheque to post - you normally pay on line. So tell me, what is e-mail, what's your e-mail address?"
There was no way out of this; he had no idea what it was.
"Can't remember?" Josiah asked softy.
Buck didn't respond.
"What about your ankle, the doctors found evidence of a past injury, a serious one. Nathan has no record of it, Chris can't remember you breaking your ankle at any time, so when did it happen?"
There was no response. Buck wanted to tell him the truth, he was tired of this 'game' he was playing, it was draining, combined with his leg injury, he was so tired sometimes he couldn't think straight.
"We all care about you, we want to help, but we can't unless you tell us what the problem is. This is something we want to keep in the team, in the family - at the moment, but we can't do that forever," Josiah continued. "I can't imagine what it must be like, to lose so many years, it must feel as if your whole life has been stolen, the best years of your life - gone."
Buck still wasn't saying anything, but at least he wasn't denying it, so Josiah pressed on.
"I have a degree in psychology."
Buck visibly stiffened, which Josiah took note of, Buck had never been that keen on seeing the ATF 'shrink' when agency protocol required it, he went, but his normal jokes did little to hide his unease. Maybe this distrust of psychologists went back many years?
"I'll do my best to help you. I'm not going to judge you, you're not crazy, you're not losing your mind." There was the first real flash of fear in Buck's eyes. "It may feel as if you are, but I promise, it's not true. The Buck Wilmington I know is the most grounded, level headed, stable, open minded man I know. Whatever is going on, it's temporary - but we need our Buck back, we miss him. Our Buck may have vital information that could help us catch the people who did that." He pointed to Buck's left leg. "The same one's who, in all likelihood kidnapped, hunted and killed at least three other men."
Buck looked him in the eye, searching for deception or duplicity.
"Tell me, what is the last thing you remember before the hospital?" Josiah encouraged softly.
"How long ago?"
"I'm not sure... I was eighteen, but only just."
"Well your birthday is in July, so it must have been the summer. What else do you remember?"
"I had a job, in a restaurant, one of the hotels just of the Strip, I came home and practically fell into bed. That's it, that's all I remember until I woke up in the hospital. I was planning to join the Navy in the Fall, I remember that. From the look of the pictures in the den, I did."
Josiah nodded. "You did and you did well, you and Chris were both SEALs"
Buck let a low whistle escape. "Me, all that kill a guy with your bare hands shit?"
"According to your record, you didn't join until you were almost nineteen, Chris says you told him you 'bummed around' for a year first. But I think it more likely you were recovering from the injury to your ankle."
A question nagged at Buck, it was a question he was afraid to ask, afraid of the answer - but he had to know.
"Do you," he began, steeling himself. "Do you know if my mother...?" He didn't get to the end of the question; the look on Josiah's face gave him the answer.
Buck looked down, afraid he couldn't keep his emotions in check. "Do you know how?" he asked.
"No, all you've ever said was that she's dead, I've always had the impression she's been dead for some time."
Josiah watched his friend sympathetically; Buck kept his head down, just nodding to confirm that he'd heard. Since he'd had to ask, it was safe to assume his mother had died sometime after Buck's last clear memory.
"I'll just go and say hello to my horse." Josiah stood and crossed the room, giving Buck a pat on the shoulder as he past.
As Chris drove back down the drive, Josiah was outside, leaning on the corral fence, drinking a mug of coffee.
"Well?" he asked as he climbed down from the cab.
"He admitted it."
"Last thing he remembers clearly is the summer he turned eighteen."
Chris looked at Josiah quizzically. "What aren't you telling me?"
"He didn't remember his mother was dead - I just had to tell him."
Chris cursed silently, running a hand through his hair as he turned way. "I'm sorry you had to do that."
"Don't be, someone had to, not the first time I've had to do it."
Chris nodded. "How did he take it?"
"Hard to tell, I left him alone, haven't been back in yet. I need all the information I can get here. I know he called her Ma. I know it was just the two of them, him and his mother, he never knew his father and I know there was very little money. I knew she was dead. What else can you tell me?"
Chris shook his head slightly. "Not much, he loved her, says she was a saint - but you know that." Josiah nodded. "Other than that they moved a lot, I don't know any more than you."
"Do you know how she died?"
"No, he never talked about it, other than that she was dead. We should call JD, he may know more," Chris suggested.
"I'll do it, you go an see how he is."
Buck was in the kitchen, balancing on one leg, making coffee - with milk.
"Hi," Chris greeted.
"Hi." Buck kept his head down as he sat down at the table, cursing as his crutches clattered nosily to the floor. "Sorry."
"Don't be." Chris picked them up. "Josiah told me what happened, what he told you."
"I'm sorry, I'm not sure what for, but I'm sorry anyway."
"Don't be. I think I kind of knew."
"I know you loved her very much, I know she was a great mother."
Buck looked up; the look of total devastation on his face all but took Chris' breath away. "You do?"
"You always speak of her with such love, you describe her as a saint."
"I know what it's like to lose the most important person in your life."
"Sarah and Adam?"
Chris sat down opposite him. "You remember them?"
"No, but I looked at the pictures in the den, kinda worked it out."
"Oh, of course."
They sat and talked for over two hours. Josiah returned, it turned out JD knew no more than Chris about Buck's mother.
Under Josiah's guidance the team set about helping Buck. They took him to familiar places, retrieved pictures and documents from the condo; showed him pictures and videos of team gatherings. They also set about teaching him to live in the twenty first century. He learned to e-mail, it didn't take JD more than ten minutes to retrieve his mail and pass word. He discovered the Internet. There were things at work he had to learn too.
The doctors took little persuading that, until he could safely put his foot down, he wasn't even fit for office work, thus it was another three weeks before he had to return to work and face the obligatory investigation into the loss of his gun and badge. Since a memory loss covering up to twenty four hours before and all the days after he disappeared from Denver was more than likely medically, given the drugs he'd been given and exposed to, this was something of a formality. As was his required visit to the ATF psychologist, though it did require more coaching.
In the office, he wasn't able to do much actual work, so the others covered for him, while he studied the last twenty years of domestic and world events. It was heart breaking to watch him leaf - with horror, disbelief and sorrow - through a huge picture record of 9/11.
"It changed everything," JD told him softly. "It's why I wanted to join the ATF."
Buck looked up at JD. "How can people do something like that?"
"I don't know, don't reckon anyone knows."
Despite his desire to learn about the world he found himself in, but didn't recognise, Buck found it hard to concentrate for a full working day, he got bored. Often abandoning his studies for the Internet, games, gossip, porn, anything and everything to avert the boredom. He had been told, ordered, not to interact with anyone outside the team offices, he could understand why, but it was hard. The more confident he became in his 'role' the more relaxed he became around others, his natural, out-going, sociable nature began to reassert itself.
Since, after three weeks, he had regained no memories, Josiah and Chris had persuaded him to start seeing Josiah's friend. His name was Bill Simmons; he and Josiah had served together in the Marines after which he had attended college on the GI bill and now practised in Salt Lake City. Because of the distances involved, Buck only saw him once a week, flying down in the morning and back in the afternoon. He resented it, he resented the time, the inconvenience and mostly the questions - he didn't understand their relevance, couldn't see how they were meant to help him. Simmons wanted him to see a hypnotherapist, but he refused.
The investigation stalled, they were unable to discover who had purchased the RV. Over a thousand people had ordered supplies and equipment to manufacture their own cartridges in Colorado alone. Little by little they were working their way through the list but it was a long shot at best, they had little to go on, other than they may or may not own a bigger than average truck. As much as Travis wanted to catch these people, he had other cases that needed attention; reluctantly he was forced to tell them to move on unless any new leads came up or Buck remembered anything.
Thanksgiving came and went, it wasn't so bad, food, football, that was about it. The only thing missing was Buck's enthusiastic support for the Broncos; no one could persuade him he no longer supported the Titans.
"Ma's a Titans' fan, I'm a Titans' fan," he stated firmly.
"But they suck," Vin pointed out. "Just like the Saints."
"Excuse me!" Ezra spluttered.
"The Titans do not suck!" Buck protested.
"Yeah they do," Nathan told him.
Vin warmed to his favourite subject. "I can understand you not wanting to support the Bronco's, now the Cowboys..."
He was promptly pelted by various snack foods.
Unable to put any pressure on his left foot, Buck hadn't been able to drive his truck, since it had a stick shift. He had driven on occasion, either in Josiah or Nathan's car, occasionally in Vin's jeep, just quick trips to the local store. He tried to get Ezra to let him drive the Jag, but to no avail, Chris told him he wasn't experienced enough to handle the Ram. He had tried to explain that he could drive, he'd been driving for years.
His mother drove an old Ford pick up - with a stick shift. She'd worked long hours, pumping gas, waiting tables, washing other people's hair, weekends, evenings and school vacations to get enough money together to buy it. It was all she needed to get out of the dirt poor, stifling, repressive, little backwater in Tennessee where she was born, grew up and went to school. Nearly half the men in town were unemployed, less than one in ten of the population had been to college. The only road through town was unmade, the buildings old, run down and slowly rotting in the stifling, sticky, humidity. All Cindy Wilmington could see in her future was marriage to some Neanderthal, and living her life barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, dirt poor, no prospects, just years of tedium and drudgery. So she worked, she worked long and hard to get out. She graduated high school, and drove out of town forever. Of course her life hadn't gone as planned, it was harder to make your way in the world than she'd imagined, especially when you find yourself single and pregnant. At least she was her own boss, at least she was free to hit the road any time she wanted; she was free to head into the western sun.
One of the advantages of living in desert country, was there was plenty of room for a boy to learn to drive his mother's old truck. By the time he was fourteen he could pass for seventeen, and started to do some of the driving, so long as he was careful not to break any traffic laws, it was risk worth taking, better than Cindy falling asleep at the wheel.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the post holiday shopping frenzy was over, the full Christmas shopping madness wasn't yet fully underway. There had been snow on and off for days, so JD had abandoned his bike and driven over in the truck, Vin had also come over. The horses needed exercising, and barn had developed a leak in the roof. The three of them returned from their ride just after noon. JD was the first one into the house, only to come out again holding a sheet of paper.
"He's gone shopping," he told the others as they approached.
"So, maybe we ran out of milk of something?" Chris speculated.
"He's gone Christmas shopping - in the city." JD handed over the note.
>>Gone Christmas shopping, took my truck, see you guys this evening.<<
"Doesn't say he's gone to the city," Vin pointed out.
"Well he's not going Christmas shopping in Potter's Store, is he? Besides he says he'll be back this evening." Chris thrust the note at Vin and strode into the house.
In their efforts to keep Buck's memory loss 'in the family' they had be careful to keep him away from anyone who might detect the problem. That meant making sure one of them was with him at all times in the office and having him continue to stay out at the ranch, even after he was more mobile, rather than return to his and JD's city centre condo.
Chris snatched up the phone and dialled Buck's cell phone.
"The phone you are calling is unavailable, it maybe switched off or located in an area with no reception. Please try again later."
"Damn it!" Chris slammed the phone down. Buck understood how to use his cell phone, the trouble was he didn't use it very often, and kept forgetting to charge it.
"Do we go after him?" JD asked.
"How? Were would we look? It's a big city."
"Guys, he's not a little kid, you know? I mean he may think he's only eighteen, but I get the feeling Buck was more than able to look after himself long before he was eighteen."
Chris looked at Vin for a long time, then nodded. "Yeah, you're right."
"Maybe we've been...I don't know, protecting him too much?" JD asked. "I mean, I know the doctor said he needed familiar surroundings, to help his memory to come back, but he's kind of been a prisoner here, he hardly ever goes any place...it'd drive me crazy."
"Me too," Vin admitted softly.
The two younger men turned to Chris. He took a deep breath. "I just don't want him to get hurt before he has a chance to...be himself again."
"You're a good father," Vin told him.
"It's what you've been doing, taking care of him as if you were his father, I didn't realise until now, but you have. It's time to let go."
"It's not the same, he didn't grow up in this world," Chris informed them.
"Maybe that'll help?"
Buck was confident he knew were he was going, every time Nathan drove him to the hospital they passed a huge shopping mall. He had at good few miles on back roads to get used to the truck and was pleasantly surprised to find it was a lot easier to drive than his mother's truck. The old Ford pick had had a temperamental transmission and incredibly heavy steering. In comparison, the Chevy was a dream to drive, smooth gear changes - once he got the measure of the clutch - and it ran like a dream. There is a huge difference between being driven and driving yourself and it proved to be very stressful, but he made it. The mall was a bit of a shock, even for someone used to the madness of the Las Vegas strip. It was huge, teeming with people, some of the stores he recognised, some were new to him.
His plan was to buy presents for his friends, the six men he worked with and who had shown him great kindness and loyalty. Without them he didn't think he could have made it through the last two months. Without them he would have been alone in strange land, orphaned, grieving, with no familiar landmarks or points of reference. When he thought about it, he shuddered to think what would have happened to him without them. What to buy them was, however, a problem.
After a bewildering hour, he finally had one present in his hand, a huge box of chocolate bars for Vin. He had almost no cash, but he did have a credit card and a debit card. His mother only dealt in cash, she'd never had a bank account, but that didn't mean he didn't understand the principals of paying by plastic. Whenever he was out with one of the guys he kept his eyes open and, when needed, asked questions. He'd seen them pay for goods and get money using their debit card and tapping in a number. The trouble was he didn't remember his number. This left two options, pay by credit card and sign for it or take a guess at the number. He might not remember his adult life, but he was still the same Buck Wilmington, he was still a creature of habit and he still had trouble remembering numbers. It was a four digit number, the password for his e-mail that JD had retrieved had been his horse's name and a four digit number, his mother's birthday, April the fifteenth. Well it seemed like a real possibility that he'd used the same number for all his passwords, so when the assistant asked him to enter his number he tapped in 0415.
"Thank you sir, you can remove your card," the shop assistant told him.
For a second he thought he'd got the number wrong, then the till started printing out a receipt. It was, he knew it was slightly ridiculous, but he was elated. He wasn't helpless, he could function in this world, he was a person, not an invalid. It had been weeks, and so far all he had of his old life were snatches of confused and often terrifying dreams. He had begun to wonder if he'd ever get his life back and contemplate what would happen if he never did. He had been so sure it would just come back, that he didn't need the doctor and all his stupid questions. There was no way in hell he was going be hypnotised, he'd seen a guy do that to people in Vegas, he wasn't gonna be acting like a chicken any time someone said 'egg box'!
Full of a new found confidence he looked around for an ATM. He wasn't as fast as the other people in the line, but he followed the instructions and managed not only to withdraw some cash, but get a balance on his account as well. He'd never had so much money, he'd never been able to shop and not have to worry about the cost. Vin's chocolate bars now seem insignificant. Armed with cash and a new found confidence he set of to enjoy some real, teenage, retail therapy. He could have gone mad and brought ostentatiously expensive gifts, but he didn't. He remembered his mother's lessons, her disdain of those who wore their wealth, her caution - on those occasions when they had money - not to show off, but as restrained as was about his friend's gifts, he had no such inhibitions when it came to himself.
"Where the hell have you been?" Chris demanded, even as Buck was easing himself down from the cab of his truck.
"Didn't you find my note?" he asked.
"Sure, that's not the point."
Buck shrugged. "I went shopping, what's the big deal?"
Chris was about to launch into why it was a 'big deal' but was suddenly aware of how cold he was, there was a stiff wind and snowflakes were beginning to appear in it.
"Get inside, we'll talk about this later."
Buck reached back and pulled out some of his purchases. "Here, give me some of those," Chris offered grudgingly.
"Okay, but no peeking."
Once inside, and with the bags of shopping sitting on Buck's bed, Chris returned to the subject of his outing.
"If you wanted to go Christmas shopping one of us could have taken you," he pointed out, his anger only barely contained.
"I'm not a child, I can drive, I have money."
"You're not fit, you don't remember..."
"I may not remember the last twenty years but I'm not an idiot. I've been living and working with you guys. This place isn't that much different from..." he search for an appropriate term. "my world. We did have shops and credit cards in Las Vegas in the eighties, you know? Roads and cars too." He fixed Chris with his a stare of his own.
"You are meant to be resting your leg," Chris pointed out.
"I can look after myself! I can't stay cooped up here forever you know? You can't make me." Chris was about to say something when Buck continued. "Maybe I should move back to my own place in the city?"
"No, no don't do that, you're better off here."
"Right, so you can watch me twenty four seven and treat me like some stupid kid!"
Chris bit back the desire to say that Buck was a stupid kid and he was acting like it. "No, stay here because it's the best place for you, until..."
"Until I remember? It's been weeks - months! What if I don't ever remember? This might be it, what am I meant to do, stay here with you forever? I need to get back to my life, what ever it is."
"Let's just wait until after the holidays, all the guys will be out here anyway, including JD."
Chris was frankly amazed at his own self-restraint. He stood there impassively waiting for a response.
"Sure, why not," Buck finally admitted.
Once he was alone, Buck sat down on the bed and tried to rub some of the ache out of his leg. He hadn't been lying to Chris, he had taken several breaks and used his crutches - or at least one of them. Nonetheless, his leg ached and he was resisting the need to take some painkillers. In an effort to distract himself from the pain he began to unpack his purchases. He was almost done, all his own things were put away, the gifts were in the wardrobe. Finally he pulled the last bag toward him. He'd been so proud of himself for remembering to purchase gift wrap, ribbons, and Christmas cards. He looked into the bag and frowned to himself as he spotted a small expensive looking black and gold bag.
Don't remember buying that, what the hell is it?
He held his hand out and let the contents of the bag tumble out. He looked at it and froze. White Linen perfume, his mother's favourite. It was the scent she wore for herself, never for clients, clients got Opium. His mother had three separate wardrobes, one for work, one for home and one for herself.
Work clothes were provocative, but never tawdry. She never paid full price for them, they were brought on sale, in discount stores or factory outlets, she even had a contact who imported counterfeit designer clothes that she was able to buy them at cost. They also had to be easy to take off in a slow and seductive way - with or without assistance - and washable. Work clothes were always washed every time she wore them. Some went straight into the trash. Buck never knew why, but he guessed there were times when she'd done things, seen things, in a particular outfit that she didn't want to be reminded of, things that couldn't be washed out.
The home clothes were ordinary, comfortable, hard wearing and long lasting - jeans, leggings, tee shirts, sweat shirts, summer dresses with flowers on, normal clothes, mom clothes.
Lastly there were the clothes she had just for her, for those rare occasions she got to go out and just enjoy being a attractive young woman. These were the more expensive, classy, sophisticated clothes, these were the dry clean only clothes, these were the dresses her son had to zip her up in and let her out of. It was with these clothes that she wore the lighter, more subtle White Linen, it was pure self indulgence. He'd always wanted to be able to afford to buy her some but had never been able to afford to. Now he could - had - and it was too late.
He stared down at it, he had no use for it, couldn't even remember buying it and couldn't face throwing it way. Slowly, eventually, he reached out and placed it at the very back of the draw under the small bedside cabinet. He'd had such a good day, he'd felt, for the first time since all this started, that he was in control, things were normal and now it was all spoiled. He'd let himself forget that he was in control of squat and nothing was normal, he'd forgotten his beloved mother was dead.
What kind of son are you? he berated himself. Even as the words filled his head a cold dread clutched his heart, he'd said that before and he knew, just knew, that remembering when and why was important, but he couldn't. Try as he might to make his mind bring up the memory there was nothing, nothing but a headache that just got worse.
He tried to enjoy Christmas, he tried to pretend it was okay. But it wasn't, the closer the big day approached, the more he was struck with how wrong it felt. There was no plastic Las Vegas showgirl on top of the tree, there was no plastic Rudolf with his flashing red nose in the window. He knew he wouldn't wake up on Christmas day to find a stocking outside his door. Every year, no matter how little money there was, he got a Christmas stocking, always filled to the same formula - a silly toy, a book, a pair of socks, some candy, some kind of toiletry and something useful. When he was thirteen, he'd started to give her one, using the same formula. They would place them outside each others bedroom door and pretend they weren't there, until the morning when they 'discovered' them. Now he had no one to buy stocking fillers for. He didn't know what would be for breakfast, but he doubted it would be buck's fizz and croissant with expensive imported raspberry preserves, followed by hot chocolate made with real chocolate flakes and topped with whipped cream. He did know they were having fillet steak for lunch, he liked fillet steak, but somehow it wasn't the same as going out to a restaurant or hotel to eat. The first Christmas lunch he could remember was in Louisiana, it was in a diner on the outskirts of New Orleans, his mother had catfish, he had fried chicken and fries. The last one he could remember was at The Cook House in Las Vegas, he had duck, his mother - who did so love fish - had lobster.
Ezra, JD and Vin came home with them on Christmas Eve, Nathan, Rain and Josiah would join them later the next day. Buck put on a good show, and to be fair his friends had picked up how difficult he was finding the holiday and did their best to keep things light and plans flexible. The exchanging of gifts went well, but from then on Buck found the day hard to deal with and by mid afternoon on he had retreated to his room.
It was getting on for eight, when there was a knock at the door.
"Buck?" Ezra called softly. "Can I come in?"
There was no immediate response, and Ezra was turning to go, when Buck answered. "Sure."
Ezra found his friend sitting on his bed, bad leg propped up on a pillow. "Is it giving you problems? Do you want me to get Nathan?"
Buck shook his head. "Did my exercises, just resting it - like I'm meant to."
Ezra was carrying a tray of food, cold cuts, bread rolls, savoury snacks, dip, a slice of chocolate cake and a can of soda.
"I though you might be hungry, you didn't eat much lunch."
Ezra didn't press the matter, but did put the try down on the bureau. "Nathan, Rain and Josiah are here."
Buck looked up at him, looking both sad and ashamed. "Damn, I'm sorry, I should come and say hi and..."
"It's okay, we understand," Ezra cut in.
"Do you?" Buck challenged, suddenly feeling he was being patronised.
"Actually," Ezra corrected. "I don't, how can I? I've never lost my memory or my mother."
Buck's glare said. See, you don't know!
"But you are not alone in loss. Chris lost his family and with them his life as he knew it. JD lost his mother while he was still in college, Vin was only five when he was orphaned, Nathan's father died only last year - loss is part of life, we all live with it, through it and with the possibility of it."
"It's not the same, they remember - when, how - they got to say goodbye."
"That is true, I wish there was some way I could make it otherwise, but I can't." Not yet.
Buck had tried to discover more about his mother's death, but had been unable to discover anything. His personal documents didn't contain any birth or death certificates. Chris explained that he had been burgled in his last apartment, and among other things, the thieves had stolen his locked file box.
"You always said you'd get copies if you ever needed them," Chris had explained.
The trouble was when they tried to get a copy of his mother's death certificate, but there didn't seem to be one on record.
"Maybe she's not dead?" Buck had asked hopefully.
"Maybe, but you have always told us she was," Chris had reminded.
Ezra hadn't been prepared to let it drop and had continued to investigate on his own time. He believed he was close to an answer, but he was going to have to wait until the holidays were over to get the last piece of evidence.
Buck looked up at Ezra and attempted a smile, it never reached his eyes. "I better come and say hi."
"You don't have to," Ezra reminded.
"Yeah, I do."
The days between Christmas and New Year were tense. Buck felt imprisoned, he was restless and short tempered. Heavy snow and high winds didn't help, as he was unable to leave the ranch unless it was in the Ram, which meant Chris had to be driving. By the thirtieth the winds had dropped and most of the roads had been cleared.
"Josiah is going to come over tomorrow evening, to see in the New Year," Chris explained as he mucked out the barn. JD was taking Casey out for the evening, Rain and Nathan had been invited to a neighbour's house for a party. With Maude out of the country, Vin had persuaded Ezra to join him at his neighbourhood party.
Buck was grooming his horse. One of the things that had to be addressed once Buck admitted the amnesia was whether he actually knew how to ride. It turned out he did, his mother had grown up around horses and when ever she could afford it, the two of them spent vacation time on a ranch or, when Buck was older, trail riding. Sometimes it was just a long weekend, sometimes it was as long as four weeks, but however long it was, all vacations involved horses.
"That'll be nice for him," Buck commented as he brushed Beau's back.
Chris could hear alarm bells ringing before he even spoke. "We were going to order pizza. What kind of topping do you want?"
"I'm going out tomorrow."
Chris opened his mouth, he wanted to say no, he wanted to shout 'hell no way!'
Buck was still calmly brushing his horse. "JD told me about the fireworks down town, he said it was fun last year."
Okay he's going with JD and Casey, that's okay, he's not a little kid, I'm not his dad.
"Yeah, I've seen them, have fun."
"Hi Chris!" JD was shouting to be heard over the noise of the party.
"Happy New Year!"
"You too kid."
"Happy New Year Chris!" Casey shouted into the phone.
"You too darling. Are you having a great time?"
"Sure are, say high to Josiah and Buck for me."
Chris was about to say 'sure' then he stopped. "What do you mean Buck?"
"Say hi to him," Casey repeated.
"Put JD on."
"Now Casey, give JD the phone now!"
"Hey Chris want's up?"
"Where is Buck?"
"No, he was going to the city to see the fireworks with you."
There was a noticeable pause. Chris was pretty sure JD was more than a little drunk. "But we're not down town, were at a party, a friend of Casey's."
"He told me he was going to the fireworks with you," Chris insisted.
Josiah stood up and walked over to join Chris. "What's up?" he asked.
Chris just raised his hand, he needed to concentrate on getting information out of the inebriated Dunne.
"Well I told him about them, but we never made any plans to go anyplace together," JD told Chris.
"Damn!" Chris lowered the phone.
Josiah could hear JD's worried voice on the other end, so took it from his boss.
"Chris what's going on?" JD asked.
"It's me, Josiah, don't worry about it."
Once JD was off the line, Chris hastily redialled.
Buck wasn't with Nathan and Rain, so he tried Vin and Ezra.
It quickly became clear that both Vin and Ezra were considerably more drunk than JD or Nathan, which might explain why they were conversing only in Spanish. It took some time for Chris to get one of them to stop wishing him Happy New Year and actually listen to him.
"English Ezra, in English!"
"Is Buck with you?"
"No, we asked him, but he declined."
"Ya needs us Cowboy?" Vin slurred into Ezra's cell phone.
"No, no you two enjoy yourselves."
"Good thing tomorrow is a Saturday," Josiah commented.
Chris snorted his agreement, those two would be fit for nothing come the morning.
"He'll be okay," Josiah stated confidently.
"I hope so."
Buck hadn't been sure what he was expecting or even why he had done it, but here he was, in the city, alone, on New Year's Eve. All the others had invited him out, but he had no intention of spoiling JD and Casey or Nathan and Rain's evenings by being a gooseberry. He did consider Vin and Ezra's offer, but was worried no one at the neighbourhood party would speak English and he didn't speak Spanish. It was cold in the city, but that had to be better than spending the evening cooped up with Chris, Josiah and the TV. The cold didn't seem to stop the crowds. People were enjoying themselves, there were all kinds of food concessions, there was dancing and even singing. The fireworks had been amazing, but once they were over the families headed home, and the serious party goers were being forced, by the cold, to retreat into the bars and clubs. Buck had spotted a group of three girls, they looked like college students, maybe high school seniors. They were hot. He hadn't been a fan of women's fashion in the eighties, he didn't like the shoulder pads that obscured a woman's natural curves and he thought the girls at his school wore too much eye make up. These girls looked much better, figure hugging short skirts, tiny little tops - despite the cold - and less make up.
They kept looking over at him, it was too dark to see their expressions. Smiling, and ever the optimist, he limped toward them, using only a single crutch for support. As soon as he did the girls seemed to become alarmed, one of them looked over her shoulder as they hurried away.
"Creep," she accused, as they all but ran away.
Buck stopped short, shocked and confused, he watched them disappear into the dwindling crowd. As he turned to go he caught sight of his refection in a shop window. He was old, heavier than he had been, lines marred his face, grey was invading his temples. There he stood, an old man, leaning on a crutch, why wouldn't three teenage girls think he was a creep, that's what he would have thought. He didn't feel old, but he was, the best years of his life had been stolen. Even if he'd been in jail, he'd at least remember it. What had he done? What had he seen? He didn't know. It just wasn't fair, he'd been a Navy SEAL, a policeman, an uncle, according to Chris he had been a brother to Sarah and was one to JD, must have seen things, done things - amazing things, but he didn't remember them, so they may as well never have happened. There must have been women, like the girls that had just spurned him. He wasn't a virgin, he'd been sexually active since he was fifteen, but if that was all he could remember that was all there was - after all old men like him didn't get any, not unless they were married, and even they didn't get much. He'd lived a life, and lost it, now there was just nothing.
"Um, do you know a ...Buck Wilmington?" The stranger's voice asked.
Chris pulled himself awake. "Yes."
"My name is Todd, I work at The Corner Bar, down town, I found your number on this guy's cell phone. Driving licence says his name is Buck Wilmington."
Chris swung his legs of the couch where he'd fallen asleep. He took a deep breath, running his hand through his hair. "What happened?"
"Oh nothing much, he passed out, that's all. I just reckon the cops have got more to do than deal with one past out drunk in a bar."
"Sure, give me the address, I'll come and get him."
Josiah was awake now, and looked at his watch as he came into the living room, it was six fifteen in the morning.
That afternoon Chris looked up from the coffee he was nursing as a car rolled up the drive. Josiah had left after lunch and he wasn't expecting any of the others until the next day - Sunday. Looking out he was more than a little surprised to see Ezra's Jag pull up. Standish hurried in, out of the biting wind.
"It is more than a little chilly out there," he commented.
"You don't say," Chris commented sarcastically. "What's wrong?"
"Why are you here? I thought you would sleep in today."
"Yes, well I did, for a while, but then my conscience began to worry me. Is Buck okay?"
Chris gave an exasperated sigh and sat down. "Took himself down town last night. Josiah and I had to retrieve him from a bar at half past six this morning. He's still sleeping it off."
"Oh dear, I was concerned something like this might happen. Do you mind if I...?" Ezra moved toward the passage that led Buck's room. Chris just shrugged. No more than seconds later he returned. "He's not there."
Ezra shook his head.
Larabee spun on his heels and headed outside, Ezra behind him. The truck was still there, but Beau's stall was empty.
"Is he fit to ride?" Ezra asked.
"Not according to Nathan."
"Should we follow him?"
"How, where? Unless you can get Vin out here in less than half an hour..." Chris looked up at the sky, which was threatening to snow at any minute. "I'd say our chances of finding him were slim to none."
Ezra was about to say he could get Vin out to them before the threatened snow, but then he remembered that some time after one a.m. Tanner had handed him the keys to his apartment before disappearing with a particularly pretty senorita.
"Besides," Chris continued. "he keeps telling us he's not a child. If he wants to go and get lost or catch pneumonia, then let him!" He turned and strode back to the warmth of the house just as the first snow flurries fell from the sky.
Ezra hesitated, then followed. "We can't just abandon him," he protested as he shut the door behind him.
Chris was pouring himself a stiff drink. "I'm not - damn it! But what can we do? I can't make him remember!"
"That is just what we have to do," Ezra stated calmly.
"Oh really? And just how do you propose to do that?"
Chris was still shouting so Ezra deliberately kept his voice calm.
"We all know that this memory loss seems to start from the time we presume his mother died and when he acquired this mystery ankle injury."
"And the doctor told us not to press him, to let him remember on his own, in his own time," Chris reminded.
"We have tried that and what has it achieved? Nothing, he remembers no more today than he did when he woke up in the hospital. We can't wait any longer."
Chris frowned, not understanding where Ezra going with his argument.
"What we have here is an eighteen year old, an angry eighteen year old, who has had his life stolen from him, who feels alienated in a world he only partly recognises, a lost boy who is grieving for his mother, the only person he has ever loved. But memory or no memory he is still Buck, and along with all his fine qualities, such as loyalty and compassion, he is also still impulsive and reckless, he still has temper, he can still hit like a runaway freight train and he still wears his heart on his sleeve. And this eighteen year old has a healthy bank balance, credit cards, a truck, can buy and drink as much alcohol as he wants and is licensed to carry a concealed weapon!"
"He's agreed not to carry his gun," Chris reminded.
"That is not the point!" Ezra snapped. "He could if he wanted to. All this is a recipe for disaster the like of which I have never heard of before," he finished more calmly.
"You think I don't know that!" Chris told him sharply.
"The doctor told us to expose him to familiar environments."
"So the most familiar environment to him right now is Las Vegas."
Chris immediate reaction was to say no, but Ezra had a point. "But were? It's a big city, it's changed a lot."
"He may not remember were he lives now, but I bet he remembers his old address. It's a place to start. And I..."
"I may have a lead in why we can't find a death certificate for his mother."
"I really want to wait for Monday, I don't want to raise false hopes."
"You think she's still alive?"
"No, I think she's dead." He looked at Chris. "Monday, give me until Monday?"
"Mind if I wait here until he gets back?"
"Mind helping with the stock?"
Ezra's eyes narrowed.
"Oh come on, fresh, freezing, mountain air will help cure that hangover."
"How did you...?"
"Because you don't answer the phone in Spanish when you're sober."
Buck returned just as the sun was dropping below the horizon, the snow had been steady but light. He put Beau away, and hobbled inside.
"You okay?" Chris asked.
"Right." Chris held out two painkillers and a glass of water.
"Said I was fine."
"I'll make you a deal, take the meds and we don't talk about today, or yesterday."
Buck stood there, giving the kind of look you only normally get from teenagers, as if to say - Don't mind if you do wanna talk, I can take it. Then he glanced at Ezra, watching the meeting from the living room. He reached for the tablets.
"What ever. I'm gonna take a shower."
Once he was gone, Ezra stood up and picked up his coat. "I better go while I still can," he announced. "I'll see you on Monday."
Ezra was at work uncharacteristically early, already at his desk and on the phone when Buck and Chris came in. Buck was moving noticeably slower than of late, not putting his foot down at all.
"What did you do?" Nathan asked instantly.
"Nothing," he replied almost automatically.
"He went riding," Chris informed Jackson.
"You did what!" the EMT exploded.
"Chill out Nathan, I'm just a little stiff." Buck eased himself down onto his chair.
"Oh for the love of..." Nathan was already approaching him. "Do you know how close you came to losing your lower leg? You can't take risks with it." He knelt down by Buck. "Let me see it."
While Nathan fussed over a very uncooperative Buck, Chris spoke to Ezra. "Well?"
"I'm still waiting for a reply."
"Before you do anything, you talk to me and Josiah, got it?"
Ezra did talk to them and didn't get the response he was looking for. Josiah was against the idea of taking Buck back to Las Vegas, at least at this point.
"It's too soon, emotionally, physically, he could get his memory back at any time, without us pushing."
"So, maybe going home, to what he remembers as home will hasten that process?" Ezra argued.
"Hastening, as you put it is not to be recommended, not when we are talking about someone's emotional stability," Josiah explained.
"Well his emotional stability won't mean a great deal if he gets himself killed in the mean time!" Ezra argued out.
"Ezra, can it!" Chris cut in. "Josiah and the doctor are the experts, we do it their way."
"Bill Simmons is on holiday, I'll talk to him as soon as he gets back," Josiah assured.
JD looked at the Chris' office, the door was closed and the blinds down. "What do you reckon they're talking about?" he asked.
"Me," Buck told him. "They're deciding what to do with me, like I'm some problem kid - probably want to send me to military school," he snorted sarcastically.
"That's not true," JD objected.
"Kid's right," Vin agreed. "Even if they are talking about you, it's to help you. You're not a problem Bucklin, you're family."
Buck looked over at Tanner. "My Ma had a family, they treated her like shit."
"Ain't had a family since I was a little kid, 'cept for this one, and they've never let me down," Tanner told him.
"You're a member of this family Buck, like it or not, and we all want the best for you," Nathan reminded him.
"Really, now nice. Anyone ever ask what I wanted?" Buck pulled himself up. "Well?"
"Sit down, you need to rest your leg," Nathan scolded - it was a mistake.
"I'm not a little kid! I don't need anyone making decisions about my life but me - got it? So you lot can just go fu..." he bit off the profanity. "You're not my mother and I don't need you!" With that he was gone, crossing the room as fast as his damaged leg would let him.
JD was already on his feet.
"Let him go," Chris commanded, as he emerged from his office.
"Chris he's no shape to..." Nathan began to protest.
"He needs space. Vin?"
Tanner was already moving, picking up his jacket. They all knew were he was going, Vin could track a fly though air - or so JD liked to boast - he should have no problem tracking one limping, pissed off, six foot three Fed with the mind of a teenager.
Even so, somewhere a voice in Ezra's head said 'This is a mistake'. Despite his reservations, he said nothing, after all Chris knew Buck a lot better than him, maybe he was right?
No more than an hour later, Ezra received an e-mail with the information he had requested, he wished he'd been wrong, but it confirmed most of his theories.
Chris' phone range. "Larabee," he answered. "Yeah? Well don't lose him."
The others looked up expectantly. Chris swiftly told them that Vin had tracked Buck to a local Internet café and was keeping a discreet eye on him there.
Despite knowing Vin was keeping Buck in his sights, Ezra couldn't shift the feeling of dread that had settled over him. By lunchtime Vin reported that Buck had left the Internet café and moved down the street to the diner he and Chris often stopped at for breakfast on their way to work.
Once he had relayed this information to the others, Chris gave Ezra a look, as if to say. 'See, I told you he would be okay'.
A couple of hours later Vin called again. Chris was in the bullpen, eating a sandwich, he hit the speakerphone.
"I lost him."
"What?" Chris erupted, spraying Nathan with crumbs. "How the hell?"
"He went into the restroom..."
"That's the oldest..."
"Hey, I checked that restroom, one way in, one way out."
"So how the hell?"
"Don't know, but he got past me."
While everyone else was talking and trying to work out if Buck had deliberately lost his 'minder' or if it was an accident, and offering their ten cents worth of advice as to how to find him again, Ezra slipped over to Buck's desk and quickly booted up his computer. He'd known everyone's passwords for years, and it didn't take him long to access the Internet log and find the last page Buck had looked at.
You underestimate our friend, Mr Larabee. He knew Vin was there and he knew how to evade him. You maybe prepared to let nature take it's course, I am not. With that silent commitment, Ezra left Team Seven's office unnoticed. He neither cared nor was worried what Chris said or thought anymore - not about this.
Las Vegas wasn't the way Buck remembered it. It was so much bigger, there was a black pyramid he'd never seen before, not to mention the mini New York, a huge tower and some place that seemed to have a lake in front of it. Despite this his taxi driver seemed to know were he was going, which had to mean his home, or at least the street was still there.
Darkness was falling as the cab pulled up a few blocks from his destination.
"This is it pal, I ain't going any further after dark."
Buck looked around. This looked more familiar, when he lived here this was a respectable neighbourhood, clearly its social status had plummeted in the intervening twenty years.
"Fine." He paid the driver and set out to walk the last five hundred yards. Coral Villas had been fairly new when they moved into apartment two fifteen. Two stories, built around a courtyard, with an open balcony that ran all around the upper floor. In the centre was a swimming pool and a simple but well managed garden. All the front doors were painted bright blue and the balcony railing brilliant white. Buck always thought it looked a little like an ocean liner. Now it looked more like a tramp steamer in a 1930's B movie.
Ezra's temper had abated some so he pulled out his phone and called Chris.
"Standish! Where the hell are you?"
"The airport, I am about to board a flight to Las Vegas, I calculate I am about three hours behind our lost sheep. I'll call you when I have something to report."
"Now look here Ezra..." Chris began.
"I have no time to look anywhere my flight has been called." With that he terminated the call and switched off his phone.
The moment he landed at McCarran International he was back on the phone. It took nearly two hours. He'd asked, sweet-talked, cajoled, demanded, threatened and even begged, but it was worth it.
"Great," he commented as he exited his cab. "I come to the desert and it's colder than Denver." Not that he was to know it then, but his cab driver had been made of sterner stuff than Buck's and driven him all the way to his destination, or maybe it was just that his face fitted in this neighbourhood.
"Do you know which building 'Coral Villas' is?" he asked the driver, who ignored him and drove off at some speed. "Thank you so much," Ezra commented to the disappearing taillights.
Looking around him Ezra used his powers of deduction to identify the building opposite as his destination. It was a moderate size block. He noticed there were no doors facing the street and rightly assumed the entrance was through the archway in the centre of the building. This entrance was partly blocked by a decrepit Chevy pick up, one of a collection of vehicles parked outside, ranging from sad looking little compacts all the way up to what Ezra could only term 'pimp-mobiles'.
One of the three light fittings in the archway roof still worked, though going by the rather yellow light it was giving out, not for much longer. A few windows inside had lights behind them, there were even a few lights still working over the apartment doors and at least one of the stairways was lit. Despite this illumination Ezra couldn't see Buck anywhere.
He counted the doors and worked out that number two fifteen had to be on the second floor directly ahead. He set out across the open space in front of him. He was no more than a quarter of the way there when he tripped over something, all but falling. Looking about he could just make out a raised rectangle of pale paving stones. Inside it, instead of the cracked uneven paving stones he had been walking on, there was just barren earth, sparsely scattered with weeds.
Muttering to himself about personal injury and there being no one to sue, Ezra made his way around the obstacle and headed toward the left-hand corner of the building. He hoped the dark opening in the corner lead to a stairwell, even as he walked he fumbled in his pocket for the tiny flash light he usually carried, though its pencil narrow beam of light would be of little help. As he got closer he could just make out a dark figure sitting about half way up the first flight of steps.
"Oh thank God," Ezra breathed, quickening his pace. "Buck!" he called, praying it was him. "Buck?" he tried again as he got closer.
The head lifted, it might have been dark, but Ezra recognised the outline.
"May I join you?" he asked softly, now that he was at the bottom of the stairs.
Buck's only response was to lower his head again.
Ezra settled beside him, glad he had picked up his heavy over coat on his way out of the office in Denver. "I found out why we couldn't find your mother's death certificate," he began.
Buck's head turned to him, but he said nothing.
"Did you ever actually look at your birth certificate?"
Buck shrugged and shook his head.
"It lists no father and while your name is given as Buck Wilmington, your mother is listed as Cynthia Fry. I haven't had time to find out why, but I was able..." he paused, taking a calming breath. "To locate a death certificate for Cynthia Fry."
Buck turned to look at him; Ezra could feel more than see the sadness in his eyes. "Here? Did it happen here?"
Ezra had been sure 'how?' to be the first question and was momentarily thrown. "Um, yes, yes it happened here. Do you remember it?"
Buck looked out toward the archway. "I ...it's like a dream, but there's no order."
"Tell me what you remember?"
"Rain, lots of rain... and thunder."
"That makes sense, it was summer."
"I just keep remembering falling, I can't seem to get past it, falling and pain."
Ezra glanced down at Buck's still healing broken leg, stretched out in front of him. "Pain?"
"My leg, I guess I'm mixing things up."
"Possibly, but you do have this unexplained injury to your ankle that must have happened at about the same time."
"Tell me what you found out."
Ezra wasn't so sure; he had some notion that Buck should remember on his own. "I'm not sure that is such a good idea."
"Please Ezra, just tell me, maybe if you do I can make sense of all these images in my head."
Ezra took a moment, then nodded, pulling out his diary, in which he had made some notes. "According to the police report, Cynthia Wilmington was stabbed. Her body was found over there, under the archway."
"Who did it?"
"The crime remains unsolved."
"Does any of this help?"
"I...I remember... waking up." He looked up. "The thunder woke me, I think, something did." He looked up at the sky. "There was so much lightning, it was like the sky was plugged into the power. I... I got up went outside, to watch the show and then, then..."
"Damn it! I can't remember. It's all just a jumble of images."
"Perhaps if we went up, to where you stood that night?" Ezra suggested.
Buck looked at him. "It's worth a try."
Buck was moving slowly, his leg had stiffened up considerably, but he made it up the pitch black stairs and then led Ezra to his old home. Number two fifteen seemed to be in darkness, not unusual in a city were almost everyone seemed to work shifts. Buck looked at the door, the blue paint was gone, replaced by black, which was faded and peeling. Two extra locks had been fitted to the door and there were sturdy grills over the windows.
"This used to be a nice place, a decent place, we even had a pool."
"A pool!" Ezra exclaimed. "That's what that wretched obstacle is."
"Ezra, what are you talking about?"
"It's nothing, sorry, I'm distracting you. You came outside to see the lighting," he prompted.
"Yeah, it was a real light show, lit up the sky and the ..." he stopped mid sentence.
"What? What did it light up?"
Buck was gripping the rail in front of them with what Ezra suspected was white knuckled intensity and he was swaying, staring out at the archway.
"She was wearing her good dress, the blue one with the diamante on it. When the lightning... it caught the stones. I saw... there..." he pointed at the archway. "She was there, on the ground.
Even in the near total darkness, Ezra could see tears welling up in Buck's eyes. He said nothing, waiting for his friend to continue. After what seemed like an age, he spoke again.
"I knew it was her and I... I ran to her. I needed to get to her..." His voice was beginning to break.
He turned away and began to run, as fast as his leg would let him - which wasn't very fast - back toward the stairs. Ezra following in his wake. At the top of the stairs he stopped, staring down into the blackness.
"It was dark." He looked around at Ezra. "Why would it have been dark? It wasn't like this then, it was new and clean and the lights worked."
"Errr... The storm? Could the storm have cut the power?"
"You were at the head of the stairs, it was dark and..." Ezra prompted.
"Ma, I had to get to Ma and I ran and..."
And there he stopped, sinking slowly to the ground, sitting on the top step, head resting on the iron railings. Ezra followed him down, sitting a little below Buck and taking care to give him space.
When Buck didn't speak again, Ezra took a guess at what had happened. "Did you fall?"
After what seemed like an age, Buck nodded.
"It wasn't your fault," Ezra said, not knowing what else to say.
"You don't understand. I was down there and it hurt so much, oh God it hurt and all I wanted was for it to end, for someone to stop the pain, to rescue me." He looked over at Ezra. "I wanted my mother and she was lying out there bleeding to death. If I'd just slowed down, if I'd just been more..."
"More what? Buck you saw your mother in danger, and you ran to her. Who wouldn't? I would and I don't even like my mother. It wasn't your fault, it was wet and dark, it was an accident."
"No! Don't you get it?" Buck implored with such pain in his voice that Ezra could almost feel his pain as if it were a physical thing. "All I could think about was me - my pain. I should have been trying to get to her, thinking about her and I was just thinking about me!" The pain in his voice had turned to self-loathing. "I should have been saving her, not begging for someone to save me."
And suddenly Ezra understood Buck. He, Ezra P Standish was not an altruistic person. Not by nature, not by upbringing, but since joining Team Seven he had learned to trust, to care and to accept the responsibility that caring about others brought. He would risk his life to save his friends, he would even do the same for strangers - under some circumstances - but he wasn't like Buck. Buck always put others first, cared about everyone, tried to help and protect every damsel in distress he encountered. 'To protect and to serve ' might be the motto of the Denver PD but it was practically Buck's life credo. Guilt was a terrible thing, all those years, trying to atone for what he perceived was his failure to save his mother, for his selfishness - as he saw it.
"You have nothing to ashamed of," Ezra told him firmly.
"You were hurt, seriously injured, in excruciating pain, suffering from shock, unable to walk. In such circumstances it is normal to want rescue, rescue equals survival. We are all slaves to our instincts, the desire; the need to survive is paramount. We can overcome it, put ourselves in danger to save others. You above all know this; you have done it for JD and Chris and me - for which I remain eternally grateful. Indeed I believe you have put yourself in danger for all of us at one time or another."
"But not then, I didn't then, when it most mattered."
"You would have, if you could. But..."
"What?" Buck demanded.
"It would have made no difference, her throat was cut, she was probably already dead when you first saw her." Ezra reached out and placed his hand on Buck's forearm, feeling the tremors that ran though his friend. "There is nothing you could have done to save her, there never was."
"You don't get it." Tears now ran unchecked down Buck's cheek.
"Yes I do, you felt guilty because you fell and were unable to get to her, because you didn't think of her ..."
"No," Buck cut in. "I was angry, I needed her and she wasn't there. I told myself it wasn't her - even though I knew it was - I blamed her for worrying me, all those nights, all those nights I as at home alone or with strangers, worrying. I blamed her because the one time I needed her, really needed her, she wasn't there." He hung his head. "She was a good mother, she provided for me, she took care of me, she loved me - no child was ever more loved!"
"That I believe."
"She did what she had to do to keep us together and the first - the only time - she wasn't there for me I blamed her! And all that time, she was out there, dying!" He looked up. "What does that make me? What kind of son?"
"A good one, but a human one. You are not Superman, you are not indestructible, you are just a man, or a boy - you were barely eighteen at the time - and like the rest of us mere mortals, you have faults and failings. Do not punish yourself for being human."
Ezra's cell phone rang. "Standish!" he answered sharply. "He's fine, I'll give you the address." Once he had finished the call he looked at Buck and smiled. "The others are here, they are on their way."
Buck leaned heavily on the railings. "Chris is gonna be pissed."
"That would be an understatement. But... he will understand and he will be happy to have his friend back - does he have his friend back?"
"Mostly, some things are a still a bit mixed up."
"Come on, let us leave here and meet out friends."
They made slow progress back toward the exit. When they reached the archway, Buck stopped and stared at the ground.
"It's over," Ezra reminded.
"No it isn't. Not while he's still out there," he told Ezra darkly, referring his mothers unknown killer. It didn't escape Ezra's notice that Buck assumed the killer was male, Buck always saw the good in women and always seemed shocked and even betrayed when they proved otherwise. "But for now - lets go home."
Ezra's plan had been to begin walking, closing the distance between them and their approaching teammates. However, by the time they reached the archway Buck was limping so heavily it was clear that plan was never going to work. He knew, when Buck didn't protest at his suggestion that he sit and wait for Chris and the others, that his friend really was suffering. There was no where to sit, other than the ground, not an appealing prospect, or the wide bumper of the old Chevy.
Buck eased himself down, stretching his leg out in front of him. "Damn," he muttered.
"You are in pain, I'm sorry I have nothing on me." Ezra fumbled in his coat and jacket pockets for a moment, just to confirm he had no painkillers on him, but just for once he'd been injury free for long enough not to be carrying anything.
"I'll be okay."
Ezra sat down next to him on the truck bumper. "So, put me out of my misery, how did you get past our very own bloodhound from Texas?"
"Ah hell Ez, I was getting out of places with out no one seeing me before you were born."
"So you spotted the tail?"
"No, but I knew Chris would send someone, the way he was acting, fussin' and smothering me, so when I got to the diner I waited."
"Chris was worried, he needs you."
"The old dog doesn't need me anymore, he's got Vin."
"You underestimate your importance to him, he needs you, the you he remembers, the you who shares his memories - you're all he has left of his family, the only one who knew them, the only one who was there."
"I never thought much about it, but living without any memory of things you've done, experiences - good and bad - you've had, it's as if you never lived at all. You look back at your life and all you can see is... nothing, just miles of nothing until you get to so far back even what you can remember is fading."
"But you're sure it's all back now?"
"Yes, at least I think so. I do remember why Ma had a different name on her death certificate. After she died, I was in the hospital - broken ankle, dislocated foot." Ezra winced involuntarily at the very thought. "And before I could stop them the cops had used her real name on the paperwork. When I got out of the hospital I had to deal with all this official stuff, paperwork. That's when I first bothered to look at my birth certificate, while I was going through her papers. Turns out her father died before she was even born and her mother remarried when she was still a baby, and he adopted her."
"So she was raised up a Fry, but her father's name was Wilmington?"
"That's it, as far as I can figure. Anyway, I found a number for her mother, so I gave her a call."
"How did that go?"
"She didn't seem that interested, told me not to bother them again, because as far as she was concerned I was no kin of hers."
"How nice of her," Ezra commented sarcastically. "Though it my explain why your mother gave you her father's name."
Buck looked at him sideways. "That's what I always reckoned. Ezra, what I said, about Ma, I'd rather you didn't..."
"It will go no further, not from me," Ezra assured. "But our comrades are most persistent, they will want to know something."
"I broke my ankle the first time the night my mother died, that is all they need to know."
Ezra nodded, then pulled his coat around him more tightly. "Why it has to be so cold in the desert I will never know." He pulled his cell phone out; intending to call Chris for an E.T.A then froze. "We appear to have attracted some attention from the locals."
"I see 'um." Buck assured him, as figures appeared out of the shadows in front, beside and behind them.
There were eight of them, all of Latino appearance and all wearing gang colours. They fanned out, surrounding the two men.
"Nice cell phone, can I have it?" the one in front of them asked.
"I don't think so." Ezra snapped his phone shut and slipped it into his pocket, letting his hand come to rest on his gun as he did, well aware that Buck wasn't armed.
"You don't belong here 'gringo'," the young man sneered, putting on a bad Mexican accent as he ground out the last word.
"I used to," Buck told him. "We don't want any trouble, just waiting for our friends to pick us up."
"You used to live here?" the gang leader asked.
"Yeah, I did."
"Well you don't live here now, we do and if you want to come visiting, you have to pay - hand it over."
"Hand what over?" Ezra asked innocently.
"All of it."
"I don't think so." Chris appeared behind the gang, the others at his side, guns draw.
"Put it down 'amigo'." Josiah's huge hand landed on the leader's shoulder, just as he was pulling a gun.
The distraction allowed Ezra to pull out his own gun.
There was a momentary stand off, then the gang leader asked. "Just who are you guys?"
"Los Magnificos," Vin told him.
"Federal Agents," JD explained.
"Feds," Nathan confirmed.
"Well, since you were just visiting." Clearly the gang leader hadn't achieved his position of power by being stupid. He motioned to his gang to pull back.
Once they were alone, Chris holstered his gun. "I should have known you two would get into some kind of trouble," he groused. "I shouldn't let you out of my sight."
Buck grinned at him. "Oh I can remember a couple of young navy guys in an army bar."
It took moment for Chris to process what Buck had just said. "You remember?"
"Yeah, I do."
Like Buck, Chris and the others had been forced to walk the last few blocks; they had at least been able to persuade their cabs to wait for them. As Buck stood to walk back to the waiting taxis his leg all but gave out on him.
"Here brother, lean on me." Josiah stepped up and took his arm, placing it over his own shoulder.
"Damn fool," Nathan muttered, taking the other arm.
"I'm okay guys," Buck protested. "I can make it."
"Shut up and do as you're told."
They drove back to the airport and caught the next flight back to Denver, the time difference meant it was almost two in the morning when they landed. Buck looked washed out, despite sleeping for most of the short flight. So far they hadn't asked him what he remembered, if anything, of his kidnapping.
Buck woke, in his own bed, in his own apartment, feeling rested and relaxed for the first time in months. When he rolled over to look at the clock, it read ten-ten A.M.
"Shit!" he cursed, scrambling to get up, and cursed again when he found how stiff his leg was. He was at the top of the stairs, about to shout down to JD that they had over slept, when he spotted Larabee sitting on the couch, drinking coffee.
"I gave everyone the morning off." Chris looked up and smiled. "Remember?"
Buck's memories of the previous evening were foggy as best; he did vaguely remembered Chris inviting himself to spend the night. "Can't say I do, but...good, I'm gonna take shower."
It was as Buck was tucking into waffles, syrup and coffee, that Chris broached the subject of what happened in Wyoming.
"Some of it is still a blur."
"Did you see their faces?"
"No, they wore ski masks, man and woman, both fit, using antique Winchester 73's."
Chris nodded, they had pretty much worked that out. "We think there were two vehicles?"
"Yeah, the RV and a truck, um... Chevy Kodak, not a pick up, pain black, not new but probably less than five years old, had... Nebraska plates."
"Do you remember the licence plate number?"
"No, I had... other things on my mind."
Chris smiled. "Yeah, I'll bet you did. Well JD might be able to track them with the truck info. He'd built up quite a database of possible suspects."
"I know. I have been in the office with you - remember?"
"Sorry, it's just...it's was as if you left, the real you, the you I knew."
Not sure how to respond, Buck just grinned. "Well I'm back now."
That afternoon, JD entered all the owners of Nebraska registered, black Kodak trucks into his database and waited for it to find a match. Mr and Mrs Forrest, members of the Aspen Creek, Denver gun club, registered owners of not one, but two Winchester 73 rifles in working order. Joint owners of Forrest Furniture, branches across Colorado, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Kansas, and Forrest Furniture owned of three, black, four year old Kodak trucks.
Buck insisted on going on the bust - now fully armed - despite the fact that he was back on crutches and forbidden to put any weight at all on his leg for a week. Finally Chris had agreed, so long as when they went in, he stayed in the car.
"You're not fit for field work, if something happened, it'd be my ass," Chris reminded him.
"Yeah, yeah, I remember."
The house was in Boulder, perched on a mountainside with a spectacular view. It was five a.m., as Ezra kept reminding them. They had planned it out to the last, after all, according to the records there were at least twenty guns in the house, and that wasn't counting any they might have illegally. All this planning proved to be unnecessary, David Forrest came to the door, half asleep and half dressed; he had no chance to put up any resistance. Nathan had to wake Mrs Forrest before Josiah could read her her rights and put the cuffs on. All the guns were confiscated, as well as the ammunition and the bullet making equipment.
The tool marks on the confiscated bullets and the ones found on the bullet found on the dead man, matched perfectly. Ballistics also matched the bullets that were eventually found at the chemical plant with both their Winchester rifles. Under Chris and Josiah's joint questioning, they confessed - boredom, they were bored. Having hunted every animal they could, they moved to the ultimate prey. Randomly selected vagrants proved too easy, so they acquired an untraceable RV, from which they could observe the transients and pick out relatively fit, ex-military men, who would proved more of a 'challenge'.
"Why did you return the bodies?" Josiah asked.
"No point hunting, if you can't show of your trophies," Mrs Forrest explained, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
"What do you think?" Chris asked Josiah, as they watched her through a one way mirror.
"I think they both need a psyche exam, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out this is all some kind of foreplay."
"They get off on killing people?" Chris asked incredulously.
"Hunting and killing - very possibly."
Once David and Elizabeth Forrest were charged with murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment, the Denver police arrived to take them into custody. As they were led out, Buck stood in the corridor blocking it.
"Remember me?" he asked.
David Forrest looked him up and down, looking board. "Nope."
"What about you?" he asked Elizabeth.
"You should, I'm the fed you lost in that damn chemical plant you made into your own killing ground. Have a nice life, apart, the federal pen is such a fun vacation spot." With that he stepped aside, grinning broadly as they were led past him.
Ezra and JD came along the corridor, passing the two suspects.
"So, it's over," he announced.
"When they're convicted it'll be over," Ezra reminded.
"Yeah but they confessed, they're as good as convicted."
"Don't count your chickens Mr Dunne."
"But..." JD turned to Buck for back up.
"It's not over." He caught Ezra's eye, and smiled sadly. "But it's as good as," he told JD with a full on Wilmington grin.
"Hey!" JD suddenly exclaimed as they made their way back toward the team offices. "You didn't shave your top lip today."
Buck ran his finger over the stubble. "Nah, not today."
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